Medieval Europe in the early middle ages (500-1000 AD) was an overwhelmingly illiterate, politically insignificant and economically underdeveloped one-horse continent with an appalling mortality rate. All this changed however in the span of the three centuries known as the high middle ages, which saw the birth of a more educated, economically stable and politically powerful continent.
At the turn of the millennium mortality rates were unbelievably high and life expectancy unbelievably low by modern standards, setting the average life expectancy at around 25 in 1000 AD which saw a significant increase to 35 around 1300 AD leading to exponential population growth which in turn led to an increase in urban populations and significant economic growth.
The quality of life significantly improved and Medieval Europe began to reach out and link arms with its neighbors through commercial ties which particularly affected those regions bordering the Mediterranean. The French region of Narbonne-Gaul was a significant port on the Mediterranean and conducted trade with neighboring Italian republics which in turn traded with neighboring countries on the eastern Mediterranean, bringing their items back to Medieval Europe and selling them at fairs such as the famous Champagne fairs in central France.
Society in Medieval Europ during the high middle ages was roughly divided into three parts, those who prayed, those who fought and those who worked. Those who fought were the aristocracy roughly divided into the lower aristocratic tier of knights and castellans (those who owned castles) and the upper aristocratic tier of dukes, counts, and barons. They were greedy and violent and their pillaging was a serious social concern throughout medieval Europe, leading the clergy of the time to set in motion various movements aimed at protecting those who were most vulnerable. Many of these movements were launched in the south of France.
One of the most significant aristocratic figures of in Medieval Europe during the high middle ages was Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was born into the highest level of aristocracy in southern France and was married to King Louis VII Of France, even accompanying her husband as he went to war in the second crusade. The next tier of society was made up of those who prayed or in other words the clergy of the day who were largely Benedictine monks, striving to live according to the Rule of Saint Benedict. Much of the ideals set forth by Benedict were not really emulated by his followers and the reality ended up falling far short. This led to several attempts being made to reform the order, one of which, the Cistercian Reform, originated at the monastery of Citeaux and was spearheaded by Bernard of Clairvaux. The monastery of Citeaux would later play a significant role in the Albigensian crusades of the 13th century when its abbot was named the chief director of the crusades. The lowest level of society was made up of those who worked and was divided among serfs, workers who were not free and those who were legally free. Much of these peasants felt the brunt of the feudalism that went on between the aristocracy and were mostly at the mercy of their feuding overlords.
The working classes were literate, industrious and hardworking significantly improving the lands and crops of their overlords. Another important part of the social fabric of Medieval Europe during the high middle ages was the rise of a movement of opposition against the Papacy, due largely to the fact that the working classes were quite literate and the Bible was available to them in their own languages, such as Provencal in Southern France. The high middle ages saw a significant swell in these opposition movements, especially in Italy, among the Waldenses and in Southern France among the Albigenses.
In the realm of education, this period of history saw the rise of the scholastic movement, which was a movement that embraced logic and the works of Aristotle as a guide to interpret the Bible and the traditions of the church. This led to discrepancies between the Bible and tradition being made apparent, but it also led to Aristotle’s ideologies being placed above the truths of God’s word. Medieval Europe during the high middle ages also saw the birth of the University, with the first of such institutions being established around the year 1200 in Paris and Bologna, leading to the establishment of 20 universities by the year 1300.
Unlike universities of today which have a campus with buildings, a settled faculty, and students, universities in Medival Europe were a collection of students and teachers who studied together wherever they could. This kind of intellectual culture was much sought after and coupled with the oppressive control of the church led to the distinct division of two classes of dissenters, those who like the Waldenses and Albigenses, embraced the bible above the teachings of the church and those who embraced scholasticism and higher reasoning above the Bible and the church.
Universities in Medieval Europe were made up of the Faculty of Arts which was the most basic course each student had to pass in order to gain entrance into one of the three higher faculties which were Law, Medicine, and Theology. Interestingly all university students were given clerical status, the same as a priest, monk or bishop of the church which meant that they were legally accountable to the clerical courts only. The clerical courts could only inflict spiritual punishments not corporal ones which meant university students had a free pass to do whatever they wanted without fear of significant recourse.
Medieval Europe during the high middle ages was a seedbed for several significant movements that rose over the span of three centuries and were inextricably linked in many ways to the spiritual progress of the continent. The first movement was that of the Medieval Crusades carried out by the Catholic church against the Saracens in the Holy Land. The crusades were a combination of a Holy War and a religious pilgrimage, offering those who participated the glory and financial reward of military conquest coupled with the spiritual advantages of guaranteed entrance into Paradise for participation.
In light of modern 21st-century history, the irony of the crusades is too glaringly obvious to overlook. It was the Medieval Catholic church that invented the concept of a Holy War and the idea of entry into paradise as a reward for engaging in such an enterprise. It is also ironic that they first used this concept in their war against Islam.
The purpose of the crusades was to squash out any movement that posed a serious threat to the supremacy of Rome and to establish the Papal presence in as many parts of the continent as possible. The capture of Jerusalem, Syria, and Palestine, in particular, were an attempt to wrest these regions from Islamic control and to annihilate the looming threat posed by this movement. The Albigensian Crusades were of a similar nature as well and motivated by a similar purpose; to destroy the Papal opposition in southern France.
