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Europe's Migrations and Feudalism

Among the migrants in the late 500s were the Slavs. They had been settled in what today is Belarus, northern Ukraine and eastern Poland. They migrated toward Moscow, passed through forests and mixed with Finnish and Baltic peoples. Also, they migrating onto land that Germanic tribes had vacated, and by the 580s they were in the partially depopulated Balkans and as far south as central Greece. The Slavs settled down to farming, and their lack of an organized central authority made it easy for others to assimilate with them.

The Slavs were divided linguistically and were to acquire identities as Russians, Serbs, Croats, Slovaks, and Slovenes. Merchants from Constantinople and from the Greek city of Thessalonica sold them jewelry, silks and spices and gave them contact with Byzantine culture, including Christianity. Between the 700s and the 900s, the Eastern Slavs were becoming heavily influenced by Constantinople and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Slavs to the west were being converted by Roman Catholic missionaries.

The Bulgars

The Bulgars were another migrating people. They have been described as a Turkic. They were herders who had fought their way westward from Asia, raiding for plunder in the Balkans during the rule of Justinian I (from 527 to 565). Constantinople fought their intrusions unsuccessfully. The Bulgars were able to consolidate their power. In 811 the Khan of Bulgaria, Krum the Fearsome, outwitted Constantinople's force and trapped them in closed valleys, killing almost all of them, including Constantinople's emperor, Nicephorus. Krum made a drinking cup of Nicephorus's skull.

The Bulgars lived alongside Slavs. They intermarried with them, and their differences diminished. Bulgaria became the first Slavic state on the Balkan peninsula worthy of being called a state. Its king, Khan Boris, (r. 852-89), adopted Christianity and opened Bulgaria to influences from Constantinople. He translated their books, and he sent one of his sons, Simeon, there to be educated. Simeon ruled Bulgaria from 893 to 927. Four times within eleven years he sent his military against Constantinople's walls, without success. But he did expand against its empire, and he had successful campaigns against the Magyars and Serbs. ( (map of Bulgaria>.

The Magyar Hungarians

In the 400s, while Rome was being overrun by Germanic peoples, Magyars from the area around Russia's Ural Mountains were moving southward between the Black and Caspian Seas. There they mixed with a Turkic people known as Khazars. Seven tribes of Magyars were joined by three dissident tribes of Khazars.

The Magyars have been described as nomadic herders, and like other such people they were accustomed to warfare. In the late 800s they moved into what today is Hungary and subjugated the Slavic and Hunnish people settled there. Beginning in 917, Constantinople supported the Magyars against their enemy the Bulgarians. Constantinople was still fighting to control as much of the old Roman Empire as it could, and it bribed the Magyars with gold and precious robes to attack the Bulgars. For several years the Magyars raided Bulgaria in force.

Continuing their warring ways into the 930s, the Magyars pushed across Germanic lands to Paris and down the Italian peninsula past Rome. These were to be called "robbing campaigns." And today, Magyar sympathizers want to remind us that campaigns by Charlemagne and his family had also produced boasting about the amount of treasure they had gathered during their campaigns.

Magyar fighters were unable to withstand a heavy cavalry assault in its war with one of Charlemagne's successors, the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto the Great, at the Battle of Lechfeld (in today's Germany) during the year 955. For the Magyars this defeat was similar to a loss of the mandate of heaven. They had believed their storytellers and were stunned. They responded by returning to the Hungarian Plain and settling down.

The Vikings

The Vikings were enterprising pagans from Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Armed with swords and battle axes they took to the water in low draft boats beginning around the year 700. They were aware of the wealth that existed in Christendom and were inspired to go out and grab some of it, and they switched back and forth between raiding and trading peacefully.

They made quick raids along Europe's shorelines and up rivers. Their usual target was treasury stored at monasteries and churches conveniently located on rivers and near the coast. In a world of slow communications, they were often back at sea before substantial armed resistance against them arrived.

They returned home happy with the prestige that their gains inspired. Their success inspired an increase in raiding. They reported that land was available abroad, and with the growth in population having eliminated the availability of land at home, more Scandinavians were willing to venture to distant areas for the purpose of settling down.

The Norwegians struck in Scotland and the northeast of England in the late 700s and Ireland in the early 800s. They had ventured as far as Iceland by the mid-800s, Greenland in 981 and what today is Canada in 986. The Vikings and their animals would become Iceland's inhabitants, and between their use of wood and their animals wandering about, all the trees in Iceland would disappear.

In the mid-800s the Danes hit England and the coast or France, including more than 120 boats and about 5,000 men up the Seine River to Paris, where they were paid a great ransom to leave. The Danes hit what today is the Netherlands, and they established themselves on the Baltic coast near the mouth of the Oder River. The Swedes struck there also and along the coast of what today are the Baltic states, and into Finland. And they voyaged down rivers, to Kiev in 882 and beyond.

Organizing against Raiders: Feudalism

Feudalism grew in the Holy Roman Empire in response to Magyar and Viking attacks. Into the 900s, raiding disrupted trade, and the production of food fell. Money was not yet in common use, and instead of buying military services with money, local landlords were paying for it with land called a fief, and the fighting man on the fief was the vassal, also to be called a knight. He supplied fighting men under his leadership. And, as a military system serving the great landowner, loyalty was important. An attempt at assurance of loyalty was in the vassal's vow to his lord that he would love what he loved and hate what he hated. He promised his lord that "Thy friends will be my friends, and thy enemies my enemies."

The lord's fighting men had the best means of transport – horses – for moving over the paths that connected population centers. The horses were shod with iron horseshoes, which allowed them to carry more weight across rough ground. And saddles with stirrups allowed the rider to stand while carrying a shield and wielding a sword or lance.

It was a system of defense at times effective in chasing away marauders. And at times these fighting men were employed in settling territorial and other disputes between neighboring lords. And the new warfare was moving some peasants from farming their own tiny plots to becoming subjects of a most wealthy lord — part of a growing serfdom.

CONTINUE READING: Christianity Spreads

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Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.