The Creation of the Western Medieval World
The Medieval Period did not entail a loss of civilization, but rather a spread of it. In the Golden Age of antiquity, European civilization was confined to the Greek and Italian peninsulas. The Medieval Period, despite the collapse of the Roman Empire, is about the spreading of civilization to the rest of Europe. The holders of the wisdom of Greco-Roman antiquity — Greece, the Byzantine Empire, and to some extent Italy — continued to flourish and to retain much of the knowledge of their ancestors. This knowledge would spread to the rest of the peoples of Europe, who would create their own states based on the Roman model. The Medieval world was born of an amalgamation of Germanic warrior ethos, Roman civilization, and Christian belief. This merging of three conflicting ethos was seldom harmonious but shaped civilization in Western Europe.
The early peoples of Western Europe, the Franks, Gauls, Celts, and Goths called “barbarians” by Rome, were peoples of honor, but a typically ruthless honor based on tireless needs for conquest and retribution. The story of Beowulf, dating to around 400–500 A.D. and recorded several hundred years later, provides ample evidence of the Germanic warrior code. A king won the loyalty of his warriors by rewarding them with gifts and treasure for their service to him. Homage to the king or thane was a sacred task and indeed one that was imperative to survival. Warriors were to be the guardians of their tribe, for war and death were constant in this world. When the great warrior King Beowulf dies in his battle with the dragon, the Swedes will ultimately attack and conquer the Weather-Geats, well aware that their guardian has perished. Anglo-Saxon custom saw kings dine and drink with their warriors in the mead hall; the idealization of this custom continued long after the creation of states, as is evidenced by the stories of King Arthur and his knights of the round table. In the Arthurian tale Eric and Enide, King Arthur is shown dining and befriending his knights. But as these states grew ever larger, they became more impersonal and increasingly similar to Roman rule.
Roman civilization would prove an enormous influence upon the peoples of Northern Europe, first as conquerors then as the conquered. The land of the so-called barbarians was one of turmoil and anarchy. People tired of this kill-or-be-killed life, looked beyond their borders to Rome, and saw cities, wealth, law, and most importantly order. They could not resist fleeing their lawless land towards the promise of the Roman dream. Pour they did, through borders, through village, through city, through legion, many as immigrants and many as warlords intent on conquering lands occupied by the Romans. The chaotic world of Beowulf was brought to the Roman Empire as people migrated by the millions. Many barbarians would pledge themselves to Rome, wishing to fight for their newfound home; but many more wished to seize it as their own. The anarchy of the North had come south, and Rome’s economy and thus military choked under the sheer volume and was unable to stop these endless waves of people from destroying the empire. Emperor Constantine, seeing the writing on the wall for Western Europe, moved the capital to Constantinople before the inevitable collapse of the Western Roman Empire. There in Byzantium and Greece and some parts of Italy, the Roman dream would survive while Western Europe plunged itself head first into the abyss. The last Roman Emperor, the teenaged Romulus, was overthrown by the Goth Odovacar in 476 A.D. From then on, barbarians would seek to preserve what they had unwittingly destroyed.
The Roman Empire was now gone, but the dream of Rome and its legacy survived. In an attempt to achieve success, many barbarian groups attempted to emulate Rome. Christianity, law, education, writing, and the ancient works were prized by these people. They believed Roman ways to be the key to civilization and the better quality of life that the Romans enjoyed. It was Roman civilization and its religion of Christianity that provided the basis for the new and future European nations. The peoples to the north of the Roman Empire lived in a chaotic world of disorder and darkness; upon meeting the Greeks and Romans, one of the first things these people did was learn writing, and the first thing they wrote was the piece of civilization they needed most, laws.
