State and Society in the High Middle Ages (1000-1300)
At the onset of the High Middle Ages, Western European society lagged behind that of the Arabic-dominated Islamic world and (arguably) that of the Byzantine East. By the end of the High Middle Ages, European society, dominated by the West, was poised to assert its influence around the globe. To understand this transformation, we first need to look at two spheres of change in particular—the "feudal" economy and the rise of feudal national monarchies.
The Economy in the High Middle Ages
Two great structural changes took place in the European economy of in the "High Middle Ages" that had wide-ranging social implications: 1) advances in agricultural technique helped consolidate the manorial system of agriculture, in which aristocratic landowners exploited serf labor; and 2) towns and cities again emerged as centers of commerce and (to a lesser extent) manufacturing.
Several reasons for higher agricultural productivity:
The world climate, which had begun warming in around 100 CE, had much to do with rising agricultural productivity. The peak of this long warming cycle came between 1000 and 1200. As a result, it not only became possible for farmers north of the Mediterranean to plant crops that previously had only grown in the South, but farmers could also plant earlier in spring without fear of killing frosts in May, and they could keep their crops in the fields into October before the fall frosts set in. A longer growing season contributed to higher agricultural yields.
So did basic improvements in agricultural technology. In the south, where soils were very rich and forests had long been cleared, light "scratch plows" had been typical since the Roman era; these were of little use in the heavier clayish soils of the north, which often had been cleared from the forests only within the last few hundred years. The spread in the north of heavier plows with iron plow shares did much to improve agricultural techniques, as did better yokes and harnesses for oxen (the main draught animals), shoes for horses (which made them more useful as draught animals), the wheelbarrow, and the increased use of iron for hand tools.
One of the most important "new" technologies of the High Middle Ages was not a tool for tilling the land, but rather a means of preparing grain after it had been harvested—the mill. Powered by either water or wind, mills provided cheap and abundant power for grinding grain into flour. (They also could be applied to other tasks, such as sawing lumber, powering machines for textile weaving, etc. That is why we have terms in English like "sawmill," "textile mill," etc..) New milling technology made it cheaper to bring grain to market as flour (and thus increased profitability).
In addition to better climate conditions and better technology, farmers in Europe also benefited from the introduction of "new" patterns of land use—in particular, the adoption of the "three field system." Soil that is farmed year after year eventually becomes exhausted. In the early middle ages, European farmers had "solved" this problem by letting half of their fields lay fallow each year. After several years, they would "rotate," so that they planted the previously fallow field and left fallow the previously planted field. In the high middle ages (perhaps as a result of methods introduced to Europe by the Muslims), European farmers began rotating their grain crops with clover and other fodder crops.
Although farmers did not understand the chemistry involved, the effect of planting alfalfa, etc., was to reintroduce nitrogen and other nutrients into the soil (these were removed in the cultivation of oats, wheat, barley, and any grains). In a three field rotation, one field would be planted in grains, one planted in legumes or grasses, and one left fallow. The three field rotation meant a more balanced diet for rural peoples, but it also meant more fodder for draught animals, and thus more manure for the soil. (One of the advantages to having draught animals is that they provide manure for the soil; more manure meant richer soil, which helped increase yields.)
While many—perhaps most—independent small peasant farmers were hesitant to introduce the three field rotation, the new approach became common large noble-owned estates. Like the new technology, it appealed most to landowners willing and able to risk the capital required for new tools, seeds, etc.
Manors and Serfdom
By tradition, the Germanic tribes had owned and farmed land as independent family units. Into the 800s, most had remained free farmers on their own homesteads. But then, quite rapidly, peasants in England, Northern France, and Western Germany moved towards village-based agriculture. Villagers could pool their collective resources and shared common lands (usually pastures and woods); they often shared draught animals and tools as well. The village community jointly made basic decisions about when and what to plant, etc. Most often the fields surrounding a village would be divided into a patchwork of strips, each farmed by a different family. A family's land was seldom consolidated in one field; this reduced the risk to each household and gave all access to at least some good soil. Living in villages also allowed for simple division of economic function (as in towns—remember our first lecture?).
