A New Civilization Emerges in Western Europe

Edited By: R. A. Guisepi

 

The Sources Of Vitality In The Postclassical West

 

     Why did western Europe begin to demonstrate new vigor around A.D. 1000 -

forming new schools and a more elaborate culture; expanding trade and towns,

while loosening the most restrictive aspects of manorial social organization;

launching new, sometimes aggressive contacts with other areas, as in the

Crusades? The question is really the reverse of the more familiar analysis of

societal decline. It is at least as important to know what causes

civilizations to rise as to probe the reasons for their fall. At various

points in history (including the 20th century) certain societies begin to be

more dynamic than they had been before, sometimes more dynamic also than many

other societies in the same period. Determining causes in one case may help in

evaluating other cases. Furthermore, an understanding of causes may help

explain directions of new vigor - what kinds of new cultural forms are

generated, for example, or why some dynamic societies are more expansionistic

than others. The causes that produced new energy in the medieval West are

particularly interesting in that they galvanized not only a backward society,

but one that in some respects - in levels of trade and learning, for instance

- had retrogressed from previous achievements.

 

     The legacy of Greece and Rome had something to do with the medieval

surge. Key Europeans knew the empire had existed; a sense of lost greatness

might have inspired them. More concretely, revival of specific political

achievements like Roman law helped stabilize medieval politics by the 11th

century, starting with the organization of the Church itself. Continued use of

Latin for intellectual life facilitated encounters with classical learning.

One approach to an explanation, then, might suggest a certain inevitability:

Classical achievements were so inspiring that, after a few centuries of chaos,

the West almost automatically resurrected key elements of the Greco-Roman

experience. By the 12th century medieval writers suggested this pattern,

arguing that though they could not rival the sheer intellectual power of the

classical philosophers, they actually could forge beyond them by "standing on

their shoulders." This model would suggest a Western experience similar to

that of China after its centuries of chaos subsequent to the fall of the Han

dynasty, for here new vigor was based directly on the ability to revive past

strengths.

 

     Another model for the West stresses the impact of cultural change,

notably the results of conversions to Christianity. To be sure, Christianity

incorporated elements of classical learning and the institutional patterns of

the Roman Empire, but it was in many ways a new force. It took some time for

Christianity to be assimilated, but ultimately it began to reshape habits in

important ways. Thus Christian pleas for peace, while they did not end war in

Europe, did have a taming effect, allowing more stable political structures to

develop by around A.D. 1000. The example of the Church as a bureaucratic

institution similarly helped inspire secular rulers to improve their

administrations, while the interest in reading and interpreting the Bible and

the writings of the church fathers spurred medieval intellectual and

educational life. Some scholars have even argued for a special, unanticipated

technological result of assimilation of Christianity. By arguing that

humankind is superior to the animal world - made in God's image - the new

religion encouraged medieval people toward a less reverent, more utilitarian

view of nature as something to be exploited. It prepared medieval Europeans'

receptivity to new technologies that would subdue nature. More specifically,

Christian interst in bells, for use in church celebrations, stimulated

medieval interest in metalworking, with results that were applied to other

fields by the 15th centurey. Development of clocks, a major technological

advance, followed from an interest in timing the start of religious services.

Certainly Christianity encouraged some of the expansionist tone of a more

dynamic western Europe, as part of a desire to convert unbelievers and beat

back the infidel.

 

     A third line of explanation stresses more purely technological factors.

Moldboard plows began to spread in northwestern Europe by the 9th century,

though they had been introduced earlier by Celtic or Germanic farmers. The

moldboards worked much better in the moist, clinging soil of northern Europe

than the lighter models the Romans had used. The moldboard in turn encouraged

better ironwork and also improved village organization, for the new plows were

costly and required cooperation. At the same time food production improved,

spurring population growth, the rise of cities, and the important push into

sparsely populated lands in eastern Germany.

 

     A second innovation, again taking shape by the 9th and 10th centuries,

was the new collar that allowed harnessing and shoeing of horses instead of

oxen for field work - horses being notably faster in their work. Use of horses

also encouraged land transport and roads. Finally, European farmers began to

convert to the three-field system (in which a third of the land was left

fallow, to replenish fertility, each year) instead of the Roman two-field

system - again a clear basis for rising food production. What was happening -

in advance of new political and cultural forms, bigger cities, and growing

trade - was a quiet agricultural revolution, accomplished by nameless farmers.

Perhaps Christian beliefs about nature inspired them to an extent. Certainly

contact with other people helped - thus in Charlemagne's time, Europeans

learned about horseshoes and stirrups from invaders from central Asia. But it

was the technological thrust that directly set other, more dramatic signs of

dynamism in motion, such as the growth of cities and the creation of

universities.