In 800 A.D. Charlemagne, proclaimed Roman Emperor by the Bishop of Rome for his defeat of the Vandals threatening the city, quickly realized the need for education in suc`h a vast empire. “We are endeavoring by diligent study to restore the knowledge of letters which has been almost lost through the negligence of our ancestors.” He would begin an education program across France and Germany often referred to as the Carolingian Renaissance. He established a palace school at Aachen for government officials, and Christian religious texts were translated from Latin to the national language. All monasteries and cathedrals were to have schools established within them, teaching psalms, musical notation, singing, computation, and grammar. As King of England, Alfred the Great would similarly notice the lack of literacy in his kingdom, noting that “I cannot remember a single person south of the Thames when I came to the throne” who could translate from Latin to English. Alfred remembered that the Romans translated the works of the Greeks into Latin, and he initiated a program to translate the ancient knowledge into Anglo-Saxon just as the Romans had translated it into Latin before them.
France, as the epicenter of the re-civilization of Western Europe, would spread the beliefs of Charlemagne, the seismic instigator of this change. Charlemagne was moving the peoples of Western Europe towards civilization or more accurately towards a Roman vision of it. He had been appointed Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in 800 A.D., and it was a title he wore proudly. He commissioned a statue made of himself to mimic the twenty-foot-tall figure built in 180 A.D. of Marcus Aurelius. This statue of Charlemagne created in the ninth century was, however just twelve inches high because the knowledge of how to construct statues above such height had been lost — an example of just how much of Roman knowledge had disappeared in the West. Not only was Charlemagne the ruler of ‘The Roman Empire,’ but he saw his empire as the ‘New Israel’ as well. The Franks he viewed as a holy people and a lost tribe of Israel. His purported purpose as the new Roman emperor was to spread Christianity, and spread it he did. He put Christian values into law in an attempt to end barbaric violence, forbidding the slaughter of the clergy and innocents. Charlemagne also adopted the old Roman practice of persecuting pagans. “If any one shall have sacrificed a man to the devil… let him be punished to death.” This sort of philosophy and the demonization of pagans would be exported to future European states and meant that a doctrine of persecution would be at work in Western Europe for many centuries to come.
The Carolingians, now Romanized, would have to deal with the new barbarians, the Vikings. Just as the Franks had done centuries before to Rome, now the Vikings would invade and ransack. The successors of Charlemagne proved unable to defend the nation from such a threat, and the warrior system in Western Europe would undergo a tremendous metamorphosis in order to stave off the Viking raiders.
The Frankish kings in 847 issued the Capitulary of Mersen, decreeing that all people must swear allegiance to a warrior or lord in exchange for protection. A new type of warrior was needed to provide a quick response to these Viking raids. The Roman Cataphract, which would be the mainstay of the Byzantine Empire until its demise, was a heavily armored horsemen used as a quick-response shock cavalry. Originally conceived by the Romans in an attempt to stave off the barbarians, this concept was quickly adopted by Western Europe and evolved into the medieval knight, who was no longer simply a warrior but a member of a social class of land-owning elites. The feudal system created by the decree was reminiscent of the late Roman Patrocinium, or patronage system, in which commoners would pledge loyalty to a nobiles, or noble, in exchange for protection from barbarian attack. They could find safe haven in the fortified villa. As the nobiles became the protectors of late Rome, the knight would now become the protector of Western Europe, the guardian of villages and people across the continent. Or at least that was what was intended. In practice this chivalric occupation often devolved into one of exploitation and massacre. A knight made his income by taxing the people who lived on his land; this arrangement drove the knight to desire more land and potential income. This feudal system allowed warriors to continue their tribal barbarian ways, and warfare between rival knights and lords was commonplace. Dispute brought injury, and injury brought vengeance returned by vengeance. The story of Raul of Cambrai, written in the twelfth century, tells of a knight who, after being disinherited by the king, engages in internecine warfare, desolating a town and burning the church and its commune of nuns. This chaotic world was in direct conflict with the tenets of Christendom but perfectly aligned with the barbarian principles of old. Conflict in the land was further exacerbated by the practice of primogeniture, in which the first-born son was the sole inheritor of his father’s wealth and property, while the second or third sons were disinherited and often turned to a life of crime as bandit knights or turned their attention to killing their elder brother for the inheritance. This new system of feudalism created a vertical society. Previously, warriors and people pledged their loyalty to a king. Now, under feudalism, the people pledged their allegiance to a knight or lord who then in turn pledged his loyalty to a king. Just as warriors of old expected a benefice or reward for their loyalty and service, warriors now received a fief or land for their homage to the king.
