The Middle Ages: A Very Short Introduction

The Middle Ages Book Cover The Middle Ages
Miri Rubin
Oxford University Press, USA

I love the “A Very Short Introduction” series of books. I have developed the habit of reading an appropriate one in the lead up to every class I take towards my degree in History. They provide a very high level overview and usually provide a couple of topics I can explore for a paper.

The concept of an ‘age’ fails to capture the fact that we are dealing with a vast territory over a long period in constant transformation. As we explore continuity and change we will find that Europe did not live to a single rhythm over this period. While there was vibrant city life in Italy, Iberia, and southern France from early in the period, substantial urban centres and commerce developed in England and France only in the 12th century, in Bohemia in the 13th, and in the Baltic regions only in the 14th. Similarly, Europe’s regions became Christian at different times: Rome with its ancient Christian communities, the Franks from c.500, Iceland c.1000, and Livonia in the Baltic region, in the 1300s. If we think of religious change, then the parish system reached most Europeans after 1200; if the rhythms of agrarian life are considered, then many aspects of our period remained in place until the 18th century.

The humanists sensed they were witnesses to the rebirth—rinascimento—of classical ideas and practices that had been corrupted during the middling period. Hence the term Renaissance, used since to describe their passionate interests in the culture of antiquity.

The designer and social thinker William Morris (1834–96) sought to capture the qualities of craft labour in his emulation of medieval carving and painting. His was not a yearning for Catholic religion, but for village life, where granaries were the true cathedrals of the people.

Medieval revival was not only a reaction against republican or democratic politics, or the product of Catholic patronage. It also echoed the desires of those who fostered national identities and their expression in nation-states.

In the 20th century an imagined rural Middle Ages of the ‘shire’ inspired the works of J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973)—a professor of medieval English literature—while C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) explored Catholic and medieval themes in his allegorical works,

Antiquity gave rise to diverse religions, philosophies, styles in art and governance, in republics and empires. And between roughly 500 and 1500 this intellectual heritage was explored through reading, copying, and commentary. As they probed that heritage Europeans also imprinted their own stamp upon Latin poetry and prose, Greek medicine and political theory, and on music and architecture too. All spheres of European life—law, theology, political thought, care of the body, religious rituals, and even land tenure—were imprinted by a Roman lore appropriated to varying degrees of imitation and adaptation.

From the end of the 3rd century the Roman Empire was in fact managed as two large and interconnected entities: east and west. The western part saw in 476 the deposition of the last Roman emperor Romulus Augustus, by a military leader Odoacer (433–493), who led a federation of Germanic people, and who thus became king of Italy. This change is often used to mark the ‘end’ of the Roman Empire. It is, in fact, but a stage in the long process by which Germanic groups were incorporated into the Roman armies, garrisoned its borders, settled on state lands, and ultimately also claimed political rule. Odoacer was soon replaced by Theodoric (454–526), king of the Ostrogoths, as ruler of Italy. In 497 Emperor Anastasius—ruler of the Empire from Constantinople—recognized Theodoric and sent to him the regalia of office. Theodoric built his capital in Ravenna as a new Rome.

Similarly, after Clovis, king of the Franks, converted to Christianity in 496, and established regional hegemony by defeating the Visigoths in 508, he too received the Roman title of consul from the same emperor. Through diplomatic contacts with Constantinople, and interaction with local Roman elites, barbarian kings learned how to rule in Roman style.

The kings of the Ostrogoths, Vandals, Franks, Burgundians, and Visigoths were Roman barbarians, leaders who cherished what Romanitas—Romanness—had to offer.

And so, while many have described this period as one of decline and fall of the Roman Empire, a concept popularized by Edward Gibbon (1737–94) in his best-seller The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), this period of change is better considered as one of transformation.

Even more far-reaching for the lives of individuals and communities were Justinian’s legislative efforts: he commissioned a compendium of imperial law, Justinian’s Code, updating Theodosius II’s laws of 438; a Digest of learned opinions on questions arising from legal practice; and a law textbook with helpful commentaries, the Institutions. Under Justinian theological controversies on the nature of Christ animated eastern and western bishops alike as one Christian commonwealth.

The Mediterranean empire that Justinian had sought to revive was soon transformed by the advent of a new force in world history: Islam (Map 2). Born in the Arabian Peninsula, Islam arose from the convergence of diverse traditions, including Judaism and Christianity. It was an exciting new religious ideology which mobilized kinship groups into military action, first in the peninsula and then beyond. The fragmented and battered Byzantine Empire, which had seen loss of territory and income in the decades following Justinian, offered easy pickings. A decade after the death of Mohammed, in 637, Jerusalem was taken by Caliph Umar, the crowning of his conquest of Byzantine Syria and Palestine. Next he mobilized an army which entered Egypt in 639, and brought it into the fold of the emergent Ummayad Caliphate with its capital in Damascus.

The Mediterranean islands, southern France, and Italy suffered from raids and by 711 large parts of Iberia were conquered by a Muslim army from north Africa—led by Tariq ibn Ziyad.

