Early Medieval Civilization throughout periods

Life in medieval times

To the medieval mind, the world was a highly and divinely organized place in which all things have a place, each place plays a role, and all the roles work together for the glory of God and the salvation of mankind. Umberto Eco calls this the Medieval Spirit. This chapter covers the prioritization of  history and culture of Medieval Europe, from the fall of Rome to the Late Middle Ages. In special focus here is the rise of the European nation states, and the rise in the power of the Church and the Papacy. These are themes which play themselves out in almost every aspect of medieval life. Underlying both of these ideas is the medieval concept of universalism, which they inherited from the Romans.

I. The Growth of the Power of the Catholic Christianity

A. The Christian church was organized around a separation between the clergy (priests) and the laity (everybody else)

1. the clergy have the active role; they govern the Church, they control the cultic/liturgical practices, they teach, pray, and administer God’s grace through the seven sacraments

a) Sacraments: baptism, communion, confession, confirmation, marriage, holy orders, extreme unction

2. there were different types of clergy: monastic and secular

a) monastic clergy were monks and nuns, people who left society behind for the solitude of a monastery and a life of prayer and contemplation

(1) the first and most famous of the monks to establish a religious community was St. Benedict

(a) he established a monastery at Monte Cassino in So. Italy, and wrote a guideline for monastic behavior called The Rule

b) secular clergy were priests who remained active in society, ministering to the spiritual needs of the laity

(1) the secular clergy was organized heirarchically

(a) priests –> bishops –> archbishops –> cardinals –> pope

3. the laity take a more passive role, receiving God’s grace through the sacraments
4. laity organized heirarchically along the same lines

a) peasants –> middle class –> nobility –> king –> emperor

B. The power of the papacy comes from what is known as the Petrine Doctrine

1. in Matthew 16:18, Jesus says to Peter, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church… I will give you the keys to the kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will also be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall also be loosed in heaven.”

a) this passage seems to give Peter the status of Christ’s representative on earth; thus Peter’s successors, the bishops of Rome, also have this power; here is the basis of the Pope’s power

2. from the collapse of Roman control the bishops of Rome came to posess more and more power, until in the 12th-13th centuries, they wielded plena potestas – over the whole Church and over the whole of Christian society

a) the popes claim universal authority over Church and secular rulers

3. the reign of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) was the zenith of the Pope’s (and the Church’s) power in Europe

a) pope wielded power both spiritual and temporal power
b) his two main weapons, besides political influence and wealth, were excommunication and interdict

(1) excommunication = the removal of an individual from the community of Christian believers, denial of the sacraments, and all others are forbidden to provide communication or provision
(2) interdict = was a punishment leveled at an entire nation, resulting in the indefinite suspension of all Church activity – no sacraments

II. The Growth of a Typical Early Medieval State: FRANCIA

A. The Merovingians

1. the Merovingians were the first dynasty of Frankish kings

2. Clovis (481-511) [whence our “Louis”]

a) not the most gentle of men; very violent, mean-tempered, cruel and
b) rapacious – very Germanic
c) was a pagan, until converted by his Burgundian wife, Clothilda

3. the Merovingians who followed Clovis were ineffective kings

a) most were very young at accession, and had to rule through regents, never a desirable situation
b) most were heavy drinkers
c) called the “Do-Nothing Kings”, because they did nothing but waste time and money

4. the kingdom of the Franks was really ruled by the local lords who answered directly to the king through the butler of the palace, the major domo, or “Mayor of the House”

a) eventually, the position of Mayor of the Palace became hereditary
b) became a position of tremendous power, in charge of the distribution of royal land and booty

B. Several of these Mayors became more and more powerful1. Pepin of Heristal (687-714) virtually ruled Frankia

2. his son, Charles Martel (715-741) repelled the Muslim advance in 732
3. Charles’ son, Pepin the Short (741-758) actually seized the throne, deposed the last Merovingian, Childeric III, and ruled as king with the Pope’s permission and support

a) settled the de facto/de jure contradiction

(1) when Pepin became king, his first act was to abolish the office of Mayor of the Palace

