Medieval Life in Europe: Early Germanic Tribes through the Crusades

Section of the Bayeux Tapestry, created following William the Conqueror’s invasion of England in 1066 CE / Wikimedia Commons

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 04.02.2018
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

1 – The Germanic Tribes

1.1 – Introduction

The Germanic tribes, an ancient nomadic civilization, used their superior military strength to lay the foundation for modern Europe.

1.1.1 – Origins

The Germanic peoples (also called Teutonic, Suebian, or Gothic in older literature) are an ethno-linguistic Indo-European group of northern European origin. They are identified by their use of Germanic languages, which diversified out of Proto-Germanic during the Pre-Roman Iron Age.

The term “Germanic” originated in classical times when groups of tribes living in Lower, Upper, and Greater Germania were referred to using this label by Roman scribes. These tribes generally lived to the north and east of the Gauls. They were chronicled by Rome ‘s historians as having had a critical impact on the course of European history during the Roman-Germanic wars, particularly at the historic Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, where the vanquishment of three Roman legions at the hands of Germanic tribal warriors precipitated the Roman Empire’s strategic withdrawal from Magna Germania.

As a linguistic group, modern Germanic peoples include the Afrikaners, Austrians, Danes, Dutch, English, Flemish, Frisians, Germans, Icelanders, Lowland Scots, Norwegians, Swedes, and others (including diaspora populations, such as some groups of European Americans).

Northernmost Europe, in what now constitutes the European plains of Denmark and southern Scandinavia, is where the Germanic peoples most likely originated. This is a region that was “remarkably stable” as far back as the Neolithic Age, when humans first began controlling their environment through the use of agriculture and the domestication of animals. Archeological evidence gives the impression that the Germanic people were becoming more uniform in their culture as early as 750 BCE. As their population grew, the Germanic people migrated westwards into coastal floodplains due to the exhaustion of the soil in their original settlements.

1.1.2 – The Tribes

By approximately 250 BCE, additional expansion further southwards into central Europe took place, and five general groups of Germanic people emerged, each employing distinct linguistic dialects but sharing similar language innovations. These five dialects are distinguished as North Germanic in southern Scandinavia; North Sea Germanic in the regions along the North Sea and in the Jutland peninsula, which forms the mainland of Denmark together with the north German state of Schleswig-Holstein; Rhine-Weser Germanic along the middle Rhine and Weser river, which empties into the North Sea near Bremerhaven; Elbe Germanic directly along the middle Elbe river; and East Germanic between the middle of the Oder and Vistula rivers.

Some recognizable trends in the archaeological records exist, as it is known that, generally speaking, western Germanic people, while still migratory, were more geographically settled, whereas the eastern Germanics remained transitory for a longer period. Three settlement patterns and solutions come to the fore; the first being the establishment of an agricultural base in a region that allowed them to support larger populations; the second being that the Germanic peoples periodically cleared forests to extend the range of their pasturage; and the third (and the most frequent occurrence) being that they often emigrated to other areas as they exhausted the immediately available resources.

War and conquest followed as the Germanic people migrated, bringing them into direct conflict with the Celts who were forced to either Germanize or migrate elsewhere as a result. West Germanic people eventually settled in central Europe and became more accustomed to agriculture, and it is the various western Germanic people that are described by Caesar and Tacitus. Meanwhile, the eastern Germanic people continued their migratory habits. Roman writers characteristically organized and classified people, and it may very well have been deliberate on their part to recognize the tribal distinctions of the various Germanic people so as to pick out known leaders and exploit these differences for their benefit. For the most part however, these early Germanic people shared a basic culture, operated similarly from an economic perspective, and were not nearly as differentiated as the Romans implied. In fact, the Germanic tribes are hard to distinguish from the Celts on many accounts simply based on archaeological records.

1.1.3 – Migration Period

The Germanic Kingdoms and the Eastern Roman Empire in 526 CE

During the 5th century, as the Western Roman Empire lost military strength and political cohesion, numerous nomadic Germanic peoples, under pressure from population growth and invading Asian groups, began migrating en masse in various directions, taking them to Great Britain and far south through present-day Continental Europe to the Mediterranean and Northern Africa.

Over time this wandering meant intrusions into other tribal territories, and the ensuing wars for land escalated with the dwindling amount of unoccupied territory. Wandering tribes then began staking out permanent homes as a means of protection. This resulted in fixed settlements from which many tribes, under a powerful leader, expanded outwards.

Ostrogoths, Visigoths, and Lombards made their way into Italy; Vandals, Burgundians, Franks, and Visigoths conquered much of Gaul; Vandals and Visigoths also pushed into Spain, with the Vandals additionally making it into North Africa; and the Alamanni established a strong presence in the middle Rhine and Alps. In Denmark, the Jutes merged with the Danes; and in Sweden, the Geats and Gutes merged with the Swedes. In England, the Angles merged with the Saxons and other groups (notably the Jutes), and absorbed some natives, to form the Anglo-Saxons (later known as the English). Essentially, Roman civilization was overrun by these variants of Germanic peoples during the 5th century.

1.1.4 – Military

Germanic people were fierce in battle, creating a strong military. Their love of battle was linked to their religious practices and two of their most important gods, Wodan and his son, Thor, both believed to be gods of war. The Germanic idea of warfare was quite different from the pitched battles fought by Rome and Greece, and the Germanic tribes focused on raids to capture resources and secure prestige.

Warriors were strong in battle and had great fighting abilities, making the tribes almost unbeatable. Men began battle training at a young age and were given a shield and a spear upon manhood, illustrating the importance of combat in Germanic life. The loss of the shield or spear meant a loss of honor. The Germanic warrior’s intense devotion to his tribe and his chieftain led to many important military victories.

Chieftains were the leaders of clans, and clans were divided into groups by family ties. The earlier Germans elected chieftains, but as time went on it became hereditary. One of the chieftain’s jobs was to keep peace in the clans, and he did this by keeping the warriors together and united.

Military chieftains relied upon retinues, a body of followers “retained” by the chieftain. A chieftain’s retinue might include, but was not limited to, close relatives. The followers depended on the retinue for military and other services, and in return provided for the retinue’s needs and divided with them the spoils of battle. This relationship between a chieftain and his followers became the basis for the more complicated feudal system that developed in medieval Europe.

1.1.5 – Major Historical Figures

Theoderic the Great: Bronze statue of Theoderic the Great, king of the Ostrogoths, by Peter Vischer the Elder (1512-13) at the tomb of Emperor Maximilian I in the Court Church in Innsbruck, Austria.

Political and diplomatic leaders, such as Odoacer and Theoderic the Great, changed the course of history in the late 400s CE and paved the way for later kings and conquerors. Odoacer, a German general, took over the Western Roman Empire in his own name, becoming the first barbarian king of Italy. Theoderic the Great became a barbarian king of Italy after he killed Odoacer. He initiated three decades of peace between the Ostrogoths and the Romans and united the two Germanic tribes.

Theoderic the Great lived as a hostage at the court of Constantinople for many years and learned a great deal about Roman government and military tactics, which served him well when he became the Gothic ruler of a mixed but largely Romanized “barbarian people.”

1.2 – Odoacer and the Fall of Rome

Odoacer was a Germanic soldier in the Roman army who deposed emperor Augustulus and became the first King of Italy, marking the end of the Western Roman Empire, the fall of ancient Rome, and the beginning of the Middle Ages in Western Europe.

1.2.1 – Overview

Coin of Odoacer: Coin of Odoacer, Ravenna, 477, with Odoacer in profile, depicted with a “barbarian” moustache.

Flavius Odoacer (433–493) was a soldier, probably of Scirian descent, who in 476 became the first King of Italy (476–493). His reign is commonly seen as marking the end of the Western Roman Empire. Though the real power in Italy was in his hands, he represented himself as the client of Julius Nepos and, after Nepos’s death in 480, of the Emperor in Constantinople. Odoacer generally used the Roman honorific patrician, granted by the Emperor Zeno, but is referred to as a king (Latin rex) in many documents. He used the term “rex” himself at least once, and on another occasion it was used by the consul Basilius. Odoacer introduced few important changes into the administrative system of Italy. He had the support of the Roman Senate and was able to distribute land to his followers without much opposition. Unrest among his warriors led to violence in 477–478, but no such disturbances occurred during the later period of his reign. Although Odoacer was an Arian Christian, he rarely intervened in the affairs of the orthodox and trinitarian state church of the Roman Empire.

1.2.2 – Rise to Power

Romulus Augustulus and Odoacer: Romulus Augustulus resigns the crown (from a 19th-century illustration)

Odoacer was a military leader in Italy who led the revolt of Herulian, Rugian, and Scirian soldiers that deposed Romulus Augustulus on September 4,  476. Augustulus had been declared Western Roman Emperor by his father, the rebellious general of the army in Italy, less than a year before, but had been unable to gain allegiance or recognition beyond central Italy.

In 475 a Roman general named Orestes was appointed Magister militum and patrician by the Western Roman Emperor Julius Nepos and became head of the Germanic foederati (barbarian mercenary armies for Rome). However, Orestes proved to be ambitious, and before the end of that year drove Nepos from Italy. Orestes then proclaimed his young son Romulus the new emperor, Romulus Augustulus. However, Nepos reorganized his court in Salona, Dalmatia, and received homage and affirmation from the remaining fragments of the Western Empire beyond Italy and, most importantly, from Constantinople, which refused to accept Augustulus and branded him and his father traitors and usurpers.

At around this time, the foederati, who had been quartered on the Italians all of these years, had grown weary of this arrangement. In the words of J. B. Bury, “They desired to have roof-trees and lands of their own, and they petitioned Orestes to reward them for their services, by granting them lands and settling them permanently in Italy.” Orestes refused their petition, and they turned to Odoacer to lead a revolt against Orestes. Orestes was killed at Placentia, and his brother Paulus killed outside Ravenna. The Germanic foederati, the Scirians, and the Heruli, as well as a large segment of the Italic Roman army, then proclaimed Odoacer rex Italiae (“king of Italy”). In 476 Odoacer advanced to Ravenna and captured the city, compelling the young emperor Romulus to abdicate on September 4. According to the Anonymus Valesianus, Odoacer was moved by Romulus’s youth and beauty to not only spare his life, but also to give him a pension of 6,000 solidii and send him to Campania to live with his relatives.

1.2.3 – King of Italy

In 476, Odoacer became the first barbarian King of Italy, initiating a new era. With the backing of the Roman Senate, Odoacer thenceforth ruled Italy autonomously, paying lip service to the authority of Julius Nepos, the last Western emperor, and Zeno, the emperor of the East. Upon Nepos’s murder in 480, Odoacer invaded Dalmatia to punish the murderers. He did so, executing the conspirators, but within two years also conquered the region and incorporated it into his domain.

As J.B. Bury points out, “It is highly important to observe that Odovacar established his political power with the co-operation of the Roman Senate, and this body seems to have given him their loyal support throughout his reign, so far as our meagre sources permit us to draw inferences.” He regularly nominated members of the Senate to the Consulate and other prestigious offices: “Basilius, Decius, Venantius, and Manlius Boethius held the consulship and were either Prefects of Rome or Praetorian Prefects; Symmachus and Sividius were consuls and Prefects of Rome; another senator of old family, Cassiodorus, was appointed a minister of finance.” A. H. M. Jones also notes that under Odoacer the Senate acquired “enhanced prestige and influence” in order to counter any desires for restoration of Imperial rule. As the most tangible example of this renewed prestige, for the first time since the mid-3rd century copper coins were issued with the legend S(enatus) C(onsulto).

1.2.4 – Fall and Death

As Odoacer’s position improved, Zeno, the Eastern Emperor, increasingly saw him as a rival. When Illus, master of soldiers of the Eastern Empire, asked for Odoacer’s help in 484 in his struggle to depose Zeno, Odoacer invaded Zeno’s westernmost provinces. Zeno responded first by inciting the Rugi of present-day Austria to attack Italy. During the winter of 487–488 Odoacer crossed the Danube and defeated the Rugi in their own territory. In his quest to destroy Odoacer, Zeno promised Theoderic the Great and his Ostrogoths the Italian peninsula if they were to defeat and remove Odoacer from power. In 489, Theoderic led the Ostrogoths across the Julian Alps and into Italy. On August 28, Odoacer met him at the Isonzo, only to be defeated. He withdrew to Verona, reaching its outskirts on September 27, where he immediately set up a fortified camp. Theoderic followed him and three days later defeated him again. While Odoacer took refuge in Ravenna, Theoderic continued across Italy to Mediolanum, where the majority of Odoacer’s army, including his chief general, Tufa, surrendered to the Ostrogothic king.

The following summer, the Visigothic king Alaric II demonstrated what Wolfram calls “one of the rare displays of Gothic solidarity” and sent military aid to help his kinsman, forcing Odoacer to raise his siege. On August 11, 490, the armies of the two kings clashed on the Adda River. Odoacer was again defeated and forced back into Ravenna, where Theoderic besieged him. Ravenna proved to be invulnerable, surrounded by marshes and estuaries and easily supplied by small boats from its hinterlands, as Procopius later pointed out in his History.

By this time, Odoacer had to have lost all hope of victory. A large-scale sortie out of Ravenna on the night of the 9/10 of July, 491, ended in failure with the death of his commander-in-chief, Livilia, along with the best of his Herulian soldiers. On August 29, 492, the Goths were about to assemble enough ships at Rimini to set up an effective blockade of Ravenna. Despite these decisive losses, the war dragged on until February 25, 493, when John, bishop of Ravenna, was able to negotiate a treaty between Theoderic and Odoacer that provided for them to occupy Ravenna together and rule jointly. After a three-year siege, Theoderic entered the city on March 5. Odoacer was dead ten days later, slain by Theoderic while they shared a meal. Theoderic had plotted to have a group of his followers kill Odoacer while the two kings were feasting together in the imperial palace of Honorius “Ad Laurentum” (“At the Laurel Grove”); when this plan went astray, Theoderic drew his sword and struck Odoacer on the collarbone. In response to Odoacer’s dying question, “Where is God?” Theoderic cried, “This is what you did to my friends.” Theoderic was said to have stood over the body of his dead rival and exclaim, “There certainly wasn’t a bone in this wretched fellow.”

1.3 – Theoderic the Great

Theoderic the Great was the King of the Ostrogoths and ruler of Italy after defeating the first barbarian king, Odoacer; he ruled Italy in its most peaceful and prosperous period since Valentinian until his death in 526.

1.3.1 – Overview

Theoderic the Great: Bronze statue of Theoderic the Great (by Peter Vischer, 1512–13), from the monument of Emperor Maximilian I in the Court Church at Innsbruck.

Theoderic the Great (454–526) was king of the Ostrogoths (475–526), ruler of Italy (493–526), regent of the Visigoths (511–526), and a patricius of the Roman Empire. His Gothic name translates into “people-king” or “ruler of the people.”

Theoderic was born in Pannonia in 454, after his people had defeated the Huns at the Battle of Nedao. His father was King Theodemir, a Germanic Amali nobleman, and his mother was Ereleuva. Theoderic grew up as a hostage in Constantinople, received a privileged education, and succeeded his father as leader of the Pannonian Ostrogoths in 473. Settling his people in lower Moesia, Theoderic came into conflict with Thracian Ostrogoths led by Theodoric Strabo, whom he eventually supplanted, uniting their peoples in 484.

Emperor Zeno subsequently gave Theoderic the title of Patrician and the office of Magister militum (master of the soldiers), and even appointed him Roman Consul. Seeking further gains, Theoderic frequently ravaged the provinces of the Eastern Roman Empire, eventually threatening Constantinople itself. In 488, Emperor Zeno ordered Theoderic to overthrow the German Foederatus Odoacer, who had likewise been made Patrician and even King of Italy, but who had since betrayed Zeno, supporting the rebellious Leontius. After a victorious three-year war, Theoderic killed Odoacer with his own hands, settled his 200,000 to 250,000 people in Italy, and founded an Ostrogothic Kingdom based in Ravenna. While he promoted separation between the Arian Ostrogoths and the Roman population, Theoderic stressed the importance of racial harmony, though intermarriage was outlawed. Seeking to restore the glory of Ancient Rome, he ruled Italy in its most peaceful and prosperous period since Valentinian until his death in 526. Memories of his reign made him a hero of German legend as Dietrich von Bern.

1.3.2 – Relationship with Byzantium and Overthrow of Odoacer

At the time, the Ostrogoths were settled in Byzantine territory as foederati (allies) of the Romans, but were becoming restless and increasingly difficult for Zeno to manage. Not long after Theoderic became king, he and Zeno worked out an arrangement beneficial to both sides. The Ostrogoths needed a place to live, and Zeno was having serious problems with Odoacer, the King of Italy who had come to power in 476. Ostensibly a viceroy for Zeno, Odoacer was menacing Byzantine territory and not respecting the rights of Roman citizens in Italy. At Zeno’s encouragement, Theoderic invaded Odoacer’s kingdom.

Theoderic came with his army to Italy in 488, where he won the battles of Isonzo and Verona in 489 and the battle at the Adda in 490. In 493 he took Ravenna. On February 2, 493, Theoderic and Odoacer signed a treaty that assured both parties would rule over Italy. A banquet was organized in order to celebrate this treaty. It was at this banquet that Theoderic, after making a toast, drew his sword and struck Odoacer on the collarbone, killing him.

1.3.3 – Ruler of Italy

Like Odoacer, Theoderic was ostensibly only a viceroy for the emperor in Constantinople. In reality, he was able to avoid imperial supervision, and dealings between the emperor and Theoderic were as relations between equals. Unlike Odoacer, however, Theoderic respected the agreement he had made and allowed Roman citizens within his kingdom to be subject to Roman law and the Roman judicial system. The Goths, meanwhile, lived under their own laws and customs. In 519, when a mob burned down the synagogues of Ravenna, Theoderic ordered the town to rebuild them at its own expense.

Theoderic the Great sought alliances with, or hegemony over, the other Germanic kingdoms in the West. He allied with the Franks by his marriage to Audofleda, sister of Clovis I, and married his own female relatives to princes or kings of the Visigoths, Vandals, and Burgundians. He stopped the Vandals from raiding his territories by threatening the weak Vandal king Thrasamund with invasion, and sent a guard of 5,000 troops with his sister Amalafrida when she married Thrasamund in 500.

For much of his reign, Theoderic was the de facto king of the Visigoths as well, becoming regent for the infant Visigothic king, his grandson Amalaric, following the defeat of Alaric II by the Franks under Clovis in 507. The Franks were able to wrest control of Aquitaine from the Visigoths, but otherwise Theoderic was able to defeat their incursions. The term “Visigoth” was actually an invention of this period. Cassiodorus, a Roman in the service of Theoderic the Great, invented the term “Visigothi” to match that of “Ostrogothi;” he thought of these terms as signifying “western Goths” and “eastern Goths” respectively. The western–eastern division was a simplification (and a literary device) of 6th-century historians; political realities were more complex. Both tribes had variable relations with Rome throughout their history, ranging from direct conflict to treaties and mutual support.

1.3.4 – Decline and Death

Europe in 526: The Ostrogothic Kingdom (in yellow) at the death of Theoderic the Great in 526 AD.

Theoderic’s achievements began to unravel even before his death. He had married off his daughter Amalasuntha to the Visigoth Eutharic, but Eutharic died in August 522 or 523, so no lasting dynastic connection of Ostrogoths and Visigoths was established. In 522, the Catholic Burgundian king Sigismund killed his own son, Theoderic’s grandson, Sergeric. Theoderic retaliated by invading the Burgundian kingdom and then annexing its southern part, probably in 523. The rest was ruled by Sigismund’s Arian brother Godomar, under Gothic protection against the Franks who had captured Sigismund. This brought the territory ruled by Theoderic to its height (see map below), but in 523 or 524 the new Catholic Vandal king Hilderic imprisoned Theoderic’s sister Amalafrida and killed her Gothic guard. Theoderic was planning an expedition to restore his power over the Vandal kingdom when he died in 526.

After his death in Ravenna in 526, Theoderic was succeeded by his grandson Athalaric. Athalaric was at first represented by his mother Amalasuntha, who was a regent queen from 526 until 534. The kingdom of the Ostrogoths, however, began to wane and was conquered by Justinian I starting after the rebellion of 535 and finally ending in 553 with the Battle of Mons Lactarius. Theoderic may have tried too hard to accommodate the various people under his dominion; indulging “Romans and Goths, Catholics and Arians, Latin and barbarian culture” resulted in the eventual failure of the Ostrogothic reign and the subsequent “end of Italy as the heartland of late antiquity.”

1.4 – The Vikings

1.4.1 – Overview

Vikings were Norse seafarers who originated in Scandinavia and raided, traded, explored, and settled in wide areas of Europe, Asia, and the North Atlantic islands. The period from the earliest recorded raids in the 790s until the Norman conquest of England in 1066 is commonly known as the Viking Age of Scandinavian history. Vikings used the Norwegian Sea and Baltic Sea for sea routes to the south.

1.4.2 – Viking Ships

There have been several archaeological finds of Viking ships of all sizes, providing knowledge of the craftsmanship that went into building them. There were many types of Viking ships, built according to their intended uses, though the most iconic type is probably the longship. Longships were intended for warfare and exploration, designed for speed and agility, and equipped with oars to complement the sail, making navigation independent of the wind possible. It was the longship that allowed the Norse to “go Viking” (on an expedition), which might explain why this type of ship has become almost synonymous with the concept of Vikings. Longships were the epitome of Scandinavian naval power at the time, and were highly valued possessions.

Model of a Viking longship: Model of the Gokstad ship. The Gokstad ship is a Viking ship found in a burial mound at Gokstad farm in Sandar, Sandefjord, Vestfold, Norway. Dendrochronological dating suggests that the ship was built around 890 AD.

Ships were an integral part of Viking culture. They facilitated everyday transportation across seas and waterways, exploration of new lands, raids, conquests, and trade with neighboring cultures. They also held a major religious importance; magnates and people with a high status were sometimes buried in a ship along with animal sacrifices, weapons, provisions, and other items.

1.4.3 – Weapons and Warfare

Our knowledge about the arms and armor of the Viking age is based on archaeological finds, pictorial representation, and to some extent on the accounts in the Norse sagas and Norse laws recorded in the 13th century. According to custom, all free Norse men were required to own weapons and were permitted to carry them all the time. Weapons were indicative of a Viking’s social status; a wealthy Viking would have a complete ensemble of a helmet, shield, mail shirt, and sword. A typical bóndi (freeman) was more likely to fight with a spear and shield, and most also carried a knife and side-arm. Bows were used in the opening stages of land battles and at sea, but they tended to be considered less “honorable” than a weapon that could be used in close combat. Vikings were relatively unusual for the time in their use of axes as a main battle weapon.

The warfare and violence of the Vikings were often motivated and fueled by their belief in Norse religion, focusing on Thor and Odin, the gods of war and death. Apart from two or three representations of (ritual) helmets with protrusions that may be either stylized ravens, snakes, or horns, no depiction of the helmets of Viking warriors, and no preserved helmet, has horns. The stereotypical Viking helmet was thus mainly a fiction of a later romanticized image of the Viking. The formal, close-quarters style of Viking combat (either in shield walls or aboard “ship islands”) would have made horned helmets cumbersome and hazardous to the warrior’s own side.

The Vikings are believed to have engaged in a disordered style of frenetic, furious fighting, although the brutal perception of the Vikings is largely a misconception, likely attributed to Christian misunderstandings regarding paganism at the time.

1.4.4 – Viking Expansion

Viking expeditions (blue line): Light blue: Itineraries of the Vikings, depicting the immense breadth of their voyages through most of Europe, the Mediterranean Sea, Northern Africa, Asia Minor, the Arctic, and North America. Light green: main settlement areas, in the first millennium

Facilitated by advanced seafaring skills, Viking activities at times also extended into the Mediterranean littoral, North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Following extended phases of exploration on seas and rivers, expansion, and settlement, Viking communities and polities were established in diverse areas of northwestern Europe, European Russia, and the North Atlantic islands, and as far as the northeastern coast of North America. During their explorations, Vikings raided and pillaged, but also engaged in trade, settled wide-ranging colonies, and acted as mercenaries. This period of expansion witnessed the wider dissemination of Norse culture while simultaneously introducing strong foreign cultural influences into Scandinavia itself, with profound developmental implications in both directions.

Vikings under Leif Ericsson, the heir to Erik the Red, reached North America and set up a short-lived settlement in present-day L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Longer and more-established settlements were formed in Greenland, Iceland, Great Britain, and Normandy.

Viking expansion into continental Europe was limited. Their realm was bordered by powerful cultures to the south. Early on it was the Saxons, who occupied Old Saxony, located in what is now northern Germany. The Saxons were a fierce and powerful people and were often in conflict with the Vikings. To counter the Saxon aggression and solidify their own presence, the Danes constructed the huge defense fortification of Danevirke in and around Hedeby. The Vikings soon witnessed the violent subduing of the Saxons by Charlemagne in the thirty-year Saxon Wars from 772–804. The Saxon defeat resulted in their forced christening and the absorption of Old Saxony into the Carolingian Empire.

Fear of the Franks led the Vikings to further expand Danevirke, and the defense constructions remained in use throughout the Viking Age and even up until 1864. The south coast of the Baltic Sea was ruled by the Obotrites, a federation of Slavic tribes loyal to the Carolingians and later the Frankish empire. The Vikings, led by King Gudfred, destroyed the Obotrite city of Reric on the southern Baltic coast in 808 and transferred the merchants and traders to Hedeby. This secured their supremacy in the Baltic Sea, which endured throughout the Viking Age.

1.4.5 – Legacy

The 200-year Viking influence on European history is filled with tales of plunder and colonization, and the majority of these chronicles came from western witnesses and their descendants. Medieval Christians in Europe were totally unprepared for the Viking incursions and could find no explanation for their arrival and the accompanying suffering they experienced at their hands, save the “Wrath of God.” More than any other single event, the attack on Lindisfarne demonized perception of the Vikings for the next twelve centuries. Not until the 1890s did scholars outside Scandinavia begin to seriously reassess the achievements of the Vikings, recognizing their artistry, technological skills, and seamanship.

