The Middle Ages span the fall of Rome in the latter part of the 5th century and lasted through the 15th century in Northern regions of modern day Europe. Often called the Medieval Era, the Middle Ages can be divided into Early, High, and Late. The Early Middle Ages (550-1000) are characterized by sparse populations and basic agricultural cultivations. In contrast, the High Middle Ages (1000–1300 CE) are characterized by population growth, urbanization, and commercial expansion. Finally, the Late Middle Ages (1300-1450) are characterized by the destruction and loss of the spread of the Black Death or Bubonic Plague, which devastated Europe in the 14th century, resulting in the loss of between one quarter and one half of the population (Sayre, 2013 and Spielvogel, 1999).
It was during the Middle Ages that the symbolism we now associate with the devil started to take fashion. Rome, the Imperial power of the civilized world, had fallen. In the minds of medieval people the devil was the one who could have created the “darkness and evil” around them (Sporre, 2005, p. 211). The Church would use these growing feelings about the devil to manipulate the fears of the faithful and convert pagans, those not believing in the Christian God. People were reminded on a daily bases about “the promise of heaven and the prospect of the fires of hell” in many different forms of art, from architecture to fresco to theater (Sporre, 2005, p. 211).
This is also a time when the Church was divided itself between two groups. These two groups consisted of the regular clergy/monks, who decided to living behind walls confined from the world around them, and secular clergy, such as the Pope, bishops, and parish priests. In many respects both groups withdrew from the world leaving very few Church representatives “to reduce the isolation and ignorance of its followers” (Sporre, 2005, p. 211). Everyone was, in essence, withdrawing behind whatever they found to be safest. The impact this withdrawal had on society and education would remain with the whole of Europe for almost 300 years. Many church leaders retreated to monasteries to mediate, read, and transcribe the Holy Bible.
Fig 1 .Late 10th century miniscule with Psalm 111, made in Canterbury, where scribes copied it in the new written developed at Charlemagne’s court. (Sayre, 2008)
However, in 590 CE, after the death of Pope Pelagius II, a man by the name of Gregory was elected pope. The new pope, Pope Gregory I, the Great, believed the world was coming to an end, and quickly. For this reason, he did not foresee his decisions affecting the distant future, instead only the immediate future (Sporre, 2005). Many scholars agree that Rome was rescued by Pope Gregory I:
“His land reforms and his administration of estates that had been given to the Church revitalized Church income, relived famine, and provided money for the churches, hospitals, and schools…Rome regained its position of primacy among the Western Christina Churches.” (Sporre, 2005, p. 211-2)
Fig. 2. Pope Gregory I, the Great (540-604). (Sporre, 2010, p. 211)
Pope Gregory I single most important act may have been sponsoring Augustine, who would become known as St. Augustine, on his mission to Britain in 597 CE. This action helped continue the re-spread of ‘the word of God’, according to the Holy Bible, back into lands once occupied by the Romans, which began in 432 CE and continued in 563 CE by St. Patrick and Columba, respectively. However, the conversion of pagans to Christianity by St. Augustine would create a unique form of Christianity in Britain, the British Isles, Scotland and Ireland. In fact, Pope Gregory I “urged Augustine not to eliminate pagan traditions overnight, but to incorporate them into Christian practices” (Sayre, 2013, p.149), an idea of combing both pagan and Christian practices was first established under Pope Julius I from 337-352 CE. This form of syncretism, in fact, is seen in the Christian celebration day of Easter because “Easter is apparently named after the pagan goddess Eostre (Latin: Oestre), an Anglo-Saxon maiden-goddess of fertility” (Bethancourt III, 1999).
Even with Augustine’s missionary trip to Britain, Christianity took hold slowly, unlike in Europe. For instance, by 732 CE, Christianity was firmly established in France at Poitiers shortly after Charles Martel defected the Muslim army advancement into France and pushed them back beyond the Pyrenees, where they eventually settled in Spain. On the other hand, it was not until the rule of Carolus Magnus, better known as Charlemagne, or “Charles the Great”, and the Carolingian Empire (800-888) that most of the pagan tribes submitted to Rome’s Christianity and abandoned their own brand of Christianity. As a tribute to his ability to subdue a large amount of territory to Christianity People Leo III crowned him emperor on Christmas Day in 800 CE.
Map 1. The Empire of Charlemagne to 814. (Sayre, 2013, p. 151)
It was during Charlemagne’s rule a rebirth of artistic creativity reemerges not seen since the Roman Empire fell to the various Gothic peoples. This era is now referred to as the Carolingian Renaissance. It was also during Charlemagne’s rule a working model of government was created to oversee his vast territories. He decided to appoint individual to govern specific regions, calling them counts. Each count was given a tremendous amount of independence and authority. For instance, counts were responsible for raising revenue and maintaining the military in their localities. However, this was too much power for one person to have in their region, in many respects they were acting like minor kings themselves, therefore, the two responsibilities were split. Counts were still responsible for collecting revenue. While a new and separate title of duke was created to maintain the military.
