HIST 100: Part 4

The Middle Ages

Dr. Maureen Miller

Introduction

The period we are going to study this week is called the Middle Ages.  By this term, historians generally mean to denote the history of Western Europe from the end of the Roman Empire in the west until the Italian Renaissance: roughly, 400-1400 AD.  No one living in Europe from the fifth to the fifteenth century, of course, thought of themselves as living in a “middle age.” This term, “the Middle Ages,” was first used by Italian intellectuals during the Renaissance of the fifteenth century to denigrate the period that separated them from the authors and artists they so admired in classical antiquity (ancient Greece and Rome).  So in its origins, the concept of the Middle Ages frames the period negatively as a time of cultural backwardness, a period in which the accomplishments of classical civilization were eclipsed by ignorance and superstition.  This was the view of fifteenth-century elites.

Scholars still use this term, “The Middle Ages,” but our view of the period is very different from that of the Renaissance men who coined the phrase. Indeed, I will argue to you over the next hour or so that the millennium from 400 to 1400 was pivotal in the development of Western Civilization.  It was during this period that Europe’s development came to depend less on the Mediterranean world -- which had been the center of civilization in antiquity -- and more on its northern lands and Atlantic coasts.  Moreover, the Middle Ages created institutions and practices that are still vital and important in our world.

One of the first things to recognize about this period in European history was that it was not STATIC: Europe changed dramatically from 400 to 1400.  The most important watershed comes roughly at the millennium.  Before the year 1000 we call the “Early Middle Ages”(c. AD 400-1000).  During this period Roman and Germanic cultures combined with Christianity to form a new, European civilization.  After the millennium, from 1000 to 1300, we call the “Central Middle Ages” and from 1300 to roughly 1400, is called the “Late Middle Ages.”  The Central Middle Ages was when Europe’s population, economy, and society expanded rapidly. It was a period of cultural efflorescence, the period that gave rise to Gothic architecture, courtly love, and the first universities. The Late Middle Ages, in contrast, was a period of contraction and crisis, the age of the Black Death, the Great Western Schism, and the 100 Years War.

With these chronological divisions in mind, let’s begin our exploration with the beginnings of medieval civilization in the Early Middle Ages.

Part One: The Early Middle Ages

Traditional narratives of the origins of the Middle Ages used to begin with images of barbarians suddenly sweeping into western Europe and destroying the Roman Empire.  These depictions tended to be pleasingly dramatic but disturbingly simplistic and exaggerated.  In this old-fashioned explanation, Rome “fell” either in 410 when the Visigoths under their leader Alaric sacked the city of Rome or in 476 when the last Roman emperor in the west, a twelve-year old named Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by the barbarian general Odoacer.  The Middle Ages, in these old-fashioned histories, began as soon as the barbarians killed Rome.

Historians over the twentieth century, however, have abandoned this simple narrative.  Instead of a sudden “fall” of Rome in the fifth century and consequently an equally sudden beginning of the Middle Ages in either 410 or 476, we now think of a gradual transition.  Rome and its culture did not disappear overnight, and it took centuries really for various Germanic peoples to migrate into Europe and change it.  This period of gradual transformation in the West – a slow blending of Roman civilization, Germanic culture, and Christianity – was part of the larger Mediterranean-wide period called “Late Antiquity.”  Professor Butler introduced this concept to you last week and showed how the Roman empire changed from the third century with the rise of Christianity, the conversion of the emperor Constantine, and the shift eastward of the imperial capital with the founding of Constantinople.  He also introduced you to Rome’s most successful successor states – the Byzantine Empire and early Islamic caliphate. The Byzantine Empire and Islam would continue to influence and have contact with the West over the Middle Ages.  But with the migration of the Germanic peoples, Europe began to develop in ways very different from the other “heirs” of the Roman Empire.  These differences are ultimately key in the story of Western Civilization: Why did Western Europe in the modern era come to dominate many parts of the world, with colonies throughout the globe?  To begin to answer this question, one needs to look at the different path of development that Western Europe took from c. 400 AD on.

 The Germanic peoples made Europe different.  Their migration into the western provinces of the old Roman Empire began a gradual transformation – a slow blending of Roman civilization, Germanic culture, and Christianity.  This whale-bone box from c. 700 is a beautiful artifact of this transformation: it is decorated with scenes from Roman history, a Christian story -- which you can see here on the right, the coming of the Magi – and a legend of the Germanic people called the Franks about the birth of a heroic warrior.  Here on the left you see the princess Beadohild being tricked by the magical metal-worker Weyland the Smith into bearing his son – the hero Widia.  The strange letters or characters inscribed around the edges are runes, an alphabet used by the Germanic peoples.

 Another major difference between older narratives of the origins of the Middle Ages and current ones is the characterization of the Germanic peoples and how they entered Europe. These people were warriors and their migration into the late Roman world did cause upheaval.  But their arrival was gradual, not sudden, and it was not originally hostile and violent.  At first, Roman leaders sanctioned the settlement of these new peoples within the empire: they worked lands that had been abandoned and their warriors were recruited into the Roman army.  Most often violence occurred when the Roman state reneged on agreements and payments promised to these newcomers.  So the entry of these new peoples was disruptive and at points violent, but it was not a sudden catastrophic invasion.  It was more like a long and difficult period of immigration and adjustment for both cultures.  Difficult as it was, the process prompted creativity: this period, for example, produced Benedictine monasticism and a particularly enduring ideal of Christian kingship.  We’ll learn more about these developments in a few minutes.

