Friday, February 22, 2013

The Dark Ages Were Not Dark

By Bionic Mosquito

For longtime readers, this is a condensed version of the several posts I have made on this subject.  I have also added a minor amount of new material.

Examples of decentralized society in history are often hidden.  They are hidden because those in decentralized societies never bothered to keep records.  They are also hidden for the purposes of the current state.  I have previously written about anarchy in the Southeast Asian Highlands as one example.  Here, I will present the time of the Middle Ages as another.

This time offered a system of private law.  A law not based on the edicts of the king, but based on local tradition and culture.  The king was not above the law, but equally subject to it.  For law to be law, it must be both old and good.  Each lord had a veto power over the king and over each other law (I will use the term “lord” for those landed free men.  Even the serfs could not be denied their right without adjudication.  Land was not held as a favor from the king; title was allodial.  A man’s home truly was his castle.

Although the term has fallen out of use in the academic community, for many this period is known as the Dark Ages – with all of the associated stereotypes: barbarians, boorish behavior, and the uncivilized society that came to Europe with the fall of the much more civilized Rome.

From Wikipedia:

The Dark Ages is a historical period used for the first part of the Middle Ages. The term emphasizes the cultural and economic deterioration that supposedly occurred in Europe following the decline of the Roman Empire.  The label employs traditional light-versus-darkness imagery to contrast the "darkness" of the period with earlier and later periods of "light".

The (Not So) Dark Ages

How did people live absent a strong central power (Rome)?  In what manners was governance achieved?  How did such a society evolve over the centuries into the nation-states of Europe?  From whose perspective were these ages “dark”? 

Hans-Hermann Hoppe, in his essay entitled “On the Impossibility of Limited Government and the Prospects for a Second American Revolution,” makes reference to certain aspects of this time period in history:

Feudal lords and kings did not typically fulfill the requirements of a state; they could only "tax" with the consent of the taxed, and on his own land every free man was as much a sovereign (ultimate decision maker) as the feudal king was on his.

Tax payments were voluntary.  On his land, each free man was as sovereign as the king. This doesn’t seem so “dark.”

Hoppe quotes Robert Nisbet:

The subordination of king to law was one of the most important of principles under feudalism.

The king was below the law.  This might be one factor as to why the time period is kept “dark.”

Hoppe references a book by Fritz Kern, “Kingship and Law in the Middle Ages.”  The book was originally written in German in 1914, and is a thorough and eye-opening examination of the relationship of king and lord during this time period, as well as the relationship of both king and lord to the law.  I will rely upon, and will quote extensively, from this book throughout this essay.  Except as noted, all quoted items will be from this book.

During the early Middle Ages, there was no concept of a Divine Right of Kings, nor did the earlier period hold to the idea of kingship by birthright.  These ideas developed over the centuries and only took shape in the late Middle Ages.  Contrary to these, in the early Middle Ages…

…an act of popular will was an essential element in the foundation of government….

To become king required consent of those doing the choosing.  Additionally, the king did not hold absolute power:

…even the rudiments of an absolutist doctrine had scarcely appeared.

Both the king and the people were subservient to the law – and not an arbitrary law, but a law based on custom, “the laws of one’s fathers.”

All well-founded private rights were protected from arbitrary change….

Germanic and ecclesiastical opinion were firmly agreed on the principle, which met with no opposition until the age of Machiavelli, that the State exists for the realization of the Law; the power of the State is the means, the Law is the end-in-itself; the monarch is dependent on the Law, which is superior to him, and upon which his own existence is based.

The king and the people were not bound to each other, but each was bound to the Law, giving all parties responsibility to see that the integrity of the Law is maintained.  A breech by one imposed an obligation on the other to correct the breech.  The relationship of each party (king and lord) was to the Law, not to the other party, and each had duty to protect it.

Contrast this to the situation today: whereas today it is an illegal act for the people to resist the government authority, during this period after the fall of Rome the lords had a duty to resist the king who overstepped his authority.  This is not to say that such challenges went unopposed by the king –physical enforcement by the lords was occasionally required – however, the act of resistance in and of itself was not considered illegal.  It was a duty respected by king and people alike.

A Decentralized Society: Church Towers Bear Witness

The variety and conformity, through different times and in different places, of church towers throughout Europe and European history bear witness to first the centralizing control of Rome, and then the decentralization of the Germanic period.  Here I make reference to “A History of Medieval Europe: From Constantine to Saint Louis (3rd Edition)”, by R.H.C. Davis

Davis uses the architectural styling of various church towers built throughout Europe to illustrate the decentralization of society that began with the decrease in Roman influence. He begins with a review of monumental architecture during the time of general Roman rule, preceding the early Middle Ages:

Under Roman rule the general style of monumental architecture had been recognizably uniform in all the provinces of the Empire, from Britain to Africa and from Spain to Syria.  In the Dark Ages, something of that uniformity had been maintained…the buildings of the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Lombards, and Franks were built as imitations (though sometimes poor imitations) of the Roman or Byzantine style.  But in the period from 900 to 1250 this uniformity ceased completely…in the Latin West there was a whole medley of different styles.

Davis then goes on to describe the differences: from Saxony, to the Rhineland, to Lombardy, to Rome, and France:

They stand as monuments to the intense localism of the High Middle Ages, when every man’s ‘country’ (patria) was not the kingdom, duchy, or county in which he lived, but his own town or village.  An echo of this sentiment may still be caught by the French peasant who refers to his village as mon pays [my country], but in the Middle Ages it was all pervading.

The distinctions, region by region, extending to the area of law:

Even the law might change from village to village; a thirteenth-century judge pointed out that in the various counties, cities, boroughs, and townships of England he had always to ask what was the local customary law and how it was employed before he could successfully try a case.  The legal uniformity of the Roman Empire had disappeared completely, and law, like the architectural style of the church-towers, varied from parish to parish.

Davis describes medieval civilization as “firmly rooted.  It grew out of the earth, as it were.”


  1. I often ask, "How many history books are written about wars that didn't happen?"

  2. Excellent article. I highly recommend Harold J. Berman's Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition.

    I have only taken a crack at it on my kindle. The late Berman was the preeminent scholar on the history and philosophy of law and the development of private law in medieval Europe.

    Gary North has written excellent material pertaining to Berman's scholarship.