No one knows why it started. Maybe there was a drought
or cold spell that caused trouble in finding food. Maybe
there was a mysterious disease that forced people to
flee. Maybe some big, ugly, bad-tempered guy had a burr
under his saddle.
For whatever reason, large groups of people from many
lands started traveling about sometime in the early
300s. As these people migrated, some of them stumbled
into the Roman Empire. The Romans weren’t sure
about all these “uncultured” and pushy people
invading their lands, and called them barbarians. Push
came to shove; shove came to kill; and Europe would
never be the same. The invasions had begun.
Remember that the Roman Empire was divided into eastern
and western parts. The eastern part flourished with
an environment that was closer to what people considered
civilization. The western part was wilder and less civilized,
and the Romans who ruled it were few and far between
(see map 1). Lots of barbarians
lived along the borders, and life was more or less peaceful
until the pushing and shoving began. Let’s begin
at about the year 375.
The Huns were a feared group of people from central
Asia who began to move west. This pushed the Germanic
tribes that lived along the border of the Roman Empire
into Roman land. One of the tribes that was forced to
move was the Visigoths. It moved into Roman land and
was tolerated, but when asked to pay taxes, the Visigoths
went to Constantinople, the capital of the eastern region,
to negotiate. The emperor met them with a huge army,
which was a big mistake. The Visigoths won that battle
and practically obliterated the eastern side of the
Empire. Then the eastern side got the idea that they
could use these barbarians to their advantage. They
led them to the western side with gold and permission
In the meantime, another group from the Germanic tribes
had pushed into the western part of the Roman Empire.
This group, the Vandals, had already taken over much
of the Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal)
(map 2). By 410, Alaric,
the leader of the Visigoths, had finished sacking the
western capital of Rome and was headed for the Iberian
Peninsula. He and his forces pushed the Vandals right
off the continent and into Africa (map
3). The Visigoths held the peninsula for many years
and established a culture of learning.
By 452 the Huns were moving farther and farther west
under the leadership of a fierce warrior named Attila.
The Romans and Visigoths had to work together to face
these fearsome people, but the threat died when Attila
died in 453. The Huns stopped their advance and began
to move out of the territory that they had conquered.
When the Huns left, there were vacant areas and more
Germanic tribes happily settled there. In about 489,
the Franks moved into the main part of Europe known
as Gaul, and the Ostrogoths moved into Italy
The northern part of Europe wasn’t exempt from
these invasions. In the late 400s, Germanic tribes known
as the Anglos, Saxons and Jutes were invading the British
Isles and driving the Romans away. Even the Pict tribes
from Scotland were helping to push the Romans along
From 540 to 565, Roman Emperor Justinian managed to
retake some of the lost lands in the eastern areas.
He and his followers preferred a more Greek way of life
and a more Greek view of Christianity, so he renamed
the eastern area Byzantine. These Christians did not
answer to the pope in the western area
By 711, Islamic people known as Moors pushed upward
from Africa into the Iberian Peninsula. They took over
and established a large area of Muslim people in Europe.
They tried to expand into the areas held by the Franks,
but Charles Martel stopped them. Martel was known as
“The Hammer” and was the grandfather of
the future king of the Franks, Charlemagne. The Germanic
bloodlines fathered many strong and determined people
By the end of the 700s, a whole new terror was pushing
its way into Europe. The Vikings started attacking the
British Isles, but soon found much more to steal in
the continent itself. The Vikings were ruthless and
had boats that could navigate shallow rivers. That made
their attacks fast, furious and almost impossible to
stop. The Vikings and their close cousins, the Norsemen,
tormented much of Europe for the next 200 years (map
All this pushing, shoving and raiding had a slow but
serious effect on daily life. Common people needed protection.
They moved in droves onto lands owned by lords, where
they could be protected by the lord’s knights
and castle or stronghold. In return, they worked the
lord’s land for him and tended his animals and
needs. This was the beginning of feudalism.
The barbarians also brought with them advances in technology.
Stirrups made fighting on horseback much more successful,
so it gave armies who understood how to use them a great
advantage. Before the invasions, Romans on horseback
had nothing between them and the horse but a short blanket.
Wielding weapons from horseback was too dangerous because
the rider could easily fall. Using stirrups, cavalrymen
could wield a lance in battle.
Before the advent of the framed yoke, farmers plowed
by simply putting a rope around an animal’s neck.
If the animal had to strain through hard or soggy land,
the rope would choke off its air supply. Progress was
impossibly slow and often women pulled the plows in
place of the animals. But the barbarians introduced
a framed yoke to the farmers. It went over the animal’s
neck and down its two front shoulders. The weight of
the plow and earth was off the animal’s neck,
greatly improving efficiency. This allowed for more
food to be produced, which changed how people survived
and spent their time.
Other innovations brought by the barbarians included
pants, barrels, wheeled plows, special boats and navigation
knowledge, butter, rye bread, schools for the children
of nobles, timed candles, transparent ox horns that
could be used as lanterns, manual cranks, water mills
and horseshoes. All these things made life, labor and
fighting easier, increasing the production and power
of greater Europe in the medieval times.