But first, who were the Germanic peoples? They came originally from northern Scandinavia, but settled in the Baltic and Ukraine, and in the lands we think of today as Germany.  In the late fourth century, however, a fierce nomadic tribe invading Europe from the East – the HUNS – triggered waves of migration westward and southward.  These various waves of Germanic immigrants arrived in the late Roman Empire in different “national” groupings, the most important of which were the OSTROGOTHS, the VISIGOTHS, the VANDALS, the BURGUNDIANS, the LOMBARDS, the FRANKS, and the ANGLO-SAXONS.  Although they spoke different languages and had different cultural traditions, they shared many broad similarities. 

  • Their economic systems were based on farming, herding, iron-working, gift exchange, and pillaging.
  • Thier social systems were also alike, organized by kin groups and tribes.
  • Germanic value systems emphasized warrior prowess, the honor of individuals and the honor of the family   
  • Finally, all their political systems were centered on kings, who were counseled by assemblies of tribe’s warriors.

How did these peoples change Western Europe?

First, they formed new KINGDOMS that were the basis of European political development in the Middle Ages.  In the long run, the most important were the Frankish and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.  The most striking difference, to a Roman observer, in this new political order was its highly PERSONAL character. Germanic kings viewed their territories as their own private property: so, for example, they routinely divided them up among their heirs when they died.  They had no sense of the state as a public entity or trust; the Roman idea of the state as a res publica, a “public thing,” was eclipsed for several centuries. 

Second, in comparison to the Roman Empire, another striking difference in these kingdoms was their profoundly RURAL character. The Roman Empire had been organized around cities that were economic, cultural, and political centers.  But the Germanic peoples had no traditions of urban life and when they entered the Empire they tended to view cities just as good sources of loot and booty.  Urban life declined in the early Middle Ages, and with it commerce.

There were two very important outgrowths of this Germanic RURALIZATION of early medieval Europe:

First, was the emergence of “manorialism.” Because commerce and a monetary economy declined, communities became economically backward and were forced to be self sufficient.  Instead of monetary transactions, they depended upon rudimentary exchanges “in kind” (that is, of grain for wine, or labor for land).  Those who had lands – kings, their family members, favored warriors – divided them into estates, called MANORS.  Those living on the lands exchanged labor on the lord’s, or property owner’s, lands and other services to the lord, for rights to the produce of small plots that they worked themselves.  These agricultural laborers, usually called peasants or serfs, were dependent upon these lords or property owners for access to land and tools.  This dependence and the services that formed and perpetuated it, came later on to be very much hated as a form of unjust servitude.

The second was that the rural institutions of Christianity – MONASTERIES – became extremely important.  During Late Antiquity, the spread of Christianity was largely – like Roman imperial organization – an urban phenomenon.  The leaders of the local church – the bishops – resided and had their churches in the cities of the late Roman world.  This is, of course, how Rome became the center of Western Christianity: Rome was the most important city in the western Empire, a large Christian community developed there early on, and its bishop (called the “pope” from “papa” or “father”) came to be the leader of the church in the West.  But there were Christian ascetics who fled the cities to live a life totally dedicated to prayer: these individuals were called monks and the type of prayer-centered lives they led were called “monastic”. 

In the east, the monastic life was pursued alone in the desert.  In the west, a communal type of monastic life was developed by Saint Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-c.543).  He wrote a rule (or guide) for monastic life – called the Benedictine Rule – that was used by monastic communities throughout Western Europe during the Middle Ages and is still used by monastic communities today.  With the ruralization of European life in the early Middle Ages, monasteries – most all of them located outside of cities, some in very isolated places – became extremely important Christian institutions. Because monks had to be literate to read the Bible, monasteries became centers of learning – manuscripts were preserved and copied here, and some monasteries had schools.  Monasteries also became centers of missionary activities: it was mainly monks who Christianized the Germanic peoples who had moved into Western Europe.

By the mid-eighth century, we can see clearly a distinctive new “medieval” civilization in Western Europe that was a blend of late Roman culture, Germanic traditions, and Christianity.  About this time, a new dynasty – the Carolingians – came to rule the Frankish Kingdom.  The dynasty’s most famous king – Charles the Great or more commonly Charlemagne (from Carolus Magnus, the Latin form of Charles the Great) – expanded the bounds of the Frankish Kingdom. He conquered northern Italy, Saxony, Bavaria, Brittany, and into Spain.  In gratitude for his protection in Italy, Pope Leo III on Christmas Day in the year 800 crowned Charles “Emperor.”  This act set an extremely important precedent: the papacy throughout the Middle Ages claimed the right to crown or legitimate rulers and conversely, rulers viewed themselves as divinely ordained and as protectors of the Christian Church.  This close relationship between the Christian Church and European rulers is a key characteristic of political life in the Middle Ages.

