State and Society in the High Middle Ages (1000-1300)


Circa 1000 CE, Western European society lagged behind that of the Arabic-dominated Islamic world and (arguably) the Byzantine East.  By 1400, Western European society was poised to assert its influence around the globe.  To understand this transformation we will look at two spheres of change:  the "feudal" economy and the rise of feudal national monarchies.  


The Economy in the High Middle Ages


Two big changes took place in the European economy in 1000-1300:  1) advances in agriculture helped consolidate the manorial system, in which aristocratic landowners exploited serf labor; and 2) towns and cities again emerged as centers of commerce and manufacturing.


Reasons for higher agricultural productivity:


World climate:  a long warming cycle came to a peak between 1000 and 1200.  This allowed people north of the Mediterranean to plant crops that previously had only grown in the south.  Also, people could also plant earlier in spring without fear of killing frosts and could keep their crops in the fields into October.  A longer growing season contributed to higher yields.   


Better tools: The light “scratch plows” used on rich soils in the south since the Romans were not effective in the heavier clayish soils of the north, which often had been cleared from the forests only within the last few hundred years.  Heavier plows with iron plow shares improved agriculture, as did better yokes and harnesses for oxen, shoes for horses, the wheelbarrow, and the increased use of iron for hand tools. 


Wind and water mills:  Powered by either water or wind, new mills provided cheap and abundant power for grinding grain into flour.  (The same principle could be used  for sawing lumber, powering machines for textile weaving, etc.)  New milling technology made it cheaper to bring grain to market as flour (and thus increased profitability).


New land-use patterns: the most important new way of using land was the "three field system" to prevent soil exhaustion.  Before this, people let half of their fields lay fallow each year, then switched the fallow vs planted fields every few years.  That left half the land un-used.  The 3 field system alternated between a field planted in grain crops, a field with clover or other fodder crops, and a fallow field—this “recharged” the soil and only 1/3 of the land was unused every year.  This meant more fodder for draught animals, and thus more manure for the soil. 


Peasants were hesitant to introduce the three field system, but nobles with large estates were more willing, since they had the capital required for new tools, seeds, etc.   




Manorialism and Serfdom


From family farms to village based agriculture:  In the Germanic tribes, family units had owned and farmed their own land as separate farmsteads.  Between 500 and 1000 CE peasants in England, Northern France, and Western Germany shifted to village-based agriculture. 


Villagers could pool resources and share common lands (pastures and woods), draught animals and tools.  The village community made basic decisions about when and what to plant and harvest.  Often villages divided land into a patchwork of strips, each farmed by a different family.  This reduced the risk to each household and gave everyone access to some good soil.  Living in villages also allowed for simple division of economic function. 


Serfdom:  Village settlement patterns also proved advantageous to aristocratic landlords.  (In some regions, the landlords initiated new village settlement.)   Concentrating peasants in villages made it easier for nobles to collect rents and "dues" that were their right as “lords.” (Rents usually applied to common lands and forests, which the aristocrats claimed as their own; dues referred to special "taxes" and charges, including labor obligations). 


In the Early Middle Ages, Kings and Counts gave aristocratic families control over land in return for their loyal service—control over the land meant legal power over the commoners on that land.  In the High Middle Ages, aristocrats used their political power over the peasants to press them into labor.  In other words, the aristocrats extended the system of serfdom.


Since the late Roman Empire, laws had tied agricultural laborers to the aristocrats’ lands; these laborers were "serfs."  Serfs were not slaves—they were not the landowners' property, but they were fixed to the landowners' property, as were their children (serfdom was hereditary). 


In the High Middle Ages, aristocrats and monasteries used serfdom to squeeze payments and services out of the peasants.  By law, lords with villages on their "manors" (estates) could require "their" peasants to work on the "demesne"(the landowner's land) without pay—and the peasants could not leave the land.  This is sometimes called "manorialism": aristocratic landowners exploited the unpaid serf labor and also charged the serfs rents and fees for their use of the village's lands. 


