Paul Freedman: The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000


A free online course. Yale University.

01. The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000: Course Introduction: Rome's Greatness and First Crises
02. The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000: The Crisis of the Third Century and the Diocletianic Reforms
03. The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000: Constantine and the Early Church
04. The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000: The Christian Roman Empire
05. The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000: St. Augustine's Confessions
06. The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000: Transformation of the Roman Empire
07. The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000: Barbarian Kingdoms
08. The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000: Survival in the East
09. The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000: The Reign of Justinian
10. The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000: Clovis and the Franks
11. The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000: Frankish Society
12. The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000: Britain and Ireland
13. The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000: Monasticism
14. The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000: Mohammed and the Arab Conquests
15. The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000: Islamic Conquests and Civil War
16. The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000: The Splendor of the Abbasid Period
17. The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000: The Crucial Seventh Century
18. The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000: The Splendor of Byzantium
19. The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000: Charlemagne
20. The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000: Intellectuals and the Court of Charlemagne
21. The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000: Crisis of the Carolingians
22. The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000: Vikings / The European Prospect, 1000

01. Course Introduction: Rome's Greatness and First Crises

Professor Freedman introduces the major themes of the course: the crisis of the Roman Empire, the rise of Christianity, the threats from barbarian invasions, and the continuity of the Byzantine Empire. At the beginning of the period covered in this course, the Roman Empire was centered politically, logistically, and culturally on the Mediterranean Sea. Remarkable for its size and longevity, the Empire was further marked by its tolerance. Although it contained an eclectic mix of peoples, the Empire was unified in part by a local elite with a shared language and customs. In the third century these strengths were increasingly threatened by the Empire's sheer size, its imbalances, both East-West and urban-rural, and by an army that realizes it could make and unmake emperors. Having set the scene, Professor Freedman looks to subsequent lectures where he will discuss reforms enacted to address these weaknesses.

02. The Crisis of the Third Century and the Diocletianic Reforms

Professor Freedman outlines the problems facing the Roman Empire in the third century. The Persian Sassanid dynasty in the East and various Germanic tribes in the West threatened the Empire as never before. Internally, the Empire struggled with the problem of succession, an economy wracked by inflation, and the decline of the local elite which had once held it together. Having considered these issues, Professor Freedman then moves on to the reforms enacted under Diocletian to stabilize the Empire. He attempted to solve the problem of succession by setting up a system of joint rule called the Tetrarchy, to stabilize the economy through tax reform, and to protect the frontiers through militarization. Although many of his policies failed – some within his lifetime – Diocletian nevertheless saved the Roman Empire from collapse.

03. Constantine and the Early Church

Professor Freedman examines how Christianity came to be the official religion of the Roman Empire. This process began seriously in 312, when the emperor Constantine converted after a divinely inspired victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Constantine's conversion would have seemed foolish as a political strategy since Christianity represented a completely different system of values from that of the Roman state, but not only did it prove to be a brilliant storke in aid of Constantine's quest for power, it fundamentally changed the character of the Empire and that of the early Church. Constantine also moved his capitol to a new city he founded in the East, named Constantinople, opening the possibility of a Roman Empire without Rome. Professor Freedman ends the lecture with a comparison of Diocletian and Constantine.

04. The Christian Roman Empire

The emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity brought change to the Roman Empire as its population gradually abandoned the old religions in favor of Christianity. The reign of Julian the Apostate, a nephew of Constantine, saw the last serious attempt to restore civic polytheism as the official religion. The Christian church of the fourth century was divided, however, by two serious heresies: Arianism and Donatism. Religious dissent led to the intervention of the emperors at church councils and elsewhere. Professor Freedman then introduces St. Augustine's Confessions, including an overview of Platonism.

05. St. Augustine’s Confessions

Professor Freedman begins the lecture by considering the ways historians read the Confessions.In this work, St. Augustine gives unique insight into the life of an intellectual mind in Late Antiquity, into the impact of Christianity on the Roman Empire, and into the problems of early Christianity. The three major doctrinal concerns of the early Church were the problem of evil, the soul-body distinction, and issues of sin and redemption. In the Confessions, St. Augustine searches for explanations of these problems first in Manichaeism, then (Neo)Platonism, and finally Christianity. Underlying this narrative are Augustine's ideas of opposition to perfectionism, his exaltation of grace, and the notion of sin as indelible, not solvable.

