The postclassical period in the West is referred to as the Middle Ages. After recovering from the fall of Rome's ancient empire, civilization gradually spread beyond the Mediterranean to the rest of western Europe. Most of the West was converted to Christianity. During the Middle Ages, Europe began to establish stronger ties with other Eurasian civilizations and with Africa. As a result of these connections, Europe learned new technologies.
The Flavor of the Middle Ages: Inferiority and VitalityEurope lagged behind other civilizations in terms of its economy, technological development, and learning during much of the Middle Ages. The inferiority of European civilization helps to explain hostility toward the more powerful world of Islam. The Crusades were an outgrowth of Western anxiety about the growth of Islam. Western political structures were somewhat similar to other developing civilization centers in Africa and Japan. Despite its backwardness in comparison to other core civilizations, the West advanced significantly during the Middle Ages. Stages of Postclassical DevelopmentIntroduction The political structure of the West remained chaotic between the fifth and tenth centuries. The center of the postclassical West moved out of the Mediterranean to the northern plains that stretched from the Low Countries across France and into western Germany.
The West remained vulnerable to continued invasions during this period. Given the political instability, cultural achievements in the first five centuries of the Middle Ages were limited. The Manorial System: Obligations and Allegiances Although there were kingdoms established, the most effective political organization was local.Manorialism, a system designed to establish communal agricultural activity, featured serfs, who farmed land belonging to lords in return for which the militarized aristocracy provided protection. Technology was limited and production was dependent on the number of man hours applied to the tasks of agricultural labor. In addition to their labor, serfs were required to pay a portion of their produce to their lords. Serfs retained ownership of their houses and could pass property on from one generation to another.
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The Church: Political and Spiritual PowerPerhaps the most effective supranational government during the five centuries after the fall of the western empire was the Catholic Church. Popes attempted to appoint bishops, regulated doctrine, sent missionaries, and sought to impose a centralized government based on the old Roman Empire. Germanic kings, such as Clovis of the Franks, converted to Christianity as a means of buttressing their own authority. Western monasticism provided another source of Church authority, helped preserve some ancient texts, and contributed to the spiritual focus of the early Middle Ages.Charlemagne and His Successors In the eighth century, the Carolingian family took over the Frankish monarchy. The most important of the Carolingian rulers was Charles the Great, or Charlemagne. Charles was able to unify much of western Europe under his control and to renew the title of emperor by 800.
After his death, however, the Carolingian empire rapidly splintered into numerous successor kingdoms.? After the decline of the Carolingian empire, the political history of western Europe consisted of the development of regional monarchies, although the title of emperor was retained.In the period immediately after the collapse of the Carolingian empire, rulers in Germany were most powerful. They styled themselves "holy Roman emperors. " In fact, the kingdom of the Germans was among the least centralized governments of the early Middle Ages. New Economic and Urban Vigor In the ninth and tenth centuries, a series of technological innovations began to increase agricultural productivity in western Europe and enhance economic prosperity. External invasions began to diminish, leading to greater political stability.
Most importantly, the population of western Europe began to increase.The increased population both provided more labor for the agricultural system and also created a demand for other goods. Regional centers of trade and a merchant class developed.? Whole regions, like northeastern Germany, were colonized by landlords and serfs. To encourage settlement, lords tended to relax the requirements of serfdom. In both the Low Countries and Italy, town life recovered or started anew. Towns remained small, but they were important contributors to the spread of literacy and the acceleration of the economic recovery.
Within the towns, a formal education system, at first organized around cathedrals, began to emerge.From these foundations sprang the medieval universities, specializing in theology, law, and medicine. Feudal Monarchies and Political Advances From the sixth century, the most important political relationships involved feudalism a system linking landlords in military alliances. Greater landlords provided protection and aid to lesser lords, called vassals, in return for loyalty and military service. Charlemagne's relatively fragmented empire accelerated the development of regional feudalism. While feudalism inhibited the growth of centralized states, it did help to end local warfare.Over time feudal monarchy based on the king's relationship to powerful regional vassals came into existence.
Kings of France improved their position after the tenth century and began to develop a small bureaucracy.? The Norman Conquest of 1066 introduced feudal monarchy into England. Because of the ability of William the Conqueror to introduce the feudal system abruptly, England was more centralized than other feudal monarchies. By the thirteenth century, a centralized system of feudal monarchy complete with a bureaucracy and links to regional administration existed in France. Limited GovernmentNot all of western Europe managed to create centralized monarchies. Much of Germany, the Low Countries, and Italy remained fragmented into regional states and city- states. The power of the church limited political claims of some monarchs, and feudalism also created limits.
In England the Magna Carta confirmed feudal rights, and parliaments, generally, resulted from the same sort of feudal balance between lord and vassals. In some cases local battles gave way to larger wars like the Hundred Years’ War. The West's Expansionist Impulse Population growth and religious evangelism were the hallmarks of western expansion.On the eastern frontiers of Germany and the southern frontiers of the Christian kingdoms of Spain settlers moved outward into new regions. Scandinavian voyagers pushed ever farther to the north and west in their search for new trade routes and unsettled lands. The most dramatic aspect of western expansion was the Crusades launched initially to recover the Holy Land from the Muslims. Pope Urban II called the First Crusade in 1095.
The first crusading effort resulted in the creation of Christian lordships in the Holy Land by 1099. Subsequent Crusades were less successful, and the focus on recovering the Holy Land was lost.The Fourth Crusade actually resulted in the conquest of Christian Constantinople. Religious Reform and Evolution Church reform arose in the eleventh century to attack increasing secularism. In monasticism, the thirteenth century saw the founding of such reforming orders as the Franciscans and the Poor Clares, founded by St Francis and St. Clare, both of Assisi. Pope Gregory VII launched an attempt to free the Church hierarchy from secular manipulation in the late eleventh century.
