Chapter 9 The European Middle Ages, 476-1348


Christian civilization rose out of the ruins of Rome. Jesus lived in Roman times, but most citizens of the Roman Empire were still pagans when Rome fell. The Christianization of Europe was the work of the thousand years of European history called the Middle Ages (500-1500).

The East (eastern European Slavs and Russians) would look to the Byzantine Empire (which centered around the world city of Constantinople) and its Greek Orthodox Church. The West (western Europe—what would become known as England, France, Germany, Spain, etc.—also known as just plain “Europe”) would turn toward the Roman Catholic Church (which uses the language of Latin rather than Greek and which looks to the pope in Rome as the religious authority rather than the head of the state as the Byzantines did).

After the Fall of Rome (500) Europe experienced its Dark Ages. This was a difficult time of political and social disintegration, poverty, and violence. Roman political administration, Roman law, and the Roman army no longer organized, unified, and protected Europe, and the social organization that the Romans had developed in Europe began to deteriorate. Waves of barbarians began to invade from the north, the east, and the south. In the absence of Roman administration and in the face of invasion, Europeans developed the feudal system. The feudal system was a loose structure of political power where military service was given in return for land. To survive after the fall of Western trade (that had once flourished under the Roman Empire) the Europeans now turned to the manor system of subsistence agriculture. Manorialism (the manor system) was an economic and social system that centered around manors (great estates from 500 to 5000 acres) on which lived a dozen to fifty families.

In the Early Middle Ages (500-1000) Europe had not yet developed countries (like England, France, etc.) At this time, Europe was a patchwork of kingdoms and fiefdoms (based on the feudal and manor systems). Although these little kingdoms and fiefdoms were based on local authorities (ruling nobles, lords, barons) that often fought one another, primitive empires did emerge from time to time. The most famous early European empire was the Carolingian Empire of Charlemagne (of France) who was crowned on Christmas Day, 800.

In the High Middle Ages (1000-1300) European culture and society experienced a revival as a result of the revival of trade. The revival of trade led to the rebirth of cities and a money economy. This economic revival was accompanied by the resurgence of the centralized political power of kings. Ultimately, European nation-states (England, France, Spain) would begin to emerge from the development of feudal monarchy.



The Reign of the Barbarian

Bordered by the complex cultures of Byzantium and Islam, medieval Europe was a very backward cultural zone. From the fifth century to the tenth, barbarian kingdoms divided Europeans and fought among themselves, against one another, and against waves of outside invaders.

Beginning in the fifth century, invading barbarian German tribes set up kingdoms in western Europe: the Ostrogoths in Italy, the Visigoths in Spain, the Franks in France, the Alemanni in Germany, and the Angles and Saxons in England.

Beginning in the eighth century, a second wave of invasions from various outsiders came into western Europe. The Vikings, coming from Scandinavia by sea, invaded and settled in northern parts of England and France. From the east, Magyars came into central Europe and Italy. Muslim Arabs invaded the Mediterranean and Spain from the South and established zones of civilized living along the southern margins of Europe.

The Dark Ages basically refer to Europe’s transition during the early Middle Ages from the sophisticated civilization that the ancient Romans had brought to the backward culture and rustic kingdoms of the different European tribes. In stark contrast to the sophistication of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire that was flourishing during this time, the European kingdoms lacked a centralized government, a developed economy, and a high culture of art and scholarship. In other words, during the Middle Ages, only the Byzantine Empire was continuing the highly developed traditions and institutions of Greece and Rome (aka "the classical world" or "Greco-Roman culture"). Anthony Easter paints a humorous picture of the contrast between the grandeur of Rome and the lack of sophistication of the European kingdoms of the early Middle Ages: “From the glory of Augustus in his far off city of marble [Rome during the Golden Age], it was a long comedown to the ‘do nothing’ kings of the Merovingian Franks [in what will become France], who, according to a contemporary chronicler, were sometimes trundled along the rutty lanes of the kingdom in a farm wagon while a servant trotted ahead blowing a ram’s horn” (Esler p. 227).


