by ProfDave, ©2022

(Apr. 21, 2022) — Good Morning, lords and ladies, peasants and Fathers, Sisters and Brothers!  Welcome to the Middle Ages!  In last week’s lecture we did a thousand years of China, so it is only fair that we do a thousand years of Europe this week.  Super historian, leaping wide centuries in a single bound!

The first big idea: Rome never died.  Roman ideals and institutions began to weaken in the west back in the 2nd century – and became as much Greek as Roman in the east and as much German as Roman in the west.  But all Europe remembered Pax Romana, Roman law and Roman titles.  Rome was the golden age the Medieval mind looked back to and longed for.  Roman roads, bridges, names, and ruins marked the landscape from Scotland to Egypt.  The church retained the hierarchical structure, language, and vestments of Rome.  

Despite all the forces, geographical and ethnic, that particularized Europe over a thousand years and a thousand regions, Europe never forgot that it had once been one – well almost.  In particular the memory of one imperium under one Emperor inspired Charlemagne, Otto, Napoleon, and Mussolini and endures to this day in the European Union.  Furthermore, the Mediterranean economic realm, though weakened, remained. 

Also remaining, was Roman agricultural life, involving 90% of the population (more and more of them non-Romans of some kind), still producing a living from the soil.  The warrior elite of Angles, Saxons and Danes (England), Franks (France), Visigoths (Spain), Vandals (North Africa), Ostrogoths then Lombards (Italy), under their own kings and chieftains replaced the legions – but they had made up most of the legions anyway.  Cities and towns might shrink or fall into ruin, but down on the farm agriculture was actually improving.

The second big idea is Christendom.  Actually, it is hard to distinguish between Roman and Christian.  By the sixth century, all Europe, to the Slavic and Byzantine frontiers, was divided into parishes, dioceses, and provinces under the supervision of the Bishop of Rome.  These were originally the administrative divisions of the Roman Empire.  The difference was that the church survived while the empire passed away.  Bishops replaced local Roman authority in many of the major cities.  Pagan princes were won over, resulting in mass conversions of their people.  Almost every resident of Europe was a baptized member of the local Christian parish, by law and custom. 

The ideal, on the macro scale, was a symbiotic union of church and state, Emperor and Pope, ruling as representatives of God in their separate spheres.  Though the offices of priest and Caesar were carefully separated, both were spiritual offices.  Both had temporal aspects.  Precedent was found in the Bible: Moses and Aaron, Saul and Samuel, David and Nathan. 

The clergy governed the souls, the princes governed the bodies.  The church kept alive the learning of the ancient world and held almost a monopoly on literacy in the early Middle Ages.  Thus clergymen were indispensable as secretaries and public servants to the princes.  Often a Bishop or Abbot was the King’s prime minister – even into the 17th century!  In the disintegration of the Empire, many Bishops and Archbishops became important earthly rulers by default.  Three of the seven greatest princes (Electors) of the Holy Roman Empire were Bishops.  The Pope himself was a major secular power in Italy, and an equal to Kings in wealth and influence – as the representative of Christ should be (to the medieval mind).  He alone actually maintained an international system of administration (Roman hierarchical style) and taxation.

We see Boniface, missionary to Germany, about to chop down the tree of Thor.  Next to him is Patrick, preaching the Trinity using the Shamrock and Charlemagne forcing the baptism of the defeated Saxons.  It is said they kept their sword-arms dry in case they would need to do some more unholy work.  And finally, behold the top row of the organizational chart of the Holy Roman Empire.

One theme of medieval history is the turf warfare between the two spheres, sacred and secular, church and state.  Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, forced the emperor Theodosius to do penance (for massacring the Thessalonians) before he would serve him Communion.  Papal coronation was important to the legitimacy of medieval emperors (Charlemagne, Otto).  The Holy Father could do grave damage by releasing subjects from their oaths of fealty to an offending king.  The investiture controversy (who confers the symbols of office and in what order) rent all Europe.  In a way, the Crusades represented both the triumph and the fatal weakness of Christendom.  On the one hand it was a magnificent outburst of idealism inspired by the Pope (and other churchmen), mobilizing the highest monarchs of Europe in a (more or less) united effort – a reverse jihad, if you will – to reclaim the original heartland of Christianity.  On the other hand, putting a cross on the back of a rapacious sinner and sending him to the holy land only exported his rapacity.  And the name of Christ has been blasphemed in the middle east because of them ever since.

