Readings: Essays in the History of Western Civilization

Medieval Miscellany

Germanic Tribes
Class Structure in the High Middle Ages
Ninth and Tenth Century Invasions
The Feudal Manor
Otto I, The Holy Roman Empire, and the Magyars
Women in Childbirth
Inheritance and Class Mobility
Child Abandonment and Oblation
Lords and Vassals
Monasteries and Convents
Medieval Commercial Revolution
Long Distance Trade and the English Economy in Medieval Times
Results of the Hundred Years War

    Germanic Tribes are the general term applied to the people, who were referred to as barabarians by the Romans. They lived  in the areas north and east of the Roman Empire. Many were absorbed into the empire and eventually contributed to the ethnic mix of people in the Mediterranean world. They often enriched the manpower sources from which the Roman army recruited its soldiers. Those who retained their tribal organizations were attracted by the wealth within the empire, and, if not absorbed by the empire, would eventually constitute a threat. It had been the genius of the Romans to gradually absorb conquered peoples, and even to extend citizenship to them, a practice begun on the Italian peninsula in the days of the Roman Republic.
When the empire became corrupted in the civil wars of the third century A.D., many of the so-called barbarians already held high positions in the army as well as in the ranks of the soldiery, but there is no evidence beyond the circumstantial to attribute the anarchy to them.
    When the empire weakened and again collapsed into anarchy in the Fifth Century, the Germanic Tribes swept into former imperial lands in western Europe. Their semi-nomadic way of life and their warrior culture enabled them to conquer, but not to retain control. At the center of their strength was the "comitatus", the band of warriors, bound into a close-knit circle of inter-dependence. Women were valued as the mothers of the next generation, and honored for the children they bore, but otherwise had little status in a male-dominated society where warrior prowess was the highest virtue. Western Europe was then on the fringes of the civilized world, and these tribal cultures were probably not unlike the cultures of other migrating peoples who had encroached upon the "civilized" world from time to time.
    In spite of the obstacles, Christianity spread into this world even after the Roman Empire was gone. It is clear that the warrior-rulers converted because it suited their political ambitions just as it had for the emperor Constantine. If  the accounts of the conversion of Clovis are a typical guide, the clergy made compromises of their religious principles in order to arrange their conversion and gain their military protection. It would then be expected that the ordinary person would be attracted to a religion which the ruling class had sanctified by their conversion. But the accounts of Bishop Ambrose, St. Martin of Tours, and St. Patrick of Ireland suggest also that the church benefited from some extraordinary leadership.

    The development of Feudalism as the political institutution of European Medieval civilization had determined initially that the class structure would consist of a warrior aristocracy, which ruled as a privileged elite, and a peasantry which farmed the land. Of these, the peasantry were, by far, the great majority of the population, perhaps, as much as 90%. There was a functional relationship between the two classes, the peasantry needing the aristocracy for protection and security, while the aristocracy needed the peasants to produce the food and perform the labor for a variety of other tasks. During the course of the 11th and 12th centuries, as the wave of migratory invasions ceased and the feudal system provided a degree of political security, the peasants produced an increasing surplus. There is also some indication that a slight warming trend in the climate had facilitated agricultural production. The surplus, combined with relatively peaceful conditions, enabled specialization and trade to occur. Specialization took the form of a variety of craft production and a growing volume and variety of goods to be exchanged. The craftsmen and merchants who emerged to fulfill these tasks were concentrated in towns and cities that were located at strategic points on the highways of commerce.  Overland transportation was slow and cumbersome, given that there were few roads in a largely undeveloped environment. The best means of transportation was by boat. Hence, the towns and cities grew at the juncture of rivers or along rivers leading to the Mediterranean or the North Sea. The merchants and craftsmen were neither members of the titled aristocracy, nor were they peasants. Since they had no claim to the status of the upper class, and yet were materially better situated and better organized than the peasantry, they constituted a middle class. Throughout medieval times, they probably never exceeded more than 10% of the population, but their contribution to the economy and to economic growth was out of proportion to their numbers.

Invasions in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries

    There were three major waves of invasion into western Europe in the ninth and tenth centuries. The most important of these were the invasions by the Norse, which came by sea from Scandinavia and swept around the entire maritime perimeter of Europe from Byzantium to Sicily to Normandy to the British Isles to Russia.
    The Magyars or Hungarians were another invading people who came by land from the Balkans into northern Italy and southern Germany and France, threatening peace and stability there.
    The Saracens were the third major invading group. They came from Tunisia across the Mediterranean to Italy and parts of Spain in the ninth century. They came as plunderers, raiding and causing  havoc before abandoning the area. Rome was sacked in 846.
    These invasions stimulated the development of feudalism as a means of organizing warriors to fight off the invaders.

