BECK index

Summary and Evaluation of Medieval Europe 610-1300

by Sanderson Beck

Byzantine and Frank Empires 610-1095
Crusades Era 1095-1300
Evaluating Medieval Europe 610-1250

This chapter has been published in the book Medieval Europe 610-1300.
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Byzantine and Frank Empires 610-1095

Roman Domination 30 BC to 180 CE
Roman Decline and Christianity 180-610

The Byzantine empire was diminished as the Slavs and Avars migrated from the north and the Persians took over most of the Near East, including Egypt by 619. Emperor Heraclius organized the military to fight back, regaining Asia Minor and Armenia and getting Syria, Palestine, and Egypt by a treaty with Persia in 629. However, the Byzantines soon lost most of this to Muslim conquests by the time Heraclius died in 641. The theologian Maximus had his tongue cut out and hand cut off for disagreeing with the Emperor on the will of Christ. Maximus left behind writings on how to practice Christian love. In their struggles for power Byzantine Emperors mutilated their own families; but Greek fire helped defend Constantinople from the Muslims. Emperor Leo III (r. 717-41) gained control and fought off annual Muslim attacks. He oversaw a reform of Byzantine law and issued an edict against images in 726. John of Damascus defended icons and was the first to apply Aristotle's philosophy to Christian theology. Leo's son Constantine V (r. 741-75) had to defeat a revolt of those opposing iconoclasm. Byzantine wars made the Bulgarians enemies, and Constantine V oppressed monks. Bulgarians led by Krum fought the Byzantine empire. Battles over icons went on until 843.

Religious persecution against Manichaean dualists resulted in imperial soldiers killing 100,000 Paulicians. After the secular Photius was confirmed as Constantinople Patriarch in 861, a split developed between Roman Catholics under the Pope and the Eastern Orthodox. One practical difference was the Byzantines allowed their clergy to marry. Emperor Basil I (r. 867-886) banished Photius and tried to reconcile with Rome as the independent Bulgarian church recognized the supremacy of the Constantinople patriarch. Photius was recalled in 877 but was deposed by Emperor Leo VI (r. 886-912). Leo oversaw the complete revision of Byzantine laws that included canon law. The Emperor took over previous powers of the Senate and could only be checked by the Patriarch and church council. Guilds developed, and aristocrats held feudal power over serfs. Bulgaria under Symeon (r. 893-927) defeated the Byzantines in 896 and invaded Greece. After many battles Symeon's son Peter (r. 927-69) made a peace treaty with the Byzantines.

After being Co-emperor for thirty years and writing books, Constantine VII (r. 945-59) used diplomacy and restored land to the peasants. Nicephorus Phocas (r. 963-69) used the military to take power, but the Constantinople patriarch Polyeuctes refused to justify soldiers for killing in wars. John Tzimisces (r. 969-76) conquered Bulgaria and annexed it to the Byzantine empire. Basil II (r. 976-1025) was not able to consolidate his power until 989. He invaded Macedonia and defended Syria while restoring land to the poor. In conquering the Balkans Basil had 14,000 captives blinded. Basil expanded the Byzantine empire to its greatest extent and by this plundering managed to lower taxes and leave a substantial treasury.

Several were blinded as men struggled to be Byzantine Emperor. Wars, famine, and plague depleted the treasury, while aristocrats gained power and wealth as feudalism developed. Constantinople patriarch Michael Cerularius reasserted the authority of the Eastern Orthodox church but caused a permanent schism from the Roman Catholic church in 1054. Constantine X (r. 1059-67) tried to bring justice; but he continued to farm out taxes and sold the highest offices while a weakened military allowed the empire to deteriorate. Michael Psellus tried to develop the university, wrote about the times, chose Emperors, and was even prime minister. After the Byzantines suffered a devastating defeat by the Muslims in 1071, they began appealing to the Christian west for help. General Alexius Comnenus (r. 1081-1118) won a power struggle and became Emperor. He made a commercial and military alliance with Venice that secured the Adriatic. In literature the epic Barlaam and Ioasaph utilized part of the Buddha's life in a story that promotes Christian doctrines. The popular Digenis Akritas depicts a heroic warrior fighting for the Christians against the Muslims on the border between their empires.

Isidore of Seville presided over church councils in 619 and 633, and he fostered education with his Etymologies, which was widely read in the middle ages. Visigothic kings ruled Spain until Muslims invaded in 711 and quickly took over most of the peninsula. Franks struggled with divided kingdoms, but a coalition behind Charles Martel in 732 defeated the Muslim invasion. His sons Carloman and Pippin convened church councils that promoted ethical reforms. In Italy Lombard kings from Adaloald (r. 615-24) on were Christian, and Liutprand (r. 712-44) consolidated the Lombard kingdom. In 754 Pippin was anointed by the Pope and attacked the Lombards, and Charlemagne overcame them in 774. Charlemagne also spent 32 years fighting and converting the pagan Saxons. While the Byzantines were ruled by the woman Irene, Charlemagne was crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III in 800. Franks conquered Barcelona the next year. In 810 Charlemagne made peace treaties with Byzantine emperor Nicephorus I, Cordoba emir Al-Hakim, and Dane king Hemming. Charlemagne gave much charity to help the poor and promoted education through his advisor Alcuin, who objected to bishops being used in war and priests in secular work.

Charlemagne's son Louis (r. 814-40) the Pious let his sons rule parts of the Frank empire. In 839 the empire was divided, giving Charles the west, Lothar the east, and Bavaria to Louis the German. Lothar tried to claim the empire; but his forces were defeated by Charles and Louis, though the treaty of Verdun in 843 gave Lothar Italy and a narrow strip to Frisia that would become Switzerland, Belgium, and Netherlands, separating France from Germany. Viking raids began in 844. Lothar's middle kingdom was divided for his three sons when he died in 855. Pope Nicholas (858-67) claimed hierarchical authority based on the forged "donation of Constantine." Charles the Bald expanded the Frank kingdom and was crowned Emperor in 875; but it was Louis the German's son Charles the Fat who was crowned Emperor in 881. He abdicated six years later as the empire broke into regions governed by feudal nobles and bishops.

Anglo-Saxons struggled for power in Britain. Warrior king Penda ruled Mercia (633-55), defeating and killing both Edwin (r. 616-33) and Oswald (r. 634-42) of Northumbria. Wessex king Cynegils (r. 611-42) became a Christian in 635. Bishops met at Hertford in 672 and accepted Roman canon laws. Picts attacked Northumbria from the north. Mercia king Aethelbald (r. 716-57) subjected all the provinces south of the Humber by 730 and called himself King of Britannia; but he was murdered, and his successor Offa (r. 757-96) fought his neighbors. Viking raids began in 789. Offa made a commercial treaty with Charlemagne in 796. Wessex king Ecgberht (r. 802-39) conquered Cornwall in 809 and Mercia in 829. Danes began raiding in 835, and a large Danish army invaded East Anglia in 865. Young Alfred became king in 871 and defeated the Danes seven years later. The English continued to fight the Danes for several years as Danelaw governed in the east. Welsh bishop Asser wrote a biography of Alfred in 893. Alfred promoted literacy and translation of books into English. Alfred unified much of England by revising the laws of Ine of Wessex, Offa of Mercia, and Aethelberht of Kent.