Studies of genetic diversity have provided scientific confirmation to accompany archaeological evidence of Viking expansion. They additionally indicate patterns of ancestry, imply new migrations, and show the actual flow of individuals between disparate regions. Genetic evidence contradicts the common perception that Vikings were primarily pillagers and raiders. An article by Roger Highfield summarizes recent research and concludes that, as both male and female genetic markers are present, the evidence is indicative of colonization instead of raiding and occupying. However, this is also disputed by unequal ratios of male and female haplotypes, which indicate that more men settled than women, an element of a raiding or occupying population.

2 – The Catholic Church

2.1 – Introduction

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476, the Catholic Church became a powerful social and political institution and its influence spread throughout Europe.

2.1.1 – Early History and the Fall of Rome

The history of the Catholic Church begins with the teachings of Jesus Christ, who lived in the 1st century CE in the province of Judea of the Roman Empire. The contemporary Catholic Church says that it is the continuation of the early Christian community established by Jesus.

Christianity spread throughout the early Roman Empire despite persecutions due to conflicts with the pagan state religion. In 313, the struggles of the early church were lessened by the legalization of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine I. In 380, under Emperor Theodosius I, Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire by the decree of the emperor, which would persist until the fall of the Western Empire, and later with the Eastern Roman Empire until the fall of Constantinople.

After the destruction of the Western Roman Empire, the church in the West was a major factor in preserving classical civilization, establishing monasteries, and sending missionaries to convert the peoples of northern Europe as far north as Ireland. In the East, the Byzantine Empire preserved Orthodoxy well after the massive invasions of Islam in the mid-7th century.

2.1.2 – The Catholic Church in the Middle Ages

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476, the Catholic faith competed with Arianism for the conversion of the barbarian tribes. The 496 conversion of Clovis I, pagan king of the Franks, saw the beginning of a steady rise of the Catholic faith in the West.

Saint Remigius baptizes Clovis

In 530, Saint Benedict wrote his Rule of Saint Benedict as a practical guide for monastic community life, and its message spread to monasteries throughout Europe. Monasteries became major conduits of civilization, preserving craft and artistic skills while maintaining intellectual culture within their schools, scriptoria, and libraries. They functioned as centers for spiritual life as well as for agriculture, economy, and production.

During this period the Visigoths and Lombards moved away from Arianism toward Catholicism. Pope Gregory the Great played a notable role in these conversions and dramatically reformed the ecclesiastical structures and administration, which then launched renewed missionary efforts. Missionaries such as Augustine of Canterbury, who was sent from Rome to begin the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, and, coming the other way in the Hiberno-Scottish mission, Saints Colombanus, Boniface, Willibrord, and Ansgar, among many others, took Christianity into northern Europe and spread Catholicism among the Germanic and Slavic peoples. Such missions reached the Vikings and other Scandinavians in later centuries. The Synod of Whitby of 664, though not as decisive as sometimes claimed, was an important moment in the reintegration of the Celtic Church of the British Isles into the Roman hierarchy, after having been effectively cut off from contact with Rome by the pagan invaders.

In the early 8th century, Byzantine iconoclasm became a major source of conflict between the eastern and western parts of the church. Byzantine emperors forbade the creation and veneration of religious images as violations of the Ten Commandments. Sometime between 726 and 730 the Byzantine Emperor Leo III the Isaurian ordered that an image of Jesus prominently placed over the Chalke gate, the ceremonial entrance to the Great Palace of Constantinople, be removed, and replaced with a cross. This was followed by orders banning the pictorial representation of the family of Christ, subsequent Christian saints, and biblical scenes. Other major religions in the East, such as Judaism and Islam, had similar prohibitions, but Pope Gregory III vehemently disagreed. Empress Irene, siding with the pope, called for an Ecumenical Council. In 787, the fathers of the Second Council of Nicaea “warmly received the papal delegates and his message.” At the conclusion, 300 bishops, who were led by the representatives of Pope Hadrian I “adopted the Pope’s teaching,” in favor of icons.

2.1.3 – Spread of Catholicism beyond Rome

As the political boundaries of the Roman Empire diminished and then collapsed in the West, Christianity spread beyond the old borders of the Empire and into lands that had never been under Rome.

Beginning in the 5th century, a unique culture developed around the Irish Sea, consisting of what today would be called Wales and Ireland. In this environment, Christianity spread from Roman Britain to Ireland, especially aided by the missionary activity of Saint Patrick. Patrick had been captured into slavery in Ireland and, following his escape and later consecration as bishop, he returned to the isle that had enslaved him so that he could bring them the Gospel. Soon, Irish missionaries such as Saints Columba and Columbanus spread this Christianity, with its distinctively Irish features, to Scotland and the Continent. One such feature was the system of private penitence, which replaced the former practice of penance as a public rite.

Although southern Britain had been a Roman province, in 407 the imperial legions left the isle, and the Roman elite followed. Some time later that century, various barbarian tribes went from raiding and pillaging the island to settling and invading. These tribes are referred to as the “Anglo-Saxons,” predecessors of the English. They were entirely pagan, having never been part of the Empire, and although they experienced Christian influence from the surrounding peoples, they were converted by the mission of Saint Augustine sent by Pope Gregory the Great. Later, under Archbishop Theodore, the Anglo-Saxons enjoyed a golden age of culture and scholarship. Soon, important English missionaries such as Saints Wilfrid, Willibrord, Lullus, and Boniface would begin evangelizing their Saxon relatives in Germany.

2.2 – The Development of Papal Supremacy

During the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire, and throughout the Middle Ages, the office of pope not only gained supremacy over the entire Christian Church but also developed political power rivaling that of the secular rulers of Europe.

2.2.1 – Overview

Papal supremacy is the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church that the pope, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ and as pastor of the entire Christian Church, has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered—that, in brief, “the Pope enjoys, by divine institution, supreme, full, immediate, and universal power in the care of souls.”

The doctrine had the most significance in the relationship between the church and the temporal state, in matters such as ecclesiastic privileges, the actions of monarchs, and even successions. The creation of the term “papal supremacy” dates back to the 6th century, at the time of the fall of the Western Roman Empire, which was the beginning of the rise of the bishops of Rome to not just the position religious authority, but the power to be the ultimate ruler of the kingdoms within the Christian community (Christendom), which it has since retained.

2.2.2 – The Church and the Roman Empire

In the early Christian era, Rome and a few other cities had claims on the leadership of the worldwide church. During the 1st century of the church (c. 30–130), the Roman capital became recognized as a Christian center of exceptional importance. In the late 2nd century CE, there were more manifestations of Roman authority over other churches. In 189, assertion of the primacy of the Church of Rome may be indicated in Irenaeus’s Against Heresies: “With [the Church of Rome], because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree… and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition.” In 195 CE, Pope Victor I, in what is seen as an exercise of Roman authority over other churches, excommunicated the Quartodecimans for observing Easter on the 14th of Nisan, the date of the Jewish Passover. Celebration of Easter on a Sunday, as insisted on by the pope, is the system that has prevailed.

When Constantine became emperor of the Western Roman Empire in 312, he attributed his victory to the Christian God. Many soldiers in his army were Christians, and his army was his base of power. With Licinius (Eastern Roman emperor), he issued the Edict of Milan, which mandated toleration of all religions in the empire. Decisions made at the Council of Nicea (325) about the divinity of Christ led to a schism; the new religion, Arianism, flourished outside the Roman Empire. Partially to distinguish themselves from Arians, Catholic devotion to Mary became more prominent. This led to further schisms.

In 380, the Edict of Thessalonica declared Nicene Christianity, as opposed to Arianism, to be the state religion of the empire, with the name “Catholic Christians” reserved for those who accepted that faith. While the civil power in the Eastern Roman Empire controlled the church, and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the capital, wielded much power, in the Western Roman Empire the Bishops of Rome were able to consolidate the influence and power they already possessed. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, barbarian tribes were converted to Arian Christianity or Catholicism; Clovis I, king of the Franks, was the first important barbarian ruler to convert to Catholicism rather than Arianism, allying himself with the papacy. Other tribes, such as the Visigoths, later abandoned Arianism in favor of Catholicism.

2.2.3 – The Middle Ages

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the pope served as a source of authority and continuity. Pope Gregory I (c. 540–604) administered the church with strict reform. Gregory was from an ancient senatorial family, and worked with the stern judgement and discipline typical of ancient Roman rule. Theologically, he represents the shift from the classical to the medieval outlook; his popular writings are full of dramatic miracles, potent relics, demons, angels, ghosts, and the approaching end of the world.

Gregory the Great: Pope Gregory I (c. 540–604) who established medieval themes in the church, in a painting by Carlo Saraceni, c. 1610, Rome.

The Byzantine Papacy was a period of Byzantine domination of the papacy from 537 to 752, when popes required the approval of the Byzantine Emperor for episcopal consecration, and many popes were chosen from the apocrisiarii (liaisons from the pope to the emperor) or the inhabitants of Byzantine Greece, Byzantine Syria, or Byzantine Sicily. Justinian I conquered the Italian peninsula in the Gothic War (535–554) and appointed the next three popes, a practice that would be continued by his successors and later be delegated to the Exarchate of Ravenna. With the exception of Pope Martin I, no pope during this period questioned the authority of the Byzantine monarch to confirm the election of the bishop of Rome before consecration could occur.

From the late-6th to the late-8th century there was a turning of the papacy to the West and an escape from subordination to the authority of the Byzantine emperors of Constantinople. This phase has sometimes incorrectly been credited to Pope Gregory I (who reigned from 590 to 604 CE), who, like his predecessors, represented to the people of the Roman world a church that was still identified with the empire. Unlike some of those predecessors, Gregory was compelled to face the collapse of imperial authority in northern Italy. As the leading civil official of the empire in Rome, he was compelled to take over the civil administration of the cities and negotiate for the protection of Rome itself with the Lombard invaders threatening it. Another part of this phase occurred in the 8th century, after the rise of the new religion of Islam had weakened the Byzantine Empire and the Lombards had renewed their pressure in Italy. The popes finally sought support from the Frankish rulers of the West and received from the Frankish king Pepin The Short the first part of the Italian territories later known as the Papal States. With Pope Leo III’s coronation of Charlemagne, first of the Carolingian emperors, the papacy also gained the emperor’s protection; this action established the precedent that, in Western Europe, no man would be emperor without being crowned by a pope.

2.2.4 – Second Phase of Papal Supremacy

The second great phase in the process of papal supremacy’s rise to prominence extended from the mid-11th to the mid-13th century. It was distinguished, first, by Gregory VII’s bold attack after 1075 on the traditional practices whereby the emperor had controlled appointments to the higher church offices. This attack spawned the protracted civil and ecclesiastical strife in Germany and Italy known as the Investiture Controversy. At issue was who, the pope or the monarchs, had the authority to appoint (invest) local church officials such as bishops of cities and abbots of monasteries. The conflict ended in 1122, when Emperor Henry V and Pope Calixtus II agreed on the Concordat of Worms, which differentiated between the royal and spiritual powers and gave the emperors a limited role in selecting bishops. The outcome seemed mostly a victory for the pope and his claim that he was God’s chief representative in the world. However, the emperor did retain considerable power over the Church.

Papal supremacy was also increased by Urban II’s launching in 1095 of the Crusades, which, in an attempt to liberate the Holy Land from Muslim domination, marshaled under papal leadership the aggressive energies of the European nobility. Both these efforts, although ultimately unsuccessful, greatly enhanced papal prestige in the 12th and 13th centuries. Such powerful popes as Alexander III (r. 1159–81), Innocent III (r. 1198–1216), Gregory IX (r. 1227–41), and Innocent IV (r. 1243–54) wielded a primacy over the church that attempted to vindicate a jurisdictional supremacy over emperors and kings in temporal and spiritual affairs. Throughout the rest of the Middle Ages, popes struggled with monarchs over power.

2.3 – The Rise of the Monasteries

Christian monasticism, which consists of individuals living ascetic and often cloistered lives that are dedicated to Christian worship, became popular during the Middle Ages and gave rise to several monastic orders with different goals and lifestyles.

2.3.1 – Monasticism in the Middle Ages

Christian monasticism is the devotional practice of individuals who live ascetic and typically cloistered lives that are dedicated to Christian worship. Monasticism became quite popular in the Middle Ages, with religion being the most important force in Europe. Monks and nuns were to live isolated from the world to become closer to God. Monks provided service to the church by copying manuscripts, creating art, educating people, and working as missionaries. Convents were especially appealing to women. It was the only place they would receive any sort of education or power. It also let them escape unwanted marriages.

2.3.2 – The Benedictines

Saint Benedict: Saint Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine Monastic Rule, by Herman Nieg, Heiligenkreuz Abbey, Austria.

From the 6th century onward most of the monasteries in the West were of the Benedictine Order. The Benedictines were founded by Benedict of Nursia, the most influential of western monks and called “the father of western monasticism.” He was educated in Rome but soon sought the life of a hermit in a cave at Subiaco, outside the city. He then attracted followers with whom he founded the monastery of Monte Cassino, between Rome and Naples, around 520. He established the Rule, adapting in part the earlier anonymous Rule of the Master (Regula magistri), which was written somewhere south of Rome around 500, and defined the activities of the monastery, its officers, and their responsibilities.

By the 9th century, largely under the inspiration of Emperor Charlemagne, Benedict’s Rule became the basic guide for Western monasticism. Early Benedictine monasteries were relatively small and consisted of an oratory, a refectory, a dormitory, a scriptorium, guest accommodation, and out-buildings, a group of often quite separate rooms more reminiscent of a decent-sized Roman villa than a large medieval abbey. A monastery of about a dozen monks would have been normal during this period.

Medieval monastic life consisted of prayer, reading, and manual labor. Prayer was a monk’s first priority. Apart from prayer, monks performed a variety of tasks, such as preparing medicine, lettering, and reading. These monks would also work in the gardens and on the land. They might also spend time in the Cloister, a covered colonnade around a courtyard, where they would pray or read. Some monasteries held a scriptorium where monks would write or copy books. When the monks wrote, they used very neat handwriting and would draw illustrations in the books. As a part of their unique writing style, they decorated the first letter of each paragraph.

The efficiency of Benedict’s cenobitic Rule, in addition to the stability of the monasteries, made them very productive. The monasteries were the central storehouses and producers of knowledge.

2.3.3 – Cistercian Movement

The next wave of monastic reform after the Benedictines came with the Cistercian movement. The first Cistercian abbey was founded in 1098, at Cîteaux Abbey. The keynote of Cistercian life was a return to a literal observance of the Benedictine Rule, rejecting the developments of the Benedictines. The most striking feature in the reform was the return to manual labour, and especially to field work. Inspired by Bernard of Clairvaux, the primary builder of the Cistercians, the Cistercians became the main force of technological diffusion in medieval Europe. By the end of the 12th century the Cistercian houses numbered 500, and at its height in the 15th century the order claimed to have close to 750 houses. Most of these were built in wilderness areas, and played a major part in bringing such isolated parts of Europe into economic cultivation.

2.3.4 – Mendicant Orders

Saint Francis: Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the Order of Friars Minor.

During the rule of Pope Innocent III (1198–1216), two of the most famous monastic orders were founded. They were called the mendicant, or begging, orders because their members begged for the food and clothes. At their foundation these orders rejected the previously established monastic model of living in one stable, isolated community where members worked at a trade and owned property in common, including land, buildings, and other wealth. By contrast, the mendicants avoided owning property, did not work at a trade, and embraced a poor, often itinerant lifestyle. They depended for their survival on the goodwill of the people to whom they preached. They would usually travel in pairs, preaching, healing the sick, and helping the poor. Francis of Assisi founded the order of the Franciscans, who were known for their charitable work. The Dominicans, founded by Saint Dominic, focused on teaching, preaching, and suppressing heresy.

The Dominican Order came into being in the Middle Ages at a time when religion was starting to be contemplated in a new way. Men of God were no longer expected to stay behind the walls of a cloister. Instead, they traveled among the people, taking as their examples the apostles of the primitive Church. Like his contemporary, Francis, Dominic saw the need for a new type of organization, and the quick growth of the Dominicans and Franciscans during their first century of existence confirms that the orders of mendicant friars met a need.

The inspiration for the Franciscan Order came in 1209 when Francis heard a sermon on Matthew 10:9 that made such an impression on him that he decided to devote himself wholly to a life of apostolic poverty. Clad in a rough garment, barefoot, and, after the Evangelical precept, without staff or scrip, he began to preach repentance.

Francis was soon joined by a prominent fellow townsman, Bernard of Quintavalle, who contributed all that he had to the work, and by other companions, who are said to have reached eleven within a year. The brothers lived in the deserted leper colony of Rivo Torto near Assisi, but they spent much of their time traveling through the mountainous districts of Umbria, always cheerful and full of songs, yet making a deep impression on their hearers by their earnest exhortations. Their life was extremely ascetic, though such practices were apparently not prescribed by the first rule that Francis gave them (probably as early as 1209), which seems to have been nothing more than a collection of Scriptural passages emphasizing the duty of poverty.

Similar to Francis, Dominic sought to establish a new kind of order, one that would bring the dedication and systematic education of the older monastic orders like the Benedictines to bear on the religious problems of the burgeoning population of cities, but with more organizational flexibility than either monastic orders or the secular clergy. Dominic’s new order was to be a preaching order, with its members trained to preach in the vernacular languages. Rather than earning their living on vast farms as the monasteries had done, the new friars would survive by begging— “selling” themselves through persuasive preaching.

Dominic inspired his followers with loyalty to learning and virtue, a deep recognition of the spiritual power of worldly deprivation and the religious state, and a highly developed governmental structure. At the same time, Dominic encouraged the members of his order to develop a “mixed” spirituality. They were both active in preaching and contemplative in study, prayer, and meditation. The brethren of the Dominican Order were urban and learned, as well as contemplative and mystical in their spirituality. While these traits had an impact on the women of the order, the nuns especially absorbed the latter characteristics and made them their own. In England, the Dominican nuns blended these elements with their own defining characteristics and created a spirituality and collective personality that set them apart.

2.4 – The Western Schism

2.4.1 – Overview

The Western Schism, or Papal Schism, was a split within the Roman Catholic Church that lasted from 1378 to 1417. During that time, three men simultaneously claimed to be the true pope. Driven by politics rather than any theological disagreement, the schism was ended by the Council of Constance (1414–1418). For a time these rival claims to the papal throne damaged the reputation of the office.

2.4.2 – Origin

The schism in the Western Roman Church resulted from the return of the papacy to Rome under Gregory XI on January 17, 1377, ending the Avignon Papacy, which had developed a reputation for corruption that estranged major parts of western Christendom. This reputation can be attributed to perceptions of predominant French influence and to the papal curia’s efforts to extend its powers of patronage and increase its revenues.

After Pope Gregory XI died in 1378, the Romans rioted to ensure the election of a Roman for pope. On April 8, 1378 the cardinals elected a Neapolitan when no viable Roman candidates presented themselves. Urban VI, born Bartolomeo Prignano, the Archbishop of Bari, was elected. Urban had been a respected administrator in the papal chancery at Avignon, but as pope he proved suspicious, reformist, and prone to violent outbursts of temper. Many of the cardinals who had elected him soon regretted their decision; the majority removed themselves from Rome to Anagni, where, even though Urban was still reigning, they elected Robert of Geneva as a rival pope on September 20, 1378. Robert took the name Clement VII and reestablished a papal court in Avignon. This second election threw the church into turmoil. There had been antipopes —rival claimants to the papacy—before, but most of them had been appointed by various rival factions; in this case, a single group of church leaders had created both the pope and the antipope.

The conflict quickly escalated from a church problem to a diplomatic crisis that divided Europe. Secular leaders had to choose which claimant they would recognize. France, Aragon, Castile and León, Cyprus, Burgundy, Savoy, Naples, Scotland, and Owain Glyndwr’s rebellion in Wales recognized the Avignon claimant. Denmark, England, Flanders, the Holy Roman Empire, Hungary, Ireland, Norway, Portugal, Poland, Sweden, Republic of Venice, and other city states of northern Italy recognized the Roman claimant. In the Iberian Peninsula there were the Ferdinand Wars and the 1383–1385 Crisis in Portugal, during which dynastic opponents supported rival claimants to the papal office.

2.4.3 – Consequences

Sustained by such national and factional rivalries throughout Catholic Christianity, the schism continued after the deaths of both initial claimants; Boniface IX, crowned at Rome in 1389, and Benedict XIII, who reigned in Avignon from 1394, maintained their rival courts. When Boniface died in 1404, the eight cardinals of the Roman conclave offered to refrain from electing a new pope if Benedict would resign, but when his legates refused on his behalf, the Roman party then proceeded to elect Innocent VII. In the intense partisanship characteristic of the Middle Ages, the schism engendered a fanatical hatred between factions.

Efforts were made to end the schism through force or diplomacy. The French crown even tried to coerce Benedict XIII, whom it nominally supported, into resigning. None of these remedies worked. The suggestion to have a church council resolve the schism was first made in 1378, but was not initially adopted because canon law required that a pope call a council. Eventually, theologians like Pierre d’Ailly and Jean Gerson, as well as canon lawyers like Francesco Zabarella, adopted arguments that equity permitted the Church to act for its own welfare in defiance of the letter of the law.

Eventually the cardinals of both factions secured an agreement that Benedict and Pope Gregory XII would meet at Savona. They balked at the last moment, and both colleges of cardinals abandoned their popes. A church council was held at Pisa in 1409 under the auspices of the cardinals to try solving the dispute. At the fifteenth session, on June 5, 1409, the Council of Pisa deposed the two pontiffs as schismatical, heretical, perjured, and scandalous. But it then added to the problem by electing another incumbent, Alexander V. He reigned briefly from June 26, 1409, until his death in 1410, when he was succeeded by John XXIII, who won some, but not universal, support.

2.4.4 – Resolution

Habemus Papam 1415: Habemus Papam (the announcement of a new pope) at the Council of Constance, 1415.

Finally, a council was convened at Constance by Pisan pope John XXIII in 1414 to resolve the issue. This was endorsed by Gregory XII, Innocent VII’s successor in Rome, thus ensuring the legitimacy of any election. The council, advised by the theologian Jean Gerson, secured the resignations of John XXIII and Gregory XII in 1415, while excommunicating the claimant who refused to step down, Benedict XIII. The council elected Pope Martin V in 1417, essentially ending the schism. Nonetheless, the Crown of Aragon did not recognize Martin V and continued to recognize Benedict XIII. Archbishops loyal to Benedict XIII subsequently elected Antipope Benedict XIV (Bernard Garnier), and three followers simultaneously elected Antipope Clement VIII, but the Western Schism was by then practically over. Clement VIII resigned in 1429 and apparently recognized Martin V.

3 – The Carolingian Dynasty

3.1 – The Coronation of 800 CE

Charlemagne reached the height of his power in 800 when he was crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day at Old St. Peter’s Basilica.

3.1.1 – Coronation

Coronation of Charlemagne: The Coronation of Charlemagne, by assistants of Raphael, c. 1516–1517.

In 799, after Pope Leo III was abused by Romans who tried to put out his eyes and tear out his tongue, he escaped and fled to Charlemagne at Paderborn. Charlemagne, advised by scholar Alcuin of York, travelled to Rome in November 800 and held a council on December 1. On December 23, Leo swore an oath of innocence. At Mass, on Christmas Day (December 25), when Charlemagne knelt at the altar to pray, the pope crowned him Imperator Romanorum (“Emperor of the Romans”) in Saint Peter’s Basilica. In so doing, the pope effectively nullified the legitimacy of Empress Irene of Constantinople. As historian James Bryce writes:

When Odoacer compelled the abdication of Romulus Augustulus, he did not abolish the Western Empire as a separate power, but caused it to be reunited with or sink into the Eastern, so that from that time there was a single undivided Roman Empire… [Pope Leo III and Charlemagne], like their predecessors, held the Roman Empire to be one and indivisible, and proposed by the coronation of [Charlemagne] not to proclaim a severance of the East and West.

Charlemagne’s coronation as emperor, though intended to represent the continuation of the unbroken line of emperors from Augustus to Constantine VI, had the effect of setting up two separate (and often opposing) empires and two separate claims to imperial authority. For centuries to come, the emperors of both West and East would make competing claims of sovereignty over the whole.

In support of Charlemagne’s coronation, some argued that the imperial position had actually been vacant, deeming a woman (Irene) unfit to be emperor. However, Charlemagne made no claim to the Byzantine Empire. Whether he actually desired a coronation at all remains controversial—his biographer Einhard related that Charlemagne had been surprised by the pope. Regardless, Byzantium felt its role as the sole heir of the Roman Empire threatened and began to emphasize its superiority and its Roman identity. Relations between the two empires remained difficult. Irene is said to have sought a marriage alliance between herself and Charlemagne, but according to Theophanes the Confessor, who alone mentions it, the scheme was frustrated by Aetios, one of her favorite advisors.

3.1.2 – Motivation

For both the pope and Charlemagne, the Roman Empire remained a significant power in European politics at this time, and continued to hold a substantial portion of Italy, with borders not far south of the city of Rome itself. This is the empire that historiography has been labelled the Byzantine Empire, for its capital was Constantinople (ancient Byzantium) and its people and rulers were Greek; it was a thoroughly Hellenic state. Indeed, Charlemagne was usurping the prerogatives of the Roman emperor in Constantinople simply by sitting in judgement over the pope in the first place. Historian John Julius Norwich writes of their motivation:

By whom, however, could he [the Pope] be tried? In normal circumstances the only conceivable answer to that question would have been the Emperor at Constantinople; but the imperial throne was at this moment occupied by Irene. That the Empress was notorious for having blinded and murdered her own son was, in the minds of both Leo and Charles, almost immaterial: it was enough that she was a woman. The female sex was known to be incapable of governing, and by the old Salic tradition was debarred from doing so. As far as Western Europe was concerned, the Throne of the Emperors was vacant: Irene’s claim to it was merely an additional proof, if any were needed, of the degradation into which the so-called Roman Empire had fallen.

