The story of Europe after the end of the Carolingian Empire is ambiguous: its dissolution is often narrated as a tragedy – an obscure valley between the creation of Europe by the family of Charlemagne and the emergence in the eleventh century of the Middle Ages ‘proper’.
Modern narratives define the time between c. 900–c.1050 often by what it was not: a period which witnessed the disintegration of ninth-century political geography, institutions and social structures. This practice was identified by older historiography as destroying the sense of the imperial centre and thereby sowing the seeds of political fragmentation and of the later European nation-states. It was post-Carolingian in the sense of having lost its Carolingian order.
But it was exactly the tenth century’s regional diversity and absence of higher-level political structures that endowed this time of ‘crisis’ with enormous potential for lasting and fundamental changes to European social order. Political authority took new shapes, for example the rise of sub-regnal ‘dukes’ in various kingdoms and the seeming increase in episcopal authority. Frontiers shifted and shifted again, and political geography was inverted as old centres. Ever more diverse groups participated in tenth-century political processes than had under the Carolingians.
These developments necessitated changes to the discourses on political and social order – changes that historians are able to read in the extant sources of this exciting period. Thus, the post-imperial lack of consensus about the location and nature of social and political authority was an essential feature of the tenth century, and that this was reflected in its multiple uses (and forgettings) of the past.