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Some scholars define the medieval period as extending from about the end of the Roman Empire in the fifth century of the common era to about the middle of the fifteenth century. To call a thousand-year span "the middle ages" (a term that acquired pejorative connotations, as noted in the introduction) ignores the many distinct stages during which a hybrid culture took root in Western Europe and produced profound changes in the life of the region. Ultimately, the political and educational institutions made possible by Greco-Roman classical learning, the religious insights of Judeo-Christian systems of belief, and the oral cultures of the tribal societies inhabiting Western Europe fused to create a new synthesis recognized today as Western civilization.


This new historical phase began to evolve when Christianity, at first an off-shoot of Judaism, assumed an independent and influential life among the Gentiles of the Roman Empire. Although persecuted because of their reluctance to serve in the army, their opposition to emperor worship, and their adherence to what the Roman writer Suetonius called a "depraved superstition," Christians nevertheless numbered about one tenth of the population by the time the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 3l3 tolerating Christianity. The Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity the official religion in 380. Ancient Roman forms of belief and worship were outlawed by 392. By the end of the fourth century, the number of Christians within the Empire increased by half or better. Missionary activity and forced conversion brought in additional numbers.

While tribal leaders might be converted by persuasion or, in some cases, under threat of torture, ancient religious practices persisted. Christianity thrived in part by adapting folk customs, to which pagan peoples clung, to the new religion. Local beliefs in magic, for instance, sometimes were conveniently ignored by the Church in areas which had officially converted to Christianity, even as old Roman customs had been assimilated rather than rejected outright by the early Church. Probably the best known of these survivals of pagan religion is the Natalis Solis Invicti, the birthday of the invincible sun, a Saturnalian(1) December holiday celebrating the anticipated return of the sun's summer warmth. This was absorbed into Christmas festivities held at the same time of the year.

Christianity dealt less generously with Judaism. The Middle Ages saw a long history of anti-Jewish prejudice in Western Europe. Resistant to conversion, Jews suffered from various forms of oppression, including a prohibition against Jewish ownership of land. As a result, Jews led a rootless existence, congregating in cities where only certain kinds of employment were offered to them, and always living in fear of being uprooted, or worse. Whole communities of Jews were massacred during the era of the Crusades, and in the late medieval period, country after country, such as England in 1290 and Spain in 1492, expelled all Jews from their territories. Where they remained, the Jews were blamed for causing any number of natural disasters, most notably in 1348-49, when the devastating plague called the Black Death killed one third of those living in Western Europe. Despite an official papal denial that the plague was spread by the Jews, and despite the influential roles played by many individual Jewish physicians, scholars, diplomats, and bankers, Jews learned to withdraw from Christian neighborhoods during the Middle Ages and eventually were compelled to live apart.(2)

Political Life

The transition from antiquity to the Middle Ages brought profound changes in the political life of the West as well. The causes of the collapse of the Roman Empire, many and complex, were visibly at work already in the 200's. Incompetence of some emperors, invasions by outside tribes, piracy and increasing lawlessness, inflation, disintegration of military discipline, depopulation, failure to mine metals necessary for currency--all contributed to the decline of Rome and to the creation of a climate favorable to a religion promising salvation. In the 300's, Rome began to withdraw from its further eastern reaches when the Emperor Diocletian divided the Empire between East and West, establishing an emperor for each half. Although Constantine later reunited the Empire, he nevertheless established an Eastern capital, Constantinople, on the former site of the city of Byzantium. The union did not last. In part because East and West tended to be separated by cultural differences, the Empire finally was redivided in 395.

The Fusion of Religion and Politics in the Papacy

The disintegration of Rome's imperial administrative network, at least as it occurred in the West, was paralleled by the growth of an hierarchical Church administration that borrowed from the bureaucratic organization of the Empire. The Christian clergy was formed in a pyramidical structure of authority with the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, at the apex and bishops of other dioceses or districts in subordinate positions. By the close of the 500s, the Pope already was administering like a secular ruler, both because he owned vast stretches of land bequeathed to the Church, and because imperial power had become so weak. Eventually, the Pope claimed to be the ruler over a portion of the Italian peninsula called "The Papal States" and even arrogated to himself a position of supremacy over all secular rulers as well.

