This post is very much a bit of a hodgepodge about different aspects of the time that many historians call the 'Dark Ages.' I have tried to cover some of the important rulers which made the history of that age as well as some ideas about the culture, understanding, and perceptions of the populations living during this time.... this would not have been a very comfortable time to try and live through from the information I have gathered in my studies....
The term 'Dark Ages' was originally coined by the famous Italian scholar Petrarch who appears to have invented this term. When he compared this period of time to the early classical period of Rome, he saw this portion of the medieval period as the 'Dark Ages'... in comparison to the bright light of the earlier classical age. With the fall of the Roman empire, it would become apparent to other people and other generations over time that life had been different for past generations... and probably better. People would have seen the good roads, the monuments, the buildings, the bridges and the aqueducts which no longer worked. And they would look at these buildings and then also help break down those same grand buildings to build shacks, hovels, and other needed facilities... it must have seemed a bit unreal. However, this period of history would dramatically change the way that Europe would eventually come to be seen in our modern world. Certainly one of the bad things of this period was the challenges of daily life. People did not have or could not expect to have the basic level of security or order that had been available in the past. Political problems would quickly escalate into bloodshed- all forms of warfare between civil war, clan feuds, and political war were nearly constant as well as vendettas and so even the non combatants and the people who wished to live peacefully would have found it very difficult... or next to impossible.
One important man of this age was named Aleric the Goth. He was a Visigoth warrior who had begun his career by working with the leaders of the Roman empire to help protect the northern borders of the empire. Over time, Aleric realized that the only way he was going to advance in the 'military' ranks of the Roman empire was to put more pressure on the leaders of the empire to promote him. Roman governors and other leaders are known to have treated the Goths and other hired mercenaries extremely poorly... and in many ways forced these groups to begin to fight back against their Roman oppressors. Aleric the Goth used his knowledge of Roman warfare from supporting the Romans to his advantage and began a campaign with his men against Roman rule and Rome itself. For two years, his army surrounded the walls of the city of Rome in an attempt to starve Rome and its people out. He was eventually successful and the gates were opened to him and his Visigoths. Even though Aleric and his army were only in the city for a few days, he left the city of Rome basically dead from the two year seige and Rome's continued ability to continue to rule the empire was vastly harmed. (It must be noted that the ability of the Roman leaders to control the empire was already having a bit of difficulty by this time...)
The Huns were the first of the major conquering groups during the Dark Ages. Huns were a bit different from the other two groups in the sense that they were really able to assimilate those they conquered so that finding specific artifacts that can clearly be classified as 'Hun' is almost impossible. When you or your lands were conquered, it appears that most people joyfully (or at least successfully) joined the conquering group and began to follow the culture, etc... of the Huns. Archeology shows that many German groups appear to have assimilated quite successful with the Huns and that some of the cultural patterns which are very clearly attributed to the Hun populations.... which it is thought you would only do if you liked the group you were imitating. However, it must also be noted that when the Huns attacked and conquered much of the lands that we now consider 'German', millions of people did flee in terror from the advancing 'Golden Horde'... The Vandals began their military conquests during the last of the strength of the Huns and they were able to be so successful because Rome was so stretched militarily (in fact the Vandals started their careers as refugees running from the Huns... ironically enough.) The leaders of the Roman empire were already distracted and fighting with the Huns had diverted most of the Roman resources to the task of keeping the 'Golden Horde' under control. This allowed the Vandals to take territory that the Romans didn't have under heavy protection. So the Vandals were able to easily conquer and lay their own defenses for future attacks ...making any attempt to re-conquer the land by Roman leaders more costly and difficult. The last groups to enter the military fray were the Goths. The Goths and the Vandals can be seen as similar in some respects as the most important reason that these groups were attempting to conquer was for their own survival. Food was scarce and so the need to conquer other lands was really wrapped up in needing the food of the conquered for themselves... without the ability of the Vandals and the Goths to conquer some areas of the Roman empire, these groups would have potentially died out fairly quickly due to starvation or other environmental difficulties such as exposure. Attila appears to have ruled his people by bribery and also treating them almost as 'family' giving of his riches for loyalty and the comfort of his subjects (much less likely to revolt if you are comfortable. :) The Goths and the Vandals appear to in many ways work together and are united under more desperate circumstances.