The lords’ legal powers over serfs extended to other aspects of the serfs' lives, such as who they could marry. and the lords were also empowered to judge and execute the law in "their" villages.


Peasants were turned into serfs even in places where manorialism was not well developed.  The specifics differed between kingdoms (and principalities), and even from region to region within particular principalities. But wherever lords held legal power over serfs, they used this legal power to demand labor and/or payments as tribute.



The Decline of Serfdom (sort of):  Where the manorial economy was most advanced (England, Northern France, Western Germany), serfdom began declining as a labor system in the 1200s.  In those regions, a money-based commercial economy actually made it more profitable for landlords to demand payments in cash.  So they freed peasants from serfdom and made them pay cash rents, which but all the risks of the market (the chance of crop failures, the fall of prices, etc) on the peasants.  Landowners could demand rents no matter what the circumstances.   

But the decline of manorialism did not end all aspects of the lord-serf relationship.  In France, for instance, aristocratic landlords continued to exercise "feudal" power over "their" peasants until the French Revolution of 1789. 


And in Central and Eastern Europe, aristocrats imposed serfdom on the peasants at the end of the High Middle Ages, and serfdom in Central and Eastern Europe continued into the 1800s.  On Europe's eastern frontier, in Russia (Muscovy), serfdom was not set into law until the mid-1600s and lasted until the 1860s.


Social consequences of changes in agriculture   


Population growth:  Increased agricultural productivity improved of peasants' diets.   That contributed to population growth, which peaked in the mid-1200s.  Rural population growth stimulated settlement of new land.  In Holland, farmers began "re-claiming" land from the sea by building massive dykes and draining away the sea water.   But population growth came to a dramatic halt in the 1300s, when climate change and other factors led to famines and plagues.


Serf labor and the life of the lords and their vassals:  Landlords’ ability to exploit serf labor made possible the elaborate social life of the aristocracy (the "knights and nobles") described by Coffin.  The wealth of the great "old" noble families, the wealth of the "new" nobility (rewarded for serving kings and princes), and the wealth of the "knights" who served the nobles, all came from exploiting serf agricultural labor.  Serfs built the aristocrats' stone castles; serfs provided the income for the aristocrats' luxury goods.  The entire culture of aristocracy, from its codes of honor to its cult of courtly love, depended on exploiting "lowly" peasants..


The need for middle men (merchants):  Lords and monasteries had to find ways to turn agricultural surplus into cash.  They needed commerce, but to the noblemen, buying and selling goods was humiliating and degrading (as was all manual labor besides fighting).  The nobility depended upon "middle men"—millers, merchants, and bankers.  By the end of the 1200s, this "middle class" of business people had begun to accumulate wealth (but not social prestige, privileges, or political power).  The centers for commerce--places where goods were bought and sold —were the towns.




The growth of towns


"Urban" society:  In the High Middle Ages, towns and cities had several functions.  They were the places where agricultural surplus was turned into cash; where goods were made, shipped, and stored; and where the Church located its administration and its schools. By the 1300s, cities also were becoming centers of government administration.  The complexity of the urban social structure reflected these multiple functions. 


Most people in towns and cities were free peasants or escaped serfs who did unskilled labor.  Unskilled laborers were the bottom rung of the urban social hierarchy, but living in towns offered the prospect of paid work and greater freedom from aristocratic control.  Many towns and most cities had been special legal charters granted by the king, prince, or archbishop (whoever had sovereignty over the town).  These legal charters gave the town or city "privileges," like protection from the authority and interference of the rural nobility. 


Artisans and small shop-keepers were the next rung up on the social hierarchy.  Master artisans (highly skilled craftsmen who owned their own tools and did all aspects of the work to make a product) belonged to "guilds." The guilds were legal bodies granted legal charters by the local sovereign authority; these charters gave guild members the exclusive privilege of producing or selling a particular product in that principality.  Guilds limited the number of people practicing their trade, controlled prices (and wages), and regulated the quality of goods.  The guilds also supervised and coordinated most other aspects of an artisans' life, including Christian religious services and festivals, charitable societies, and most forms of sociability. 