The Old English epic Beowulf depicted warriors in Scandinavia, warning that punishment will follow wrong-doing after death if not in life. Irish myths and sagas of this era are also violent and depict cattle raids. Only Druids can calm down Cu Chulaind. Ireland had been Christian since Patrick's mission in the 5th century, but local kings struggled for power; even monasteries fought each other between 760 and 824. Viking raids began in 795, and the Norse ruled Dublin from 851 until 902. John Scotus Erigena came from Ireland to the court of Charles the Bald about 845. He translated Christian works from Greek into Latin and synthesized Greek philosophy with Christian theology in his On the Division of Nature. His mystical panentheist theology was cited by Cathar heretics, and the book was burned in 1210. John Scotus showed how vices can be transformed into virtues by divine grace.

Adventurous Vikings raided from ships, and before 900 Norway's king Harald Fairhair claimed Shetland and the Orkney islands. Rolf (Rollo) settled in Normandy, was recognized as duke by Frank king Charles the Simple in 911, and was baptized. Swedes invaded Denmark about 900 and ruled it until 936. Haakon was brought up by England's king Athelstan as a Christian and forced Erik Bloodaxe out of Norway. Haakon was called the Good and formulated laws. Haakon urged his subjects to practice Christianity; but he was resisted and was killed during a Danish invasion about 961. Dane king Harald Bluetooth became a Christian but was overthrown by his son Svein Forkbeard. Svein attacked Norway and the Swedes occupying Denmark. Norway's Olaf Tryggvason joined Svein Forkbeard in an attack on London in 994. Olaf accepted silver and became a Christian. Olaf was elected king of Norway and spread Christianity by force, but he died in a sea battle against Denmark and Sweden in 1000.

Iceland had law for four regions by 965 and became Christian in the year 1000. Greenland had been named by Erik the Red, and about 1000 Erik's son Leif explored Vinland (North America). Svein Forkbeard continued to attack England and collected large amounts of silver. Danish king Knut ruled England from 1016 to 1035 and attacked Norway in 1028. Norway's king Magnus was called the Good for establishing the most progressive laws in Europe. Magnus also ruled Denmark before he died in 1047. Viking violence declined in the late 11th century as the royal armies enforced law, and fewer captives reduced slavery. The story of Denmark's king Knut IV (r. 1074-86) is told in the Knytlinga Saga. About 1075 Adam of Bremen described the customs of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. The three social classes were the aristocrats, free peasant farmers and warriors, and the thralls or serfs. Killing a thrall was not a major crime. Wise counsel was given in the "Sayings of the High One" (Havamal).

Edward (r 899-924) fought the Danes and expanded his English kingdom to the Humber River. Athelstan (r. 924-39) invaded Scotland. Edmund (r. 939-46) revised the laws so that a murderer's kinsmen would not be killed. King Edgar (r. 957-75) kept the peace and built more than forty monasteries. In 990 England began paying large amounts of silver to placate Viking raiders, but the fighting continued. In 1016 the Dane Knut became king of all England. After Knut died in 1035, there was a struggle because his son Hordaknut was in Denmark. In 1042 Danish rule in England ended as Edward was elected king.

The Frank empire had disintegrated into feudal government by local nobles, whose power and land was hereditary. The Church also held much land, but many bishops were part of the feudal system. In 910 the monastery at Cluny was founded, and it promoted many reforms such as celibacy for clergy while rejecting simony and secular control. Frank king Lothair (r. 954-86) survived an invasion by German emperor Otto II in 978. Hugh Capet became king in 987, and the Peace of God was declared by a church council two years later. Hugh's son Robert II (r. 996-1031) ruled France and invaded Burgundy, finally conquering it in 1015. Robert made peace with Germany's Heinrich II, and in 1027 the Truce of God was proclaimed, restricting the days on which military attacks were allowed. Robert's son Henri I (r. 1031-60) refused to obey the Truce of God, and his brother, Burgundy duke Robert I (r. 1032-76), even pillaged his own vassals and the Church. Philip I became king of France at the age of eight in 1060, and he was excommunicated in 1094 for bigamy. In the 11th century Christians in northern Spain won many victories against the Muslims; but they also fought each other, as in the war of the three Sanchos in 1067. Leon's Alfonso VI (r. 1065-1109) took over Castile in 1072. He gave Jews civil equality with Christians. After Christians took over Toledo in 1085, Almoravids from North Africa occupied eastern Spain.

Germans also developed feudal relationships to protect themselves from incursions by the Magyars. The Saxon Heinrich (r. 919-36) ruled Germany, defeated the Magyars, and was succeeded by his son Otto. As king Otto was served by vassals in Lotharingia, Franconia, Swabia, and Bavaria. Otto nominated bishops and had to put down revolts in Bavaria, Franconia, and Lotharingia. Magyars were defeated again and gradually became Hungarian Christians. Otto's army fought several civil wars, conquered Bohemia, and defeated Obodrites and Wends. Otto was crowned Emperor at Rome in 962 and spent the next decade in Italy. His son Otto II (r. 973-83) was Emperor of Germany and Italy, and his reign was preoccupied with wars. Otto III was only three years old, but his mother and grandmother as regents prevented civil war. By the time Duke Mieszko died in 992 Poland had expanded and gained religious independence from Germany by submitting to the Pope. Geza (r. 970-97) was succeeded as King of Hungary by his son Stephen (r. 997-1038), who promoted Christianity. Duke Heinrich of Bavaria refrained from rebelling against Otto III, who died in 1002. Literature began to emerge; but the strife in poems reflected the feudal rivalries and violence. The nun Hrotsvitha wrote moral Christian plays based on Roman models, but they were not performed.

In 882 Oleg united Russian tribes in Kiev, and his son Igor (r. 913-45) attacked Constantinople in 941; Igor's ruling widow Olga became a Christian in 957. Sviatoslav (r. 962-72) allied with the Byzantines for an attack on the Bulgarian kingdom in 968. Vladimir won a succession struggle about 980 and ruled until 1015. Vladimir married a Byzantine princess and became a Christian in 988 as thousands were baptized. Yaroslav (r. 1019-54) won a civil war and gained some peace for Russia after defeating the Pechenegs in 1037. His many sons struggled with divided rule until his grandson Vladimir Monomakh got the princes to agree on unity in 1097.

In the 10th century most of the Popes were pawns in the Italian politics of kings of Italy, German emperors, and others who were able to grab power temporarily. Berengar as king of Italy (r. 898-924) had King Louis of Provence blinded. Intriguing Marozia had her power taken by her son Alberic II, who governed Rome from 932 to 954. The three German Ottos used imperial troops to control much of Italy. Heinrich II was made King of the Lombards in 1004 and was crowned Emperor ten years later. Traveling Normans came to help fight Saracens in Apulia and Sicily. German king Conrad decreed feudal law at Pavia in 1037, defining the rights and obligations of vassals. Venice developed its commerce and built a powerful navy, serving as bridge and arbiter between the Byzantine and Western empires. Three families ruled Venice until Domenico Flabanico (r. 1032-43) gave power to the assembly.

German king Heinrich II (r. 1002-24) invaded Bohemia and Burgundy, and he extended more secular power to bishops. The army of Conrad II (r. 1024-39) ravaged Italy. Heinrich III (r. 1039-56) invaded Bohemia and Hungary, and he helped Casimir (r. 1039-58) restore Poland. Agnes ruled Germany as regent for her six-year-old son Heinrich IV. As archbishops were taking control, Heinrich IV was declared of age in 1065. He found himself at war with the Saxons and was excommunicated in 1076 by Pope Gregory VII over his privilege of investiture. Faced with losing his kingdom, Heinrich repented; but Swabia was devastated by civil war. Heinrich IV invaded Italy in 1081 and was crowned Emperor by alternative Pope Clement III. By 1088 peace had been achieved, and German bishops accepted Pope Urban II while disregarding Heinrich's excommunication. In 1095 Heinrich IV protected the rights of Jews with a decree.