For the pope, then, there was “no living Emperor at the that time.” Furthermore, the papacy had since 727 been in conflict with Irene’s predecessors in Constantinople over a number of issues, chiefly the continued Byzantine adherence to the doctrine of iconoclasm, the destruction of Christian images. From 750, the secular power of the Byzantine Empire in central Italy had been nullified.

Norwich explains that by bestowing the imperial crown upon Charlemagne, the pope arrogated to himself “the right to appoint the Emperor of the Romans, establishing the imperial crown as his own personal gift but simultaneously granting himself implicit superiority over the Emperor whom he had created.” And “because the Byzantines had proved so unsatisfactory from every point of view—political, military and doctrinal—he would select a westerner: the one man who by his wisdom and statesmanship and the vastness of his dominions stood out head and shoulders above his contemporaries.”

How realistic either Charlemagne or the pope felt it to be that the people of Constantinople would ever accept the king of the Franks as their emperor, we cannot know; Alcuin speaks hopefully in his letters of an Imperium Christianum (“Christian Empire”), wherein, “just as the inhabitants of the [Roman Empire] had been united by a common Roman citizenship,” presumably this new empire would be united by a common Christian faith.

3.1.3 – Roman Emperor

In any event, Charlemagne used these circumstances to claim that he was the renewer of the Roman Empire, which was perceived to have fallen into degradation under the Byzantines. The title of Emperor remained in the Carolingian family for years to come, but divisions of territory and in-fighting over supremacy of the Frankish state weakened its power and ability to lead. The papacy itself never forgot the title nor abandoned the right to bestow it. When the family of Charlemagne ceased to produce worthy heirs, the pope gladly crowned whichever Italian magnate could best protect him from his local enemies. This devolution led to the dormancy of the title from 924 to 962. The title was revived when Otto I was crowned emperor in 962, fashioning himself as the successor of Charlemagne. The empire would remain in continuous existence for nearly a millennium, as the Holy Roman Empire, a true imperial successor to Charlemagne.

3.2 – The Rise of Charlemagne

Charlemagne is considered the greatest ruler of the Carolingian Dynasty because of the actions he took to bring Europe out of turmoil.

3.2.1 – Introduction

Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great or Charles I, was the king of the Franks from 768 and the king of Italy from 774, and from 800 was the first emperor in western Europe since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier. The expanded Frankish state he founded is called the Carolingian Empire. Charlemagne is considered to be the greatest ruler of the Carolingian Dynasty because of the achievements he made during what seemed like the very middle of the Dark Ages.

Charlemagne was the oldest son of Pepin the Short and Bertrada of Laon. He became king in 768 following the death of his father, and initially was a co-ruler with his brother, Carloman I. Charles received Pepin’s original share as Mayor—the outer parts of the kingdom bordering on the sea, namely Neustria, western Aquitaine, and the northern parts of Austrasia—while Carloman was awarded his uncle’s former share, the inner parts—southern Austrasia, Septimania, eastern Aquitaine, Burgundy, Provence, and Swabia, lands bordering Italy. Carloman’s sudden death in 771 under unexplained circumstances left Charlemagne as the undisputed ruler of the Frankish Kingdom.

3.2.2 – Territorial Expansion

Charlemagne and Pope Adrian I: The Frankish king Charlemagne was a devout Catholic who maintained a close relationship with the papacy throughout his life. In 772, when Pope Adrian I was threatened by invaders, the king rushed to Rome to provide assistance. Shown here, the pope asks Charlemagne for help at a meeting near Rome.

Charlemagne was determined to improve education and religion and bring Europe out of turmoil. To do this he launched a thirty-year military campaign from 772–804 of conquests that united Europe and spread Christianity. Charlemagne was engaged in almost constant battle throughout his reign, often at the head of his elite scara bodyguard squadrons, with his legendary sword Joyeuse in hand. The first step that Charlemagne took in building his empire was to conquer new territories.

The first of these conquering campaigns was against the Lombards; Charlemagne came out victorious and won the Lombard lands to the north of Italy. At his succession in 772, Pope Adrian I demanded the return of certain cities in the former exarchate of Ravenna in accordance with a promise at the succession of Desiderius. Instead, Desiderius took over certain papal cities and invaded the Pentapolis, heading for Rome. Adrian sent ambassadors to Charlemagne in the autumn, requesting he enforce the policies of his father, Pepin. Desiderius sent his own ambassadors denying the pope’s charges. The ambassadors met at Thionville, and Charlemagne upheld the pope’s side. Charlemagne demanded that Desiderius comply with the pope, but Desiderius promptly swore he never would.

Charlemagne and his uncle Bernard crossed the Alps in 773 and chased the Lombards back to Pavia, which they then besieged. The siege lasted until the spring of 774, when Charlemagne visited the pope in Rome. There he confirmed his father’s grants of land. Some later chronicles falsely claimed that he also expanded them, granting Tuscany, Emilia, Venice, and Corsica. After the pope granted Charlemagne the title of patrician, he returned to Pavia, where the Lombards were on the verge of surrendering. In return for their lives, the Lombards conceded and opened the gates in early summer.

3.2.3 – The Saxon Wars and Beyond

In the Saxon Wars, spanning thirty years and eighteen battles, Charlemagne overthrew Saxony and proceeded to convert the conquered to Christianity.

The Germanic Saxons were divided into four subgroups in four regions. Nearest to Austrasia was Westphalia, and furthest away was Eastphalia. Engria was between these two kingdoms, and to the north, at the base of the Jutland peninsula, was Nordalbingia. In his first campaign against the Saxons, in 773, Charlemagne cut down an Irminsul pillar near Paderborn and forced the Engrians to submit. The campaign was cut short by his first expedition to Italy. He returned to Saxony in 775, marching through Westphalia and conquering the Saxon fort at Sigiburg. He then crossed Engria, where he defeated the Saxons again. Finally, in Eastphalia, he defeated a Saxon force and converted its leader, Hessi,  to Christianity. Charlemagne returned through Westphalia, leaving encampments at Sigiburg and Eresburg, which had been important Saxon bastions. With the exception of Nordalbingia, Saxony was under his control, but Saxon resistance had not ended.

Following his campaign in Italy to subjugate the dukes of Friuli and Spoleto, Charlemagne returned rapidly to Saxony in 776, where a rebellion had destroyed his fortress at Eresburg. The Saxons were once again brought to heel, but their main leader, Widukind, managed to escape to Denmark, home of his wife. Charlemagne built a new camp at Karlstadt. In 777, he called a national assembly at Paderborn to integrate Saxony fully into the Frankish kingdom. Many Saxons were baptized as Christians.

Outside Charlemagne’s Saxon campaigns, he expanded his empire towards southern Germany, southern France, and the island of Corsica. He fought the Avars, adding modern-day Hungary to his empire, and also fought against the Moors of Spain, gaining the northern part of Spain. Through these conquests Charlemagne united Europe and spread Christianity.

By 800 he was the ruler of Western Europe and had control of present-day France, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and parts of Austria and Spain. Charlemagne’s successful military campaigns were due to his abilities as a military commander and planner, and to the training of his warriors. He controlled his vast empire by sending agents to supervise its different areas. Charlemagne’s accomplishments restored much of the unity of the old Roman Empire and paved the way for the development of modern Europe.

3.3 – Charlemagne’s Reforms

As emperor, Charlemagne stood out for his many reforms—monetary, governmental, military, cultural, and ecclesiastical—and ushered in an era known as the Carolingian Renaissance.

3.3.1 – The Carolingian Renaissance

As emperor, Charlemagne stood out for his many reforms—monetary, governmental, military, cultural, and ecclesiastical. He was the main initiator and proponent of the “Carolingian Renaissance,” the first of three medieval renaissances. It was a period of cultural activity in the Carolingian Empire occurring from the late-8th century to the 9th century, taking inspiration from the Christian Roman Empire of the 4th century. During this period there was an expansion of literature, writing, the arts, architecture, jurisprudence, liturgical reforms, and scriptural studies.

The effects of this cultural revival were largely limited to a small group of court literati; according to John Contreni, “it had a spectacular effect on education and culture in Francia, a debatable effect on artistic endeavors, and an unmeasurable effect on what mattered most to the Carolingians, the moral regeneration of society.” Beyond their efforts to write better Latin, to copy and preserve patristic and classical texts, and to develop a more legible, classicizing script, the secular and ecclesiastical leaders of the Carolingian Renaissance applied rational ideas to social issues for the first time in centuries, providing a common language and writing style that allowed for communication across most of Europe.

3.3.2 – Education Reform

Part of Charlemagne’s success as a warrior, an administrator, and a ruler can be traced to his admiration for learning and education. The era ushered in by his reign, the Carolingian Renaissance, was so called because of the flowering of scholarship, literature, art, and architecture that characterized it. Charlemagne’s vast conquests brought him into contact with the cultures and learnings of other countries, especially Moorish Spain, Anglo-Saxon England, and Lombard Italy, and greatly increased the provision of monastic schools and scriptoria (centers for book copying) in Francia.

Most of the presently surviving works of classical Latin were copied and preserved by Carolingian scholars. Indeed, the earliest manuscripts available for many ancient texts are Carolingian. It is almost certain that a text that survived to the Carolingian age endures still.

Carolingian Minuscule: Carolingian minuscule, one of the products of the Carolingian Renaissance.

The pan-European nature of Charlemagne’s influence is indicated by the origins of many of the men who worked for him: Alcuin, an Anglo-Saxon from York; Theodulf, a Visigoth, probably from Septimania; Paul the Deacon, a Lombard; Peter of Pisa and Paulinus of Aquileia, both Italians; and Angilbert, Angilram, Einhard, and Waldo of Reichenau, Franks. Charlemagne took a serious interest in scholarship, promoting the liberal arts at the court, ordering that his children and grandchildren be well-educated, and even studying himself (in a time when many leaders who promoted education did not take time to learn themselves). He studied grammar with Peter of Pisa; rhetoric, dialectic (logic), and astronomy (he was particularly interested in the movement of the stars) with Alcuin; and arithmetic with Einhard.

Charlemagne’s great scholarly failure, as Einhard related, was his inability to write. When in his old age he attempted to learn—practicing the formation of letters in his bed during his free time on books and wax tablets he hid under his pillow—”his effort came too late in life and achieved little success.” His ability to read—which Einhard is silent about, and which no contemporary source supports—has also been called into question.

3.3.3 – Economic Reform

Charlemagne had an important role in determining the immediate economic future of Europe. Pursuing his father’s reforms, Charlemagne abolished the monetary system based on the gold sou, and he and the Anglo-Saxon King Offa of Mercia took up the system set in place by Pepin. There were strong pragmatic reasons for this abandonment of a gold standard, notably a shortage of gold itself.

The gold shortage was a direct consequence of the conclusion of peace with Byzantium, which resulted in ceding Venice and Sicily to the East and losing their trade routes to Africa. The resulting standardization economically harmonized and unified the complex array of currencies that had been in use at the commencement of Charlemagne’s reign, thus simplifying trade and commerce.

Charlemagne established a new standard, the livre carolinienne (from the Latin libra, the modern pound), which was based upon a pound of silver—a unit of both money and weight—and was worth 20 sous (from the Latin solidus, the modern shilling) or 240 deniers(from the Latin denarius, the modern penny). During this period, the livre and the sou were counting units; only the denier was a coin of the realm.

Coinage from Charlemagne’s empire: Denier from the era of Charlemagne, Tours, 793–812

Charlemagne instituted principles for accounting practice by means of the Capitulare de villis of 802, which laid down strict rules for the way in which incomes and expenses were to be recorded.

Early in Charlemagne’s rule he tacitly allowed the Jews to monopolize money lending. When lending money for interest was proscribed in 814, being against Church law at the time, Charlemagne introduced the Capitulary for the Jews, a prohibition on Jews engaging in money lending due to the religious convictions of the majority of his constituents, in essence banning it across the board, a reversal of his earlier recorded general policy. In addition to this macro-oriented reform of the economy, Charlemagne also performed a significant number of microeconomic reforms, such as direct control of prices and levies on certain goods and commodities.

His Capitulary for the Jews, however, was not representative of his overall economic relationship or attitude toward the Frankish Jews, and certainly not his earlier relationship with them, which had evolved over his lifespan. His paid personal physician, for example, was Jewish, and he employed at least one Jew for his diplomatic missions, a personal representative to the Muslim caliphate of Baghdad. Letters have been credited to him inviting Jews to settle in his kingdom for economic purposes, generally welcoming them through his overall progressive policies.

3.3.4 – Church Reform

Unlike his father, Pepin, and uncle Carloman, Charlemagne expanded the reform program of the church. The deepening of the spiritual life was later to be seen as central to public policy and royal governance. His reform focused on the strengthening of the church’s power structure, advancing the skill and moral quality of the clergy, standardizing liturgical practices, improving on the basic tenets of the faith and moral, and rooting out paganism. His authority was now extended over church and state; he could discipline clerics, control ecclesiastical property, and define orthodox doctrine. Despite the harsh legislation and sudden change, he had grown a well-developed support from the clergy who approved his desire to deepen the piety and morals of his Christian subjects.

3.3.5 – Political and Administrative Reform

Kloster Lorsch: Lorsch Abbey gatehouse, c. 800, an example of the Carolingian architectural style, a first, albeit isolated classical movement in architecture.

In 800, Charlemagne was crowned emperor and adapted his existing royal administration to live up to the expectations of his new title. The political reforms wrought in his capital, Aachen, were to have an immense impact on the political definition of Western Europe for the rest of the Middle Ages. Charlemagne’s improvements on the old Merovingian mechanisms of governance have been lauded by historians for the increased central control, efficient bureaucracy, accountability, and cultural renaissance.

The Carolingian Empire was the largest western territory since the fall of Rome, and historians have come to suspect the depth of the emperor’s influence and control. Legally, Charlemagne exercised the bannum, the right to rule and command, over all of his territories. Also, he had supreme jurisdiction in judicial matters, made legislation, led the army, and protected both the church and the poor. His administration attempted to organize the kingdom, church, and nobility around him; however, its efficacy was directly dependent upon the efficiency, loyalty, and support of his subjects.

Around 780 Charlemagne reformed the local system of administering justice and created the scabini, professional experts on law. Every count had the help of seven of these scabini, who were supposed to know every national law so that all men could be judged according to it. Judges were also banned from taking bribes and were supposed to use sworn inquests to establish facts. In 802, all law was written down and amended.

The Frankish kingdom was subdivided by Charlemagne into three separate areas to make administration easier. These areas, Austrasia, Neustria, and Burgandy, were the inner “core” of the kingdom and were supervised directly by the missatica system and the itinerant household. Outside this was the regna , where Frankish administration rested upon the counts, and beyond regna were the marcher areas, ruled by powerful governors. These marcher lordships were present in Brittany, Spain, and Avaria. Charlemagne also created two sub-kingdoms in Aquitaine and Italy, ruled by his sons Louis and Pepin respectively. Bavaria was also under the command of an autonomous governor, Gerold, until his death in 796. While Charlemagne still had overall authority in these areas, they were fairly autonomous, with their own chancery and minting facilities.

The annual meeting, the Placitum Generalis or Marchfield, was held every year (between March and May) at a place appointed by the king. It was called for three reasons: to gather the Frankish host to go on campaign, to discuss political and ecclesiastical matters affecting the kingdom and legislate for them, and to make judgements. All important men had to go the meeting, and so it was an important way for Charlemagne to make his will known. Originally the meeting worked effectively, but later it became merely a forum for discussion and for nobles to express their dissatisfaction.

3.4 – Charles Martel and Pepin the Short

Charles Martels’s victory at the Battle of Tours is widely believed to have stopped the northward advance of Muslim forces and to have preserved Christianity in Europe during a period when Muslim rule was overrunning the remains of the old Roman and Persian empires.

3.4.1 – Charles Martel

Charles Martel (688-741) was a Frankish statesman and military leader who, as Duke and Prince of the Franks and Mayor of the Palace, was de facto ruler of Francia from 718 until his death. The son of the Frankish statesman Pepin of Herstal and a noblewoman named Alpaida, Charles successfully asserted his claims to dominance as successor to his father, who was the power behind the throne in Frankish politics. Continuing and building on his father’s work, he restored centralized government in Francia and began the series of military campaigns that re-established the Franks as the undisputed masters of all Gaul.

Apart from his military endeavors, Charles is considered to be a founding figure of the European Middle Ages. Skilled as an administrator as well as a warrior, he is credited with a seminal role in the emerging responsibilities of the knights of courts, and so in the development of the Frankish system of feudalism. Moreover, Charles—a great patron of Saint Boniface—made the first attempt at reconciliation between the Franks and the papacy. Pope Gregory III, whose realm was being menaced by the Lombards, offered Charles the Roman consulship in exchange for becoming the defender of the Holy See, but Charles declined.

Although Charles never assumed the title of king, he divided Francia, as a king would have, between his sons Carloman and Pepin. The latter became the first of the Carolingians, the family of Charles Martel, to become king. Charles’s grandson, Charlemagne, extended the Frankish realms to include much of the West, and became the first emperor in the West since the fall of Rome. Therefore, on the basis of his achievements, Charles is seen as laying the groundwork for the Carolingian Empire. In summing up the man, Gibbon wrote that Charles was “the hero of the age,” whereas Guerard described him as being the “champion of the Cross against the Crescent.” – Battles of Tours

Steuben’s Bataille de Poitiers: A painting of the Battle of Tours by Charles de Steuben, 1834–1837.

After working to establish a unity in Gaul, Charles’s attention was called to foreign conflicts; dealing with the Islamic advance into Western Europe was a foremost concern. Arab and Berber Islamic forces had conquered Spain (711), crossed the Pyrenees (720), seized a major dependency of the Visigoths (721–725), and after intermittent challenges, under Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, Governor-General of al-Andalus, advanced toward Gaul and on Tours, “the holy town of Gaul.” In October 732, the army of the Umayyad Caliphate, led by Al Ghafiqi, met Frankish and Burgundian forces under Charles in an area between the cities of Tours and Poitiers (modern north-central France), leading to a decisive, historically important Frankish victory known as the Battle of Tours.

Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi was killed, and Charles subsequently extended his authority in the south. Charles further took the offensive after Tours, destroying fortresses at Agde, Béziers, and Maguelonne, and engaging Islamic forces at Nimes, though ultimately failing to recover Narbonne (737) or to fully reclaim the Visigoth’s Narbonensis. He thereafter made significant external gains against fellow Christian realms, establishing Frankish control over Bavaria, Alemannia, and Frisia, and compelling some of the Saxon tribes to offer tribute (738). Details of the Battle of Tours, including its exact location and the number of combatants, cannot be determined from accounts that have survived. Notably, the Frankish troops won the battle without cavalry.

Charles’s victory is widely believed to have stopped the northward advance of Umayyad forces from the Iberian Peninsula, and to have preserved Christianity in Europe during a period when Muslim rule was overrunning the remains of the old Roman and Persian empires.

Ninth-century chroniclers, who interpreted the outcome of the battle as divine judgment in Charles’s favor, gave him the nickname Martellus (“The Hammer”). Later Christian chroniclers and pre-20th-century historians praised Charles Martel as the champion of Christianity, characterizing the battle as the decisive turning point in the struggle against Islam, a struggle which preserved Christianity as the religion of Europe. According to modern military historian Victor Davis Hanson, “most of the 18th and 19th century historians, like Gibbon, saw Poitiers (Tours), as a landmark battle that marked the high tide of the Muslim advance into Europe.” Leopold von Ranke felt that “Poitiers (Tours) was the turning point of one of the most important epochs in the history of the world.”

There is little dispute that the battle helped lay the foundations of the Carolingian Empire and Frankish domination of Europe for the next century. Most historians agree that “the establishment of Frankish power in western Europe shaped that continent’s destiny and the Battle of Tours confirmed that power.”

3.4.3 – Pepin the Short

Charles Martel divided his realm between his sons Pepin, called Pepin the Short, and Carloman. Succeeding his father as the Mayor of the Palace in 741, Pepin reigned over Francia jointly with his elder brother Carloman. Pepin ruled in Neustria, Burgundy, and Provence, while Carloman established himself in Austrasia, Alemannia, and Thuringia. The brothers were active in subjugating revolts led by the Bavarians, Aquitanians, Saxons, and Alemanni in the early years of their reign. In 743, they ended the Frankish interregnum by choosing Childeric III, who was to be the last Merovingian monarch, as figurehead king of the Franks.

Being well disposed towards the church and papacy on account of their ecclesiastical upbringing, Pepin and Carloman continued their father’s work supporting Saint Boniface in reforming the Frankish church and evangelizing the Saxons. After Carloman, who was an intensely pious man, retired to religious life in 747, Pepin became the sole ruler of the Franks. He suppressed a revolt led by his half-brother Grifo, and succeeded in becoming the undisputed master of all Francia. Giving up pretense, Pepin then forced Childeric into a monastery and had himself proclaimed king of the Franks with the support of Pope Zachary in 751. The decision was not supported by all members of the Carolingian family, and Pepin had to put down another revolt led by Grifo and by Carloman’s son, Drogo.

As king, Pepin embarked on an ambitious program to expand his power. He reformed the legislation of the Franks and continued the ecclesiastical reforms of Boniface. Pepin also intervened in favor of the papacy of Stephen II against the Lombards in Italy. He was able to secure several cities, which he then gave to the pope as part of the Donation of Pepin. This formed the legal basis for the Papal States in the Middle Ages. The Byzantines, keen to make good relations with the growing power of the Frankish empire, gave Pepin the title of Patricius. In wars of expansion, Pepin conquered Septimania from the Islamic Umayyads, and subjugated the southern realms by repeatedly defeating Waifer of Aquitaine and his Basque troops, after which the Basque and Aquitanian lords saw no option but to pledge loyalty to the Franks. Pepin was, however, troubled by the relentless revolts of the Saxons and the Bavarians. He campaigned tirelessly in Germany, but the final subjugation of these tribes was left to his successors.

Pepin died in 768 and was succeeded by his sons Charlemagne and Carloman. Although unquestionably one of the most powerful and successful rulers of his time, Pepin’s reign is largely overshadowed by that of his more famous son.

3.5 – The End of the Carolingians

After Charlemagne’s death in 814, the Carolingian Dynasty began an extended period of fragmentation and decline that would eventually lead to the evolution of the territories of France and Germany.

3.5.1 – Charlemagne’s Death

The Carolingian dynasty began with Charlemagne’s grandfather Charles Martel, but began its official reign with Charlemagne’s father, Pepin the Short, displacing the Merovingian dynasty. The dynasty reached its peak with the crowning of Charlemagne as the first emperor in the west in over three centuries. Charlemagne’s death in 814 began an extended period of fragmentation and decline that would eventually lead to the evolution of the territories of France and Germany.

In 813, Charlemagne called Louis the Pious, king of Aquitaine and his only surviving legitimate son, to his court. There Charlemagne crowned his son with his own hands as co-emperor and sent him back to Aquitaine. He then spent the autumn hunting before returning to Aachen on November 1. In January, he fell ill with pleurisy. He took to his bed on January 21 and as Einhard tells it:

He died January twenty-eighth, the seventh day from the time that he took to his bed, at nine o’clock in the morning, after partaking of the Holy Communion, in the seventy-second year of his age and the forty-seventh of his reign.

He had a testament of 811, not updated prior to his death, that allocated his assets. He was succeeded by his son, Louis, but his empire lasted only another generation in its entirety; its division, according to custom, between Louis’s own sons after their father’s death laid the foundation for the modern states of Germany and France.

3.5.2 – The Carolingian Dynasty and Its Decline

Carolingian dynasty: Carolingian family tree, from the Chronicon Universale of Ekkehard of Aura, 12th century

Charlemagne, who was crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III at Rome in 800, was the greatest Carolingian monarch. His empire, ostensibly a continuation of the Roman Empire, is referred to historiographically as the Carolingian Empire. The traditional Frankish (and Merovingian) practice of dividing inheritances among heirs was not given up by the Carolingian emperors, though the concept of the indivisibility of the Empire was also accepted. The Carolingians had the practice of making their sons minor kings in the various regions (regna) of the Empire, which they would inherit on the death of their father.

Following the death of Louis the Pious (Charlemagne’s son), the surviving adult Carolingians fought a three-year civil war ending only in the Treaty of Verdun, which divided the empire into three regna while according imperial status and a nominal lordship to Lothair I. By this treaty, Lothair received northern Italy and a long stretch of territory from the North Sea to the Mediterranean, essentially along the valleys of the Rhine and the Rhône; this territory includes the regions of Lorraine, Alsace, Burgundy, and Provence. He soon ceded Italy to his eldest son, Louis, and remained in his new kingdom, engaging in alternate quarrels and reconciliations with his brothers and in futile efforts to defend his lands from the attacks of the Northmen (as Vikings were known in Frankish writings) and the Saracens.

The Carolingians differed markedly from the Merovingians in that they disallowed inheritance to illegitimate offspring, possibly in an effort to prevent infighting among heirs and assure a limit to the division of the realm. In the late 9th century, however, the lack of suitable adults among the Carolingians necessitated the rise of Arnulf of Carinthia, an illegitimate child of a legitimate Carolingian king.

The Carolingians were displaced in most of the regna of the Empire in 888. They ruled on in East Francia until 911 and held the throne of West Francia intermittently until 987. Carolingian cadet branches continued to rule in Vermandois and Lower Lorraine after the last king died in 987, but they never sought thrones of principalities, and they made peace with the new ruling families. One chronicler dates the end of Carolingian rule with the coronation of Robert II of France as junior co-ruler with his father, Hugh Capet, thus beginning the Capetian dynasty. Capet’s descendants—the Capetians, the House of Valois, and the House of Bourbon—progressively unified the country through wars and dynastic inheritance into the Kingdom of France, which was fully declared in 1190 by Philip II Augustus. Thus West Francia of the Carolingian dynasty became France.

Following the breakup of the Frankish Realm, the history of Germany was for 900 years intertwined with the history of the Holy Roman Empire, which subsequently emerged from the eastern portion of Charlemagne’s original empire. The territory initially known as East Francia stretched from the Rhine in the west to the Elbe River in the east, and from the North Sea to the Alps. Germany as we know it today did not come into existence until after WWI when the various principalities of the region were united as a modern nation-state.