The cultural unity and achievements of Christendom deserve special mention.  The “Regular clergy” – members of monastic orders – withdrew from the world to devote themselves to God.  By their prayers the Kingdom was protected from evil, but they also worked and studied and served the community in other ways.  Preserving, copying, and teaching Latin works were some of the things that they did.  Ireland was never part of the Roman Empire, but when Patrick went there as a missionary, he established monasteries everywhere he went to publish the Scriptures and the literature of Rome.  Soon all Europe had an international Latin civilization.

Oxford, England (Wikimedia Commons, CC by SA 3.0)

Educated men and women of the Middle Ages saw the world and everything in it as the work of God.  To study anything was to study God.  You name it: it was something God made, or sustained, or did, or allowed and it expressed His nature in some way.  Thus Theology was the queen of the sciences.  At first, higher education was associated with monasteries or cathedrals or traveling scholars.  But in the 13th century organized universities were established to bring the totality of knowledge together into a single unity.  Scholasticism was a method of learning and oral debate (in Latin) the method of examination, bringing different authorities to a synthesis in a strictly logical manner.  The culmination can be seen in the work of Thomas Aquinas’ merging of Christian revelation with Aristotle’s philosophy. 

We can’t leave this topic without reference to Medieval architecture – so much of what people go to Europe to see.  Surviving medieval towns are a forest of steeples.  Medieval churches and cathedrals (Bishop’s churches) are awesome sermons in stone.  Built of local materials by local people, often over several generations, they are spectacular expressions of faith, adorned with art that expresses the teachings and honored the heroes of Christianity.  The older, Romanesque, style reflects the sense of refuge from the world in its massive, fortress-like walls and rounded arches.  Later times brought more security, new techniques, and a reaching upwards in spires that soared towards heaven and stained glass that bathed the interior in light and color.

The third big idea is harder to define.  Let’s call it fealty.  German society was based on personal loyalty and relationships.  Forget all you learned in High School about feudalism.  There was no neat pyramid.  There were no well-defined classes – as in Rome or modern Europe.  Your place in society was delimited by personal relationships.  You were so-and-so’s man – or woman – and a member of such-and-such order, guild, or manor.  What that meant was determined by custom and loyalty that varied from place to place and individual to individual.  Enforcement was by oath – God would get you.  There were no real police.

In general, society was divided into three Estates or conditions: those who prayed, those who fought, and those who worked.  Perhaps the cleanest example is William of Normandy (the Viking descendant who conquered England in 1066) passing out English villages to his most deserving and loyal followers – and to some Anglo-Saxons who promised him support.  They swore an oath of fealty to him.  They were supposed to pay taxes, support themselves and raise horses on those villages to fight for their lord when he needed them.  He would come to their aid when they were attacked and judge their disputes. 

Those who prayed included the Regular clergy, the spiritual elite, who lived apart under special vows.  They provided spiritual defense for the realm, cultivated learning, cared for the sick and the traveler, and preached to the poor.  The Secular clergy supplied the Parish cure of souls through the sacraments, and supplied more than their share of public administration, civil and ecclesiastical.  The universities, too, were more or less monastic institutions, with celibate faculty and students, who mostly passed upon graduation into holy orders and church offices.

Those who fought were conscious of superior status and morality based on military specialization and social relationships as a function of combat companionship, homage, and personal dependence.  At the same time they prided themselves on a kind of personal equality and worth among themselves that contributed to our notions of inalienable rights.

The difficulty was that loyalties could change or become complex.  Often individuals might be vassals of more than one lord for different properties or titles.  Or get a better deal from someone else.  Or you could have too many or too few sons.  Hereditary loyalties could slip.  Your buddy’s grandson might not be particularly loyal to your grandson.   Great lords could and did become rivals – individually and collectively – of their kings.  A recurrent struggle through the whole period was between monarchy and nobility, with town and business representatives in the middle. 