The Emergence of Nation States

In the Middle Ages, Germany, Italy, France, and Spain were not national entities as they are today but rather a loosely and amorphously connected confederation of fiefdoms or kingdoms that often were at odds with each other. "Barbarian" or "Germanic" tribes, attacked themselves by Asiatic Huns, invaded the Empire in a massive uprooting of populations called "the Great Migration of Peoples." Once settled, these Germanic tribes provided a center around which some of the modern European nations were formed. For example, the Franks in Roman Gaul were the forerunners of the French nation.

The Holy Roman Empire

Although Rome no longer wielded power, the notion of the Roman Empire never completely died. In its place emerged a vaguely defined Holy Roman Empire; in 800, Pope Leo III created this new entity when he crowned Charlemagne(3) "Emperor." The title, however, brought no more territory than Charlemagne would have had with the simple title of king. In crowning Charlemagne, Leo III, who had been helped by Charlemagne, simply recognized Charles's power rather than conferred it. As King of the Franks, Charlemagne had defended the Christians of Western Europe from the Muslim rulers of Spain to the South and from the Germanic tribes of the North.

The Holy Roman Empire, in short, was spiritual rather than palpable. In later centuries, the term "Roman Empire" was revived with a genuine geographical designation in mind--a unified Germany, Italy, and Burgundy (in the center of modern France). Still, the Holy Roman Empire was less a place than an idea intended to enlist the glories of the past to bolster and consolidate the emerging political and religious structures of the present.

Social Organization

One basis of medieval society is feudalism, a system of laws and societal customs with roots in the declining Roman Empire. It spread across northern Europe in the ninth century or so, when the death of Charlemagne in 814 created a power gap and a crisis in Christendom. Without a great protector, vulnerable geographical regions and local communities became more susceptible to attacks by Germanic tribes or Muslim invaders (whom Charlemagne had forestalled during his lifetime) or by fellow Christians bent on appropriating more land and booty for themselves.

As a result of the turmoil, men of lesser rank would pledge loyalty, service, and fees to those of higher rank in return for protection and security. What emerged from this vassal-lord relationship was a fixed social order in which every person had a determined place, including the lowliest serf, who really was a slave to the land. Each man knew exactly to whom he was bound and what his job was in this "Great Chain of Being," a structure which emerged from practical necessity, but which was considered divinely inspired and blessed. The final link was the Almighty, to whom was connected the king as a legislative intermediary. The theory was that from God came the king, and from the king came the law. The king's only rival in authority might be the pope. Thus Western medieval society, both secular and religious, tended to be organized in a hierarchy. Where one belonged was understood in a vertical sense.

Cultural Changes

Intellectual Life

Intellectual leadership was set for the Christian Middle Ages by ecclesiastical writers like the African Bishop Augustine, whose monumental work The City of God was written in 4l2 to counter the charge that the presence of Christianity had weakened the Empire and rendered it vulnerable to attack and invasion. Whether Christianity had weakened the political fabric of Rome or not, the religion preserved the languages and literatures of the ancient world through the institution of the monastic system. Men seeking to flee the distractions of the world surrendered their freedom, gave up their claims to a secular life, and chose instead to live in religious communities where they obeyed strict rules while working, studying, or praying. Ultimately, a virtual army of priests, monks, and eventually friars, capable of reading and writing and therefore record-keeping and manuscript-copying, maintained both religious and secular organizations throughout Europe. Not only popes and bishops, but also kings and dukes relied increasingly on the intellectual skills of the clergy. (The copying and filing that keeps bureaucracies functioning is still called "clerical" work because it was first performed by "clerks," which originally meant students of religious subjects or members of holy orders.)

Moreover, the monastic system set the pattern for a liberal arts education which is influential to this day. Given authoritative approval in the fifth century, this curriculum consisted of the trivium (three ways): grammar, rhetoric, and logic; and the quadrivium (four ways): arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The term "trivial" referred not so much to something insignificant, as we now understand, but to something so basic as not to need discussion, like grammar, rhetoric, and logic.

The Growth of Cities

These intellectual pursuits led eventually to the great universities of Europe, one of many new institutions, like trade guilds, that created the kind of city life that we know today. By the twelfth century, feudal life, an essentially rural phenomenon, began to fade as trade became more dominant and a new class of merchants and artisans arose. These groups made cities rather than landed estates the central focus of economic and cultural life. In Italy especially, where feudalism never really existed, new sets of power relations defined the first great urban cultures of early modern Europe.