In Iberia, Visigoths converted in large numbers to Islam as did some Jews and a great number of Christians; and Gothic identity has left a faint echo in the Arabic name al-quti—the Goth. The mental map of Christianity was shifting. Even though the Pyrenees were for centuries a marca—a border territory, march—with intermittent violent encounters, al-Andalus—Muslim Spain—exerted vast cultural influence upon the rest of Europe.

Iberia also saw the coexistence of Jews, Muslims, and Christians—as unequal neighbours—in a manner which has come to be known as convivencia—living together—within a sphere of Arabic culture.

By the 11th century knights from Francia—as Frankish Gaul came to be known—received papal blessing when they joined the efforts to conquer lands ruled by Muslims, and thus to join what came to be known as the reconquista.

The balance of political power in Christian Europe now shifted northwards, away from the dangerous Mediterranean. There, the Merovingian Franks gained prominence through conquest and consolidation of their administration of vast lands, which reached from Denmark to Saxony to Lombardy.

During the rule of Empress Irene (752–803)—and exploiting the political vulnerability which often accompanied the rise of a woman to the throne—they penned the Libri Carolini in 794. This tract discussed and extolled the role of images in Christian worship, a polemic against the iconoclastic austerities which had recently been adopted by three successive Byzantine emperors. Political hegemony received religious endorsement in Rome on Christmas day 800, when Charles the Great (c.742–814), king of the Franks—also known as Charlemagne—had himself crowned by the pope as emperor.

The Rhetorica ad Herennium (Rhetoric for Herennius), a textbook on rhetoric composed in the 90s BCE, remained one of the most widely used manuals for any holder of public office in church or state.

Similarly, the book of medical recipes, Materials of Medicine, by Dioscorides (c.40–90 CE), an army surgeon from Asia Minor, was one of the most popular books well into the 16th century.

The Byzantine Empire was battered by the movement of peoples like the Seljuks from central Asia in the 10th and 11th centuries. The nomadic Seljuks converted to Islam and became a dynamic military force in pursuit of conquest for their new faith. The waning of Byzantine religious solidarity and influence in the West was marked from 1054 by the schism between Greek and Latin bishops over the theology of the Trinity.

When an armed pilgrimage—later to be styled ‘crusade’—left Europe in 1096 with the aim of offering help to the Christians of the east and regaining access for Christians to the Holy Land, its leaders expected that help would be forthcoming—in food, troops, and logistics—from the Byzantine Empire. Emperor Alexios I Comnenos (1056–1118) was, in fact, alarmed by this assumption. His daughter and biographer, Anna Comnena (1083–1153), describes with bemusement the arrival of the contingents from the West, each expecting to be received in style and supported.

Throughout the British Isles the influences of holy men from Ireland was felt. The Life of St Columba (d. 597), written a century after his death by the monk Adomnán, describes the holy man at work from the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland, admonishing chieftains, prophesying the results of battles, exorcising demons, and confronting magicians with his own cures. Irish influence affected the style of religious life—the calendar, the monastic ethos—often at odds with Roman–Continental practices. From Christian Francia abbess Bertila (d. c.704) sent books and relics to these ‘new’ Christians. In time the term ‘Christendom’ was coined by an English writer, and figures from the British Isles became iconic Christian leaders: the Northumbrian monk-historian, Bede (673–735), whose history of the church was highly appreciated throughout Europe; or Alcuin of York (c.735–804), who spent much of his life in Charlemagne’s court, leading reform of education and acting as diplomat between England and the Continent.

By the mid-9th century a period of settlement and consolidation was under way, and York and Dublin became important Norse trading centres. Ultimately, after decades of dislocation, enduring forms of cohabitation emerged: the Norse leader, Rollo, paid homage to the king of France in 911, for the terrain of Normandy. In Wessex, the Viking challenge had prompted the enhancement of administration and defence under King Alfred (849–99) (Figure 3).

By the year 1000 the European population had begun to grow, and for some 300 years food production grew too, more than matching the demand. This meant that some people from every rural community could move to towns and cities and develop specialized skills, safe in the knowledge that food would be available there for purchase. Urban growth occurred both in existing urban centres—old Roman cities—and in thousands of new towns.

Some classical lore became available to Europeans only in the 12th and 13th centuries through a two-step process of transmission. In the 7th and 8th centuries Greek learning was translated into Arabic following the Muslim conquests and the establishment of a court in Baghdad. After 1100 a great deal of translation took place from Arabic into Latin, led by scholars from Muslim Spain—al-Andalus—like Peter Alfonsi (c.1062–1110). Peter was born a Jew and converted to Christianity in 1106. He translated from Arabic and Persian moral and ethical tales, wrote on astronomy, and composed polemical works against Judaism. He moved between the spheres of learning in Hebrew, Arabic, and Latin. Peter traveled widely—he may have practised as court physician to Henry I (1068–1135)—and his books were copied and enthusiastically received.