This new village settlement pattern had advantages for the peasants, but it also proved advantageous to the aristocratic landlords. In some regions the landlords and not the peasants initiated new village settlement. By having peasants concentrated in villages, aristocrats could more easily collect rents and "dues" that were their right as noble lords. (Rents usually applied to common lands, which the aristocrats claimed as their own property, and to forests; dues referred to various forms of special "taxes" and charges, including labor obligations). If you recall the last lecture, local rulers had granted aristocratic families control over lands in return for their loyal service. Aristocrats therefore had legal power over the commoners on those lands. 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, states had issued laws tying agricultural laborers to the land of the aristocratic landowners; these laborers were "serfs." Technically, serfs were not slaves: they themselves were not the landowners' property; they were fixed to the landowners' property, as were their children (serfdom was hereditary). In the High Middle Ages, aristocrats and monasteries (which also were great landlords) used serfdom to squeeze payments and services out of the peasants under their control. The landlords with villages on their "manors" (their estates) and required "their" peasants to work on the "demesne"(the landowner's land) without pay. They used the law to declare these peasants "serfs," so that the peasants could not leave the land.
Under the arrangements of "manorialism," aristocratic landowners exploited the unpaid labor of serfs who worked on the lord's own land and also charged the serfs rents and fees for their use of the village's lands. The landowners' powers often extended to control over other aspects of the serfs' lives as well, such as who they could marry. Remember also that the landowners' power of over the serfs was based upon law, and the landowners had the power to judge and execute the law in "their" villages. Even where manorialism was not well developed, aristocrats enserfed the peasants. The specific arrangements between lord and serf differed from between kingdoms (and principalities), and even from region to region within particular principalities. The common threads from place to place were that the lord held legal as well as economic power over the serfs and used this legal power to demand labor and/or payments as tribute.
In the places where the manorial economy was most advanced (England, Northern France, Western Germany), serfdom had begun to decline already in the 1200s. In these most economically advanced parts of Europe, emergence of a money-based commercial economy actually made it more profitable for landlords to demand payments in cash. They freed peasants from serf labor and require instead that the peasants pay high cash rents; this made the peasants assume all of the risks of the market (the chance of crop failures, the fall of prices, etc), while the landowners could demand their rents no matter what the circumstances.
But even in these most advanced countries, the decline of manorialism did not mean the complete cessation 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. In other parts of Europe—especially in Central and Eastern Europe, aristocrats imposed serfdom on the peasants only at the end of the High Middle Ages. Economic and social conditions in the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Period actually reinforced serfdom in Central and Eastern Europe, and in places it continued into the early 1800s. On Europe's eastern frontier, in Russia (Muscovy), serfdom was not consolidated (not established as a principle of law) until the mid-1600s, and lasted until the 1860s.
Some social consequences of changes in agricultural productivity
One important consequence of increased agricultural productivity was improvement of peasants' diets. That, in turn, contributed to population growth, which peaked in the mid-1200s. Rural population growth stimulated the expansion of settlements into new territories, not only in relatively under-settled regions of Central and Eastern Europe, but also in the already more heavily settled areas like Holland (where farmers began "re-claiming" land from the sea by building massive dykes and draining away the sea water.) As we shall see a bit later (lecture 11), population growth would come to a dramatic halt in the 1300s, when climate change and other factors led to famines and plagues.
The elaborate social life of the aristocracy (the "knights and nobles") described in Coffin (pp. 323-326) also resulted from increased agricultural productivity and aristocrats' exploitation of serf labor. The wealth of the great "old" noble families was based on their control over land and peasants. So was the wealth of the "new" nobility—the various counts, etc., created by kings and princes as servants to royal power (see lecture 8). And so often was the wealth of the "knights" who served as the aristocrats' warriors. (Coffin explains that by the mid-1200s, only men who controlled large estates could afford to be a knight). Serf labor built the aristocrats' stone castles and provided the income for the aristocrats' luxury goods. And so the entire culture of aristocracy, from its codes of honor to its cult of courtly love, depended upon the labor of the "lowly" peasants and the increased productivity of their labor.