 

     Western Europe was not of course the only dynamic new society to emerge

in the later centuries of the post classical era. Russia, parts of Africa,

Japan, and other areas showed vigor as well, and in some of the same ways,

such as with more stable politics and commercial expansion. Whatever the

specific combination of factors operating in western Europe, it is important

to remember the larger typology: A number of societies were able to blend

their own cultural traditions and the advantages of new contacts with more

extablished centers of civilization to produce various kinds of growth and

innovation. The motivation of trying to catch up with the richer centers,

along with sufficient contacts to allow some hope of figuring out how to

advance, played no small role in this general process.

 

Conclusion: The Postclassical West And Its Heritage

 

     The term Middle Ages long suggested a rather unpleasant, backward period

in Western history between the glories of classical Greece and Rome and the

return of vigorous civilization in the 15th century. In this view, the Middle

Ages might be regarded as an unfortunate interlude in which Westerners were

dominated by poverty and superstition, pulled away from mainstream Western

values. Western leaders might be given credit for keeping a few classical

ideals alive, copying documents and venerating the glories of the past.

Western leaders, however, should be given credit for little else.

 

     The harsh view of the Middle Ages is not entirely wrong, though it

neglects the extent to which much activity centered in parts of Europe that

had never before been integrated into a major civilization and therefore were

building appropriate institutions and culture for the first time.

Postclassical Europe was backward in some respects, even at its height. It did

not participate in world contacts as an equal to the great Asian societies.

The Middle Ages was not simply an awkward interlude in Western history,

however. It had a formative force of its own.

 

The Distinctive Flavor

 

     In culture, medieval thinkers did recapture and repackage key elements of

the classical heritage, particularly in their view of humanity's rational

powers and their definition of reason in terms of logic. By linking classical

rationalism with a strong belief in a divine plan they may indeed have

advanced the idea of a fundamentally orderly universe and so set the stage for

further advances in rationalistic scientific thought. Stylistically, medieval

artists did not mainly work in classical modes, and their contributions added

important ingredients to the larger cultural heritage. William Shakespeare,

for example, writing in the later 16th century, borrowed freely from Greek

literary themes, but he owed still more to the earthy popular drama that began

in the Middle Ages.

 

     In politics, the Middle Ages largely bypassed the classical heritage,

despite a few longings for empire and the important usage of principles of

Roman law. The most characteristic institutions were built on the Church and

feudalism, and their heritage to later Western political developments was

almost certainly greater than that of Greece or Rome. Medieval politics were

not of course the final Western form, but in ideas of higher law and in the

institutional restraints on central government they did prefigure values and

institutions that have had enduring impact in the West. Similarly, medieval

economics, with the new interest in merchant life and technical innovation

that developed by the 10th century, set a much more direct stage for

subsequent Western developments than classical economic patterns had done;

here too, medieval developments were quite different from their Greek and

Roman analogues, as was evident from the greater prestige of merchants and the

absence of extensive slavery.

 

     The Middle Ages, in sum, created its own culture, relying only in part on

earlier classical models. Preservation of classical patterns was important,

and Western leaders would later select a larger number of Greek and Roman

ingredients to challenge certain medieval impulses. Medieval precedents would

remain strong as well, even for periods in which Western pacesetters professed

to scorn the Middle Ages. One world historian has suggested that a key

historical source of Western vitality in more modern centuries has been the

ability to select among a quite diverse set of pasts, rather than building,

Chinese-fashion, upon more unified traditions. Certainly, the Middle Ages

contributed greatly to the range of options available for later Western

development, even as specifically medieval syntheses began to unravel by the

14th century.

 

Western Civilization In The Postclassical Period: A Comparative Balance Sheet

 

     The Middle Ages formed a distinctive period in Western history while

contributing durable values for the civilization later on. Parliamentary

institutions are one example of heritage, even though their medieval form

differed considerably from their more modern guise.

 

     Postclassical Europe can also be compared with other societies in a

number of developmental respects. Growing complexity over time brought

tensions between the merchant spirit and older agricultural values, which

other civilizations had faced before; it also brought some familiar changes in

the conditions of women. Conversion to Christianity had features that

resembled conversion to Islam elsewhere, though Christian religious

institutions differed considerably from Muslim institutions. Christian and

Muslim thinkers shared problems in coming to terms with other intellectual

traditions, though ultimately the balance struck turned out to differ. On

another front, as feudal monarchies developed more specialized bureaucracies

they unwittingly duplicated elements pioneered much earlier by Chinese rulers,

and they copied contemporary bureaucracies they learned about in the Byzantine

Empire and Muslim Spain.