The Carolingian dynasty became extinct in the male line with the death of Eudes, Count of Vermandois. His sister Adelaide, the last Carolingian, died in 1122.

4 – The Holy Roman Empire

4.1 – Rise of the Holy Roman Empire

The formation of the Holy Roman Empire was initiated by Charlemagne’s coronation as “Emperor of the Romans” in 800, and consolidated by Otto I when he was crowned emperor in 962 by Pope John XII.

4.1.1 – Overview

The Holy Roman Empire was a multi-ethnic complex of territories in central Europe that developed during the Early Middle Ages and continued until its dissolution in 1806. The largest territory of the empire after 962 was Eastern Francia, though it also came to include the Kingdom of Bohemia, the Kingdom of Burgundy, the Kingdom of Italy, and numerous other territories.

In 800, Pope Leo III crowned the Frankish king Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans, reviving the title in Western Europe after more than three centuries. The title continued in the Carolingian family until 888, and from 896 to 899, after which it was contested by the rulers of Italy in a series of civil wars until the death of the last Italian claimant, Berengar, in 924. The title was revived again in 962 when Otto I was crowned emperor, fashioning himself as the successor of Charlemagne and beginning a continuous existence of the empire for over eight centuries. Some historians refer to the coronation of Charlemagne as the origin of the empire, while others prefer the coronation of Otto I as its beginning. Scholars generally concur, however, in relating an evolution of the institutions and principles constituting the empire, describing a gradual assumption of the imperial title and role.

4.1.2 – The Rise of the Empire

After Charlemagne died in 814, the imperial crown was disputed among the Carolingian rulers of Western Francia and Eastern Francia, with first the western king (Charles the Bald) and then the eastern (Charles the Fat) attaining the prize. After the death of Charles the Fat in 888, however, the Carolingian Empire broke apart, and was never restored. According to Regino of Prüm, the parts of the realm “spewed forth kinglets,” and each part elected a kinglet “from its own bowels.” After the death of Charles the Fat, those crowned emperor by the pope controlled only territories in Italy. The last such emperor was Berengar I of Italy, who died in 924.

A few decade earlier, around 900, autonomous stem duchies (Franconia, Bavaria, Swabia, Saxony, and Lotharingia) reemerged in East Francia. After the Carolingian king Louis the Child died without issue in 911, East Francia did not turn to the Carolingian ruler of West Francia to take over the realm, but instead elected one of the dukes, Conrad of Franconia, as Rex Francorum Orientalium. On his deathbed, Conrad yielded the crown to his main rival, Henry the Fowler of Saxony, who was elected king at the Diet of Fritzlar in 919. Henry reached a truce with the raiding Magyars, and in 933 he won a first victory against them in the Battle of Riade.

4.1.3 – Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor

Otto I: Replica of the Magdeburger Reiter, equestrian monument traditionally regarded as portrait of Otto I (Magdeburg, original c. 1240).

Henry the Fowler died in 936, but his descendants, the Liudolfing (or Ottonian) dynasty, would continue to rule the eastern kingdom for roughly a century. Upon Henry’s death, Otto I, his son and designated successor, was elected King in Aachen in 936. Otto continued his father’s work of unifying all German tribes into a single kingdom and greatly expanded the king’s powers at the expense of the aristocracy. Through strategic marriages and personal appointments, Otto installed members of his family in the kingdom’s most important duchies. This reduced the various dukes, who had previously been co-equals with the king, to royal subjects under his authority. Otto transformed the Roman Catholic Church in Germany to strengthen the royal office and subjected its clergy to his personal control.

After putting down a brief civil war among the rebellious duchies, Otto defeated the Magyars at the Battle of Lechfeld in 955, thus ending the Hungarian invasions of Western Europe. The victory against the pagan Magyars earned Otto a reputation as a savior of Christendom and secured his hold over the kingdom. In 951, Otto came to the aid of Adelaide, the widowed queen of Italy, defeating her enemies, marrying her, and taking control of Italy. By 961, Otto had conquered the Kingdom of Italy and extended his realm’s borders to the north, east, and south. Following the example of Charlemagne’s coronation as “Emperor of the Romans” in 800, Otto was crowned emperor in 962 by Pope John XII in Rome, thus intertwining the affairs of the German kingdom with those of Italy and the papacy. Otto’s coronation as emperor marked the German kings as successors to the empire of Charlemagne, which through the concept of translatio imperii also made them consider themselves successors to Ancient Rome.

Otto’s later years were marked by conflicts with the papacy and struggles to stabilize his rule over Italy. Reigning from Rome, Otto sought to improve relations with the Byzantine Empire, which opposed his claim to emperorship and his realm’s further expansion to the south. To resolve this conflict, the Byzantine princess Theophanu married Otto’s son, Otto II, in April 972. Otto finally returned to Germany in August 972 and died at Memleben in 973. Otto II succeeded him as Holy Roman Emperor.

4.2 – Administration of the Empire

The Holy Roman Empire was divided into dozens—eventually hundreds—of individual entities governed by kings, dukes, counts, bishops, abbots, and other rulers, collectively known as princes, who governed their land independently from the emperor, whose power was severely restricted by these various local leaders.

4.2.1 – Overview

The Holy Roman Empire was not a highly centralized state like most countries today. Instead, it was divided into dozens—eventually hundreds—of individual entities governed by kings, dukes, counts, bishops, abbots, and other rulers, collectively known as princes. There were also some areas ruled directly by the emperor. At no time could the emperor simply issue decrees and govern autonomously over the empire. His power was severely restricted by the various local leaders.

From the High Middle Ages onwards, the Holy Roman Empire was marked by an uneasy coexistence with the princes of the local territories who were struggling to take power away from it. To a greater extent than in other medieval kingdoms such as France and England, the Roman emperors were unable to gain much control over the lands that they formally owned. Instead, to secure their own position from the threat of being deposed, emperors were forced to grant more and more autonomy to local rulers, both nobles and bishops. This process began in the 11th century with the Investiture Controversy and was more or less concluded with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. Several emperors attempted to reverse this steady dissemination of their authority, but were thwarted both by the papacy and by the princes of the empire.

4.2.2 – The Emperor’s Loss of Centralized Authority

After the reign of Otto I, the centralized power of the emperor began to fade and local rulers, as well as the Catholic Church, gained more and more power in relation to the emperor. Eventually, the emperor held little authority over the empire and the territories began to function more like modern nation-states. The Hohenstaufen dynasty, which started in 1125, and especially Emperor Frederick I, represented both a final attempt at unified power and the beginning of the dissolution of that power.

Despite his imperial claims, Frederick’s rule was a major turning point towards the disintegration of central rule in the Holy Roman Empire. While concentrated on establishing a modern, centralized state in Sicily, he was mostly absent from Germany and issued far-reaching privileges to Germany’s secular and ecclesiastical princes. In the 1220 Confoederatio cum principibus ecclesiasticis, Frederick gave up a number of regalia in favor of the bishops, among them tariffs, coining, and fortification. The 1232 Statutum in favorem principum mostly extended these privileges to secular territories. Although many of these privileges had existed earlier, they were now granted globally, and once and for all, to allow the German princes to maintain order north of the Alps while Frederick concentrated on Italy. The 1232 document marked the first time that the German dukes were called domini terræ, owners of their lands, a remarkable change in terminology as well.

The Holy Roman Empire, 12th century: The Hohenstaufen-ruled Holy Roman Empire and Kingdom of Sicily. Imperial and directly held Hohenstaufen land in the empire is shown in bright yellow. This map shows the patchwork of relatively autonomous principalities that made up the Holy Roman Empire.

The shift in power away from the emperor is revealed in the way the post-Hohenstaufen kings attempted to sustain their power. Earlier, the empire’s strength (and finances) greatly relied on the empire’s own lands, the so-called Reichsgut, which always belonged to the king of the day and included many imperial cities. After the 13th century, the relevance of the Reichsgut faded, even though some parts of it did remain until the empire’s end in 1806. The Reichsgut was increasingly pawned to local dukes, sometimes to raise money for the empire, but more frequently to reward faithful duty or as an attempt to establish control over the dukes. The direct governance of the Reichsgut no longer matched the needs of either the king or the dukes.

The “constitution” of the empire still remained largely unsettled at the beginning of the 15th century. Although some procedures and institutions had been fixed, for example by the Golden Bull of 1356, the rules of how the king, the electors, and the other dukes should cooperate in the empire much depended on the personality of the respective king. It therefore proved somewhat damaging that Sigismund of Luxemburg (king 1410, emperor 1433–1437) and Frederick III of Habsburg (king 1440, emperor 1452–1493) neglected the old core lands of the empire and mostly resided in their own lands. Without the presence of the king, the old institution of the Hoftag, the assembly of the realm’s leading men, deteriorated. The Imperial Diet as a legislative organ of the empire did not exist at that time. The dukes often conducted feuds against each other—feuds that, more often than not, escalated into local wars. The medieval idea of unifying all Christendom into a single political entity, with the church and the empire as its leading institutions, began to decline.

4.2.3 – Imperial Diet

The Imperial Diet (Reichstag) was the legislative body of the Holy Roman Empire and theoretically superior to the emperor himself. It was divided into three classes. The first class, the Council of Electors, consisted of the electors, or the princes who could vote for King of the Romans. The second class, the Council of Princes, consisted of the other princes, and was divided into two “benches,” one for secular rulers and one for ecclesiastical ones. Higher-ranking princes had individual votes, while lower-ranking princes were grouped into “colleges” by geography. Each college had one vote. The precise role and function of the Imperial Diet changed over the centuries, as did the empire itself, in that the estates and separate territories gained more and more control of their own affairs at the expense of imperial power.

4.2.4 – King of the Romans

Pen-and-ink miniature of the seven prince-electors: The prince-electors, the highest-ranking noblemen of the empire, usually elected one of their peers as “King of the Romans,” and he would later be crowned emperor by the pope.

Another check on the emperor’s power was the fact that he was elected. A prospective emperor first had to be elected King of the Romans by the prince-electors, the highest office of the Imperial Diet. German kings had been elected since the 9th century; at that point they were chosen by the leaders of the five most important tribes (the Salian Franks of Lorraine, Ripuarian Franks of Franconia, Saxons, Bavarians, and Swabians). In the Holy Roman Empire, the main dukes and bishops of the kingdom elected the King of the Romans. In 1356, Emperor Charles IV issued the Golden Bull, which limited the electors to seven: the King of Bohemia, the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the Duke of Saxony, the Margrave of Brandenburg, and the archbishops of Cologne, Mainz, and Trier. During the Thirty Years’ War, the Duke of Bavaria and the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg were given the right to vote as the eighth and ninth electors, respectively. Additionally, the Napoleonic Wars resulted in several electorates being reallocated, but these new electors never voted before the empire’s dissolution. A candidate for election would be expected to offer concessions of land or money to the electors in order to secure their vote.

After being elected, the King of the Romans could theoretically claim the title of “Emperor” only after being crowned by the pope. In many cases, this took several years while the king was held up by other tasks; frequently he first had to resolve conflicts in rebellious northern Italy, or was quarreling with the pope himself.

4.2.5 – Imperial Estates

The number of territories in the empire was considerable, rising to about 300 at the time of the Peace of Westphalia. Many of these Kleinstaaten (“little states”) covered no more than a few square miles, and/or included several non-contiguous pieces, so the empire was often called a Flickenteppich (“patchwork carpet”).

An entity was considered a Reichsstand (imperial estate) if, according to feudal law, it had no authority above it except the Holy Roman Emperor himself. The imperial estates comprised:

  • Territories ruled by a hereditary nobleman, such as a prince, archduke, duke, or count.
  • Territories in which secular authority was held by a clerical dignitary, such as an archbishop, bishop, or abbot. Such a cleric was a prince of the church. In the common case of a prince-bishop, this temporal territory (called a prince-bishopric) frequently overlapped with his often-larger ecclesiastical diocese, giving the bishop both civil and clerical powers. Examples are the prince-archbishoprics of Cologne, Trier, and Mainz.
  • Free imperial cities, which were subject only to the jurisdiction of the emperor.

4.3 – The Investiture Controversy

The Investiture Controversy, on the surface a conflict about the appointments of religious offices, was a powerful struggle for control over who held ultimate authority, the Holy Roman Emperor or the pope.

4.3.1 – Overview

Investiture: A woodcut by Philip Van Ness (1905), A medieval king investing a bishop with the symbols of office.

The Investiture Controversy was the most significant conflict between church and state in medieval Europe, specifically the Holy Roman Empire.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, a series of popes challenged the authority of European monarchies. At issue was who, the pope or monarchs, had the authority to appoint (invest) local church officials such as bishops of cities and abbots of monasteries. The conflict ended in 1122, when Emperor Henry V and Pope Calixtus II agreed on the Concordat of Worms. It differentiated between the royal and spiritual powers and gave the emperors a limited role in selecting bishops. The outcome seemed mostly a victory for the pope and his claim that he was God’s chief representative in the world. However, the emperor did retain considerable power over the church.

The Investiture Controversy began as a power struggle between Pope Gregory VII (1072–1085) and Holy Roman Emperor Henry V (1056–1106). A brief but significant struggle over investiture also occurred between Henry I of England and Pope Paschal II in the years 1103–1107, and the issue also played a minor role in the struggles between church and state in France.

By undercutting the imperial power established by previous emperors, the controversy led to nearly fifty years of civil war in Germany, and the triumph of the great dukes and abbots. Imperial power was finally re-established under the Hohenstaufen dynasty. Historian Norman Cantor writes of its significance:

The age of the investiture controversy may rightly be regarded as the turning-point in medieval civilization. It was the fulfillment of the early Middle Ages because in it the acceptance of the Christian religion by the Germanic peoples reached its final and decisive stage…The greater part of the religious and political system of the high Middle Ages emerged out of the events and ideas of the investiture controversy.

4.3.2 – Origins

Henry IV: This illustration shows Henry IV requesting mediation from Matilda of Tuscany and abbot Hugh of Cluny.

After the decline of the Roman Empire and prior to the Investiture Controversy, investiture, while theoretically a task of the church, was in practice performed by members of the religious nobility. Many bishops and abbots were themselves part of the ruling nobility. Since an eldest son would inherit the title of the father, siblings often found careers in the church. This was particularly true where the family may have established a proprietary church or abbey on their estate. Since Otto I (936-972) the bishops had been princes of the empire, had secured many privileges, and had become to a great extent feudal lords over great districts of the imperial territory. The control of these great units of economic and military power was for the king a question of primary importance, as it affected the imperial authority. It was essential for a ruler or nobleman to appoint (or sell the office to) someone who would remain loyal.

Since a substantial amount of wealth and land was usually associated with the office of a bishop or abbot, the sale of church offices (a practice known as simony ) was an important source of income for leaders among the nobility, who themselves owned the land and by charity allowed the building of churches.

The crisis began when a group within the church, members of the Gregorian Reform, decided to rebel against the rule of simony by forcefully taking the power of investiture from the ruling secular power, i.e., the Holy Roman Emperor, and placing that power wholly within control of the church. The Gregorian reformers knew this would not be possible so long as the emperor maintained the ability to appoint the pope, so their first step was to forcibly gain the papacy from the control of the emperor. An opportunity came in 1056 when six-year-old Henry IV became the German king; the reformers took advantage of his young age and inability to react by seizing the papacy by force. In 1059 a church council in Rome declared, with In Nomine Domini, that leaders of the nobility would have no part in the selection of popes, and created the College of Cardinals as a body of electors made up entirely of church officials. Once Rome regained control of the election of the pope, it was ready to attack the practice of investiture and simony on a broad front.

In 1075, Pope Gregory VII composed the Dictatus Papae. One clause asserted that the deposal of an emperor was under the sole power of the pope. It declared that the Roman church was founded by God alone—that the papal power was the sole universal power. By this time, Henry IV was no longer a child, and he continued to appoint his own bishops. He reacted to this declaration by sending Gregory VII a letter in which he withdrew his imperial support of Gregory as pope in no uncertain terms.

The situation was made even more dire when Henry IV installed his chaplain, Tedald, a Milanese priest, as Bishop of Milan when another priest of Milan, Atto, had already been chosen by the pope for candidacy. In 1076 the pope responded by excommunicating Henry and deposing him as German king, releasing all Christians from their oath of allegiance to him.

Enforcing these declarations was a different matter, but the advantage gradually came to the side of the pope. German princes and the aristocracy were happy to hear of the king’s deposition. They used religious reasons to continue the rebellion started at the First Battle of Langensalza in 1075, and to seize royal holdings. Aristocrats claimed local lordships over peasants and property, built forts, which had previously been outlawed, and built up localized fiefdoms to secure their autonomy from the empire.

The Investiture Controversy continued for several decades as each succeeding pope tried to diminish imperial power by stirring up revolt in Germany. These revolts were gradually successful. Henry IV was succeeded upon his death in 1106 by his son Henry V, who had rebelled against his father in favor of the papacy, and who had made his father renounce the legality of his antipopes before he died. Nevertheless, Henry V chose one more antipope, Gregory VIII. Later, he renounced some of the rights of investiture with the Concordat of Worms, abandoned Gregory, and was received back into communion and recognized as legitimate emperor as a result.

4.3.3 – The Concordat of Worms and Its Significance

After fifty years of fighting, the Concordat of Worms provided a lasting compromise when it was signed on September 23, 1122. It eliminated lay investiture while leaving secular leaders some room for unofficial but significant influence in the appointment process. The emperor renounced the right to invest ecclesiastics with ring and crosier, the symbols of their spiritual power, and guaranteed election by the canons of cathedral or abbey and free consecration.

The Concordat of Worms brought an end to the first phase of the power struggle between the papacy and the Holy Roman emperors, and has been interpreted as containing within itself the germ of nation-based sovereignty that would one day be confirmed in the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). In part this was an unforeseen result of strategic maneuvering between the church and the European sovereigns over political control within their domains.

While the monarchy was embroiled in the dispute with the church, it declined in power and broke apart. Localized rights of lordship over peasants grew. This resulted in multiple effects:

  1. Increased serfdom that reduced human rights for the majority;
  2. Increased taxes and levies that royal coffers declined;
  3. Localized rights of justice where courts did not have to answer to royal authority.

In the long term, the decline of imperial power would divide Germany until the 19th century. Similarly, in Italy, the Investiture Controversy weakened the emperor’s authority and strengthened local separatist forces. However, the papacy grew stronger from the controversy. Assembling for public opinion engaged lay people in religious affairs that increased lay piety, setting the stage for the Crusades and the great religious vitality of the 12th century.

The conflict did not end with the Concordat of Worms. Future disputes between popes and Holy Roman emperors continued until northern Italy was lost to the empire entirely. The church would crusade against the Holy Roman Empire under Frederick II.

5 – The Development of England

5.1 – The Anglo-Saxons

The Anglo-Saxons were a people who inhabited Great Britain from 450 to 1066; their reign saw the creation of a unified English nation, culture, and identity, setting the foundation for modern England.

5.1.1 – Overview

The Anglo-Saxons were a people who inhabited Great Britain from the 5th century. They comprised people from Germanic tribes who migrated to the island from continental Europe, their descendants, and indigenous British groups who adopted some aspects of Anglo-Saxon culture and language. The Anglo-Saxon period denotes the period of British history between about 450 and 1066, after their initial settlement and up until the Norman Conquest.

The Anglo-Saxon period includes the creation of an English nation, with many of the aspects that survive today, including regional government of shires and hundreds. During this period, Christianity was re-established and there was a flowering of literature and language. Charters and law were also instituted.

The history of the Anglo-Saxons is the history of a cultural identity. It developed from divergent groups in association with the people’s adoption of Christianity, and was integral to the establishment of various kingdoms. Threatened by extended Danish invasions and occupation of eastern England, this identity persevered; it dominated until after the Norman Conquest.

5.1.2 – Anglo-Saxon History

The early Anglo-Saxon period covers the period of medieval Britain that starts from the end of Roman rule. By the year 400, southern Britain—Britain below Hadrian ‘s Wall —was a peripheral part of the Western Roman Empire, occasionally lost to rebellion or invasion, but until then always eventually recovered. Around 410, Britain slipped beyond direct imperial control into a phase which has generally been termed “sub-Roman.”

In the second half of the 6th century, four structures contributed to the development of Anglo-Saxon society: the position and freedoms of the ceorl (peasants), the smaller tribal areas coalescing into larger kingdoms, the elite developing from warriors to kings, and Irish monasticism developing under Finnian.

In 565, Columba, a monk from Ireland who studied at the monastic school of Moville under Saint Finnian, reached Iona as a self-imposed exile. The influence of the monastery of Iona would grow into what Peter Brown has described as an “unusually extensive spiritual empire,” which “stretched from western Scotland deep to the southwest into the heart of Ireland and, to the southeast, it reached down throughout northern Britain, through the influence of its sister monastery Lindisfarne.” Michael Drout calls this period the “Golden Age,” when learning flourished with a renaissance in classical knowledge.

By 660 the political map of Lowland Britain had developed, with smaller territories coalescing into kingdoms; from this time larger kingdoms started dominating the smaller kingdoms. The establishment of kingdoms, with a particular king being recognized as an overlord, developed out of an early loose structure. Simon Keynes suggests that the 8th century–9th century was period of economic and social flourishing that created stability both below the Thames and above the Humber. However, between the Humber and Thames, one political entity, the kingdom of Mercia, grew in influence and power and attracted attention in the East.

England, 650: A political map of Britain c. 650 (the names are in modern English); the black text denotes kingdoms ruled by Anglo-Saxons.

The 9th century saw the rise of Wessex, from the foundations laid by King Egbert in the first quarter of the century to the achievements of King Alfred the Great in its closing decades. Alfred successfully defended his kingdom against the Viking attempt at conquest and became the dominant ruler in England. He was the first king of the West Saxons to style himself “King of the Anglo-Saxons.” Alfred had a reputation as a learned and merciful man with a gracious and level-headed nature who encouraged education and improved his kingdom’s legal system and military structure and his people’s quality of life.

During the course of the 10th century, the West Saxon kings extended their power first over Mercia, then over the southern Danelaw, and finally over Northumbria, thereby imposing a semblance of political unity on peoples who nonetheless would remain conscious of their respective customs and their separate pasts. The prestige and pretensions of the monarchy increased, the institutions of government strengthened, and kings and their agents sought in various ways to establish social order. This was the society that would see three invasions in the 11th century, the third of which was led successfully by William of Normandy in 1066 and transferred political rule to the Normans.

5.1.3 – Anglo-Saxon Culture and Society

West Stow Anglo-Saxon village: Panorama of the reconstructed 7th-century village, characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon peasant villages.

The visible Anglo-Saxon culture can be seen in the material culture of buildings, dress styles, illuminated texts, and grave goods. Behind the symbolic nature of these cultural emblems, there are strong elements of tribal and lordship ties. The elite declared themselves kings who developed burhs (fortifications or fortified settlements), and identified their roles and peoples in Biblical terms. Above all, as Helena Hamerow has observed, “local and extended kin groups remained…the essential unit of production throughout the Anglo-Saxon period.” The effects persist in the 21st century as, according to a study published in March 2015, the genetic makeup of British populations today shows divisions of the tribal political units of the early Anglo-Saxon period.

The ties of loyalty to a lord were to his person, not to his station; there was no real concept of patriotism or loyalty to a cause. This explains why dynasties waxed and waned so quickly; a kingdom was only as strong as its leader-king. There was no underlying administration or bureaucracy to maintain any gains beyond the lifetime of a leader.

The culture of the Anglo-Saxons was especially solidified and cultivated by King Alfred. The major kingdoms had grown by absorbing smaller principalities, and the means by which they did it and the character their kingdoms acquired as a result represent one of the major themes of the Middle Saxon period. A “good” king was a generous king who won the support that would ensure his supremacy over other kingdoms through his wealth. King Alfred’s digressions in his translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy provided these observations about the resources that every king needed:

In the case of the king, the resources and tools with which to rule are that he have his land fully manned: he must have praying men, fighting men and working men. You know also that without these tools no king may make his ability known. Another aspect of his resources is that he must have the means of support for his tools, the three classes of men. These, then, are their means of support: land to live on, gifts, weapons, food, ale, clothing and whatever else is necessary for each of the three classes of men.

The first group of King Alfred’s three-fold Anglo-Saxon society are praying men—people who work at prayer. Although Christianity dominates the religious history of the Anglo-Saxons, life in the 5th and 6th centuries was dominated by “pagan” religious beliefs with a Scando-Germanic heritage. Almost every poem from before the Norman Conquest, no matter how Christian its theme, is steeped in pagan symbolism, but the integration of pagan beliefs into the new faith goes beyond the literary sources. Anglo-Saxon England found ways to synthesize the religion of the church with the existing “northern” customs and practices. Thus the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons was not just their switching from one practice to another, but making something fresh out of their old inheritance and their new beliefs and learning. Monasticism, and not just the church, was at the center of Anglo-Saxon Christian life. The role of churchmen was analogous with that of the warriors waging heavenly warfare.

The second element of Alfred’s society is fighting men. The subject of war and the Anglo-Saxons is a curiously neglected one; however, it is an important element of their society.

The third aspect of Alfred’s society is working men. Helena Hamerow suggested that the prevailing model of working life and settlement, particularly for the early period, was one of shifting settlement and building tribal kinship. The mid-Saxon period saw diversification, the development of enclosures, the beginning of the toft system, closer management of livestock, the gradual spread of the mould-board plough, “informally regular plots,” and a greater permanence, with further settlement consolidation thereafter foreshadowing post-Conquest villages. The later periods saw a proliferation of “service features,” including barns, mills, and latrines, most markedly on high-status sites. Throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, Helena Hamerow suggested: “local and extended kin groups remained…the essential unit of production.”

5.2 – The Norman Invasion of 1066 CE

The Norman Invasion of England was led by William II of Normandy, who defeated Harold II of England in the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

5.2.1 – Background

The Norman conquest of England was the 11th-century invasion and occupation of England by an army of Norman, Breton, and French soldiers led by Duke William II of Normandy, later styled William the Conqueror.

William’s claim to the English throne derived from his familial relationship with the childless Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Confessor, who may have encouraged William’s hopes for the throne. Edward died in January 1066 and was succeeded by his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson. Harold faced invasions by William, his own brother Tostig, and the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada (Harold III of Norway).