Indeed, Charlemagne took his role as protector of the Christian Church very seriously.  He listened to the laments of those like Saint Boniface, who reported encountering a unlettered priest in Bavaria trying to baptize some one “in nomine patria et filia;” that is, in the name of the fatherland and the daughter (instead of “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit).  Understanding that the lack of education in his realm threatened the very performance of the sacraments deemed crucial to salvation, Charlemagne undertook a revival of learning.  He gathered scholars at his court, sponsored the foundation of schools, and endowed monasteries to copy and distributed manuscripts.  This revival of learning is called the “Carolingian Renaissance.”  Its most important advance was the development of a new clear and consistent script – or form of handwriting – for the copying of manuscripts.  This new script was called Carolingian Minuscule:  it was compact, allowing a lot to be copied on to each precious page of parchment, and it was highly LEGIBLE – even by beginners!  Contrast this page of Carolingian Minuscule with this earlier document from the sixth century.  Monasteries during the Carolingian Renaissance produced thousands of manuscripts in this new, more legible script.  Most were religious texts: copies of the Bible, commentaries on the Bible, theological works.  But Carolingian monks also copied Roman texts: Latin grammars, Roman law codes, and works of Classical literature.  Indeed, because the ancients wrote on papyrus (a paper-like material that deteriorates easily) instead of the more durable parchment (animal skin) used in medieval Europe, most of the earliest copies of the great masterpieces of classical literature that we have today were made by Carolingian monks.  Thus, we have Charlemagne to thank for much of our knowledge of the classical past!

If Charlemagne took his role as protector of Christianity seriously, he also took seriously his title as “Emperor.” Although he hardly looks like a Roman emperor to us, Charlemagne did conceive of himself as continuing the traditions of the Roman empire.  And, indeed, as we have just seen, his Carolingian Renaissance did preserve much classical learning.  When building his palace and chapel at Aachen, Charlemagne copied the Emperor Justinian’s church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. Charlemagne even had ruins from the imperial palace at Ravenna transported to Aachen and incorporated into his residence.

This image of one of Charlemagne’s successors – Charles the Bald (843-877) -- illustrates other Carolingian borrowings from ancient Rome.  The columns and pediment that frame the emperor are drawn from Roman architecture.  The scepter or staff he holds in his left hand is copied from Roman imperial symbolism.  But the hand of God reaching out of the clouds and pointing toward the Emperor’s head illustrates Christian influence on the Carolingian ideal of medieval kingship.  The Germanic basis of medieval kingship is also evident in the image: Charles is wearing the attire of a Frankish warrior – a cloak fastened by a broach -- and those round things next to him on his throne are not throw pillows but shields!

This image of early medieval kingship nicely sums up the cultural accomplishment of the early Middle Ages: it shows how Germanic traditions, Christianity, and the remains of Roman culture came together to form something new.

In contrast to this balanced image of kingship, the reality of Carolingian governance owed more to Germanic customs than to Roman or Christian ideals.  Like a Germanic chieftain, Charlemagne rewarded his most loyal warriors with grants of land.  These grants of land came to be known as fiefs.  In return for a fief, the follower, called a vassal, owed his ruler loyalty and service.  The service required was first and foremost military – the vassal had to provide a certain period of military service (usually the late spring and early summer months) to his lord every year.  Service also included advice and counsel, and the conduct of judicial proceedings.  The ties produced by these exchanges of land for loyal service were called “feudal” (from the fief, in Latin feudum, at the heart of the relationship).  Charlemagne used these feudal ties to govern: he granted fiefs, whole regions of his empire, to loyal vassals and called them “counts.”  These counts governed their regions in the name of their king.  They also took some of the lands and created their own vassals who, in turn, owed them loyalty and service.  Since the manor or estate was the smallest fief and since the manorial economy was the underpinning of the whole system, the ties of dependence between lords and peasants are sometimes also called “feudal.”

Feudal ties, however, were a rather cumbersome means of raising an army.  They worked well in a period -- like Charlemagne’s -- of expansion and conquest.  But Charlemagne’s successors ended up having to defend their lands from new invaders.  Over the ninth and tenth centuries, Europe was invaded from the south by Muslims, from the East by a people called the Magyars, and from the north by the “Northmen” or Vikings.  The invasions of the seafaring Vikings lasted the longest, reached the farthest, and caused the most significant changes in Western Europe.  They were also the most feared. Viking warriors had a reputation for cruelty: an Icelandic story featured one Northman nicknamed (maligned really) by his fellow warriors as “the Child’s Man” because he didn’t enjoy impaling infants on spears as they did.  The swiftness and unpredictability of Viking attacks, however, is what had the most important political impact in Western Europe.  Kings, even the mighty Carolingians, were not able to offer their people adequate protection: the Vikings could come, raid, and escape in their swift longboats before rulers could even begin to mobilize their armies.  Real power during this age of invasions devolved to the lowest ranks of the feudal hierarchy: any local lord who could offer some protection from these fierce invaders became a petty king.

Let’s sum up now what you’ve learned about the early Middle Ages.  First, the entry of the Germanic peoples into Europe began the gradual amalgamation of Christianity, Roman traditions, and Germanic culture into a new, medieval civilization.  We can first see this new European civilization in the reign of Charlemagne (768-814): in his Frankish empire, a new model of kingship emerged and a new political and social organization, feudalism, took root.  The early Middle Ages, and Charlemagne’s empire, came to an end when Magyar, Saracen, and Viking invasions ravaged Europe in the ninth and tenth centuries.

Part Two: The Central Middle Ages

Around the year 1000 then, Europe was politically fragmented and its very rudimentary manorial economy was decimated.  With the end of the invasions, however, we begin to see signs not only of recovery but of new kinds of growth in Western Europe. 

The first sign is demographic (that is, population) expansion:  from the last quarter of the tenth century, the population of Europe began to grow rapidly.  This growth in human capital would continue until the opening decades of the fourteenth century and corresponded with an extended period of warmer, milder climate in Western Europe.

