Episode 3: Illuminating the Dark Ages

A common misperception is that once Roman influence ended by 476 CE, the European continent went into a dark abyss with very little happening until the Italian Renaissance in the the 14th century. Most historians today would most likely disagree with this notion, as do we, because many important and enlightening things were happening in Europe, including our little part, the Lowlands. This episode is all about monks, migrations and Merovingians.

From the 3rd to the end of the 5th century, Roman control fluctuated, until it completely disappeared.. And though taxes levied by Rome disappeared, so too did its benefits such as infrastructure. The power vacuum that Roman left behind created opportunities for new groups and individuals to step up. The struggle for domination between these different groups would have been near constant, except when one gained a degree of regional hegemony for certain periods.

Another big impact on the continent was also the Great Migration where different Germanic and Hunnic people began to move into the former Roman territories. The main groups moving into and around the lowlands were the Saxons and the Angles. They most certainly had an influence on the Lowlands, especially Friesland. The Frisian name and sense of identity has sustained itself during a time when many names and people did not. The name still exists to this day, Friesland, one of the twelve provinces in the country today.

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In the 4th century, Roman historian Eutropius, wrote of people called the Franks. They are believed to have originated out of various grouping of Germanic people living in the lower and middle Rhine region. They were not however a single, culturally or linguistically unified people. Another Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, also wrote about the Franks, but was the first to mention a distinction amongst them as a cultural group. Specifically, he identified the Salian Franks, a dominant lowlander group who would leave a large mark on Europe. It is generally agreed that they were the founders of what would become the establishment of the Merovingian Frankish rule in Western Europe, taking guardianship of the transition from the classical age towards the medieval.

The Salians began to rise to prominence in the 4th century. According to Ammianus, they established in an area called Toxiandria, today around where the Dutch province of Zeeland and Flanders meet. They were a loose confederacy with other lowlander tribes, centered on certain noble families as they were descendents of the Norse god Wodan. The Franks were a collections of peoples. They identified themselves by many different names, most of them unknown to us today. As the Franks were a collections of different peoples, they would have held and identified with many different beliefs. The Germanic, Celtic and Gaelic spiritual beliefs originated from ancient Indo-European polytheistic paganism. Its roots were deep and firm. It did not happen quickly, but as Christianity appeared in the Lowlands by the 4th century, the seeds were sown for this to change vastly.

Christianity had for centuries been through various degrees of oppression and acceptance in the old Roman Empire but in 313 CE, Edict of Milan decreed that Christianity would be tolerated, supposedly even inspiring the conversion of Constantine to the first Roman Emperor (or at least of his mother!) It would go from being an underground movement to being protected by the state, leading its greater spread. Servatius of Tongeren was an Arminian diplomat who would travel and eventually settle around Maastricht, Limburg, becoming an early bishop and building many churches.

In the 5th century Friesland, Brabant and Flanders kept getting invaded by the different Germanic tribes like the Saxons and Angles. A man named Childeric, defeated many of these tribes and established a dynasty that would bear the name of his father, the Merovingian dynasty. His son Clovis, would later unite all of Gaul as a leader by the age of 15, and 5 years later, united all Frankish people, with the aim of subduing all the Frisians in the north and all the Saxons in the north east. He also created Salic law, a code of civil law that would form the basis of Western European law into the middle age. Clovis also converted to Christianity, making it the official religion, as it was the choice of the king. In time there would be creation of different dioceses and much power given to bishops. Merovingian tradition also led to the kings distributing their inheritance among their sons which lead to dilution of power, creating the establishment of lords and committees, and that the real power was held by dukes and counts, members of the kings court.

The Merovingians were the ones to try to spread Christianity in the Lowlands. They captured the fortress of Utrecht in 629 CE, built a church and intended to christianise the people around them, especially the Frisians who are known to the be amongst the last people in Northern Europe to cast off their pagan deities. But the Frisians persisted and it wasn’t until Charles Martel, perhaps more known as the Grandfather of Charlemagne, whom we will talking a great deal about in our next episode, who would succeed more than most in subduing them. A Frankish leader and protector of Christians, he took a navy and defeated the Frisians. Finally now they had come into line with the religion that would reign for the next thousand years. Since the fall of Rome, countless efforts had been made to fill the vacuum it left behind, with no one group achieving it completely. But now, one of the people most influential in the course of European history, strode onto centre-stage, and would do more than just replace Rome.Charlemagne would become known as the father of Europe. In the next episode we will look at what his rule had to do with the lowlands, and how it would lay the foundations of not only medieval feudalism, but also a future where the people of the lowlands would be constantly subject to forces from the north east and from the south west.