Europe in the Middle Ages
Written by Simon Newman
History - Middle Ages
During antiquity the primary ruling body in Europe was the Roman Empire. The reach of this Empire was enormous, and despite the problems associated with this rule, it served to unite almost the entire European continent.
After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE, Europe settled into a long period new referred to as the Middle Ages as it bridges the gap between two illustrious cultures and periods. This gives the medieval era a negative connotation, but the millennia (approximately 500-1500) was the birth of new nations, rulers, and ideas that have been fundamental to shaping contemporary Europe.
The division of countries evident in Europe today is not a reflection of the political structure and land division of the Middle Ages. The division of territories often reflected the physical geography as rivers, mountains, etc. served as boundary lines.
Geography not only determined where people lived, but it also indicated groups who would trade resources or be enemies or allies in a territorial war. Despite the rather prolific building projects of the time, the Middle Ages also included significant migrations of people.
The construction of a church would require laborers to be employed for years, but after completion, workers would need to find a new situation. Political instability caused havoc throughout the medieval world and swiftly changing alliances resulted in the movement of people as well. Significantly the Black Plague that ran rampant through Europe at the time caused people to attempt to escape the disease.
From approximately 1000 CE the population of Europe expanded drastically. This trend, until reversed by the Black Death in the 14th-century, gave rise to an urbanization within the continent – the movement from rural communities to small towns, villages, and hamlets. Traditionally society was divided into three very different social classes: the nobility, the clergy, and the peasants. Each group played a significant role in the community, but generally the upper two classes’ lives were very disparate to that of the lower class.
The largest population group by a significant amount were the peasants who frequently lived under a feudal system, though some peasants managed to remain outside the system. This lower class worked as farmers, builders, and tradesmen where they were poorly compensated and lived in unsanitary and unpleasant conditions.
The system of manorialism meant that the peasants did not work for themselves, but rather for the lord who owned the manor. In addition to working the land for crops and livestock which were sold at low rates to the lord, the peasants also generally owed rent to the lord for the use of the land.
The towns and villages in Flanders and Northern Italy became large enough that many tradesmen were able to form associations and unions to promote better conditions for works. Here also, merchants were more highly respected than agricultural peasants, though they remained far below the nobility.
The titled nobility enjoyed abundance and a lavish lifestyle. The nobles never worked the land themselves, yet obtained a majority of the profit. The life of a noble, though economically easier than that of a peasant, was a constant juggle for favours and alliances among other nobles, particularly the royal families.
The web of ever-changing alliances and wars was incredibly difficult to detangle and created a difficult came for the upper class. Loyalty to a party (King, Queen, Bishop, other noble, etc.) was considered a noble virtue, but in the case of a lost battle or war, that loyalty could become cause for imprisonment or execution.
Simple knights formed another faction of the nobility, though they were not titled and land-owning, unless rewarded for service. The knights faced a similar situation to the titled nobility in navigating social and political alliances and feuds. Knights were sent to fight in the countless battles and crusades throughout the Middle Ages. They were commended for their bravery, but also could be severely punished for choosing an unpopular loyalty.
The Middle Ages were a time where the Church was of utmost importance and, therefore, representatives of the church enjoyed high social standing and power in the community beyond the church.
As with various religions, political parties, and ideological groups, some members of the clergy were extremely virtuous and intent to improve the spiritual lives of those around them. However, a significant number also had aspirations in the fields of politics and wealth and so used their power for their selfish benefit.
Role of Religion
As previously mentioned, the Middle Ages belonged to the reign of the Church, and those within the Church were some of the most powerful figures in medieval Europe. Despite the power the nobility held in secular life, the Church still wielded power over them in a religious sense. Some members of the clergy also pulled the strings of the secular world, sometimes discreetly, many times overtly.
At a time when nearly a third of the entire European population is decimated by the Black Plague, it is understandable for so many to turn to religion for salvation and inner peace. However, the power of the Church established itself very early in the medieval period, before the plague.
Monasteries served as the educational centres of the world – the clergy being among the few who were fully literate. The task of copying and producing religious texts and manuscripts was developed as an art form incorporating elegant and intricate illustrations along with the text. Much of the imagery found in contemporary churches relates to the idea of educating parishioners through art found within the church.
Masses were frequently conducted in Latin, which was not accessible to much of the lower class, so the narratives displayed in stained glass windows and sculptural decoration on the façade served to convey the Church’s message.
The Church, meant to be a moral beacon, often became overly wrapped up in politics and exacted too much money in tithes from the parishioners. Some commentary was made during the Middle Ages, but the continuation of the system well into the Renaissance eventually led to the Reformation in the 16th-century.