The Roman warrior society of controlled violence struggled with the notions of Christianity. This paradox would be even more confounding to the barbarians, who were a people with a history of uncontrolled violence. Ultimately, for Christianity and a European warrior tradition to coexist, a religion of peace and mercy had to be bastardized to conform to a society built on warfare. Some of the earliest mixing of Christianity and barbarian ethos can be seen in Beowulf, a story of violence with little evidence of Christian ethics; the concept of mercy, for instance, is entirely absent from the tale. Vengeance pushes the story forward at every turn. Beowulf avenges the Danes by slaying Grendel, and Grendel’s mother terrorized the Danes in an attempt to avenge her son. The only evidence of Christianity the scribe’s intertwining of Christian mythology with that of the Norsemen.
The Song of Roland (circa 1040), which depicts Frankish knights battling Muslims in Spain, would inspire future crusaders to feats of heroism. It demonstrates that the barbarian value system is still the predominant one among warriors at this time. Despite being vastly outnumbered and surrounded by Muslim warriors, the title character cannot blow his horn to sound the retreat. He would rather die than dishonor himself, his king, and his people by retreating.
The uglier side of these ethics is the lack of mercy shown to an enemy. The character of Charlemagne states, “I must render a pagan neither peace nor love. Receive the faith which God presents us, Christianity, and then I shall always love you.” When the emir he is battling declines to embrace Christianity, Charlemagne attacks, demonstrating the convert-or-die attitude of the warriors. Although the values depicted in Roland are decidedly in conflict with the message of Jesus Christ, they are filled with values of honor and loyalty to the state. Charlemagne pits the accused Ganelon in a duel, believing that God will decide his guilt or innocence in the outcome of the battle.
The twelfth century sees a shift in warrior values. In the story of King Arthur recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1130, we see not only Christian mythology introduced but Christian ethics as well. Another Arthurian legend, Eric and Enide, written by Chretien DeTroyes provides additional Christian values for the warrior class. The titular character is still quick to draw a sword but is just as quick to dispense mercy as he is to deal death, as his sparing of the count he battled demonstrates. This radical change in the model knight is further exemplified in the poem’s equal focus on romance and marriage on the one hand and violence on the other. Eric and Enide marks a diversion from the older tradition in which the knight is portrayed exclusively as a warrior.
The people themselves typically elected bishops, and it quickly became a trend for people to elect local knights as bishops. Kings likewise actively appointed knights to be bishops. This practice fused Christianity and the warrior culture. No longer was the bishop simply a holy man; he was now a physical protector of the people as well. The propensity for bishops to also be warriors can be seen in the Song of Roland. In the poem an archbishop is depicted killing Muslims with a spear in battle. This fusing of the warrior ethic and Christianity morphed the religion into something almost unrecognizable from the faith founded by Jesus and his disciples. Persecution of pagans, Jews, Muslims, and witches became common practice.
Still, Christianity had begun to have a pacifying effect on its followers, and massacres committed against the general public were on a decline. Pope Gregory, perhaps realizing the side effects of warriors being appointed to positions within the clergy, ended the practice of simony, in which official church positions could be purchased. He went on to confront the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III, who was attempting to choose the new Pope of Rome himself. Church officials did everything they could to stop the violence that was taking place throughout Europe. The clergy made a serious attempt stop the violence with the “Peace of God” and “Truce of God” decrees, which were written in 1050 and 1063, respectively. These declarations state that the wounding or murdering of peasants and clergy is illegal. Violating these new edicts would mean a hefty fine, excommunication, and thirty years in exile. Because of these laws knights would now begin to settle their disputes via tournaments and duels rather than via all-out warfare.
