Making Sense of the Middle Ages

Making Sense of the Middle Ages

500 – 1500 A.D.

What comes to mind when you think of Middle Ages? Castles? Crusades? Knights & tournaments? Well, here is attempt at making sense of the complexities and constellations of  dynamics at play from the fall of the Roman Empire to the dawn of the Age of Discovery. I know… it’s not quite fair to expect anyone to cover a thousand years of history in such a short time. But here we go! 

There is a timeline and three pages of diagrams that will be of help as you read this presentation. You might prefer to open, or even print them for easy reference as we go along.

The Middle Ages spanned the thousand years of roughly 500 – 1500 ad. and they were complicated. Let’s unpack some of the context we call the Medieval millennium. Perhaps we can make sense of complicated dynamics and maybe even bring broader meaning to it.

Most historians mark the beginning of the Middle Ages with the decline of Roman influence throughout western Europe. It did not happen over night and it involved many factors, such as invasions, isolation, consolidation of local power, and disruption of trade.

And, at that same time, populations decreased and decentralized, causing families to become more reliant upon local governments. But that does not necessarily mean they were living in darkness, as we were taught in history class. Here is a link to the Medieval timeline I created for reference.

A quick example of how preconceived notions of the Middle Ages are changing takes me back to 2005-6 when I engaged in several conversations with the librarian of Edinburgh’s Masonic Grand Lodge of Scotland. I was researching masonic and kabbalistic symbols in Rosslyn Chapel.

When I asked him about the presence of Jews in medieval Scotland, he adamantly dismissed my theory that noble Christian and Jewish families of France were in contact with Scottish relatives. I did not press him, out of deference to his office. But more recent scholastic findings confirm my theory. Not only was Medieval Scotland connected to the continent via trade, but also by strong family ties… including the families who protected great Jewish centers of learning and private libraries such as Troyes and Anjou. 

While much of this history has been obscured by bias and lack of access to direct sources, this is an example of how fast new evidence is coming to light. So much has opened up with translation software and digital archives. Medieval studies have changed greatly in the past decade. 

Human nature has not changed much since the Middle Ages… Indeed, neither has the capacity for problem solving. But they operated with different information available to them. Their vernacular was different: Mysticism, Angels, Saints, Greek Classics and Personal prayer were IN. While going to Mass was not the norm in the countrysides, (many were not allowed inside churches except on feast days.)

At the fall of the Roman Empire, great libraries of antiquity stood at trade crossroads in Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Constantinople. Carolingians & Merovingians also had libraries.

Medieval History, Europe, Scotland, France, Austria, Constantinople
Blue Mosque, Istanbul ~ Constantinople

The law of primogeniture was the norm. Mindsets were very different. There was no general concept of science, beyond a few great thinkers and a complex hierarchy of heaven and hell that boggles the modern mind. Time existed according to natural cycles of days and seasons. 

Medieval folks lived by the Trinity, where things came in threes. The INSTITUTIONS of the Middle Ages  were the MANOR, MONASTERY and MILITARY, better known as STATE, CHURCH, COMMERCE. It is similar to what we recognize as the three estates: those who fought, prayed and worked (owned) the land. (See 1 – Institutions of the Middle Ages  hand out)

It’s a bit surprising that STATE, CHURCH, and COMMERCE come out of one source, but they did… NOBILITY… Noble families were those who owned the land and populated all three institutions. And all three of these institutions were created to support noble families.

So if we look at “Institutions of the Middle Ages” page handout page: You can tell who was holding power by looking at the top part of each triangle. 

The three components, or shall we say, structures, were interdependent and inseparable. At times, one dominated the other two. Sometimes they joined forces, as we will see during the Crusades, where church and state became synonymous with commerce.

For instance, during the Roman Empire’s heyday, the state dominated church & commerce. But after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 6th c, the only power left to the Romans was the church, leaving behind the infrastructure of roads and buildings. But with each passing generation, collective memory faded. Only the land and the families who held the land remained… Out of that, the de-centralized rural manor system was born. 

Follow down the page on the ‘Institutions of the Middle Ages’ hand out to Feudalism.

Manorialism was a closed system, where COMMERCE took precedence until the end of the 13th c. Of course, the church was important, but it was also decentralized. Western castles and monasteries became insular, conducting life with self reliance and managed by the landed noble families. Younger sons became the clergy (who prayed)  and knights (who fought).