In Italy the ascetic monk Peter Damian systematized self-flagellation and led the movement for the Cluny reforms to eliminate concubinage, simony, and the use of arms by clerics. In 1059 a Lateran council of 113 bishops established the electoral power of the cardinal bishops, but none from Germany had attended. When Pope Alexander II was elected in 1061, Heinrich IV as Patrician invested Pope Honorius II. Normans drove the Byzantines out of Italy in 1071 by defeating their fleet. Alexander's advisor Hildebrand became Pope Gregory VII in 1073. He enforced clerical celibacy by deposing priests, though a Paris synod rejected his decrees. Gregory VII asserted his papal authority over bishops and even emperors, declaring that no one could retract his sentences nor judge him and that the Church had never erred. In 1076 Heinrich IV got a council at Worms to depose Gregory for treason and witchcraft. The Pope then excommunicated and deposed Heinrich, and Germans induced him to humble himself in penitence. Eventually a civil war broke out between rival Popes and rival German kings. Gregory was reconciled with the Norman Guiscard, whose forces drove Heinrich IV out of Rome in 1084; but both Gregory and Guiscard died the next year. Pope Urban II allied himself with the Welfs of Bavaria, and a long struggle began between the papal Guelfs and the imperialist Ghibellines.

England's king Edward (r. 1042-66) the Confessor had been raised by Norman clergy in monasteries and encouraged Norman influence. Harold helped defeat Welsh incursions and became king of England in 1066. That year Norway's king Harald with 300 ships invaded Yorkshire, but Harold's English army defeated them at Stamford Bridge. Three days later William's Normans invaded England in about 500 ships. King Harold led his army of about 7,000; but at Hastings they were defeated, and he was killed. William was anointed King of England by the Archbishop of York. William imposed heavy taxes and crushed any resistance as women fled into monasteries to avoid being raped. Danes and Norwegians invaded to support English resistance; but in 1070 they made a treaty with William and left. Scots raided, but two years later King Malcolm became William's vassal. Most English institutions continued as the Norman warriors dominated the landed aristocracy. A decree prohibited peasants from hunting in the royal forest. The famous Domesday Survey assessed estates, and landowners had to swear fealty to the king. In 1087 William died in France and passed the throne of England to his son William Rufus. He suppressed a rebellion and increased taxes. He resolved a conflict with his brother, Duke Robert of Normandy, and they defeated and divided the Normandy lands of their younger brother Heinrich in 1091. William II also fought battles against the Scots and Welsh, and he put down a Northumbrian tax revolt.

Crusades Era 1095-1250

In 1095 Pope Urban II answered a call for help from the Byzantines by proclaiming a crusade to take Jerusalem back from the Muslims and offering absolution of sins. As the crusaders passed through Hungary led by Walter Sans-Avoir and Peter the Hermit, increasing difficulties caused violence and many deaths. In Germany crusaders robbed and killed Jews. Crusaders stopped at Constantinople, and then about 17,000 were killed in an ambush by Turks near Nicaea; Emperor Alexius sent warships to rescue besieged survivors. Hugh of Vermandois, Raymond of Toulouse, and most crusader leaders swore allegiance to Alexius. Modern scholars estimate the total number of crusaders at about 7,000 knights and 60,000 infantry. Baldwin invaded Armenia and became count of Edessa. Most crusaders besieged Antioch and suffered starvation; when the city was taken in 1098, all its Turks were massacred. As the crusaders left the Norman Bohemond behind to rule Antioch, the Egyptian Fatimids invaded Palestine and took over Jerusalem; they offered Christian pilgrims access to holy places, but the crusaders rejected this. In 1099 1300 knights and 12,000 crusading soldiers attacked Jerusalem, and nearly 40,000 people were massacred, including women and children. Godfrey of Lorraine was elected and called himself Defender of the Holy Sepulcher; he distributed estates to knights, and Italian ships began trading.

Godfrey died in 1100, and Baldwin became king of Jerusalem. Bohemond's army was annihilated, and he was captured. More crusaders came, and under Raymond of Toulouse they tried to free Bohemond; but most of their large army of perhaps 100,000 were killed by the Danishmends and Kilij Arslan's Seljuks. Two other crusading armies were also slaughtered by a large Turkish army. Edessa count Baldwin II and Patriarch Bernard paid 100,000 bezants to get Bohemond released. He and King Baldwin fought each other, and crusaders fought Byzantines. Bohemond went to Apulia and France to raise 34,000 crusaders against the Byzantines but was defeated by their navy at Dyrrhachium in 1107. Persian sultan Berkyaruk launched a counter crusade in 1110, and the Muslim army recaptured Edessa but could not take Antioch. John Comnenus (r. 1118-43) succeeded his father Alexius as Emperor in Constantinople and went on fighting the Turks in Asia Minor. As crusaders and Muslims continued to fight, a new order of Templars was authorized by Pope Honorius II in 1128 to add to the previously ordained military order known as the Hospitallers of St. John.

After a struggle for power among the Muslims, Zengi emerged to conquer Christian cities, killing and enslaving Franks when Edessa was taken in 1144. Zengi was murdered two years later, but his son Nur-ad-Din ruled Aleppo and won many victories. John's son Manuel (r. 1143-80) used the Byzantine army to keep Raymond of Antioch out of Cilicia. After Joscelin regained Edessa, Nur-ad-Din's forces again slaughtered and enslaved Franks in retaking it. This stimulated the second crusade that was proclaimed by Pope Eugenius in 1145. France's Louis VII took up the cause and sent Bernard of Clairvaux out preaching. Again Jews were massacred in Germany, though Bernard went there to try to redirect the energy to converting Slavs. Emperor Conrad led a large army through Hungary, but most of them were slaughtered by Seljuk Turks. Roger's Normans plundered Greek cities. Louis foolishly attacked Damascus, which had been the Franks ally, but Conrad persuaded him to withdraw. As he returned to Europe, Louis in Sicilian ships was attacked by Byzantines and blamed Manuel; but Conrad would not support a crusade against his friend Manuel. Nur-ad-Din's forces defeated and killed Raymond of Antioch in 1149. Nur-ad-Din was known for dispensing justice at Aleppo and Damascus, and he founded colleges, convents, and a hospital. When Emperor Manuel and Jerusalem king Baldwin III made an alliance, Nur-ad-Din returned 6,000 captives.

Jerusalem king Amalric (r. 1163-74) invaded Egypt twice; but in 1169 Nur-ad-Din's friend Saladin gained control of Egypt and made trade agreements with Pisans, Genoese, and Venetians. King Amalric made a treaty with the Byzantine emperor in 1170; but the next year Manuel ordered Venetians arrested. In 1176 Manuel fled from Turks and suffered a disastrous loss of territory in Asia Minor as the Byzantine empire deteriorated under rule by a military class. In 1182 the army revolted against the Latin empress Maria and slaughtered Italian merchants.