To become an artisan, you began as an unpaid "apprentice," and spent several years learning a trade.  The apprentice then became a journeyman, a paid worker for a master artisan.  If the journeyman produced a "masterpiece" accepted by the guild, and the guild considered the market strong enough to absorb increased production, then he would be accepted into the guild as a master. 


Merchants in medieval towns and cities also organized guilds that obtained royal charters and exclusive privilege to sell certain goods.  There were several "levels" of merchant guilds: the lower level guilds were for small merchants with little capital; the higher-level guilds were for wealthier merchants.  Merchant guilds were closed to women, Jews, and Muslims.  Like artisans' guilds, they organized more than just economic life, and were the focal point of merchants' social worlds as well.  The wealthy merchants' guilds had more political power than the artisans and small shop keepers, and they often controlled town governments. 


Urban sanitary conditions:   Towns and cities were overcrowded, ramshackle, and filthy.  Largest cities like Paris and London had farm fields and pastures within city limits, animals in the unpaved streets, etc.  Most buildings were made wood, tightly packed into crowded streets, and lacked adequate light and ventilation.  Medieval cities had no running water and no sewerage systems.  People piled their garbage and filth in the courtyards, and sewerage ran through the streets.  Cites were often hit by epidemics (we will discuss the great plagues of the 1300s). 


Towns and the "Commercial Revolution":  By 1000, Europe was evolving "unified" market economy based upon new commercial practices, in which urban centers and the urban middle class played a crucial role.  The wool trade is a good example:  raw wool came from rural districts and was bought and then transformed into finished textile goods in market towns and cities.  It was then bought by merchants, who transported it to other towns and cities for sale.


Trade, including trade in luxury goods, stimulated the growth of ports and market towns and great market fairs.  Most luxury goods came from Asia (spices, silks, etc), through cities in northern Italy. 


New Business Practices in Northern Italian Cities:  In the 1100-1300s, cities in northern Italy were Europe’s most dynamic centers of trade.  Ships from Venice, Genoa, Florence (etc) carried goods from the Levant (Lebanon, Syria and Palestine), from Constantinople, and from across Western Europe.  This depended on the availability of venture capital and the willingness of merchants to take risks.  Italian merchants adopted new business methods, such as double-entry accounting (based upon use of Arabic numbers) the Arabic system of banking, and the use of bills of credit (which made it easier to raise investment capital and made commercial ventures less risky).  Some new business practices, like charging interest, violated principles of the Catholic Church. But the "commercial revolution" started important long term social trends—the expansion of market forces, the growing commercialization of everyday life, and the growth of a commercial and professional "middle class."


The Rise of Feudal National Monarchies


Two Patterns of Rule:  City-States and Feudal Principalities


After the collapse of the Carolingian Empire, some large cities—especially in northern Italy, Flanders (Belgium), and northern Spain—established systems of self-government.  Some were ruled by a king, prince, feudal lord, or the Church, but had charters of liberty.  Many Northern European cities had elected councils and mayors (chosen by the merchant guilds). 


In Northern Italy some cities had no royal overlords; in those cities, citizens elected councils and "communes" that controlled local government.  Some cities were Republics, free of princely rule.  Oligarchies of wealthy guild merchants often dominated local governments, but faced resistance from the artisans and lower classes.  Also, there often was in-fighting between families of oligarchs.  Battles over popular vs oligarchic rule / between republican and aristocratic government continued into the Late Middle Ages (see Machiavelli, The Prince).


Feudal Monarchies:  Lords and Vassals 

In some Western European states, a relatively de-centralized kind of feudal monarchical rule took form in the 900s-1100.  Kings claimed absolute power in principle, but in practice they could not impose centralized rule.  Instead, aristocratic counts and dukes built castles and ruled over fiefdoms.  The most powerful aristocrats ruled “in the name of the King,” but had virtually autonomous states.  Some, for example, minted their own coins and raised their own armies.   


