[Partly edited 4/25. Use
caution: many mistakes remain.]
Western Europe in the Middle Ages
My students usually think of the Middle Ages as a time of Barbarism and
superstition, a "dark age" when civilization had collapsed. In
reality, however, the Middle Ages was anything but a dark age. It
produced three enormously successful civilizations. Two we've looked at
already: the Christianized Roman Empire (Byzantium), and Islam.
Another tremendously successful civilization developed in Western
Europe during the Middle Ages. Iin some ways, this the most
successful society the world had yet seen.
Why was Western Europe so successful during the Middle Ages? What
was the secret of that success? What did that society do right?
Perhaps the easiest way to put it (and I bet you can guess) is that
Western European society during the Middle Ages did an excellent job
providing physical security, ethical guidance and emotional fulfillment
to its members. (Study question #3 for final exam).
Now Western Europe was not doing so well in the early part of the
Middle Ages. It was certainly not doing a very good job providing
physical security. Western Europe suffered wave after wave of
Barbarian invasion: ostrogoths, visigoths, vandals, huns--later
vikings, saracens, magyars, saxons. These invasions destroyed the
Roman Empire in the west, disrupted trade, and destroyed the economy of
Western Europe. Literacy declines as books become rare and
extraordinarily expensive. Almost nothing is produced in the way
of great art and literature. The cities dwindle in size, some of
them disappearing altogether, and once cultivated area falls back
into wilderness. Population falls sharply--and yet, with all
that, Western Europe managed to hold on.
How? One major factor was the Church. When the authority of
the Roman Emperors collapsed, the Roman Catholic Church began to take
over many of the functions of government. Typical is Pope Gregory
the Great (590-604). Gregory: relief of refugees/feeding poor
widows/ransoming captives. Also, exceedingly important, sent
missionaries to convert Barbarians: amazingly successful! Goths,
Vandals, Saxons, and even Vikings eventually converted. This
Barbarians wouldn't totally destroy, but play some role in preserving,
the achievements of earlier Europe.
Gregory's greatest contribution: spread of Benedictines. St.
Benedict had started a monastary in 5th century, monastary where
Gregory himself had been trained. Benedict wanted it well
organized, had his monks commit themselves to three standards: poverty,
chastity, obedience. The idea, of course, to get rid of anything
that might distract one from God--but also a life of humility, that
would lead one closer to God. Now Benedict's one monastary would
have had little impact on the world. Gregory makes sure that
similar monastaries are established throughout Europe. And
thousands, tens of thousands of men rush to join these
monasteries. In fact, 600-1000 often called the Benedictine
centuries, so great is the influence of these Benedictine monks.
It is, I think, hard for my students to understand the great
attractions of the Benedictine life style. We are so
materialistic and hedonistic that they idea of doing without material
possessions and the pleasure of having a wife and family seem to us
impossible. But one thing I need to stress is that the
Benedictines were happy. As we read there writings, it's quite
clear that the Benedictine life was a life of joy, a life that
certainly provided both ethical guidance and emotional fulfillment.
In addition, the Benedictine monks did something extraordinarily
important. The Benedictine abbots needed to find something to
keep their monks busy--and very frequently they turned to
writing. The Benedictine monks were assigned to copying the
Bible, the chuch fathers, the great works of classical antiquity--and
in some cases it is only due to their efforts that the great
achievements of the ancient world were preserved.
[See also this on the Benedictines]
Also important to the survival of western Europe during the early
Middle Ages, occasional great leaders, e.g. Charlemagne. Charlemagne,
Frankish king, around 800 A.D. defeated Saxons in battle, created a
sizable empire, an empire that was for a time safe from invasion due to
the strength of his armies. Within that empire, Charlemagne tried
to restore literacy and the arts, to strengthen the church, and promote
stability. Whenever a ruler like Charlemagne appeared, Europe
would have a respite from barbarian invasion.
For the most part, however, Europe dealt with the Barbarians through a
make-shift arrangement known as feudalism. Feudalism system
decentralized authority--king delgates authority to dukes or counts who
delegate authority to lesser lords who delegate authority to lesser
lords. Each given a job--to do job, given land with hot and cold
running peasants. Turn some of these into knights. Whole
thing held together with oaths. Lord and vassal each have
obligations. System works o.k. but not ideal.