Population growth immediately triggered other changes, first in agriculture. The need to feed more people led to land clearance: new fields were brought under cultivation by clearing forests and draining swamps.  New villages arose.  And population pressure also prompted innovations in agriculture. Europeans invented new heavier plows so that they could cultivate the heavier and more fertile soils of river valleys (as opposed to the lighter soil of the hillsides where agriculture was concentrated in the early Middle Ages).  They experimented with new crops – such as beans and oats – and new patterns of crop rotation that left less acreage fallow.  All these changes boosted agricultural productivity enormously, so much so that many scholars characterize these changes as an “agricultural revolution”.  By the late eleventh century, not only could Europe feed an expanding population, but it could do so with less labor, freeing more people from farming to pursue other kinds of work.

Most of these people went to towns and cities.  The revival of urban life in Western Europe was another clear sign of recovery and change.  Cities in the early Middle Ages had hardly merited the name: their tiny populations lived as squatters amidst the ruins of ancient structures and they served mainly as centers of ecclesiastical administration.  But in the eleventh century, not only did old cities revive, but their character changed – they became the centers of a new, more vibrant and expansive European economy.  Trade and commerce expanded, at first locally, then regionally, and finally over long distances.  The cities in northern Italy led the way: by the late eleventh century, their merchants were trading throughout the Mediterranean, exchanging raw materials and simple manufactures for the luxury products of the East, particularly spices and silks.  This revival of long-distance trade was accompanied by the renewal of minting and widespread use of coinage; by the formation of merchant companies; by the creation of instruments of credit and ultimately the origins of banking and double-entry accounting.  The rise in commerce also led to technological innovations: faster cargo ships were designed, navigational maps improved, and the compass developed (extending the sailing season in the Mediterranean by several months).  Expanding trade also led to the rise of lucrative manufactures – particularly the production of wool and linen cloth in the Low Countries and in Italy.  This take-off of the European economy is called the “Commercial Revolution.”  In sum, it marked the origins in the West of the kind of entrepreneurial capitalist economy that is still dominant today. 

In addition to population growth and economic change, Europe began to expand in other ways.  New religious fervor led in 1095 to the calling of the First Crusade.  Conceived as both a  religious pilgrimage and a military expedition, the aim of the crusade was the recapture of Jerusalem which had long been under Muslim domination.  In response to an obviously quite compelling sermon giving by Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont, five armies left Western Europe in 1096 and headed overland toward Palestine.  These forces were an unwieldy mix of experienced warriors and unarmed pilgrims; many of the poorest and least prepared for the journey died en route or were massacred as soon as they crossed into hostile territory.  Amazingly, these motley armies actually managed to capture the city of Jerusalem in 1099 and they established four crusader territories in the east: the kingdom of Jerusalem, the principality of Antioch, and the Counties of Edessa and Tripoli.  These first European colonies abroad had a fascinating, if brief, history.  They served as profitable trading outposts for European merchants and they attracted some land-hungry European colonists.  Like later European colonial ventures, they antagonized indigenous populations of the regions and within a century Islamic forces, rallied by the charismatic warrior Saladin, reduced the crusader colonies to a few cities on the coast.  These eventually fell in 1291, bringing to an end this first chapter in the history of European colonialism.

The First Crusade was an expression of a more militant Christianity.  Within Europe this new religious exuberance led to many important changes. 

New religious orders were founded. In the early Middle Ages Benedictine monasticism was the only option for a religious life and the Benedictine model emphasized retreat from the world, contemplation, and prayer.  This form of religious life remained extremely popular and in the central Middle Ages, great Benedictine monasteries such as Cluny in central France had close to 300 monks.  But new interpretations of religious life were created in the central Middle Ages, most of them responding to the new conditions in medieval society.  A good example is the Franciscan Order.  Founded by Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), this new order promoted an active life in the world instead of a retreat from worldly concerns: Franciscans established their churches in Europe’s booming urban centers where they cared for the poor and sick.  Saint Francis himself was the son of a successful cloth merchant in the Italian city of Assisi and his new vision of the religious life constituted both a critique of Europe’s new capitalist, profit-oriented economy and a response to its human casualties.  He embraced poverty and served the poor.  This fresco by the artist Giotto depicts a key turning point in Francis’s life: here he publicly rejects the wealth of his father, stripping off even the clothes his father had given him and pushing them back at him. His father, livid with his rebellious son, has to be restrained by another onlooker.  Francis’s nakedness, here modestly shielded from our view by the Bishop of Assisi’s protective gesture, represents his total rejection of wealth.  Francis dedicated himself not only to being poor, but to caring for the poor, even living among lepers and kissing their sores.  His compassion extended to all creatures: he was famous for preaching to birds and taming fierce wolves.  Saint Francis attracted many followers; like him, they wore simple coarse tunics and begged for a living.  His order spread throughout Europe and is still popular today.  This extraordinary response to Saint Francis’ simple piety, his sanctification of poverty, and his mission to lead a Christ-like life serving the least fortunate demonstrates that many people were troubled by the new affluence of European society.

But like the mercantile life Saint Francis rejected, his new order was highly mobile, urban-oriented, and outward bound.  Saint Francis himself tried to bring his Christian message to non-Europeans: he went to Egypt in 1219 and even preached before the Sultan al-K~mil in Egypt.  His mission had no success.  But this did not stop many of his followers and members of other new religious orders from missionary efforts to expand the bounds of Christendom.  We have, indeed, an account by the Franciscan John of Plano Carpini of his mission to try to convert the Mongols.  Friar John traveled hundreds of miles along the great Silk Road, the major trade route that extended from the Black Sea all the way to China, and finally met and traveled with Batu and Guyuk, great Khans and descendants of Genghis Khan, the architect of the Mongol empire.  Like Saint Francis’ mission to the Muslims, Friar John’s to the Mongols was unsuccessful.  But these attempts constitute a religious initiative of expansion that parallels the economic expansion of Europe into non-European markets and its political expansion with the establishment of the crusader states in Palestine. 