But it was not only the lords (and the big serf-owning monasteries) who benefited financially and culturally from rising agricultural productivity. More surplus mean more marketable grain, and lords had to find a way to turn agricultural surplus into cash. The nobility, in other words, needed commerce, but held commerce in disdain—to the noblemen, buying and selling goods was humiliating and degrading (as would be actually plowing their own fields). The nobility depended upon "middle men"—millers, merchants, and bankers. By the end of the 1200s, this "middle class" of non-noble business people had begun to accumulate considerable wealth (although, as commoners, they did not have the social prestige, privileges, or political power of the nobles).
The centers for commerce--the places where both the agricultural goods, artisan-made manufactured goods, and imported luxury items were bought and sold —were the towns.
The growth of towns
In the High Middle Ages, towns and cities had a number of important functions. They were centers of trade in agricultural goods, where surplus agricultural production was turned into cash. They were centers of shipping and storage of goods to be imported and exported. They were centers of manufacturing and of trade in manufactured goods. They were centers of Church administration. They were centers of learning (homes of the first universities). And by the end of the High Middle Ages, cities were becoming increasingly important centers of government administration. The complexity of the urban social structure reflected these multiple functions. But in this lecture we will focus only on the elements of society engaged in trade and manufacturing.
The majority of the population in most towns and cities were peasants, either free peasants or escaped serfs, who provided most urban unskilled labor. Peasants made up the bottom rung of the urban social hierarchy. For peasants, the towns offered the prospect of paid work and greater freedom from aristocratic control. That was because many towns and most cities had been granted special charters by the king, prince, or archbishop (whoever had sovereignty over the town) that gave the municipality certain "privileges"; these often included protection from the authority and interference of the rural nobility.
Artisans and small shop-keepers held the next rung up on the social hierarchy. Artisans were highly skilled craftsmen who owned their own tools, controlled their own pace of labor, and did all aspects of the work in producing a particular product (say, for instance, silverware). Most urban manufacturing took place within the artisan system. Master artisans belonged to "guilds" that had been granted charters by the local sovereign authority; these charters gave guild members the exclusive privilege of producing or selling a particular product within the borders of that principality. That allowed the members of the guild to limit the number of people practicing their trade (they restricted competition), which allowed them to control prices (and wages); it also allowed the guild to regulate the quality of goods.
A boy's parents would place him with the household of a master craftsman, in which he served as an unpaid "apprentice" for several years, during which he learned all aspects of a trade. Having completed his training, the apprentice became a journeyman, the paid employee of a master artisan. If the journeyman produced a "masterpiece" that passed the inspection of the guild masters, and if the guild masters considered the market strong enough to absorb increased production, then he would be accepted into the guild as a master artisan. The artisan guilds were more than simply economic organizations—they supervised and coordinated most other aspects of an artisans' life, including Christian religious services and festivals, charitable societies, and most forms of sociability.
Merchants in medieval towns and cities also organized guilds, which obtained royal charters that gave them the exclusive privilege of selling particular types of goods (in other words, they, too, had monopolies and used them to limit competition). In most places, several "levels" of merchant guilds existed, from the "lower" guilds for small merchants with little capital, to the "higher" guilds for the wealthiest and best capitalized merchants. The members of the "higher" merchant guilds were considered to be socially superior to the artisans and the lower-guild merchants (although, as commoners, they were still considered inferior to the aristocrats and to the church hierarchy). Like the artisans' guilds, the merchant guilds carefully regulated their own membership. Like the artisans' guilds, they were closed to women, Jews, and Muslims. Like the artisans' guilds, they organized more than just economic life, and were the focal point of merchants' social worlds as well. The wealthy merchants' guilds, though, had far more political power than did the artisans and small shop keepers, and merchant guilds often controlled town government and even access to status as a townsman (which gave one the privileges of citizenship).
Urban social conditions
Large towns and cities were, in a sense, islands of liberty in feudal society. But they were also overcrowded, ramshackle, and filthy. Even the largest cities (like Paris and London) still resembled very large villages, with gardens and pastures within the town limits, animals in the unpaved streets, etc. Most of the buildings in even the greatest cities were built of wood (despite the construction of great stone cathedrals), tightly packed into crowded streets, and lacked adequate light and ventilation. Unlike the cities of ancient Rome, most districts of most 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. Overcrowding and terrible sanitary conditions made the towns and cities "vectors" of disease, and we will see that the great plagues of the 1300s hit the urban areas with particular fury.