Art and Architecture

Art not only mirrored the religious and political changes transforming Europe, but also in some ways, was the instrument of change itself. Pope Gregory theGreat (540-604) appreciated this power, evident in his remark, "Painting can do for the illiterate what writing does for those who can read." Statues, mosaics, paintings, illuminated manuscripts, and architecture itself were geared to elevate the minds of the numerous illiterate, and even the not-so-illiterate, to the things of God. To further Christian worship, existing buildings were renovated and new structures designed.

Roman basilicas, rectangular buildings of solemn proportions, easily converted to Christian liturgical uses. The long body or nave, flanked by stately pillars, led to a semi-circular area, the apse, where an altar replaced the magistrate's chair. Christians, however, built their basilicas with the apse facing east to Jerusalem and adorned them with religious mosaics and symbols.

Perhaps the most noble expression of Christian art was Gothic architecture. Characterized by such features as pointed arches, towering spires, and window tracery, the style emerged in the late twelfth century in France. If classical architecture grew from the earth, Gothic architecture reached toward the sky. In Gothic cathedrals, vertical lines soar upward and multi-colored light streams through intricately detailed stained windows, bathing the interior with soft hues. The product of rigorous intellectual calculation designed as an architectural emblem of God's universe, the medieval cathedral became an enclosed world peopled in stone and colored windows by saints, clerics, and divinity itself. A mark of spiritual grace, a beautiful cathedral also gave a city an immediately recognizable visual identity, and urban communities vied with each other in mobilizing cathedral-building projects.

The Influence of the East on the West

The Development and Growth of Islam

Islam, meaning "submission to God," was a new religion preached by Mohammed, codified in the Koran, and defining an entire way of life. Although accepting the heroic figures of the Hebrew Bible and Jesus as prophets, Islamic belief holds that divine revelation culminates in the Koran, superseding both Judaism and Christianity.

The new religious dispensation officially marks its inception from the date July 16, 622, when Mohammed left the city of Mecca, where his criticism of the old religion was resented, for the city of Medina. Known as the Hegira, or Emigration, this move was not a rejection of Mecca itself, which accepted Muslim rule in 631.(4) After the death of Mohammed in 632, the leader of Islam took the title of "Caliph," meaning "successor." In a matter of years, the Caliphate transformed the Arab world, converting it from paganism to Islam. By 698, the Muslims had conquered Syria, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Cyprus, Persia (Iran), and Carthage in North Africa.

In 711, Muslim armies defeated the Germanic Visigoths who inhabited Spain, and in Cordova established one of the great intellectual centers of medieval Europe and one of the three preeminent capitals of Islam (along with Cairo and Baghdad).

Baghdad rose to prominence during the reign of Haroun al-Rashid, from 786 to 809. Internal strains ended the age of the Caliphs in the eleventh century, when Seljuk Turks invaded and then assimilated into Islamic society in Persia, Iraq, and Egypt. Simultaneously, the First Crusades, described below, brought a Christian invasion from the west. In 1187, another great Muslim ruler, Saladin, defeated the Crusaders and captured Jerusalem.

Except for the Christians, the invaders of Islamic territory generally converted to Islam themselves. The Mongols who attacked in the thirteenth century settled in Persia and Iraq, and the Ottoman Turks who invaded in the fifteenth century became so powerful that their name is given to the Islamic Empire that ruled the east for hundreds of years, well beyond the nineteenth century. By 1350, Islam held territory reaching from North Africa to China, and controlled the important trade routes supplying Western Europe with spices and luxuries--Persian rugs, Chinese silks, precious jewels, gold, and perfumes--that came from Africa and the Far East.

The Crusades

Commonly within the experience of a people, some dramatic adventure influences its thinking and colors its literature. For the Greeks, the event was the Trojan War; for the Jews, the Exodus. For the Christians of the Middle Ages, the encounter with Islam and the subsequent Crusades became the unifying cause. These Crusades were fierce religious wars numbering about seven separate campaigns, preached by Popes and Bishops, and waged by Europeans of diverse backgrounds against Muslim expansion. Muslims, who were perceived as a threat to Christian Europe, crossed the Straits of Gibraltar in 711 and proceeded to conquer most of Spain, as well as part of France. Stopped by the Frankish leader Charles Martel (d. 741), they eventually retreated to the Pyrenees. This Muslim threat helped Europe develop into a Christian community so that some historians actually view the Middle Ages as beginning around the middle of the 8th century. One of Charles Martel's descendants, Charlemagne (d. 814), was zealous not only in waging war across Frankish borders against Muslims, but also in inspiring a rebirth and a renewed interest in learning called the "Carolingian(5) Renaissance."