Raid of a Muslim caravan by Reginald stimulated Egyptian sultan Saladin to capture 1500 pilgrims. Saladin took Aleppo in 1183 and resided at Damascus, but he used diplomacy to make agreements with Bohemond III of Antioch, the Seljuk sultan, and the Byzantines. Reginald raided another caravan, and in 1187 Saladin defeated the Frank army and then captured many cities in Palestine including Jerusalem. This news caused European Christians to stop their wars and launch the third crusade led by Germany's Friedrich, England's Richard, and France's Philip. Friedrich died near Seleucia. Richard stopped in Sicily to protect his sister Joan's dowry and then took Cyprus by force from Isaac Comnenus. In 1191 Richard and Philip relieved the 100,000 crusaders trapped by Saladin's army while besieging Acre. A dispute caused Philip to go home. Richard sold Cyprus and the next year made a truce with Saladin, agreeing to let Christians and Muslims have access to holy places. While returning Richard was captured in Austria and was not ransomed until 1194. Saladin had died in 1193, and his sons struggled for power.

Pope Innocent III urged a fourth crusade that was aimed at Cairo. Venetians offered transportation for money; when the payment was short, they got the crusaders to help them retake Zara from the Hungarians in 1202. Exiled Alexius sent word he would pay Venice for putting him on the Byzantine throne. The crusaders conquered Constantinople in 1203. The Latins were resented, and the next year the Franks and Venetians plundered the city and elected Count Baldwin IX of Flanders and Hainault Latin emperor. The Byzantine empire was divided up. Eventually crusaders invaded Egypt in 1218. Friedrich II finally went on crusade in 1229 and made a peace treaty, giving Muslims access to Jerusalem; but civil war broke out in Palestine and Cypress. Egyptian ruler Aiyub hired a Khorezmian army of 10,000 and sacked Jerusalem in 1244. The Khorezmians turned against Aiyub and besieged him at Damascus; but they were defeated by the Egyptians. France's Louis IX supported and led a crusade that captured Damietta in Egypt in 1249. After famine and disease, the crusading army was captured, and Louis was ransomed for the enormous amount of 800,000 bezants.

Germany's Heinrich IV was overthrown by his son, who became Heinrich V shortly before his father died in 1106. Heinrich V gained a rich dowry by marrying England's Norman princess Matilda, enabling him to invade Italy and become Emperor. His disrespect for Pope Paschal, taxes, mistreatment of nobles, and failed military campaigns in Poland and Hungary alienated many, and a revolt in Germany defeated his imperial army in 1115. Heinrich V went to Italy again to claim lands of the late Countess Matilda of Tuscany and replaced the Pope. In 1122 the Diet at Worms finally settled the investiture controversy with a compromise. Heinrich's attempted invasion of France with England in 1124 failed, and he died the next year. The Hohenstaufens made Conrad king in 1127 to challenge Lothar III, and civil war dragged on until 1135. Lothar died two years later returning from an attack on the Normans in Italy. Conrad became king, and civil wars erupted again. These with famines, epidemics, and a second crusade led to anti-Jewish pogroms in 1146. Conrad survived the crusade, made a treaty with Welf VI, and died in 1152.

Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa (r. 1152-90) tried to bring justice through law by prohibiting private feuds. Bishop Otto of Freising wrote a history of Friedrich's early reign, and in his Two Cities he noted that the contemporary church was a mixture of good and evil, not as good as the early church but more fortunate in its power. Friedrich intervened in the election of bishops to appoint capable administrators for his empire. He proclaimed strict enforcement of feudal law in Germany and Italy, and he endowed universities to train lawyers. Heinrich the Lion ruled northeast Germany and helped the Danes conquer the Wends beyond the Elbe.

As Italian cities developed more independence with communes, the Normans under Roger II expanded their Sicilian empire in Greece and Africa. In 1154 Pope Adrian IV banished the radical Arnold of Brescia from Rome. Germany's new king Friedrich Barbarossa invaded Italy the next year, and as Emperor he conquered Milan in 1158, promising feudal rights; but he had Milan destroyed in 1162 for resisting taxes. Friedrich invaded Italy again in 1167, and even Venice joined the Greater Lombard League; but the Lombards did not defeat the German imperial army until 1176, forcing Friedrich at Venice to make a treaty with Pope Alexander III. Alexander presided over the Third Lateran Council that tried to reform abuses and prevent anti-popes in 1179. When Friedrich died on crusade in 1190, his son Heinrich VI already had much experience governing. Heinrich renewed a treaty with Pisa in 1191, and he used the ransom he got for releasing England's Richard to finance his campaign to conquer Sicily in 1194; but his harsh rule caused rebellions, and Heinrich VI died in 1197.

         Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) used a struggle for power in Germany to regain papal privileges. Italian cities in the Tuscan League were often ruled by foreign podestas elected annually. After Friedrich II promised not to interfere in ecclesiastical affairs, the fourth Lateran Council of 1215 confirmed him as Emperor. Innocent urged yet another crusade, and the council confirmed the Inquisition against the Cathar heretics. Gratian’s codification of church election laws was accepted. Clerics were given a dress code, and Jews were forbidden to hold civil offices. Italian cities were dividing between Guelfs supporting the Pope and Ghibellines favoring the Emperor. The Teutonic Order was formed to conquer Prussia. Friedrich II founded a university at Naples in 1224 for the study of law. Many Italian cities and communes joined the Lombard League. Returning from the crusade, Friedrich invaded the papal states; Pope Gregory IX (1227-41) reacted by sending an army to attack the Sicilian kingdom. In 1231 Friedrich tried to replace feudal customs by imposing imperial laws that attempted to prevent crime by protecting the weak from the strong. Widows and orphans were subsidized. Fairs were established, and customs were reduced to promote trade. Friedrich’s imperial army, using 10,000 Saracens, defeated the Lombard League at Cortenuova in 1237. Friedrich taxed papal territories, and his war against Gregory IX was resumed by Pope Innocent IV (1243-54). The imperial treasure was captured in 1248, but the war did not end until Friedrich died in 1250.

         Denmark fought with the Wends and Abodrites, and King Valdemar (r. 1157-82) converted the Wends to Christianity by force of arms. Norway’s king Magnus III (r. 1093-1103) was disliked for the heavy taxes used to pay for his wars. After 1130 Norway suffered frequent civil wars over the throne. English cardinal Nicholas Breakspear visited Norway as papal legate in 1152, established an archbishopric at Nidaros (Trondheim), and instituted reforms. After a civil war King Sverrir (r. 1184-1202) quelled rebellions, repudiated the religious reforms, and was excommunicated. Sweden also suffered civil wars as the church developed. Svealand king Erik Jedvardsson promulgated strict laws, and his son Knut (r. 1167-96) became king of Sweden, organized the church, and fortified Stockholm. Iceland initiated tithing to support the church in 1097 and revised its democratic laws in 1118. Guilds developed in Scandinavia as in Europe and were important economic and social institutions. Clerical celibacy was resisted in the 12th century, especially by the Scandinavians.

         Denmark’s Valdemar II (r. 1202-41) expanded the kingdom and developed a law code. Abuses by Hungarian king Andrew II (r. 1205-35) led in 1221 to the national charter of rights called the Golden Bull. In 1239 the Mongol invasion pushed 40,000 Kumans into the Hungary of Bela IV (r. 1235-70), who found it useful to protect Jews and cede territory to Austria. Many Germans immigrated into Bohemia during the reign of Wenceslas (r. 1230-53) with their sense of law. Poland had suffered from German aggression, Lithuanians, and raids from Mongols in 1241 and 1259. Mongols destroyed Kiev in 1240 and dominated much of Russia for two centuries. Alexander helped Novgorod defeat invading Swedes in 1240, and two years later they turned away Teutonic knights.