The life of Saint Francis also well illustrates another important development in medieval Christianity: the growth of papal monarchy.  This fresco shows Pope Innocent III giving Saint Francis the rule for his order.  Notice how the pope is seated on a throne and is surrounded by clergy.  Contrast this image of the pope with a much earlier depiction –this is Pope Gregory the Great, the most famous pope of the early Middle Ages.  Gregory is depicted seated on a bench, dressed simply, writing; the dove on his shoulder assures us that his writing is inspired by the Holy Spirit.  This early medieval pope is depicted like an Apostle or an Evangelist, one of the authors of sacred scripture.  The depiction of the thirteenth-century Pope Innocent III, however, has more in common with portraits of monarchs, raised as he is on a throne, surrounded by counselors, a petitioner kneeling before him.  This was because over the Central Middle Ages, the leaders of the Christian Church had become monarchs.  The papacy had always claimed to have power over all Christians, and they had had their own state from the early Middle Ages.  But from the eleventh century on, the popes developed not only a much more expansive view of the powers of their office, but they also developed a highly efficient bureaucracy and legal system to back up these new claims to authority.  This development of papal monarchy was mainly driven by the desire for reform within the Church.  Popes such as Gregory VII in the late eleventh century excommunicated emperors and raised armies against secular rulers in order to defend what religious people saw as the freedom of the Church.  Pope Urban II’s calling of the First Crusade is another important sign of papal monarchy: here was a religious leader raising an army of conquest.  It’s clear too that Pope Urban hoped that the conquests of the crusaders would expand the papal state into the eastern Mediterranean.  As luck would have it, however, his envoy traveling with the crusade died in Antioch leaving a group of French and Norman knights to organize their conquests – they, not surprisingly, created secular kingdoms, not papal fiefdoms, on the lands they conquered in Palestine.

The worldly power the popes developed over the central Middle Ages may seem repugnant to Americans, who are accustomed to the idea that church and state should be separate.  However, this image of Pope Innocent III sanctioning the founding of the Franciscan order, giving Saint Francis the rule for his followers, should remind us that these powers were used to foster and protect religious initiatives.  In the less settled world of the Middle Ages, no endeavor – religious or secular – could be successful without powerful protectors.  So Christians who believed strongly in their mission and vocation looked to their leaders for protection and support: this is what the powerful king-like pope could offer someone like Saint Francis. 

Indeed, as the papacy was developing its power, so too were secular rulers in medieval Europe.  Over the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the kings of England and France were particularly successful at building strong, centralized, institutions of governance.  This was a striking development because, as you will remember, the power of kings had been crippled during the invasions of the ninth and tenth centuries.  During those invasions, local knights who could organize some defense against Viking raids became petty-kings: they built castles, and by offering protection to local populations, they extended their powers and ruled their small territories.  When the invasions ceased, these local rulers started fighting with one another to increase their power.  Some, like Fulk Nera (987-1040), were very successful.  He built up a regional lordship in the Loire river valley by defeating his rivals, capturing their castles and building more than 13 of his own.  But for kings, “successful” regional lords like Fulk were quarrelsome competition. 

In France, after the Carolingian line of kings died out during the invasions, a new dynasty arose.  Hugh Capet (r. 987-996) founded the line of kings -- called, from his name “Capet”, the Capetians -- that would rule France into the late Middle Ages.  But Hugh and his immediate successors in the eleventh century were kings more in name than in fact: they had the title of king, but they really controlled only their family lands around Paris.  In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, however, the Capetian kings slowly got control of all those regional lords that had emerged in the wake of the invasions. King Philip II  -- called “Augustus” because he so increased the power of the Capetian monarchy – provides an excellent example of this process. He defeated some lords in battle: in 1214 at the Battle of Bouvines, Philip brought Normandy, Anjou, Maine, Touraine and Poitou directly under his royal control.  Others were brought under the crown’s power through crusade.  When the papacy asked for assistance in extinguishing a heresy that had spread in southern France, around the city of Albi, Philip was glad to help out.  He took an army on a papally sanctioned crusade (later called the Albigensian Crusade) into southern France, bringing all these regions under his control.

King Philip Augustus also increased royal power in France by developing more efficient institutions of government.  He sent royal tax gathering officials into every region he brought under royal control and he developed a centralized financial administration in Paris.  King Philip increased the efficiency of royal justice through improved record-keeping and by sending traveling judges throughout his kingdom to hear cases in his name.  Customary law within the kingdom was codified and the renewed study of ancient Roman law helped royal officials organize, supplement, and rationalize the laws of the French kingdom.

This burgeoning royal bureaucracy and its more extensive use of written records in both financial and legal administration created new opportunities for people who could read and write.  Indeed, across the twelfth century, young people had flocked to schools in urban centers where in addition to basic literacy skills, they studied logic, rhetoric, and law.  Particularly successful schools at Bologna, Oxford, and Paris developed into the first universities.  Both religious and secular leaders understood the value of these emerging institutions and offered them protection.  King Philip Augustus granted the University of Paris its first “charter” in 1200 and in 1215 Pope Innocent III granted ecclesiastical protection and privileges to the university.  The rise of universities in medieval Europe is particularly associated with the rise of strong monarchies.  Both Oxford and Paris, sites of early universities, were royal administrative centers: Oxford was a center for English royal administration from the reign of King Henry II and Paris was the royal center of the Capetian kings of France.  Many of those educated in the medieval universities went directly to work in the administrations of Europe’s powerful monarchs.  Medieval students, like students today, went to universities in order to get good, high-paying jobs.  Indeed, so abundant were the “career” opportunities for graduates of medieval universities that the University of Paris required everyone who attained the Master’s degree to remain and teach at the University for two years – that was the only way the university could maintain an adequate teaching staff!

