Western Afro-Eurasia faced a number of challenges in the early Middle Ages, the period from about 500 to 1000 CE. With the collapse of Roman authority came a time of political instability and insecurity. Cities declined, and institutions of learning weakened. Western Europe became increasingly rural. Because there was no longer a strong centralized state to develop and police the roads, travel became more difficult and more dangerous, harming commerce. However, this is not the whole story. Trade and urban life flourished in the early Islamic kingdoms, which eventually extended from Spain to India. The Byzantine Greeks maintained some classical traditions, and their capital in Constantinople was a center of global trade for centuries. Germanic kings sought to form new alliances with Christian leaders and participate in world trade and diplomacy.
Perhaps no figure better exemplifies the merging of cultures in western Europe than Charlemagne, a Germanic ruler who reigned from 768 to 814. Charlemagne dreamed of reviving the Roman world in terms of territory, education, and art. Despite his belief in spreading Christianity through conquest, he sent embassies to Muslim leaders and even received the sumptuous gift of an elephant from the Abbasid ruler Harun al-Rashid in 802 (Figure 13.1). It might be tempting to see this period as one of just conflict, but as Charlemagne’s reign demonstrates, it was also a dynamic time of merging cultures and social transformation.