(a) was a skillful manipulator and diplomat

C. Charlemagne and the Carolingians

1. Pepin was succeded by his son, Charles the Great, Charlemagne (758-814)

2. Charlemagne was a marvel of a person

a) 6’3″, athletic, handsome, big nose, an active individual, an excellent horseman, good swimmer, very gregarious
b) intelligent, though illiterate, Charles could speak fluent Frankish and Latin, and even some Greek
c) devoted to the Church and to education
d) constantly fought wars; war is fun, it keeps the income rolling in and the nobility busy

3. in 800 while on a trip to Rome, Pope Leo III crowned him “Emperor of the Romans” (whatever THAT meant)

a) there was still the idea in the West that the world should be governed by one supreme king, like the Church, and the Universe
b) Pepin had crowned himself king; now the Pope has crowned the Emperor, establishing a new precedent of power over secular authority

4. his main goals as King of the Franks, and later as Emperor were uniformity, education, and communication/diplomacy

a) uniformity: standardization of liturgy, Latin, coinage, weights and measures, even hand-writing
b) education: ordered bishops and abbots to establish schools, and set up a palace school in Aachen

(1) imported the best scholars in Europe to teach and study there
(2) standardized curriculum – the Seven Liberal Arts: Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy

c) communication/diplomacy: Charlemagne kept up regular and fruitful contacts with the Pope in Rome, the Emperor in Constantinople, and the Abassid Caliph in Baghdad

5. for all his efforts to create the so-called “Carolingian Renaissance”, his empire was not long-lived

a) Charles himself had done too many things – no one could replace him when he was gone, and things fell apart
b) his descendents were weaker, and did not carry on his policies

D. his son, Louis the Pious (814-840), divided the kingdom among his three sons, Louis the German, Charles the Bald, and Lothair

1. this divided kingdom could not withstand the attacks from the Vikings, Mongols and Muslims

III. Invaders of the Late Ninth and Early Tenth Centuries: Vikings, Magyars, Slavs

A. The political unity and stability that existed under Charlemagne disintegrated under his son and grandsons
1. civil war and fragmentation characterized the later Carolingians
2. three groups of invaders took advantage of this disunity and weakness and threatened the very fabric of Christian society


1. the “Northmen” originated in Scandinavia, the modern countries of Denmark, Sweden and Norway

2. these fierce warriors were pagans, but were slowly converted to Christianity by the eleventh century
3. they were mainly a stationary, agricultural people

a) they did, however, often supplement their incomes in the traditional chiefdom style of raiding other settlements

4. although their homeland was fertile and beautiful, the Vikings had a wanderlust, a restless spirit, that kept them away from home for long periods
5. Viking raids were fierce and random

a) they were aided in their raiding by their advanced naval technology, their long ships, which could penetrate deep into the interior river systems

(1) this ability struck terror in the hearts of Europeans all over

b) sometimes they raided and left, sometimes they stayed the winter
c) Vikings built permanent settlements in such places as England and
d) Normandy
e) raids were usually brutal and direct, but sometimes they used trickery or guile to enter a village or town
f) the Vikings were particularly vicious in their raiding of churches and monasteries

(1) these raids, and esp. those on the Church, were seen by many as a sign of God’s anger at the sins of Christendom

6. the favorite areas most often raided were the coasline of the North Sea, Ireland and England

a) Ireland: by A.D.700 Ireland had a flourishing Christian culture, with a large number of rich monasteries situated on the coast

(1) the Irish monks seemed to have the same wanderlust the Vikings had; they traveled to England, Westward, and to the Continent

b) England: divided into many small Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, with each kinglet battling with the others for supremacy

(1) eventually the king of Wessex, Alfred the Great, unified all England and kicked out the Danish invaders

7. Viking were great explorers and travellers

a) settled Iceland, Greenland and North America
b) they even attempted to sack Constantinople
c) they set up contact with the Byzantine Empire, the Slavs, the Islamic Empire, and ultimately India and China