Besides the universities, other aspects of European culture in the central Middle Ages were connected with the rise of strong monarchies.  Gothic architecture, for example, was first developed by a key advisor of the Capetian monarchs of France, a man named Abbot Suger (1081-1152).  Suger was abbot from 1122-52 of an important royal monastery -- the monastery of St. Denis.  Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris, was the patron saint of the kings of France and from the seventh century, the kings of France had been buried at the monastery of Saint Denis.  Abbot Suger was not only the leader of this important royal monastery, but he was also an influential advisor to the Capetian Kings Louis VI and Louis VII.  He even acted as regent, or temporary ruler, of France when King Louis VII went on the Second Crusade.  From 1140 on, we know that Abbot Suger began rebuilding the church of Saint Denis and he strove to create a more elevated, soaring space befitting to royal ceremony and to create a more light-filled atmosphere around the altar.  Thus, the style he innovated had huge stained-glass windows and used pointed arches and ribbed vaults to create high, soaring ceilings.  To accomplish this new look, the master masons who built Saint Denis had to resolve some staggering engineering challenges.  The main problem was to buttress the outward thrust of vaulted ceilings built of stone and brick.  In earlier medieval churches, this had been done by making the walls very thick and limiting the number and size of windows that weakened the buttressing weight of the wall.  This is the 11th-century church of Sant’Antimo in Tuscany; note how tiny the windows are along the flank of the church and the stripes of heavy masonry buttressing the vaulting within.  This view of the front portal looking into the church shows the effects on the interior:  it is dark with only slender shafts of light coming from the small windows.  But Abbot Suger wanted an interior filled with dazzling light, so the windows of his new church needed to be immense.  His master masons solved this problem by creating huge buttresses that stood at a distance from the thin, window pierced walls of the church, and transferring the outward thrust of the heavy vaulted ceilings to the buttresses via slender, precisely placed, fly-overs.  These “flying buttresses” – essential to the stability of the structure – were then fancifully decorated with gargoyles and other sculptures,creating the signature “look” of the Gothic style.  This last series of photos, by the way, come from a Gothic cathedral right here in Washington, DC –  the National Cathedral.

When King Louis VII of France, his queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, and many members of his royal court came to Saint Denis on June 11, 1144 to dedicate Abbot Suger’s new church, they thought its architectural daring and stunning luminosity a fitting tribute to Capetian royal power.  Indeed, the spread of the new Gothic style follows the spread of Capetian royal authority.  The style was first taken up in the late twelfth century by cities such as Sens, Noyon, and Laon, strongholds of Capetian power.  During the reign of Philip Augustus the style appears in the regions he brought under the crown.  When the Gothic crossed the channel to England, it was also cultivated as a royal style.  The first Gothic church in England was the royal cathedral abbey of Canterbury and all early sites of Gothic construction – Wells, York, Winchester, Ely, Salisbury, Exeter – were sites of royal castles built after the Norman conquest.  Moreover, in the 1240s when King Henry III of England (1216-1272) established Westminster as the burial site of British monarchs, he rebuilt it in the same style as the Capetian’s burial site of Saint Denis.

The royal courts were also the sites of other important cultural hallmarks of the central Middle Ages: chivalry and courtly love.  The music, poetry, and epic literature that survives from this period articulates the values and concerns of the nobility.  For noblemen, literature and song confronted the challenges of being a good knight.  How, for example, could the nobleman faithfully serve his feudal lord while still being loyal to his family and friends?  How could he be a valiant and brave warrior and still be a good Christian?  For noblewomen, the traveling entertainers called troubadours created a new repertoire of songs about love.  How, when your father or lord chose your husband, could the noble lady find love?  Eleanor of Aquitaine was a central figure in the spread of this new “courtly” culture of chivalry and love.  Daughter of the powerful duke of Aquitaine, Eleanor ended up the Duke’s only heir and therefore a very attractive marriage partner.  Married first to the Capetian king Louis VII of France, Eleanor brought the troubadour poetry of her homeland to the royal court in Paris.  There she organized impressive feasts and “courts of love” where troubadours performed songs of love and chivalric tales for noble men and women who then debated the attributes of true love. Eleanor later was married to King Henry II of England and brought courtly culture to his kingdom.

The fact that the major body of literature and secular song that survives from the Middle Ages reflects the concerns of only the most privileged members of this society is important to reflect upon.  Elites – kings and nobles – dominated medieval society.  The most admired expressions of medieval culture – gothic architecture, chivalric epics, courtly love – celebrated royal power and noble values. Although the merchants and artisans of medieval cities formed an emerging “middle” class – between the peasantry and the nobility – they were more envied for their wealth than admired.  Indeed, merchants and wealthy artisans wanted to be noble: they read the chivalric stories about King Arthur and his knights, and when they became wealthy they bought estates in the countryside and copied noble fashions.  Nobody aspired to be “middle class” in medieval Europe.  Society and culture were still dominated by the nobility.