5.2.2 – Preparations and Early Battles

The English army was organized along regional lines, with the fyrd, or local levy, serving under a local magnate—an earl, bishop, or sheriff. The fyrd was composed of men who owned their own land and were equipped by their community to fulfill the king’s demands for military forces. As a whole, England could furnish about 14,000 men for the fyrd when it was called out. The fyrd usually served for two months, except in emergencies. It was rare for the whole national fyrd to be called out; between 1046 and 1065 it was done only three times—in 1051, 1052, and 1065. The king also had a group of personal armsmen known as housecarls, who formed the backbone of the royal forces. The composition, structure, and size of Harold’s army contributed to his defeat against William.

Harold had spent mid-1066 on the south coast with a large army and fleet, waiting for William to invade. The bulk of his forces were militia who needed to harvest their crops, so on September 8 Harold dismissed the militia and the fleet. Learning of the Norwegian invasion, he rushed north, gathering forces as he went, and took the Norwegians by surprise, defeating them at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on September 25. Harald of Norway and Tostig were killed, and the Norwegians suffered such great losses that only 24 of the original 300 ships were required to carry away the survivors. The English victory came at great cost, as Harold’s army was left in a battered and weakened state.

Meanwhile, William had assembled a large invasion fleet and gathered an army from Normandy and the rest of France, including large contingents from Brittany and Flanders. William spent almost nine months on his preparations, as he had to construct a fleet from nothing. The Normans crossed to England a few days after Harold’s victory over the Norwegians, following the dispersal of Harold’s naval force, and landed at Pevensey in Sussex on September 28. A few ships were blown off course and landed at Romney, where the Normans fought the local fyrd. After landing, William’s forces built a wooden castle at Hastings, from which they raided the surrounding area. More fortifications were erected at Pevensey.

5.2.3 – Battle of Hastings

The Bayeux Tapestry: The controversial panel depicting Harold II’s death: The tapestry depicts the loss of the Anglo-Saxon troops to the Norman forces. Here, a figure some think to be Harold Godwinson is shown falling at the Battle of Hastings. Harold is shown with an arrow to the eye.

The deaths of Tostig and Hardrada at Stamford left William as Harold’s only serious opponent. While Harold and his forces were recovering from Stamford, William landed his invasion forces at Pevensey and established a beachhead for his conquest of the kingdom. Harold was forced to march south swiftly, gathering forces as he went.

Harold’s army confronted William’s invaders on October 14 at the Battle of Hastings. The battle began at about 9 a.m. and lasted all day, but while a broad outline is known, the exact events are obscured by contradictory accounts in the sources. Although the numbers on each side were probably about equal, William had both cavalry and infantry, including many archers, while Harold had only foot soldiers and few archers. In the morning, the English soldiers formed up as a shield wall along the ridge, and were at first so effective that William’s army was thrown back with heavy casualties. Some of William’s Breton troops panicked and fled, and some of the English troops appear to have pursued them. Norman cavalry then attacked and killed the pursuing troops. While the Bretons were fleeing, rumors swept the Norman forces that the duke had been killed, but William rallied his troops. Twice more the Normans made feigned withdrawals, tempting the English into pursuit, and allowing the Norman cavalry to attack them repeatedly.

The available sources are more confused about events in the afternoon, but it appears that the decisive event was the death of Harold, about which differing stories are told. William of Jumieges claimed that Harold was killed by William. It has also been claimed that the Bayeux Tapestry shows Harold’s death by an arrow to the eye, but this may be a later reworking of the tapestry to conform to 12th-century stories. Other sources stated that no one knew how Harold died because the press of battle was so tight around the king that the soldiers could not see who struck the fatal blow.

5.3 – William the Conqueror’s Rule

William the Conqueror’s rule was marked by struggles to consolidate his hold over England, which led to the compiling of the Domesday Book, a manuscript surveying the land of England in order to understand the holdings of each household.

5.3.1 – Introduction

Although William’s main rivals were gone after the Battle of Hastings, he still faced rebellions over the following years and was not secure on his throne until after 1072. After further military efforts, William was crowned king on Christmas Day 1066 in London. He made arrangements for the governance of England in early 1067 before returning to Normandy. Several unsuccessful rebellions followed, but by 1075 William’s hold on England was mostly secure, allowing him to spend the majority of the rest of his reign on the continent. The lands of the resisting English elite were confiscated; some of the elite fled into exile.

To control his new kingdom, William gave lands to his followers and built castles commanding military strongpoints throughout the land. Other effects of the conquest included the introduction of Norman French as the language of the elites and changes in the composition of the upper classes, as William reclaimed territory to be held directly by the king and settled new Norman nobility on the land. More gradual changes affected the agricultural classes and village life; the main change appears to have been the formal elimination of slavery, which may or may not have been linked to the invasion. There was little alteration in the structure of government, as the new Norman administrators took over many of the forms of Anglo-Saxon government.

William did not try to integrate his various domains into one empire, but instead continued to administer each part separately. William took over an English government that was more complex than the Norman system. England was divided into shires or counties, which were further divided into either hundreds or wapentakes. To oversee his expanded domain, William was forced to travel even more than he had as duke. He crossed back and forth between the continent and England at least nineteen times between 1067 and his death.

William’s lands were divided after his death; Normandy went to his eldest son, Robert, and England to his second surviving son, William.

5.3.2 – Domesday Book

Kent, page 1 of the Domesday Book: Domesday Book images from the Open Domesday Book project, which created the first free online copy of the Domesday Book. Image credit: Professor J.J.N. Palmer and George Slater.

The Domesday Book is a manuscript record of the great survey, completed in 1086 on orders of William the Conqueror, of much of England and parts of Wales. The aim of the great survey was to determine what or how much each landholder had in land and livestock, and how much it was worth. The survey’s ultimate purpose was to determine what taxes had been owed under Edward the Confessor.

The assessors’ reckoning of a man’s holdings and their value, as given in the book, was dispositive and without appeal, and thus the name Domesday Book came into use in the 12th century. – Purpose of the Domesday Book

After a great political convulsion like the Norman Conquest, and the wholesale confiscation of landed estates that followed, it was in William’s interest to make sure that the rights of the crown, which he claimed to have inherited, had not suffered in the process. In particular, his Norman followers were more likely to evade the liabilities of their English predecessors, and there was growing discontent at the Norman land-grab that had occurred in the years following the invasion. William required certainty and definitive reference points as to property holdings across the nation so that they might be used as evidence in disputes and purported authority for crown ownership.

The Domesday survey therefore recorded the names of the new landholders and the assessments on which their taxes were to be paid. But it did more than this; by the king’s instructions, it endeavored to make a national valuation list, estimating the annual value of all the land in the country at three points in time:

  1. At the time of Edward the Confessor’s death;
  2. When the new owners received it;
  3. At the time of the survey.

Further, it reckoned, by command, the potential value as well.It is evident that William desired to know the financial resources of his kingdom, and it is probable that he wished to compare them with the existing assessment. The great bulk of the Domesday Book is devoted to the somewhat arid details of the assessment and valuation of rural estates, which were as yet the only important sources of national wealth. After stating the assessment of a manor, the record sets forth the amount of arable land, and the number of plough teams (each reckoned at eight oxen) available for working it, with the additional number (if any) that might be employed; then the river-meadows, woodland, pasture, fisheries (i.e. fishing weirs), water-mills, salt-pans (if by the sea), and other subsidiary sources of revenue; then the number of peasants in their several classes; and finally a rough estimate of the annual value of the whole, past and present. – Importance of the Domesday Book

The importance of the Domesday Book for understanding the period in which it was written is difficult to overstate. It is considered the oldest public record in England and is probably the most remarkable statistical document in the history of Europe.

No survey approaching the scope and extent of the Domesday Book was attempted until the 1873 Return of Owners of Land(sometimes termed the Modern Domesday), which presented the first complete, post-Domesday picture of the distribution of landed property in the British Isles.

5.4 – The Magna Carta

The Magna Carta was the first document imposed upon a king of England to limit his powers by law and protect civil rights.

5.4.1 – Norman Kings after the Conquest

At the death of William the Conqueror in 1087, his lands were divided into two parts. His Norman lands went to his eldest son, Robert Curthose and his English lands to his second son, William Rufus. This presented a dilemma for those nobles who held land on both sides of the English Channel, who decided to unite England and Normandy once more under one ruler. The pursuit of this aim led them to revolt against William in favor of Robert in the Rebellion of 1088. As Robert failed to appear in England to rally his supporters, William won the support of the English lords with silver and promises of better government, and defeated the rebellion. William died while hunting in 1100.

Despite Robert’s rival claims to William’s land, his younger brother Henry immediately seized power in England. Robert, who invaded in 1101, disputed Henry’s control of England. This military campaign ended in a negotiated settlement that confirmed Henry as king. The peace was short lived, and Henry invaded the Duchy of Normandy in 1105 and 1106, finally defeating Robert at the Battle of Tinchebray.

Henry I of England named his daughter Matilda his heir, but when he died in 1135 Matilda was far from England in Anjou or Maine, while her cousin Stephen was closer in Boulogne, giving him the advantage he needed to race to England and have himself crowned and anointed king of England. After Stephen’s death in 1154, Henry II succeeded as the first Angevin king of England, so-called because he was also the Count of Anjou in northern France. He therefore added England to his extensive holdings in Normandy and Aquitaine. England became a key part of a loose-knit assemblage of lands spread across Western Europe, later termed the Angevin Empire. Henry was succeeded by his third son, Richard, whose reputation for martial prowess won him the epithet “Lionheart.” When Richard died, his brother John—Henry’s fifth and only surviving son—took the throne.

5.4.2 – Magna Carta

Magna Carta: One of four known surviving original copies of the Magna Carta of 2015, written in iron gall ink on parchment in medieval Latin, authenticated with the Great Seal of King John. This document is held at the British Library.

Over the course of King John’s reign (1199-1216), a combination of higher taxes, unsuccessful wars, and conflict with the pope had made him unpopular with his barons. In 1215 some of the most important barons engaged in open rebellion against their king. King John met with the leaders of the barons, along with their French and Scot allies, to seal the Great Charter (Magna Carta in Latin), which imposed legal limits on the king’s personal powers. It was sealed under oath by King John at Runnymede, on the bank of the River Thames near Windsor, England, on June 15, 1215. It promised the protection of church rights, protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown, to be implemented through a council of twenty-five barons.

5.4.3 – Background

Although the kingdom had a robust administrative system, the nature of government under the Angevin monarchs was ill-defined and uncertain. John and his predecessors had ruled using the principle of vis et voluntas, or “force and will,” making executive and sometimes arbitrary decisions, often justified on the basis that a king was above the law. Many contemporary writers believed that monarchs should rule in accordance with the custom and the law, with the counsel of the leading members of the realm, but there was no model for what should happen if a king refused to do so.

John had lost most of his ancestral lands in France to King Philip II in 1204 and had struggled to regain them for many years, raising extensive taxes on the barons to accumulate money to fight a war that ultimately ended in expensive failure in 1214. Following the defeat of his allies at the Battle of Bouvines, John had to sue for peace and pay compensation. John was already personally unpopular with a number of the barons, many of whom owed money to the Crown, and little trust existed between the two sides. A triumph would have strengthened his position, but within a few months after his unsuccessful return from France, John found that rebel barons in the north and east of England were organizing resistance to his rule.

John met the rebel leaders at Runnymede, a water-meadow on the south bank of the River Thames, on June 10, 1215. Here the rebels presented John with their draft demands for reform, the “Articles of the Barons.” Stephen Langton’s pragmatic efforts at mediation over the next ten days turned these incomplete demands into a charter capturing the proposed peace agreement; a few years later, this agreement was renamed Magna Carta, meaning “Great Charter.”

5.4.4 – Clause 61

The Magna Carta – Failed Diplomacy That Changed the World: A National History Day group documentary. The theme that year (2011) was Debate and Diplomacy in History: Successes, Failures, and Consequences. As a result, you will notice a great emphasis on these ideas throughout the course of the video.

The 1215 document contained a large section that is now called clause 61 (the clauses were not originally numbered). This section established a committee of twenty-five barons who could at any time meet and overrule the will of the king if he defied the provisions of the charter, and could seize his castles and possessions if it was considered necessary. It contained a commitment from John that he would “seek to obtain nothing from anyone, in our own person or through someone else, whereby any of these grants or liberties may be revoked or diminished.”

Clause 61 was a serious challenge to John’s authority as a ruling monarch. He renounced it as soon as the barons left London; Pope Innocent III also annulled the “shameful and demeaning agreement, forced upon the King by violence and fear.” The pope rejected any call for restraints on the king, saying it impaired John’s dignity. He saw the charter as an affront to the church’s authority over the king and the “papal territories” of England and Ireland, and he released John from his oath to obey it. The rebels knew that King John could never be restrained by Magna Carta, and so they sought a new King.

5.4.5 – The First Barons’ War

John of England vs Louis VIII of France: Created in the 14th Century; the image King John of England in battle with the Francs (left), Prince Louis VIII of France on the march (right).

With the failure of the Magna Carta to achieve peace or restrain John, the barons reverted to the more traditional type of rebellion by trying to replace the monarch they disliked with an alternative. In a measure of some desperation, despite the tenuousness of his claim and despite the fact that he was French, they offered the crown of England to Prince Louis of France, who was proclaimed king in London in May 1216. John travelled around the country to oppose the rebel forces, directing, among other operations, a two-month siege of the rebel-held Rochester Castle. He died of dysentery contracted whilst on campaign in eastern England during late 1216; supporters of his son Henry III went on to achieve victory over Louis and the rebel barons the following year.

5.4.6 – Legacy

John of England signs the Magna Carta: John of England signs the Magna Carta. Image from Cassell’s History of England, Century Edition, published c. 1902. This image depicts the stress under the king and all those in England struggling for power.

As a means of preventing war, the Magna Carta was a failure, rejected by most of the barons, and was legally valid for no more than three months. In practice, the Magna Carta did not generally limit the power of kings in the medieval period, but by the time of the English Civil War it had become an important symbol for those who wished to show that the king was bound by the law. The charter is widely known throughout the English-speaking world as having influenced common and constitutional law, as well as political representation and the development of parliament. The text’s association with ideals of democracy, limitation of power, equality, and freedom under law led to the rule of constitutional law in England and beyond. It influenced the early settlers in New England and inspired later constitutional documents, including the Constitution of the United States.

5.5 – The Hundred Years’ War

The Hundred Years’ War was a series of conflicts between the kingdoms of England and France for control of the French throne.

5.5.1 – Background

In the 13th century, after the Magna Carta failed to prevent the Baron Wars, King John and his son King Henry III’s reigns were characterized by numerous rebellions and civil wars, often provoked by incompetence and mismanagement in government. The reign of Henry III’s son Edward I (1272–1307), was rather more successful. Edward enacted numerous laws strengthening the powers of his government, and he summoned the first officially sanctioned Parliaments of England. He conquered Wales and attempted to use a succession dispute to gain control of the Kingdom of Scotland, though this developed into a costly and drawn-out military campaign.

After the disastrous reign of Edward II, which saw military losses and the Great Famine, Edward III reigned from 1327–1377, restoring royal authority and transforming the Kingdom of England into the most efficient military power in Europe. His reign saw vital developments in legislature and government—in particular the evolution of the English parliament—as well as the ravages of the Black Death. After defeating, but not subjugating, the Kingdom of Scotland, he declared himself rightful heir to the French throne in 1338, but his claim was denied. This started what would become known as the Hundred Years’ War.

5.5.2 – The Hundred Years’ War

The Hundred Years’ War is the term used to describe a series of conflicts from 1337 to 1453, between the rulers of the Kingdom of England and the House of Valois for control of the French throne. These 116 years saw a great deal of battle on the continent, most of it over disputes as to which family line should rightfully be upon the throne of France. By the end of the Hundred Years’ War, the population of France was about half what it had been before the era began.

The root causes of the conflict can be found in the demographic, economic, and social crises of 14th-century Europe. The outbreak of war was motivated by a gradual rise in tension between the kings of France and England about Guyenne, Flanders, and Scotland. The dynastic question, which arose due to an interruption of the direct male line of the Capetians, was the official pretext.

The dispute over Guyenne is even more important than the dynastic question in explaining the outbreak of the war. Guyenne posed a significant problem to the kings of France and England; Edward III was a vassal of Philip VI of France and was required to recognize the sovereignty of the king of France over Guyenne. In practical terms, a judgment in Guyenne might be subject to an appeal to the French royal court. The king of France had the power to revoke all legal decisions made by the king of England in Aquitaine, which was unacceptable to the English. Therefore, sovereignty over Guyenne was a latent conflict between the two monarchies for several generations.

The war owes its historical significance to multiple factors. Although primarily a dynastic conflict, the war gave impetus to ideas of French and English nationalism. By its end, feudal armies had been largely replaced by professional troops, and aristocratic dominance had yielded to a democratization of the manpower and weapons of armies. The wider introduction of weapons and tactics supplanted the feudal armies where heavy cavalry had dominated. The war precipitated the creation of the first standing armies in Western Europe since the time of the Western Roman Empire, composed largely of commoners and thus helping to change their role in warfare. With respect to the belligerents, English political forces over time came to oppose the costly venture. The dissatisfaction of English nobles, resulting from the loss of their continental landholdings, became a factor leading to the civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses (1455–1487). In France, civil wars, deadly epidemics, famines, and bandit free-companies of mercenaries reduced the population drastically. Deprived of its continental possessions, England was left with the sense of being an island nation, which profoundly affected its outlook and development for more than 500 years.

Historians commonly divide the war into three phases separated by truces: 1) the Edwardian Era War (1337–1360); 2) the Caroline War (1369–1389); and 3) the Lancastrian War (1415–1453), which saw the slow decline of English fortunes after the appearance of Joan of Arc in 1429.

5.5.3 – The Edwardian Era War

The Edwardian War was the first series of hostilities of the Hundred Years’ War. It was a series of punctuated, separate conflicts waged between the kingdoms of England and France and their various allies for control of the French throne. The Edwardian War was driven by Edward III’s ambition to maintain sovereignty in Aquitaine and assert his claim as the rightful king of France by unseating his rival, Philip VI of France.

Edward had inherited the duchy of Aquitaine, and as duke of Aquitaine he was a vassal to Philip VI of France. He refused, however, to acknowledge his fealty to Philip, who responded by confiscating the duchy of Aquitaine in 1337; this precipitated war, and soon, in 1340, Edward declared himself king of France. Edward III and his son the Black Prince led their armies on a largely successful campaign across France. Hostilities were paused in the mid-1350s for the deprivations of the Black Death. Then war continued, and the English were victorious at the Battle of Poitiers (1356), where the French king, John II, was captured and held for ransom. The Truce of Bordeaux was signed in 1357 and was followed by two treaties in London in 1358 and 1359.

After the treaties of London failed, Edward launched the Rheims campaign. Though largely unsuccessful, this campaign led to the Treaty of Brétigny (signed 1360), which settled certain lands in France on Edward for renouncing his claim to the French throne. This peace lasted nine years, until a second phase of hostilities known as the Caroline War began.

5.5.4 – The Caroline War

The Caroline War was named after Charles V of France, who resumed the war after the Treaty of Brétigny. In May 1369, the Black Prince, son of Edward III of England, refused an illegal summons from the French king demanding he come to Paris, and Charles responded by declaring war. He immediately set out to reverse the territorial losses imposed at Brétigny, but was largely successful. His successor, Charles VI, made peace with Richard II, son of the Black Prince, in 1389. This truce was extended many times until the war was resumed in 1415.

5.5.5 – The Lancastrian War

Attacks on England by the Franco-Castilian Navy, 1374-1380: The Franco-Castilian Navy, led by Admirals de Vienne and Tovar, managed to raid the English coasts for the first time since the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War.

The Lancastrian War was the third phase of the Anglo-French Hundred Years’ War. It lasted from 1415, when Henry V of England invaded Normandy, to 1453, when the English failed to recover Bordeaux. It followed a long period of peace from 1389, at end of the Caroline War. This phase was named after the House of Lancaster, the ruling house of the Kingdom of England, to which Henry V belonged. After the invasion of 1419, Henry V and, after his death, his brother John of Lancaster, Duke of Bedford, brought the English to the height of their power in France, with an English king crowned in Paris.

However, by that time, with charismatic leaders such as Joan of Arc, strong French counterattacks had started to win back all English continental territories, except the Pale of Calais, which was finally captured in 1558. Charles VII of France was crowned in Notre-Dame de Reims in 1429. The Battle of Castillon (1453) was the last battle of the Hundred Years’ War, but France and England remained formally at war until the Treaty of Picquigny in 1475. English, and later British, monarchs would continue to claim the French throne until 1800.

5.5.6 – Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc: Painting, c. 1485. An artist’s interpretation, since the only known direct portrait has not survived.

Joan of Arc is considered a heroine of France for her role during the Lancastrian phase of the Hundred Years’ War, and was canonized as a Roman Catholic saint. Joan of Arc was born to Jacques d’Arc and Isabelle Romée, a peasant family, at Domrémy, in northeast France. Joan said she received visions of the Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret, and Saint Catherine of Alexandria instructing her to support Charles VII and recover France from English domination late in the Hundred Years’ War. The uncrowned King Charles VII sent Joan to the siege of Orléans as part of a relief mission. She gained prominence after the siege was lifted only nine days later. Several additional swift victories led to Charles VII’s coronation at Reims. This long-awaited event boosted French morale and paved the way for the final French victory.

On May 23, 1430, Joan was captured at Compiègne by the English-allied Burgundian faction. She was later handed over to the English and then put on trial by the pro-English Bishop of Beauvais Pierre Cauchon on a variety of charges. She was convicted on May 30, 1431, and burned at the stake when she was about nineteen years old.

Joan of Arc biography: Joan of Arc (1412–1431) was born a peasant and became a heroine of France.

Twenty-five years after her execution, an inquisitorial court authorized by Pope Callixtus III examined the trial, pronounced her innocent, and declared her a martyr. Joan of Arc was beatified in 1909 and canonized in 1920. She is one of the nine secondary patron saints of France, along with St. Denis, St. Martin of Tours, St. Louis, St. Michael, St. Remi, St. Petronilla, St. Radegund, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

6 – The Crusades

6.1 – Introduction

6.1.1 – Overview

The Crusades were a series of military conflicts conducted by Christian knights for the defense of Christians and for the expansion of Christian domains between the 11th and 15th centuries. Generally, the Crusades refer to the campaigns in the Holy Land sponsored by the papacy against Muslim forces. There were other crusades against Islamic forces in southern Spain, southern Italy, and Sicily, as well as campaigns of Teutonic knights against pagan strongholds in Eastern Europe. A few crusades, such as the Fourth Crusade, were waged within Christendom against groups that were considered heretical and schismatic. Crusades were fought for many reasons—to capture Jerusalem, recapture Christian territory, or defend Christians in non-Christian lands; as a means of conflict resolution among Roman Catholics; for political or territorial advantage; and to combat paganism and heresy.

6.1.2 – Origin of the Crusades

The origin of the Crusades in general, and particularly of the First Crusade, is widely debated among historians. The confusion is partially due to the numerous armies in the First Crusade, and their lack of direct unity. The similar ideologies held the armies to similar goals, but the connections were rarely strong, and unity broke down often. The Crusades are most commonly linked to the political and social situation in 11th-century Europe, the rise of a reform movement within the papacy, and the political and religious confrontation of Christianity and Islam in Europe and the Middle East. Christianity had spread throughout Europe, Africa, and the Middle East in Late Antiquity, but by the early 8th century Christian rule had become limited to Europe and Anatolia after the Muslim conquests.

6.1.3 – Background in Europe

The Holy Land had been part of the Roman Empire, and thus the Byzantine Empire, until the Islamic conquests. In the 7th and 8th centuries, Islam was introduced in the Arabian Peninsula by the Islamic prophet Muhammad and his followers. This formed a unified Muslim polity, which led to a rapid expansion of Arab power, the influence of which stretched from the northwest Indian subcontinent, across Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, southern Italy, and the Iberian Peninsula, to the Pyrenees. Tolerance, trade, and political relationships between the Arabs and the Christian states of Europe waxed and waned. For example, the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but his successor allowed the Byzantine Empire to rebuild it. Pilgrimages by Catholics to sacred sites were permitted, resident Christians were given certain legal rights and protections under Dhimmi status, and interfaith marriages were not uncommon. Cultures and creeds coexisted and competed, but the frontier conditions became increasingly inhospitable to Catholic pilgrims and merchants.

At the western edge of Europe and of Islamic expansion, the Reconquista (recapture of the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslims) was well underway by the 11th century, reaching its turning point in 1085 when Alfonso VI of León and Castile retook Toledo from Muslim rule. Increasingly in the 11th century, foreign knights, mostly from France, visited Iberia to assist the Christians in their efforts.

The heart of Western Europe had been stabilized after the Christianization of the Saxon, Viking, and Hungarian peoples by the end of the 10th century. However, the breakdown of the Carolingian Empire gave rise to an entire class of warriors who now had little to do but fight among themselves. The random violence of the knightly class was regularly condemned by the church, and so it established the Peace and Truce of God to prohibit fighting on certain days of the year.

At the same time, the reform-minded papacy came into conflict with the Holy Roman Emperors, resulting in the Investiture Controversy. The papacy began to assert its independence from secular rulers, marshaling arguments for the proper use of armed force by Catholics. Popes such as Gregory VII justified the subsequent warfare against the emperor’s partisans in theological terms. It became acceptable for the pope to utilize knights in the name of Christendom, not only against political enemies of the papacy, but also against Al-Andalus, or, theoretically, against the Seljuq dynasty in the east. The result was intense piety, an interest in religious affairs, and religious propaganda advocating a just war to reclaim Palestine from the Muslims. Participation in such a war was seen as a form of penance that could counterbalance sin.