 

     The most important comparisons involve juxtaposing western Europe with

other areas where civilization was partially novel in this period and where

change was correspondingly rapid. Divided political rule in Europe resembled

conditions in African regions and, even more obviously, in Japan, the only

other feudal society in this period. Rapidly growing trade and an orientation

toward richer, more established centers was another common feature, shared

also with Russia's north-south links. The West's contact levels were higher

than those of most of sub-Saharan Africa, however, and its expansionist

interests - witness the crusades - were much greater than Japan's. Again, the

postclassical West constituted a type of civilization with many similarities

to other emerging regions but with its own distinctive combinations, including

the aggressive interest in the wider world.

 

ut most people operated according to quite

different economic values, directed toward group welfare rather than

individual profit. This was not either a static society or an early model of a

modern commercial society. It had its own flavor, and its own tensions - the

fruit of several centuries of economic and social change.

 

Women And Family Life

 

     The increasing complexity of medieval social and economic life may have

had one final effect which is familiar from patterns in other agricultural

societies: setting new limits on the conditions of women. Women's work

remained of course vital in most families. Christian emphasis on the equality

of all souls, and the practical importance of monastic groups organized for

women, giving some an alternative to marriage, continued to offer distinctive

features for women's lives in Western society. The veneration of Mary and

other female religious figures gave women real cultural prestige,

counterbalancing the Biblical emphasis on Eve as the source of human sin. In

some respects women in the West had higher status than their sisters under

Islam: They were less segregated in religious services (though they could not

lead them) and less confined to the household. Still, women's effective voice

in the family may have declined in the Middle Ages. Urban women often played

important roles in local commerce and even operated some craft guilds, but

they found themselves increasingly hemmed in by male-dominated organizations.

By the late Middle Ages a literature arose that stressed women's roles as the

assistants and comforters to men, listing supplemental household tasks and

docile virtues as women's distinctive sphere. Patriarchal structures seemed to

be taking deeper root.

 

The Political Values Of The Middle Ages

 

     The key values and tensions of medieval society and culture were

expressed in characteristic styles and institutions: the Gothic cathedral, the

scholastic Summas, the manors, and the guilds. Medieval politics produced a

similar summary expression in the feudal monarchy as it flowered during the

High Middle Ages. There was, to be sure, greater basic diversity in medieval

politics than in social or cultural forms, and feudal monarchy by no means

took hold universally across Western society. However, some of the principles

this institution captured were more widely held, wherever feudalism evolved to

permit somewhat more centralized governing structures, in duchies or other

regional states as well as the more eye-catching kingdoms like England and

France.

 

     In addition to its unusual, sometimes overwhelming chaos, the early

postclassical West developed a number of implicit political principles that

were carried over, though also modified, when more sophisticated government

structures began to emerge with the rise of monarchies. Principle number one,

clearly articulated in Church writings, held that laws of God were superior to

those of humans. The Church, as an instrument of God, was separate from the

state and in some ways above it, even though in the rough and tumble of actual

medieval politics secular rulers often seized the upper hand. Principle number

two involved the ineradicable local and regional divisions. Effective imperial

governments could not be formed, as the collapse of Charlemagne's empire

demonstrated; the West would be politically divided. Even regional governments

had to recognize the strength of the local interests and power clusters.

Principle number three, closely related to the impediments to centralization,

involved the values embodied in feudalism. Feudal bonds - the relationships

between lords and vassals - stressed mutuality. Each party in the relationship

should contribute, each should gain. Vassals received protection and, usually,

land (the fief or feudum, from which feudalism took its name) from their lord;

lords won some payments, military service, and loyalty from their vassals.

While feudalism permitted hierarchy among lords, it did not permit, at least

in theory, unilateral assertions of power. It also encouraged mutual

consultation. Vassals were supposed to advise their lords on judicial matters

or issues of policy; lords were supposed to consult their vassals, rather than

acting arbitrarily.

 

     Unadulterated feudalism might of course function very badly. For all the

high-sounding principles, there was a great deal of outright bullying and

power display among the local lords during the postclassical period, quite

apart from ill treatment of the masses of ordinary serfs who were underneath

the feudal system. Effective government required some modifications of

feudalism. Yet feudalism could be blended with other political systems,

without losing many of its distinctive features.

 

Monarchy And Its Limits

 

     The new ingredient in medieval politics, as medieval society developed

greater vigor from the 10th century onward, was of course the growth of royal

power (or in some regions such as much of present-day Belgium, ducal power).

Here the key steps are in many ways familiar, for they duplicateo,

unwittingly, the centralization principles developed earlier and more

extensively in China and elsewhere. Medieval kings followed particular

patterns of alliances and gradual aggrandizement because of their initially

weak positions, and there were important specific events involved such as the

Norman Conquest of England. Centralization is centralization, however, and

though often reinvented it has some standard features.

