Reconfiguration After the Fall

There was never any interregnum in Europe following the fall of Rome in the 5th century. The old provinces were claimed and then fought over by the barbarian warlords who overran the empire and occupied its cities. The Visigoths settled in Spain, the Ostrogoths Italy, and the Franks took Gaul. As I mentioned in my last post, the leaders of these new kingdoms had begun as foederati of Rome. With the sudden withdrawal of imperial power, local chieftains arose and proclaimed themselves guardians of the old order. They legitimized their claim to leadership by associating themselves with the memory of Roman authority. They imitated the Roman manner of governance, partly because it was effective but mostly because it was revered and commonly obeyed. However, it was only an imitation. Men like Clovis and Odoacer were probably not interested in reconstructing the highly developed social order of the Roman Empire. They simply wanted to stay in power and pacify and increasingly volatile populace. From descriptions of the time we know that theft and manslaughter were regular occurrences in almost all echelons of society in 5th century Europe. Gregory of Tours recounts in his Historia Francorum a seemingly unending procession of feuds, skirmishes and crimes of retribution. He describes church officials trying offenders and issuing verdicts, same as the Roman magistrates had done, but with no force with which to execute its will, the church’s decisions were ignored. The fall of the Roman Empire and the ensuing collapse of civic order is typified by two main developments: 1 – People relying far less on centralized authority to settle social matters and instead seeing to their own protection and security by allying with their neighbors; 2 – Hundreds of thousands of people migrating out of the cities to work the land. Without a functioning economy to move commodities around, urban life became impossible. Trade vanished and subsistence farming became the norm. Out of these conditions a new collective order took shape that was wed to the land and relied on personal obligations between individuals and families as a means of determining social roles.

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