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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

First the Fall, Then the Barbarians

Bath, England, once called Aquae Sulis or the Spa of Sul (Minerva)
Hadrian's Wall, Northumbria, England

Good morning. Today I’m beginning a six-part series about the Middle Ages with the goal of giving casual readers of medieval romances a better understanding of the time period. Specifically, we’ll talk about why there were no damsels in distress and why a knight is shining armor isn’t a good sign.

Today's topic: macro trends of the early medieval period and how they set the foundation for the era.

Feudalism, the prevalent social and economic structure throughout much of the period, grew out of necessity during the Migration Period, the frequent and often violent movement of new “peoples” into Europe. Most of these peoples were of Germanic origin, but at the time each wave was considered new, different and barbaric, and led the Romanized natives to band together for protection. From these bands, dozens of small kingdoms emerged, each led by a warlord. Those around him pledged loyalty and service in exchange for the protection and wealth he could offer them.

The Early Middle Ages (~400 to 1100 AD)

The historical record for this time period is very thin. We know what we do mainly through monastic chroniclers, such as Bede, a Northumbrian monk who charted the conversion of various kings and nobles to Christianity (throwing in nice details about who fought whom, who killed whom, and who married whom in the process) and the anonymous authors of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. This period is marked by:
  • Mass migrations
  • Clashes of cultures and religions
  • War and the breakdown of society
  • Power within a community shifting from administrators and bureaucrats to warrior-kings
  • A new social structure, a new economy, and new values emerge
The Migration Period was inevitable. Migration is the story of human history. It's what we do. Out of Africa. Into the Middle East. Across the sea. To Mars. The Roman Empire had stagnated because political power was in the hands of the few, and bureaucracy was the de facto governor.

In England, the legions were withdrawn over 200 years (more or less), but were gone by 407 A.D. Almost immediately, the Picts from Scotland and the Scots from Ireland began harrying the North. Germanic warriors were brought in to help battle them. Within 50 years, the Saxons revolted and the Romanized Britons were on the road to defeat.

A few key points from this time period:
Lindesfarne Abbey on Holy Island
  • Kingship was not hereditary; power was based solely on the king's ability to fight and win battles, gather treasure and slaves, and keep supporters loyal. Any male kin of the king could muster a claim for the crown. 
  • Academic opinions are split as to the size of the migrations in England (i.e. mass migration vs. band of elite warriors who took over the country) and whether the incoming Germanic groups drove the Britons west or if there was peaceful coexistence. In all likelihood, both happened. Initially, the Angles were invited in to fight incursions from Picts, Scots, and others. Others followed and by the 7th century Anglo-Saxons were the dominant people.
  • The country was divided into seven major and minor kingdoms, with smaller kingdoms within the larger ones. There were kings and high kings. Saxon kingdoms: Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia, Essex, Sussex, Wessex, and Kent. The kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria fought for dominance throughout the 7th and 8th centuries.
  • This struggle ended in the 9th century when the Danish invasions began. If you want an idea of how terrorizing Vikings were, just close your eyes and think of the dragon-headed silhouette of the long ship breaking through the fog. That it’s still seen as an image of terror more than a 1,000 years later is telling. In the past few decades, a new, softer Viking has emerged from the historical records, and much as been written about the Danes as farmers, merchants, and able administrators. True as that might be, Vikings left a lasting and frightening impression on Europe so they couldn’t have been too soft.
  • In Europe, the Franks were consolidating power in what is now France. The Franks can be traced to the banks of the Rhine under Roman influence. After the collapse of imperial authority, the Franks moved west and south. The Merovingian dynasty grew out of the ruling elite and eventually replaced Rome as the ruling authority. It developed into the Carolingian Empire and reached its pinnacle under Charlemagne (783-814).
Dunfermline Abbey in Dunfermline, Scotland

The last Great Migration

The first Viking attack on England happened in 739 A.D. and the raiders devastated the priory of Lindesfarne on Holy Island. Within 150 years, they occupied major portions of what is now Britain. Wessex King Alfred the Great (849-899) halted the Vikings at Edington and started a revival of learning and culture outside the monasteries. The balance of power tipped between Saxons and Vikings over the next two hundred years until the Norsemen (Normans) achieved a lasting victory in 1066.

