A comparison between the Middle Ages and the Roman Empire

As some might know, I am passionate about Ancient Rome. I was less so with the Middle Ages, which is often presented to us as a dark period of Western history. But in writing The Inconvenient Bride, set in 1457, I rediscovered a civilization often resembling Rome towards the end of the first century AD, and as I described in The Riddle of a Murdered Slave and Unforgiven in Massilia.

As a matter of fact, I had never made the connection between the European feudal world and the Roman aristocracy, but the first stems out from the structures established by the Romans through the system of villas and comes (local delegates of the Emperor): the villas governed the countryside, while the comes ruled over the cities and the regions around.

Serfdom in the West is another point of similarity between the two eras. This system, which was a key feature of the medieval period, derives from its Roman equivalent. During the transition between the two regimes, the labor force was made up of slaves (servus) who, attached to a domain, became the serfs.

The serfs thus inherited the Roman status related to slaves. They belonged to a domain as were cattle and forest. This was particularly evident in Great Britain throughout the middle age, where all peasants were prohibited from traveling without their lord’s permission, as it would be expected for slaves. at the end of the middle age, and towards the beginning of the renaissance, Philipe le Bel allowed the serfs in France to purchase back their freedom. But then again, the concept was not new, since it was already a common practice in Rome.

Gallic peasant 50 BC J.
Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry (1412)

From a sartorial point of view, we find similar the marks of one era on the second. The priestly garments in the middle age are only an adaptation of those worn by ordinary people in Roman times. The shoes, the tunics, and even the pattens that are described in my book did already exist under the Republic and were in use throughout the Empire. Even the tight fitted hoses, which appeared around 1340, were not new as such. These were just the evolution of Gallic braies mixed with the socks invented buy the Gauls and used in Rome since the invasion by Caesar. Their shapes have constantly changed to become, today, our pants.

I am now back working the 1st century AD with my writing. I have finished the rest of the Adventures of Lucius Apex and having them translated them in English, but I will repeat this middle-age incursion in a soon to follow novel. This time a closer to the Roman, when Rome was a distant memory, but not so far away not to feel all its influences. I imagine a story in 600 or 700, before the Muslim invasions, at the hinge between the two ways of life, thus giving perfect meaning to the middle-age term.

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