THE BEGINNINGS OF THE MIDDLE AGES
It is quite usual to regard the reign of Charlemagne as a period of economic restoration. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that in the economic domain, as in that of letters, there was an actual renaissance. But this is an obvious mistake, explained not merely by a bias in favour of the great Emperor, but also by what may be called an incorrect perspective.
The historians have always compared the last phase of the Merovingian epoch with the reign of Charlemagne; and if this is done it is not difficult to perceive a recovery. In Gaul, anarchy was followed by order; while in Germany, conquered and evangelized, the social progress is plainly visible. But if we wish to arrive at a correct appreciation of the actual state of affairs, we must compare the whole of the ages which proceeded the Carolingian epoch with that epoch itself. We see then that we are confronted with two different and indeed contrasting economies.
Before the 8th century what existed was the continuation of the ancient Mediterranean economy. After the 8th century there was a complete break with this economy. The sea was closed. Commerce had disappeared. We perceive an Empire whose only wealth was the soil, and in which the circulation of merchandise was reduced to the minimum. So far from perceiving any progress, we see that there was a regression. Those parts of Gaul which had been the busiest were now the poorest. The South had been the bustling and progressive region; now it was the North which impressed its character upon the period.
In this anti-commercial civilization, however, there was one exception, which seems to contradict all that has just been said.
It is undoubtedly the fact that in the first half of the 9th century the extreme north of the Empire -- later to become the Low