Vikings also raided deep into Europe, using the rivers as highways for strike-and-go raids before settling down to grow crops and children. In 911 A.D. the wonderfully named Charles the Simple gave what is now Normandy to the Viking leader Rollo.

Farther south, Muslim invaders crossed the Strait of Gibraltar between North Africa and Spain and defeated the Goths in the southern part of the country. Legends make this invasion as bloody and violent as those in the north, with reports of prisoners being cut in to pieces and boiled. The Moors then followed the old Roman roads north with little resistance. With a few years, much of Spain was Moorish and would stay that way until Christians began driving them out in the 12th century.

What This Means to You

If you’re writing (or reading) a story set in the early Middle Ages, the elements that will drive your story’s setting are those responsible for the slow breakdown of society and the gradual rebuilding of a new one.

In other words, lots of anxiety, confusion, fear, and warriors with agendas will be in the background.

There are also a few facts that you can’t ignore. For instance, a 7th-century Saxon queen serving as regent while her young son grows to manhood won’t be believable. That’s not to say there weren’t women with power or influence, or that your heroine can’t be a woman of power and influence. She just wouldn’t have a crown. You have to find a way to make her role make sense to readers. Along the same lines, she’s not going to be running around the countryside alone picking berries or delivering babies unless she’s down with probable rape, abduction and slavery.

Keena Kincaid writes historical romances in which passion, magic and treachery collide to create unforgettable stories. Her books are available from Prairie Rose Publications and Amazon. For more information on her stories, visit her Amazon page, her website, or Facebook.


  1. Wonderful blog, Keena! This will be a six part series? I'm looking forward to it.

    1. Thanks. If I were more organized I'd have the titles are, but I don't. Ha, ha. I'll link the series, though, as it builds.

  2. "...Specifically, we’ll talk about why there were no damsels in distress and why a knight is shining armor isn’t a good sign." <<< Made me chuckle.

    1. That is a later in the series, probably 3 or 4...but I think makes a good intro. :-)

  3. That's a lot of history in one blog post. I am vaguely familiar with bits of this information, but I'm far from understanding all of it.
    I watched the first two season of The Vikings on tv, and became thoroughly enthralled with the characters and story line.
    I can take a good amount of violence, but it soon became too violent for me. However, I did get lost along the way.
    I'm thinking there may not have been a conflict and migration more complicated.
    Do you know Kathryn Pym from FB? She's a friend from a small village near here. She writes romances (?) set during the Medieval Period and write for Books We Love. I've bought a read a couple of her least they're somewhat easy to read. Look her up.
    At the last San Marcos Library Author's Day, she said, "I think I'll stop writing. No one want to read about the Medieval Period." least in San Marcos. She's a lovely woman..kind of droll and funny.

    1. And here I thought I was just giving little bites of history. That's the problem when you know his subject very well. You forget what is and isn't common knowledge. I watched a few episodes of the Vikings and I really liked the monk that was taken as a slave, but I'm not a big fan of gore either. I don't know Kathryn but I will look her up.

  4. Thank you, Keena. I have also read the works of Hildegard of Bingen, who was a nun during the late 11th and early 12th century in what is now Germany. The history of this time period is endlessly fascinating. Loved the overview. Doris

    1. Thanks, Doris. It's tough trying to summarize a period that was so complex and that stretches over 1000 years. But I will try. :-)

  5. Love love love your historical blog post, Keene!

  6. I loved reading this fascinating time period of upheaval and change. It rather reminded me somewhat of how things are right now.
    If I were writing a novel in the Middle Ages I would certainly want to get my facts straight. I noticed several things in your article I had not known such as the fact that the kingship was not inherited, but by winning battles and providing wealth and treasure to his people.
    What is the name of your series?
    A most excellent article, Keena.

    1. There are many parallels to what's going on today (even more if you look at the time period just before the Black Death). People haven't changed in the last 1,000 years...our toys have just gotten more expensive and sophisticated. Ha, ha.