Charlemagne’s Empire

The most impressive attempt to restore order and unity in Europe during the Dark Ages was that of the Frankish (French) king Charlemagne (768-814). Charlemagne (pronounced shar le main) was a half-literate extremely tall (6 feet +) warrior who hammered together a rude but sizable empire including present-day France as well as parts of present-day Spain, Germany, and Italy. Charlemagne organized his empire into counties (each headed by a count).

“On Christmas day, 800, a pope, grateful for his help against barbarian intruders and the pope’s political enemies in Rome, placed a crown on Charlemagne , hailing him…heir of all the Caesars. He was scarcely that this, huge, thick-bearded man who spoke vulgar Latin as well as the Frankish tongue and kept a slate beside is bed so he could practice tracing the letters of the alphabet…” (Esler p. 227).

Charlemagne was the greatest European ruler of the Early Middle Ages (the first five centuries after the fall of Rome). He was a successful warrior, a strong governor, and a sponsor of education and learning in a backward time for Europeans. After his death, without an able heir to rule, Charlemagne’s empire fell apart.


The Feudal Lords

In the early Middle Ages, the truly powerful rulers of Europe were not the kings of the barbarian kingdoms but the nobles (the dukes, knights, counts and other medieval warrior lords of feudalism). Feudalism was of a type of government where many large landholding nobles controlled particular local areas (the size of counties). Their power was based on a pyramid of political and military power and a system of mutual obligations. The pyramid of political and military power was based on vassalage: less powerful nobles became vassals of more powerful nobles when they took an oath to protect and abide by the stronger nobles (called lords). In exchange for this oath of fealty (swearing on the Bible in a solemn ceremony one’s allegiance to the lord) the lord gave the vassal a parcel of land called a fief. The fief came with villages of serfs to work the land. In exchange, the vassal was obligated to serve his lord with military service (maybe 40 days a year) as well as provide money payments when the lord’s son was knighted, his daughter married, or if he were held for ransom.


Serfs of the Manor

If feudalism constituted the political power structure of Europe in the early Middle Ages, the manor system was the heart of the medieval economy. In this world of small, isolated political units, the manor system relied on serfs to produce enough food to feed themselves, the feudal aristocracy, the priests, and the kings. This is subsistence agriculture; the manors only grew enough food to feed themselves, not enough to have surplus food left over to trade. Serfs were medieval peasants who were completely subservient to the lord of the manor who relied on the serfs for agricultural and manual labor. Europe's serfs were not chattels slaves, as there were in the ancient world, but they were bound to the land and the village for life—and thus to the lord for as long as he held the land.

Serfs made up the majority of Europe’s population and their living conditions were very difficult. The typical peasant family lived in a one-room hut with a dirt floor and slept on a bed of straw huddled together for warmth. They plowed with horses or oxen and a heavy wheeled plow and harvested and threshed their grain with rough homemade tools. Serfdom would die out in Europe by the 18th century. However serfdom would remain a prevalent institution in Russia until the 19th century. And unlike the serfs in Europe, Russian serfdom was made hereditary in the 16th and 17th centuries, and Russian serfs could be sold like the chattel slaves of antiquity. Hence the Russian institution of serfdom looked much more like American slavery than European serfdom. In fact, after consulting with Abraham Lincoln, Alexander II issued the Emancipation Manifesto in Russia in 1861, only few years before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States.



The Rebirth of Cities

Around 1200 agricultural improvements, population growth, and the revival of trade ushered in cities and urban life. The miserable and primitive manor system did generate several agricultural innovations: the three field system, the heavy wheeled plow, the horseshoe, the horse collar (1000 years after the Han dynasty), and the windmill for grinding grain where no water was available for a water mill. Food production increased as a result of these advances as well as because more land was cleared. Increased food production facilitated an increase in the population. Trade developed, partly because of the increased demand for goods from a growing population. Merchant and craft guilds developed. These were trade associations of dealers in or makers of particular products. Coins replaced payment though barter. A bourgeoisie (middle class) began to develop.