When Clovis I, leader of the Franks, had managed to conquer a great deal of territory, he realized that one of the best and uniting forces that he could choose to help keep his subjects loyal and to give him more political allies was a common religion. The religion that he would eventually chose would be to convert to Christianity. Each land he conquered was filled with Romans (in which the majority of Romans were Catholics) and other smaller 'Christian' groups (usually considered heretical by the Catholics.) By converting to Catholicism, Clovis I was able to help cement his power and to hold the loyalty of new subjects and the conquered because they shared this common link of religion. He also found ways to unite people by accepting the people he conquered as equals in the groups. The conquered men would be drafted into his military to fight and their families and wives would become part of his 'clan'. However, before I make him sound like he should be named the 'uniter', his actions and ambition contributed a great deal to the turmoil of this age. He subscribed to the idea of “the Ordeal” and to become his prisoner was a painful and challenging experience... if you survived it. He continued to fight to conquer more land throughout most of his life causing much bloodshed, terror and death. He was one of the 'Barbarian' warriors who were consumed with conquest at all cost. And when Clovis died, he split his territory into four parts so that each of his sons could rule a share. These sons would fight with and kill each other to enlarge their shares.... continuing that chaos.
The Mediterranean Sea was called the Roman Lake around the time of Emperor Augusta and this name was kept for several decades and even centuries after the emperor's death. This name was deemed appropriate because Rome counted all land around the Mediterranean Sea as its territory and under its control. There wasn't any problem with piracy during this time due to the strength of the Roman government and military and trade was extremely easy and controllable. With the collapse and crumbling of the Roman Empire, full control of the 'lake' was lost. One of the Byzantine emperors, Justinian, had a dream... or was at least highly motivated... to bring back the goodness of the past empire and to gain back lost territories that had been conquered by others. Ultimately, both Justinian and his empress Theodora wanted full control back of the Mediterranean Sea. The Italian Campaign was very successful for Justinian and he was able to reconquer some of the lost territory. Justinian also built a huge and magnificent cathedral to Christ during this time. His battles gave him control of Egypt, Italy, North Africa, Turkey, Greece and Palestine.... which finally gave him control of the 'Roman Lake.' However, due to the arrival of bubonic plague, pandemic population loss ensued causing huge difficulties with the economy and he military. Justinian himself caught the plague and was one of the lucky survivor's...unfortunately, his mind itself was damaged by the disease. When the emperor Justinian died, his dream of controlling the Mediterranean Sea died with him. The new leaders of the Byzantine Empire decided that they could not financially sustain what had been the empire under Justinian and they forced their military forces to retreat from the regained territories. The break between the western part and the eastern part of the Roman empire was officially complete.
One major thing that the monasteries did during this time was that these institutions helped protect ancient books. Ancient books were collected and saved in monasteries and were copied by monks who learned to read and write behind the hallowed walls. The monasteries themselves really were the only places that continued education and formal teaching... almost no reading or writing was possible or taught outside of the monastic orders. Monasteries also became the major forces in the areas that they were located as these organizations tended to be the wealthiest institutions in the community. Monasteries and their leaders tending to have political authority and would help with commerce. One monk named Bede wrote a book about the history of the world from the time of Julius Caesar to his own time- giving us an important link about the culture and life during that time. By the seventh century, there were few people outside of monasteries who were still literate. Benedict of Nursia was a monk who ended up starting a dozen monasteries that followed a list of strict rules that he developed called 'The Rule of St Benedict.” By making many monasteries more united in rules as well as religion, these groups would become a stabilizing force for themselves as well as the land and people surrounding them.
