Chapters in Western Civilization - Vol. 1

By Columbia College | Go to book overview

VI
MEDIEVAL POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS

Joseph R. Strayer

Scholars have long argued as to what events and what dates mark the beginning of the Middle Ages. It is almost impossible to give precise solutions to these problems in fields such as economics and religion. In politics, however, there is an easy and appropriate answer. The political history of the Middle Ages begins in the fifth century A.D., when Germanic kings took over the government of the West from the Roman Empire.


I

There was much more to the beginning of the Middle Ages than a transfer of political authority -- there were profound transformations in all forms of human activity. But the political change was the most dramatic and the sharpest, and it cut deeply into the structure of society. The Roman Empire, which had embraced all civilized men in the Western world, broke up into petty kingdoms. Barbarian kings and their bands of warriors replaced the emperor and his bureaucrats as the source of authority. The complex organization of Roman government and the tax structure that had supported that government withered away. The idea of the state almost vanished; the Germans could not think in terms of a remote, impersonal authority which was to be obeyed in spite of all shifts in the personnel of the ruling group. They gave their allegiance to men and not to institutions, to the head of the family, to the chief man of the neighborhood, to the king. This simplification of the political structure and this emphasis on personal relations meant that governments did less and did what they did do less well. Life in the Late Roman Empire had not been happy but it had been more secure than it was to be under the Germanic kings.

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