Although still highly aristocratic, European society had achieved a great deal over the Central Middle Ages.  By 1300 medieval Europe had developed powerful monarchies, both secular and ecclesiastical, that brought order and stability to western peoples.  These early “states” fostered cultural development – the rise of the universities, the flourishing of courtly song and literature – and undertook Europe’s first expansionist movements, establishing several “colonies” in the eastern Mediterranean through the crusades.  By 1300 the European economy was booming: trade within Europe fostered the growth of cities, Italian merchants had built long-distance trading networks in the eastern Mediterranean, and they traveled as far as China to procure luxury products for European markets.  Technological advances in shipbuilding and navigational aids, the development of banking, insurance, and other commercial structures, all combined to yield a highly dynamic entrepreneurial capitalism in Western Europe.  The prosperity and confidence of the west in this era is evident in the immense, soaring gothic cathedrals built in cities all across Europe.

Europe changed a great deal over the Central Middle Ages.  Let’s review the major changes we’ve learned about.  After the year 1000, the population of Europe began to grow.  This led first to an agricultural revolution and then, with the revival of urban life it made possible, to a commercial revolution.  This commercial revolution, the revival of long-distance trade and complex manufactures, is the birth of capitalism.  The new economy led to religious changes – the crusades, new religious orders, missionary efforts beyond Europe, and the emergence of papal monarchy.  It also made possible the development of strong, centralized monarchies in England and France.  The new political order fostered cultural efflorescence: it’s in this period that Europe’s first universities emerged, Gothic cathedrals were built, and courtly love celebrated the aristocratic ethos of European society.

Part Three: The Late Middle Ages

In the fourteenth century, however, Europe experienced a prolonged and profound crisis.  This crisis was political, demographic, and economic.  It consolidated some developments of the central Middle Ages but also led to a dramatic reorientation.

Both secular and ecclesiastical monarchies encountered difficulties in the fourteenth century.  The papal monarchy suffered the most.  Its reputation and authority were seriously compromised by two events: the “Avignon” papacy and the Great Schism.  The Avignon Papacy (1305-1378) was a period of prolonged exile of the papacy from its traditional home in Rome.  Incessant and violent infighting between Roman families forced the popes to abandon the city.  In 1305 they took up residence in Avignon, today a scenic small town in southern France.  The choice of this particular temporary residence made the pope appear to be under the control of the French monarchy.  This was mainly because just before the move to Avignon, Pope Boniface VIII had suffered a serious political defeat (over taxation of the clergy) in a struggle with King Philip “the Fair” of France (called “the Fair” because he was considered handsome, not because he was just...).  Many modern scholars do not agree that the popes who ruled from Avignon were stooges of the French crown, but most medieval people thought that the Avignon popes, most of them Frenchmen, had ceased to be impartial leaders of Christendom.

In 1378 Pope Gregory XI finally abandoned Avignon and moved back to Rome.  At his death, however, a disputed election resulted in TWO popes (one Italian and one French) each claiming legitimacy.  An early attempt by a council to resolve the schism only made things worse, resulting in a THIRD pope who took up residence in Spain.  No one was sure who the true pope was, and Europe divided – some regions supporting one pope, others another.  Since each pope assailed the followers of the other(s) with ecclesiastical penalties (excommunications, interdicts), no one could be sure of the efficacy of the sacraments they were receiving.  Not only was there acute anxiety over salvation, but the papacy and the entire institutional church was discredited.  By the time the Great Schism was resolved in 1417, with the election of Pope Martin V by the Council of Constance, the power of the papacy was at an all-time low.

Secular monarchs also experienced difficulties in the fourteenth century, but their problems were different.  The two most powerful monarchs in medieval Europe – the kings of France and England – fought one another for over a century.  This “Hundred Years’ War” (1337-1453) drained the resources of both kingdoms and devastated the countryside of northern France where most of its battles were fought.  Its causes were complex and shifted over time – among them trade disputes, dynastic claims, and misplaced chivalric honor – but its results were important. 

Both kingdoms emerged from the war as more compact “national” political units.  The king of England renounced claims to fiefs he had held on the mainland and with this cession the territories comprising each kingdom became linguistically and culturally more homogenous.  Moreover, the war generated greater “national” feeling within each kingdom.  Joan of Arc (1412-1431), for example, the maiden whose visions and leadership helped French forces rally in the final stages of the war, said that she had been instructed to save not the king, nor a particular region, but “France.”  The Hundred Years’ War marked the beginning of a key political transition from the “feudal” monarchies of Middle Ages (in which monarchs had spread and consolidated their power by making vassals of powerful nobles) to “national” monarchies in which both nobles and people looked to the monarch as king of “France” or “England” more than as feudal overlord.

But there were also negative results of the war, many stemming from its immense cost.  Attempts to fund military expenditures through increased taxation prompted revolts: a major cause of the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was a new poll tax imposed in 1377.  To avoid social unrest, monarchs turned to bankers but this too caused other forms of distress.  When the English King Edward III in the 1340s simply defaulted on the loans he had taken to support his army, he caused an international banking crisis.

