Lasting until about 1000 CE, the earlier medieval period displays distinctive characteristics, especially in Western Europe. Its launching, the so-called Fall of Rome, poses the larger question of the fragility of civilization. Recently, historians and sociologists have placed the issue of the collapse of civilizations in comparative perspective, adducing instances ranging from the ancient Maya to the Soviet Union.
It is a mistake to dismiss the earlier Middle Ages as simply the "Dark Ages." The era witnessed the creative process of ethnogenesis, including the emergence of such modern nations as France and England, with their distinctive (and indeed glorious) languages. Old French appears for the first time in a written document of 843, Old English (Anglo-Saxon) somewhat earlier. Moreover, in the realm of art a modest economy does not necessarily spell artistic inferiority, witness the many brilliant manifestations of the Primal (or Tribal) Arts.
The following features are significant in our period.
A. The emergence of three constituent art streams, followed by their gradual admixture (hybridity): 1) The Greco-Roman stem, wherein the Roman element is itself composite, juxtaposing highm and low featuress. 2) The Middle Eastern contribution, generated in the resurgent cultures of Egypt, Syria, Armenia, and Persia. 3) The northern "barbarian" contribution: Celtic, Germanic, Scandinavian.
B. While the Roman Empire fialed in the West, it survived in the East, where Byzantine civilization came to form the basis for Eastern European distinctiveness, anchored by the Orthodox church.
C. Religion plays an important role. The late antique period is not just a simple handover from Greco-Roman polytheism to Christianity, for there was a jostling of "New Age" faiths, those of Mithras, Isis, Cybele, Mani and so forth. Moreover, as contemporary scholars working with gnostic documents and newly found gospels have shown, early Christianity was more diverse than is usually assumed.
D. In art some genres, including monumental sculpture, did indeed fade away. Yet there was rioch compensation in the new sophistication of ivory carving, manuscript illumination, enamel, and goldsmiths' work. With some justice it has been remarked that the minor arts were the major arts of the earlier Middle Ages.