The Feudal Manor

    The manor is the name given to the economic unit into which the medieval European farm economy was divided. The manor might have consisted of a single small village surrounded by sufficient farm land to support its population , or it might have included a network of villages over several thousand acres of land, ruled by several lords (members of the warrior aristocracy). The central feature of each village was a church, and a manor house, which was the lord's estate. These were surrounded by the peasant cottages. Larger villages and towns included a castle surrounded by a wall and defensive moat. In many cases, the wall was extended to encircle the entire village as a means of defense in an age when there was little security beyond those walls. Farmland surrounding  the village was typically divided into strips of plowed land, worked communally by the peasants.Some of these strips were set aside to produce food for the lord, others for the village priest, and the remainder for the peasants. Some land was set aside as common land for the grazing of farm animals. Manors often included some uncleared forestland, which was needed for wood and other essential forest products. Each manor had to be self-sufficient in almost every respect since there were no provisions or services to be provided from any outside source.

Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor, and the Magyars

     Otto I, also known as Otto the Great, was crowned as the Holy Roman Emperor by Pope John XII in the year 962. He had led his armies into Italy and saved the Pope from political enemies among the Italian nobility. Whether he did this to rescue the Pope or rather to rescue Queen Adelaid, a widow of one of the Italian kings from an undesirable marriage, is not clear. In any case he proceeded to take Queen Adelaid as his own wife.
    More important than the salvation of the Pope or Queen Adelaid, was his defeat of the Magyars a few years earlier. By organizing military provinces along the eastern frontier and encouraging settlements east of the Elbe River, he effectively brought an end to the threat posed by the Magyars to western Europe, thereby helping to usher in a new era of peace and prosperity.

Women in Childbirth

    Most of the specific research, which has been done concerning women in childbirth in Europe prior to modern times, relates to the later centuries of Early Modern Europe, the 16th through 18th centuries. It is, however, logical to assume that conditions were similar in the Medieval era. There was a long-term trend in which care-giving to women in childbirth was initially provided by other women serving as midwives, but gradually medical practitioners, usually  male, became involved. This was more likely to be the case in larger towns and cities. In medieval times, and in rural areas, it was exclusively the province of the midwife.
    Normal childbirth, in which there were no complications, was a commonplace occurance tended to by midwives aided by female relatives, and almost always resulted in complete recovery of both the mother and infant. However, complications were frequent. Any circumstance of abnormality which might have required physical intervention with hands or forceps into the birth canal posed the danger of introducing infection for which they had no effective answer. Caesarian sections had been known since antiquity, but they were rarely performed, unless it was believed to be the only way an infant's life might be saved. Sometimes, it was performed when the mother was already dead and the infant near death, in order to baptize the infant before death. Maternal mortality was probably high and a major cause of death for young women, whereas in modern industrial areas today, it is extremely rare. Infant mortality was also much more likely than it is today in the industrialized world.

