We may now return to our elementary summary of ancient European history for a conception of the life of the countries of Northern Europe before the influence of Roman history began to reach them. What holds broadly for Italy at one date holds broadly and successively for the Germanic or Celtic races at another and a later date.
In the main the history of the art of the Middle Ages is the history of civilization in the Germanic or Germanized countries of Europe, with the all-important modifications carried by the Christian religion.
At the close of the fourth century A. D. an invasion of Mongolian tribes from Asia flooded the territory north of the Black Sea and crowded against the Gothic (German) tribes who were settled north of the lower Danube. These were themselves emigrants from Scandinavia, whose appearance in Southern Europe a century before had crowded other German tribes against the Rhine frontiers and had consequently been the cause of ceaseless warfare for the Roman legions who were there posted. At the appearance of the Mongolian Huns the Goths first menaced by them (at this date Roman Christians) begged permission to pass the Danube frontier, and this was granted. These Visigoths (West-Goths) were subsequently taken into Roman pay as mercenary warriors, were then employed in warfare between rival Roman emperors, and were finally settled in Northeastern Spain where they founded the Visigothic kingdom (412 A.D.), which spread over most of Spain and over Southwestern France.
Meantime other German tribes had been pushed by the Huns across the Rhine (406). The Roman emperors of Western Europe had now become so dependent on the foreign troops that one of their chieftains (Odoacer) himself took the title of King of Italy in 476 ; although he professed nominal allegiance to the eastern emperor and considered himself as his military deputy. After and before this time, during the century and a half between 400 and 550 A.D., there was a chaos of contending armies and a general melee between the German tribes and the Roman civilization of the West, in which the Christian faith of both parties, and the German habit of serving nominally or actually as Roman soldiers did much to soften and mitigate the horrors of war and the sufferings of the vanquished party.
The general result of these invasions was by no means the extermination or even conquest (in an odious sense) of the old Romanized populations of Italy, Spain, and France; among whom so many Germanic people now became settled. But the general result was most distinctly a great depression or absolute cessation of commercial prosperity, a general impoverishment of the refined and cultured classes, and the elevation to power of rude and illiterate military chieftains whose equally uncultivated warriors became the great landowners and the ruling caste of Europe. Learning took refuge in the church. The clergy were the only power which could cope with the rough characters of the military caste.
The Germanic settlers were sincere although superstitious and illiterate Christians, and the old Roman rule continued in this spiritual guise. Bishops and priests were the successors of the emperors and consuls.
The Anglo-Saxon states of England (founded after 449) were the only ones which were not Christian at the time of foundation and England was the only country in which the actual displacement, or comparative extermination, of one race by another was the result of the invasions. These involved, for the time being, an utter downfall of the old Roman and Christian civilization of Britain, whose fate was much harder than that of any other Roman country. During the sixth century the Germanic Frankish state, from which modern France is named, gathered power in this country and in Germany. In Italy the half-century rule of the Germanic East Goths was succeeded by that of the Germanic Lombards. Here also the power of the East-Roman emperor was again permanently established over certain coast territories, including the city of Rome, but was especially powerful at Ravenna and in neighboring territory on the upper Adriatic coast of Italy.
All these political and social changes point to and explain a culmination of the art decadence and a long period of at least apparent barbarism in the civilization and art of Western Europe. There are some main things to be said on the general question of the culture of this time down to the Italian Renaissance and the beginnings of modern history.
The Germans before the invasions were by no means a barbaric or savage people, but the warfare, pillage, and marauding of the warrior caste lowered their morals when their homes became unsettled. As Northerners and as Germans, unused to the luxuries and refinements of Roman life and the climate of southern countries, their manners became more lax and their natures were deteriorated after the invasions ; as is always the case when a ruder people is thrown into con-tact with one more highly civilized. There is then an undeniable element of semi-barbarism in the culture and therefore in the art of the earlier Middle Ages.
Moreover, there were successive setbacks involved in the leavening of still other uncultivated tribes or nations after the process had been accomplished for some. The progress which had been made in France between the sixth and ninth centuries was again arrested by the Northmen raids from Scandinavia in the ninth and tenth centuries. The Danes in England were the same people under another name and did the same injury here. After the Danes and Northmen had been worked over into the medieval system the same process had to be repeated with the Hungarians of Eastern Europe (barbarian settlers from Asia in the tenth century), with the Slavonic populations of Eastern Europe, and with the native inhabitants of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. These successive and repeated contests of dawning civilization with new races and new difficulties absorbed much of the energy of the medieval populations and retarded the progress of those which had been first Romanized.
Of the entire Middle Ages, however, it must be said, that much which appears to us barbarous in their design is merely the result of the early Christian prejudice against the study of natural form and of the early Christian indifference to natural beauty. The learner could not rise above his teacher in such a matter because he had otherwise too much to learn, and the Germanic states of Europe long accepted the style of the Roman decadence with the same unquestioning faith which they professed in their new religion. It was in fact entirely religious art which they practiced and this was naturally a borrowed art. In our own times design is taught for its own sake and for the sake of imitating nature. As the imitation of nature was not the object of the medieval art, which only aimed at religious instruction or expression of religious sentiment, there was less attention to the question of nature.
The ugliest and most barbaric designs of the period become intensely interesting when we view them as historic monuments and as traditional types. The subject and its meaning are always to be considered first and the execution second. From the subject we learn what interested the people, how great was their faith, and how this faith was expressed in every possible visible way which was open to them.