Episode 8 AD 840-990

The real Dark Ages

The later 800s saw the fragmentation of the Caliphate, creating two powerful rivals in Spain and in north Africa and Egypt. The Roman Empire of Constantinople began its long struggle to actively push back against its enemies.
But in the Occident the weakening of the Caliphate brought no relief. The Emir of Córdoba became powerful enough to assume the title of Caliph himself, while the Muslims of Africa turned decades of raiding into a full-scale conquest of Roman Sicily.
And so began the real Dark Ages, lasting a century and a half. Western Christendom was politically divided and helpless against the Norsemen who were raiding seasonally for what valuables they could seize and silver they could extort. In the east, in what is now Russia, they reached down as far as Baghdad. But in the west, they brought only devastation.
Slowly Christendom began to find the means to resist, through local defense and the building of fortified strongpoints. But just as the Norse were beginning to be contained, out of the Asian steppe came a new horse horde, the Magyars who also lived from cruel predation and systematic devastation. The eastern Frankish kingdom, based now on Saxony, gathered the strength to defeat them, and in the process created a powerful kingship, which assumed the western imperial title, the alliance with the papacy and the authority of the Carolingians in northern Italy.
Meanwhile southern and central Italy, as well as southern France, were under prolonged and ruthless assault from the Muslims of Sicily, Africa and Spain, mainly hunting for slaves. Finally, by the end of the 900s, these too were largely contained.
Western Christendom emerged from these harrowing experiences as a society transformed, one that we recognize as medieval Europe.


  • The real barbarian invasions and the real Dark Ages 800-950 AD
  • Three sustained thrusts of predatory raiding – Muslims from the south, Norse from the north and Magyars from the east.
  • Within Islam, the Sunni-Shia schism was now permanent. The Caliphs isolated and dependant on their Turkic slave soldiers. The Caliphate fragmented.
  • Emirs of Africa and of Spain faced the perennial political problem of an Islamic society: religious legitimacy lay with the Koranic ‘scholars’, while raw power rested with them and their slave armies.
  • The Norsemen begin to trade and raid on a grand scale. From Novgorod to the Caspian, they gave form to what would be Ukraine and Russia.
  • Western Norse set up naval bases at the mouths of estuaries around Europe/Francia, from which they raided deep inland.
  • These onslaughts delegitimised the Carolingian emperors. Their dukes set up independent duchies. Norse leaders were given other duchies. The political fragmentation of Europe became permanent, as it remains today.
  • The Magyar horsemen raid far into central Europe, wreaking havoc. Duke Heinrich is elected King of East Francia and eventually defeats the Magyars.
  • By the late 900s barbarian chieftains in eastern and northern Europe were all being baptised and transforming themselves into Christian kings – in Poland, Bohemia and Scandinavia.
  • In the south, the Muslim invasion of Sicily was long and very bloody. Raiding outposts were then set up in Italy itself, and in Provence, rendering Italy, Provence and the Alps devastated war zones. Rome itself was sacked.
  • In response to a century of predation, a transmutation occurred within Latin Christianity – bishops took on military leadership, and blessed military expeditions as just wars, in Christ’s cause.
  • The nobles and free cities of southern France and of Italy, with church encouragement, rallied and gradually crushed the Saracen strongholds, driving them from Europe.

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