         Hungary was ruled by King Coloman (r. 1095-1116) and his relatives, some of whom were blinded. Bela III (r. 1173-96) married Margaret of France, and Magyar students attended the university in Paris. The Premyslid dynasty dominated Bohemia, and Duke Vladislav I became a German elector. Duke Vladislav II (r. 1140-73) supported Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa’s campaign against Milan in 1158 and was crowned king; but after he abdicated, civil wars divided Bohemia. Poland’s Boleslaw III (r. 1102-38) did homage to the German Emperor; but his sons fought civil wars. Vladimir Monomakh became prince of Kiev in 1113 and made war against his neighbors; he reduced interest rates and expelled Jews. Many struggled for power until Vsévolod III (r. 1176-1212) became Russia’s Grand Prince. The anonymous Lay of Igor’s Campaign blamed Igor’s defeat by the Kumans in 1185 on the Russian princes’ quarrels.

France's Louis VI (r. 1108-37) suppressed a commune at Laon in 1113, but others sprang up. He used a large army to fend off Germany and England in 1124. Flanders count Charles (r. 1119-27) protected the weak and farmers, and he outlawed bearing arms in markets or towns; but he was murdered in a feud. Louis VII (r. 1137-80) gained Aquitane by marrying Eleanor but lost it after annulment. When Louis went on crusade in 1147, Abbot Suger governed a more peaceful France. Suger promoted building majestic cathedrals, arguing they helped people understand the beauty of God. In 1163 Flanders count Philip of Alsace declared all in towns free, and this principle became part of urban constitutions. Philip II (r. 1180-1223) seized the wealth of Jews and canceled Christian debts to them. In 1183 a revolution for equality in Puy-en-Velay was destroyed by nobles and clergy using mercenaries.

Philip II Augustus (r. 1180-1223) greatly expanded the kingdom of France and made it a centralized state. The University of Paris was completely organized by 1215. Louis VIII (r. 1223-26) stopped the Jews from collecting debts. The religious Blanche ruled for her son Louis IX until 1234. He prohibited vassals from being judged in ecclesiastical courts for civil questions, and in 1246 a league of barons limited ecclesiastical courts even more. Copies of the Talmud were burned in Paris. Louis IX made truces with England’s Henry III and spent much treasure on the crusade he led.

When Castilian nobility refused to accept an Aragonese ruler, Queen Urraca (r. 1109-26) separated from her husband Alfonso I (1104-34) of Aragon. 'Ali Ibn Yusuf (r. 1106-43) expanded his father's Almoravid empire. Castile's Alfonso VII (r. 1126-57) invaded Aragon and conquered Zaragoza but lost it in 1140. In Morocco ibn Tumart was influenced by the philosopher al-Ghazzali and founded a unity sect; the Christians called them Almohads. Alfonso VII reconquered Muslim Cordoba in 1144; but two years later the Almohads invaded Spain, overthrew the Almoravids in Andalusia, and regained Cordoba in 1149. Portugal's Afonso Henriques (r. 1128-85) got help from crusaders in taking Santarém and Lisbon from the Muslims in 1147. While Castile suffered civil war, Muslims advanced. Orders of knights were founded, and the shrine at Santiago was protected. The Almohad caliph Ya'qub (r. 1184-99) defeated the army of Castille's Alfonso VIII (r. 1158-1214) at Alarcos in 1196.

Anselm was the abbot of the Bec monastery and wrote to increase faith in God with philosophical arguments that God is the greatest being. King William Rufus appointed Anselm archbishop of Canterbury, and they struggled for authority. William II ruled England and Normandy with a strong hand but was killed and was succeeded by his brother Henry I (r. 1100-35). In 1106 he defeated Robert Curthose in Normandy and continued to suppress civil wars there. David (r. 1124-53) brought the feudal system to Scotland by allocating land. Henry's nephew Stephen (r. 1135-54) claimed the throne and stopped David's invasion of Cumberland and Northumberland; civil war against Henry's daughter Matilda raged for nine years. Henry of Anjou gained much of France by marrying Eleanor of Aquitane and succeeded Stephen as king.

Henry II (r. 1154-89) ruled Normandy, Anjou, and Aquitane as well as England. He destroyed unlicensed castles and kept the peace by enforcing law, making Thomas Becket his chancellor. France's Louis VII kept Henry from taking Toulouse. When Henry II appointed his friend Archbishop of Canterbury, Becket directed his energy to protecting the privileges of the church. Henry wanted the clergy to be subject to the authority of secular law courts. Becket disagreed and fled to France. In 1165 Henry II invaded Wales and had hostages mutilated. Henry's invasion of Auvergne led to conflict with France. Henry II married his daughters to Heinrich of Saxony, Alfonso VIII of Castile, and William II of Sicily. Pope Alexander tried to reconcile Henry II and Becket, but the latter upon his return was murdered in Canterbury cathedral. Henry invaded Ireland in 1171 before making reparations for the murder. Two years later Prince Henry and his brothers Geoffrey and Richard rebelled and were supported by Louis VII, Count Philip of Flanders, King William of Scotland, and four English earls. Henry II was scourged at Canterbury for the murder of Becket, already declared a saint. William was defeated; England submitted; and Louis made peace. Henry forgave his sons and made sure they each had land. Richard destroyed unlicensed castles, and John was made feudal lord of Ireland. The powerful Henry II mediated truces in Europe. Yet Richard and France's young king Philip II defeated Henry II, who then died.

Richard (r. 1189-99) sold offices to finance his crusade and left his brother John and Ely bishop Longchamp to govern; but Rouen archbishop Walter of Coutances was authorized to replace Longchamp. London became a self-governing commune. When Richard returned in 1194, he had to defeat a rebellion that had made John king. Then Richard successfully fought Philip for Normandy and Aquitane. The author Gerald tried to make the Welsh church independent of Canterbury but did not succeed.

When Richard was killed, John (r. 1199-1216) became king of England. He continued the war against Philip II and eventually lost Normandy. John built up the English navy by requiring military service. Stephen Langton remained in exile for six years, because John refused to accept him as Archbishop of Canterbury while seizing its revenues. York archbishop Geoffrey opposed the King's tax and also fled England. King John was excommunicated in 1209. Meanwhile John was using church revenues to finance his military campaigns in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Faced with invasion by France, John reinstated the exiled clergy and compensated the church. In 1213 English and Flemish knights destroyed France's navy. Barons refused to support John's invasion of Aquitane, and in 1215 they demanded a charter of rights as Archbishop Stephen Langton mediated a truce. The Magna Carta became famous as a breakthrough in human rights. The church was guaranteed free elections; feudal abuses were reformed; widows were protected; war taxes could not be imposed without consent; a permanent court was established for lawsuits; no one could be put on trial without witnesses; and the right of trial by a jury of peers was guaranteed.

