Sunday, September 16, 2012

Early Middle Ages

I accept Jackson Spielvogel's divisions, even though he is a Dummkopf with organization.

Germanic Kingdoms:

The Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy: Emperor Zeno of the Eastern Empire used the Ostrogoths to defeat Odoacer; however, the Ostrogothic king Theodoric then declared himself ruler of Italy. He kept many Roman customs, but established the Ostrogoths as the controllers of the army.

This, coupled with religious tensions (the Ostrogoths were Arian Christians, considered by the Italians to be heretics), made Ostrogoths rule unpopular. Shortly after Theodoric’s death, Byzantine troops under Justinian reconquered Italy. Ravenna replaced Rome as the Western capital.

In Spain, the Visigoths were more successful at mixing with the native population because they converted to Catholicism and intermarried with the Hispano-Romans. However, disputes over succession undermined the stability of the Visigothic Kingdom.

The Frankish kingdom long outlasted the other German states. Under the rule of Catholic king Clovis (482-511), the lands of the Franks extended to include all of modern France and much of western Germany. The line of Clovis, called the Merovingian dynasty, ruled the Franks (who were divided among three kingdoms) for two hundred years.

However, the nobility formed by the mixing of Germans and Gallo-Romans was growing more powerful at the king’s expense; the major domus was also becoming more powerful. Meanwhile, commerce and cities declined. In the 700s, former major domus Charles Martel became the de facto king of the Franks.

After Roman troops withdrew from Britain, the Angles and Saxons moved in. They fought against the Celts.

Germanic societies were much different from Romans. Because the social structure leaned heavily on the extended family, crimes often lead to blood feuds; to preempt the violence that often resulted from this, the system of the wergeld arose, assigning a monetary value to a murdered person.

Trials by ordeal were common. Childbearing women were highly valued, since that was their primary function. Men usually arranged marriages to benefit the family.

Development of the Christian Church:

The Church’s “Latin Fathers” influenced medieval thought. Augustine argued for the necessity of secular powers and celibacy, while Jerome translated the Bible into Latin.

By the 400s, the bishops of Rome had become more important, saying they were meant to be the successors of the apostle Peter. This position would eventually develop into the papacy.

Many church authorities sought to increase their power over secular leaders; the decline of the Empire allowed them to do so in Italy. German leaders still held power over the church in the 400s. Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) increased the powers of the Roman Catholic Church by turning the areas around Rome into the Papal States and making converts in England and Gaul.

The monastic movement was important in aiding his efforts. Early monks, the first of which were Egyptian, were solitary ascetics; Benedictine monks, however, emphasized moderation and communal life. Nuns were the female counterparts. Monks and nuns were seen as ideal Christians, and spread the religion throughout Europe.

Irish monks were more ascetic and preoccupied with education, including the creation of illuminated manuscripts. England also converted in the 600s; several pagan holidays were appropriated into the Christian calendar to aid the conversion.

Cassiodorus categorized secular knowledge into the seven liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, logic; arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Bede created a history of England.

Byzantine Empire:

Constantinople was the largest and commercially most important European city throughout the middle Ages. Its famed Hippodrome was an amphitheater whose chariot races provided citizens with political parties.

Justinian reigned as emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire from 527 to 565. His major accomplishments include the codification of Roman law in Latin, which formed the basis of Western law; rebuilding Constantinople after the Nika Revolt in 532, including the construction of the Hagia Sophia; and reconquering many parts of the Western Empire. However, these territories were quickly lost after his death.

In the 600s, emperors began turning away from the West and focused instead on consolidating their power in the eastern Mediterranean: in fact, beset by Muslim Arab tribes and Bulgars, the Eastern Empire could do nothing else if it wanted to continue to exist. It was this transformation that led to what is called the Byzantine Empire by the 700s.

The Byzantine Empire had several differences from European states. First, its official and common language was Greek rather than Latin. It also showed great unity between church and state, since the emperor chose the patriarch of Constantinople (equivalent to the pope in Rome). The main church controversy in the Byzantine Empire was that of iconoclasm.

Rise of Islam:

The Arabian Peninsula’s importance as a trade center increased in the 400-500s because of instability in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Desert nomads, the Bedouins, clashed with urban merchants. The Ka’ba was a sacred site in Mecca.

Muhammad (570-632) was the founder of Islam, which spread quickly throughout the Arab world after he conquered Mecca from Medina. The Qur’an contained the Five Pillars of Islam (shahadah, salat, zakat, siyam, and hajj); the Shari’a provided a law code. There was no division between political and religious power.

After Muhammad’s death, Islam spread quickly out of Arabia. Under his father-in-law Abu Bakr, Muslim forces took over the Persian Empire and Egypt; though they took the province of Syria, they could not completely overrun the Byzantines. In 661, a Schism occurred that split Islam between Sunnis and Shiites.

Islam continued to spread, however, under the caliphate of the Umayyad dynasty (capital: Damascus). In the 700s, Muslims captured the rest of Northern Africa and Visigothic Spain, though their expansion was stopped at the Battle of Tours in France. The Byzantine Empire was a buffer between Muslim lands and Christian Europe.

Europeans and the Environment:

Europe had low population density in the Early Middle Ages. There were many forests, and so little cultivated land that Europeans needed to hunt and fish to survive. Farming was difficult because Europeans couldn’t clear forests, and the soils of northern Europe were heavy. Drought and overmuch precipitation threatened; life expectancies and crop yields were low.