This temporary curtailment of violence would end a century later when the Islamic invasion of Europe occasioned a response. Pope Urban the Second, wishing to reclaim lost European land in Spain and Italy and concerned about Turkish attacks on the Byzantine Empire, called for the defense of Christendom and the capture of the Holy Land. The Song of Roland, which is based on the 9th century battles between Christian and Islamic forces in Spain, provides a disturbing model for Crusaders. Upon the capture of Saragossa, Crusaders “shatter the statues and all the idols, neither sorcery nor falseness will be left there…. They take the pagans up to the baptistery. If there is anyone who withstands Charles, he has him hanged or burned or put to death. More than a hundred thousand are baptized.” Following the model of this story and of Charlemagne, Crusaders inflicted much persecution. The Crusades did much to alleviate internal warfare, however. The counterattack and invasion of the Holy Land directed land-hungry lords to claim land across the sea rather than killing their neighbors for it. Disinherited second and third sons of lords who had turned to a life of crime and banditry would now flock to the Holy Land to claim lands of their own and, also importantly, to be granted forgiveness for their sins.
The Crusades marked a serious return of barbarism in Europe. Pope Urban II had called for the lords and knights of Europe to retake lost lands and capture Jerusalem, but the nobility weren’t the only ones who were inspired by the Pope’s plea for action. Uneducated peasants who were unable to venture to the Holy Land also responded. With no Muslims in sight, commoners took their aggression out on Jews and Eastern Christians en masse. The citizens of Cologne committed the first of many atrocities when they slaughtered hundreds of Jews. The People’s Crusade, led by Peter the Hermit and featuring primarily peasants, sacked and pillaged many Christian towns in Eastern Europe and massacred 700 hundred Jews in Mainz, Germany. Tremendous slaughters of Jews and Eastern Orthodox Christians occurred during the Crusades.
For its part, the church attempted to stop the massacres and persecution of Jews. Pope Innocent III decreed that Christians could no longer testify in court against Jews. Likewise, Pope Gregory X attempted to create a safe space for the Jews in Rome. Ultimately, pogrom, or mob-led massacre, of Jews was occurring across Europe. The situation was so serious that, in an attempt to stop the violence, the King of England would expel Jews from the country in 1291 in hopes of saving them. In sharp contrast to the persecution in Europe, after the initial invasion of the Holy Land, massacres of Jews, Pagans, and Muslims was limited in the Levant.
The new Muslim enemy not only united Europe, both East and West, but also Christianity, both Catholic and Orthodox, against a common foe that sought their elimination. This struggle marked the first time in history that Europe and Christendom had united.
However, this grand unification of the continent for the Crusading cause quickly collapsed. Differences between Catholic and Orthodox beliefs led to the Great Schism between the two denominations, culminating in the ghastly offense of Crusaders sacking and capturing Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, a widely condemned act that the Eastern Roman Empire would never recover from. The Crusades ultimately failed. Overseas territories were lost; the Eastern Roman Empire fell in 1453; and Eastern Europe fell under Muslim rule. The crusades, however, likely saved Western Europe from Islamic colonization and marked the beginning of a European and Christian identity.
The capitulary of Mersen in 847 had created a stagnant economy and a society in which travel was discouraged and vassals were bound to their lords and to the knight’s manor. The Crusades, then, marked the first occurrence of travel in generations for many who took part. The journey through the Eastern Roman Empire led to the rediscovery of lost Roman knowledge of engineering, such as the ‘Flying Buttress’ that would be employed to create towering Gothic cathedrals. The journey into the Holy Land would provide Western Europeans with new knowledge of medicine, algebra, Arabic numbers, chemistry, irrigation wheels, windmills, and navigational compasses. This venture beyond the boundaries of the manor into the wide world brought Western Europe not only new technology to further advance Western civilization but also knowledge of luxury goods such as paper, cotton clothes, mattresses, mirrors, along with culinary discoveries of spices, sugar, pepper, ginger, rice, melons, and apricots. Exposure to these luxury items led Europeans to a growing desire for trade and connection with the outside world, strengthening the economy of European nations.
Ultimately the pursuit of Roman civilization would be achieved in Western Europe and these nations would steadily grow into world-dominating empires in their own right. The integration of the warrior ethos and Christianity, however, could not be fully resolved by the Romans; and neither was it resolved by the people of Western Europe in the Medieval period. Ultimately, lords, warriors, and commoners changed the religion to suit their own culture rather than let the religion change them, a predicament that many would argue remains unresolved to this day.
Donaldson, E. Talbot. trans., Beowulf: A New Prose Translation. New York: W. W. Norton Company, 2000.
