Tag Archives: Middle Ages

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.

Bibliography

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).

Endnotes

[1] Bennett, p.139.

[2] Backman, p.218.

[3] Backman, p.219.

[4] Backman, p.220.

[5] Colish, p.274.

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The Medieval Agrarian Economy

by Tim Harding

This striking image depicts the three main classes of medieval society – the clergy, the knights and the peasantry.[1]  Tellingly, the cleric and the knight are shown talking to each other; but the peasant is excluded from the conversation.  Even though the peasants comprised over 90% of the population, they were in many ways marginalized socially and economically.  So who were these peasants and what was their daily life like?

striking

Source of image: Wikimedia Commons

The term ‘peasant’ essentially means a traditional farmer of the Middle Ages, although in everyday language it has come to mean a lower class agricultural labourer.  In the Central Middle Ages, that is the period from 1000 to 1300CE, European peasants were divided into four classes according to their legal status and their relationship to the land they farmed.  These classes were slave, serf, free tenant or land owner.  The first two classes were usually much poorer than the second two.

There were several factors that influenced the lives of peasants during this period.  The reciprocal benefits of agricultural labour and warrior protection gave rise to closely settled manorial and feudal communities.[2]  More land was brought under cultivation by the communal clearing of forests, draining of swamps and the building of levees or dykes.[3]

The invention of a heavier wheeled plow enabled deeper cultivation of soils, including the burying of green manure from fallow land and also stubble from previous crops.  The deeper furrows also protected seed from wind and birds.[4]

plough

Source of image: Wikimedia Commons

There was also a period of warmer temperatures, milder winters and higher rainfall at this time, resulting in longer growing seasons.[5]  Another important factor was the replacement of the Roman two-field rotation system by a more efficient three-field system, enabling two-thirds of the land to be under cultivation at any one time, instead of only half the land.  This image shows the three cropping fields (West, South and East) of a typical rural community, with the remaining quarter devoted to pasture, the Manor house and Church.[6]

rural community

Source of image: Bennett, Judith M., Medieval Europe – A Short History
(New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011). p. 142.

Interestingly, the typical length of a plow-strip was 220 yards, called a furlong (a word still used in horse racing today).  The width of a plow-strip was a rod, and a rectangle of 4 rods by one furlong became an acre.[7] (Four rods later became a ‘chain’ of 22 yards, so an acre was an area one furlong by one chain).

The resulting increases in agricultural yields raised farm production above subsistence levels for the first time in centuries.   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.[8]

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.[9]

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. [10]

 Bibliography

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).

Endnotes

[1] Bennett, Judith M., Medieval Europe – A Short History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011) p.135.

[2] Backman, Clifford R., The Worlds of Medieval Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) p.215

[3] Bennett, p.140.

[4] Backman, p.218.

[5] Bennett, p.139.

[6] Bennett, p.140-142.

[7] Backman, p.217.

[8] Backman, p.218.

[9] Backman, p.219.

[10] Backman, p.220.

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Did the Crusades lead to Islamic State?

The Conversation

Carole Cusack, University of Sydney

How do we account for forces and events that paved the way for the emergence of Islamic State? Our series on the jihadist group’s origins tries to address this question by looking at the interplay of historical and social forces that led to its advent.

Today, professor of religious studies Carole Cusack considers the Crusades: can we really understand anything about Islamic State by looking at its rise as the latest incarnation of a centuries-old struggle between Islam and Christianity?


In 1996, late US political scientist Samuel P. Huntington published the book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Following the collapse of communism in 1989, he argued, conflicts would increasingly involve religion.

Islam, which Huntington claimed had been the opponent of Christianity since the seventh century, would increasingly feature in geopolitical conflict.

So, it wasn’t particularly shocking when, after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, the then-US president, George W. Bush, used the term “crusade” to describe the American military response.

Framing the subsequent “war on terror” as a crusade acted as a red flag to journalists and political commentators, who could treat the events as simply the most recent stoush in a centuries-old conflict.

The actual Crusades (1096-1487) themselves evoke a romantic image of medieval knights, chivalry, romance and religious high-mindedness. But representing them as wars between Christians and Muslims is a gross oversimplification and a misreading of history.

Early Islamic conquests

That there were wars between Muslims and Christians is certainly true. After the death of Abu Bakr (573-634), the Prophet Muhammad’s father-in-law and first caliph, the second Caliph Umar (583-644) sent the Islamic armies in three divisions to conquer and spread the religion of Islam.

Whole regions that were Christian fell to Islam. The Holy Land, which comprised modern-day Palestinian territories, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, for instance, was defeated. And Egypt was conquered without even a battle in 640.

The ancient and vast Persian Empire, officially Zoroastrian in religion, had been conquered by 642. Weakened by war with the Christian Byzantine Empire, Persia was no match for the Muslim forces.