Pope Innocent III tried to annul the charter with excommunications; but Archbishop Langton rejected that. This conflict led to the barons fighting John's royal army until he died in 1216. The elderly William Marshal became regent and worked to resolve the civil war until he died in 1219. Archbishop Langton helped unify the church and conciliate the political conflicts until young Henry III came of age. England's Henry III (r. 1227-72) married the sister of Louis IX's wife, and so relations with France were fairly peaceful. Enforcement of the Great Charter's liberties by threat of excommunication also added to law and order. Henry's armies invaded Wales in 1241 and 1245. Henry III took nearly half the assets of Jews in taxes. Bishop Grosseteste complained to Pope Innocent IV in 1250 that so much English wealth was going for papal privileges, and he criticized the use of clerics for secular administration.

Christians in western Europe developed their ethical theories during the crusades era. Abelard taught theology at Paris and married his student Heloise but was castrated by her uncle. She became a nun; his ethics emphasized intention, self-knowledge, and traditional virtues. Abelard was prosecuted for heresy in 1140 by the Cistercian monk Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard was the chief advisor to Pope Eugenius and wrote him five letters on what he should consider, examining himself and serving others. Abbot Aelred of Rievaulx is best known for his book Spiritual Friendship, which is based on moral goodness and tests loyalty, right intention, discretion, and patience. John of Salisbury wrote Policraticus on politics and was Becket’s secretary at Canterbury. John believed that usurping tyrants should be killed, and he criticized the venality of courtiers. He warned against luxury and ambition. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a visionary nun who prophesied that the temporal powers would be punished for their greed. She emphasized feminine virtues and suggested that not eating mammals helped prevent lust. Hildegard composed music, chants, and an operatic morality play. She wrote on healing using the theory of the four humors, and she catalogued herbs.

Peter Valdes gave away his wealth to live in poverty according to the Gospels. His followers were called Waldensians and were excommunicated in 1182. The Cathars, like the Manichaeans, attempted to purify themselves from evil; they considered the papacy and priesthood corrupt. They were declared heretics, and some were burned as early as 1167. Their initiated perfecti renounced sexual intercourse, violence, and animal food in order to be liberated from reincarnation. Persecution of Cathars accelerated after the third Lateran council of 1179. Yet 600 Cathar perfecti met at Mirepoix in 1206. Two years later Pope Innocent III proclaimed the Albigensian crusade against heretics in that region and offered indulgence for military service. Thousands were slaughtered at Béziers; Narbonne submitted, and Carcassonne was attacked the next year. Hundreds were burned for heresy in 1210. The war became the north against the south as the army of Pedro II’s Aragon supported Toulouse. Louis VIII died leading this crusade in 1226. Many Cathars emigrated to Lombardy while others held out at Montségur. In 1233 Pope Gregory IX authorized the Dominican Order to launch the Inquisition against heretics, who were denied their rights and had their property confiscated. After some inquisitors were murdered, Montségur was besieged in 1243 and surrendered ten months later.

Dominic was from Castile but gained attention preaching against Albigensian heretics. His preaching converted Waldensians, and their order of Poor Catholics was approved by the Pope in 1208. Dominic's order of poor preachers was confirmed in Rome in 1217, and they were called friars (brothers). By the time Dominic died in 1221 the friaries had spread to Poland, Scandinavia, Palestine, Spain, Provence, France, Lombardy, and England.

Francis of Assisi wanted to be a knight and fought in two wars; but in 1205 a vision guided him to serve God instead. As a pilgrim to Rome he mingled with beggars and lepers, and he was inspired to repair a broken-down church in Assisi. When his wealthy father complained, Francis gave up all his possessions. His first disciples joined his begging life to help the poor in 1208, and Francis wrote a Rule the next year for the Friars Minor. Clare organized an order for poor sisters. In 1219 Francis went on the crusade to Egypt, preached against killing, and tried to convert the Sultan. In Palestine he got an eye infection. The Rule of Francis required brothers to avoid temporal affairs and accept no money. The ascetic way of Francis was hard on his body, which he called Brother Ass, and he suffered many infirmities. Francis died in 1226, warning his disciples of coming tribulations. The spirituals objected to minister general Elias living in luxury like a prince, and he was deposed in 1239. Clare's Rule for the Poor Ladies was also approved by the Pope before she died in 1253. Robert Grosseteste developed the theory for the modern experimental method of science. He taught Roger Bacon, who knew how to make gun powder as early as 1242.

European literature emerged out of its dark ages in the 12th century. French literature came alive with the epic Song of Roland, which was written early during the crusades, probably as propaganda for them and the Spanish reconquista effort. The current hero of the latter was also immortalized in the epic Poem of the Cid. Other epics were also written about Charlemagne and Guillaume, who fought Saracens as well. Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote in Latin his History of the Kings of Britain in 1136 and was the first to develop the legends of King Arthur. His literary efforts gave the British a national tradition even if it was mostly legendary. Welsh tales were eventually collected in the Mabinogion, and they included magical fantasies.

The troubadours sang bawdy songs before audiences, but their poems and songs developed into the tradition of courtly love. Commentaries (razos) and political poems (sirventes) often criticized current customs. Some romances were based on classical models. The court chaplain Andreas Capellanus in his book On Love (De Amore) wrote about the theory of romantic love. He described how heterosexual love can be won by beauty, honest character, wisdom and eloquent speech, wealth, and granting what the other wants. In dialogs men of different classes try to persuade women to love them. In the third book, however, Andreas strongly argued that sensual love is far inferior to the love of God. Marie de France wrote romantic stories in French verse called Lais, which contain moral lessons. The fabliaux tales were often more sexual, scatological, and violent; the most popular of these were of Reynard the fox and other animals struggling to survive.

Between 1170 and 1190 Chrétien de Troyes wrote five Arthurian romances in French with rhymed octosyllabic couplets. Erec and Enide explores the tension between the deep feelings of love in marriage and a knight's duties of chivalry. In Cliges a Byzantine prince is educated at the court of Arthur, falls in love, and is able to take the woman away from the Duke of Saxony. In The Knight of the Cart Lancelot falls in love with Queen Guinevere. The Knight with the Lion is about Yvain of Arthur's court. He falls in love with the widow Laudine, but he is so preoccupied with chivalrous heroics that he forgets to come back to her as he promised. Chrétien left The Story of the Grail about Perceval unfinished. Perceval is also distracted from his spiritual aspiration by chivalrous combats. This knight's quest for the grail was continued by several other poets.

The anonymous German epic Nibelungenlied tells the violent story of Siegfried and how his widow Kriemhild got revenge for his murder. Wolfram von Eschenbach was a knight and wrote the long poem Parzival about his quest for the grail. Parzival is so eager to fight that he jousts with Gawan and battles his own brother Feirefiz before he learns who they are. Parzival learns the chivalry of a knight and becomes the grail king. In his epic poem Willehalm Wolfram celebrated the warfare of chivalry by retelling the story of Charlemagne's cousin Guillaume, who was defeated by the Muslims at Alischanz but then organized a campaign that was victorious. The satire Meier Helmbrecht by Wernher der Gartenaere shows how the crimes of errant knights were starting to be punished by the force of law.

Several versions of the romance of Tristan and Isolde survived, but none of them is complete. The longest and most profound is the poem Tristan in German by Gottfried von Strassburg. In this story the power of passionate love is symbolized as a drug that causes Tristan and Isolde to fall in desperate love even though she marries King Mark. The long French prose Lancelot is an analogous story of the illicit love for a queen. Lancelot's story is continued in the religious allegory The Quest of the Holy Grail that tells of his son Galahad, whose purity is contrasted to the sin of his father. Other knights are also too sinful, but Galahad is joined on his quest by Bors and Perceval. In The Death of Arthur Lancelot resumes his love affair with Queen Guinevere, eventually causing a civil war in Arthur's kingdom. Arthur is betrayed by his own son Mordred, and they kill each other. The noble ideals of Camelot could not withstand the vices and violence of the knights.