Another significant development in the high middle ages was that of the Capetian rule in France and its unifying influence over the country. The Capetian dynasty held the French throne from 987-1328 covering the entirety of the high middle ages. The Capetians replaced the Carolingians in 987 but ascended the throne of an extremely fragmented nation with weak royal authority. Most of the nobility refused to pay homage to the throne and maintained their own estates separately narrowing the actual territory of the French crown to a small territory around Paris called the Ile de France. It was not until the reign of Louis VI that the Capetians began to make some progress is re-establishing their royal authority over France but it was Phillip II Augustus who did the most to cement Capetian control over France. Philip was not Warlord material at all. He was a neurotic, hypochondriac who preferred administration to war in an age where war was a necessary part of a king’s life. But he did have several things working to his advantage; he was incredibly patient and deviously intelligent and gained control of France by pure strategic brilliance.
First, he used his powers of overlordship to deprive King John of England of much of his inherited continental assets, such as Normandy, Anjou, Brittany and other territories. He was also partially responsible for the reassertion of Capetian control over southern France deploying his son, the future Louis VII, to take part in the Albigensian Crusades instigated by the Papacy, thus forcing southern France to submit to the overlordship of Capetian Rule once the dust surrounding the crusades had settled. Philip’s rule over France as a kingdom changed the course of its history significantly making visible the fact that the French kings were the equals of any other monarch in Europe.
Another significant part of high medieval history is the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 which irrevocably changed the trajectory of British History. Normandy was a territory under the French crown, therefore making it’s Duke a vassal of the French king. In 1066 the Anglo-Saxon king of England, Edward the Confessor, died childless. William, The Conqueror, Duke of Normandy and Harald Hardrada, King of Norway both claimed they had a right to the throne. The Norwegians got into England first but were defeated by the Anglo-Saxon armies in the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, however they did William a favor by significantly weakening the Saxon armies.
When William landed he was able to defeat the Anglo-Saxons in the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and lay claim to the throne of England. This led to a complicated relationship between England and France, because while William, The Conqueror was king of England and therefore the equal of the King of France, he was also the Duke of Normandy and therefore a vassal of the same. The Norman conquest changed England’s history dramatically. Up to that point, England has moved mostly in the orbit of the Scandinavian-North Sea region but with the Norman conquest, it was drawn into close and complicated ties with the France and the rest of Europe, thereby solidifying the reach of Papal supremacy over the territory.
In addition to this when the Dukes of Normandy became the Kings of England and also the Sovereigns of the Angevin Empire in 1150, it gave them an edge over the Kings of France, making them, a threat to the French throne.
Another important historic development in the High Middle Ages was the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 during the tenuous reign of King John I. John was a weak monarch with a vicious temper and he found himself embroiled in a series of embarrassing situations. In 1204 the Capetian Philip II of France, used his powers of feudal overlordship (John was Duke of Normandy and as such was a subject of the King of France) to summon King John of England to France, John however was involved in a dispute over the Archbishop of Canterbury and failed to appear before Philip. As a result, Philip II seized English continental possessions, divesting the monarchy and the nobility of much of their assets in Normandy, Brittany, Anjou and other places.
Meanwhile, all of John’s attention was focused on his squabble with Pope Innocent III for ecclesiastical authority over his realm. The Pope demanded the right to appoint the Archbishop of Canterbury but to allow this was to divest himself of authority in his own realm that John was not prepared to relinquish. After a significant tussle for power John petulantly refused to yield to the demands of the Pope which resulted in England being placed under Papal interdict. John, buckling under the pressure, finally agreed to the Pope’s demands, literally casting his crown at the feet of Pandulph, the Papal Legate, in a show of humble subservience to the authority of the Pope. He then went off and tried to regain his assets from Philip II, perhaps in an attempt to save face in the wake of the humiliating debacle with the Pope, but he was defeated in this instance as well and lost his continental assets to the French crown. Insult was added to all this injury when his own nobility turned against him and forced him to sign the Magna Carta in 1215 at Runnymede, a document that ensured Civil and religious liberty, loosening the hold the Crown had over the people and the Pope had over the Crown.
The final significant and controversial movement of the High Middle Ages is that of the Investiture Controversy. This was an attempt by certain segments of the clergy to free the church from the authority of secular rulers. In 1075 Pope Gregory VII forbade the practice of Investiture by secular rulers throughout Europe, this was a bold move that defied the authority of monarchs across the continent and attempted to place the authority of the Popes on par with that of the civil authorities. In retaliation, Emperor Henry IV attempted to depose Gregory VII but failed miserably leading to an unprecedented move by Gregory to excommunicate and depose him. Never before had a Pope dared to relieve a monarch of their crown and not since the 4th century had a Pope dared to excommunicate a monarch. Gregory VII calmly advised Henry’s subjects to rebel against him and choose themselves another Emperor which they proceeded to do in grand style. To buy himself time Henry IV decided to submit himself to the Pope and in a humiliating spectacle at the castle of Canossa in Northern Italy in 1077, walked barefoot through the snow, wearing a hair shirt to signify his contrition. Gregory VII, though suspecting insincerity on Henry’s part, forgave him and commanded that the rebellion be halted but this was of no avail. The Investiture controversy finally ended in a draw between the Papacy and the Empire as a result of the Concordat of Worms in 1122.
One of the most striking features of the high middles ages was that of the influence the Papacy had over the religious and political affairs of the continent. Every monarch from Philip II of France to Henry IV of the Holy Roman Empire and everyone in between paid homage to the Pope at some time or other. The political prowess of the Papacy made it a significant ally in a time when conflict was the only means of conquest and it was these factors that served to establish the influence of the Pope and entrench the people the superstitions of the church.
Yet in spite of all this, we see the tell-tale signs of a resistance movement zig-zagging through the continent. In Italy, in France, in the great educational institutions that dotted Europe, the desire for freedom from Papal Rule and a hunger for the truth was simmering and it would begin to bubble to the surface at the beginning of the late middle ages.