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Western Civilization in the Middle Ages Essay

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Updated: Sep 14th, 2021

In Europe, the period after the fall of the Roman Empire until 1500 is commonly called the Middle Ages. This period can be characterized both as a period of chaos and instability and a period of a great increase in instability and order. This époque is divided by the scholars into three periods: an early phase, 500-1000; the central, 1000-1300; and the later, 1300-1500.

The following events in the course of the European countries’ development give us a way to state that there was a time of chaos and instability during the period under consideration:

  • The decay of the ancient city-state. Existing before as physical and social units, now they have led to the establishment of the isolated rural estate as a typical form of social and economic organization. The economic and cultural unity of the cities was ruined, only some cities survived as ecclesiastical or political centers.
  • The decline of long-distance trade. As a result, the individual’s needs depended only on locally produced goods. Large-scale pottery manufacture and other major industries that depended on long-distance trade vanished in many countries.
  • Diseases. Assaults from outside Europe carried outbreaks of bubonic plague. As a result, there was a drastic population decline in Europe during the Early Middle Ages.
  • The decline of power by the two the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania.
  • The breakup of the Carolingian Empire. This process was accompanied by the invasions, migrations, and raids of external foes which brought chaos and instability to societies.
  • The start of feudalism in Europe in the High Middle Ages.
  • The long conflicts during the Late Middle Ages (for example, the Hundred Years’ War) strengthened royal control over the kingdoms, whereas the conditions in which peasantry existed were extremely hard.

The following factors, on the contrary, brought order to the European society:

  • The collapse of the centralized state (the Roman Empire). This contributed to the established government of law and social order.
  • Conversion of peoples to Christianity. It led to a shift of basic loyalty from the state to religion.
  • Explosion in population during the High Middle Ages.
  • The first sustained urbanization, which resulted from the military and dynastic achievements of this period.
  • The protestant reformation. It formed the shifts in attitude leading to the rise of modern nation-states.
  • The rise of strong centralized monarchial states in Denmark, Sweden, Spain, France, England, Russia, and Germany.
  • The independence of Switzerland and the Republic of Belgium.
  • Carolingian Renaissance. This period of cultural revival is characterized by an increase in literacy, developments in arts, architecture, and other spheres of human knowledge.
  • In the High Middle Ages major barbarian incursions ceased.
  • The divisiveness of the Catholic Church in the Late Middle Ages undermined papal authority and led to the formation of national churches.

We are inclined to believe that the factors and the events mentioned above should be considered in their complex interconnection, as emphasizing any of them will lead only to a one-sided approach to the problem of the European development after the fall of the Roman Empire up to 1500.

After the Protestant Reformation and Scientific Revolution European society differed from the one it used to be in the Early Middle Ages. Contrary to the Early Middle Ages period when the Catholic Church remained the unifying factor, Europe in 1600 was divided according to the countries’ religious orientations. Religious strife took place within several European states. For example, France suffered from the French Wars of Religion.

Religion remained the main power that influenced the development of the European states: Germany was divided into states according to the principles of the Holy Roman Empire, England was characterized by moderate Anglicanism. Changes in religion we consider to be the most influential for European development.

Feudalism which originates in Europe from the Early Middle Ages was replaced by capitalism as the principal form of economic organization. Therefore, collapse in trade and manufacture for export common for the Early Middle Ages Europe was not typical for Europe of 1600. The rise of modern science and the application of its findings also contributed to the emergence of the new forms of trade and expanding horizons that differed Europe of 1600 from Europe of 500-600.

During the Middle Ages the formation of the Islamic Eastern culture and Asian culture, along with the European culture was characterized by the growth of the productive forces – the usage of the iron tools expanded, artificial irrigation and irrigation engineering were modernized. The main tendency of the historical development of the East as well as of the West was the establishment of feudalism. But the eastern cultures differed from the western ones by the dynamism of the feudalism development. The main reasons that determined the latency of the eastern cultures are:

  • The slow break-up of the primitive communal system and conservation of slavery along with the feudal relationships;
  • Stability of the communal forms which postpone the differentiation of peasantry;
  • Prevalence of the state property and governmental authorities over the landlordism and private property of feudal lords;
  • Authoritative power of feudal over a town which impaired the anti-feudal aspirations of the citizens.

These were the main tendencies that distinguished the formation of feudalism in the western and eastern countries.

Feudalism is a system of reciprocal legal and military obligations among members of the nobility during the High Middle Ages. The three main elements of the feudalism system are lords, vassals, and fiefs. The interrelation of these three elements is rooted in the following: a lord-owned land, known as a fief, the possession of this land was granted by the lord to a vassal who, in his turn, should have provided military service to the lord. These three elements fitting together, the obligations and relations between them form the basis of feudalism.

There is no specific start of feudalism in Europe. In its classical form, it occurred around the 10th century. The causes of feudalism in Europe are as follows:

  • Taxation (either by means of feorm-fultum, or danegelt, or gabelle) forced the poorer people to commend themselves to a lord;
  • The royal grant of fole-land;
  • International war. Kings needed to surround themselves with the help of the army, the members of which were granted the king’s protection.

The height of feudalism in Europe was during the 11th century, feudalism flourished in the 12th. The decline of feudalism started in the 13th century and proceeded until the 15th century. The decline was due to the new processes that replaced the system of land tenure paid for by governmental work.

The troops for war were raised according to the new system that substituted money for land. The latter stopped having the same value in the eyes of the monarch, since then money became a symbol of his power. Vassals preferred to give money to their lords and the lords also preferred money as it enabled them to hire professional troops more disciplined and trained than the vassals. The revival of infantry tactics and the introduction of new weapons made cavalry tactics useless.

Another cause of the decline of feudalism is the increase in communication that took place in Europe. This process broke down the isolated manor houses and assisted the rise of towns. The burgess class emerged.

The Peasant Revolt all over Europe has broken the system of the old economy and started the modern social economy. By 1550, it consisted of the métier system or division of national wealth among small landed possessors on the Continent. In England, feudalism was replaced by “enclosed” agriculture.

In the late Middle Ages, feudal obligations existing between lords and vassals were replaced by agreements based on money payments. The economy developed from an agricultural base to commercial and manufacturing interests.

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