Snorri Sturluson (1178-1241) was born in Iceland and was its law-speaker for twelve years. He became the richest man in Iceland but made enemies and was eventually murdered. Snorri wrote about Norse myths in the Prose Edda and Norwegian legends and history in his Heimskringla. The pagan myths claim to be from Asia and are rather violent with gods in conflict and sometimes betraying each other. Snorri Sturluson also wrote Egil's Saga about his poetic ancestor Egil Skallagrimsson. The Icelandic sagas are essentially historical novels about Norse families in the 10th and 11th centuries. Egil kills many men but manages to claim much property. The anonymous Laxdaela Saga portrays a family feud and shows women exerting much influence. The Eyrbyggja Saga depicts the struggle between the Viking feuds and the development of law and democracy in Iceland as Christianity gradually replaced blood feuds. Njal's Saga is about a skillful lawyer who tries to reduce violence with lawsuits and compensation for murders; he accepts Christianity but ends up being burned in his home.

Theater was reborn in the West in the 12th century as an outgrowth of religious liturgies. Biblical plays and lives of saints were presented on holy days. Comedy burst forth in plays about Saint Nicholas.

Eastern Europe 1250-1400
Catholic Ethics 1250-1400
Northern Europe 1250-1400
Italy 1250-1400
Western Europe 1250-1400
British Isles 1250-1400

Evaluating Medieval Europe 610-1250

Evaluating the Roman Empire to 610

Though it was still called the Roman empire, even before the empire was revived by Heraclius (r. 610-41), it was really more Byzantine than Roman. The Byzantines frequently had to fight Muslim invaders; but unlike the Persian empire that was completely defeated, they survived. A controversy over whether images should be worshipped as icons caused conflict from the time of Emperor Leo III (r. 717-41) until 843. John of Damascus defended icons and applied Aristotle's philosophy to Christian theology. Bulgarians fought to have an independent empire and church. The Eastern Orthodox church gradually drew away from the Roman Catholic authority of the Pope, and the inability to resolve their differences kept them apart. Byzantine laws were completely revised under Emperor Leo VI (r. 886-912). The Emperor gained power along with an aristocracy of feudal lords over serfs, and guilds developed. The scholarly Constantine VII (r. 945-59) restored land to the peasants. Bulgaria was conquered and annexed to the Byzantine empire by John Tzimisces (r. 969-976). Basil II (r. 976-1025) invaded Macedonia and conquered the Balkans; but after him the Byzantine empire shrunk and suffered a major defeat by Muslim Turks in 1071. Alexius Comnenus (r. 1081-1118) became Emperor and appealed to the west for help, resulting in an invasion as much as an alliance.

Writings by Isidore of Seville provided some learning during Europe's darker ages. Charlemagne used military force to create a large Frank empire, and he encouraged some education with the writings of his advisor Alcuin. In the 9th century many battles caused the Frank empire to be divided into France, Germany, and other smaller kingdoms. The Catholic church under the Pope in Rome exerted authority and even political power through its hierarchy, while its monasteries kept learning alive in Latin. The Anglo-Saxon struggle for power in Britain gradually developed laws, some of which came from the Danish conquest in the eastern part of the island. King Alfred (r. 871-99) united much of England under his rule and encouraged literacy in English as well as Latin. The violent stories of the Old English epic Beowulf and of the Irish myths and sagas were the beginnings of a native literature. Two centuries passed between Isidore and John Scotus Erigena, who wrote the philosophical On the Division of Nature.

Viking raiding turned to conquest in 911 when Rolf's Normans settled in what came to be called Normandy. Haakon benefited Norway by formulating laws and urging his subjects to practice Christianity until he was killed during a Danish invasion about 961. Olaf Tryggvason spread Christianity in Norway by force at the end of the millennium, and it was adopted by Iceland, which already had democratic government. Scandinavia had laws to differentiate its three social classes. England developed its laws under kings Edmund (r. 939-46) and Edgar (r. 957-75) but had to fight off Danish invaders. As the Frank empire disintegrated in the 10th century, local nobles ruled according to the feudal hierarchy. The monastery at Cluny promoted reforms and exerted spiritual discipline. Church councils tried to limit the fighting of knights by proclaiming the Peace of God in 989 and the Truce of God in 1027. In the late 11th century Christian warriors in Spain fought Muslims.

Germans also used feudal loyalties to thwart Magyar invasions and fight each other for power. The Saxon Heinrich (r. 919-36) defeated the Magyars. His son Otto I (r. 936-73) was king of Germany and ruled Italy also as emperor as did Otto II and Otto III. More Hungarians converted as Stephen (r. 997-1038) promoted Christianity. Russians accepted Christianity when Vladimir converted in 988. Political intrigues in Rome corrupted most of the Popes in the 10th century. Under German kings Heinrich II (r. 1002-24), Conrad II (r. 1024-39), and Heinrich III (r. 1039-56) bishops gained more secular power, and German troops invaded Bohemia, Burgundy, and Hungary. Heinrich IV quarreled with Pope Gregory VII over investiture, faced civil war, and invaded Italy in 1081. The conflict between German imperialism and Papal authority would divide Italy for generations. After being ruled by Dane king Knut, England gained calm under Edward the Confessor (r. 1042-66); but then they were conquered by William's Normans, who became the governing aristocrats along with surviving barons.

The crusades began dramatically in 1095 with an appeal by Pope Urban II, and Byzantine emperor Alexius managed to get most of its leaders to swear loyalty to him. This colossal but misguided adventure resulted in extensive violence for nearly two centuries. Thousands were massacred when Jerusalem was taken in 1099 as the Franks and their Christian allies founded a kingdom in Palestine. Muslims reacted by launching a counter-crusade in 1110 and recaptured Edessa. Byzantine John Comnenus (r. 1118-43) fought the Turks in Asia Minor to maintain his empire. After Nur-ad-Din's forces recaptured Edessa a second time, Pope Eugenius proclaimed the second crusade in 1145. Once again Jews were slaughtered in Germany during preparations, and violence increased in the east. Crusader attempts to invade Egypt resulted in the rise of Saladin, whose forces captured many cities in Palestine. In the third crusade led by kings, Richard won little back in 1191. One of the effects of the crusades was to remove many warriors from Europe, which often enjoyed more peace as a result. The fourth crusade went awry with the Venetian navy and conquered Constantinople in 1203, breaking up the Byzantine empire. Crusades against Egypt in 1218 and 1249 were miserable failures. Attempts to make invading Mongols allies against the Muslims failed as most Mongols joined Islam. Public sentiment in Europe finally turned against the disastrous crusades, and the last of the crusaders were pushed out of Palestine in 1291.