06. Transformation of the Roman Empire

The Roman Empire in the West collapsed as a political entity in the fifth century although the Eastern part survived the crisis. Professor Freedman considers this transformation through three main questions: Why did the West fall apart – because of the external pressure of invasions or the internal problems of institutional decline? Who were these invading barbarians? Finally, does this transformation mark a gradual shift or is it right to regard it as a cataclysmic end of civilization? Professor Freedman, as a moderate catastrophist, argues that this period marked the end of a particular civilization rather than the end of civilization in general.

07. Barbarian Kingdoms

In this lecture, Professor Freedman considers the various barbarian kingdoms that replaced the Western Roman Empire. Oringinally the Roman reaction to these invaders had been to accommodate them, often recruiting them for the Roman army and settling them on Roman land. Now, however, they were the rulers of the previously Roman lands of the West. These tribes included the Ostrogoths and Visigoths in Italy, the Franks in Gaul, and the Vandals in North Africa. As most sources about these groups come from the Roman perspective, it's unclear how coherent each group was. In general, the barbarian groups characterized by disorganization, internal fighting and internecine feuds, and lack of economic development. Professor Freedman closes with some remarks on the Burgundian Code (Lex Burgundionum) as evidence of barbarian society and institutions.


Teoderiks mausoleum i Ravenna. Teoderik den store (født 454, død 30. august 526) var konge over østgoterne (475–526), konge av Italia (493–526), regent av vestgoterne (511–526) på vegne av sitt barnebarn Amalarik, og en patricius av Romerriket.

08. Survival in the East

Professor Freedman focuses on the question of how the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire survived, while the West collapsed in the fifth century. He begins with a brief overview of Procopius' Secret History, a work which presents a highly critical account of the reign of the emperor Justinian. The more urbanized, economically stronger, and geographically more stable Eastern Empire was able to survive while the West was dismantled by barbarian tribes. Yet under pressure from its old enemy, Persia, and new threats, the Slavs and Avars in the West and Arabs in the East, the Eastern Empire experienced a decline in the seventh century. Against the background of this political instability, Professor Freedman also discusses the Christological controversies of Nestorianism and Monophysitism which plagued the Church in the East. Beginning in the late seventh century, Iconoclasm also added to the pressures facing the Eastern Church and Empire.

09. The Reign of Justinian

Professor Freedman opens by discussing why historians use the writings of Procopius and Gregory of Tours, a sixth century bishop whose history of the Merovingian kings is discussed the following week. Procopius's three works – The Wars, the adulatory Buildings, and the invective Secret History – are the best sources on the reign of the Emperor Justinian. Under Justinian and his wife Theodora, the Roman Empire reached its height as it reclaimed territories in North Africa and Europe previously lost to the Vandals, Visigoths and Ostrogoths. However, defeats in war accompanied by heavy taxation led to civil unrest. In addition to the wars, Justinian commissioned a number of large projects like the building of the Hagia Sophia and the organization of Roman law in the Corpus Iuris Civilis.



10. Clovis and the Franks

Professor Freedman begins his discussion of Gregory of Tours' history of the Merovingian kings. This history differs markedly from the classical invective style used by Procopius. Gregory of Tours' account seems more random by comparison and emphasizes the intervention of the supernatural in everyday life, particularly through the miracles of St. Martin of Tours. Gregory begins his account by showing how Clovis established Frankish hegemony and secured the prominence of the Franks in the post-Roman West. That the Franks were the first Catholic (as opposed to Arian) people among the barbarian invaders also figures heavily in his account. Professor Freedman ends the lecture with a discussion of Clovis' sons, among whom Clovis had divided his empire. Despite their violent internecine conflicts, Gregory of Tours considers them and their father to be appropriate rulers for savage times.


