Western Europe in the Middle Ages: A Short History

By Joseph R. Strayer | Go to book overview

of Italy, which was politically hostile to Rome. The line between Roman and German was sharply drawn in Italy and Gaul, and the distinctions between Frank and Lombard, Saxon and Bavarian were almost as great. Each of these peoples "lived their own law," to use the expressive phrase of that period; they had their own customs, institutions, and beliefs which were not shared with their neighbors. Until some of these sharp differences were erased, Western Europe could not have even the foundation of a common civilization.

Uneven development was equally conspicuous in the political sphere. In the seventh century there was only one state in Western Europe which had any real strength, the kingdom of the Franks. The Anglo-Saxons in England were divided into small, warring principalities; the Visigothic kingdom of Spain was torn by internal feuds and was soon to be wiped out by the Mohammedans; the Lombards in Italy had never conquered the whole peninsula and were weakened by frequent civil wars. But the Franks held most of Gaul and much of the Rhine valley in Germany, as well as an uneasy suzerainty over Aquitaine and Bavaria. Their center of power was in the north, between the Seine and the Rhine, so that they were not greatly hurt either by the conquests of Justinian or the later expansion of the Arabs. They had acquired enough of the Roman idea of the state from their occupation of Gaul to rise somewhat above the limited Germanic concept of the "folk," but they had retained enough contact with Germany to secure first- class fighting men.

The Frankish kingdom was strong, however, only in comparison with its neighbors. It had suffered from the same weaknesses which had ruined other Germanic kingdoms. It was difficult for the ruler to maintain his authority over outlying dependencies, such as Aquitaine. High officials and great land-owners were rebellious and disobedient even in the heart of the kingdom. Frankish monarchs had treated their domains as private property and had repeatedly divided them among their sons. There was

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