The "Migration of the Peoples," as the barbarian invasions are called, broke up the old Roman Empire. The numerous tribes knew nothing of the Graeco-Roman culture. Learning withered, except what the bishops and clergy could preserve. The towns and villages decayed; brigands and robbers made life unsafe.
The strong men became independent rulers -- kings, princes, and counts. Lesser men were glad to place their persons and their lands under the protection of these chiefs, and to become their vassals. And so, in the disorderly times, what is called the Feudal System began to grow up as a means of protection and self-help.
Many of the great centres of learning -- Rome, Milan, Alexandria -- were partially destroyed, and thus there was "a great lessening of the light of culture which, for a thousand years and more, had illuminated the Mediterranean lands." So men call these years -- roughly between 450 and 1000 -- the "Dark Ages." But they were by no means all "dark," for these were the centuries when the Church did its great work of converting the Barbarians to Christianity.
In the early days of the Decline of the Empire, many men sought consolation in solitude, took sacred vows, and so became monks. Wherever they went they built churches and monasteries, and there they preserved all they could of civilization and learning. The Church used and preserved the Latin language, and taught it in the monastic schools.
The story of Clovis bears witness to the great power the Church had already gained. The city of Tours had already become a holy city -- in that narrow area there were by this time at least eighteen churches. The cathedral was enriched with paintings and sculpture and mosaics, and was all ablaze with gilding and colour. The city attracted able and cultured men within its walls, as well as the slothful and the time-servers. Already the school of music at Tours had a wide reputation.
While the barbarian Clovis was making the new kingdom of the Franks, a greater and far gentler man was helping to civilize the new Europe. This was St. Benedict (480-543), whose monastery was at Monte Cassino in central Italy. It was he who made the monastic rules of poverty, chastity, and obedience. And he wisely taught that the monks were not only to pray and read, but to work with their hands on the monastic farms. His motto was "Laborare est orare" -- "To work is to pray." The monks were the best farmers and craftsmen of these times.
"Idleness is the enemy of the soul," wrote St. Benedict in his Rule for monks. "Therefore, at fixed times, the brothers ought to be occupied in manual labour; and again, at fixed times, in sacred reading. Therefore we believe that both seasons ought to be arranged in this manner -- from Easter until the 1st of October, going out early from the first until the fourth hour, they shall do what labour may be necessary. From the fourth hour until about the sixth, they shall be free for reading."
Meantime the Empire continued in the East. In fact, it endured for another thousand years after the fall of Rome, beating back from Constantinople numerous attacks of barbarian Goths and Slavs, and of Arabs. Here at Constantinople -- where Europe meets Asia -- the lamp of learning was kept burning till the West was ready once again for a Revival of Learning.
A great revival of the Empire took place under Justinian (483-565), who was living at the time of Clovis the Frank. It was his famous general who won again for the Empire parts of Italy, Spain, Africa. But, above all, Justinian is remembered as the "Law-giver." He collected the famous laws of the ancient Romans and left them as a legacy to the new Europe. Today the law of the nations that occupy the old provinces of the Roman Empire is based on Roman law.
So Justinian's Code did for the lay world what Benedict's Rule did for the religious world. Thus the spirit of Rome endured.
But now other fierce tribes began to harass Europe: the Magyars or Hungarians from the plains of Asia, the Northmen from the Northern fiords, and the Arabs from the desert of Arabia. The "Migrations of the Peoples" were not yet finished. They continued from the fourth even to the eleventh century, by which time the new nations were beginning to take their modern shapes.
“It is most profitable, it is blessed, to be always looking beyond second causes in all our trials and distresses, and to discern the Lord's hand, in infinite love and wisdom, appointing all. For this brings the soul into a state of resignation and tranquility at least, if not of holy Joy.”
–Robert Hawker, Poor Man’s Commentary, Psalm 17