11. Frankish Society

Professor Freedman considers the Merovingians as an example of barbarian kingship in the post-Roman world. In the absence of a strong government, Merovingian society was held together by kinship, private vengeance, and religion. Kings were judged by their ability to lead men in war. Gregory of Tours believed that the violence characteristic of Frankish society was useful insofar as the kings wielded it to back up threats of supernatural retribution for bad actions. Professor Freedman ends with a brief summary of the decline of the Merovingians.


12. Britain and Ireland

In this lecture, Professor Freedman considers the importance of the British Isles in the early Middle Ages, both in their own right and as an example of a post-Roman frontier society. In the wake of the fifth century Roman withdrawal, England experienced “radical economic simplification.” However, England's conversion to Christianity beginning at the end of the sixth century brought about a flourishing written culture and Latin learning. Ireland experienced a similar cultural flowering, although it had converted to Christianity centuries earlier. It had never been colonized by the Romans, and the Irish Church was less hierarchical, more decentralized, and placed less importance on bishops than did the Roman. The conversion of England under the competeing influences of Rome and ireland was thus not just a conflict between Christianity and paganism, but also between two administrative styles of Christianity. Professor Freedman ends the lecture with a few remarks on the cultural accomplishments of the British Isles.

Bede the Venerable


13. Monasticism

Professor Freedman discusses some of the paradoxes of monasticism in the Early Middle Ages. To the modern mind, monks and learning make a natural pair. However, this combination is not an obvious outcome of early monasticism, which emphasized asceticism and renunciation of the world. As it moved west, monasticism shifted away from its eremetic beginnings in Egypt and Syria to more communal way of life under the Rule of St Benedict. In addition to communal life, the Rule emphasized prayer and labor; the latter of which was interpreted to include reading and eventually the copying of manuscripts.

14. Mohammed and the Arab Conquests

In this lecture, Professor Freedman introduces Islam. He begins with a discussion of its geographical context: the dry desert lands of the Arabian peninsula. The Bedouins, or nomadic Arabs of the region, lived in a tribal society somewhat similar to the Germanic tribes discussed earlier in the course. Their raids against the Byzantine and the Persian Empire, for lack of strong opposition, would lead to the Arab conquests. The second half of the lecture focuses on the life of Mohammed (570/580 – 632) and the early years of Islam. Mohammed's revelation was one of the unity of God and a progressive interpretation of God's prophets, with Mohammed as the last of these. Early Islam was slow to differentiate itself for Christianity and Judaism, though this process accelerated after Mohammed's flight to Medina in 622. Professor Freedman ends with a discussion of the tenets of Islam and anticipates the discussion of the Arab conquests in the next lecture.

15. Islamic Conquests and Civil War

In this lecture, Professor Freedman discusses the Islamic conquests. Although they were in some sense religiously motivated, Arab did not attempt to forcibly convert or eradicate Jews, Christians, or other non-Muslims. The conquests began as raids, but quickly escalated when the invaders discovered that Byzantium and Persia were too weak to withstand their assault. In a relatively short period of time, the Arabs were able to conquer an area stretching from Spain to India. Against this background of successful conquests, Islam began to experience deep internal divisions. These began as criticisms of the election of Mohammed's successors, but broadened to criticize the Caliphate and the ruling family. Out of this strife came the division between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Professor Freedman concludes the lecture with observations on the increasingly non-Arab Muslim populations.


16. The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000: The Splendor of the Abbasid Period

In this lecture, Professor Freedman discusses the Abbasid dynasty, which ruled the Islamic Caliphate beginning in 750. The Abbasids moved the capitol of the Caliphate to the newly-built city of Baghdad and created a state characterized by a strong administration and well-organized tax system. The state sponsored a cultural flowering, based in part on the translation of classical Greek and Roman texts. Professor Freedman ends the lecture by focusing on developments in mathematics and astronomy.

