Chapter 11 Summary
The postclassical period in western Europe, known as the Middle Ages, stretches between the fall of the Roman Empire and the 15th century. Typical postclassical themes prevailed. Civilization spread gradually beyond the Mediterranean zone. Christian missionaries converted Europeans from polytheistic faiths. Medieval Europe participated in the emerging international community. New tools and crops expanded agricultural output; advanced technologies improved manufacturing. Mathematics, science, and philosophy were stimulated by new concepts.
Stages of Postclassical Development. Between the 6th and 10th centuries c.e., disorder prevailed in western Europe. Although the Catholic church remained strong, Rome’s fall left Italy in economic, political, and intellectual decline. Muslim-controlled Spain maintained a vibrant intellectual and economic life, but only later influenced European development. The postclassical west was centered in France, the Low Countries, and southern and western Germany. England later joined the core. Continual raids by Scandinavian Vikings hindered political and economic development. Intellectual activity sharply diminished; most literate individuals were Catholic monks and priests.
The Manorial System: Obligations and Allegiances. Until the 10th century, most political organization was local. Manorialism was a system of reciprocal economic and political obligations between landlords and peasants. Most individuals were serfs living on self-sufficient agricultural estates (manors). In return for protection, serfs gave lords part of their crops and provided labor services. Inferior technology limited agricultural output until the 9th century-introduction of the moldboard plow and the three-field cultivation system increased yields. Serfs bore many burdens, but they were not slaves. They had heritable ownership of houses and land as long as they met obligations.
The Church: Political and Spiritual Power. The Catholic church in the first centuries after 500 was the single major example of firm organization. The popes headed a hierarchy based upon the Roman imperial model; they appointed some bishops, regulated doctrine, and sponsored missionary activity. The conversion of Germanic kings, such as the Frankish Clovis around 496, demonstrated the spiritual and political power of the church. It also developed the monastic movement. In the 6th century, the Italian Benedict of Nursia created the most important set of monastic rules. Monasteries had both spiritual and secular functions. They promoted Christian unity, served as examples of holy life, improved cultivation techniques, stressed productive work, and preserved the heritage of Greco-Roman culture.
Charlemagne and His Successors. The Carolingian dynasty of the Franks ruling in France, Belgium, and Germany grew stronger during the 8th century. Charles Martel defeated Muslim invaders at Tours in 732. Charlemagne built a substantial empire by 800. He helped to restore church-based education and revived traditions of Roman imperial government. His empire fragmented soon after Charlemagne’s death in 814. By 843, his grandsons had divided his territory, and their lines proved unable to revive his imperial achievements. Subsequent political history was marked by regional monarchies existing within a civilization with overarching cultural unity initially centered on Catholic Christianity. French, German, English, and other separate languages emerged, forming embryonic national identities. The rulers of Germany and northern Italy initially were the strongest; they called themselves holy Roman emperors, but they failed to create a solid monarchy. Local lords and city-states went their own way in these areas.
New Economic and Urban Vigor. During the 9th and 10th centuries, new agricultural techniques—the moldboard plow, the three-field system, and the horse collar—significantly increased production. The use of stirrups confirmed the dominance of those wealthy enough to own horses. Viking incursions diminished as the raiders seized territorial control, or regional governments became stronger in response. Both factors allowed population growth and encouraged economic innovation. Expanding towns emerged as regional trade centers with a merchant class and craft production. The need for more food led to exploitation of new lands. The demand for labor resulted in less harsh conditions for serfs. The growing urban centers increased the spread of literacy, revitalized popular culture, and stimulated religious life. By the 11th century, cathedral schools were evolving, to become universities in the 13th century. Students studied medicine and law; later theology and philosophy became important disciplines. Art and architecture reached new peaks.
Feudal Monarchies and Political Advances. From the 6th century, feudalism, a system of political and military relationships, evolved in western Europe. Military elites of the landlord class could afford horses and iron weapons. The greater lords provided protection to lesser lords (vassals) who in return supplied military and other service. Feudal relationships first served local needs, but they later were extended to cover larger regions. Charlemagne is an example of this phenomenon. Later rulers, notably the Capetian kings of France from the 10th century, used feudalism to evolve from regional lords to rulers controlling a larger territory. From local, personal rule they expanded, using bureaucratic administration and specialized officials. William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066 and merged feudal techniques with a more centralized government. English royal officials, sheriffs, supervised local justice. The growth of feudal monarchies independently duplicated developments found in other centralizing societies.