6.1.4 – Aid to Byzantium

To the east of Europe lay the Byzantine Empire, composed of Christians who had long followed a separate Orthodox rite; the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches had been in schism since 1054. Historians have argued that the desire to impose Roman church authority in the east may have been one of the goals of the Crusades, although Urban II, who launched the First Crusade, never refers to such a goal in his letters on crusading. The Seljuq Empire had taken over almost all of Anatolia after the Byzantine defeat at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071; however, their conquests were piecemeal and led by semi-independent warlords, rather than by the sultan. A dramatic collapse of the empire’s position on the eve of the Council of Clermont brought Byzantium to the brink of disaster. By the mid-1090s, the Byzantine Empire was largely confined to Balkan Europe and the northwestern fringe of Anatolia, and faced Norman enemies in the west as well as Turks in the east. In response to the defeat at Manzikert and subsequent Byzantine losses in Anatolia in 1074, Pope Gregory VII had called for the milites Christi (“soldiers of Christ”) to go to Byzantium’s aid.

Seljuq Empire: The Great Seljuq Empire at its greatest extent (1092).

While the Crusades had causes deeply rooted in the social and political situations of 11th-century Europe, the event actually triggering the First Crusade was a request for assistance from Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos. Alexios was worried about the advances of the Seljuqs, who had reached as far west as Nicaea, not far from Constantinople. In March 1095, Alexios sent envoys to the Council of Piacenza to ask Pope Urban II for aid against the Turks.

Urban responded favorably, perhaps hoping to heal the Great Schism of forty years earlier, and to reunite the Church under papal primacy by helping the eastern churches in their time of need. Alexios and Urban had previously been in close contact in 1089 and later, and had openly discussed the prospect of the (re)union of the Christian church. There were signs of considerable co-operation between Rome and Constantinople in the years immediately before the Crusade.

Council of Clermont: Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont, where he gave speeches in favor of a Crusade.

In July 1095, Urban turned to his homeland of France to recruit men for the expedition. His travels there culminated in the Council of Clermont in November, where, according to the various speeches attributed to him, he gave an impassioned sermon to a large audience of French nobles and clergy, graphically detailing the fantastical atrocities being committed against pilgrims and eastern Christians. Urban talked about the violence of European society and the necessity of maintaining the Peace of God; about helping the Greeks, who had asked for assistance; about the crimes being committed against Christians in the east; and about a new kind of war, an armed pilgrimage, and of rewards in heaven, where remission of sins was offered to any who might die in the undertaking. Combining the idea of pilgrimage to the Holy Land with that of waging a holy war against infidels, Urban received an enthusiastic response to his speeches and soon after began collecting military forces to begin the First Crusade.

6.2 – The First Crusade

The First Crusade (1095–1099) was a military expedition by Roman Catholic Europe to regain the Holy Lands taken in Muslim conquests, ultimately resulting in the recapture of Jerusalem.

6.2.1 – Overview

The First Crusade (1095–1099), called for by Pope Urban II, was the first of a number of crusades intended to recapture the Holy Lands. It started as a widespread pilgrimage in western Christendom and ended as a military expedition by Roman Catholic Europe to regain the Holy Lands taken in the Muslim conquests of the Mediterranean (632–661), ultimately resulting in the recapture of Jerusalem in 1099.

It was launched on November 27, 1095, by Pope Urban II with the primary goal of responding to an appeal from Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, who requested that western volunteers come to his aid and help to repel the invading Seljuq Turks from Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). An additional goal soon became the principal objective—the Christian reconquest of the sacred city of Jerusalem and the Holy Land and the freeing of the Eastern Christians from Muslim rule.

During the crusade, knights, peasants, and serfs from many regions of Western Europe travelled over land and by sea, first to Constantinople and then on toward Jerusalem. The Crusaders arrived at Jerusalem, launched an assault on the city, and captured it in July 1099, massacring many of the city’s Muslim and Jewish inhabitants. They also established the crusader states of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the County of Tripoli, the Principality of Antioch, and the County of Edessa.

6.2.2 – People’s Crusade

People’s Crusade massacre: An illustration showing the defeat of the People’s Crusade by the Turks.

Pope Urban II planned the departure of the crusade for August 15, 1096; before this, a number of unexpected bands of peasants and low-ranking knights organized and set off for Jerusalem on their own, on an expedition known as the People’s Crusade, led by a monk named Peter the Hermit. The peasant population had been afflicted by drought, famine, and disease for many years before 1096, and some of them seem to have envisioned the crusade as an escape from these hardships. Spurring them on had been a number of meteorological occurrences beginning in 1095 that seemed to be a divine blessing for the movement—a meteor shower, an aurorae, a lunar eclipse, and a comet, among other events. An outbreak of ergotism had also occurred just before the Council of Clermont. Millenarianism, the belief that the end of the world was imminent, widespread in the early 11th century, experienced a resurgence in popularity. The response was beyond expectations; while Urban might have expected a few thousand knights, he ended up with a migration numbering up to 40,000 Crusaders of mostly unskilled fighters, including women and children.

Lacking military discipline in what likely seemed a strange land (Eastern Europe), Peter’s fledgling army quickly found itself in trouble despite the fact that they were still in Christian territory. This unruly mob began to attack and pillage outside Constantinople in search of supplies and food, prompting Alexios to hurriedly ferry the gathering across the Bosporus one week later. After crossing into Asia Minor, the crusaders split up and began to plunder the countryside, wandering into Seljuq territory around Nicaea, where they were massacred by an overwhelming group of Turks.

6.2.3 – The First Crusade

The four main Crusader armies left Europe around the appointed time in August 1096. They took different paths to Constantinople and gathered outside the city walls between November 1096 and April 1097; Hugh of Vermandois arrived first, followed by Godfrey, Raymond, and Bohemond. This time, Emperor Alexios was more prepared for the Crusaders; there were fewer incidents of violence along the way.

The Crusaders may have expected Alexios to become their leader, but he had no interest in joining them, and was mainly concerned with transporting them into Asia Minor as quickly as possible. In return for food and supplies, Alexios requested that the leaders to swear fealty to him and promise to return to the Byzantine Empire any land recovered from the Turks. Before ensuring that the various armies were shuttled across the Bosporus, Alexios advised the leaders on how best to deal with the Seljuq armies they would soon encounter.

6.2.4 – Siege of Nicaea and March to Jerusalem

The Crusader armies crossed over into Asia Minor during the first half of 1097, where they were joined by Peter the Hermit and the remainder of his little army. Alexios also sent two of his own generals, Manuel Boutoumites and Tatikios, to assist the Crusaders. The first object of their campaign was Nicaea, previously a city under Byzantine rule, but which had become the capital of the Seljuq Sultanate of Rum under Kilij Arslan I. Arslan was away campaigning against the Danishmends in central Anatolia at the time, and had left behind his treasury and his family, underestimating the strength of these new Crusaders.

Subsequently, upon the Crusaders’ arrival, the city was subjected to a lengthy siege, and when Arslan had word of it he rushed back to Nicaea and attacked the Crusader army on May 16. He was driven back by the unexpectedly large Crusader force, with heavy losses suffered on both sides in the ensuing battle. The siege continued, but the Crusaders had little success as they found they could not blockade Lake Iznik, which the city was situated on, and from which it could be provisioned. To break the city, Alexios had the Crusaders’ ships rolled over land on logs, and at the sight of them the Turkish garrison finally surrendered, 18 June 18. The city was handed over to the Byzantine troops.

At the end of June, the Crusaders marched on through Anatolia. They were accompanied by some Byzantine troops under Tatikios, and still harbored the hope that Alexios would send a full Byzantine army after them. After a battle with Kilij Arslan, the Crusaders marched through Anatolia unopposed, but the journey was unpleasant, as Arslan had burned and destroyed everything he left behind in his army’s flight. It was the middle of summer, and the Crusaders had very little food and water; many men and horses died. Fellow Christians sometimes gave them gifts of food and money, but more often than not the Crusaders simply looted and pillaged whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Proceeding down the Mediterranean coast, the crusaders encountered little resistance, as local rulers preferred to make peace with them and furnish them with supplies rather than fight.

6.2.5 – Capture of Jerusalem

On June 7, the Crusaders reached Jerusalem, which had been recaptured from the Seljuqs by the Fatimids only the year before. Many Crusaders wept upon seeing the city they had journeyed so long to reach. The arrival at Jerusalem revealed an arid countryside, lacking in water or food supplies. Here there was no prospect of relief, even as they feared an imminent attack by the local Fatimid rulers. The Crusaders resolved to take the city by assault. They might have been left with little choice, as it has been estimated that only about 12,000 men, including 1,500 cavalry, remained by the time the army reached Jerusalem.

After the failure of the initial assault, a meeting between the various leaders was organized in which it was agreed upon that a more concerted attack would be required in the future. On June 17, a party of Genoese mariners under Guglielmo Embriaco arrived at Jaffa and provided the Crusaders with skilled engineers, and perhaps more critically, supplies of timber (cannibalized from the ships) with which to build siege engines. The Crusaders’ morale was raised when a priest, Peter Desiderius, claimed to have had a divine vision of Bishop Adhemar instructing them to fast and then march in a barefoot procession around the city walls, after which the city would fall, following the Biblical story of Joshua at the siege of Jericho.

The final assault on Jerusalem began on July 13; Raymond’s troops attacked the south gate while the other contingents attacked the northern wall. Initially the Provençals at the southern gate made little headway, but the contingents at the northern wall fared better, with a slow but steady attrition of the defense. On July 15, a final push was launched at both ends of the city, and eventually the inner rampart of the northern wall was captured. In the ensuing panic, the defenders abandoned the walls of the city at both ends, allowing the Crusaders to finally enter.

Capture of Jerusalem: A depiction of the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 from a medieval manuscript. The burning buildings of Jerusalem are centered in the image. The various Crusaders are surrounding and besieging the village armed for an attack.

The massacre that followed the capture of Jerusalem has attained particular notoriety, as a “juxtaposition of extreme violence and anguished faith.” The eyewitness accounts from the Crusaders themselves leave little doubt that there was a great slaughter in the aftermath of the siege. Nevertheless, some historians propose that the scale of the massacre was exaggerated in later medieval sources. The slaughter lasted a day; Muslims were indiscriminately killed, and Jews who had taken refuge in their synagogue died when it was burnt down by the Crusaders. The following day, Tancred’s prisoners in the mosque were slaughtered. Still, it is clear that some Muslims and Jews of the city survived the massacre, either escaping or being taken prisoner to be ransomed. The Eastern Christian population of the city had been expelled before the siege by the governor, and thus escaped the massacre.

On July 22, a council was held in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to establish a king for the newly created Kingdom of Jerusalem. Raymond IV of Toulouse and Godfrey of Bouillon were recognized as the leaders of the crusade and the siege of Jerusalem. Raymond was the wealthier and more powerful of the two, but at first he refused to become king, perhaps attempting to show his piety and probably hoping that the other nobles would insist upon his election anyway. The more popular Godfrey did not hesitate like Raymond, and accepted a position as secular leader.

Having captured Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Crusaders had fulfilled their vow.

6.3 – The Second Crusade

The Second Crusade (1147–1149) was the second major crusade launched against Islam by Catholic Europe, started in response to the fall of the County of Edessa founded in the First Crusade; it was largely a failure for the Europeans.

6.3.1 – Introduction

The Second Crusade (1147–1149) was the second major crusade launched from Europe as a Catholic holy war against Islam. The Second Crusade was started in 1147 in response to the fall of the County of Edessa the previous year to the forces of Zengi. The county had been founded during the First Crusade by King Baldwin of Boulogne in 1098. While it was the first Crusader state to be founded, it was also the first to fall.

The Second Crusade was announced by Pope Eugene III, and was the first of the crusades to be led by European kings, namely Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany, who had help from a number of other European nobles. The armies of the two kings marched separately across Europe. After crossing Byzantine territory into Anatolia, both armies were separately defeated by the Seljuq Turks. The main Western Christian source, Odo of Deuil, and Syriac Christian sources claim that the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Komnenos secretly hindered the Crusaders’ progress, particularly in Anatolia, where he is alleged to have deliberately ordered Turks to attack them. Louis and Conrad and the remnants of their armies reached Jerusalem and participated in an ill-advised attack on Damascus in 1148. The Crusade in the east was a failure for the Crusaders and a great victory for the Muslims. It would ultimately have a key influence on the fall of Jerusalem and give rise to the Third Crusade at the end of the 12th century.

The only Christian success of the Second Crusade came to a combined force of 13,000 Flemish, Frisian, Norman, English, Scottish, and German Crusaders in 1147. Traveling by ship from England to the Holy Land, the army stopped and helped the smaller (7,000) Portuguese army capture Lisbon, expelling its Moorish occupants.

6.3.2 – Crusade in the East

Joscelin II had tried to take back Edessa, but Nur ad-Din defeated him in November 1146. On February 16, 1147, the French Crusaders met to discuss their route. The Germans had already decided to travel overland through Hungary, as the sea route was politically impractical because Roger II, king of Sicily, was an enemy of Conrad. Many of the French nobles distrusted the land route, which would take them through the Byzantine Empire, the reputation of which still suffered from the accounts of the First Crusaders. Nevertheless, it was decided to follow Conrad, and to set out on June 15.

6.3.3 – German Route

The German crusaders, accompanied by the papal legate and Cardinal Theodwin, intended to meet the French in Constantinople. Ottokar III of Styria joined Conrad at Vienna, and Conrad’s enemy Géza II of Hungary allowed them to pass through unharmed. When the German army of 20,000 men arrived in Byzantine territory, Emperor Manuel I Komnenos feared they were going to attack him, and Byzantine troops were posted to ensure that there was no trouble. On September 10, the Germans arrived at Constantinople, where relations with Manuel were poor. There was a battle, after which the Germans were convinced that they should cross into Asia Minor as quickly as possible.

In Asia Minor, Conrad decided not to wait for the French, and marched towards Iconium, capital of the Seljuq Sultanate of Rûm. Conrad split his army into two divisions. The authority of the Byzantine Empire in the western provinces of Asia Minor was more nominal than real, with much of the provinces being a no-man’s land controlled by Turkish nomads. Conrad underestimated the length of the march against Anatolia, and anyhow assumed that the authority of Emperor Manuel was greater in Anatolia than was in fact the case. Conrad took the knights and the best troops with him to march overland and sent the camp followers with Otto of Freising to follow the coastal road. The king’s contingent was almost totally destroyed by the Seljuqs on October 25, 1147, at the second Battle of Dorylaeum.

6.3.4 – French Route

The French crusaders departed from Metz in June 1147, led by Louis, Thierry of Alsace, Renaut I of Bar, Amadeus III, Count of Savoy and his half-brother William V of Montferrat, William VII of Auvergne, and others, along with armies from Lorraine, Brittany, Burgundy, and Aquitaine. A force from Provence, led by Alphonse of Toulouse, chose to wait until August and cross by sea. At Worms, Louis joined with crusaders from Normandy and England.

They followed Conrad’s route fairly peacefully, although Louis came into conflict with King Geza of Hungary when Geza discovered Louis had allowed an attempted Hungarian usurper to join his army. Relations within Byzantine territory were grim, and the Lorrainers, who had marched ahead of the rest of the French, also came into conflict with the slower Germans whom they met on the way.

The French met the remnants of Conrad’s army at Lopadion, and Conrad joined Louis’s force. They followed Otto of Freising’s route, moving closer to the Mediterranean coast, and they arrived at Ephesus in December, where they learned that the Turks were preparing to attack them. Manuel had sent ambassadors complaining about the pillaging and plundering that Louis had done along the way, and there was no guarantee that the Byzantines would assist them against the Turks. Meanwhile, Conrad fell sick and returned to Constantinople, where Manuel attended to him personally, and Louis, paying no attention to the warnings of a Turkish attack, marched out from Ephesus with the French and German survivors. The Turks were indeed waiting to attack, but in a small battle outside Ephesus, the French and Germans were victorious.

They reached Laodicea on the Lycus early in January 1148, around the same time Otto of Freising’s army had been destroyed in the same area. After resuming the march, the vanguard under Amadeus of Savoy was separated from the rest of the army at Mount Cadmus, and Louis’s troops suffered heavy losses from the Turks. After being delayed for a month by storms, most of the promised ships from Provence did not arrive at all. Louis and his associates claimed the ships that did make it for themselves, while the rest of the army had to resume the long march to Antioch. The army was almost entirely destroyed, either by the Turks or by sickness.

6.3.5 – Siege of Damascus

Siege of Damascus: A print of the Siege of Damascus.

The remains of the German and French armies eventually continued on to Jerusalem, where they planned an attack on the Muslim forces in Damascus. The Crusaders decided to attack Damascus from the west, where orchards would provide them with a constant food supply. They arrived at Daraiya on July 23. The following day, the well-prepared Muslims constantly attacked the army advancing through the orchards outside Damascus. The defenders had sought help from Saif ad-Din Ghazi I of Mosul and Nur ad-Din of Aleppo, who personally led an attack on the Crusader camp. The Crusaders were pushed back from the walls into the orchards, where they were prone to ambushes and guerrilla attacks.

According to William of Tyre, on July 27 the Crusaders decided to move to the plain on the eastern side of the city, which was less heavily fortified, but also had much less food and water. Some records indicate that Unur had bribed the leaders to move to a less defensible position, and that Unur had promised to break off his alliance with Nur ad-Din if the Crusaders went home. Meanwhile, Nur ad-Din and Saif ad-Din had by now arrived. With Nur ad-Din in the field it was impossible for the Crusaders to return to their better position. The local Crusader lords refused to carry on with the siege, and the three kings had no choice but to abandon the city. First Conrad, then the rest of the army, decided to retreat to Jerusalem on July 28, and they were followed the whole way by Turkish archers, who constantly harassed them.

6.3.6 – Aftermath

Each of the Christian forces felt betrayed by the other. In Germany, the Crusade was seen as a huge debacle, with many monks writing that it could only have been the work of the Devil. Despite the distaste for the memory of the Second Crusade, the experience had notable impact on German literature, with many epic poems of the late 12th century featuring battle scenes clearly inspired by the fighting in the crusade. The cultural impact of the Second Crusade was even greater in France. Unlike Conrad, the Louis’s image was improved by the crusade, with many of the French seeing him as a suffering pilgrim king who quietly bore God’s punishments.

Relations between the Eastern Roman Empire and the French were badly damaged by the Second Crusade. Louis and other French leaders openly accused Emperor Manuel I of colluding with Turkish attackers during the march across Asia Minor. The memory of the Second Crusade was to color French views of the Byzantines for the rest of the 12th and 13th centuries.

6.4 – The Third Crusade

The Third Crusade (1189–1192) was an attempt by European leaders to reconquer the Holy Land from the Muslim sultan Saladin; it resulted in the capture of the important cities Acre and Jaffa, but failed to capture Jerusalem, the main motivation of the crusade.

6.4.1 – Overview

The Third Crusade (1189–1192), also known as The Kings’ Crusade, was an attempt by European leaders to reconquer the Holy Land from Saladin. The campaign was largely successful, capturing the important cities of Acre and Jaffa, and reversing most of Saladin’s conquests, but it failed to capture Jerusalem, the emotional and spiritual motivation of the crusade.

After the failure of the Second Crusade, the Zengid dynasty controlled a unified Syria and engaged in a conflict with the Fatimid rulers of Egypt. The Egyptian and Syrian forces were ultimately unified under Saladin, who employed them to reduce the Christian states and recapture Jerusalem in 1187. Spurred by religious zeal, King Henry II of England and King Philip II of France (known as Philip Augustus) ended their conflict with each other to lead a new crusade. The death of Henry in 1189, however, meant the English contingent came under the command of his successor, King Richard I of England (known as Richard the Lionheart). The elderly Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa also responded to the call to arms, leading a massive army across Anatolia, but he drowned in a river in Asia Minor on June 10, 1190, before reaching the Holy Land. His death caused tremendous grief among the German Crusaders, and most of his troops returned home.

After the Crusaders had driven the Muslims from Acre, Philip and Frederick’s successor, Leopold V, Duke of Austria (known as Leopold the Virtuous), left the Holy Land in August 1191. On September 2, 1192, Richard and Saladin finalized a treaty granting Muslim control over Jerusalem but allowing unarmed Christian pilgrims and merchants to visit the city. Richard departed the Holy Land on October 2. The successes of the Third Crusade allowed the Crusaders to maintain considerable states in Cyprus and on the Syrian coast. However, the failure to recapture Jerusalem would lead to the Fourth Crusade.

6.4.2 – Background

Saladin’s Conquest (1174-1189): Map of Saladin’s Conquest into the Levant, including invasions routes, major conflicts, strongholds, and occupations.

One of the major differences between the First and Third Crusades is that by the time of the Third Crusade, and to a certain degree during the Second, the Muslim opponents had unified under a single powerful leader. At the time of the First Crusade, the Middle East was severely divided by warring rulers. Without a unified front opposing them, the Christian troops were able to conquer Jerusalem, as well as the other Crusader states. But under the powerful force of the Seljuq Turks during the Second Crusade and the even more unified power of Saladin during the Third, the Europeans were unable to achieve their ultimate aim of holding Jerusalem.

After the failure of the Second Crusade, Nur ad-Din Zangi had control of Damascus and a unified Syria. Nur ad-Din also took over Egypt through an alliance, and appointed Saladin the sultan of these territories. After Nur ad-Din’s death, Saladin also took over Acre and Jerusalem, thereby wresting control of Palestine from the Crusaders, who had conquered the area 88 years earlier. Pope Urban III is said to have collapsed and died upon hearing this news, but it is not actually feasible that tidings of the fall of Jerusalem could have reached him by the time he died, although he did know of the battle of Hattin and the fall of Acre.

6.4.3 – Siege of Acre

Siege of Acre: The Siege of Acre was the first major confrontation of the Third Crusade.

The Siege of Acre was one of the first confrontations of the Third Crusade, and a key victory for the Crusaders but a serious defeat for Saladin, who had hoped to destroy the whole of the Crusader kingdom.

Richard arrived at Acre on June 8, 1191, and immediately began supervising the construction of siege weapons to assault the city, which was captured on July 12. Richard, Philip, and Leopold quarreled over the spoils of the victory. Richard cast down the German flag from the city, slighting Leopold. The rest of the German army returned home.

On July 31, Philip also returned home, to settle the succession in Vermandois and Flanders, and Richard was left in sole charge of the Christian expeditionary forces. As in the Second Crusade, these disagreements and divisions within the European armies led to a weakening of the Christian forces.

6.4.4 – Battle of Arsuf

After the capture of Acre, Richard decided to march to the city of Jaffa. Control of Jaffa was necessary before an attack on Jerusalem could be attempted. On September 7, 1191, however, Saladin attacked Richard’s army at Arsuf, thirty miles north of Jaffa. Richard then ordered a general counterattack, which won the battle. Arsuf was an important victory. The Muslim army was not destroyed, despite the considerable casualties it suffered, but it was scattered; this was considered shameful by the Muslims and boosted the morale of the Crusaders. Richard was able to take, defend, and hold Jaffa, a strategically crucial move toward securing Jerusalem. By depriving Saladin of the coast, Richard seriously threatened his hold on Jerusalem.

6.4.5 – Advances on Jerusalem and Negotiations

Following his victory at Arsuf, Richard took Jaffa and established his new headquarters there. In November 1191 the Crusader army advanced inland toward Jerusalem. On December 12 Saladin was forced by pressure from his emirs to disband the greater part of his army. Learning this, Richard pushed his army forward, spending Christmas at Latrun. The army then marched to Beit Nuba, only twelve miles from Jerusalem. Muslim morale in Jerusalem was so low that the arrival of the Crusaders would probably have caused the city to fall quickly. Appallingly bad weather—cold with heavy rain and hailstorms—combined with fear that if the Crusader army besieged Jerusalem it might be trapped by a relieving force, led to the decision to retreat back to the coast. In July 1192, Saladin’s army suddenly attacked and captured Jaffa with thousands of men.

Richard was intending to return to England when he heard the news that Saladin and his army had captured Jaffa. Richard and a small force of little more than 2,000 men went to Jaffa by sea in a surprise attack. They stormed Jaffa from their ships and the Ayyubids, who had been unprepared for a naval attack, were driven from the city.

On September 2, 1192, following his defeat at Jaffa, Saladin was forced to finalize a treaty with Richard providing that Jerusalem would remain under Muslim control, but allowing unarmed Christian pilgrims and traders to visit the city. The city of Ascalon was a contentious issue, as it threatened communication between Saladin’s dominions in Egypt and Syria; it was eventually agreed that Ascalon, with its defenses demolished, be returned to Saladin’s control. Richard departed the Holy Land on October 9, 1192.

6.4.6 – Aftermath and Comparisons

Neither side was entirely satisfied with the results of the war. Though Richard’s victories had deprived the Muslims of important coastal territories and re-established a viable Frankish state in Palestine, many Christians in the Latin West felt disappointed that Richard had elected not to pursue the recapture of Jerusalem. Likewise, many in the Islamic world felt disturbed that Saladin had failed to drive the Christians out of Syria and Palestine. However, trade flourished throughout the Middle East and in port cities along the Mediterranean coastline.

The motivations and results of the Third Crusade differed from those of the First in several ways. Many historians contend that the motivations for the Third Crusade were more political than religious, thereby giving rise to the disagreements between the German, French, and English armies throughout the crusade. By the end, only Richard of England was left, and his small force was unable to finally overtake Saladin, despite successes at Acre and Jaffa. This infighting severely weakened the power of the European forces.

In addition, unlike the First Crusade, in the Second and Third Crusades kings led Crusaders into battle. The presence of European kings in battle set the armies up for instability, for the monarchs had to ensure their own territories were not threatened during their absence. During the Third Crusade, both the German and French armies were forced to return home to settle succession disputes and stabilize their kingdoms.

Furthermore, both the Second and Third Crusades were in response to European losses, first the fall of the Kingdom of Edessa and then the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin. These defensive expeditions could be seen as lacking the religious fervor and initiative of the First Crusade, which was entirely on the terms of the Christian armies.

Finally, the Third Crusade resulted in a treaty that left Jerusalem under Muslim dominion but allowed Christians access for trading and pilgrimage. In the past two crusades, the result had been to conquer and massacre or retreat, with no compromise or middle ground achieved. Despite the agreement in the Third Crusade, the failure to overtake Jerusalem led to still another crusade soon after.