17. The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000: The Crucial Seventh Century

In the first half of this lecture, Professor Freedman continues the previous lecture's discussion of the Abbasids. He highlights their ability to assimilate other cultures, before turning to their decline in the tenth century. In the second half of the lecture, Professor Freedman considers the seventh century, the crucial turning point in the history of early medieval Europe. The seventh century shaped medieval Europe; the period saw the rise of Islam and Northern Europe, fundamental changes in Byzantium, the reorientation of Persia, and the end of the secular elite in the west. Professor Freedman concludes with a few remarks on the Pirenne thesis, which states that the rise of Islam broke up the Mediterranean and paved the way for the rise of northern Europe.

18. The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000: The Splendor of Byzantium

In this lecture, Professor Freedman surveys major trends in Byzantine history from the sixth to eleventh century, dividing the era into four periods. In the sixth century, under Justinian's rule, the Byzantine Empire experienced a period of expansion (532-565). However, the Empire was unable to hold on to Justinian's hard won territories and so contracted for over a century of crisis that threatened its survival (565-717). In the next period, (717-843), the Byzantine army was reorganized and the Empire was able to regain some lost territory. At the same time, the empire was wracked by the conflicts accompanying theological controversies over artistic representations of the sacred (the Iconoclast controversy). Finally, with the religious situation smoothed over, the Byzantine Empire was able to expand further from 843 to 1071.

19. The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000: Charlemagne

In this lecture, Professor Freedman discusses the Carolingian dynasty from its origins through its culmination in the figure of Charlemagne. The Carolingians sought to overthrow the much weakened Merovingian dynasty by establishing their political legitimacy on three bases: war leadership, Christian rule, and the legacy of Rome. Charlemagne's grandfather Charles Martel won a major victory over the Muslims in 733 at the Battle of Poitiers. Charlemagne's father Pepin the Short allied the Carolingians with the papacy at a time when the latter was looking for a new protector. Charlemagne, crowned emperor in Rome by Pope Leo III in 800, made strides in reestablishing the Roman Empire; although, being centered in northern Europe, his was not an exact imitation of the Roman Empire. Professor Freedman concludes the lecture with the observation that Charlemagne can be considered the founder of Europe as a political and cultural expression.


20. The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000: Intellectuals and the Court of Charlemagne

In this lecture, Professor Freedman discusses the Carolingian Renaissance, the revival of learning sponsored by Charlemagne and his successors. The period before the Carolingians saw a decline in learning, evidenced in part by the loss of lay literacy. As literacy became the purview of clerics, monasteries set up scriptoria in order to copy manuscripts on a larger scale. In this context, the Carolingians sponsored a revival of learning both for the sake of bringing educated people into the government and in order to encourage the piety of the people. Professor Freedman ends the lecture by discussing Einhard's writings on Sts Marcellinus and Peter. Their story illustrates how, in this period, the piety of the well-educated was not all that different from that of the common people.


21. The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000: Crisis of the Carolingians

In this lecture, Professor Freedman discusses the crisis and decline of Charlemagne's empire. Increasingly faced with external threats – particularly the Viking invasions – the Carolingian Empire ultimately collapsed from internal causes, because its rulers were unable effectively to manage such a large empire. In the absence of strong social infrastructure and an idea of loyalty to the ruler, government servants strove to make their positions hereditary and nobles sought to set up independent kingdoms. Although it only lasted for a short time, the Carolingian Empire helped shape the face of Europe, especially through the partitions of the Treaty of Verdun which created territories roughly equivalent to France and Germany.

22. Vikings / The European Prospect, 1000

In the first part of this lecture, Professor Freedman discusses the emergence of the Vikings from Scandinavia in the ninth and tenth centuries. The Vikings were highly adaptive, raiding (the Carolingian Empire), trading (Byzantium and the Caliphate) or settling (Greenland and Iceland) depending on local conditions. Through their wide-ranging travels, the Vikings created networks bringing into contact parts of the world that were previously either not connected or minimally so. Professor Freedman concludes the lecture, and the course, by considering what's been accomplished between 284 and 1000. Although Europe in the year 1000 experienced many of the same problems as did the Roman Empire 284 where we began – population decline and lack of urbanization, among others – the end of the early Middle Ages also arguable heralds the emergence of Europe and Christendom as cultural constructs and sets the stage for the rise of the West.