Limited Government. Western Europe remained politically divided. The lands of the Holy Roman Empire in Germany and Italy were controlled by dukes and city-states respectively. The pope ruled in central Italy. Regional units prevailed in the Low Countries. In strong feudal monarchies, power was limited by the church, aristocratic military strength, and developing urban centers. King John of England in 1215 was forced to recognize feudal rights in theMagna Carta. Parliaments, bodies representing privileged groups, emerged in Catalonia in 1000. In England, a parliament, operating from 1265, gained the right to rule on taxation and related policy matters. Most members of societies were not represented in European parliaments, but the creation of representative bodies was the beginning of a distinctive political process not present in other civilizations. Despite the checks, European rulers made limited progress in advancing central authority. Their weakness was demonstrated by local wars turning into larger conflicts, such as the Hundred Years War of the 14th century between the French and English.
The West’s Expansionist Impulse. The ongoing political and economic changes spurred European expansion beyond its initial postclassical borders. From the 11th century, Germanic knights and agricultural settlers changed the population and environmental balance in eastern Germany and Poland. In Spain and Portugal, small Christian states in the 10th century began the reconquest of the Iberian peninsula from Muslim Arab rulers. Viking voyagers crossed the Atlantic to Iceland, Greenland, and Canada. The most dramatic expansion occurred during the Crusades against Muslims in the Holy Land, first called by Pope Urban II in 1095. Christian warriors seeking salvation and spoils established kingdoms in the Holy Land enduring into the 13th century. Their presence helped to expose Europeans to cultural and economic influences from Byzantium and Islam.
Religious Reform and Evolution. The Catholic church went through several periods of decline and renewal. The church’s wealth and power often led its officials to become preoccupied with secular matters. Monastic orders and popes from the 11th century worked to reform the church. Leaders, as Sts. Francis and Clare of Assisi, purified monastic orders and gave new spiritual vigor to the church. Pope Gregory VII attempted to free the church from secular interference by stipulating that priests remain unmarried and prohibiting secular appointment of bishops. Independent church courts developed to rule on religious concerns.
Thinking Historically: Western Civilization. Western civilization is difficult to define. Postclassical western Europe incorporated only some elements of the classical heritage. A lack of political unity prevented the development of common structures. The first definition of the civilization was primarily religious, although individual cultures varied. There was no linguistic unity, but elements of cultural unity and social structure were present. By comparison, the unfolding civilization did not match the coherence of the Chinese system. A common European civilization emerged, one ready to benefit from the advances made in other world societies.
The High Middle Ages. Postclassical Western civilization reached its high point during the 12th and 13th centuries. Creative tensions between feudal political forms, emerging monarchies, and the authority of the church produced major changes in political, religious, intellectual, social, and economic life.
Western Culture in the Postclassical Era. Christianity was the clearest unifying cultural element in western Europe.
Theology: Assimilating Faith and Reason. Before 1000 c.e., a few church members had attempted to preserve and interpret the ideas of earlier thinkers, especially Aristotle and Augustine. The efforts gradually produced a fuller understanding of the past, particularly in philosophy, rhetoric, and logic. After 1000, the process rose to new levels. Absolute faith in God’s word was stressed, but it was held that human reason contributed to the understanding of religion and the natural order. In 12th-century Paris, Peter Abelard utilized logic to demonstrate contradictions in doctrine. Many church leaders opposed such endeavors and emphasized the role of faith for understanding religious mysteries. Bernard of Clairvaux successfully challenged Abelard and stressed the importance of mystical union with God. The debates matched similar tensions within Islam concerning philosophical and scientific traditions. In Europe, there were increasing efforts to bridge this gap. By the 12th century, the debate flourished in universities, opening intellectual avenues not present in other civilizations. In China, for example, a single path was followed. The European universities produced men for clerical and state bureaucracies, but they also motivated a thirst for knowledge from other past and present civilizations. By the 13th century, Western thinkers had created a synthesis of medieval learning. Thomas Aquinas of Paris in his Summas held that faith came first, but that human reason allowed a greater understanding of natural order, moral law, and the nature of God. Although scholasticism deteriorated after Thomas, new paths for human understanding had opened. Medieval philosophy did not encourage scientific endeavor, but a few scholars, as Roger Bacon, did important experimental work in optics and other fields.
Popular Religion. Although we do not know much about popular beliefs, Christian devotion ran deep within individuals. The rise of cities encouraged the formation of lay groups. The cults of the Virgin Mary and sundry saints demonstrated a need for more humble intermediaries between people and god. Pagan practices endured and blended into Christianity.