Kings in the 1100s and 1200s tried to end this kind of aristocratic independence.  They insisted on loyalty from aristocrats.  The feudal political system of lords and vassals was based on a hierarchy of power.  The Lords--Kings and princes--gave the dukes and counts "gifts" (fiefdoms) of land and the right to exploit revenues from that land.   In return, the "vassals" swore loyalty and service ("homage") to their "lord."  But the counts and dukes also gave gifts (often land) to their own vassals, the “knights,” who swore homage to them.  The process of building feudal national monarchies was most advanced in England and least advanced in Spain.        


Examples of Feudal Monarchies:  England


The feudal monarchy in England grew out of the Norman Conquest.  The government of King Alfred the Great had been highly centralized (more than Charlemagne’s).  Before 1066, England had no “feudal lords.” But that changed when a dynastic crisis in the mid 1000s led to a 3-way war for power in England. 


In 1066, William of Normandy (in northern France) defeated his rival for the English throne at  the Battle of Hastings.  William gave fiefdoms in England to Norman aristocrats (and also required feudal service from the clergy in return for land grants).  Still, power in English feudalism was relatively centralized ---the King controlled taxation, the minting of currency, the raising of armies, etc., and used of centralized state institutions that had been created by previous Anglo-Saxon kings (e.g., using appointed sheriffs as administrators).   


William's dynasty (esp. Henry I, 1100-1135; and Henry II, 1154-1189) strengthened the power of the central monarchical government.  Henry I began building a government bureaucracy made up of trained clerks and judges.   Henry II forced the English Church to recognize the authority of royal law over the clergy (thus his famous conflict with Thomas Becket).  Under Henry II,  royal law became the basis of a well-regulated system of civil and criminal justice, which included jury trials. 


This had three very important consequences:  (1) commoners participated in government through the jury process, which strengthened their loyalty to the state; (2) all free men had the promise of legal equality; (3) it set the principle that like the people, the government, and even kings, had to follow the laws—kings could not violate the legal rights of free Englishmen.  Norman Kings’ government and legal reforms worked so well that the English monarchy functioned even without the presence of the King (King Richard "Lionheart" spent most of his ten-year reign fighting in France and in the Crusades.  


The principle that fee Englishmen had legal rights became very import in the reign of King John (1199-1216).  In 1204, John's armies lost control of English-ruled territories in Northern France. John needed to fund a military campaign against French King Philip Augustus, but Richard's wars and Crusade had drained the royal coffers.  So John imposed huge fines on the English nobles and raised taxes—steps the nobles claimed were abuses of royal power and violations of the law and of Englishmen's rights.  In 1215, , the great aristocratic families forced John to sign the Magna Carta. a charter recognizing the basic liberties of the aristocracy.  According to the Magna Carta, the king could not violate the nobles’ "traditional" rights and privileges, and the government had to follow the law.     

The Magna Carta did nothing to decentralize government, which became even more centralized under John's successor, Henry III (1216-1272).  Under Henry III's son, Edward I (1272-1307), the king allowed the aristocracy a greater role in governance by creating the Parliament.  The Parliament was a gathering of representatives of the aristocrats and (to a lesser extent) townsmen, called by the King to consider such matters of state as the imposition of taxes and the drafting of laws.  Instead of weakening royal power, the Parliament actually increased the king’s ability to administer policy across the entire kingdom. 



Examples of Feudal Monarchies:  France


The history of centralized monarchy in France differed from that in England.  Hugh Capet, who followed the last Carolingian king in 987, inherited a very weak monarchy that had little direct control over the countryside or the aristocracy.  Much “French” territory lay outside his rule. 


Between 1000 and 1300, the Capetian kings gradually built a powerful centralized monarchy from their base in Paris.  They did this by skillfully taming the aristocrats and exploiting patronage relationships with the church/Papacy, and by building new state institutions.