6.5 – The Fourth Crusade

Crusading became increasingly widespread in terms of geography and objectives during the 13th century and beyond, and crusades were aimed more at maintaining political and religious control over Europe than reclaiming the Holy Land.

6.5.1 – Evolution of the Crusades

The Crusades were a series of religious wars undertaken by the Latin church between the 11th and 15th centuries. Crusades were fought for many reasons: to capture Jerusalem, recapture Christian territory, or defend Christians in non-Christian lands; as a means of conflict resolution among Roman Catholics; for political or territorial advantage; and to combat paganism and heresy.

The First Crusade arose after a call to arms in 1095 sermons by Pope Urban II. Urban urged military support for the Byzantine Empire and its Emperor, Alexios I, who needed reinforcements for his conflict with westward-migrating Turks in Anatolia. One of Urban’s main aims was to guarantee pilgrims access to the holy sites in the Holy Land that were under Muslim control. Urban’s wider strategy may have been to unite the eastern and western branches of Christendom, which had been divided since their split in 1054, and establish himself as head of the unified church. Regardless of the motivation, the response to Urban’s preaching by people of many different classes across Western Europe established the precedent for later crusades.

As a result of the First Crusade, four primary Crusader states were created: the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, and the County of Tripoli. On a popular level, the First Crusade unleashed a wave of impassioned, pious Catholic fury, which was expressed in the massacres of Jews that accompanied the Crusades and the violent treatment of the “schismatic” Orthodox Christians of the east.

Under the papacies of Calixtus II, Honorius II, Eugenius III, and Innocent II, smaller-scale crusading continued around the Crusader states in the early 12th century. The Knights Templar were recognized, and grants of crusading indulgences to those who opposed papal enemies are seen by some historians as the beginning of politically motivated crusades. The loss of Edessa in 1144 to Imad ad-Din Zengi led to preaching for what subsequently became known as the Second Crusade. King Louis VII and Conrad III led armies from France and Germany to Jerusalem and Damascus without winning any major victories. Bernard of Clairvaux, who had encouraged the Second Crusade in his preachings, was upset with the violence and slaughter directed toward the Jewish population of the Rhineland.

In 1187 Saladin united the enemies of the Crusader states, was victorious at the Battle of Hattin, and retook Jerusalem. According to Benedict of Peterborough, Pope Urban III died of deep sadness on October 19, 1187, upon hearing news of the defeat. His successor, Pope Gregory VIII, issued a papal bull that proposed a third crusade to recapture Jerusalem. This crusade failed to win control of Jerusalem from the Muslims, but did result in a treaty that allowed trading and pilgrimage there for Europeans.

Crusading became increasingly widespread in terms of geography and objectives during the 13th century; crusades were aimed at maintaining political and religious control over Europe and beyond and were not exclusively focused on the Holy Land. In Northern Europe the Catholic church continued to battle peoples whom they considered pagans; Popes such as Celestine III, Innocent III, Honorius III, and Gregory IX preached crusade against the Livonians, Prussians, and Russians. In the early 13th century, Albert of Riga established Riga as the seat of the Bishopric of Riga and formed the Livonian Brothers of the Sword to convert the pagans to Catholicism and protect German commerce.

6.5.2 – Fourth Crusade

Conquest of Constantinople: A Medieval painting of the Conquest of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204.

Innocent III began preaching what became the Fourth Crusade in 1200 in France, England, and Germany, but primarily in France. The Fourth Crusade (1202–1204) was a Western European armed expedition originally intended to conquer Muslim-controlled Jerusalem by means of an invasion through Egypt. Instead, a sequence of events culminated in the Crusaders sacking the city of Constantinople, the capital of the Christian-controlled Byzantine Empire. The Fourth Crusade never came to within 1,000 miles of its objective of Jerusalem, instead conquering Byzantium twice before being routed by the Bulgars at Adrianople.

In January 1203, en route to Jerusalem, the majority of the Crusader leadership entered into an agreement with the Byzantine prince Alexios Angelos to divert to Constantinople and restore his deposed father as emperor. The intention of the Crusaders was then to continue to the Holy Land with promised Byzantine financial and military assistance. On June 23, 1203, the main Crusader fleet reached Constantinople. Smaller contingents continued to Acre.

In August 1203, following clashes outside Constantinople, Alexios Angelos was crowned co-emperor (as Alexios IV Angelos) with Crusader support. However, in January 1204, he was deposed by a popular uprising in Constantinople. The Western Crusaders were no longer able to receive their promised payments, and when Alexios was murdered on February 8, 1204, the Crusaders and Venetians decided on the outright conquest of Constantinople. In April 1204, they captured and brutally sacked the city and set up a new Latin Empire, as well as partitioned other Byzantine territories among themselves.

Byzantine resistance based in unconquered sections of the empire such as Nicaea, Trebizond, and Epirus ultimately recovered Constantinople in 1261.

The Fourth Crusade is considered to be one of the final acts in the Great Schism between the Eastern Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church, and a key turning point in the decline of the Byzantine Empire and Christianity in the Near East.

6.5.3 – Later Crusades

After the failure of the Fourth Crusade to hold Constantinople or reach Jerusalem, Innocent III launched the first crusade against heretics, the Albigensian Crusade, against the Cathars in France and the County of Toulouse. Over the early decades of the century the Cathars were driven underground while the French monarchy asserted control over the region. Andrew II of Hungary waged the Bosnian Crusade against the Bosnian church, which was theologically Catholic but in long-term schism with the Roman Catholic Church. The conflict only ended with the Mongol invasion of Hungary in 1241. In the Iberian peninsula, Crusader privileges were given to those aiding the Templars, the Hospitallers, and the Iberian orders that merged with the Order of Calatrava and the Order of Santiago. The papacy declared frequent Iberian crusades, and from 1212 to 1265 the Christian kingdoms drove the Muslims back to the Emirate of Granada, which held out until 1492, when the Muslims and Jews were expelled from the peninsula.

Around this time, popularity and energy for the Crusades declined. One factor in the decline was the disunity and conflict among Latin Christian interests in the eastern Mediterranean. Pope Martin IV compromised the papacy by supporting Charles of Anjou, and tarnished its spiritual luster with botched secular “crusades” against Sicily and Aragon. The collapse of the papacy’s moral authority and the rise of nationalism rang the death knell for crusading, ultimately leading to the Avignon Papacy and the Western Schism. The mainland Crusader states were extinguished with the fall of Tripoli in 1289 and the fall of Acre in 1291.

Centuries later, during the middle of the 15th century, the Latin church tried to organize a new crusade aimed at restoring the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, which was gradually being torn down by the advancing Ottoman Turks. The attempt failed, however, as the vast majority of Greek civilians and a growing part of their clergy refused to recognize and accept the short-lived near-union of the churches of East and West signed at the Council of Florence and Ferrara by the Ecumenical patriarch Joseph II of Constantinople. The Greek population, reacting to the Latin conquest, believed that the Byzantine civilization that revolved around the Orthodox faith would be more secure under Ottoman Islamic rule. Overall, religious-observant Greeks preferred to sacrifice their political freedom and political independence in order to preserve their faith’s traditions and rituals in separation from the Roman See.

In the late-14th and early-15th centuries, “crusades” on a limited scale were organized by the kingdoms of Hungary, Poland, Wallachia, and Serbia. These were not the traditional expeditions aimed at the recovery of Jerusalem but rather defensive campaigns intended to prevent further expansion to the west by the Ottoman Empire.

7 – Medieval Life

7.1 – Feudalism

Feudalism was a set of legal and military customs in medieval Europe that was determined by the ownership of land.

7.1.1 – Overview

Feudalism was a set of legal and military customs in medieval Europe that flourished between the 9th and 15th centuries. It can be broadly defined as a system for structuring society around relationships derived from the holding of land, known as a fiefdom or fief, in exchange for service or labour.

The classic version of feudalism describes a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations among the warrior nobility, revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals, and fiefs. A lord was in broad terms a noble who held land, a vassal was a person who was granted possession of the land by the lord, and a fief was what the land was known as. In exchange for the use of the fief and the protection of the lord, the vassal would provide some sort of service to the lord. There were many varieties of feudal land tenure, consisting of military and non-military service. The obligations and corresponding rights between lord and vassal concerning the fief formed the basis of the feudal relationship.

Feudalism, in its various forms, usually emerged as a result of the decentralization of an empire, especially in the Carolingian empires, which lacked the bureaucratic infrastructure necessary to support cavalry without the ability to allocate land to these mounted troops. Mounted soldiers began to secure a system of hereditary rule over their allocated land, and their power over the territory came to encompass the social, political, judicial, and economic spheres.

Many societies in the Middle Ages were characterized by feudal organizations, including England, which was the most structured feudal society, France, Italy, Germany, the Holy Roman Empire, and Portugal. Each of these territories developed feudalism in unique ways, and the way we understand feudalism as a unified concept today is in large part due to critiques after its dissolution. Karl Marx theorized feudalism as a pre-capitalist society, characterized by the power of the ruling class (the aristocracy) in their control of arable land, leading to a class society based upon the exploitation of the peasants who farm these lands, typically under serfdom and principally by means of labour, produce, and money rents.

While modern writers such as Marx point out the negative qualities of feudalism, the French historian Marc Bloch contends that peasants were an integral part of the feudal relationship: while the vassals performed military service in exchange for the fief, the peasants performed physical labour in return for protection, thereby gaining some benefit despite their limited freedom. Feudalism was thus a complex social and economic system defined by inherited ranks, each of which possessed inherent social and economic privileges and obligations. Feudalism allowed societies in the Middle Ages to retain a relatively stable political structure even as the centralized power of empires and kingdoms began to dissolve.

7.1.2 – Structure of the Feudal State in England

Feudalism in 12th-century England was among the better structured and established systems in Europe at the time. The king was the absolute “owner” of land in the feudal system, and all nobles, knights, and other tenants, termed vassals, merely “held” land from the king, who was thus at the top of the feudal pyramid.

Below the king in the feudal pyramid was a tenant-in-chief (generally in the form of a baron or knight), who was a vassal of the king. Holding from the tenant-in-chief was a mesne tenant —generally a knight or baron who was sometimes a tenant-in-chief in their capacity as holder of other fiefs. Below the mesne tenant, further mesne tenants could hold from each other in series.

7.1.3 – Vassalage

Before a lord could grant land (a fief) to someone, he had to make that person a vassal. This was done at a formal and symbolic ceremony called a commendation ceremony, which was composed of the two-part act of homage and oath of fealty. During homage, the lord and vassal entered into a contract in which the vassal promised to fight for the lord at his command, while the lord agreed to protect the vassal from external forces.

Roland pledges his fealty to Charlemagne: Roland (right) receives the sword, Durandal, from the hands of Charlemagne (left). From a manuscript of a chanson de geste, c. 14th Century.

Once the commendation ceremony was complete, the lord and vassal were in a feudal relationship with agreed obligations to one another. The vassal’s principal obligation to the lord was “aid,” or military service. Using whatever equipment the vassal could obtain by virtue of the revenues from the fief, he was responsible for answering calls to military service on behalf of the lord. This security of military help was the primary reason the lord entered into the feudal relationship. In addition, the vassal could have other obligations to his lord, such as attendance at his court, whether manorial or baronial, or at the king’s court.

The vassal’s obligations could also involve providing “counsel,” so that if the lord faced a major decision he would summon all his vassals and hold a council. At the level of the manor this might be a fairly mundane matter of agricultural policy, but could also include sentencing by the lord for criminal offenses, including capital punishment in some cases. In the king’s feudal court, such deliberation could include the question of declaring war. These are only examples; depending on the period of time and location in Europe, feudal customs and practices varied.

7.1.4 – Feudalism in France

In its origin, the feudal grant of land had been seen in terms of a personal bond between lord and vassal, but with time and the transformation of fiefs into hereditary holdings, the nature of the system came to be seen as a form of “politics of land.” The 11th century in France saw what has been called by historians a “feudal revolution” or “mutation” and a “fragmentation of powers” that was unlike the development of feudalism in England, Italy, or Germany in the same period or later. In France, counties and duchies began to break down into smaller holdings as castellans and lesser seigneurs took control of local lands, and (as comital families had done before them) lesser lords usurped/privatized a wide range of prerogatives and rights of the state—most importantly the highly profitable rights of justice, but also travel dues, market dues, fees for using woodlands, obligations to use the lord’s mill, etc. Power in this period became more personal and decentralized.

7.2 – The Manor System

7.2.1 – Introduction

Manorialism was an essential element of feudal society and was the organizing principle of rural economy that originated in the villa system of the Late Roman Empire. Manorialism was widely practiced in medieval Western Europe and parts of central Europe, and was slowly replaced by the advent of a money-based market economy and new forms of agrarian contract.

Manorialism was characterized by the vesting of legal and economic power in the lord of a manor. The lord was supported economically from his own direct landholding in a manor (sometimes called a fief), and from the obligatory contributions of the peasant population who fell under the jurisdiction of the lord and his court. These obligations could be payable in several ways: in labor, in kind, or, on rare occasions, in coin. Manorial structures could be found throughout medieval Western and Eastern Europe: in Italy, Poland, Lithuania, Baltic nations, Holland, Prussia, England, France, and the Germanic kingdoms.

The main reason for the development of the system was perhaps also its greatest strength: the stabilization of society during the destruction of Roman imperial order. With a declining birthrate and population, labor was the key factor of production. Successive administrations tried to stabilize the imperial economy by freezing the social structure into place: sons were to succeed their fathers in their trade, councilors were forbidden to resign, and coloni, the cultivators of land, were not to move from the land they were attached to. The workers of the land were on their way to becoming serfs. As the Germanic kingdoms succeeded Roman authority in the West in the 5th century, Roman landlords were often simply replaced by Gothic or Germanic ones, with little change to the underlying situation or displacement of populations. Thus the system of manorialism became ingrained into medieval societies.

7.2.2 – Structure

Manors each consisted of three classes of land:

  • Demesne, the part directly controlled by the lord and used for the benefit of his household and dependents;
  • Dependent (serf or villein) holdings carrying the obligation that the peasant household supply the lord with specified labor services or a part of its output; and
  • Free peasant land, without such obligation but otherwise subject to manorial jurisdiction and custom, and owing money rent fixed at the time of the lease.

Additional sources of income for the lord included charges for use of his mill, bakery, or wine-press, or for the right to hunt or to let pigs feed in his woodland, as well as court revenues and single payments on each change of tenant. On the other side of the account, manorial administration involved significant expenses, perhaps a reason why smaller manors tended to rely less on villein tenure.

7.2.3 – Serfdom

Serfdom was the status of peasants under feudalism, specifically relating to manorialism. It was a condition of bondage that developed primarily during the Middle Ages in Europe.

Serfs who occupied a plot of land were required to work for the lord of the manor who owned that land, and in return were entitled to protection, justice, and the right to exploit certain fields within the manor to maintain their own subsistence. Serfs were often required to work on not only the lord’s fields, but also his mines, forests, and roads. The manor formed the basic unit of feudal society, and the lord of a manor and his serfs were bound legally, economically, and socially. Serfs formed the lowest class of feudal society.

A serf digging the land, c. 1170 CE: “Digging,” detail from the Hunterian Psalter, Glasgow University Library MS Hunter.

Many of the negative components of manorialism, and feudalism in general, revolve around the bondage of the serf, his lack of social mobility, and his low position on the social hierarchy. However, a serf had some freedoms within his constraints. Though the common wisdom is that a serf owned “only his belly”—even his clothes were the property, in law, of his lord—he might still accumulate personal property and wealth, and some serfs became wealthier than their free neighbors, although this happened rarely. A well-to-do serf might even be able to buy his freedom. A serf could grow what crops he saw fit on his lands, although a serf’s taxes often had to be paid in wheat. The surplus crops he would sell at market.

The landlord could not dispossess his serfs without legal cause, was supposed to protect them from the depredations of robbers or other lords, and was expected to support them by charity in times of famine. Many such rights were enforceable by the serf in the manorial court.

7.2.4 – Villeins

Plowing a French field (French ducal manor in March Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, c.1410): In the foreground, a farmer plowing a field with a plow pulled by two oxen; man the leader with a long pole. Winemakers prune the vine in a pen and till the soil with a hoe to aerate the soil. On the right, a man leans on a bag, presumably to draw seeds that he will then sow. Finally, in the background, a shepherd takes the dog that keeps his flock. In the background is the castle of Lusignan (Poitou), property of the Duke of Berry. Seen on the right of the picture, above the tower Poitiers, is a winged dragon representing the fairy Melusine.

A villein (or villain) was the most common type of serf in the Middle Ages. Villeins had more rights and a higher status than the lowest serf, but existed under a number of legal restrictions that differentiated them from freemen. Villeins generally rented small homes with or without land. As part of the contract with the landlord, the lord of the manor, they were expected to spend some of their time working on the lord’s fields. Contrary to popular belief, the requirement was not often greatly onerous, and was often only seasonal, as was the duty to help at harvest-time, for example. The rest of villeins’ time was spent farming their own land for their own profit.

Like other types of serfs, villeins were required to provide other services, possibly in addition to paying rent of money or produce. Villeins were tied to the land and could not move away without their lord’s consent and the acceptance of the lord to whose manor they proposed to migrate to. Villeins were generally able to hold their own property, unlike slaves.

Villeinage was not a purely uni-directional exploitative relationship. In the Middle Ages, land within a lord’s manor provided sustenance and survival, and being a villein guaranteed access to land and kept crops secure from theft by marauding robbers. Landlords, even where legally entitled to do so, rarely evicted villeins, because of the value of their labour. Villeinage was preferable to being a vagabond, a slave, or an un-landed laborer.

In many medieval countries, a villein could gain freedom by escaping from a manor to a city or borough and living there for more than a year, but this action involved the loss of land rights and agricultural livelihood, a prohibitive price unless the landlord was especially tyrannical or conditions in the village were unusually difficult.

7.3 – Trade and Commerce

7.3.1 – Introduction

During the Late Middle Ages, the increasingly dominant position of the Ottoman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean presented an impediment to trade for the Christian nations of the west, who started looking for alternatives. Portuguese and Spanish explorers found new trade routes south of Africa to India, and across the Atlantic Ocean to America.

7.3.2 – Start of the Commercial Revolution

In the late-13th and early-14th centuries, a process took place—primarily in Italy but partly also in the Holy Roman Empire—that historians have termed a “commercial revolution.” Among the innovations of the period were new forms of partnership and the issuing of insurance, both of which contributed to reducing the risk of commercial ventures; the bill of exchange and other forms of credit that circumvented the canonical laws for gentiles against usury and eliminated the dangers of carrying bullion; and new forms of accounting, in particular double-entry bookkeeping, which allowed for better oversight and accuracy.

7.3.3 – Guilds

With the financial expansion, trading rights were more jealously guarded by the commercial elite. Towns saw the growing power of guilds that arose in the 14th century as craftsmen uniting to protect their common interest. The appearance of the European guilds was tied to the emergent money economy and to urbanization. Before this time it was not possible to run a money-driven organization, as commodity money was the normal way of doing business.

In medieval cities, craftsmen started to form associations based on their trades. Confraternities of textile workers, masons, carpenters, carvers, and glass workers, all controlled secrets of traditionally imparted technology—the “arts” or “mysteries” of their crafts. Usually the founders were free independent master craftsmen who hired apprentices. These guilds were organized in a manner similar to something between a professional association, a trade union, a cartel, and a secret society. They often depended on grants of letters patented by a monarch or other authority to enforce the flow of trade to their self-employed members, and to retain ownership of tools and the supply of materials. A lasting legacy of traditional guilds are the guildhalls constructed and used as meeting places.

Where guilds were in control, they shaped labor, production, and trade; they had strong controls over instructional capital, and the modern concepts of a lifetime progression of apprentice to craftsman, and then from journeyman eventually to widely recognized master and grandmaster, began to emerge. European guilds imposed long standardized periods of apprenticeship and made it difficult for those lacking the capital to set up for themselves or without the approval of their peers to gain access to materials or knowledge, or to sell into certain markets, an area that equally dominated the guilds’ concerns. These are defining characteristics of mercantilism in economics, which dominated most European thinking about political economy until the rise of classical economics.

7.3.4 – Hanseatic League

In cities linked to the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, the Hanseatic League developed as a trade monopoly. This facilitated the growth of trade among cities in close proximity to these two seas. Long-distance trade in the Baltic intensified as the major trading towns came together in the Hanseatic League under the leadership of Lübeck.

The Hanseatic League was a business alliance of trading cities and their guilds that dominated trade along the coast of Northern Europe and flourished from 1200–1500, and continued with lesser importance after that. The chief cities were Cologne on the Rhine River, Hamburg and Bremen on the North Sea, and Lübeck on the Baltic Sea. The Hanseatic cities each had their own legal system and a degree of political autonomy.

The league was founded for the purpose of joining forces for promoting mercantile interests, defensive strength, and political influence. By the 14th century, the Hanseatic League held a near-monopoly on trade in the Baltic, especially with Novgorod and Scandinavia.

7.3.5 – English Economy

The crises caused by the Great Famine and the Black Death between 1290 and 1348, as well as subsequent epidemics, produced many challenges for the English economy. The Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 had various causes, including the socio-economic and political tensions generated by the Black Death in the 1340s, the high taxes resulting from the conflict with France during the Hundred Years’ War, and instability within the local leadership of London.

Although the revolt was suppressed, it undermined many of the vestiges of the feudal economic order and the countryside became dominated by estates organized as farms, frequently owned or rented by the new economic class of the gentry. The English agricultural economy remained depressed throughout the 15th century, with growth coming from the greatly increased English cloth trade and manufacturing.

7.3.6 – Fairs

From the 12th century onwards, many English towns acquired a charter from the Crown allowing them to hold an annual fair, usually serving a regional or local customer base and lasting for two or three days. Fairs grew in popularity, reaching their heyday in the 13th century, as the international wool trade increased. The fairs allowed English wool producers and ports on the east coast to engage with visiting foreign merchants, circumnavigating those English merchants in London keen to make a profit as middlemen. At the same time, wealthy magnate consumers in England began to use the new fairs as a way to buy goods like spices, wax, preserved fish, and foreign cloth in bulk from the international merchants at the fairs, again bypassing the usual London merchants.

Bridgnorth marketplace: The market place at Bridgnorth, one of many medieval English towns to be granted the right to hold fairs, in this case annually on the feast of the Translation of St. Leonard. Photo taken by Pam Brophy.

Towards the end of the 14th century, the position of fairs started to decline. The larger merchants, particularly in London, had begun to establish direct links with the larger landowners such as the nobility and the church; rather than the landowner buying from a chartered fair, they would buy directly from the merchant. Nonetheless, the great fairs remained important well into the 15th century, as illustrated by their role in exchanging money, regional commerce, and providing choice for individual consumers.

7.4 – Daily Medieval Life

During the High Middle Ages, the population of Europe more than doubled, but daily life remained harsh, with risk of disease and illness.

7.4.1 – Introduction

The High Middle Ages was a period of tremendous expansion of population. The estimated population of Europe grew from 35 to 80 million between 1000 and 1347, but the exact causes remain unclear; improved agricultural techniques, the decline of slaveholding, a warmer climate, and the lack of invasion have all been suggested. As much as 90% of the European population remained rural peasants. Many were no longer settled in isolated farms but had gathered into small communities, usually known as manors or villages. These peasants were often subject to noble overlords and owed them rents and other services, in a system known as manorialism. There remained a few free peasants throughout this period and beyond, with more of them in the regions of southern Europe than in the north. The practice of assarting, or bringing new lands into production by offering incentives to the peasants who settled them, also contributed to the expansion of population.

7.4.2 – Development of Towns

York city and walls: View of the city looking northeast from the city wall. The spires of York Minster are visible in the background.

Castles began to be constructed in the 9th and 10th centuries in response to the disorder of the time, and provided protection from invaders and rival lords. They were initially built of wood, then of stone. Once castles were built, towns built up around them.

A major factor in the development of towns included Viking invasions during the early Middle Ages, which led to villages erecting walls and fortifying their positions. Following this, great medieval walled cities were constructed with homes, shops, and churches contained within the walls. York, England, which prospered during much of the later medieval era, is famed for its medieval walls and bars (gates), and has the most extensive medieval city walls remaining in England today.

The practice of sending children away to act as servants was more common in towns than in the countryside. The inhabitants of towns largely made their livelihoods as merchants or artisans, and this activity was strictly controlled by guilds. The members of these guilds would employ young people—primarily boys—as apprentices, to learn the craft and later take position as guild members themselves. These apprentices made up part of the household, or “family,” as much as the children of the master.

7.4.3 – Peasant Life

Medieval villages consisted mostly of peasant farmers, with the structure comprised of houses, barns, sheds, and animal pens clustered around the center of the village. Beyond this, the village was surrounded by plowed fields and pastures.

For peasants, daily medieval life revolved around an agrarian calendar, with the majority of time spent working the land and trying to grow enough food to survive another year. Church feasts marked sowing and reaping days and occasions when peasant and lord could rest from their labors.

Peasants that lived on a manor by the castle were assigned strips of land to plant and harvest. They typically planted rye, oats, peas, and barley, and harvested crops with a scythe, sickle, or reaper. Each peasant family had its own strips of land; however, the peasants worked cooperatively on tasks such as plowing and haying. They were also expected to build roads, clear forests, and work on other tasks as determined by the lord.

The houses of medieval peasants were of poor quality compared to modern houses. The floor was normally earthen, and there was very little ventilation and few sources of light in the form of windows. In addition to the human inhabitants, a number of livestock animals would also reside in the house. Towards the end of the medieval period, however, conditions generally improved. Peasant houses became larger in size, and it became more common to have two rooms, and even a second floor.

Comfort was not always found even in the rich houses. Heating was always a problem with stone floors, ceilings, and walls. Not much light came in from small windows, and oil- and fat-based candles often produced a pungent aroma. Furniture consisted of wooden benches, long tables, cupboards, and pantries. Linen, when affordable, could be glued or nailed to benches to provide some comfort. Beds, though made of the softest materials, were often full of bedbugs, lice, and other biting insects.