Inheritance and Class Mobility

    The warrior aristocracy produced under the feudal system of medieval Europe sought, quite naturally, to pass on its power and privileges to the next generation. This, in a patriarchal society, meant passing from father to son, and if a son was lacking, to a brother, uncle or nephew. It was exceptional that a wife or daughter inherited political power, though it did sometimes occur when there were no male relatives available. In any case, an essential principle upon which the stability of European civilization was based, at least until the 19th century, was the principle of inheritance. Whenever one asked who the legitimate ruler was, it was inheritance which determined that legitimacy. The effectiveness and stability of the European political system, therefore, depended upon a ruler producing a son. Failing that, or if the heir was sickly or incompetent, there was a potential for conflict as other members of the titled aristocracy would be tempted to make their claim. Having more than one son might also create a problem unless the principle of primogeniture (succession to the eldest son) was firmly established. Given the crucial importance of the principle of inheritance, members of the aristocracy sought to sustain and grow their power through the perpetuation of family dynasties, and an increase in dynastic power and wealth through strategic marriages which created alliances between powerful families. It is striking that a crucial principle of European culture in pre-modern times, that of inheritance, is no longer accepted today, indeed, it is considered a corrupt practice known as nepotism.
    The middle class and the peasantry also honored the principle of inheritance, although mainly to pass down whatever economic assets the family had. Economic considerations were vital, since the peasantry, in particular, lived at a bare subsistence level, and new families could not be formed without those assets. It is for this reason that marriages in medieval times and, indeed, throughout pre-modern times, were almost always arranged by parents for economic reasons, and among the  aristocracy, for purposes of political power.
    Class mobility was very limited because of the importance of inheritance in conveying wealth and power. There were, however, rare opportunities for individuals who, in providing notable military leadership in the service of the aristocracy, might be granted a title. Marriage between aristocratic families and wealthy middle class families was another rare but not impossible occurence. This would become an increasingly frequent practice as the wealth and importance of the middle class grew. The development of towns and cities opened possibilities for small numbers of the peasantry to escape the rural life and the control of the landlord, and to be afforded the liberties of a citizen of a town. These were usually young people who might have found employment in craft industry. Opportunities would also occur when new areas were being settled and opened to development, and the aristocracy recruited peasants to settle there. Probably the greatest opportunity for upward mobility was offered by the church. Within the church, inheritance did not apply. This gave more room for performance and merit as a basis for advancement. Younger sons of the aristocracy who did not inherit their father's position often found a career in the church. Even peasants, particularly if they had become literate, might find a place in the monastic movement.

Child Abandonment and Oblation

    Child abandonment was a frequent practice in medieval Europe. Peasants were often faced with dire circumstances in which they believed they could not possibly support the child. Subsistence living and periodic famine made life precarious. If a child were left in the hands of a more fortunate family, its opportunities for survival might be improved. Prosperous merchants and craftsmen were often looking for apprentices to serve them in return for room and board. A child, taken as an apprentice at the age of 10, for example,  moved away from his parents permanently, and then had the opportunity to learn a skill which would greatly improve his prospects.
    The church also provided opportunities of a similar nature. Monasteries or convents often took in children who had no place in their situation of birth. Parents decided, in advance, to embark their child upon a clerical career, which offered a favorable alternative for younger sons and "superfluous" daughters. This practice, known as oblation, was the most socially acceptable form of child abandonment, usually occurring before the age of 10, and considered as a gift to God.

Lords and Vassals

    In the feudal system, the lord is the warrior aristocrat who held title to land and possessed the power, passed down by inheritance, to rule over the inhabitants of his demesne. In addition to holding a position of high privilege and status, he had great responsibilities. He had to provide for the security of the peasants. This meant he had to be prepared to fight, along with other nobles, or to engage in diplomacy in the context of the shifting allegiances of the feudal system. He also had to adjudicate disputes and decide upon the relationships between his peasants. These responsibilities were demanding of his time and required constant travel which often kept him away from his estate for prolonged periods. The vassal was a lesser lord, who had sworn an oath of fealty to a greater lord to serve under the lord's banner in time of war in return for his protection. Violation of the oath of fealty was a serious offense labeled a "felony".  In spite of this, the shifting fortunes of a warrior aristocracy were such that vassals were often tempted to violate their oath, if they believed that they could advance their own fortunes by attaching themselves to another lord. Feudalism, therefore, was an unstable political system, in which, though lords and vassals were dependent upon each other, there also was considerable tension between them.
    The fact that the system was based upon inheritance meant that the son must wait for the father to die or become incapacitated before he could inherit the father's position as lord. Meanwhile he was brought up in preparation for his primary role as a fighter. It was not unusual for a son to have to wait until he was in his thirties before he succeeeded to his father's role. He, therefore, had few responsibilities, and also postponed marriage, since marriages were made for political reasons. As a bachelor with few responsibilities, and trained as a warrior, he and his fellow fighters often were the source of instability and criminal activities, sometimes committed with impunity upon a helpless peasantry. When he finally received his inheritance he then usually married a woman who was considerably younger than him. Parents of the aristocracy sought to marry their daughters at a  young age in order to cement an important political alliance. Such circumstances created temptations for sexual liaisons between young wives of the aristocracy and bachelors, in spite of the risks involved.