Around 1300 the Little Ice Age set in, and its wet and cold meant that the extent of European land suitable for cultivation decreased considerably (Map 3). The famine which ravaged northwest Europe (1314–17), and the great calamity of the Black Death (1347–52) put all the arrangements we have been surveying to a deadly test. Unprecedented flooding and fiercely cold winters from autumn 1314 meant that agricultural yields were down—sometimes by 40 per cent. However integrated the European economy had become, it failed to provide food where it was needed. This failure was exacerbated by the tendency of landlords to hoard foodstuffs and thus speculate. Just as the next generations were beginning to recover and population to grow again, the Black Death—what is now commonly agreed to have been the bubonic plague—reached Europe. The disease had spread across central Asia over the preceding decades, reaching Europe by vessels that traded between the Black Sea and Italy in 1347.

By the end of our period the eastern Mediterranean was ruled by the Ottoman dynasty, and to the west explorations of the coast of Africa were encouraged and financed by the kings of Portugal. It is common to end this period in 1492 with Columbus’ journey which saw his arrival in the ‘Indies’. Yet Columbus seems far more to belong to the traditions of European travel, cartography, and royal patronage of trade, infused with a sense of Christian mission.

The capacity to act in the world was affected by an individual’s legal status: free, slave, or serf.

Roman law recognized the conditions of freedom and slavery, and slavery remained a European institution throughout our period, though with great variation. The law of the church decreed that Christians could not be enslaved, yet some did indeed live as slaves. Indigenous slavery on large Roman estates persisted at the beginning of our period, and existed alongside the constant stream of slaves taken in battles on Europe’s eastern borderlands. The word slav became synonymous with the word ‘slave’ (sclavus in Latin). The survey of estates conducted by Abbot Irminon of St Germain-des-Près outside Paris c.825 had 7,975 individuals living

Dependent unfree men with skills could rise up the social scale through military and administrative service. In the Holy Roman Empire unfree ministeriales held land and married the daughters of noblemen; they commanded castles and in turn held courts of their own. The Hungarian jobbágiones were allowed freedom of movement and were mobilized in the 13th century in warfare against the Mongols, and in the 15th against the Turks. Another form of servile living was introduced to Europe in the late 14th century when black African slaves were sold for domestic service in Italian and Iberian cities. They were habitually released from slavery (manumitted) after a while, often remaining in domestic service, or working as artisans, musicians, or fishermen.

Our period sees the development of a status of unfreedom which is not equal to slavery: it is serfdom. There were many routes to such servility: loss of an individual’s land through poverty and debt, or through conquest followed by loss of land. The serf householder was attached to the land he and his family cultivated, and their tenure entailed important obligations which were the mark of servility. Serfs shared the produce of their labour with their lords, they were obliged to execute work at the lord’s request, and they were limited in their right to travel. Serfs were often required to bring their corn for grinding in the lord’s mill and their grapes to the lord’s winepress, and to pay for a licence when they sought to marry outside the manor; a fine beast was paid to secure the passage of the serf’s tenure to its heir. Their lives were hard.

Most of the assumptions in secular and ecclesiastical law and much social custom agreed that women were weaker than men in their mental, moral, and physical capacities. The church taught that women and men could hope and strive for salvation, but also that women’s nature tended towards sin. It followed that it was harder for women to deploy human reason—the gift of God—since they were distracted by their carnal nature, above all by their roaming wombs. This weakness of reason meant that they could not be placed in positions of authority over men, their superiors.

Underlying this variety was an understanding of identity rooted in sexual difference. It directed men to assume responsibility and care for wives, daughters, and sisters, and it also allowed them to control women’s property, and direct their lives. Men habitually used violence in asserting authority, even as they expressed deep grief at the loss of a partner.

The Christian idea of marriage as sacramental, monogamous, oriented towards procreation, and for life, was fully codified in the 12th century. Disseminated vigorously through canon law, Christian marriage seemed like an intrusive innovation, and centuries passed before it was accepted by Europeans. This view of marriage was propagated by the Church, led by activist popes—many of whom were trained in the law. It sought to bring the most intimate and consequential aspects of life—family, progeny, inheritance, sexuality—within a Christian ethical and legal sphere. It did so by considering marriage a personal moral act, by making laws to match, and by providing religious instruction to inform laity and clergy alike.

Sacramental marriage was an irreversible ritual, a transfer of grace to two freely consenting partners.

By the 13th century Christian marriage was taught widely, and so became over the centuries a recognized pathway.

There was often the blessing at the church door; and when children came along, there was baptism to bind family and church even closer, and churching of mothers—a form of purification and reintegration of them into the community—after the ordeal—and pollution—of childbirth.

The Holy Family—Mary, Joseph, and the child Christ—was represented within a rich web of relations, in which Anne—Mary’s mother—doted over her many grandchildren, the product of her three consecutive marriages. Parish churches in Germany displayed the family arranged as a sculpted group: the two holy women and the child Christ to the fore, and Anne’s other daughters with their children—Christ’s cousins—around them; at the back were four men: Joseph and Anne’s three husbands (Figure 4). Men and women, young and old saw their own family relationships mirrored in such images.

