Life in the Dark Ages
So, what's it like to live in the Dark Ages? First, remember that this is not the Middle Ages. This is the true Dark Ages, the period between the fall of Rome and the first stirrings of a new civilization in the west. In the ninth century there is no civilization in the west, at least not much to speak of. Most of Europe is dominated by barbarian tribes with a thin veneer of Roman culture laid on top, mostly in the form of the Christian Church. The institutions which will typify the Middle Ages are present only as seeds.
The medieval nobility is just starting to form in Europe, but at this point they're much closer to their origins as tribal warlords. Most nobles are warriors, living life completely by the sword. Diplomacy is rare and war is the default status between two neighboring lords. Government consists of little more than sending out bands of soldiers to collect taxes/tribute. A primitive form of feudalism is present, in which a king grants estates (benefices) to his cavalry soldiers (vassals) in order to support the soldiers and their war horses. However, most of the concepts of classical feudalism, including hereditary fiefs, multiple layers of vassalage, oaths of fealty, heraldic devices, and all the codes of chivalry, are not yet present. Primogeniture is not the rule, and a king's death usually signals a free-for-all among his sons, brothers, nephews, uncles, and cousins. In the Carolingian Empire the notions of fixed borders and the divine authority of kings is just beginning to take root. Elsewhere a king's domain extends only as far as he and his retinue of warrior-companions can personally exert control.
The clergy are already a recognized class in society, but again many of the characteristics found in the medieval Church are not yet around. The vast Church hierarchy linking the pope to each village priest exists in theory, but not in practice. Communications are slow and inefficient. Many priests have little training and minimal contact with their bishops, papal supremacy is often challenged, and relations between the papacy, the bishops, and lay princes are not fully defined - most bishops are appointed by the local lords with or without papal consent. Furthermore, Benedictine and other monasteries exist as an entirely separate clerical society effectively outside paper or episcopal authority. Each monastery is an autonomous unit - centrally administered monastic orders have yet to develop. The farther one goes from Rome, the more the local churches and monasteries vary from official doctrine, often leading to controversy.
Most of the population are peasants, subsistence farmers who make almost all of their own food, clothing, tools, and housing. Most of their diet consists of porridge, whole-grain stews, or unleavened bread, with a little bit of fish and eggs for protein; meat is a luxury typically only available after a successful hunt or just after the fall slaughter. Women spend many hours each day carding, spinning, and weaving the wool to clothe their family - a single cloak is the product of many weeks of dedicated work. In a good year a family makes just enough excess to trade for those necessities they can't make (metal tools, pottery, and salt) and to pay taxes in kind to their king or lord. Taxes are typically assessed on the spot whenever a lord or his agents pass through, and usually amount to whatever the market will bear, and often beyond. Peasants in border regions often end up paying taxes to two or more competing lords. In more populated areas farm families group together into villages to pool expensive resources like horses, oxen, or fishing boats, but lone farmsteads are common everywhere. As a general rule villages in the north tend to be communal while those in the Mediterranean regions are modeled after the old Roman estates, with one dominant land-owning family and a host of subordinate client tenants.
Dedicated craftsmen such as blacksmiths, millers, and potters are rare, accorded an almost mystical status for their arcane knowledge which they pass on only to their apprentices. Merchant and craft guilds do not yet exist. Actual industrial or commercial enterprises such as mines, weapons and armor production, and ship-building are extremely rare and usually under the control of the king, operated primarily to support his military needs.
Slavery is common throughout most of Europe, though rarely of any economic importance. Most wealthy households have slaves, the typical fate of prisoners of war or children of poor families. Slavery, however, is not usually an inherited status - the children of slaves are freemen, a practice which allows rapid assimilation of conquered populations. Serfdom has not yet been introduced.
Cities in western Europe are practically non-existent. Only a few cities in and around Lombardy (Pisa, Milan, Florence, Ravenna, and Venice) can truly lay claim to the name. Rome is mostly ruins, a shadow of its former self, important solely as the seat of the papacy. Elsewhere the "cities" are little more than market towns or villages clustered around fortresses, crude piles of stone which rely heavily on natural terrain and hardly deserve to be called "castles". Walled communities are rare outside the Frankish lands, and when attacked most villagers simply abandon their homes and run for the hills or the closest fort. Travel is dangerous and trade is minimal. Roman roads are still in use in many areas, but haven't been maintained for centuries. Bridges and docks are major investments only found at the largest towns. Coinage is rare, seen only by kings, bishops, and abbots; others must rely on barter. The only literate people are the clergy. Their internal communications and theological writings, all in Latin, provide one of the few unifying attributes of European society.
On all sides Europe is surrounded by enemies. In the south, the Muslim Saracens control Sicily and most of Iberia; their armies rampage at will through southern Italy up to the gates of Rome itself. From the north, the pagan Northmen raid unchecked through the coastal lands: half of England is overrun with Danish armies. the islands at the mouths of the Seine and the Loire house semi-permanent Viking camps from which they raid the continent, and Dublin, the Hebrides, and the Orkneys serve a similar purpose for raids on Ireland and Caledonia. To the east lie vast and mysterious forests, home to the pagan Slavs and the path to Europe for a seemingly unending supply of aggressive Asian nomads like the Bulgars, Avars, and Magyars. Even in the Christian heartlands the kings' laws usually exist only when the king is present - bandits and raiders are a constant problem. The typical peasant will see his home overrun by war or invasion at least once during his short life.
More Information on the Mundane World of A.D. 875: