Western Europe in the High Middle Ages

Political Unification

The European Middle Ages can be divided into three stages:

The Early Middle Ages – 500 – 1000 C.E.

The High Middle Ages – 1000 – 1300 C.E.

The Late Middle Ages – 1300 – 1453 C.E.

Western Europe was a violent and highly disordered society during the Early Middle Ages when the western Roman Empire collapsed under the pressure of invasion by migratory Germanic tribes who soon filled the vacuum left by the defunct empire. A unified European order was established under the Carolingian Empire; but even this fell apart due to invasions from Vikings, Magyars, etc. For the period 500 – 1000 C.E. Western Europe had little interaction with the rest of the world, or even in the development of the economy of the Northern Hemisphere. During this time economic powerhouses in the Northern Hemisphere were the Tang, Song, Abbasid and Byzantine Empires. At the same time, Europe remained largely agricultural with localized economies.

Still, the Early Middle Ages laid the foundation for a more dynamic society. The small regional states which existed formed the basis for a stable political order. New tools and technology increased agricultural production and the missionary efforts of Roman Catholic missionaries united Europe religiously; so much so that Europeans typically referred to their continent at "Christendom." During the High Middle Ages, Europeans built a powerful society based on the roots established during the Early Middle Ages. European philosophers, theologians and rulers dreamed of a centralized political structure based on the Roman Catholic Church long after the collapse of the Roman Empire.

The Holy Roman Empire and Establishment of Regional States: With the collapse of the Carolingian dynasty, authority in Europe fell to the local dukes, counts, and other noblemen in local areas. Over time, many extended their authority over other areas, gradually building larger states. This was primarily done by attacking and dominating territory held by other states, or by attacking and claiming lands dominated by the invading Magyars and Lombards. During the early tenth century, Otto of Saxony who defeated the Lombards at the Battle of Lechfeld, and established himself as King in northern Germany. He waged campaigns against Slavic people in the areas of present day eastern Germany, western Poland and the Czech Republic. On two occasions, he was called to protect the church from invading forces, notably the King of Italy, who had attacked the Papal States. In a swap to protect his own position, Pope John XII proclaimed Otto (also known as Otto I and Otto the Great) as Holy Roman Emperor in 962 C.E. This action gave birth to the Holy Roman Empire, which was to exist, at least in name, for almost 1000 years.

John XII crowned Otto not as a reward for "services rendered," but in an attempt to gain him as an ally against the King of Italy. Less than two weeks after the coronation, John regretted his decision, and sent a message to the Italians; however Otto’s troops intercepted the message. John XII is considered one of the infamous "bad popes." He became Pope at age 17, largely as the result of his father’s political maneuvers. He cared little for religious matters, and was something of a sexual libertine, engaging in mixed orgies and other acts of debauchery. An attempt was made by the Bishops to depose him, in response to which he excommunicated the Bishops. They in turn declared him deposed and elected a new Pope. Later Church historians have determined that the deposition was unlawful, and despite his misconduct, John was the true Pope until his death. He died at the age of 25, presumably while engaged in sex with a married woman.

The Holy Roman Empire was largely an empire only in name. Voltaire, the Enlightenment scholar once commented that it was "not holy, not Roman, not an Empire." It was basically a regional German state with an Emperor who was elected by seven Electors. Even so, it did restore imperial unity to Western Europe, and a number of Holy Roman Emperors exercised considerable power over subject states in Europe.

The High Middle Ages were characterized by frequent disputes between Holy Roman Emperors and Popes. Both on occasion claimed that the Empire’s birth originated with the coronation of Charlemagne as "Emperor of the Romans" in 800 C.E. Popes often claimed that they had crowned the Emperor, and therefore reserved the right to depose him, as he was Emperor only by he Grace of God, and the Pope was the Emissary of God. The Emperors typically responded that the Pope had only recognized the Emperor’s authority which was preexistent; and that the Church held no power over the Emperor. The disputes, often characterized as "Pope vs. Emperor" at times were bitter and acrimonious.

The disputes were most often over the division of power between Church and State. Emperors often claimed the right to nominate church officials within their realm; in response to which the Popes claimed that the authority remained solely with the Church. Emperors also at times attempted to tax church property holdings (which often were quite extensive and wealthy) which the Popes resisted. Further disputes occurred when Emperors attempted to extend their authority into Italy, which had largely been a Papal state. Neither pope nor emperor was strong enough to entirely dominate the other; however, the resistance of the Popes was enough to prevent the Emperors from building a strong central state in Europe.

The Pope vs. Emperor dispute ( and the ability of the Popes to weaken the Empire) became apparent during the Investiture Controversy. Medieval Lords had long claimed the privilege of appointing churchmen within their jurisdiction. The propriety of lay investiture and whether it constituted simony was a byproduct of the debate between two reformers, Peter Damien and Humbert, shortly after the death of Pope Leo X in 1054. Both considered the practice improper; but disagreed on the extent of the taint which resulted. The issue culminated in a prolonged debate between Pope Gregory VII and Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor.

In February, 1075, Gregory issued a decree reinforcing the prohibition of Lay Investiture, and threatening excommunication of any ruler who violated the prohibition. This directly conflicted with Henry’s hopes of uniting Germany. Henry could not do so if he were not allowed to appoint the Bishops of his kingdom. In March, 1075, Gregory issued a document, Dictatus Papae, which claimed Papal authority to depose an Emperor.

That same year, Henry supported the election of a Bishop other than the person chosen by Gregory. Gregory wrote a sharply worded letter to Henry reminding him that as a Christian, he must obey any Papal decree. Henry fought back with his own letter which contained the salutation, "Henry, King not by usurpation, but by the pious ordination of God, to Hildebrand, now not Pope, but false monk." In the letter, he stated that ""Our Lord Jesus Christ has called us to kingship, but has not called you to the priesthood." He sent a second letter to the German bishops accusing Gregory of attempting to usurp his (Henry’s) authority and make himself both temporal and spiritual ruler. Gregory excommunicated Henry in February, 1076.

In 1111, Henry V invaded Rome, planning to end the Investiture controversy once and for all. The Pope at that time, Paschal II, suggested that the German churches return any property they held as vassals of the King, and confine themselves to the care of souls. The German Bishops refused to accept the proposal; Henry carried Paschal away as prisoner, and Paschal conceded to Henry the right of Investiture; but quickly repudiated it as having been made under duress.

Finally, the issue was resolved by Pope Calixtus II at the Synod of Worms in 1122. Under the terms of the Concordat, German bishops were to be elected by churchmen. The King had the right to be present at the Bishop’s election, and to accept homage from him for the lands which the Bishop held as vassal; however, the King could refuse to accept homage from the Bishop, thereby exercising veto power over his appointment.

The "proper" relationship between church and state was described by Bernard of Clairvaux in 1153, who said the Papacy held two swords, one spiritual and the other temporal. Bernard argued that although the Pope might be required in extreme cases to use physical force, he was forbidden to shed blood, and must vicariously exercise his temporal power by calling on the secular princes to act in his behalf. To quote Bernard:

These vile terrestrial things have their own proper judges, namely the

princes and rulers of the earth. Why then wouldst thou invade a province

that belongs not to thee? Wherefore put thy sickle into another man’s

harvest? It is not that thou are unworthy to give to give judgment concern ing such things, but rather it is unworthy of thee, who shouldst be occupied with matters of more consequence.

A second dispute between Pope and Emperor erupted when Frederick Barbarossa (literally "red beard") (r. 1152 – 1190 C.E.) attempted to absorb Lombardy, part of Italy, into the Empire. This move would have given him a platform from which His claim to govern Lombardy was in his capacity as Roman emperor, and he thus argued that he exercised political authority over Rome if at all; otherwise his claim would be meaningless.

The problem for the Popes was that they could not deny that the man they crowned Emperor of the Romans was Emperor over Rome itself; but they dared not reduce their own office to that of Bishop under the Emperor’s authority. Their solution was to claim that any rights the Emperor held over Rome were from the Pope as his overlord, and the Emperor was in essence a vassal of the Pope.

A standoff developed when Barbarossa (crowned in 1152) rode to Rome and was met by the Pope. He refused to act as the Pope’s squire as was customary for twenty four hours until he was assured that the gesture was meaningless, after which he and the Pope rode to Rome together. A delegation from the self-styled Roman "Senate" offered the imperial crown to Barbarossa, but on their own terms. His reply was stinging:

We cannot wonder enough at finding your words insipid with swollen pride rather than seasoned with the salt of reason…. You boastfully declare that by you I have been summoned; that by you I have been made first a citizen and then the prince; that from you I have received what was yours. How lacking in reason, how void of truth this novel utterance is, may be left to your own judgment and to the decision of men of wisdom!

At the Diet of Besanςon in 1157, Pope Hadrian stated that he had conferred the "emblem of the imperial crown" and would be willing to confer still greater benefits, which he described as "beneficum," a deliberately ambiguous term which could mean either a favor or a fief. Later, both Pope and Barbarossa wrote to the German bishops, after a dispute over interpretation arose. Hadrian complained about the treatment of his legates, who had almost been cut down, and again used his ambiguous language: "We have bestowed the benefice of the imperial crown." To his great surprise, the bishops backed Barbarossa; and Hadrian was forced to employ the better part of valor. He wrote to Barbarossa saying he had meant a "good deed," which crowning him as Emperor had certainly been. Lacking the support of his bishops, the Pope was forced to abandon his claim to be the source of the legal and temporal authority of the emperor to control the several small German states, build a powerful state, and dominate Europe. The Popes were not through, however. Many of the smaller European states were opposed to Barbarossa’s attempt to unify the Empire into a centralized powerful state, and supported the Pope. As a result, Barbarossa was forced to relinquish his claims to Lombardy. Yet again, the Popes had prevented the Empire from becoming a powerful force in Europe.