The Merovingian kings of the Franks traveled between their estates with their court about them, supported by the produce and labour of their lands and serfs, as well as by the hospitality which religious houses were obliged to offer to their benefactors. One such courtier—the holder of the all-important role of maior domus, chief steward to the household—Charles Martel (c.688–741), assumed so much power and influence that his sons—Peppin and Carloman—became kings of the Frankish lands after his death. Peppin’s son, Charlemagne, created a capital, the very grandest kind of household, at Aachen. The group of priests and servants which surrounded a bishop and animated his cathedral came to be known as familia—a family household of sorts—and provided its celibate members with the support and care that biological families were usually expected to offer.

Coroners’ records from 13th century England show that women suffered accidents in the course of agricultural labour: in fields, barns, and when using heavy and sharp metal implements.

Historians used to think that emotional cherishing of children was the invention of the Enlightenment. This is quite wrong. The household was the focus of nurture and care for the young. From the peasantry to aristocratic elites, all social groups developed ways of training the young for healthy and productive lives.

As norms of Christian behaviour spread and became better established in Europe, so did the role of mothers and female kin as first educators. The Psalms, the Creed, the widely used prayers Ave Maria and Pater Noster, and edifying religious tales were taught in households in the mother tongue and were integrated into family life.

By the 10th century most landholding families in large parts of Europe—England, France, and parts of the Empire—recognized the land inherited by the father as patrimony, to be passed on to the heir. The patrimony gave the family its name—this period sees the fixing of such surnames, cognomina—like de Coucy or de Bouillon.

Primogeniture—inheritance by the eldest son—came to prevail not only among landed people, but also in more modest households: the inheritance of servile land or of craft workshops in towns throughout Europe.

Most families combined several strategies for the sake of the young: advantageous marriage, training in a craft, migration, land-clearance, and the acquisition of a new tenancy, professional formation in preparation for careers in law, as clergy, or as bureaucratic servants in great households, cities, or royal courts. As to daughters, they were apportioned a dowry with the aim of attracting a good match, the dowry being a way of sharing the family’s wealth.

Most people lived in rural settlements and in many forms. There were the densely settled nucleated villages as in southern England, northern France, and Pomerania, where arable farming meant that villagers lived surrounded by the fields they tilled. At the centre of some villages was a green or a square, a public space around a well, and sometimes near the local church. Fishing villages along European coasts shared some distinctive features. Be they in Norway, Ireland, or Sicily, they were often surrounded by sea-marshes and salt-pans; the sex ratio of their population was often skewed, with a super-abundance of women. Some villages were surrounded by protective walls, others encompassed hamlets—neighbouring clusters of farms—spread out and isolated.

Rural settlements often centred around a villa held by a churchman or a notable.

While grain production was at the core, there was pig and sheep rearing, and crafts in locally grown raw materials like wool and linen. Such settlements formed the core of fortified seats of lordship by the year 1000, made strong by the local lord—seigneur. Castles were built to secure safety and in display of authority. Fortified communities marked the landscape as a refuge in time of war for those who inhabited neighbouring lands.

In large parts of Europe rural settlements existed within a system of land tenure that has been named since the 17th century as ‘feudal’. This term is often used to characterize the arrangements whereby land was held by men in a hierarchical and nested system: each vassal held land from a lord and in return offered that lord loyalty and advice. Lord and vassal were bound through a ceremony at which the latter offered homage, sealed with a kiss. The land held within this relationship could include a combination of one or more estates; in the highest echelons it amounted to a county, duchy, or even a kingdom—their population, resources, and related jurisdiction.

The historian Marc Bloch (1886–1944) once remarked that every parcel of land could be called ‘mine’ by several persons: those who worked it, those who held the estate from a higher lord, the higher lord, and the king who granted it to that higher lord. Some lands were never turned into fiefs, but were worked under the supervision of the lord’s official, a bailiff who supervised the hired labour as well as the work of serfs. These bailiffs—sirvents, or sergents—ran the estates, interacted with the rural workers in the local idiom, and summoned them to the manor court for infringements; they were never popular members of the rural community.

Religious houses were usually granted estates at their foundation, and received more from benefactors over the centuries in return for prayer. They acted as a collective ‘lord’, and managed lands, often very effectively. Able to accumulate over centuries, untouched by sibling strife and the need to apportion dowries, religious houses amassed considerable wealth and so invested in substantial projects: bridge-building, drying of marshes, woodland clearance, and the construction of stylish buildings. Religious houses literally towered over the countryside, their church often the product of decades of labour by country people—in quarrying stone, preparing timber, construction, and carting.

In the course of the Christianization of Europe, most villages became ecclesiastical units too. The village produced food, and yielded tithes—a tenth of the produce or earnings to the church; the village was home to families whose young required baptism and its dead burial. At the same time, those who owned estates and governed lives—knightly and noble landlords—were increasingly drawn into a close relationship with the church, its laws and its norms, and sought to spread these on their estates.

The intertwining of the life-cycle and the seasons of the year into Christian ritual made the rural settlement a social framework rich in overlapping relationships and meanings.