Peasants usually ate warm porridges made of wheat, oats, and barley. Broths, stews, vegetables, and bread were also part of a peasant’s diet. Peasants rarely ate meat, and when they did, it was their own animals that were saved for the winter. Peasants drank wine and ale, never water.

Even though peasant households were significantly smaller than aristocratic ones, the wealthiest peasants would also employ servants. Service was a natural part of the cycle of life, and it was common for young people to spend some years away from home in the service of another household. This way they would learn the skills needed later in life, and at the same time earn a wage. This was particularly useful for girls, who could put the earnings towards their dowries.

7.4.4 – Nobility

Nobles, both the titled nobility and simple knights, exploited the manors and the peasants, although they did not own land outright but were granted rights to the income from a manor or other lands by an overlord through the system of feudalism. During the 11th and 12th centuries, these lands, or fiefs, came to be considered hereditary, and in most areas they were no longer divisible between all the heirs as had been the case in the early medieval period. Instead, most fiefs and lands went to the eldest son. The dominance of the nobility was built upon its control of the land, its military service as heavy cavalry, its control of castles, and various immunities from taxes or other impositions.

Nobles were stratified; kings and the highest-ranking nobility controlled large numbers of commoners and large tracts of land, as well as other nobles. Beneath them, lesser nobles had authority over smaller areas of land and fewer people. Knights were the lowest level of nobility; they controlled but did not own land, and had to serve other nobles.

The court of a monarch, or at some periods an important nobleman, was the extended household and all those who regularly attended on the ruler or central figure. These courtiers included the monarch or noble’s camarilla and retinue, the household, nobility, those with court appointments, and bodyguards, and may also have included emissaries from other kingdoms or visitors to the court. Foreign princes and foreign nobility in exile could also seek refuge at a court.

Etiquette and hierarchy flourished in highly structured court settings. Most courts featured a strict order of precedence, often involving royal and noble ranks, orders of chivalry, and nobility. Some courts even featured court uniforms. One of the major markers of a court was ceremony. Most monarchal courts included ceremonies concerning the investiture or coronation of the monarch and audiences with the monarch. Some courts had ceremonies around the waking and the sleeping of the monarch, called a levée.

Court officials or office-bearers (one type of courtier) derived their positions and retained their titles from their original duties within the courtly household. With time, such duties often became archaic. However, titles survived involving the ghosts of arcane duties. These styles generally dated back to the days when a noble household had practical and mundane concerns as well as high politics and culture. These positions include butler, confessor, falconer, royal fool, gentleman usher, master of the hunt, page, and secretary. Elaborate noble households included many roles and responsibilities, held by these various courtiers, and these tasks characterized their daily lives.

Daily life of nobility also included playing games, including chess, which echoed the hierarchy of the nobles, and playing music, such as the music of the troubadours and trouvères. This involved a vernacular tradition of monophonic secular song, probably accompanied by instruments, sung by professional, occasionally itinerant, musicians who were skilled poets as well as singers and instrumentalists.

7.4.5 – Women in the Middle Ages

Women in the Middle Ages were officially required to be subordinate to some male, whether their father, husband, or other kinsman. Widows, who were often allowed some control over their own lives, were still restricted legally. Three main activities performed by peasant men and women were planting food, keeping livestock, and making textiles, as depicted in Psalters from southern Germany and England. Women of different classes performed different activities. Rich urban women could be merchants like their husbands or even became money lenders, and middle-class women worked in the textile, inn-keeping, shop-keeping, and brewing industries. Townswomen, like peasant women, were responsible for the household and could also engage in trade. Poorer women often peddled and huckstered food and other merchandise in the market places or worked in richer households as domestic servants, day laborers, or laundresses.

There is evidence that women performed not only housekeeping responsibilities like cooking and cleaning, but even other household activities like grinding, brewing, butchering, and spinning produced items like flour, ale, meat, cheese, and textiles for direct consumption and for sale. An anonymous 15th-century English ballad described activities performed by English peasant women, like housekeeping, making foodstuffs and textiles, and childcare.

Peasant household: An image of a peasant household, including a woman preparing cheese.

Noblewomen were responsible for running a household and could occasionally be expected to handle estates in the absence of male relatives, but they were usually restricted from participation in military or government affairs. The only role open to women in the church was that of a nun, as they were unable to become priests.

7.4.6 – Children

For most children growing up in medieval England, the first year of life was one of the most dangerous, with as many as 50% of children succumbing to fatal illness during that year. Moreover, 20% of women died in childbirth. During the first year of life children were cared for and nursed, either by parents if the family belonged to the peasant class, or perhaps by a wet nurse if the family belonged to a noble class.

By age twelve, a child began to take on a more serious role in family duties. Although according to canon law girls could marry at the age of twelve, this was relatively uncommon unless a child was an heiress or belonged to a family of noble birth. Peasant children at this age stayed at home and continued to learn and develop domestic skills and husbandry. Urban children moved out of their homes and into the homes of their employer or master (depending on their future roles as servants or apprentices). Noble boys learned skills in arms, and noble girls learned basic domestic skills. The end of childhood and entrance into adolescence was marked by leaving home and moving to the house of the employer or master, entering a university, or entering church service.

7.5 – Intellectual Life

7.5.1 – Introduction

During the 11th century, developments in philosophy and theology led to increased intellectual activity, sometimes called the renaissance of 12th century. The intellectual problems discussed throughout this period were the relation of faith to reason, the existence and simplicity of God, the purpose of theology and metaphysics, and the issues of knowledge, of universals, and of individuation. Philosophical discourse was stimulated by the rediscovery of Aristotle—more than 3,000 pages of his works would eventually be translated—and his emphasis on empiricism and rationalism. Scholars such as Peter Abelard (d. 1142) and Peter Lombard (d. 1164) introduced Aristotelian logic into theology.

7.5.2 – Historical Conditions

The groundwork for the rebirth of learning was also laid by the process of political consolidation and centralization of the monarchies of Europe. This process of centralization began with Charlemagne, King of the Franks (768–814) and later Holy Roman Emperor (800–814). Charlemagne’s inclination towards education, which led to the creation of many new churches and schools where students were required to learn Latin and Greek, has been called the ” Carolingian Renaissance.” A second “renaissance” occurred during the reign of Otto I, King of the Saxons from 936–973 and Holy Roman Emperor from 952. Otto was successful in unifying his kingdom and asserting his right to appoint bishops and archbishops throughout the kingdom. Otto’s assumption of this ecclesiastical power brought him into close contact with the best-educated and ablest class of men in his kingdom. From this close contact, many new reforms were introduced in the Saxon kingdom and in the Holy Roman Empire. Thus, Otto’s reign has also been called a “renaissance.” The renaissance of the twelfth century has been identified as the third and final of the medieval renaissances. Yet the renaissance of the 12th century was far more thoroughgoing than those renaissances that preceded in the Carolingian and Ottonian periods.

Conquest of and contact with the Muslim world through the Crusades and the reconquest of Spain also yielded new texts and knowledge. Most notably, contact with Muslims led to the the European rediscovery and translation of Aristotle, whose wide-ranging works influenced medieval philosophy, theology, science, and medicine.

7.5.3 – Schools and Universities

The late-11th and early-12th centuries also saw the rise of cathedral schools throughout Western Europe, signaling the shift of learning from monasteries to cathedrals and towns. Cathedral schools were in turn replaced by the universities established in major European cities.

The first universities in Europe included the University of Bologna (1088), the University of Paris (c. 1150, later associated with the Sorbonne), and the University of Oxford (1167). In Europe, young men proceeded to university when they had completed their study of the trivium—the preparatory arts of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic or logic—and the quadrivium—arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.

Mob Quad at Merton College, University of Oxford: Aerial view of Merton College’s Mob Quad, the oldest quadrangle of the university, constructed from 1288-1378.

Philosophy and theology fused in scholasticism, an attempt by 12th- and 13th-century scholars to reconcile authoritative texts, most notably Aristotle and the Bible. This movement tried to employ a systemic approach to truth and reason and culminated in the thought of Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), who wrote the Summa Theologica, or Summary of Theology.

The development of medieval universities allowed them to aid materially in the translation and propagation of these texts and started a new infrastructure, which was needed for scientific communities. In fact, the European university put many of these texts at the center of its curriculum, with the result that the “medieval university laid far greater emphasis on science than does its modern counterpart and descendent.”

7.5.4 – Poems and Stories

Royal and noble courts saw the development of chivalry and the ethos of courtly love. This culture was expressed in the vernacular languages rather than Latin, and comprised poems, stories, legends, and popular songs spread by troubadours, or wandering minstrels. Often the stories were written down in the chansons de geste, or “songs of great deeds,” such as “The Song of Roland” or “The Song of Hildebrand.” Secular and religious histories were also produced. Geoffrey of Monmouth (d. c. 1155) composed his Historia Regum Britanniae, a collection of stories and legends about Arthur. Other works were more clearly pure history, such as Otto von Freising’s (d. 1158) Gesta Friderici Imperatoris, detailing the deeds of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, or William of Malmesbury’s (d. c. 1143) Gesta Regum, on the kings of England.

7.5.5 – Legal Studies

Legal studies advanced during the 12th century. Both secular law and canon law, or ecclesiastical law, were studied in the High Middle Ages. Secular law, or Roman law, was advanced greatly by the discovery of the Corpus Juris Civilis in the 11th century, and by 1100 Roman law was being taught at Bologna. This led to the recording and standardization of legal codes throughout Western Europe. Canon law was also studied, and around 1140 a monk named Gratian, a teacher at Bologna, wrote what became the standard text of canon law—the Decretum.

7.5.6 – Algebra and Astronomy

The Weird Truth about Arabic Numerals: How the world came to use so-called Arabic numerals—from the scholarship of ancient Hindu mathematicians, to Muslim scientist Al-Khwarizmi, to the merchants of medieval Italy.

Among the results of the Greek and Islamic influence on this period in European history were the replacement of Roman numerals with the decimal positional number system and the invention of algebra, which allowed more advanced mathematics. Astronomy advanced following the translation of Ptolemy’s Almagest from Greek into Latin in the late 12th century. Medicine was also studied, especially in southern Italy, where Islamic medicine influenced the school at Salerno.

7.6- Arts and Sciences

The renaissance of the 12th century was a highly productive time of social, political, and economic transformations, and saw important artistic, technological, and scientific advancements.

7.6.1 – Overview

The renaissance of the 12th century was a period of many changes at the outset of the High Middle Ages. It included social, political, and economic transformations, and an intellectual revitalization of Western Europe with strong philosophical and scientific roots. For some historians these changes paved the way for later achievements such as the literary and artistic movement of the Italian Renaissance in the 15th century and the scientific developments of the 17th century.

After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, Western Europe had entered the Middle Ages with great difficulties. Apart from depopulation and other factors, most classical scientific treatises of classical antiquity, written in Greek, had become unavailable. Philosophical and scientific teaching of the Early Middle Ages was based upon the few Latin translations and commentaries on ancient Greek scientific and philosophical texts that remained in the Latin West.

This scenario changed during the renaissance of the 12th century. The increased contact with Byzantium and with the Islamic world in Spain and Sicily, the Crusades, and the Reconquista allowed Europeans to seek and translate the works of Hellenic and Islamic philosophers and scientists, especially Aristotle.

7.6.2 – Scientific Advancement

The rediscovery of the works of Aristotle allowed the full development of the new Christian philosophy and the method of scholasticism. By 1200 there were reasonably accurate Latin translations of the main works of Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, Archimedes, and Galen—that is, all the intellectually crucial ancient authors except Plato. Also, many of the medieval Arabic and Jewish key texts, such as the main works of Avicenna, Averroes, and Maimonides became available in Latin. During the 13th century, scholastics expanded the natural philosophy of these texts by commentaries (associated with teaching in the universities) and independent treatises. Notable among these were the works of Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, John of Sacrobosco, Albertus Magnus, and Duns Scotus.

Scholastics believed in empiricism and supporting Roman Catholic doctrines through secular study, reason, and logic. The most famous scholastic was Thomas Aquinas (later declared a “Doctor of the Church”), who led the move away from the Platonic and Augustinian and towards Aristotelianism.

Meanwhile, precursors of the modern scientific method can be seen in Grosseteste’s emphasis on mathematics as a way to understand nature and in the empirical approach admired by Roger Bacon. Grosseteste was the founder of the famous Oxford Franciscan school. He built his work on Aristotle’s vision of the dual path of scientific reasoning. He concluded from particular observations into a universal law, and then back again—from universal laws to prediction of particulars. Grosseteste called this “resolution and composition.” Further, Grosseteste said that both paths should be verified through experimentation in order to verify the principals. These ideas established a tradition that carried forward to Padua and Galileo Galilei in the 17th century.

Under the tuition of Grosseteste and inspired by the writings of Arab alchemists who had preserved and built upon Aristotle’s portrait of induction, Bacon described a repeating cycle of observation, hypothesis, and experimentation, and the need for independent verification. He recorded the manner in which he conducted his experiments in precise detail so that others could reproduce and independently test his results—a cornerstone of the scientific method, and a continuation of the work of researchers like Al Battani.

The first half of the 14th century saw the scientific work of great thinkers. The logic studies by William of Ockham led him to postulate a specific formulation of the principle of parsimony, known today as Ockham’s Razor. This principle is one of the main heuristics used by modern science to select between two or more underdetermined theories.

William of Ockham: William of Ockham, from stained glass window at a church in Surrey. He is considered one of the major figures of medieval thought and was at the center of the major intellectual and political controversies of the 14th century.

Thomas Bradwardine and his partners, the Oxford Calculators of Merton College, Oxford, distinguished kinematics from dynamics, emphasizing kinematics, and investigating instantaneous velocity. They formulated the mean speed theorem: a body moving with constant velocity travels distance and time equal to an accelerated body whose velocity is half the final speed of the accelerated body. They also demonstrated this theorem—the essence of “The Law of Falling Bodies”—long before Galileo, who has gotten the credit.

In his turn, Nicole Oresme showed that the reasons proposed by the physics of Aristotle against the movement of Earth were not valid, and adduced the argument of simplicity for the theory that Earth moves, and not the heavens. Despite this argument in favor of Earth’s motion, Oresme fell back on the commonly held opinion that “everyone maintains, and I think myself, that the heavens do move and not the Earth.”

The historian of science Ronald Numbers notes that the modern scientific assumption of methodological naturalism can be also traced back to the work of these medieval thinkers.

7.6.3 – Technological Developments

European output of printed books c. 1450-1800: Estimated output of printed books in Europe from c. 1450 to 1800. A book is defined as printed matter containing more than 49 pages.

After the renaissance of the 12th century, medieval Europe saw a radical change in the rate of new inventions, innovations in the ways of managing traditional means of production, and economic growth. The period saw major technological advances, including the adoption of gunpowder, the invention of vertical windmills, spectacles, mechanical clocks, and greatly improved water mills, building techniques (Gothic architecture, medieval castles), and agriculture in general (three-field crop rotation).

The development of water mills from their ancient origins was impressive, and extended from agriculture to sawmills both for timber and stone. By the time of the Domesday Book, most large villages had turnable mills; there were around 6,500 in England alone. Water power was also widely used in mining for raising ore from shafts, crushing ore, and even powering bellows.

European technical advancements from the 12th to 14th centuries were either built on long-established techniques in medieval Europe, originating from Roman and Byzantine antecedents, or adapted from cross-cultural exchanges through trading networks with the Islamic world, China, and India. Often, the revolutionary aspect lay not in the act of invention itself, but in its technological refinement and application to political and economic power. Though gunpowder and other weapons had been started by the Chinese, it was the Europeans who developed and perfected its military potential, precipitating European expansion and eventual imperialism in the Modern Era.

Also significant in this respect were advances in maritime technology. Advances in shipbuilding included the multi-masted ships with lateen sails, the sternpost-mounted rudder, and the skeleton-first hull construction. Along with new navigational techniques such as the dry compass, the Jacob’s staff, and the astrolabe, these allowed economic and military control of the seas adjacent to Europe and enabled the global navigational achievements of the dawning Age of Exploration.

At the turn to the Renaissance, Gutenberg’s invention of mechanical printing made possible a dissemination of knowledge to a wider population that would lead to not only a gradually more egalitarian society, but one more able to dominate other cultures, drawing from a vast reserve of knowledge and experience. The technical drawings of late-medieval artist-engineers Guido da Vigevano and Villard de Honnecourt can be viewed as forerunners of later Renaissance works by people like Taccola or da Vinci.

7.6.4 – Visual Arts and Architecture

Duomo in Florence, Italy, seen at night from Michelangelo’s Piazza: Giotto’s clock tower on the right and Brunelleschi’s cathedral dome on the left. In one structure, two of the most influential architectural designs in the world.

A precursor to Renaissance art can be seen in the early 14th century works of Giotto. Giotto was the first painter since antiquity to attempt the representation of a three-dimensional reality, and to endow his characters with true human emotions. The most important developments, however, came in 15th-century Florence. The affluence of the merchant class allowed extensive patronage of the arts, and foremost among the patrons were the Medici.

There were several important technical innovations in visual arts, like the principle of linear perspective found in the work of Masaccio and later described by Brunelleschi. Greater realism was also achieved through the scientific study of anatomy, championed by artists like Donatello. This can be seen particularly well in his sculptures, inspired by the study of classical models.

In northern European countries, Gothic architecture remained the norm, and the Gothic cathedral was further embellished. In Italy, on the other hand, architecture took a different direction, also inspired by classical ideals. The crowning work of the period was the Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, with Giotto’s clock tower, Ghiberti’s baptistery gates, and Brunelleschi’s cathedral dome of unprecedented proportions.

7.6.5 – Literature

The most important development of late medieval literature was the ascendancy of the vernacular languages. The vernacular had been in use in England since the 8th century and in France since the 11th century. The most popular genres of written works had been the chanson de geste, troubadour lyrics, and romantic epics, or the romance. Though Italy was later in evolving a native literature in the vernacular language, it was here that the most important developments of the period were to come.

Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, written in the early 14th century, merged a medieval world view with classical ideals. Another promoter of the Italian language was Boccaccio with his Decameron. The application of the vernacular did not entail a rejection of Latin, and both Dante and Boccaccio wrote prolifically in Latin as well as Italian, as would Petrarch later (whose Canzoniere also promoted the vernacular and is considered the first modern lyric poetry collection). Together these three poets established the Tuscan dialect as the norm for the modern Italian language.

7.7 – The Black Death

7.7.1 – Overview

In the Late Middle Ages (1340–1400) Europe experienced the most deadly disease outbreak in history when the Black Death, the infamous pandemic of bubonic plague, hit in 1347. The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 75–200 million people and peaking in Europe in the years 1348–1350.

7.7.2 – Path of the Black Death to Europe

The Black Death is thought to have originated in the arid plains of Central Asia, where it then travelled along the Silk Road, reaching the Crimea by 1346. It was most likely carried by Oriental rat fleas living on the black rats that were regular passengers on merchant ships.

Mongol dominance of Eurasian trade routes enabled safe passage through more secured trade routes. Goods were not the only thing being traded; disease also was passed between cultures. From Central Asia the Black Death was carried east and west along the Silk Road by Mongol armies and traders making use of the opportunities of free passage within the Mongol Empire offered by the Pax Mongolica. The epidemic began in Europe with an attack that Mongols launched on the Italian merchants’ last trading station in the region, Caffa in the Crimea. In the autumn of 1346, plague broke out among the besiegers and then penetrated into the town. When spring arrived, the Italian merchants fled on their ships, unknowingly carrying the Black Death. The plague initially spread to humans near the Black Sea and then outwards to the rest of Europe as a result of people fleeing from one area to another.


Spreading throughout the Mediterranean and Europe, the Black Death is estimated to have killed 30–60% of Europe’s total population. While Europe was devastated by the disease, the rest of the world fared much better. In India, populations rose from 91 million in 1300, to 97 million in 1400, to 105 million in 1500. Sub-Saharan Africa also remained largely unaffected by the plagues.

7.7.3 – Symptoms and Treatment

The most infamous symptom of bubonic plague is an infection of the lymph glands, which become swollen and painful and are known as buboesBuboes associated with the bubonic plague are commonly found in the armpits, groin, and neck region. Gangrene of the fingers, toes, lips, and nose is another common symptom.

Medieval doctors thought the plague was created by air corrupted by humid weather, decaying unburied bodies, and fumes produced by poor sanitation. The recommended treatment for the plague was a good diet, rest, and relocating to a non-infected environment so the individual could get access to clean air. This did help, but not for the reasons the doctors of the time thought. In actuality, because they recommended moving away from unsanitary conditions, people were, in effect, getting away from the rodents that harbored the fleas carrying the infection.

Plague doctors advised walking around with flowers in or around the nose to “ward off the stench and perhaps the evil that afflicted them.” Some doctors wore a beak-like mask filled with aromatic items. The masks were designed to protect them from putrid air, which was seen as the cause of infection.

A plague doctor: Drawing illustrating the clothes and “beak” of a plague doctor.

Since people didn’t have the knowledge to understand the plague, people believed it was a punishment from God. The thought the only way to be rid of the plague was to be forgiven by God. One method was to carve the symbol of the cross onto the front door of a house with the words “Lord have mercy on us” near it.

7.7.4 – Impact of the Black Death on Society and Culture

Danse Macabre: The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut, from the Liber chronicarum by Hartmann Schedel.

The aftermath of the plague created a series of religious, social, and economic upheavals, which had profound effects on the course of European history. It took 150 years for Europe’s population to recover, and the effects of the plague irrevocably changed the social structure, resulting in widespread persecution of minorities such as Jews, foreigners, beggars, and lepers. The uncertainty of daily survival has been seen as creating a general mood of morbidity, influencing people to “live for the moment.”

Because 14th-century healers were at a loss to explain the cause of the plague, Europeans turned to astrological forces, earthquakes, and the poisoning of wells by Jews as possible reasons for the plague’s emergence. No one in the 14th century considered rat control a way to ward off the plague, and people began to believe only God’s anger could produce such horrific displays. Giovanni Boccaccio, an Italian writer and poet of the 14th century, questioned whether plague was sent by God for human’s correction, or if it came through the influence of the heavenly bodies. Christians accused Jews of poisoning public water supplies in an effort to ruin European civilization. The spreading of this rumor led to complete destruction of entire Jewish towns, but it was caused simply by suspicion on the part of the Christians, who noticed that the Jews had lost fewer lives in the Plague due to their hygienic practices. In February 1349, 2,000 Jews were murdered in Strasbourg. In August of the same year, the Jewish communities of Mainz and Cologne were exterminated.

There was a significant impact on religion, as many believed the plague was God’s punishment for sinful ways. Church lands and buildings were unaffected, but there were too few priests left to maintain the old schedule of services. Over half the parish priests, who gave the final sacraments to the dying, died themselves. The church moved to recruit replacements, but the process took time. New colleges were opened at established universities, and the training process sped up. The shortage of priests opened new opportunities for lay women to assume more extensive and important service roles in local parishes.

Flagellantism was a 13th and 14th centuries movement involving radicals in the Catholic Church. It began as a militant pilgrimage and was later condemned by the Catholic Church as heretical. The peak of the activity was during the Black Death. Flagellant groups spontaneously arose across Northern and Central Europe in 1349, except in England. The German and Low Countries movement, the Brothers of the Cross, is particularly well documented. They established their camps in fields near towns and held their rituals twice a day. The followers would fall to their knees and scourge themselves, gesturing with their free hands to indicate their sin and striking themselves rhythmically to songs, known as Geisslerlieder, until blood flowed. Sometimes the blood was soaked up by rags and treated as a holy relic. Some towns began to notice that sometimes Flagellants brought plague to towns where it had not yet surfaced. Therefore, later they were denied entry. The flagellants responded with increased physical penance.

The Black Death had a profound impact on art and literature. After 1350, European culture in general turned very morbid. The common mood was one of pessimism, and contemporary art turned dark with representations of death. La Danse Macabre, or the dance of death, was a contemporary allegory, expressed as art, drama, and printed work. Its theme was the universality of death, expressing the common wisdom of the time that no matter one’s station in life, the dance of death united all. It consisted of the personified Death leading a row of dancing figures from all walks of life to the grave—typically with an emperor, king, pope, monk, youngster, and beautiful girl, all in skeleton-state. Such works of art were produced under the impact of the Black Death, reminding people of how fragile their lives and how vain the glories of earthly life were.

7.7.5 – Economic Impact of the Plague

Black Death (“Hollaback Girl” by Gwen Stefani): It’s hard to find a song to parody for such a gruesome subject. Our apologies to Gwen’s fans, but it’s for the cause of education!

The great population loss wrought by the plague brought favorable results to the surviving peasants in England and Western Europe. There was increased social mobility, as depopulation further eroded the peasants’ already weakened obligations to remain on their traditional holdings. Feudalism never recovered. Land was plentiful, wages high, and serfdom had all but disappeared. It was possible to move about and rise higher in life.

The Black Death encouraged innovation of labor-saving technologies, leading to higher productivity. There was a shift from grain farming to animal husbandry. Grain farming was very labor-intensive, but animal husbandry needed only a shepherd, a few dogs, and pastureland.

Since the plague left vast areas of farmland untended, they were made available for pasture and thus put more meat on the market; the consumption of meat and dairy products went up, as did the export of beef and butter from the Low Countries, Scandinavia, and northern Germany. However, the upper classes often attempted to stop these changes, initially in Western Europe, and more forcefully and successfully in Eastern Europe, by instituting sumptuary laws. These regulated what people (particularly of the peasant class) could wear so that nobles could ensure that peasants did not begin to dress and act as higher class members with their increased wealth. Another tactic was to fix prices and wages so that peasants could not demand more with increasing value. In England, the Statute of Labourers of 1351 was enforced, meaning no peasant could ask for more wages than they had in 1346. This was met with varying success depending on the amount of rebellion it inspired; such a law was one of the causes of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt in England.

Plague brought an eventual end of serfdom in Western Europe. The manorial system was already in trouble, but the Black Death assured its demise throughout much of Western and Central Europe by 1500. Severe depopulation and migration of people from village to cities caused an acute shortage of agricultural laborers. In England, more than 1300 villages were deserted between 1350 and 1500.

Originally published by Lumen Learning – Boundless World History under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.