Europe came up with something much better in High Middle Ages
1000-1300--a combination of the feudal system with a return to
centralized authority. Strong kings in England and France, strong
emperors in what came to be called the Holy Roman Empire are important
in providing PS. Some of most fascinating stories in history
involve the rise of these strong kings--and I used to try to tell these
stories in my Civ I class, talking about every English monarch between
William the Conqueror and Henry II, most of the French kings from Hugh
Capet to Philip the Fair, and many of the Holy Roman Emperiors from
Otto the Great to Frederick Stupor Mundi, the wonder of the
world. It never worked, and so instead of the facinating stories
of these kings, I instead simply summarize for you
what they achieved:
1. Control of the courts
2. Control of the taxation system
3. Established right of succession for sons
4. Effective bureacracy
5. National feeling/loyalty of people
6. Strong armies
How strong? Strong enough to launch a series of Crusades and
retake much of what had been lost to Christendom over the years.
The Crusades came about in reaction to a new wave of Moslem
onslaughts. The Turks (another of those fighting people who adopt
Islam), swept away half of what remained of the Byzantine empire, doing
the usual kinds of things conquerors do. In 1095 at the Council
of Clermont, Pope Urban II talked to an assembled group of Frankish
knights, describing the attrocities and calling on them to "take up the
cross." Deus Volt--God wills it--was the response, and, soon
enough, the forces of the Christian west assembled and did for a time
take back much of what had been lost to the Moslems.
Now "Crusade" tends to be a dirty word today, and there are some who
have a legitimate gripe against the Crusaders. Jews and Byzantine
Christians have every reason to be bitter about the Crusades, since
Crusaders often attacked perfectly peaceful Jewish communities and
since (in the 4th Crusade) the Crusaders actually sacked
Constantinople! Many of those who went on Crusade have reason to
be bitter, especially the thousands of children who set about on the
Children's Crusdae--only to end up tricked aboard slave ships or sold
to houses of prostitution. But there is one group has no good
reason for complaining about Crusaders: the Moslems. The Crusade
is no more than the idea of Jihad, Holy War. The Moslems had
inspired their troops with this idea for centuries. And, after
all, it was Muhammad himself who directly denied the turn the othe
cheek principle: eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life--and, if
you don't want to forgive, you don't have to said Muhammad.
In any case, the Crusades mark a historic tourning point. From
here on out, Europeans and European Civilization have been the
aggressors in World history
But it's not simply the aggression of Europe that shows that Europe is
doing better at providing physical security. Life expectancy
increases, population grows (35-70 million people). Towns grow
again as trade increases. Agriculture improves--horse drawn
plows. Further, Europeans begin to harnass wind and water power,
something ancient world had ever done. Thus Europe clearly
providing physical security to its people.
But what about E.G. and E.F.? Here, the achievements of Medieval
Europe are, if anything, considerably more impressive. One source of
ethical guidance and emotional fulfillment is
literature. While the early middle ages had produced few
orgininal literary works, the high middle ages produced all sorts of
impressive stuff: plays, satires, poems, etc.
One of the best examples of medieval literature is the Song of Roland.
Song of Roland.]
Roland is an epic poem written
either during the late 11th century or early 12th century: we aren't
sure which. It would be nice to know. If the former, the
poem helped lead to Urban II's call for a Crusade and helps explain the
enthusiastic response of the Frankish knigts. If the latter, it
is a response to Urban's call. Either way, it is certainly a good
poem for reinforcing ethical guidance and emotional fulfillment among
The basic story:
Charlemagne has been fighting for eight long years in Spain, and has
finally won out over the Moslems. But he doesn't quite trust the
Moslem's to keep their promises, and so as he makes his way back over
the Pyrannies to France he makes sure to guard against Moslem treachery
by putting one of his best knights, Roland, in command of the
rear guard. Roland has 20,000 Frankish soldiers at his disposal
and a horn to sound in case he needs more. Sure enough, the
Moslems attack: 100,000 strong. Outnumbered 5 to 1, it's time to
blow the horn. But not Roland. He and his men try to handle
things on their own, and they do lay thousands of Moslems low.
But the Moslems are being constantly reinforced while Roland's forces
are being whittled away. Eventually it's 300,000 Moslems to 300
Franks. Time to blow the horn? Not yet. Finally there
are only three Franks left. Roland at last sounds the horn, but
too late: Charlemagne comes back and takes vengeance on the treacherous
Moslems, but Roland and his 20,000 men lie dead on the battle
field. Only, not quite. The heavens open and the angels of
God come down and take brave Roland up into heaven.