World of the Carolingians:

Charles Martel’s (see Germanic Kingdoms) son became king of the Frankish state in the mid-700s. He was anointed by a church representative. His son, Charlemagne (768-814), succeeded him and expanded the Carolingian Empire: he captured Lombardy quickly in 773 and Bavaria in 787-88, completely destroying the Avars in the process. He was unable to gain much from Spain, and only after much effort did he acquire Saxony in northeastern Germany.

To govern, Charlemagne gave land to nobles, relied on counts (though he tried to limit their powers by making them move around), and made efforts to reform the church. The papacy drew closer to the Frankish kings: in 799, the pope fled to Charlemagne’s court, and the year after crowned him as Emperor of the Romans.

Charlemagne presided over a Carolingian Renaissance, since he promoted learning. In monasteries, monks copied Christian and classical manuscripts. Books were expensive because they were made of parchment (not papyrus, because Egypt was Muslim); they were often illustrated and covered with jewels. The scholar Alcuin served at Charlemagne’s court and used Cassiodorus’ system of the seven liberal arts (see Development of the Christian Church).

The Catholic Church attempted to promote monogamy and marriage in contrast to the looser mores of Frankish marriages; it also tried to stop divorce. These measures increased the importance of the nuclear family.

Bread was the staple of the diet. Lacking that, peasants also had gruel. Upper classes ate pig and game; also, dairy products, vegetables, honey, and spices. The monastic diet contained 6,000 calories. Drinking was widespread; bathing, not so much.

Medicine often meant use of herbs and bleeding. Manuscripts contained advice for potions, surgeries, and magical rites (i.e. amulets).

Disintegration of the Carolingian Empire:

Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious, was a weak ruler. His sons divided the empire amongst themselves in the 843 Treaty of Verdun: to Charles the Bald went the Frankish lands; to Louis the German, the eastern; and to Lothar, the “Middle Kingdom” in between. Local aristocrats increased their powers in these years.

In the 800s, Muslim attacks began again in the Mediterranean. From western Asia emerged the threat of the Magyars, who fought against the Bulgars and Pechenegs and occasionally threatened Western Europe from where they’d settled in Hungary. In the late 900s, they converted to Christianity.

Vikings were a third threat. The frequency and magnitude of their raids increased in the 800s. Swedish Vikings established trading contact with the Byzantines and Arabs, via Slavic territories. Christian Viking converts served as buffers against other Northmen.

Emerging World of Lords and Vassals:

When governments decreased in importance and strength, people turned to lords for protection. Vassalage, from Germanic tradition, had lords give lands known as fiefs (very important in a society with little trade) to vassals in exchange for their military service. Knights emerged. Subinfeudation describes a hierarchy of lords and vassals, down to knights who did not have enough land to divide.

In 911, the dukes of the Germanic lands elected Conrad of Franconia to rule over the eastern Franks; he was soon replaced by Henry the Fowler, the first of the Saxon dynasty. His son, Otto I (936-73) relied on the clergy rather than nobles to govern; he also tried to Christianize the Slavs. The pope crowned him emperor in 962.

Similar circumstances occurred in the west: after the death of the Carolingian king, nobles chose a Frenchman, Hugh Capet, as king. However, the king’s lands were smaller than many held by other nobles; nevertheless, he made his title hereditary.

England became a kingdom through struggle against the Vikings. Alfred the Great of Wessex (871-899) fought off the Danes and encouraged learning; under his line England became an Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Sheriffs assisted the king in the shires.

The manorial system emerged as free peasants went into the service of lords in return for protection. Serfs, tied to the land and the lord, gradually came to outnumber free peasants. They paid taxes to the lords and tithes to the church. Up to 90% of the population was in agriculture; trade outside of local markets was often limited to luxury goods for the wealthy, traded with the Byzantine Empire and the caliphates.

Zenith of Byzantine Civilization:

The Byzantine Empire had a golden age in the 800-900s, beginning with the reign of Michael III (847-67). It was able to withstand attacks from Bulgars and Arabs, and conflicts with the pope. Under the highly skilled Macedonian Dynasty of 867-1081, the Byzantine Empire’s trade, Christian missionary activities in Eastern Europe, and land all increased.

Slavic People of Central and Eastern Europe:

Asiatic nomad tribes frequently invaded the European Plain and joined with the native Slavs. In the west, the Poles and Czechs were converted by Germans to Catholicism.

The southern Slavs and Bulgars became Eastern Orthodox, largely through the efforts of Byzantine missionaries such as Cyril, who created the Cyrillic alphabet.

Eastern Slavs faced the challenge of Varangians (Swedish Vikings), particularly the Rus, whose leader Rurik established his dynasty at Novgorod in 862. Rurik’s follower Oleg set up the Rus state at Kiev; later rulers accepted the Orthodox church largely as a way to establish order.

Expansion of Islam:

In 750, the Abbasid dynasty overthrew the decadent Umayyads and began to open the Islamic empire up to the influence of conquered people. The new capital of Baghdad led to much Persian influence. Though led by capable rulers, the Abbasids could not stop the Islamic world from fracturing along political lines: the Spanish emirate of al-Andalus broke away in 756 and the Fatimid caliphate of Egypt in 973.

However, the Islamic civilization as a whole thrived in the latter part of the millennium. Many great Muslim cities, such as Cordoba, Cairo, and Baghdad, were centers of learning and trade. Al-Khwarizmi, a Persian, is credited with inventing algebra. More than the Byzantine Empire or certainly Western Europe, Islam preserved and added to classical scholarship.


Spielvogel, Jackson. Western Civilization, Seventh Edition. Canada: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009. Print.

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