Western Europe in the Middle Ages/Introduction

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What were the Middle Ages? The conventional answer is that they were the centuries between the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginnings of modern European civilization. Scholars have argued, and will argue endlessly, as to the exact dates of these two terminal points, but we do not have to wait for them to reach an agreement. Most historians would admit that the Roman Empire was well on its way to decline by the fifth century and that many of the characteristic elements of modern civilization were apparent by 1500. We do not have to be more precise than this—we can say that the Middle Ages run, roughly, from the fifth to the fifteenth century. There will be exceptions to this rule-of-thumb definition—aspects of Roman civilization survive in some parts of Europe long after 400 A.D. and elements of modern civilization appear in Italy well before 1500—but no student of medieval history can say that these transitional forms are completely outside his field of interest.

The Middle Ages extend from the fifth to the fifteenth century. This is a long period, so long that many writers will argue that it has no real unity, that there are many middle ages instead of one. There is force in this argument. We have only to think what our ancestors were like a thousand or even five hundred years ago to wonder whether one of Clovis's German warriors had much in common with a crusader of the twelfth century or an English baron of the Wars of the Roses. Is there any real unity in the Middle Ages, or have we simply developed a convenient catch-basket phrase in which to dump a number of centuries that do not greatly interest us?

To answer this question let us pick a century which everyone will admit was medieval, say the twelfth. How do the ways of living, the basic ideas and ideals of this century differ from those of the Roman Empire and those of the modern world?

In the first place, it is clear that we are dealing with a civilization which, in its complete form, covers only Western Europe. It has little influence on Eastern Europe and even less on Western Asia and Northern Africa. Graeco-Roman civilization had been Mediterranean, not European; it attained its fullest development in Italy, Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, and North Africa. Modern occidental civilization is oceanic, not European; it is as typical of America, Australia, and parts of Asia and Africa as it is of Western Europe. In the Roman period most of Europe was a backward, colonial region, receiving its institutions and ideas from more advanced communities to the south and east. In the modern period Europe has been first the center and then a segment of a world civilization. But in the twelfth century European civilization stood by itself, neither greatly influencing nor greatly influenced by the civilizations of other continents.

In political and constitutional developments twelfth-century Europe occupies the same middle position. The Roman Empire was not a national state; it was a union of all the peoples who shared the common Mediterranean civilization under a single powerful ruler. The modern world, though it recognizes the fact of a common civilization, is divided into sovereign national states. The twelfth century knew neither the single powerful political unit nor the modern state. Nationalism and sovereignty did not exist, and although the concept of a Commonwealth of Christendom did exist, it found effective expression only in the Church, not in any secular political organization. Every man was subject to many overlapping authorities to the local feudal lord or self-governing town in all ordinary affairs, to the more remote overlord (king, duke, or count) in special cases, to the Church in matters which concerned the welfare of Christendom and the Christian faith. This division of authority made absolutism impossible; neither the unlimited power of the Roman emperor nor the equally unlimited 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 of declining economic activity, whereas the twelfth century was a period of economic expansion. The Romans of the Late Empire would have been satisfied if they could have kept production and commerce at their old level; the men of the twelfth century were making a great effort to increase production and commerce. They were clearing forests, draining swamps, building new towns, establishing new trading stations in the East, concentrating certain industries in the towns, and even experimenting with new sources of mechanical power, such as the windmill. This rapid expansion makes the twelfth century, in some of its aspects, resemble our own boom periods. For example, emigration agents in the Rhineland told German peasants the familiar story of fertile land on the eastern frontier which could be had for a song. But the controlling ideas of the twelfth century were so different from ours that the resemblances between the two economic systems are less striking than the differences. Strong community feeling and the influence of the Church made group enterprise more important than individual effort. Settlers on the frontier grouped themselves in villages for mutual protection and assistance; they did not set up individual homesteads. The small business men of the towns formed strong associations, not only to guard their political rights but also to suppress economic competition. Even the most individualistic enterprisers of the period, the great merchants who traded across the length and breadth of Europe, found that they had to be backed up by associations of their fellow merchants to enjoy any security. At the same time the Church and the governing classes were very suspicious of profit-seeking individuals. The Church feared, quite rightly, that such men would become too interested in this world to remember the next Kings and nobles feared that the unrestrained drive for profits would undermine the social organization which gave them power. There was general agreement that economic activity should be regulated and controlled in the interests of society and that individual profits were less important than social stability. This is not to say that the profit motive was completely suppressed in the twelfth century, but no one at that time thought that it was or should be the mainspring of human activity. As a result, neither individual capitalists nor the middle class as a whole had the same importance in the twelfth century that they have had in the modern world.