Taming the aristocrats was a goal of Louis VI (1108-1137) and Philip Augustus (1180-1223).  Both strengthened feudal overlordship in central and western France.  Philip imposed direct royal rule over newly conquered territories by using royal agents ("baillis"—like the English sheriffs), and who balanced centralized authority with concessions to local and regional traditions. 


Exploitation of the royal relationship with the Church was clearest under kings Louis VIII (1223-1226) and Louis IX (1226-1270).  In return for Papal support they waged campaigns against heresy (and against the Jews) in newly-acquired territories in the south of France. 


Creation of new state institutions is best exemplified by Philip IV (1285-1314), who created the "Estates General"—a gathering of representatives of the King's free subjects, which the king could use to implement new taxes or issue new laws.  In France, however, the aristocracy won no charter of rights, and the function of the French parliaments remained purely consultative.


Examples of Feudal Monarchies:  Germany


Circa 1000, Germany was made up of many principalities ruled by dukes and counts who were subservient to a powerful Emperor.  The Emperor claimed authority over Church institutions and appointed bishops and archbishops; church officials often ruled territories for the Emperor. 


But in the mid-1000s the relationship between the German Emperor and the Papacy broke down. 

During the reign of Emperor Henry IV (1056-1106), the nobles of Saxony rebelled against royal policies and Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) declared that the Emperor had no power over the church administration.  “The Investiture Controversy” was about who had the right to appoint bishops—the Pope or the Emperor.   The Pope excommunicated Henry IV, who  had to beg the Pope's forgiveness, in hopes of ending the conflict, in 1077.  But civil war in Saxony and conflict between the Papacy and the Emperor continued.

By the death of Henry V in 1125 the German nobility had taken advantage of the Emperor's weakness to become functionally independent.  After Henry V's death, the nobles who ruled Germany principalities "elected" each new emperor (who was then appointed by the Pope).  Both the nobles and the Church had an interest in keeping Imperial power weak and limited.


Imperial authority was briefly restored, though, under Frederick I (Barbarossa) and Fredrick II (1152-1190; 1216-1250).  Barbarossa re-defined his position as "Holy Roman Emperor" (and his territory as the Holy Roman Empire).  He claimed that his rule, like that of Justinian and Charlemagne, was based on God's blessing.  He tried to impose his overlordship over the aristocracy, and also gave nobles “gifts” from his wars of expansion in the East.  Barbarossa re-established Imperial influence in northern Italy and the Pope agreed that northern Italian cities would paid tribute to the emperor.  


His son, Henry VI, gained control over most of southern Italy, so the Empire surrounded the Papacy.   Imperial control over Germany and Italy continued under Fredrick II.  But Fredrick II overextended imperial power and pushed conflict with the Papacy to the point of being excommunicated.  By his death, the empire was engulfed in civil war.  The title "Holy Roman Emperor" continued to be assigned by the Papacy after Frederick II, but Emperors now had very limited authority.  Real power belonged to hundreds of princes, counts, and dukes who ruled their own territories.  German re-unification would not come again until 1871.


Not yet a national monarchy:  Spain (Iberia)


At the end of the Early Middle Ages, Muslims still ruled most of Iberia.  The "reconquista" (re-conquest) of Iberia by Christian rulers would take several centuries.  By 1300, Iberia (Spain) was divided into a Muslim kingdom of Granada in the south; the large central kingdom of Castile; the western kingdom of Portugal; and the two northern kingdoms of Navarre and Aragon.  Spain would not be unified until the late 1400s.


The Crusades


Byzantium in the High Middle Ages:  The growth of tarde in Western Europe was linked to the Crusades, and the Crusades were linked to the history of Byzantium.  So, what was happening in the Byzantine Empire in 1000-1300?  . 


Byzantium began a revival in the 900s:  its army drove back the threat from the Abbasid Caliphate (which was weakened by the invading Turks).  The Slavic princes of Kiev (Rus) converted to Orthodox Christianity and aligned themselves with Byzantium.  To the west, the pagan Slavic peoples in the Balkans converted to “Greek” Christianity and by 1000 CE Byzantium had re-absorbed the Balkans (including Greece).