1. these people came from the steppes of Central Asia and settled in the eastern part of the Holy Roman Empire, in the old Roman province of Pannonia
a) carried on raids throughout most of Europe, but especially among the German-speaking peoples of the Holy Roman Empire
b) they were defeated by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I at the Battle of
c) Lechfeld in 955
d) they settled in Pannonia, were assimilated into Christian culture, and became the Hungarians

1. as a people they have their origins in the area around modern day Moscow

a) some stayed, others migrated westward and southward, giving us three different groups of Slavic peoples

2. the Southern Slavs: Serbs, Croats, Slovenians, Montenegrans, Macedonians settled in the Balkan mountains

a) their institutions, politics and culture were influenced by their proximity to Constantinople
b) these Slavs eventually became part of the Byzantine Empire, and they converted to Byzantine Orthodox Christianity

3. the Western Slavs: Poles, Bohemians(Czechs and Slovaks) and to a certain extent the Hungarians

a) these people formed the nations of Poland (Mieszko I), Bohemia (St. Wenceslaus I), and Hungary (St. Stephen I)
b) their religion was a hybrid of Eastern Orthodox and Western Frankish Catholic Christianity
c) the Byzantine missionaries SS. Cyril and Methodius converted these Slavs, and provided for them an alphabet for use with the Slavic language, and they become a literate people

4. the Eastern Slavs: Russians and Ukrainians, were strongly influenced by the Vikings

a) the Swedish Viking leader, Rurik, and his men settled in the area of Kiev, and they intermingled with the native Slavic population
b) this new people became known as the Russ, and later moved their capital to Moscow, where the Russian Czars (Caesars) ruled until the 20th century
c) Prince Vladimir converted to Byzantine Orthodox Christianity in A.D.988

IV. The Development of Nations During the Middle Ages

A. France

1. the Carolingians died out in 989; they are replaced by Hugh Capet and a new dynasty, the Capetians, who rule in an unbroken succession from father to son for over three-hundred years

a) Hugh Capet – inherited a weak kingdom, so he turned to aggressive feudalism and diplomacy to increase his power
b) he began by controlling only the Ile de France, the area right around Paris

2. the kings of France slowly built up their power, and their overlordship of many provinces

a) the Capetians just sat by, content to be acknowleged king without wielding that much power

3. the predominant social, political and economic system in France was Feudalism

a) feudalism between lords and vassals was one of control of land in exchange for military service: the vassal gets to use the land and its income, and in return he must fight for the lord or provide fighting men
b) feudalism between peasants and lords was basically an arrangement of service for protection: the serfs will work the and for the lord if the lord agrees to protect the serfs and provide basic services for them

(1) the lord provides a mill and oven, as well as military protection and justice

B. Germany: The Holy Roman Empire
1. very unstable and disunified, Germany suffered from both sides, Vikings and Hungarians

a) to resist these invasions the nobility of Germany got together and elected a king, Duke Heinrich of Saxony

2. when Heinrich died, the nobles elected his son, Otto I, king of the Germans

a) Otto did much to enhance the prestige of the German monarchy, esp. defeating the Magyars at Lechfeld in 955
b) after much tribulation, Otto was crowned emperor at Rome in 962; emeror of the “Roman Empire of the German Nation”, later called the Holy Roman Empire

(1) he had to conquer Italy to do it
(2) even though the borders look big, it was a weak empire, and the elected emperor is weakest of all

(a) he only had power in his home-province
(b) other nobility acedt independently

c) Otto presided over a revival of learning and growth throughout the Holy Roman Empire

3. Otto I was succeeded by his son Otto II, and grandson, Otto III

a) these men were just as obsessed with Italy as Otto I had been, and this obsession caused trouble for them

4. later emperors were just as weak, and had problems with the nobility and with the popes
5. after the death of Otto III in 1002, the throne passed to the dukes of Bavaria, who were less interested in Italy

a) Heinrich III (1039-1056) stepped in to solve the papal problems in Rome

(1) the Church was in bad need of reform; Heinrich engineered the election of Leo IX, a reform Pope
(2) Leo IX traveled all over Western Christendom, rooting out corruption and establishing reform; he found that many bishops and abbots had purchased their offices from lords – the sin of simony
(3) he also discovered that many of these lords were conferring on these corrupt bishops the symbols of their clerical office (ring, mitre, and staff) AFTER the new priest took his feudal oath; Leo was outraged at this “Lay Investiture”

b) under Heinrich IV, Heinrich V, and Frederick Barbarossa, conflict with the papacy grew worse

