[Partly edited 4/25 and 4/8/2014.  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.  In some ways, this civilization ended up 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: first attacked by ostrogoths, visigoths, vandals, huns and later by vikings, saracens, magyars, and saxons.  These invasions destroyed the Roman Empire in the west, disrupted trade, and destroyed the economy of Western Europe.  Literacy declined as books become rare and extraordinarily expensive.  Almost nothing was produced in the way of great art and literature.  The cities dwindled in size, some of them disappearing altogether, and once cultivated area fell back into wilderness.  Population fell 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 the work of  Pope Gregory the Great (590-604).  Gregory used the resources of the church to provide relief of refugees, to feeding the poor and widows, and to ransom captives.  Also, he sent out missionaries to convert the Barbarians--missionaries who were amazingly successful!  Goths, Vandals, Saxons, and even Vikings eventually converted.  This meant that Barbarians, who now felt that the Christian/classical heritage of Rome was partly theirs, wouldn't totally destroy the achievements of earlier Europe and might play a role in preserving some of those achievements.

Gregory's greatest contribution, though, was his spread of the Benedictine movement.  St. Benedict had started a monastary in the early 6th century, a monastary where Gregory himself had been trained.  Benedict wanted it well organized and had required his monks to commit themselves to three standards: poverty, chastity, obedience. The idea, of course, was to get rid of anything that might distract one from God and to lead 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 made sure that similar monastaries were established throughout Europe.  And 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. And obedience?  No: our idea of happiness is to be able to do whatever we want to do.  But it certainly seems that the Benedictines, who adopted very different principles from those that rule America today, seem to have been happier in their chosen lives than the average American.  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.

[The "joy" theme seems to still be central to the modern followers of Benedict.  A quick Google search for "Benedictines" and "joy" turns up all sorts of hits, e.g., books like Benedict's Guide to Every Day Joy and Lessons from Saint Benedict: Finding Joy in Everyday Life.  One of my former students became a Benedictine Oblate (a lay person who associates with the Benedictines) and I think he found this a very positive experience.]

In addition to finding personal satisfaction in their chosen lifestyle, the Benedictine monks did something extraordinarily important in terms of their impact on Western society as a whole.  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 was the rise of an occasional great leader, e.g. a man like the Frankish king Charlemagne (768-814). Charlemagne was a great fighting king.  He defeated the Saxons, Moors, Avars, and Slavs, fighting more than 50 campaigns while leading most of them personally.  He 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. In 800 AD, the pope crowned him "emperor," an indication that his contemporaries thought of him is some ways as the legitimate successor of men like Constanine five centuries before.  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.  You can think of feudalism system decentralized authority, a system where the king delgates authority to dukes or counts (their vassals) who delegate authority to lesser lords (their vassals) who delegate authority to their vassals, the knights.  At each step down the pyramid, the lord makes promises to the vassal (promises involving land and protection) and receives back promises from the vassal.  Kings, dukes, and lesser lords all have land they control directly, land filled with hot and cold running peasants that they turn over to their knights in return for military service. The "land held in return for service" is called a "fief," and it's from the Latin word for fief (feodum) that we get the word feudalism itself.

Decentralized authority tends not to work very well.  Notice that, when the nomes get too much power in Old Kingdom Egypt, things break down, and it certainlly looks like th feudal system is going to lead to trouble. But the medieval system works better than most decentralized systems because of a special glue: the feudal oath.  The keeping of sacred oaths was a top ethical standard during the period, and one of the things Europe was doing right at this point is to place a strong emphasis on oaths.  You never wanted to be "foresworn," i.e., known as an oath-breaker.

The system worked fairly well, and maybe there wasn't much alternative in an age when the only good defense against barbarian invasion was a slew of knigts under local control in any region likely bot be attacked.

Ben in the High Middle Ages (1000-1300), Euroepeans developed something much better, 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 adopt the feudal system to their own purposes, and this enables them to do a particularly good job providing physical security..  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 that, when the call came, European leaders were able 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 Muslim 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." He promised anyone who took part in the struggle to protect Byzantium and win back the land lost to the Muslims that they would receive immediate forgiveness of all their sins.  No purgatory: straight to heaven for them.  "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 Muslims.

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 Muslims.  The Crusade is essentially the same thing as Jihad, Holy War.  The Muslims 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 ethical guidance and emotional fulfilllment?  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.

[A translation of  The 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 crusaders.

The basic story:

Charlemagne has been fighting for eight long years in Spain, and has finally won out over the Muslims.  But he doesn't quite trust the Muslims to keep their promises, and so, as he makes his way back over the Pyrannies to France, he makes sure to guard against Muslim 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 Muslims 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 Muslims low.  But the Muslims are being constantly reinforced while Roland's forces are being whittled away. Eventually it's 300,000 Muslims 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 Muslims, 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, such a poem is a great source of emotional fulfillment.  As they head off to fight Muslims themselves, they can identify with Roland and his companions.  Also, we have here the concept of Holy War turned back on the Muslims.  Die fighting for Christ, and it's straight to heaven for you.  Here's an interesting twist on Christian martyrdom. This isn't exactly the way Peter and Paul gave their lives for the gospel!  But now Christians can feel justified in Jihads of their own--and, quite often,  turn the tables on the Muslims.

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 one e-version.]

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 ethical guidance and emotional fulfillment in the High Middle Ages.  Many of the greatest universities (Oxford, Cambridge, etc.) get their start during this period and much of what we do in the universities of today is a direct hold-over from the middle ages.  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 ethical guidance and emotional fulfillment in the high middle ages.

One example of Medieval contributions in this area is the work of  St. Anselm of Bec, a man born in Italy, lived part of his life in Bec (in present day France), and who eventually became Archbishop of Canterbury.  Saint Anselm's cosmopolitan career +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 faith.
 
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: Peter Abelard.

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 on  Peter Abelard]
 
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 preach.

[ 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.]