But Byzantium soon fell again into decline.  After 1025, a series of weak emperors allowed the aristocrats to strengthen their hold over the countryside expropriate its wealth (which reduced royal tax revenues).   To make up for lost revenues, the government devalued its currency; that hurt Byzantium's international trade.  By 1100, Italian merchant from Venice had taken over Byzantium's share of the Eastern Mediterranean and North African trade.


In 1071, the Seljuk Turks destroyed the Byzantine army in Armenia, then captured control of the Holy Land.  In 1085, the new Byzantine Emperor, Alexis Comnenus turned to the Pope for assistance.  Remember, in 1054 the Byzantine Church had refused to recognize the primacy of the Pope, and relations between Byzantium and the Roman Church had broken down.  Still, Emperor Alexis asked Pope Urban II to send him thousands of Christian Knights to join in the fight against the Islamic Turks.  This set the scene for the First Crusade.


The Crusades


The First Crusade:  For Urban II, the fight against the Turks was a way to strengthen Papal authority in the East and re-establish Christian control over the Holy Land.  It also might strengthen the Papacy's position in Western Europe.  German Emperor Henry IV, (the "Roman Emperor,) had recently challenged the Pope’s authority (the Investiture Conflict); Papal-led campaigns against the Turks might reinforce the Pope's authority.  It would also divert the violent aggression of Europe's Knights against a non-Christian enemy (Urban II hoped this would end warfare in Europe).


Thousands of knights from across Western Europe joined the first Crusade.  This meant travelling thousands of miles, at a huge personal cost.  They brought along thousands of retainers, pages, serfs, and artisans (often with their wives and children), as well as "camp followers."  Some were motivate by plunder and loot, but most had religious motivations.  They hoped to "free" the "Christian" Holy Land from the Muslims.  Also, the Church had promised Crusaders "plenary indulgence" (forgiveness from sins and freedom from purgatory after death), and promised direct assent to heaven for those who died in the holy cause.  


By 1095, Crusaders began arriving in Constantinople.  By 1100, the Crusaders had defeated the splintered Turkish and Egyptian Islamic forces in the Holy Land and taken Jerusalem.  They also slaughtered the population of Damascus, Sidon, Jerusalem, and every other city they captured—man, woman, and child--Muslims, Jews, and even Christians.  They then established a Catholic "Crusader Kingdom" along the Mediterranean coast of Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria. 


Crusades 2-7:  Within 30 years, though, Muslim forces recaptured Syria.  The King of France and the German Emperor led a Second Crusade in 1145-1149, but were beaten back by the Turks.  In 1187, the Sultan Saladin recaptured Jerusalem.  A Third Crusade in 1187-1192 failed as well (despite participation by Europe's three greatest monarchs—England's King Richard Lionheart, France's King Philip Augustus, and the German Emperor Fredrick Barbarossa [who died on the crusade]).  A Fourth Crusade in 1201-1204 (launched by Pope Innocent III) also failed to "liberate" Jerusalem.  Instead, the crusaders attacked and sacked Constantinople, which now fell completely under the dominance of Venice.  A Fifth Crusade in 1217-1221 similarly failed.  The attention of Crusaders then shifted to the Egyptian Sultanate (in the Sixth and Seventh Crusades, in 1248-54 and 1270).




By the end of the Fourth Crusade (1201-1204), the fighting really was about who would control trade routes to Asia and Africa.  Venice and Genoa used the Crusades to take control over Byzantium, which gave them control over the western terminus of overland trade routes from China and Central Asia.  (They were overthrown by the Turks in the 1300s).  Crusader victories in North Africa gave Venice and Genoa greater access to trade routes from India and Africa.  The Crusades had become a means to bypass Islamic control over trade routes for Asian luxury goods.   The failure to do this pushed the Italian city states--then the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, British, and French--to look for ocean routes to Asia.