The marketplace defined the town’s commercial capacity, and so in most European cities the great church stood in the marketplace:

Cities were central to life in medieval Europe. The Roman legacy meant that a city like Civitas Moguntiarum, situated at the confluence of the Main and Rhine rivers, remained an important medieval city—Mainz. Its bishops nurtured a buoyant economy—with much vine-growing—and also led in the 8th century the war against the Saxons, and the mission which followed. New cities were created where political realities required them.

Lords secured the freedom of travelers, maintained bridges and roads, and in return exacted tolls.

Cities saw in the 13th century an extraordinary explosion in financial services. Banking dynasties were established and by 1300 they had branches in major European cities.

London alone had agents of at least ten Italian banking families, and their financial support underwrote military ventures by the English crown.

The most famous long-distance merchant of the period, the Venetian Marco Polo (1254–1324), traveled to the Chinese court with his father and uncle, Niccolò and Maffeo. Such travel was a form of apprenticeship by which families trained their young in the secrets of trade.

Alongside the social hierarchy endorsed by kingship and the aristocratic cultures of European landed elites, another tradition developed, which was corporate or consultative, sometimes called republican. It was facilitated by the models of practice of ancient Rome, in the concept of liberty, in traditions of public debate, and in Roman law. The term universitas—the very word that begat ‘university’—described the corporate entity of individuals with a common aim. As a universitas, the corporate body made up of several members spoke in one voice. A good example is the craft guild in which a city’s artisans or merchants combined for the promotion of their economic and political ends.

So central were guilds to urban life, so crucial was the contribution of guildsmen to urban finances that in many cities guilds formed the basis for political representation, as delegates from each guild combined into the town council.

Emperor Constantine (c.272–337) made the religion licit, and its tenets were publicly discussed in councils led by him. By the end of the 4th century it had become the official religion of the Roman Empire, replacing the cult of the emperor.

In Gaul, north Africa, Spain, and Italy, elite men, educated in the classical curriculum, trained for public service and its rewards, became the leaders of Christian Europe. Such men—and women largely within the family sphere—had begun to embrace Christianity in large numbers just as the political order around them was dramatically changing. For centuries the Empire had been sharing territory with barbarian people and their leaders. While defence of the Empire was increasingly handed over to these barbarian leaders, the Roman elite turned in large numbers to Christian leadership: the soldier-saints St Martin or St Germanus, the bishop-saints Ambrose (c.340–397) and later Augustine, each offered a model for Christian lives in the world. Senatorial families provided bishops and public servants. Men like Boethius (c.480–524) and Cassiodorus (c.485–c.585) were aware of the political changes affecting their world, under its new rulers. Through public service—which was the traditional vocation of men of their rank—they sought to defend the Christian ethos and Roman law.

Bishops now collected tax income that had once been paid to imperial governors and with it they fortified their cities against attack, ensured regular water and grain supply, built churches for growing communities, dealt summarily with vestiges of pagan worship, established charitable arrangements, and comforted their flocks at times of hardship.

Between 300 and 600, a process was under way of ‘Christianizing’ that classical tradition. From Spain, we have Prudentius (348–413), lawyer and provincial governor, but also a poet, a Christian poet. He used his exquisite literary and rhetorical training—as befitted a Roman trained in the law—to Christian ends: composing poetry in praise of martyrs, ethical debates about the psychology of sin, and polemics against those who still espoused pagan sympathies. His exact contemporary Augustine attempted a similar—though vastly more ambitious—transformation in his The City of God against the Pagans, written after the traumatic sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410. In this work of history and theology, Augustine reflected on the Roman past and criticized the pagan world view. He also offered an ethical programme Christian to the core, by which sinful humans might live in the world, while aspiring to the City of God. Augustine’s work was fundamental to theological and political thought in subsequent centuries; its concepts were based on the philosophy, grammar, rhetoric, and poetics of late antiquity.

Symphronius of Arles.

The robust and resilient Christian culture of Ireland produced several effective leaders in this period. St Columbanus (543–615), a missionary to recently converted Burgundy, settled with his followers in the ruins of a fort—Luxovlum, Luxeuil—with the support of a Burgundian courtier. A pattern of religious life grew there, which was later emulated by other communities. Here was the work of lay patron and religious enthusiast; here too was the implantation of Christian living within a rural setting, and its effect was felt throughout the region.

Like all religions, it had to nurture conversations with the dead, and support social relations.

Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla of c.1230, a saga which recounts the deeds of the Norse kings, describes how King Olaf (c.960–1000) came to embrace Christianity. As a pagan Olaf visited a prophet who lived on the Scilly Islands, only to hear of his own destiny: to baptize and lead many others to the true religion. This later account none the less captures a tradition about the charismatic intervention that turned Olaf into the missionary king of Norway and Iceland. To rulers, like Olaf, who took great pride in their martial leadership and prowess, Christianity had to appear as a triumphant religion, one which would lead its followers to victory in the world as well as over death. And so, the figure of Christ—as represented in word and image—was made to seem victorious and majestic. On occasion the material culture and liturgy of Christianity could impress and overwhelm.

Caesarius of Arles (c.468–542) composed in 512 a rule for the nuns led by his sister. It emphasized strict enclosure; unlike monks, the nuns were never to entertain religious dignitaries, and could dine only with other religious women.