One of the most popular leaders during this time was a man named Charles Martel. He was the commanding officer of the French army in 732 AD, the Muslim Moors threaten the Christian land of France after traveling from North Africa to Spain. The Moors came to the land of France for conquest as well as missionary work for the prophet Mohammed and the Koran.... not to mention that the Moors felt that Europe would be easy to conquer because the leaders of the European countries had worn themselves and their resources out by fighting themselves. Charles Martel knew the Moors were coming and he felt quite desperate to defend the land of France and to defend Christianity itself. So he made a few very unpopular decisions. Knowing that his army was at a disadvantage to his rivals due to lack of money, he took land and money from the Catholic church. He then used these 'stolen' resources to train and arm a strong army and he set up his army in a place that was to his advantage in the predicted path that the Moor armies could be expected to travel. Both armies looked so well formed that when the armies of the Moors and of France met, they actually spent six days looking at the other army... and it wasn't until the seventh day that the Moors attacked. Charles Martel's army was said to stand 'like a wall' in front of the attacking army and keep the majority of the enemy army occupied. Charles then sent some of his troops to the Muslim camp to plunder it. This intrusion into their camp caused many of the Moors to head back to their camp to try and protect their stolen plunder... causing confusion in the Moor's army on the principal battlefield. This would lead to the death of the Moor commander and gave the victory to the French and to Charles 'The Hammer' Martel. He became known as the savior of Christianity in Europe due to his victory in this battle.
Emperor Charlemagne was very different from other rulers of his time. He ruled a vast amount of land- an amount that hadn't been held in such a large solid mass since the Roman Empire. Charlemagne tried to single-handed lead this large group of land and people under his control. He launched over fifty military campaigns- all of which was successful-and these lands were added to his control... and the survivors were forced to accept Christianity or die. If you were caught later worshiping different gods, you were executed. He didn't lose any military conquest that he started and he also reinvigorated learning and education by building schools- becoming the first king in centuries to attempt to become literate... he was known to have been passionate about learning. He ruled for thirty two years and in a great political achievement, he was then crowned Emperor by the Pope in St Peter's Basilica on December 25, 800 AD. Emperor Charlemagne would then rule for another 14 years until his death of natural causes in 814 at the age of 72. Some things that made him different from the other rulers of his age was his vast military successes, his understanding of the benefits of education and literacy, and his strong religious views that were carried out without fail toward all in his power or his path. There was no tolerance for any other views except for Catholicism and any outward attempt to show belief for something else was quashed immediately. All of these things would have a profound effect on the people he ruled.... making Catholicism secure in the hearts and minds of the surviving people, nationalism strong, and a people who truly felt that their leader cared for them... giving this leader and his prosperity an edge other contemporaries didn't have.
When Charlemagne conquered the Saxons in 782 AD, he condemned 2500 tribal leaders to death for worshiping 'false gods.' This massacre and beheading of these Saxon leaders was a clear statement to all other groups... and became known as the 'Bloody Verdict of Verdun'. The statement is that anyone who does anything that is not Christian- if you disobey the king, if you refuse to be baptized, if you are caught performing pagan rites, if you cremated someone at their death instead of performing a Christian burial... all of these things were automatically death sentences under Charlemagne. It must be stated that what was considered to be Christian or not (heretical) was really up to the interpretation of the individuals that had power such as political and Catholic leaders... which could change depending on the viewpoint or needs of the leader.
During the last years of Charlemagne's rule, the Vikings began their savage and rough piracy. While the Vikings did attack and destroy places in many countries including Iceland, the Middle East and North America, Britain was the Viking's favorite haunt due to that land's vulnerability to sea invasion... which was the Vikings greatest strength. The largest group of Vikings ever gathered attacked Northern England was led by Avar the Boneless. His armies continued to try and take over Britannia even after his death. In the south of the country, Alfred the Great was aware of the Vikings and their most probable eventual attacks on his lands. He studied and figured out what strengths of his enemies were and then used his resources to attempt to thwart the Vikings. He built fortifications and fortresses where the people would come and hide for protection from the Vikings when attacks would come. Once the people were in fortresses, they were safe from the Vikings and the attack wouldn't be profitable to the attackers. This allowed the Vikings to wear themselves out over years trying to fight Alfred... who then was able to eventually conquer these groups who would then leave his lands... or they would assimilate into the local populations. Now matter what the Viking military groups did, they were really unable to get much due to the great planning of Alfred the Great. England went through over two decades of violence as the Vikings continued to attempt to take over the people and the land. This devastated the land as well as the people with the constancy or war and death.... that was rarely interrupted by security or peace.