What Did Medieval People Know About The Roman Empire?

What it was like to live in the shadow of a great empire

Grant Piper

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Holy Roman Empire painting (Public domain)

There is an image that modern people have of Early Medieval peoples. The people are dirty, disheveled and can often be found huddling underneath Roman aqueducts. They squat in ruins that they don’t understand and whisper about gods long dead. When asked, these poor people don’t know what an aqueduct is nor do they know how to rebuild the ones that have fallen. This is the proverbial Dark Ages.

How much did Medieval people really know about the Roman Empire? It turns out, they knew quite a lot.

In fact, nearly everything during the Medieval Period was done with the ghost of the Western Roman Empire hovering over the shoulder of Europe.

Common Language

The extent of the Latin speaking world (Public domain)

After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, Latin continued to be used as a common language throughout the old empire. Classical Latin evolved into Vulgar Latin which was heavily used up until the 9th century. The shared language of Rome kept people connected to the past, connected to each other and allowed people to read the old Latin texts.

Just because Rome fell in 476 CE doesn’t mean that all of its rich history disappeared with it. Latin was a key driver of Roman knowledge and a web that bound the people to the Western Roman Empire for hundreds of years after the fact.

After the 9th century, regional languages began to usurp the hegemony of Latin. Without the Roman Empire pushing Latin as a unifying force people began to speak their own languages with increasing frequency. This removed Latin as a spoken language and began to relegate it to a written language only. The split between spoken Latin and written Latin began to drive a wedge between upper class people and lower class people.

Intelligentsia vs Serfs

Latin continued to be used as a written language well into the Late Medieval Period. It was the official language of royal communication and Christianity. The Bible was taught largely in…

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Grant Piper

Professional writer. Amateur historian. Husband, father, Christian.