DeTroyes, Chretien. Eric and Enide. Edited by Carleton W. Carroll. Translated by William W. Kibler. London: Penguin Classics, 1991.
Einhard. “Charlemagne King and Emperor” In Life of Charlemagne. Translated S.E. Turner. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1880.
Thatcher, Oliver J. and McNeal, Edger H., eds. “Carolingian Scholarship” In A Source Book for Medieval History. New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons. 1905.
“The Promotion of Literacy” In Thatcher, 191–195.
“Controlling Feudal Violence” In Thatcher, 418.
Munro, Dana, ed. “Education and the Scriptures” In Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History, Vol. VI, pt. V. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1899. 12–14.
Munro, D.C., trans, “General Capitulary of the Missi” University of Pennsylvania Translations and Reprints, Vol. VI. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1900. 11–12.
“Capitulary of Saxony” In Munro, 16–18.
Cheyney, E.P., trans., “Capitulary of Mersen” In Translations and Reprints from Original Sources of European History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1898. Vol IV, No: 3. 3–5.
Crosland, Jessie., trans., Raoul de Cambrai, An Old French Epic. Trans Jessie Crosland. London: Windus an Chatto, 1926.
Burgess, Glyn, trans., The Song of Roland. London: Penguin Classics, 1990.
Henderson, E.F., ed. and trans., “Decree on Lay Investiture” In Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages. London: George Bell and Sons, 1896.
Fulcher of Chartres “Pope Urban Proclaims a Crusade” In The Middle Ages. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999. 133–134.
Albert of Aix. The First Crusade: The Accounts of Eyewitnesses and Participants, Edited by August C. Krey (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1921) 53–54.
 E. Talbot Donaldson, trans. 1966. Beowulf: A New Prose Translation. (New York: W. W. Norton Company, 2000), 19.
 Donaldson, Beowulf, 43.
 Chretien DeTroyes. Eric and Enide. Edited by Carleton W. Carroll. Translate by William W. Kibler. (London: Penguin Classics, 1991), 20.
 Einhard. “Charlemagne King and Emperor” In Life of Charlemagne. Translated S.E. Turner. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1880), 58.
 Thatcher, Oliver J. and McNeal, Edger H., eds. “Carolingian Scholarship” In A Source Book for Medieval History. (New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons. 1905), 56.
 Munro, Dana, ed. “Education and the Scriptures” In Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History, Vol. VI, pt. V. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1899), 12.
 Oliver J. Thatcher an Edgar H. McNeal, eds., “The Promotion of Literacy” In A Source Book for Medieval History (New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1905), 191.
 “The Promotion of Literacy”, In Thatcher, 191.
 General Capitulary of the Missi (802) D.C. Munro trans., University of Pennsylvania Translations and Reprints, Vol. VI, no. 5 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1900), 11.
 “Capitulary of Saxony”, In Munro, 16.
 Cheyney, E.P., trans., “Capitulary of Mersen.” In Translations and Reprints from Original Sources of European History, Vol IV, no. 3. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1898), 5.
 Frances Gies and Joseph Gies. Life in a Medieval Village, (New York: Harper Collins, 1990), 18.
 Raoul de Cambrai, An Old French Epic. Trans Jessie Crosland. (London: Windus an Chatto, 1926), 6.
 Glyn Burgess, trans. The Song of Roland. London: Penguin Classics, 1990. Stanza 84, page 63.
 Burgess, The Song of Roland, 143, stanza 266.
 Burgess, The Song of Roland, stanza 285, p 151
 DeTroyes, Eric and Enide, 18.
 Burgess, The Song of Roland, 82.
 Henderson, E.F., ed. and trans., “Decree on Lay Investiture” In Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages. (London: George Bell and Sons, 1896), 365.
 “Controlling Feudal Violence”, In Thatcher, 418.
 Fulcher of Chartres “Pope Urban Proclaims a Crusade” In The Middle Ages. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999), 133.
 Burgess, The Song of Roland, 146 stanza 272.
 Albert of Aix. The First Crusade: The Accounts of Eyewitnesses and Participants, Edited by August C. Krey (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1921), 54.