Medieval History, Europe, Scotland, France, Austria,
10th century seal

Movable wealth declined. Society was founded on property and possession of land and its produce. Armies now recruited only from among noble landholders, who managed tenants below them. The only freedom lay in land ownership. The church owned countless estates, but also controlled reading and writing. From the 9th – 11th centuries, churchmen served kings as chancellors, bankers, scribes and notaries.

In the Northern Baltic area – Norsemen combined forces to raid shores from the British Isles to Russia. Their form of commerce was piracy, which in time led to trade. 

In the High Middle Ages, commerce continued to be the primary driver. I know… one would assume that it was the church, but the crusades were only a limited success. Jerusalem was an experiment in an utopian ideal. It was COMMERCE, ( the movement of goods and people,) that dominated two centuries of fighting in the Levant. 

Toward the end of the 13th century, when the Levant was lost, commerce slipped to the lower rung of our triad, leaving church and state to duke it out. With the dissolution of the Templars in 1314, commerce was disrupted further; and with it, weakening church in the midst of a crisis of faith. 

 So let’s see what happened in East /west, and North/South. 2 – QUARTERING OF EARLY MEDIEVAL EUROPE

After Constantine, the Roman Empire was eventually divided into East and West, with Constantinople becoming the capital of the empire in the east and the Vatican lingering in the west.. Then, in the 8th & 9th century Europe was further divided into north and south, with the Vikings in the North and the Moors in the South. So, Europe was slowly drawn and quartered into geographic divisions that involved varying allegiances, religions and conquests between the 4th century and 11th c.

So, let’s break it down a bit further. The insurmountable problems started in the 400’s with the Roman Empire. The barbarian kingdoms of Western Europe took over the infrastructures that Rome had already built. The Greeks were already settled in Troyes, the northern low countries and Scandinavians/Scythians in upper Burgundy. Commerce generally kept flowing, as did ideas and products, though the 600’s. 

Feudalism lasted roughly the 8th – 14th century. We know that for nobility and the ruling class the land was gold, Either you owned land or you did not. You got it by gift, inheritance, or conquering. It was needed for survival. Armies were needed to protect the land.

Of course the church was also evolving parallel to and intermingled with the zeitgeist through land ownership. Christianity was strongest in Constantinople, and influenced western Europe more than anyone today realizes. Eastern Christianity contributed greatly to the flourishing of mysticism, which we will discuss later on.

In the 900’s, St. Benedict revived the coptic desert fathers tradition of contemplative life and established a monastery in Cluny, Burgundy. Of course there were other contemplatives in France and also in the Northern Isles, where hermits and ascetics lived off the land. But Benedict made a business model out of it.

Medieval History, Europe, Scotland, France, Austria,
Cluny Abbey, Burgundy

Noble families donated land to the monasteries for the welfare of family members… be it old age, spinsters or even child rearing. In this way, the Roman Christian church built fiefdoms. Monasteries as manorial systems were natural extensions of a land owner society.

And..being 95% free of interference from Rome was a win until populations started to grow. There was even a mini enlightenment with technological advancements in farming and Caliphates establishment of learning centers, who also welcomed Jewish scholars. If they paid their taxes, levied at a much higher rate of course, they could stay. 

By the end of the 700’s, Europe was systematically divided into North and South. The Moors disrupted southern European trade in the Mediterranean, with exceptions of Venice, who continued to trade with the Muslims. By the 8th century, Western Europe’s pipelines of goods dwindled. Sea merchants disappeared. Port cities collapsed. Gold currency disappeared. 

But small fiefs, principalities, and burghs grew around centers of inland local commerce and then city states. Examples can be found all across Europe from Italy to Scotland, in the forms of castles to hilltop villages.

 In the 800’s up north, the Vikings were just getting started with their raids along every river and coastline outside the Mediterranean. Then, by the 900’s, the Norsemen (better known as the Normans) settled in northern Europe while the manorial system was in full swing. The Normans also started to take back cities on the Italian peninsula. Before long, they joined Pisa and Genoa in taking aim at Islam along the Almalfi Coast early in the 11th century, which lead to the Crusades. 

If you look at the diagram of the High Middle Ages you can see the explosion of commerce, as well as religious activity!3 – FLOW of COMMERCE

Soon trade opened in the Mediterranean again. The new revival of maritime commerce revived import trade, which the Cistercians capitalized on by developing previously uninhabitable land. 