For Crusaders, a great source of emotional fulfillment. As they
head off to fight Moslems themselves, they can identify with Roland and
his companions. Also, we have here the concept of Holy War turned
back on the Moslems. Die fighting for Christ, and it's straight
to heaven for you. Here's an interesting twist on Christian
martyrdom. Not exactly the way Peter and Paul gave their
lives! But now Christians can feel justified in Jihad's of their
own and turn the tables on the Moslems.
Likewise, there's important ethical guidance here. Roland
encourages all the military virtues: bravery, loyalty, etc. But
it also warns agains being foolhardy: Roland should have blown his
horn. It's foolish to throw away your life and the lives of your
men by being too proud and self-reliant to ask for help.
Another example of Medieval literature is Chrestien De Troyes'
Lancelot (Real title: the Knight of the Cart).
[I summarize the story in class,
but you might enjoy reading the actual poem for yourself. Here's
The story is filled with amusing details, and it may be meant
simply as entertainment. However, there might be something more
important going on. At the time the story was written, marriages among
the upper-classes were often made for political and economic reasons,
not because the partners were particularly well suited to one
another. This meant that the temptation to adultery was quite
high. The love affair between Lancelot and Guinivere may be
showing us that, even in the seemingly most-justified of circumstances,
adultery is a horribly destructive thing. This affair destroys
everything the knights of the Round Table had sacrificed for.
Certainly that is the message of later treatments of the story
(including Whites' Once and Future King and the musical version
Camelot). Is the theme already implied in Chretien de
Troyes? Maybe, but it's not altogether clear.
Also important in terms of ethical guidance and emotional fulfillment
in the High Middle Ages is a revival of art. There are too major
styles of art coming out of this period, the Romanesque and the Gothic.
[A few examples
of Gothic art.]
Romanesque churches are impressive
for their size. Attend one of these churches and you have the
feeling of being part of something big and powerful.
Gothic churches are also very
impressive. Taking advantage of technological developments (the
Gothic arch and the flying buttress), Gothic architects could design
buildings that would soar into the heavens. Also, these
developments allowed far more window space, and the Gothic artists took
full advantage of this by putting in beautiful stained glass windows.
Gothic and Romaneque churches were lavishly decorated with scences from
the Bible and church history. The Gothic churches in particular
are often called "Bibles in stone," and that's a good way to
think of them. All sorts of Biblical stories are reinforced/made
more vivid by the stained glass or scuptoral renditions of these
stories featured in the.cathedrals.
The rise of universities also helped EG and EF in the HMA.
Many of the greatest universities get their start in the HMA (Oxford,
Cambridge, etc.) and much of what we do in the universities of today is
a direct hold-over from the MA. Some of these universities
offered fine training in law (e.,g., Bologna), while others were
especially good at training physicians. But the most impressive
achievements of the medieval universities were in theology and
philosophy, and the revival off these disciplines is another source of
EG/EF in the HMA
One example, of Medieval contributions in this area is the work
of St. Anselm of Bec
(born in Italy,
Bec, eventually Archbishop of Canterbury--this shows the importance of
Latin as a common language of
learning and the ease with which ideas could spread rapidly
throughout Europe at this time).
Anselm is most famouse for his ontological proof
of the existence of God. Anselm starts with a definition of God:
God is the greatest being you can think of. What is the greatest
being you can think of. Well this being should have every good
attribute imaginable. The being should be omnipotent and
omniscient, loving and merciful, just and eternal. Now suppose we
think of two beings, one with all those characteristics that exists,
and one with all those wonderful characteristics that does not
exist. Obviously, the being that does not exist is hardly the
greatest we can think of! So that can't be God. God must be
the being with all those wonderful characteristics that exists--by
definition--since the greatest being we can think of must exist--or
it's not the greatest being we can think of!!! Not only that, God
must have all those other wonderful characteristics too, because a
being lacking any one of them would not be the greatest being we can
think of and hence not God!
[See this site for more on Anselm and the
ontological proof for the existence of God]
Anselms proof is completely valid--at least, if one allows the
correctness of Plato’s assumption that the real world is the world of
ideas. And it was certainly nice for emotional fulfillment in the
HMA to have great minds supporting rather than attacking religious
But there is a lot more to Anselm than intellectual proof: the
ontological argument is only a very small part of Monologium and
Proslogium. Both books read as devotional texts—meditations on
the greatness of God. Throughout, Anselm is constantly asking for
God’s guidance in exploring philosophical/theological question. Anselm
begins by speculating on text, “The fool hath said in his heart there
is no God.” What he is looking at is the relationship of
head to heart. If our heart isn’t in the right place, we will use
our reason in the wrong way. And if what’s in our heads is fuzzy,
our heads will mislead our hearts. Anselm gets heart and head
working together, and the result is beautiful.