In art and literature, philosophy and science, formal and informal education, the twelfth century diverged sharply from the Roman tradition. It saw the beginnings of a new type of architecture in the early Gothic churches and a new type of literature in the poems of the troubadours and jongleurs. It witnessed the revival of science, long neglected by the Romans, and the first works of scholastic philosophy. The gradual development of the Universities of Bologna and Paris laid the foundations for a new system of education, characterized by formal lecture courses, examinations, and degrees. At the same time the ideal of the cultured gentleman slowly began to take shape in the active social life of the courts of southern France. We have inherited all these traditions, but it is hardly necessary to point out that they have been greatly modified by the passage of time. The Renaissance, in reviving the classical tradition, caused a sharp break in the development of medieval forms of expression, and when these forms were revived in their turn in the nineteenth century they had to be fitted into a new intellectual and material environment. Sir Walter Scott could not write medieval ballads, however much he soaked himself in Middle English poetry, and a Gothic church built around a steel skeleton is not the same kind of church as Notre Dame de Chartres. Even where there was no sharp break with the past, as in the field of science, gradual change led to almost complete transformation of values and objectives. We can see how modern physics developed from the Aristotelian works brought back to the West in the twelfth century, but we cannot think the thoughts of a twelfth-century scholar. The intellectual and artistic tradition of the twelfth century has its roots in the past and bears much of its fruit in the future, but it is clearly an independent tradition; it is neither decadent classicism nor primitive modernism.

If we try to summarize the results attained by this brief discussion we might say that the civilization of the twelfth century had characteristics which clearly separate it from the civilizations of Rome and of the modern world. It was a Western European civilization rather than a Mediterranean or an oceanic civilization. Political power was divided among a hierarchy of interdependent governments rather than concentrated in a world empire or a group of sovereign national states. The Church was independent of secular authority, but it was more than a private association with limited functions; it set the standards and defined the goals for all human activities. In economics there was neither state regulation nor laissez-faire; instead local custom controlled farmers, artisans, and merchants in the interest of the whole community. In Gothic art, chivalric poetry, scholastic philosophy, and the university system of education the twelfth century created forms which were neither classical nor modern. These characteristics of twelfth-century civilization were not only distinct, but also interdependent; they fused into an organic whole. The economic institutions could not have existed without the political and religious institutions; the art and literature were profoundly affected by the religious and political beliefs of the age. The civilization of the twelfth century was remarkably self-sufficient and self-consistent; it had a flavor, a texture, almost a personality, of its own.

Obviously these elements of twelfth-century civilization are not duplicated exactly in any other period of the Middle Ages. But they illustrate the basic assumptions, the social habits, the aspirations of the other medieval centuries. Conscious choice and the force of external circumstances were leading Europeans toward the pattern of twelfth-century civilization long before that pattern could be fully worked out. Conscious choice and force of habit made Europeans cling to the basic pattern of twelfth-century civilization for generations, even though new activities and ideas forced modification of some of its details. There are important differences between the early and late Middle Ages, but these differences represent different stages in the development of a single civilization. From the fifth to the eighth century the wreckage of an older civilization was slowly cleared away. Europe gradually separated itself from the Mediterranean world and worked out its own independent culture, based on Christianity, survivals of Roman institutions and ideas, and Germanic customs. The ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries were a period of adjustment and experimentation, in which Europeans slowly and painfully discovered the most effective institutional and ideological expressions of their basic beliefs and aspirations. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were a period of fruition, of full development of all the potentialities of medieval civilization. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries medieval civilization slowly decayed under the impact of the new forces which it had created by its own success. From this point of view there is real unity in the story of the Middle Ages; it is the story of the rise, development, and fall of a great civilization.

It is because the history of the Middle Ages is the history of a civilization that the subject is worth studying. The record of the rise and fall of any civilization deserves careful examination, for the basic problems of all civilizations are similar. When we fully understand how peoples of the past slowly became capable of organizing and integrating their efforts, how they accomplished their great and characteristic work, how they eventually lost their ability to do constructive work and slipped into stagnant or retrogressive activities, then we will understand more about the state of our own civilization. The medieval experience is especially important — first, because we have more information about it than any comparable cycle — second, because it has contributed directly to our own way of life. Too many people still think that the Middle Ages are merely a stagnant pit which lies between the heights of classical and of Renaissance civilization, and that all our legacy from the past was carried over the bridges which Renaissance thinkers threw across the medieval pit to the firm ground of Graeco-Roman learning. This is true even of people who deposit money in a bank, who elect representatives to a national assembly, who rely on the precedents of the English common law, who receive degrees from universities and believe that science is an important part of education, who worship in Gothic churches, and who read books written in modern European languages. They would find their lives rather limited and unsatisfactory if they could do none of these things, and yet the basic idea of every one of these activities was worked out in the Middle Ages and not in ancient Greece or Rome. Our civilization has roots in the Middle Ages as well as in the classical period, and the medieval roots often contribute more nourishment than the classical ones. The story of medieval civilization is worth knowing, and it is that story which is told, in its barest outlines, in this book.