Religious Themes in Art and Literature. Christian art and architecture reflected both popular and formal themes. Religious ideas dominated painting, with the early stiff and stylized figures changing by the 14th and 15th centuries to more realistic portrayals that included secular scenes. Architecture initially followed Roman models. In the Romanesque style, rectangular buildings were surmounted by domes, with relatively small windows using rounded arches. During the 11th century, the Gothic style appeared, producing soaring spires and arched windows requiring great technical skills. Literature and music equally reflected religious interest. Latin writings dealt with philosophy, law, and politics. Vernacular literature developed, incorporating themes from the past, such as the English Beowulf and the French Song of Roland. Contemporary secular themes were represented in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Courtly poets (troubadours) in 14th-century southern France wrote of courtly love.
Changing Economic and Social Forms in the Postclassical Centuries. Apart from the cultural cement framed by the Catholic church, Western society had other common features in economic activity and social structure. The postclassical West demonstrated great powers of innovation. When trade revived in the 10th century, the West became a kind of common commercial zone as merchants moved commodities from one region to another. Urban merchants won increased power.
New Strains in Rural Life. Agricultural improvements after 800 c.e. allowed some peasants to shake off the most severe manorial constraints. Noble landlords continued their military functions but utilized trade to improve their living styles. The more complex economy increased landlord-peasant tensions. From then until the 19th century, there were recurring struggles between the two groups. Peasants wanted more freedom and control of land, while landlords wanted higher revenues. In general, peasant conditions improved, and landlord controls weakened. Although agriculture remained technologically backward when compared to other societies, it had surpassed previous levels.
Growth of Trade and Banking. Urban growth promoted more specialized manufacturing and commerce. Banking was introduced by Italian businessmen. The use of money spread rapidly. Large trading and banking operations clearly were capitalistic. Europeans traded with other world regions, particularly via Italian Mediterranean merchants, for luxury goods and spices. Within Europe, raw materials and manufactured items were exchanged. Cities in northern Germany and southern Scandinavia formed the Hanseatic League to encourage commerce. European traders, although entering into many economic pursuits, as demonstrated in the 15th-century career of Jacques Coeur, still generally remained less venturesome and wealthy than their Islamic counterparts. On the other hand, the weakness of Western governments allowed merchants a freer hand than in many civilizations. Many cities were ruled by commercial leagues, and rulers allied with them against the aristocracy. Apart from taxation and borrowing, governments left merchants alone, allowing them to gain an independent role in society. Most peasants and landlords were not part of a market system. In cities, the characteristic institution was the merchant or artisan guild. Guilds grouped people in similar occupations, regulated apprenticeships, maintained good workmanship, and discouraged innovations. They played an important political and social role in cities. Manufacturing and commercial methods in Europe improved, but they did not attain Asian levels in ironmaking and textile production. Only in a few areas, such as clockmaking, did they take the lead. By the late Middle Ages, the Western medieval economy contained contradictory elements. Commercial and capitalistic trends jostled the slower rural economy and urban guild protectionism.
Limited Sphere for Women. As elsewhere, increasing complexity of social and economic life limited women’s roles. Women’s work remained vital to families. Christian emphasis on spiritual equality remained important, while female monastic groups offered an alternative to marriage. Veneration of the Virgin Mary and other female religious figures gave positive role models for women. Still, even though women were less restricted than females within Islam, they lost ground. They were increasingly hemmed in by male-dominated organizations. By the close of the Middle Ages, patriarchal structures were firmly established.
The Decline of the Medieval Synthesis. After 1300, postclassical Western civilization declined. A series of wars embroiled France and England during the 14th and 15th centuries. The sporadic fighting spread economic distress and demonstrated the weaknesses of the feudal order. At the same time, key sources of Western vitality degenerated. Agriculture could not keep up with population growth. Famines followed. Beginning in 1348, the Black Death brought massive mortality. Tensions intensified between landlord and peasants and artisans and their employees.
Signs of Strain. There were increasing challenges to medieval institutions. The landowning aristocracy, the ruling class, lost its military role as professional armies and new weapons transformed warfare. Aristocrats retreated into a ceremonial style of life emphasizing chivalry. The balance of power between church and state shifted in favor of the state. As the church leaders struggled to retain secular authority, they lost touch with individual believers who turned to popular currents emphasizing direct experience of god. Intellectual and artistic synthesis also declined. Church officials became less tolerant of intellectual daring and retreated from Aquinas’s blend of rationalism and religion. In art, styles became more realistic.
The Postclassical West and Its Heritage. The Middle Ages has been regarded as a backward period between the era of Greece and Rome and the emergence of modern Europe. But the period was at the same time an age of dynamic growth. Significant changes occurred in the relations between Europe and surrounding regions. Europeans benefited from their readiness to incorporate advances made in other civilizations.