By 1100, Europe awakened…the barriers held for 600 years began to fall as weather warmed. Population also increased, as did food supplies. The dam broke; centuries old divisions melted away as maritime trade resumed and suppressed human desires for luxury items and adventure exploded, including the pursuit of salvation via pilgrimage.

Soon rural towns along inland trade routes and Fairs expanded to sea routes.  Fairs back then were the periodic meeting places of professional merchants. Similar to conferences of today… North and south met midway at the Champagne Fair. Bitten by ambition, a new class of nouveaux riches merchants offered their daughters to secular knights, and merchants, forming a new middle class.

As to Architecture, while the French fine tuned the gothic, William the Conqueror built castle keeps, such as the Tower of London. Wherever the Normans went, they built the ‘Keeps’.IMG_0843

Villages and towns sprang up outside the city walls to house the riff-raff, peddlers and pilgrims in transit. People were on the move and the great transformation of western civilization was underway… and in the eyes of the Church, out of control.

By the end of the 12th century, wars became more about beliefs and less about hunting grounds. It was as though western civilization woke up to the possibility of getting closer to God through travel. But many got side tracked, scrambling for food and supplies, in waves of chaos. Through it all, nobles battled to keep their rights as local sovereigns. 

Along the pilgrim way, folks were exposed to luxurious cross pollinations of all kinds; from exotic spices and silks to mystic and apocryphal beliefs. Many forms of Christianity flourished during this time. The crusades brought massive movement of people, many of whom would never return home. All across the continent, pilgrims came across mystic Kabbalistic – study groups that taught how to commune with the divine, and gain access to spirituality that the church prohibited.  From holy wars to looting riots… there were all kinds of shake-ups!

This awakening cut across all sectors, resulted in more than just Gothic architecture, but also the birth of banking, the rise of merchant class, illuminated manuscripts, the field of optics, masterminds and mystics, such as Roger Bacon, Arbertus Magnus, Hildegard von Bingen, Grail literature of Chretien de Troyes, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Joan of Arc and many more.

Where did these alternate beliefs come from? Well, the best I can tell, it was from the Burgundians and their close ties with Constantinople. Sometime in the 3rd century, when the Burgundians converted to an Arian version of Christianity that proliferated in the East. Some say that they recognized elements of their ancient beliefs, as did the Celtic Druids. Then they fought alongside the Visigoths in France and settled in Lyon region shortly after.

AND WHY MYSTICISM, you ask…? The Burgundians identified with Eastern Christianity. But they seemed to foster deeper traditions, which were eventually shrouded in the allegories of the Troubadours, Sufis, and Kabbalists… These were the mystics of the Middle Ages. 

Now, Sufis were (and still are) mystics associated with Islam. Jewish mystics study Kabbalah. The Celts, Norse and Desert Fathers of Egypt also practiced similar forms of devotion.

 So, another story goes that in 1101 Duke William IX of Aquitaine (Eleanor’s grandfather) returned from crusade near Jerusalem singing the earliest Troubadour-esque – songs and reciting poetry similar to the Sufis.

Allegories and symbolisms of courtly love became popular forms of entertainment in his court. The house of Aquitaine became patron of the Grail poets. Be they french, German, Welch, or even Cistercian…Troubadours became equivalent to the Sufi and Kabbalah authors. And they were decimating the same information, based on the themes in Songs of Solomon. Allegories of the soul’s inspiration and passion for the Divine overlaid with symbols of courtly love. 

To simplify, human love (in ALL its forms) was a reflection of divine love. Of course the Roman Church resisted, until Bernard of Clairvaux’s devotion to Mary brought forth the Grail Vulgate. Then a heavy hand inevitably came after Bernard’s death, and started cracking down on such individualism.

But in western Europe, women wielded power unlike we see today. They governed, and became saints and warriors. Veneration of the divine feminine spread in gothic churches dedicated to Notre Dame, Mary, the Virgin and Our Lady.

Medieval History, Europe, Scotland, France, Austria,
Lady Chapel, Ely

But the question arose…How to manage this massive movement of people across Europe, whose emotions were running amuck? How to keep the peace? The answer came in the establishment of a military force that answered to the Pope. Knighthood became a sacred calling for protection of the pilgrims to Jerusalem. The Holy military orders were created to help manage this religious fervor of personalized redemption. 