The Feudal Monarchs

The economic revival of the High Middle Ages was accompanied by the resurgence of centralized political power in the hands of medieval kings. These powerful medieval kings were part of the development of the institution of feudal monarchy--a political institution that would survive the Middle Ages and continue to develop into modern times. The feudal monarchy, along with the growing economy, helped to consolidate kingdoms into nations. Kings, by imposing their will on the feudal barons, began the building of modern nation-states in France, England, and Spain. For example, in the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror claimed all of the land of England and imposed the most developed form of feudalism in Europe up until that time. He required every baron to make allegiance to him and enforced very strict obligations in return for fiefs. His successor would gradually replace feudal law with English common law and develop a parliament. The French kings (the Capetian dynasty ruled for 300 years) strove to impose Roman law, which had reached the West from the Byzantine Empire in the 11th century. Both English common law and Roman law helped to strengthen the centralized power of the monarch. Religion also played a crucial role. The Roman Catholic Church lead by powerful popes and fueled by the passionate devotion of many medieval peoples, became the most important single institution in Western Christendom.

Meanwhile in East Europe, Constantinople served as the center of an autocratic imperial government and Orthodox Christianity. The strongly centralized Byzantine Empire spread Christianity and civilization in East Europe, provided economic stimulation, and survived for a thousand years, from the 5th to the 15th century. Moscow, the core of the future Russian state, emerged at the end of the of the Middle Ages, modeling its political and religious institutions on those of the fallen Byzantium.

The Crusades of the High Middle Ages represented Europe’s first rehearsal for their modern colonialism. But in the 14th and 15th centuries, medieval society collapsed amid economic disaster, the bubonic plague, wars, and religious schism.



The following definitions are from the Merrium-Webster Online Dictionary at

nation-state: a form of political organization under which a relatively homogeneous people inhabits a sovereign state; especially : a state containing one as opposed to several nationalities

city-state: an autonomous state consisting of a city and surrounding territory

feudalism: 1 : the system of political organization prevailing in Europe from the 9th to about the 15th centuries having as its basis the relation of lord to vassal with all land held in fee and as chief characteristics homage, the service of tenants under arms and in court, wardship, and forfeiture
2 : any of various political or social systems similar to medieval feudalism

wardship: 1 a : care and protection of a ward b : the right to the custody of an infant heir of a feudal tenant and of the heir's property
2 : the state of being under a guardian

manor: 1 a : the house or hall of an estate : MANSION b : a landed estate
2 a : a unit of English rural territorial organization; especially : such a unit in the Middle Ages consisting of an estate under a lord enjoying a variety of rights over land and tenants including the right to hold court b : a tract of land in No. America occupied by tenants who pay a fixed rent in money or kind to the proprietor

: 1 : of, relating to, or characteristic of the ancient city of Byzantium
2 : of, relating to, or having the characteristics of a style of architecture developed in the Byzantine Empire especially in the 5th and 6th centuries featuring the dome carried on pendentives over a square and incrustation with marble veneering and with colored mosaics on grounds of gold
3 : of or relating to the churches using a traditional Greek rite and subject to Eastern canon law
4 often not capitalized a : of, relating to, or characterized by a devious and usually surreptitious manner of operation <a Byzantine power struggle> b : intricately involved : LABYRINTHINE <rules of Byzantine complexity>

Christendom: the part of the world in which Christianity prevails

fief/fiefdom: 1 : a feudal estate 2 : something over which one has rights or exercises control

kingdom: a politically organized community or major territorial unit having a monarchical form of government headed by a king or queen

baron: 1 a : one of a class of tenants holding his rights and title by military or other honorable service directly from a feudal superior (as a king) b : a lord of the realm : NOBLE, PEER
2 a : a member of the lowest grade of the peerage in Great Britain b : a nobleman on the continent of Europe of varying rank c : a member of the lowest order of nobility in Japan
4 : a man of great power or influence in some field of activity <cattle baron>

autocracy 1 : the authority or rule of an autocrat
2 : government in which one person possesses unlimited power
3 : a community or state governed by autocracy