If Europe's western flank held stable along the Pyrenees, its eastern flank seemingly harbored greater dangers. By 1071, the Muslims had captured large areas of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. The Eastern Emperor suggested a joint war against the Muslim Turks to the Pope, and in 1095, Pope Urban II exhorted throngs of knights and soldiers gathered at Clermont in Southern France to battle against the Muslims, whom he described as "a race from the kingdom of the Persians, an accursed race, a race wholly alienated from God." Another reason for this project was the need to occupy increasingly restless feudal warriors, whose skills were becoming irrelevant in the rising mercantile economy. Thus began the First Crusade, which ended with the capture of Jerusalem in 1099. The degree of ferocity engendered is evident in a letter from a Christian warrior to the pope, which stated that "if you desire to know what was done with the enemy who were found there, know that in Solomon's Porch and his temple our men rode in the blood of the Saracens up to the knees of their horses." This First Crusade was followed by six others, the last commencing in 1270.

Borrowings from the East

In the 28th Canto of the Inferno, Dante graphically sums up medieval Christianity's view of Islam when he places Mohammed, whom he pictures as split and dismembered, among the creators of disunty, those who disrupt the religious and moral oneness of humankind. The motives for the Crusades, however, were not always religious. The prospect of plunder, wealth, and seizure of land provided a powerful lure as well.

In spite of the animus between Muslims and Christians, the contact between the two religious groups sparked the renaissance of the twelfth century, the era when the first universities of Europe were founded at Bologna, Paris, and Oxford. Writers and teachers like Peter Lombard helped train students in the analytical use of human reason; Arabic studies of Euclid, Ptolemy, Hippocrates, and Aristotle helped instill a Western interest in medicine, algebra, astronomy, geography, philosophy, and map-making.

The contact with Islam gave the West a new literary subject --the epic confrontation between "believers" and "infidels"--and new literary forms. Troubadors and wandering knights sang songs about tragic love and valorous deeds at least partially because Arab poets in Spain had celebrated Platonic love between the sexes. Beast fables of Indian origin appeared in Western Europe through the Arabic Kalila wa Dimna, stories about talking animals who behave like human beings, which were translated into Spanish in the thirteenth century. Thus the jarring confrontation between two powerful religious forces, triggered by Muslim expansion in the seventh century, engendered--by an ironic twist of fate--not merely slaughter but cultural enrichment as well.


One obvious consequence of the crusades was an increased mobility. In fact, another popular form of travel within Western Europe was the pilgrimage, or journey to holy shrines, a trip which also had a predictably religious justification. Augustine had described the City of God on earth as "a pilgrimage among sinners" traveling to its eternal destiny. A pilgrimage to a shrine, therefore, symbolized a more lasting journey through life. People believed in the power of relics, items connected with the life of a saint, such as remnants of a saint's body or, it was said, fragments of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. These relics, which presumably held the power to cure disease or protect from misfortune, frequently were stored in shrines. The most popular shrines were found in Jerusalem, Rome, and Compostela, a site in Spain which grew in popularity only after the year 830 when rumors spread that the burial place of St. James (Santiago) had been found there. Finally, people went on pilgrimages to do penance for personal sins, ranging from slight transgressions to outright murder. Some murderers were condemned by the courts to travel barefoot and in chains, from which their murder weapons dangled; others were sentenced to travel endlessly from shrine to shrine. Pilgrimages and journeys figured prominently in the literature of the Middle Ages, as we shall see.


1. Celebration of the Golden Age under the rule of the god Saturn.

2. The word "ghetto" originally the name of the iron foundry of Venice, assumed its modern meaning because the Jews were forcibly confined in this area after 1516.

3. "Charles the Great"

4. Both cities remain sacred to Moslems and the goal of every Moslem is to make a pilgrimage to Mecca.

5. "Carolus" is Latin for "Charles".