The knight class which was comprised of nobles, protected fiefdoms and engaged in courtly love. But when crusades erupted, a new sacred knighthood was created to protect the infant Kingdom of Jerusalem. Hospitallers tried to house the wayfarers and elevate pilgrim’s suffering, while the Templars tried to keep the peace patrolling along the roads to Jerusalem. But their hearts (& celibacy) belonged to their sacred lady, known as Divine Holy Wisdom. So, for 200 years, each crusade was tsunami of warring hoards living off the land, in the name of God. 

Pilgrimages walked a fine edge of riots. Desperation from lack of food and shelter and medical care made the Hospitallers the champions. Templars kept peace and the roads safe and eventually dominated sectors of the merchant class.

So when noble families set out to travel, they did not intend to live off the land; they needed a way to safely pay for expenses along the way. Beginning in the early 12th c, Templars devised a drafting system and even implemented the Arabic numeral double entry book-keeping system to keep track of accounts, inventories and even a form of medieval travelers checks of sorts.

Royal debts spurred the Templars to make loans and manage royal treasuries, side by side with Jewish financiers. Templars and Hospitallers also gained lands as they safeguarded resources on all sides. Military Orders became the new chancellors, notaries and body guards to kings across Europe.

One could argue that, the demise of two ancient dynasties  contributed to the rapid decline of stability in Europe: the Celtic Scottish Kings (1286) and the Árpád dynasty (1301) both died out, leaving vacuums in leadership and wealthy resources up for grabs.

By the early 1300’s, the Levant was lost, weather grew colder, populations decreased from disease, and famine.

Medieval History, Europe, Scotland, France, Austria,
Lockenhaus, Austria

Monarchies were consolidating into the countries we would recognize today. With the loss of Acre in 1291, a crisis of faith led to crisis of economics. Trade slowed dramatically with the dissolution of the Templars, whose trade routes spanned from the Caspian Sea to Iceland. Princes of kingdoms claimed both religious and secular titles. The lines were blurred. Confusion and disappointment ran rampant.

After two centuries of crusades, disrupted economies across Europe and created a crisis of faith in both church and commerce. Widespread restructuring left many stranded far from home.

Famine laid waste to whole of Europe 1315. Then black death arrived. The price of food skyrocketed. With consolidation of power in monarchies, nobles ceased to consider themselves protectors of those living on the manors…It was every man for himself. Social disintegration ensued in one insurrection after another, mainly due to the misery of the rural classes and their confused dreams of every man having as much as the other. ( Does this sound familiar?) 

These insurrections were met with heavy hands. Both church and state vied for dominance through force. With it came the consolidation of assets and seizure of wealth. Templars and Jews were stripped of every possession. Society endured war, famine, plague, and a cooling climate – Inquisitions cracked down on dissension.

King Phillip of France had no intention of paying debts he owed to the Templars. In 1307, he orchestrated a series of strategic moves to disenfranchise one of the medieval world’s most powerful organizations through the Inquisition. He leveraged and manipulated church leaders… entrapping them with their own policies, to seize Templar assets. It was a coup of massive proportions. Ironically, it did not yield the material gain he had hoped, but he still solidified power and weakened the papacy. 

Other factors beyond crusade losses and the collapse of Templar infrastructure contributed to slowing of commerce. Wars between England and France escalated over French assertion that England was its vassal.

Weather turned colder. Crops failed; famine struck several times. Plague arrived on ships.Insidious war tactics, such as salting the earth in Pisa, starving out castles, massacres and rebellions competed with the inquisitions, which were only abolished in the 18th century.

Wiser folks retreated and regrouped. Those who could discern how to live in the world but not of it, found ways to conform outwardly to institutional norms, but privately practice their conscience.

So, while some might argue that civilization of this time period was ‘medieval,’ the genie of human spirit escaped from the bottle for the first time since the time of Christ. Yet no matter how hard institutions tried to stuff it back in, the light of progress continued to shine and expand through the Age of Discovery, on to the Enlightenment and the Age of Democracies, in which we live today.

The medieval Millennium  was truly an amazing time in our history, which carried forward in future centuries. But let us remember that we are part of this continuum today – of flourishing and contraction – of chaos and progress.   Diximus!

Medieval History, Europe, Scotland, France, Austria,
Jedburgh Abbey, Border of England and Scotland





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