For rural Europeans the most visible representation of Christian life—definitely the most impressive—was a monastery. Religious institutions were relatively long-lasting; they maintained the cults of local saints, occasionally offered pastoral care, and made distributions of food on feast days and at times of need. Recruitment to monasteries was usually local, so networks of landholding and local influence were also invested in these religious houses.

Monasteries were sometimes vanguards of political and economic power:

Bishops led their surrounding diocese from churches that came to be known as cathedrals, after the bishop’s throne—cathedra.

The vision now emanating from Rome was one of Church hierarchy and discipline, and of freedom from secular powers—libertas ecclesiae, freedom of the Church. Similar ideas had been expressed earlier in the century by the Peace of God movement in northern France, which urged the Church to use its authority to control knightly violence and protect the vulnerable; or by the Pataria in Milan, which protested against the princely clerical dynasties that controlled the prestigious Milanese church.

Gregory sought to make the Church free in its appointments from imperial and royal intervention so as to allow the holders of ecclesiastical offices to act freely, not as clients of great men. The practice of payment for ecclesiastical office—named simony—and of promoting unsuitable relatives to ecclesiastical offices—called Nicolaitism—was deeply embedded, and papal polemicists set out to achieve a major shift in attitude, by deeming it an intolerable abuse.

The Church’s great treasure—saving grace—was conveyed by priests to parishioners through the sacraments. Baptism erased the stain of original sin (Figure 8), which was passed on to the foetus at conception, and created spiritual companions—godparents—who committed themselves to support the new Christian. At puberty the Christian’s faith was confirmed with a boost of grace conveyed with the touch of blessed aromatic oil—chrism—from the hand of a bishop; from then on the individual combated sin with the aid of annual confession and the penance that followed (Figure 8). Marriage was undertaken for the creation of Christian households and to aid the bridling of sinful desire.

Parish instruction was guided by developments in theology, and saw the introduction around the year 1200 of more precise teachings about Purgatory. This was a place of cleansing—purgation—through suffering and anguish, at the end of which the purged person merited a place in heaven.

The Church enforced a regime of truth and scrutiny. Throughout the 12th century it developed techniques for searching the conscience in preparation for confession.

Francis of Assisi (c.1181–1226), son of a rich merchant of Assisi, lived the privileged life of a young man in an Umbrian city, but turned to the gospel of poverty in the midst of commercial wealth and civic ambition. Franciscans created a new—and initially alarming—form of religious life which flew in the face of the emergent parish system. They did not initially receive ordination, or serve a parish, but were free agents whose lives offered an example and their preaching, exhortation. They lived as beggars and preached in the local languages. So remarkable was its possible contribution that this counter-cultural movement was authorized by the papacy as its very own secret weapon in the struggle against apathy. By licensing the Franciscans and seeking their loyalty Pope Innocent III (1160–1216) invited the harshest critics of religious ‘business as usual’ into his tent.

With parish religion and the sacramental life-cycle new qualities influenced religious experience. One of the most apparent is the attachment to the Virgin Mary. The imperial cast of majesty given her in 5th and 6th century Byzantium, a style adopted in the court artists of the Carolingian and Ottonian Empire as well as by Anglo-Saxon artists, was transformed over the 12th century into something new: the Virgin Mary as a mother at home, engaged with her son, at work, prayer, and play. Moreover, the humble supplications which monks had developed over the centuries were now spoken in all languages, from Hungarian to Provençal, Icelandic to Catalan. The Mary experience was accessible, and it resonated with life as most Europeans knew it.

Among the saints canonized after 1250 there are many more lay people, and many more women. And among those who were just admired in their communities were married women, widows, women of no learning, and visionaries.

Inspired by the university theologian Jan Hus (1369–1415) a widespread movement—the Hussites—sought political independence from the Empire, and reform of the sacraments. In consequence, Hus was executed and the Emperor led a crusade against the offending region.

We have already observed the dynamic blending between the legacy of Christian imperial rule, and the charismatic martial lordship which prevailed among Germanic people. This process resulted in the emergence of sacred kingship as a concept and a practice. It caused the aspirations of dynasts to merge with ideas of justice, mercy, and rule by the grace of God. This was a challenging blend which intellectuals strove to inculcate and which powerful men struggled to fulfil.

Sacred kingship was born of a pact between dynastic rulers and the church. The church shared the expertise and service of its highly trained personnel with the ruler, and offered its counsel in spiritual matters as well as rituals of sacred power. In turn, rulers were expected to preserve Christian identity, protect the church, and promote justice and peace. Such relationships were often forged through the process of conversion.

cult of the Virgin Mary.

When Duke William of Normandy invaded and conquered large parts of England in 1066 and its aftermath, he too became a sacred monarch. With papal approval he was crowned in Westminster Abbey by Ealdred, archbishop of York, in a scene memorably captured by the needlework of the English women who crafted the Bayeux Tapestry.

In this role William espoused church reform, as an early adopter of the new papal ideas about church freedoms. He allowed church courts to flourish even as he developed his own sphere of secular legislation. The church, in turn, assisted the process of Normanization, and provided the kingdom with its educated class of royal ministers and advisors.