The issue of lay investiture of bishops led to conflict between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire.Subsequent popes attempted to establish the supremacy of the Church government over secular monarchies. A system of ecclesiastical courts arose torule on matters of church law. The High Middle Ages During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the postclassical West enjoyed its greatest creativity and economic prosperity. Tensions existed between the agents of regional control, the developing monarchies, and the Church's claims to universal authority. The social order was increasingly forced to expand in order to deal with the new significance of urban residents and merchants. Western Culture in the Postclassical EraIntroduction Christian culture provided the common denominator for western Europe.
Theology: Assimilating Faith and Reason Until 1000, most theological inquiry was restricted to collection of ancient texts related to important theological questions. Efforts were made to incorporate logical thinking in theological inquiry. Use of logic, particularly reflecting the influence of Aristotle, led to new theological lines of inquiry after 1000. Peter Abelard was one of the more important theologians involved in the process of eliminating contradictions in earlier theological works through the use of logic.Others, such as Bernard of Clairvaux, opposed the growing popularity of logic and rationalism and chose to stress the means to mystical union with the divine. The tension between rational inquiry and mystical devotion was also common to Islamic theology. The pursuit of rationalism within theology led to the growth of western universities and reinvigorated the pursuit of ancient knowledge and imports from the Islamic world.
? Benefiting from the importation of ideas, Thomas Aquinas of the University of Paris attempted to summarize all knowledge in his Summas. His work marked the high point of scholasticism.Emphasis on classical knowledge tended to discourage new scientific discoveries. Scientific investigation accelerated after the thirteenth century. Popular Religion Less is known about popular belief than about theological investigation in the universities. Veneration of saints remained popular, as the masses sought intermediaries with God. Magic and popular festivals also remained features of popular piety.
Religious Themes in Art and Literature Much art and architecture was devoted to the Church. Western artists concentrated on religious subjects almost exclusively.Medieval architecture developed from Roman models. During the eleventh century, Gothic architecture replaced the more derivative Romanesque style. Writing in Latin was primarily devoted to theology, government, and law. Popular literature emerged in the vernacular languages of Europe. Although always with some reference to religion, vernacular literature often featured more earthly concerns as well.
Changing Economic and Social Forms in the Postclassical Centuries Introduction Economic activity and social structure also provided common elements for Western civilization during the postclassical period.The medieval economy rapidly departed from classical norms to develop a more expansive and productive economic life. New Strains in Rural Life Agricultural improvements after 800 allowed some peasants to become virtually free landholders. Lords used trade based on improved productivity to improve their standards of living. Tensions between peasants and lords emerged, as peasants sought greater freedom in the face of landlords' attempts to increase fees and exactions from the land. On the whole, however, the conditions of peasants improved as productivity surpassed that of the ancient world.Growth of Trade and Banking Greater agricultural production led to urbanization and more specialized commercial activities.
Banking arose in Italy as well as southern Germany, the Low Countries, France, and Britain. As the market expertise of western merchants increased, Italians began to connect Europe with other parts of Eurasia through Mediterranean trade routes. Commercial alliances resulted in the formation of urban leagues, such as the Hanseatic League of northern Germany. The development of banking helped create the business environment that spawned capitalism.Because governments were less centralized, merchants had greater freedom in the West than in other civilizations.? Despite the beginnings of the capitalistic spirit, protectionist organization the guilds dominated European cities. Both merchants and artisans grouped together to control their commercial and industrial endeavors, monopolize their businesses, and regulate training.
Membership in guilds was the key to importance in urban politics. Despite the general conservatism of the guilds, western industrial technology did make strides to overtake other civilizations during the Middle Ages.Limited Sphere for Women As in other civilizations, the postclassical West increasingly limited the roles for women in the economy. Western women enjoyed some relative advantages; they were not confined to the household, veiled, or legally deprived of rights. Yet western women found themselves increasingly limited by the power of male organizations. Patriarchal structures became more powerful. The Decline of the Medieval Synthesis Introduction After 1300, elements of the medieval culture began to change under the pressure of lengthy warfare, agricultural shortages, and plague.
Plague diminished the population prompting a renewal of social tensions between peasantry and landlords. Signs of Strain There were numerous indications of the disruption of the medieval synthesis. The landowning aristocracy lost its monopoly over the execution of war. Aristocratic life became progressively more mannered. The ability of the Church to manage the development of Christianity, the most important unifying element of the medieval West, declined during the later Middle Ages. As a result, popular heresies flourished. Scholasticism lost its dynamism, as it became more difficult to blend rationalism and religion.
Intellectuals began to search for different emphases. Conclusion: The Postclassical West and Its Heritage: A Balance Sheet In some ways, the medieval West did remain backward in comparison to civilizations in China and South Asia. There were some advances. Medieval thinkers did help to recapture the rationalism of their classical past. Art and architecture showed some creativity in leaving classical forms. In politics, medieval rulers abandoned the imperial past to create more limited regional monarchies. The medieval economy prepared the way for the development of western capitalism.
In short, the medieval West created its own, distinct culture. The postclassical West shared some characteristics with other civilized cores. Conversion to Christianity bore some resemblance to Islamic civilization. Medieval rulers mimicked some of the tactics of centralization found in Chinese civilization. Like Africa, western monarchies remained small and regionalized. As in Japan, feudalism emerged. Unlike either Africa or Japan, the West was more expansive and established much more extensive contacts with other civilizations.
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