(1) the conflict over Lay Investiture heated up between Emperor Heinrich IV and Pope Gregory XI

(a) the two men began by exchanging nasty letters, then official documents against each other
(b) Gregory excommunicated Heinrich, and the emperor eventually capitulated

i) the image of the emperor begging the pope for forgiveness was a great boost to the pope’s prestige

C. England

1. the Anglo-Saxon hegemony begun by Alfred the Great did not survive long, and the Vikings soon reasserted their dominance

a) King ®thelred the Unready (978-1016) lost territory and, ultimately, his throne to the Viking Canute the Great
b) Canute the Great (1017-1035) was also King of Denmark and Norway, and thus ruled a huge empire

(1) but this empire was hoplessly disunited and fell apart shortly after his death in 1035

2. Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) took control of England after the death of the last of Canute’s sons

a) Edward ruled in relative peace, but was celibate, and thus had no heir; he nominated his cousin, William of Normandy
b) after Edward’s death in 1066, there was a war over the succession between the king of Norway and Denmark, the colorful Harald the Nasty; Harold Godwinson, Edward’s right hand man and brother-in-law; and Duke William of Normandy

3. William invaded England in 1066, and took the throne as William I, the Conquerer ; ruled well and made England strong
4. Henry I (1110-1135) was a progressive king

a) reformed taxation, bureaucracy, local administration

5. after Henry’s death there was another disputed succession, and another civil war, this time between Henry’s daughter Matilda (or Maud) and her cousin, Stephen (1135-1154)
6. the victor in the war was Matilda’s son, Henry II (1154-1189)

a) Henry controlled all lands from the border of Spain to the border of Scotland; the Angevin Empire
b) he reformed justice and financial systems, maintained peace w/ France
c) had trouble with his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket

7. Richard I the Lionhearted (1189-1199) sort of a Medieval James Bond; a troubadour, poet, singer, warrior, crusader

a) Richard spend most of his reign off on crusade, and left England under the control of his brother, the wicked Prince John (ala Robin Hood)

8. John (1199-1216) useless and ineffective; nobility forced him to sign the Magna Charta in 1215, giving away much royal power to Parliament

a) for the rest of the Middle Ages there was a balance of power in England between the monarch and Parliament

D. Italy
1. Italy in the Middle Ages was a conglomeration of many independent states

a) the penninsula was dominated by five states: the city-state Republics of Milan, Florence, and Venice; the Papal States; and the Kingdom of Naples

2. Milan, Florence and Venice were independent city-states, with governments modelled on the Roman republic

a) they were commercial powers, esp. Florence (wool, banking) and Venice (shipping and trade)

3. the Papal States had been granted to the Pope by Pepin and the Carolingians

a) the Pope was the secular ruler of Rome and surrounding territories; he ruled there as a king

4. the Kingdom of Naples included the entire southern part of Italy, and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia

a) ruled by Norman invaders related to William the Conqueror

E. Spain

1. throughout most of the Middle Ages, much of Spain was under the control of the Muslim Caliphate of Granada

a) the Muslims fought with the Christian parts of the Iberian penninsula, esp. the kingdoms of Aragon and Castille

2. this fighting continued until the late fifteenth century, when Ferdinand, king of Aragon, married Isabella, queen of Castille, and together they reconquered all of Spain from the Muslims

F. Everywhere Else in Europe
1. Scotland was independent from England, but much more barbaric

a) still dominated by clan warfare and feuding

2. Scandinavia was sometimes united, mostly divided independent kingdoms
3. Poland, Bohemia and Hungary were unified kingdoms, but each king had continual problems with the cantankerous nobility
4. Russia was steadily growing in size and power, as the Czars consolidated their control over the nobility
5. the Byzantine Empire continually shrunk in size, until Constantinople was finally taken by the Turks in 1453