Since sacred monarchs were expected to use violence in the promotion of Christian peace, they seemed to be the natural leaders of religious warfare.

Louis IX (1214–70)—who was canonized soon after his death—had the Sainte Chapelle built as the architectural reliquary for the remains of the Crown of Thorns, which he acquired as a gift from the spoils of the sack of Constantinople in 1204.

Men who held public offices were often rewarded with entitlement to tax income from land, the beneficium—benefice.

The word chivalry—chevalerie—describes an array of ideas, practices, and experiences. It was a code of behaviour and a lifestyle for free men engaged in military conduct. Its conventions promoted honourable behaviour in warfare, reciprocal discipline even between enemies, such as in the treatment of prisoners. Chivalry was affected by Christian values, as churchmen aimed to limit the reach of violence: protecting the unarmed, prohibiting violence against religious houses, forbidding warfare during Lent and on religious festivals. It aimed to regulate warfare between members of a warrior class, who might encounter kinsmen in battle, and spare them the worst brutalities of physical mutilation and dishonour. Hence chivalry developed a language of symbols—shapes and colours—which helped identify a knight in armour—and so heraldry was born.

Campaigns against Muslims helped strengthen the link between Christian service and warfare, and produced in the 12th century chivalric heroes such as Richard the Lion Heart and El Cid. The rich British historical traditions about King Arthur were rewritten by clerics into poems of knightly endeavour and adventure—like the ‘Quest for the Grail’—first in French and then in all other European languages.

Alongside the theme of idealized male valour and loyalty, a fitting form of love developed: courtly love. It imagined the unfulfilled yearning of a knight for a lady of refinement and distinction, and inspired poetry, song, and visual imagery. Chivalry was practised during war, but was also perfected during times of peace in jousts and performances of prowess in courts of great kings and aristocrats. The culture of chivalry was promoted in courts, where women could participate in it as patrons, and take part in the artistic rituals. Immersion in the culture of chivalry led young men of high birth to seek fame and experience in battle: the future King Henry IV (1367–1413) of England joined in his youth the Teutonic Knights on their campaigns to establish Christianity in Livonia (Figure 12). Chivalric themes continued to inspire social relations and artistic production even after the age of the mounted knight gave way to that of mercenaries and cannons.

Once it was conceptualized and established, the language of fief, lord, and fealty was written into charters and reflected in law.

Kings were looked to as patrons for great projects. We have already seen how closely related Christian kingship and leadership of Christian military campaigns became: crusades to the Holy Land, Reconquista in Iberia, and the war against heretics. In the 15th century new horizons for royal patronage similarly invoked royal leadership. From the 1430s the kings of Portugal led the exploration of Africa, providing privileges and charters to official navigators and cartographers. By the end of our period their Iberian neighbours, Ferdinand and Isabella, were approached with a project of commercial enterprise and millenarian enthusiasm: Christopher Columbus’ plan for a westward journey to the Indies. Where other monarchs rejected the unprecedented venture by the Genoese trader-traveller, these monarchs retained Columbus and supported him. His vision appealed to their sense of mission and leadership as Christian monarchs.

By the 15th century family-based banks with branches all over Europe were not uncommon: like the Borromei of Milan, who from 1434 had a branch in Bruges and soon after in London too.

The challenge faced by most individuals and communities was the production of food that was suitable and sufficient to meet the needs of working people and livestock, as well as of urban populations. Alongside the production of food was the need to gather, mine, or grow raw materials for the making of clothing, shelter, household goods, and some manufactured goods for luxury markets.

The 7th and 8th centuries saw the introduction of the heavy plough to large parts of central and northern Europe. It was usually led by horses—though in England oxen pulled ploughs well into the modern period—each harnessed with a collar for effective control, and supported by metal horseshoes. This plough was able to penetrate deep into heavy soil while turning and breaking it. Such preparation was particularly conducive to the growing of spelt—especially in the northeast; oats and barley, so useful for the feeding of horses, grew even on poor soil and in cool temperatures, if deeply planted.

Religious houses led the way in maintaining the quality of water as they did in other aspects of domestic material culture:

European cohesion was facilitated by the system of communication—along rivers, roads, and coastlines—and by the increasingly pervasive culture of Christianity.

European identity depended on what it rejected just as much as it did on what it affirmed.

So fears and anxieties, objects of hate and disgust form part of this history too. Christian teaching offered a message of hope through redemption, a path to salvation. Those outside the Christian body were destined to live in sin, a menace to themselves and to others.

In most regions of Europe, for some part of our period, Christians were at war with non-Christians.

The Paris-educated priest Gerald of Wales (c.1146–c.1223) wrote four works about the strangeness of the Irish and the Welsh, who seemed barbarous and incomprehensible, at the borders of the civilized Anglo-Norman polity. The encounter between Christianity and Islam was powerfully represented in the heroic epic, probably as old as the event it depicts—the Battle of Roncevaux in the Pyrenees, of 778—known to us from 12th century manuscripts: the Chanson de Roland, Roland’s Song. In it, Charlemagne and his men confront different Muslim types—bold Muslim emir, wise advisor, female convert to Christianity—and enact feats of often foolhardy bravery.