Muslim armies marched across north Africa and crossed the Straits of Gibraltar into modern Spain, eventually securing a large territory in the Iberian Peninsula, which was known as Al-Andalus (also known as Muslim Spain or Islamic Iberia).

They also marched across the Pyrenees and into France in 732, the centenary of Muhammad’s death. But they were decisively defeated at the Battle of Poitiers (also known as Battle of Tours and, by Arab sources, as Battle of the Palace of the Martyrs) by the Frankish general, Charles Martel (686-741), grandfather of the great Emperor Charlemagne.

This was seen as a Christian victory and, after Poitiers, there were no further attacks on Western Europe. The Crusades came much later.

The causes of the Crusades

The proximate causes of the First Crusade (1096-1099) include the defeat of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus (1056-1118), who was crowned in 1081 and ruled until his death. His armies met the Muslim Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 and were defeated.

This placed the city of Constantinople at risk of conquest. So, the emperor requested that the West send knights to assist him – and he was prepared to pay.

Pope Urban II (1044-1099) preached the Crusade at the Council of Clermont in 1095. He argued that the Turks and Arabs attacked Christian territories and had “killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire”.

He also promised his audience:

All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested.

This was recorded by a monk called Fulcher of Chartres, who wrote a chronicle of the First Crusade.

The four leaders of the First Crusade.
Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville via Wikimedia Commons

Thousands answered the pope’s call and the First Crusade conquered Jerusalem in 1099. But the Crusaders’ presence in the Middle East was short-lived and the port city of Ruad, the last Christian possession, was lost in 1302/3.

Many later conflicts that were called Crusades were not actions against Muslim armies at all. The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204), for instance, was a Venetian Catholic army, which besieged Constantinople. Catholic Christians attacked Orthodox Christians, then looted the city, taking its treasures back to Venice.

Islam was not a factor in the Albigensian Crusade of 1209-1229, either. In that instance, Pope Innocent III (1160/1-1216) used the language of war against the infidel (literally “unfaithful”, meaning those without true religion) against heretics in the south of France. So, “right-thinking” Christians killed “deviant” Christians.

The end of the Middle Ages

It wasn’t all intermittent fighting. There were also periods of peace and productive relationships between Christian and Muslim rulers in the Middle Ages.

For instance, Charlemagne (742-814) (also know as Charles the Great or Charles I), who united most of Western Europe during the early part of the Middle Ages, sent gifts to Harun al-Rashid (763-809), the Caliph of Baghdad. In return, he received diplomatic presents such as a chess set, an elaborate clepsydra (water clock) and an elephant.

In Spain, the culture from the early eighth century to the late 15th was known as “la Convicencia” (the co-existence), as Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in relative peace (though the level of harmony has been exaggerated). And there was an exchange of ideas in fields including mathematics, medicine and philosophy.

The Christian kingdoms of the north gradually reconquered Al-Andalus. And, in 1492, King Ferdinand (1452-1516) and Queen Isabella (1451-1504) reclaimed Granada and expelled the Jews and Muslims from Spain, or forced them to convert to Christianity.

A clumsy view

Clearly, to speak of an “us versus them” mentality, or to frame current geopolitical conflicts as “crusades” of Christians against Muslims, or vice versa, is to misunderstand – and misuse – history.

Not all blood and guts: the Caliph of Baghdad Harun al-Rashid receives a delegation from Charlemagne.
Julius Köckert via Wikimedia Commons

Modern Westerners would find medieval Crusader knights as unappealing as they do Islamic State.

And it’s impossible to miss the fact that the immediate entry into heaven Pope Urban promised to Christian soldiers who died in battle against the infidel Muslims is conceptually identical to the martyrdom ideology of contemporary jihadists.

Reality is more complex – and more interesting – than the simple continuation of a historical struggle against the same enemy. Muslims conquered Christian territories, yes, but Christians engaged in reconquest.

There were forced conversions to both Islam and Christianity, and – very importantly – actual governments and monarchs were involved. It’s a simplistic thing to say that “Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state”, but there’s an element of truth in it.

The most important reason we should resist the lure of the crusade tag to any fight against jihadists is that groups like Islamic State want the West to think like that.

It justified the Paris bomb attacks of November 2015 as attacks against “the Crusader nation of France”. Osama bin Laden used the same reasoning after the September 11 attacks.

By adopting the role of Crusaders, Western nations play into Islamic State’s hands. It’s how these jihadists want the West to understand itself – as implacably opposed to Islam. But it’s not, and it never has been.


This is the sixth article in our series on the historical roots of Islamic State. Look out for more stories on the theme in the coming days.

The ConversationCarole Cusack, Professor of Religious Studies, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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