Reflections on medieval history

The medieval period is commonly viewed negatively in the popular media.  The very word ‘medieval’ is often used as a pejorative.  So why did I decide to study Medieval Europe this semester at Monash?

I think I had two main reasons.  First, it is part of a long-held plan of mine to study the whole of western history in a roughly chronological order (I had already studied it from the dawn of civilisation until the fall of the Roman Empire).  Second, it was actually the period of history I knew least about.  I knew something of later periods through general reading and my subscription to the BBC History magazine. Some of the views I had acquired about the medieval period through the popular media were bound to be mistaken.  So I was curious to find out – and I was right.

Before doing the course, I was broadly aware of the difference between the early and later Middle Ages – the early Medieval period from 500 to 1000CE being popularly described as ‘the Dark Ages’, and the later period as ‘feudal’ and ‘scholastic’.  I now know that the High Medieval period was from 1000 to 1200CE and the Late Medieval period was from 1200 to 1400CE. Both of these later period were times of intellectual and other progress, rather than being static or even regressive as is sometimes described in the popular media.

I knew little about the history of the Christian Church and its complex relationships with monarchs and the rest of the secular world.  I didn’t know much about the daily lives of peasants and their relationships with the other classes of society.  Through my interest in philosophy, I was interested in the intellectual development of the later Middle Ages, but I didn’t know a lot about it. These were the aspects of the course I found the most interesting, and which I would now like to reflect upon.

I learnt that after the fall of the Roman Empire, the western Christian Church was broadly split into the priests under the control of bishops, and monks or nuns under the control of abbots and abbesses. There were some doctrinal differences, but there were also power struggles for the control of the Church, as illustrated by the Benedictine Rule of the 6th century CE.

Doubts about the legitimacy of Charlemagne’s succession to the Frankish throne led to him being crowned as Emperor by Pope Leo III in 800CE.  In return, the Pope and the Church received military protection from the Emperor, illustrating the symbiotic relationship between Church and State.  However, there were also conflicts within this relationship – for example, the ‘investiture conflict’ over who had the right to appoint bishops.

I was surprised to learn of the relatively minor doctrinal differences between orthodox movements such as the Franciscans and Dominicans on the one hand, and ‘heretical groups‘ such as the Waldensians and Cathars on the other.  These differences did not seem sufficient to account for the often brutal treatment of heretics; so once again, struggles for power seem to be the best explanation.

I became interested the agricultural economics of the later Middle Ages, where a combination of fortuitous circumstances such as warmer climate, higher rainfall, better farming practices and equipment led to surpluses of production for the first time in centuries.[1]   These surpluses not enabled not only trade, but also the storage of produce such as oats for the feeding of horses.  This in turn enabled the replacement of plow-pulling oxen by horses that required less pasture that could be reallocated to cropping.  Horses also moved and turned faster than oxen, resulting in even more efficiencies.[2] The storage of oats also enabled horses to be taken to regions with little or no pasture, such as ‘the Holy Land’ during the crusades.

Crop yields for wheat improved to an estimated four times the quantity of grain sown.  Typically, one quarter of the yield was reserved for the next planting, one or two quarters went to the lord of the manor as rent, and the remainder was either consumed as bread or beer, stored for the winter or sold at local markets.[3]  Few peasants could afford meat to eat – they mainly lived on bread, beer and vegetables grown by women and children in small cottage gardens, plus eggs from chickens and milk from cows and goats.  Those living in coastal areas also ate fish. [4]

Finally, apart from the relatively brief Carolingan Renaissance of the late eighth century to the ninth century, intellectual progress in Western Europe generally lagged behind that of the Byzantine and Islamic parts of the former Roman Empire.   But from around 1050, Arabic, Jewish and Greek intellectual manuscripts started to become more available in the West in Latin translations.[5]  The resulting revival of classical logic and reason in twelfth century Western Europe, known as ‘Scholasticism’, was highly significant to the development of universities and subsequent intellectual progress. It was also a precursor to the development of empirical scientific methods by Bishop Robert Grossteste and Friar Roger Bacon, which were important because of the later practical benefits of science to humanity.  I personally found it somewhat ironic that the later clashes between religion and science had their origins in the pioneering experiments of a bishop and a friar.


Backman, Clifford R., The Worlds of Medieval Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Bennett, Judith M., Medieval Europe – A Short History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011).

Colish, Marcia, L., Medieval foundations of the Western intellectual tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).


[1] Bennett, p.139.

[2] Backman, p.218.

[3] Backman, p.219.

[4] Backman, p.220.

[5] Colish, p.274.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Reflections on medieval history

  1. Well done Tim!
    It is scary to do that kind of study because you find out how little we know about most things.
    There are great collections of disks covering histories of art etc. I stayed 3 days with some people working through a series of 24 disks in the history of art and while i was there we saw 3 disks on the Rennaisance.
    The Foxtel history channel is scary too.


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