Although the transitions were gradual, and exact dates for the demarcation of the Middle Ages are misleading, convention often places the beginning of the period between the death of the Roman emperor Theodosius I in 395 and the fall of Rome to the Visigoths in 410. The Dark Ages, formerly a designation for the entire period of the Middle Ages, and later for the period c.450–750, is now usually known as the Early Middle Ages. The term Dark Ages may be more a judgment on the lack of sources for evaluating the period than on the significance of events that transpired.
Medieval Europe was far from unified; it was a large geographical region divided into smaller and culturally diverse political units that were never totally dominated by any one authority. With the collapse of the Roman Empire, Christianity became the standard-bearer of Western civilization. The papacy gradually gained secular authority; monastic communities, generally adhering to the Rule of St. Benedict, had the effect of preserving antique learning; and missionaries, sent to convert the Germans and other tribes, spread Latin civilization.
By the 8th cent. culture centered on Christianity had been established; it incorporated both Latin traditions and German institutions, such as Germanic laws. The far-flung empire created by Charlemagne illustrated this fusion. However, the empire's fragile central authority was shattered by a new wave of invasions, notably those of the Vikings and Magyars.
Feudalism, with the manorial system (see also tenure) as its agricultural base, became the typical social and political organization of Europe. The new framework gained stability from the 11th cent., as the invaders became Christian and settled and as prosperity was created by agricultural innovations, increasing productivity, and population expansion.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.