Monasteries and Convents

    Monasteries and convents provided numerous valuable services to the society at large. In the early medieval period, in particular, they were invaluable depositories of learning as some monks, and nuns, devoted themselves to the meticulous and laborious task of copying and preserving the writings of earlier times, and before the printing press, were a principal means of perpetuating the knowledge base. They continued to serve an educational function in the high medieval period. They were a principal source of the few books that were available. These were works of art with colorful and decorative script bound carefully in hard protective binders. They were scarce and extremely expensive. As universities developed in the 11th and 12th centuries, these writings of earlier authorities were read to students, but could not be made available to them due to their rarety and high value. Clergy were usually the most educated group of Europeans and many were employed by the aristocracy to help and advise them. Village priests, although often not well-educated themselves, were an important source of information about the outside world to a largely illiterate peasantry.
    Monasteries and convents also contributed extensively to the medieval economy.  The work ethic was promoted as a high priority in monastic life. The Cistercian monasteries of northern England were engaged in raising sheep and horses, and became an important element in the production of wool which was traded extensively as part of an expanding textile industry.
    The appeal for charity to the poor was another element in the role of the monasteries and convents.
    The monastic movement was a response to the need, among Christians, to try to return to the original calling of Christ and to reject the temptations of the material world. In spite of this, successive generations of monasteries often failed to live up to the original calling of their founders. Temptations of wealth and power often led to corruption. The higher clergy of the church were members of the European warrior aristocracy and shared the values of their class which often contradicted the principles of their religion. Financial managers of the monasteries and convents were often higher hired from outside the clergy, and their priorities were frequently to enrich the monastery rather than to fulfill religious goals.

Medieval Commercial Revolution

    The Medieval European economy prospered during the 11th century for several reasons. First, the wave of 10th century invasion ( The Vikings,  the Magyars, and the Moors) had come to an end. Secondly, improved farm technology ( a heavy plow, and the horse collar) had increased the agricultural surplus, and thirdly, a slightly warmer climate also increased food production. A growing surplus brought increased trade. Towns and cities developed and grew at the juncture of rivers and the coastline.
    The most extensive urban growth took place in northern Italy where urban and commercial activities had been centered in the ancient world. This was also the area which had contact through the Mediterranean to the Arab Near East and North Africa. Venice, Florence, Milan, Genoa, Rome, Naples, and Palermo flourished to varying degrees in response to the commercial opportunities. Goods flowed through these cities between Europe and the Arab civilization. The textile industry expanded, particularly, in Florence. These Italian cities were among the most populous in Europe, with Venice, Florence, and Milan each achieving populations of more than 80,000 people. Of European cities outside of Italy, the only one to achieve a population greater than 80,000 was Paris. Seven cities in Italy and Sicily had populations exceeding 40,000. Outside Italy, there were eight cities with populations exceeding 40,000. Among these were London, England; Ghent, Flanders; Cologne, Germany; and Toledo and Seville in Spain. These population levels were achieved by the late 13th century.

Long Distance Trade and the English Economy in Medieval Europe

    The development of sailing vessels such as the caraval, which had both fore-and-aft and square sails, and were decked over to prevent swamping in a heavy seaway, made it possible for trade to extend from the Mediterranean into the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea. Cistercian monasteries in northeastern England had raised sheep and produced wool ever since the early 12th century. Woolen production in central and northeastern England was, therefore, an important part of the English economy before the advent of long distance trade. Most English wool was sold to the domestic market and to the thriving textile industry in Flanders. Then, in the 13th century, the improved sailing vessels brought the textile industry of Florence and other large Italian city-states within trading range of England. Southern and eastern English port cities benefitted from this growing commerce.

Results of the Hundred Years War

    The many years of warfare associated with the Hundred Years War between England and France in the 14th and 15th centuries involved sporadic conflicts between French and English armies, but also involved civil conflict on French territory between rival factions of the continental nobility, some of whom were aligned with the French dynasty in Paris while others were aligned with the English. France bore the greater devastation as a consequence. This was particularly true in the first phase of the conflict when the English were victorious. The divisions within the continental nobility created high levels of distrust within the French aristocracy. This situation caused the French kings to shun the calling together of French nobility in common cause against the English. Therefore, during the second phase of the long war when the French were victorious, the French king emerged as a dominant leader of the French faction, while the nobility were discouraged from assembly.

