There are some stubborn romantic notions of Kings ensconced in cozy castles, in repose by vast fireplaces, the air thick with the scents and sounds of feasts warming in brick ovens tucked near ornate halls. Chicken fat spitting and roiling on hot coals, minstrels strumming ancient tunes, and wine. Some of this was in fact true. The Early Middle Ages were neither soporific nor baroque. Governments were iffy things back in the day. But there was little comfort in the Early Middle Ages. The grandchildren of Barbarian invaders who settled the outskirts of the Roman Empire, who were now organized into distinct bands with their own governance and technology, lived a barely post bronze age existence. They were farmers and had cattle and even though many had fine art, life was not idyllic. It was chaotic and unpredictable and filled with passionate tensions. These Europeans were themselves being invaded. Indeed, life was sometimes brutally hard for the new owners of the former Western Roman Republic.
The Germanic tribes that once were poor and nomadic and forced out of their own homelands by Huns or Tartars were now the very seat of civilization. Now news towns arose by the dozens. Where there are towns there are people and industry and trade and farming and agriculture. The Franks had nice villages with functional infrastructures that could make food, and weaponry and breed cattle and horses. Serf like governance was emerging and as such, Kings could raise forces, cavalry and infantry and sometimes siege weapons. Kings would then use them to defend their own territories.
But the increase in population forced tribes to abrade each others’ borders. More land was needed to settle and one of the reasons why people fight is simply to have a place to grow up. The invasions came as often in the tenth century by sea as by land. From North Africa, grimly fueled with religious fervor came the Muslims. From the East led by a madman, came the Magyars. And from Scandinavia came the Vikings.
First let’s talk about the Muslims. The Moors, or Spanish Muslims began raiding the ports of southern Iberia taking loot from Galleons, landing and taking islands, occupying Sicily, and establishing outposts in Southern Italy. These raids were fast and furious affairs in the mid ninth century. On a moments notice, a galleon’s crew on the morning before launch would awake to hear the screams of seamen jumping over their gunwales and firing point blank into sailors manning sail masts. In a few minutes, sailors were killed or taken as slaves, and riches were purloined. This went on for decades and it was in this way that the southern Iberian peninsula became Muslim.
Then came a wave of Magyars who occupied the Carpathian Basin around 900 and made dozens of vicious looting raids against the Franks, the Bulgars, the Bavarians, the Saxons and Burgundians. At this point Arpad, the Hungarian military leader had control of more land than Medieval France. Their victory at Augsberg over the Franks was impressive in 910. It was not until Otto I the Duke of Saxony brought a well prepared armored cavalry force over the Danube and defeated them that something slowed them down. Not only did Otto defeat them, his forces pursued the remainder Magyars in a rout that lasted several days. Otto I was a charismatic and confident leader who made the Franks and Alans believe in themselves in face of these warriors. His son was no great general and thusly lost most of his army in a disastrous encounter with a Muslim Force in Southern Italy. At the Battle of Cotrone, Otto II did well breaking the Muslim line and killing their leader but the Franks had no answer for a counterattack by Moors pouring out of a boscage to their flank. The Magyar dynasty was short lived, mainly because there was only really one Magyar strongman and that was Arpad.
Then came the Vikings. Starting in 793, a flotilla of Viking warships sacked Lindisfarne in Northumbria, and surrounding town. The next two centuries saw massive invasions of Northern Europe by these white Scandinavian invaders. Ultimately two things saved the Europeans from the Vikings. One was the fact that the Vikings, fierce as they were, simply did not possess enough siege engine technology to over take European fortified cities. Vikings were likely to surround a walled town and put up perfunctory siege towers and after a few months they simply left. This scenario repeated itself. The second thing that stopped the Vikings was the good life. Vikings who settled into Germanic and English towns often assimilated and preferred the lifestyle afforded by trading versus raiding.
It was the three waves of invasion of Western Europe in the ninth and tenth century that created feudal societies. The Germanic tribes of Western Europe needed to create organizations that could effectively counter war like raiders. So Kings and patricians worked together to formulate a draft system so to speak. In some kingdoms, each town had to be able to produce a group of willing soldiers depending on how big the town was in population and land. Farmers were expected to pay a tribute to a local lord in terms of food or money in return for protection from knights. Peasants and craftsmen all had to learn to create weapons in short order when raiders were around.
The Western Europeans were significantly behind the Byzantines to the East in naval technology. The three waves forced them to improve their force structures. Primarily a mercenary force, the Byzantine Army was huge and it maintained a Naval fleet of 200 ships and 40,000 oarsmen. While the English Fleet under Alfred the Great could not stave off Vikings, and while the Muslim navies ruled the Western Mediterranean Byzantine fleets regularly made short work of enemies, it was the Byzantine fleet during the tumultuous ninth and tenth centuries that kept the Muslims at bay, quite literally. At the end of the early Middle Ages, warfare had grown more professional, more effective, and more brutal.
It had to.
Source: The Timeline of Medieval Warfare, Phyllis G. Jestus, Thunder Bay Press