The relationship between Christians and Jews in Europe was old and complex. Jewish life was based on the holy texts that Christians also revered as the Old Testament. These Hebrew texts—translated into Latin in the late 4th century by St Jerome (c.347–420)—provided Christians with prophecies that foretold Christian history: the Sacrifice of Isaac prefigured death on the Cross, the Burning Bush offered an image for the unsullied virginity of Mary. Augustine saw scripture as a bond between Jews and Christians, and argued for toleration of Jews within the Empire, as living testimony to Christian truth and future converts at the end of time.

Learning was wide-ranging and diverse—in cathedrals and courts, in monasteries and urban schools—and it owed a great deal to the Roman curriculum of the liberal arts. The integrated study of rhetoric, logic and grammar, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy, provided the basis for understanding the world and its affairs, and for describing it.

Universities offered the highest training—to doctoral level—in medicine, church (canon) law, and civil (Roman) law. They trained those who became the officials of states and cities: diplomats, judges, tax collectors, and prelates of the church—bishops and even popes. Here again we witness an institution which depended a great deal on long-standing traditions of city life and education, and whose basic curriculum depended on study of the classics.

The uniformity of the basic Latin training for the BA meant that educated men all over Europe shared a professional language as well as intellectual habits and tools. These could be very practical: a familiar style in composing letters, favourite moral fables from antiquity known to all, or the manner of approaching problems and seeking solutions to them. This uniformity characterized educated men well into the 19th century.

But the codex, or book—with pages that can be leaved—was an invention associated in particular with the spread of Christianity. The book came to represent Christianity, a religion based on scripture, old and new. Some of the central figures in the Christian tradition are habitually represented by them holding a book: the evangelists—Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John—or Augustine, a father of the Church. Books came increasingly to be used for the preservation and use of scripture, in liturgy and in private devotion. Gospels were some of the prestigious gifts offered to rulers at the moment of conversion—like the glorious St Augustine Gospels—associated with the mission sent from Rome to England.

Johann Gutenberg (1395–1468) was a goldsmith from the city of Mainz, an entrepreneur who experimented in many innovative ventures associated with the religious culture of his day. None was more momentous than his invention of moveable type for the printing of texts. He printed the first Bible in 1455.

Two ambitious cycles of poetry written in the 14th century have made their way into the canon of great world literature. They are each the result of the interaction of a poet’s vision with a vast array of literary, theological, political, and scientific knowledge accumulated over the centuries we are studying. Both were ambitious projects, and each is considered as the moment when their language was perfected as a medium for literary expression—Tuscan and English—they are Dante Alighieri’s (c.1265–1321) Divine Comedy, and Geoffrey Chaucer’s (c.1343–1400) Canterbury Tales.

Both poem cycles are organized around a journey: the former is Dante’s way through Hell, Purgatory, and on to Paradise accompanied by the poet Virgil; Chaucer’s is that of a group of pilgrims making their way from Southwark to the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury. Each in its way is a meditation on human worth and frailty, on the power of exemplary figures to inspire and elevate.

Poets in our period were heirs to several traditions. From antiquity they inherited the ambitious epics of war, love, and power, the greatest of all being Virgil’s Aeneid, known to every child schooled in Latin; the Bible taught the rich structure and imagery of the Psalms, poetry which formed the daily liturgy of all religious and many engaged lay people. Traditions of oral poetry intersected with the classical and biblical all over Europe, and particularly powerfully in Iceland, Ireland, and Wales. Al-Andalus produced an exquisite culture of poetry in Arabic, whose sounds and rhythms in turn inspired the fine Hebrew poetry of Judah ha-Levi (c.1075–1141), and influenced the music of the Occitan troubadours. Traditions of epic poetry recounted deeds of heroism, like the Chanson de Roland, in the vernacular, and for the delight of aristocratic audiences.

Poetry and music were combined and their subject was love. Human feeling, human thought, and human voice came together in the work of the Troubadours, men and women who sang love in all its pain and yearning.

European love song has remained alive in European culture—later in world culture—for some one thousand years. It was produced by amateurs and professionals, by men and women, and lived both on the written page and in performance: the singer and the song, like Dylan and Baez, trubadour and trobairitz.

Poetry and song became attached to the rich legacy of heroic tale, which coalesced around the figure of the Briton, King Arthur, and which spread throughout Europe into all its languages.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s (c.1100–c.1155) History of the Kings of Britain, based on Welsh and Latin sources, created a historical narrative from the Trojans who settled in Britain after the war in Troy, through complex lineages to the time of King Arthur.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading (London: Athlone, 1993).

Maurice Keen, Chivalry (New Haven (CN): Yale Nota Bene, 2005).

Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200–1000, 10th anniversary rev. edn (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).

Dominique Iogna-Prat, Order and Exclusion: Cluny and Christendom Face Heresy, Judaism, and Islam (1000–1150), trans. Graham Robert Edwards (Ithaca (NY): Cornell Univesrity Press, 2002)