Fig 3. Equestrian statue of Charlemagne, early 9th century. (Sayre, 2013, p. 151)
During the Carolingian Renaissance the development of Latin literacy was greatly promoted. Although reading and writing were skills some people had, literacy was not widespread until after this time. Literacy was in Latin and was generally limited to people of the upper classes and members of the clergy.
The poem Song of Roland exemplifies both ideas of feudal and chivalric values created during Charlemagne’s rule. The poem expresses the values of feudalism, by celebrating the main characters courage and loyalty to his ruler and no one else. The events within the poem are based on actual events that happened when Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew, and others while returning from Spain. The story is quite simple:
“The heroic Roland’s army is betrayed by Ganelon, who tells the Saracen Muslim army of Roland’s route through Roncevaux, where his 20,000 soldiers are attacked by 400,000 Muslims. Roland sounds his ivory horn, altering Charlemagne to the Saracen presence, but by then Frankish guard has been defeated. Discovering Roland and his army dead, Charlemagne executes the treacherous Ganelon, and an epic battle between Charlemagne and the Muslims ensues. Charlemagne is victorious – but not without divine intervention. Charlemagne’s prayer keeps the sun from setting, allowing his army time to defeat the Saracens.” (Sayre, 2013, p. 152)
It was only out of duty that Roland will turn and fight the Saracens, the duty to his lord, Charlemagne, and the Christian God. Roland would inevitability sacrifice his life for his king, making him an ideal feudal hero. The Song of Roland also prompted the unwritten chivalric code between knights. This code of conduct was “courage in battle, loyalty to his lord and peers, and a courtesy verging on reverence toward women.” (Sayre, 2013, p. 153) Even though this chivalric code was often broken both feudalism and chivalry were effective devices for preserving social order and political harmony thought medieval Europe.
Fig. 4. Page with Lancelot Crossing the Soward Bridge and Guinevere in the Tower, from Romance of Lancelot. Ca. 1300. Example of chivalric action. (Sayre, 2013, p.168)
Later, feudalism would eventually be built around lordship, which carried political, economic, and cultural powers given to particular nobility rather than the King. This conversion of feudal authority shifted during the latter part of the Carolingian Empire when Vikings warriors, or Normans, invaded Northern Europe. The Vikings mainly targeted their attacks on isolated, wealth monasteries but would devastate and plunder any settlement. Their attacks “caused nobility, commoners, and peasants alike to attach themselves to anyone who might provide military protection – thus cementing the feudal system.” (Sayre, 2013, p. 157) As a result, the Northern and Western potions of the Carolingian Empire remained fragmented with various counts and dukes vying for control.
In later years England and France would become one country under the rule of William I, the Conqueror. However, the Normans would construct motte and bailey castles to defend themselves against attacks. This type of fortification could be built in as little as 8 days. Eventually, these types of fortification would give way to elaborate stone castles.
Fig. 5. Motte and bailey castle. When Normans first landed in England, they constructed mounds, called mottes, upon which they built a square wooden tower called a keep, which later became the accommodations of the king. (Sayre, 2013, p. 157)
The Early Middle Ages was a time of reestablishment after the fall of the Roman Empire. After almost 300 years of medieval people feeling as if “darkness and evil” surrounded them, and the Church using this fear as a way to manipulate the faithful and to convert pagans, Charlemagne and the Carolingian Renaissance would arise to give them hope. The rebirth of creative thought allowed people the freedom of learning not experienced since the fall of the Roman Empire, it was limited but it existed again. Other political and social changes would occur during the Early Middle Ages due to the rule of Charlemagne, such as feudal and chivalric values. However, due to Norman invasion feudalism would eventually be built around a lordship, which was political, economic, and cultural powers given to particular nobility rather than the King.
Bethancourt III, W. J. (1999, April 05). Pagan holidays. Retrieved from http://www.breadoflifebiblestudy.com/Lessons/33PaganHolidaysAndChristianity/Articles/Easter08.pdf.
Sayre, H. M. (2013). Discovering the Humanities. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Pearson.
——-, H. M. (2008). The humanities: Culture, continuity & change. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, Prentice Hall.
Spielvogel, J. J. (2000). Western civilization. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Sporre, D.J. (2005) The Creative Impulse, An Introduction to the Arts, 7th ed., Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Pearson.