 

     Thus, as they began to expand their resources and aspirations, medieval

kings developed small armies of their own, paid for by lands under their

direct control, and they ventured a small central bureaucracy. Often they

chose urban business or professional people to serve in this bureaucracy,

partly because such people had expertise in financial matters and partly

because, unlike the aristocracy, they would owe allegiance to the crown alone.

French and English monarchs began to introduce bureaucratic specialties, so

that some of their ministers would handle justice, others finance, and still

others military matters. They found ways to send centrally appointed

emissaries to the provinces to supervise tax collection and the administration

of justice. It was in this vein that English kings, from the Norman Conquest

onward, appointed local sheriffs to oversee the administration of justice.

None of these activities gave the monarchs extensive contacts with ordinary

subjects; for most people, effective governments were still local. Once the

principle of central control was established, however, a steady growth of

state-sponsored rule followed. By the end of the Middle Ages, monarchs were

gaining the right to tax their subjects directly, and they were beginning to

recruit professional armies, instead of relying solely on an aristocratic

cavalry whose loyalties depended on feudal bonds or alliances. Several

medieval kings, such as Louis IX in France, also gained solid reputations as

law givers, which allowed a gradual centralization of legal codes and court

systems. Rediscovery of Roman law in countries like France encouraged this

centralization effort.

 

     Feudal monarchy was always a delicately balanced institution, of which

the central government formed only one of the key ingredients. The power of

the Church served to check royal ambitions. As we have seen, the Church could

often win in a clash with the state by excommunicating rulers and thus

threatening to turn the loyalties of the population against them. Although the

Church entered a period of decline at the end of the Middle Ages, the

principle was rather clearly established that there were areas of belief and

morality not open to manipulation by the state. And during most of the Middle

Ages, the sheer authority of church organization and religious doctrine made

this limitation on royal power a telling reality.

 

     The second limitation on the royal families came from the traditions of

feudalism and from the landed aristocracy as a powerful class. Aristocrats

tended to resist too much monarchical control in the West, and they had the

strength to make their objections heard. These aristocrats, even when vassals

of the king, had their own economic base and their own military force -

sometimes, in the case of great nobles, they had an army greater than that of

the king. The growth of the monarchy cut into aristocratic power, but this led

to new statements of the limits of kings. In 1215 the unpopular English king

John faced opposition to his taxation measures from an alliance of nobles,

townspeople, and church officials. Defeated in his war with France and then

forced down by the leading English lords, John was forced to sign the Great

Charter, or Magna Carta, which confirmed basically feudal rights against

monarchical claims. John promised to observe restraint in his dealings with

the nobles and the Church, agreeing for example not to institute new taxes

without the lords' permission or to appoint bishops without the Church's

permission. A few modern-sounding references to general rights of the English

people against the state that were included in Magna Carta largely served to

show where the feudal idea of mutual limits and obligations between rulers and

ruled could later expand.

 

     This same feudal balance led, late in the 13th century, to the creation

of parliaments as bodies representing not individual voters but privileged

groups such as the nobles and the Church. The first full English parliament

convened in 1265, with the House of Lords representing the nobles and the

church hierarchy, and the Commons made up of elected representatives from

wealthy citizens of the towns. The parliament institutionalized the feudal

principle that monarchs should consult with their vassals. In particular,

parliaments gained the right to rule on any proposed changes in taxation;

through this power, they could also advise the crown on other policy issues.

While the parliamentary tradition became strongest in England, similar

institutions arose in France, Spain, and several of the regional governments

in Germany. Here too, parliaments represented the key estates: Church, nobles,

and urban leaders. They were not widely elected.

 

     Feudal government was not modern government. People had rights according

to the estate into which they were born; there was no general concept of

citizenship and no democracy. Thus parliaments represented only a minority,

and even this minority only in terms of the three or four estates voting as

units (nobles, clergy, urban merchants, and sometimes wealthy peasants), not

some generalized collection of voters. Still, by creating a concept of limited

government and some hint of representative institutions, Western feudal

monarchy produced the beginnings of a distinctive political tradition. This

tradition differed from the political results of Japanese feudalism, which

emphasized group loyalty more than checks on central power.

 

     During the postclassical period, a key result of the establishment of

feudal monarchy was a comparatively weak central core; although several

monarchies gained ground steadily, they wielded very few general powers. This

would change, as kings attained far more extensive powers in military affairs,

cultural patronage, and the like. However, some solid remnants of medieval

traditions, embodied in institutions like parliaments and ideas like the

separation between God's authority and state power, would define a basic

thread in the Western political process even in the later 20th century.

 

Back to Main menu

A project by History World International

World History Center