Page:Western Europe in the Middle Ages.djvu/21

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5
INTRODUCTION

power of the modern sovereign state could exist under such circumstances. On the other hand, the weakness or the absence of large political units increased the cohesiveness of smaller groups. No individual could stand alone; he had to be part of a community, and the community of a village or of a town influenced and controlled the lives of its members to a far greater extent than it does today.

This peculiar political organization was adapted to an equally unusual religious organization. In the Roman Empire the state had controlled religion; the pagan cults were mere agencies of the government, and even the Catholic Church had had to conform to laws and administrative regulations issued by the emperor. In the modern period the churches are usually considered voluntary private associations, completely dissociated from the state, completely dependent on their own moral authority to enforce their rules. In the twelfth century the Church was an independent public authority. It claimed complete freedom of action; no secular ruler could interfere with its officials, its courts, or its laws. But at the same time, the twelfth-century Church insisted that lay authority must support its efforts to preserve the unity of the faith and the rules of Christian morality. The Church determined the values and the goals of European society; it held that lay governments were inferior though independent agencies whose chief duty was to deal with the sordid details of crime and punishment. The idea of a Commonwealth of Christendom found its expression in the Church, and loyalty to the Church was stronger than loyalty to any lay organization.

It is a little more difficult to appreciate the significance of the twelfth century in economic history. At first glance it would seem that there had been little change since the Late Roman Empire. Both in the fourth and in the twelfth centuries the great majority of the population of Europe was engaged in agriculture, and most of these agricultural laborers were unfree. The great difference between the two periods is that the fourth century was a period