Civil wars disturbed powerful Germany in the first half of the 12th century. However, Friedrich I (r. 1152-90) used law to prevent feuds in Germany and imposed new laws on Italy with his imperial army, battling the Lombard League. His son Heinrich VI made peace with the Lombards but extended German imperial rule all the way to Sicily in 1194. Cities gained some independence by forming communes. Flanders count Charles (r. 1119-27) made good reforms but was murdered. The authority of the church in France was demonstrated by the awe-inspiring cathedrals people built, and they were imitated throughout Europe. Yet one might ask whether people living in poor houses were building such monumental structures for worship or to aggrandize the clergy. Philip II (r. 1180-1223) seized the wealth of Jews, and a revolution for equality in Puy-en-Velay, like the radical policies of Arnold of Brescia, was put down by prelates as well as nobles using mercenaries. Nobles in Spain struggled for power and sometimes fought Muslims. Scandinavians suffered civil wars, spread Christianity on its frontiers by force, and refused to accept clerical celibacy. Conflicts also plagued eastern Europe and Russia. Urbanization increased guilds throughout Europe. England had strong kings who enforced law, but conflicting ambitions caused a civil war during the reign of Stephen (r. 1135-54). Henry II (r. 1154-89) was a powerful monarch and mediated some truces in Europe. His imposition of civil law on clergy was resisted by Becket, but the trend toward increasing governmental authority was clear.

European progress accelerated in the 13th century as national laws replaced feudalism. England’s King John had to agree to the basic legal rights of the Great Charter in 1215, and during the fairly peaceful reign of Henry III (r. 1227-72) elected parliament was instituted. In 1231 Friedrich II replaced feudal practices with imperial laws in Italy. The weak were protected, and commerce prospered with fairs and free trade. In the second half of the 13th century German princes elected foreigners as emperor, giving more regional independence. Italian cities gained strength with communes, podestas, and guilds, but they often fought each other. Shipping made Venice, Genoa, and Pisa wealthy and powerful. Philip II Augustus (r. 1180-1223) expanded and centralized France. The religious Louis IX led crusades but also instituted reforms at home to reduce private violence. Textile laborers organized in Flanders, and some emigrated. In Spain Christians reconquered all the Muslim kingdoms except Granada, which paid tribute. They also developed universities. Scandinavians gradually learned how to reduce civil wars by developing laws, and German influence through immigration promoted law also in eastern Europe.

The intellectual development of Europe was reborn in the 12th century as the advanced Arabic writings helped them rediscover the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. Abelard taught theology at Paris and by telling of his own difficult experiences encouraged self-knowledge. Abbot Aelred of Rievaulx described the spiritual friendship that many monks and nuns knew. John of Salisbury criticized political corruption. Hildegard of Bingen showed how a woman could excel as a visionary mystic, musician, dramatist, and healer. The horrible blight on the reputation of Christianity caused by the foreign crusades was matched by vicious persecution of the Cathars as heretics in the Albigensian crusade. The burning of pacifist initiates and the institution of the Inquisition to eliminate heretics showed the moral corruption, insecure folly, and ignorant intolerance of the church authorities. Dominic’s preaching order of brothers enabled them to be more active in interacting with society than reclusive monks. Francis of Assisi and his order of poor brothers concentrated even more on helping the poor in pure ways.

Epics like the French Song of Roland were the most significant early literature in the vernacular languages. Stories of Charlemagne and Guillaume fighting the Saracens and the poem of El Cid were probably used as propaganda to inspire crusaders. Songs by wandering troubadours expressed the feelings of romantic love that usually went beyond marriage. French Lais by Marie de France turned these stories into moral lessons. The cruder popular imagination could learn from the fabliaux and the many tales about Reynard the fox. The ideals of chivalry were expressed in the Arthurian romances pioneered by Geoffrey of Monmouth in Latin but developed with subtle sophistication in the French poetry of Chrétien de Troyes and the German poetry of Wolfram von Eschenbach. Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan and the long Lancelot cycle in French prose portrayed the difficulties and consequences of romantic passion when it was with a queen. Efforts to purify the behavior of knights with Christian values in a quest for the holy grail seemed to show that most knights were not ready to be saints. The Norse sagas portrayed their Viking culture and showed the development of their legal procedures and transformation by Christianity. The Bible and lives of the saints provided the material the church would accept as its liturgy spawned the rebirth of western theater.

After about five centuries of "dark ages" European civilization went through a tremendous development in the 12th and 13th centuries. The earlier synthesis between the Roman empire and Christianity continued, especially in the eastern Byzantine empire, where Greek was the educated language. In the west education was mostly through the Church and was in Latin. Religion was the dominant concern in this age of belief, and the culture may be considered dark because of its lack of science, literature and theater. The "barbarian" invasions that had overcome the western Roman empire brought new energy but mostly a "might is right" mentality. Christianity spread, but often it was by the threat of the sword. This combination produced the era of chivalry, a code of ethics and manners that glorified knights and their courage while attempting to restrain their baser instincts with a quest for virtue and public service, though this was by the profession of a soldier.

Peculiar religious values such as the worship of relics and holy places in Palestine led to the atrocious military campaigns of conquest known as crusades. Beginning with efforts to win back territory in Spain from the "infidel" Muslims, this "war fever" spread throughout Europe and motivated aristocrats and others to leave their homes for many years to travel great distances and fight for their religion. Crusades in northern and eastern Europe also spread Christianity in these ethically deplorable ways; but the long-term results in the Middle East proved to be a disastrous failure. Millions of lives were damaged and lost by this violence, and eventually the Muslims, who also believed they were fighting infidels, drove the crusaders out of Asia and were not much influenced by this negative expression of Christianity. The growing economic and technological power of western Europe influenced by Venice also used the fourth crusade to take control of Constantinople and most of the eastern empire for a time. Ironically, the educational development that was reborn in the west was greatly stimulated by the Arabic translations of Greek classics and the writings of Muslims that were propagated in the large library at Cordoba.

Gradually western Europe developed laws, as populations increased in size, commerce, technology, and social organization. The church was very influential, but secular society developed a feudal hierarchy of lords and vassals that could mobilize aristocratic knights armed with horses and better weapons for military campaigns. Peasants and serfs at the bottom of this system were little better than slaves. Efforts by Church authorities to curtail this violence did little, except that the crusades did send many warriors away from Europe for a time. The corruption of the Church by powerful bishops holding extensive lands even controlled monks such as the Cistercians by making them work as peasants. The new orders of preachers founded by Dominic and the example of Francis of Assisi, who lived in poverty to help the poor, challenged these traditions. Yet the persecution of the Cathars by the Inquisition was a terrible ethical blight on Christianity, and it was supported by many Dominicans and Franciscans.

The intellectual awakening of the 12th century in Europe has been called a renaissance and undoubtedly led to that larger cultural era. The founding of universities and the teachings of men like Abelard, Albertus, Thomas Aquinas, and Bonaventure produced a comprehensive synthesis of classical philosophy and Christian theology in the 13th century. Hildegard of Bingen also showed how much a brilliant woman could contribute. The ideas of Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon would lead to the development of science and advanced technology. In many ways this medieval synthesis was a peak of prosperity in Europe, because in the next century wars and plague would ravage western Europe. The organization of guilds, communes, city states in Italy, and the development of powerful monarchies in Germany, France, England, Spain, and other nations with secular laws established the social and political patterns that would eventually make European culture dominant.

Evaluating Medieval Europe 1250-1400

Copyright © 2004-11 by Sanderson Beck

This chapter has been published in the bookMedieval Europe 610-1300.
For information on ordering click here.


Byzantine Empire 610-1095
Franks and Anglo-Saxons 613-899
Vikings and Feudal Europe 900-1095
Crusaders, Greeks, and Muslims
Central and Eastern Europe 1095-1250
Western Europe 1095-1250
Christian Ethics 1095-1250
European Literature 1095-1250


World Chronology 30 BC to 750 CE
Chronology of Europe to 1400

BECK index