The village got protection, administration, and justice, but they had to work together as a community for the lord who lived in the manor house and the parson who lived in the manse.  There was land used in common, and two or three fields in crop rotation where each villien (as they were called) would have assigned strips.  Typically, several days a week were spent cultivating the lord’s crops and his were brought in first at harvest time.  Villiens were usually serfs, bound to the soil, who could not leave or even marry without the lord’s permission.  He fought, they worked, and the parish priest prayed.  Each member of the parish had responsibility to support and obey the church.  The church provided what passed for a civil and humane society, discipline and admission to heaven.  But specific arrangements depended on personal relationships of mutual obligation. 

Cities, towns, universities, and businesses were organized on the same principles.  The Guild was a craft organization, led by an oligarchy of masters who controlled quality and admission standards.  There was also a religious component.  A child was contracted by his parents to a master as an apprentice.  He lived in the master’s home and eventually qualified as a journeyman but was unlikely to become a master unless he married the boss’s daughter.  Often the masters collectively formed the town government (or commune) as well.

And I forgot to tell you: most of these relationships became hereditary.  Who said anything about equality?  The church asserted equal human worth in every person, but knowing your God-given place was the key to getting along.  It was a very different world from Rome and from our mass society.


Corporate Society Hierarchic Society  Mass Society
Equality before GodEquality within caste or classAbstract equality in mass
Authority by belongingAuthority by superiorityAuthority by achievement or by statute
Personal RelationshipsChain of commandNo intermediate structures

This chart is a bit of editorial comment on my part.  You may or may not agree that ours is a mass society.  Contrast the corporate network of relationships of the Middle Ages with the hierarchical society of Roman or classical Hindu societies and the mass society of our own day.  But of course, none of these are pure.  In our society everyone is assumed to be on the same level, but in fact achievement or “protected classification” gives special perks.  Hierarchical societies give a different order of being to higher classes, corporate societies to each individual place in it.  In our society, power is at the bottom, but direction is at the top with very few effective intermediate structures between.  Hierarchical structures work through the chain of command – power and direction (and all the perks) are concentrated at the top.  Corporate societies are all intermediate networks.  Things get done through personal connections.  Everybody has perks.  Which would you rather live in?

Think about it:

  1. Can you think of three Roman things that are still with us?  Besides Roman numerals?
  2. Why do you think theology was so important in the Middle Ages?
  3. Think about the conditions and beliefs that might bind a peasant to his lord.  A nobleman to his king?
  4. Why was belonging so important in the Middle Ages?

Works Consulted:

Anselm.  St. Anselm: Basic Writings, Tr by S. N. Deane, 2nd Edn.  Lasalle: Open

            Court, 1966.

Augustine.  The Confessions of Saint Augustine, Tr by Edward B. Pusey, Repr by

            Fulton J. Sheen.  New York: Random House, 1948.

Brown, Elizabeth A.R.  “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of                                 Medieval Europe,” American Historical Review, vol 79, no 4, Oct., 1974, pp                                     1063 -1088.

Costain, Thomas B.  The Magnificent Century.  New York: Popular Library, 1964.

Douglas, David C.  The Norman Achievement.  Berkeley: University of California,                                     1969.

Havighurst, Alfred F.  The Pirenne Thesis. Boston: D.C. Heath, 1958.

Hoyt, Robert S.  Europe in the Middle Ages, 2nd Edn.  1966.              

Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas,  Ed by Anton C. Pegis. New York: Random

            House, 1948.

Lewis, Archibald R.  The High Middle Ages, 814-1300.  Englewood Cliffs:                                     Prentice-Hall, 1970.

McEvedy, Colin.  The Penguin Atlas of Medieval History.  Norwich, GB: Fletcher’s

            & Co, 1961.

Pirenne, Henri.  Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe, Trans by I.E. Clegg.  New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1937.

—————.  Medieval Cities, Trans by Frank D. Halsey.  Garden City:             Doubleday, 1956.

Power, Eileen.  Medieval People, 10th Edn.  London: Methuen, 1963.

Strayer, Joseph R.  Western Europe in the Middle Ages.  New York: Appleton-
                        Century-Crofts, 1955.

Wallace-Hadrill, J. M.  The BarbarianWest.  New York: Harper, 1962.

David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College.  He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota.  He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020).  He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.

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