This added to other merchant woes in the mid-fourteenth century.  The access that European merchants had enjoyed for centuries to trade routes in the eastern Mediterranean began to close down.  This reduced access was the result of two political transformations in the east.  The first was the rise of the Ottoman Empire.  Over the first half of the fourteenth century the Ottoman Turks under Osman I (1280-1324) and his successors built a powerful state in Asia Minor; in 1453 they captured Constantinople, bringing an end to the Byzantine Empire.  This also brought to an end the favorable trading arrangements that Italian merchants had enjoyed in the Byzantine state as it weakened; the Ottomans had no need to be so generous and western traders lost their warehouses, market privileges, and tax exemptions.  At the same time, the huge Mongol Empire that had brought peace and stability to the “Silk Road” was breaking down.  The Silk Road was the major trade thoroughfare running from the Black Sea to China.  The immense Mongol Empire created by Genghis Khan (1162-1227) in the early thirteenth century had brought the entire Silk Road under Mongol lordship, eliminating tolls along this “super-highway” of medieval trade and bringing peace and security to east-west commerce.  But in the mid-fourteenth century, the huge Mongol state was breaking apart. The ruler, Khan Djanibeg, who took control of the lands surrounding the Black Sea, kicked western merchants out of their trading depots, like those of the Genoese traders in Tana and Caffa.  When the news reached Venice, the price of silks and spices doubled overnight!  But as access to the products of the Far East became increasingly difficult and expensive through the eastern Mediterranean, western merchants and explorers began to seek alternate routes to India and China.  As early as the 1430s, Italian ship captains began working their way down the western coast of Africa seeking new ways to reach the East.  This began a revolutionary reorientation of trade toward the Atlantic, and ultimately to European exploration and colonization in the sixteenth century.  Italian merchants, who had dominated medieval trade, lent their expertise to this reorientation: Christopher Columbus, of course, was Cristoforo Colombo, a sea captain from the Italian port city of Genoa.  But it would be the Atlantic powers – Spain, Portugal, England, the Netherlands – that ultimately dominate this new economy in the modern era.

Probably the most devastating crisis of the fourteenth century, however, was demographic.  When Khan Djanibeg laid siege to the Genoese trading colony at Caffa, he catapulted plague infested corpses into the fortified town.  His macabre tactic worked and Caffa fell. But a group of Genoese merchants fleeing the siege by ship carried the plague with them back to Italy.  When their ship came into the port of Messina in December of 1347, most of the seamen were already dead at their oars.  The rats which carried the deadly strain of bubonic plague that killed them, however, were not.  The Black Death had come to Europe.  One can trace the rapid spread of the plague from Italy to France over the spring and summer of 1348, into England and Germany in the fall of that year.  By 1350, a quarter to a half of the population of western Europe was dead.  The sudden devastation of the disease – which usually killed its victims in a few days – paralyzed communities.  Chroniclers record a near total inability to handle the effects of the mortality: bodies went unburied, parents abandoned children, and survivors wandered shocked in the near-deserted ruins of towns.  Famine followed plague when crops were not sown or harvested. A Sienese chronicler concluded, “No bells tolled and nobody wept no matter what his loss because almost everyone expected death.  And people said and believed, ‘This is the end of the world’”.

The population losses, economic dislocation, and emotional trauma induced by the Black Death probably constitute the most dramatic crisis of the fourteenth century.  The plague certainly compounded the fourteenth century’s other religious, political, and economic crises.  But just as the devastating invasions of the ninth and tenth centuries were followed by the rebirth and expansion of European society in the Central Middle Ages, so too the “calamitous” fourteenth century was followed by another period of prodigious growth and change.  But that “rebirth,” the Renaissance of the fifteenth century, is next week’s adventure.

Conclusion

Since we’ve covered a millennium of change over the last hour or so, I fear you are as dazed as one of those survivors of the Black Death.  So I would like to take a few minutes to summarize the mos important things we’ve covered.

What did the Middle Ages contribute to Western Civilization?

First, it contributed enduring institutions that are still with us today.  The Roman Catholic Church, for example, is the direct descendent of medieval Christianity.  Its theology, its array of spiritual practices, and its governing structures (the papacy, the Roman curia, councils) were developed during the Middle Ages.  Benedictine monasticism is also an enduring legacy of medieval creativity: in the United States alone there are over fifty monasteries that follow the rule St. Benedict of Nursia wrote in the sixth century AD.  The most obvious enduring institutional legacy of the Middle Ages, indeed, is the very institution we are in today: the university.   The first universities emerged in Western Europe in the Central Middle Ages and universities like George Mason are the direct descendants of these medieval associations of masters and students.  The funny gowns you will wear at your commencement are a reminder of those medieval origins.

In addition to enduring institutions, the Middle Ages contributed enduring monuments to Western Civilization.  When you travel in Europe today, for example, the gothic cathedrals that medieval communities labored for years to build still stand out in the urban landscape.  They are still fulfilling their original functions as places of prayer; their soaring ceilings and stained glass windows still inspire wonder.

The Middle Ages also contributed enduring systems to Western Civilization.  The entrepreneurial capitalism that has made the United States a world power and cultural leader was born in the medieval towns of the eleventh century.  The risks merchants took then and the strategies and tools they developed to trade over long distances formed the basis of the economic systems that now touch our lives every day.

Many scholars also place the origins of other significant characteristics of our modern world in the Middle Ages.  I’ve suggested to you, for example, that the crusader states that were founded in Palestine in 1099 were Europe’s first colonies.  You’ll learn a lot more about European colonialism and its effects on our world in this course.  One might also argue that the modern “state” originated in the Middle Ages.  Certainly monarchs developed increasingly efficient administrative methods over the Central Middle Ages and by the late Middle Ages national sentiment is more discernible.  Another contribution to western culture that some scholars attribute to the Middle Ages is romantic love.  In the “courtly love” of medieval literature and aristocratic culture some see the origins of the kind of romantic love dominant in the West today.  In sum, from the birth of entrepreneurial capitalism to the foundation of Europe’s first universities, the Middle Ages created much that is still vital and important in our world.