The HMA is rightly labeled the Age of Faith. But is was
definitely not of blind faith. The philosophers say an unexamined life
not worth living. Well, the HMA thought an unexamined faith is
not worth having. A great example of a thoroughly examined faith:
Abelard was a teacher in Paris, and
absolutely loved by his students—in one case, too much loved. The
student who loved him too much was Heloise: she was 19, he 20 years
older. They ended up having an affair, and Heloise ended up
pregnant. They married, but this was not enough for Heloise furious
guardian. He sent thugs to beat up Abelard, and they ended up
castrating him as well. Abelard became an abbot, Heloise an
abbess. Astrolabe, their son, raised by Abelard’s sister. The two
carry on a long and fascinating correspondence, and they never lose
their love for one another. In his last letter, Abelard
wrote, “I hope you are willing, when you have finished this
mortal life, to be buried near me.”
Well, they were buried together, and on their
tombstone this epitaph:
"Here under the same stone, repose, of this
monastery the founder, Peter Abelard, and the first abbess, Heloise,
heretofore in study, genius, love, inauspicious marriage, repentance,
now, as we hope, in eternal happiness united.”
How romantic! But even this wasn't enough
for 19th century admirers of the couple. In the 19th century, their
remains were dug up and burned. Their ashes were mingled
together, and they were reburied.
Well, back to Abelard's teaching. Abelard is
most famous for his book Sic et Non (Yes and No), a book that deals
with 156 questions on which church authorities seemed to disagree. Was
exploring such questions a problem, a source of doubt? Some of
his contemporaries thought so, and Abelard had to defend himself
against charges of heresy. But Abelard himself believed that
exploring such questions leads to more solid faith, and I am inclined
to agree. But even better, when one finds satisfactory answers for
one's questions, and that's something medieval theologians did
exceedingly well. As an example: St. Thomas Aquinas.
[See this site for more
St. Thomas Aquinas came from a privileged background. He was
closely related to the Emperor, and his parents wanted him to be
(perhaps) bishop or even pope. He chose instead to join the
Dominican order as an ordinary monk. As a Dominican, he was free to
study and travel. He was a student at the University of Paris,
and later a teacher there. He ended up writing lots and lots of
important things, the two most important of which are the Summa Contra
Gentiles and the Summa Theologica. The first is a great defense
of the Christian faith, one of the best ever written. Aquinas
systematically explains why Christianity is more likely to be true than
any alternative religion or philosophy. The other, the Summa
Theologica, is a great work of systematic theology, an attempt to bring
all the teachings of scripture into a coherent whole and to show us how
we ought to apply those teachings.
Unlike most important theological and
philosophical works, the works of Aquinas are very easy to understand
and follow. He uses the method of Aristotle, stating a
proposition, stating possible objections, and then answering the
objections. It's nice and clear and systematic: no wonder so many
great minds ever since read these works and adopt the philosophy of
Aquinas for their own.
[More here on St.
Thomas Aquinas and his Summa Theologica and Summa Contra Gentiles]
A key to Aquinas greatness is his humility.
He was so quiet and humble that his classmates called him the "dumb
ox," not realizing that he was probably the most brilliant man tey
would ever meet. Eventually, though, people saw his
brilliance. Kings, emperors, and high church officials
asked his advice. But Aquinas view of all this? "All
straw," he said, all just things that would be burned up. What
counts? At the end of his life, Aquinas was writing on the Song
of Solomon which—among other things--is an allegory of God’s love for
his people and the way they should return that love. And that's
what counts, says Aquinas. Loving God, and resting in His love.
I wish I had a brain like Aquinas. Even more, I wish I had a
heart like his.
And speaking of great hearts, the HMA was also a time of renewed
religious devotion. Many continued to join the Benedictine
order. Others sought out stricter orders like the Carthusians and
Cistercians. But perhaps most important was the emergence of two
new orders, the Dominicans and the Franciscans. Those joining
these orders took vows similar to those of the Benedictines. But
instead of living in monasteries the friars (brothers) took seriously
the command to "go to all the world and preach the gospel to every
living creature under heaven." With the rise of these orders,
there were religious who were now free to go from town to town to
[ Some good informatinon here on the Franciscans.
You can also send a friend a St.
Francis e-card and get more information on Francis here.]