Regional Monarchies in France and England: Regional states were established in France and England by princes on the basis of relationships between lords and retainers. In France, when the last of the Carolingians died in 987 C.E., the lords of France elected a minor noble, Hugh Capet to serve as King. He held only a small amount of territory near Paris and could not challenge those who elected him, as many were more powerful than he. Over the next three hundred years, however, his descendants, known as the Capetian Kings gradually absorbed the territory of retainers who died without heirs and established the right to administer justice throughout the realm. By the early 1300’s; the Capetian kings had centralized power and authority over France.

England, had first been united under the reign of King Cnut Sweinson, (r. 1017 – 1035) commonly known as Cnut. (It was Cnut who insisted to his retainers that he was not divine, and proved it by summoning them to the shore and "commanding" the tide not to come in.) Edward the Confessor became king in 1042 after the dynasty of Cnut died out. He spent a great deal of time in Normandy, France, with his cousin, the Duke of Normandy and had good relations there; but while he was away, a number of English families grew more independent. When Edward died childless in 1066, his brother-in-law, Harald Godwinson claimed the throne for himself. There is some argument that Edward had named Harald as his successor. William of Normandy was Edward’s cousin and also claimed to have been named the heir. William and Edward had enjoyed a relatively close relationship, and some sources indicate that Edward looked on William as a son. There were negotiations between Edward and William’s family in 1051 by which Edward was to declare William his legal heir. Although this proposal was never officially enacted, William did not forget it, and thereby claimed to be Edward’s rightful and lawful heir. At the time of the invasion, William also claimed that the English church had failed to reform itself and received a papal banner from Pope Alexander II to reform the English church.

William landed in September, 1066, when Harald had just defeated a Danish invasion force under Harald Hardrada who also had claimed the throne. At the battle of Hastings, October 14, 1066, William’s forces defeated Harald’s army and Harald was killed. William was crowned king of England at Christmas.

William insisted from the beginning that he held the throne as the rightful heir of Edward, not as a result of conquest. He kept one fifth of the distributed lands of Saxon nobles for himself and distributed the balance to Norman nobles loyal to him, thereby insuring that those who held the property answered directly to the King and to the King alone.

In 1086, William ordered an inventory of the kingdom, which became the Domesday book. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle stated that the inventory was so detailed, "not a cow or a pig escaped notice." He continued Anglo-Saxon legal practice including the division of the country into Shires under the custody of the Shire-reeve, and continued issuing Writs, only they were now issued in Latin rather than in Old English

Both the Capetian and Norman kings faced challenges from retainers who attempted to establish authority independent of the king; and they often fought one another since the English Normans attempted at times to extend their authority into France. However, both managed to establish regional monarchies that maintained order.

Regional States in Italy and Iberia: Italy did not become united during the High Middle Ages, but rather consisted of a series of city states and principalities that often competed with each other for power. Central Italy was controlled by the Popes as part of the Papal States. Northern Italy was largely under Church control also as bishops largely regulated public life. This changed during the twelfth century when a series of city states, notably Florence, Bologna, Genoa, Milan, and Venice which became prosperous by trade, began to dominate areas outside their city walls. Normans (Cousins of the English Normans) also invaded territory still claimed by the Byzantine Empire in Southern Italy. The Pope supported their campaign, and as a result, southern Italy soon fell under the influence of Roman Christianity. This development laid the foundation for the development of the powerful city-state of Naples.

The Italian city-states were the first to engage in trade on a large scale. Many traded wool and other products produced in Western Europe with goods obtained at Constantinople. The city states were the first to explore trade with the East, and were largely responsible for the later expansion of Europe beyond its borders. Marco Polo presumably was from Venice, and Christopher Columbus from Genoa.

On the Iberian Peninsula (present day Spain and Portugal) Muslim conquerors ruled most of the area from the eighth to the eleventh centuries. A small Christian state existed only in Northern Spain. By the mid eleventh century, Christian knights waged campaigns against the Muslims to enlarge their territory. The Christian Kingdoms of Castile, Aragon, and Portugal controlled most of the peninsula by the 13th century; leaving only Granada to the Muslims.

It was through contact with the Muslims of Iberia that Christian scholars were reacquainted with the works of Aristotle, which soon became the foundation of European Scholasticism. When Toledo was captured in 1085, Scholars interpreted the ancient texts first from Arabic and later from the original Greek. The foremost of the ancient scholars to be translated and adopted into Western learning was Aristotle. Remarkably, Western Christian scholars were more intrigued by Aristotle’s works than were the Arabs, whose scholars discouraged philosophical speculation. One caliph, upon being told that his city held a great library of thought replied that if books of philosophy agreed with the Qu’ran they were unnecessary; if they disagreed, they were blasphemous. Either way, they should be destroyed.