    In England, although there were coastal raids and a war with the Scots, the land was spared the devastation of warfare, and the ravages of the war were of a different nature. English noblemen were, like their continental counterparts, warriors,  trained to fight. War with France was generally welcomed as an opportunity for glory and plunder by knights who were recruited to fight. Similarly, the need for manpower to fight led to recruitment of criminals who also relished the opportunities. Victory in the early phase of the war brought plunder, easy wealth, inflation and disorder to England. The prolongation of the war stimulated criminal activities and callous attitudes among warriors returning home. The warrior nobility, especially young bachelor knights without responsibilities, when not actually employed in war, were often involved in the commission of theft, plunder, and pillage. Being members of the nobility, crimes committed against a helpless peasantry often went unpunished. This was known as "fur-collar" crime. It was in this time and setting that you had the development of the legend of Robin Hood. The then-existing forested areas of England were regions where the political authorities had not established control. Outlaws and other individuals who could not find a safe and secure place for themselves in English society, might and sometimes did find temporary refuge. The general atmosphere of lawlessness created by the crises of the period  and the particular prevalence of "fur-collar crime" provoked an opposing vision. An outlaw, who could turn the tables on the rich and powerful and prey upon them rather than upon the poor and powerless, became a popular hero. A strong urge for wish- fulfillment created the legend.

    The Hundred Years War not only created great instability, but it was also extremely costly.  The king's government financed the war by taxing the English wool crop. English woolens became so expensive that they could no longer be exported abroad and the woolen industry collapsed. It is also important to be reminded that these events occurred at the same time that the Black Plague swept through Europe and decimated the population.

    During the long reign of Edward III, the king frequently called the lords and barons to meet in London. He also assembled knights and burgesses together in order to call upon them for service or for financial support for the war. These frequent assemblies ( almost one every year), created a routine and began the development of the institution of the English Parliament. They provided an opportunity for the political elite of England to ask for redress of grievances from the king in return for their support in the war effort.

    In both France and England, the war effort stimulated a feeling of unity directed towards a common goal. Members of the political elite in both areas were beginning to develop a consciousness of a national identity as French people and English people.


    In medieval times, there was a widespread belief in the supernatural. Before the 17th century Scientific Revolution and the 18th century Enlightenment, there were no objective or scientific answers for most of the natural phenomena observed by people. The church often provided the wrong answers as, for example, in their insistence that the earth was the center of the universe. This belief could appear to be rational since our senses apparently confirmed it. When people persisted in their beliefs in spite of the remonstrances of the clergy, they might be subject to persecution. However, the prevalence of the belief in magical forces which explained almost every conceivable event, was so widespread among ordinary people, that the clergy found it impossible to stamp out such beliefs. In many instances, the Church responded to popular beliefs by adopting them into Christianity. The supposed healing powers of the virgin Mary, the worship of patron saints in hundreds of communities, and the belief in the healing effect of touching or seeing supposedly sacred relics  are characteristics of Catholicism that were accepted by the Church in response to the unshakable convictions of large numbers of people in their comfort-giving efficacy.
    However, whenever a belief seemed to challenge the authority of the clergy or threaten to undermine their control over spiritual matters, the Church responded sharply, with ruthless persecution, to eliminate that threat. People, who espoused such challenging ideas were declared to be heretics or witches, subject to torture and death for their sinfulness. Witches were identified as agents of the devil. It was not difficult, given the superstitious gullibility of most people, for the authorities, either the church or the state, to bring charges of witchcraft and have them accepted readily by the common folk. Indeed, many of the original charges of witchcraft were brought by ordinary people against members of their family or their neighbors, perhaps, to satisfy a grudge or to solve a troublesome personal relationship. If the authorities gave credence to the charges, then a witchhunt hysteria might develop.Witchhunts were directed almost exclusively against women, who were easy targets because of their relative powerlessness. The Christian identification of women with Eve, the temptress, and the widespread belief that women were unclean during menses or during childbirth are other factors causing women to be vulnerable.
    The incidence of witchcraft hysteria reached its greatest extent during the 16th and 17th century. The Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-reformation raised the fears of religious authorities to a high level so that the campaign against heretics became institutionalized. The intolerance and warfare between the major religious denominations, allied with state authorities, combined to give great momentum to witchhunts. There are not reliable statistics concerning the numbers of women who were persecuted and executed as witches, except for a few regional and isolated examples. The incidence of witchcraft persecution is greater in Germany than in France or England because of the less stable political situation in the Holy Roman Empire. Modern estimates by feminist groups today, which have claimed executions of two to three million, are probably exaggerations, particularly when compared with the overall population statistics of Europe in the time period. A more realistic estimate might be that of Voltaire, who writing in the 18th century, estimated about 100,000 women. In any case, it is horrendous commentary on the price paid for intolerance and ignorance and fear.