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. One of the most expansive early trade networks involved wool. While the raw wool came from rural districts, it most often 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 of this sort stimulated the growth of ports and market towns and of great market fairs across Europe. So did the growing trade in luxury goods imported from Asia (spices, silks, etc). The locus of such trade shifted to the south during the High Middle Ages--the center of the woolens trade, for instance, moved from the fairs of central France to the cities of northern Italy.
By the late 1200s, cities in northern Italy had emerged as the most dynamic centers of trade in Europe. Ships from Venice, Genoa, Florence, and other Italian port city-states plied the Mediterranean, carrying goods from the Levant (Lebanon, Syria and Palestine), from Constantinople, and from across Western Europe. These enterprises depended on the availability of venture capital and the willingness of merchants to risk their fortunes. Italian merchants adopted new business methods, such as double-entry accounting based upon use of the Arabic number system, 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 violated traditional prohibitions imposed by the Catholic Church, such as the ban on charging interest (usury). (Note: That no such religious bans on money-lending existed in Judaism was one reason why Christian authorities encouraged Jewish participation in banking.) The adoption of new business methods amounted to a "commercial revolution" and set in motion 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, parts of central and northern Europe came under the rule of stable kingdoms, such as the Anglo-Saxon dynasty established by Alfred the Great in England and the Germany dynasty established by King Otto (see lecture 8). But in much of Europe the collapse of Charlemagne's Empire meant political confusion and struggles for power, that gave birth to two forms of government—city states and feudal monarchies.
After the collapse of the Carolingian Empire, several large mercantile cities—especially in northern Italy, Flanders (Belgium), and northern Spain—established systems of self-government. Some technically fell within the territory of a king, prince, or feudal lord (or territory directly controlled by the Church), but had been granted charters of liberty by these authorities. Northern European cities often had elected councils and mayors, drawn from among the wealth members of the merchant guilds. In Northern Italy, the collapse of the Empire had left many major cities almost entirely independent of aristocratic overlords; here, elected councils and "communes" made up of citizens controlled local government. Some even declared themselves independent Republics, free of princely rule.
As in Northern Europe, in Italy wealthy guild merchants dominated local government, although they often faced popular resistance. Power struggles between the "populares" and the "magnates," and in-fighting among the family oligarchies of the Italian city states was a constant threat to their stability. (Note: You already know at least one story that involves such infighting—Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet!) The struggles among oligarchs and the tensions between popular and oligarchic rule and between republican and aristocratic government would continue into the late middle ages (and form the backdrop for the political philosophy of Machiavelli in The Prince).
At the same time that independent city-states were emerging, a relatively de-centralized form of feudal monarchical rule was being established over much of the Western European countryside. The most basic cause of this phenomenon was the weakness of some of the successor states to the Carolingian Empire. Often, as we shall see, kings claimed absolute power in principle but in practice could not impose centralized rule. Instead, power "on the ground" often lay with aristocratic counts and dukes, who ruled over fiefdoms and huge manors. From the strong points of their castles, the aristocrats not only ruled over "their serfs" (from whom they collected taxes, charged dues, etc), in the name of the King, but also functioned as virtually autonomous states: as Coffin points out, feudal lords often minted their own coins and raised their own armies. (Their armies were made up of aristocratic knights in their service, who as compensation often received their own manors and serfs, over whom they ruled as lords.) In some cases, local aristocrats ruled completely independently.
In the 1100s and 1200s, as national monarchs became more powerful, kings brought an end to such pockets of aristocratic independence and imposed overlordship over the aristocrats. The feudal political system was based on a hierarchy of service somewhat reminiscent of clientage in Rome: Kings and princes provided the dukes and counts with "gifts" (fiefdoms) of land and the right to exploit revenues from that land (and its population!); in return, these "vassals" swore loyalty and service ("homage") to their "lord." The counts and dukes provided gifts (often land) to their knights, who swore homage to them. But the process of building feudal national monarchies was uneven across Europe. As we shall see, in the High Middle Ages it was most advanced in England and least advanced in Spain.
Examples of Feudal Monarchies: England
The feudal organization of monarchy in England grew out of the Norman Conquest. The Monarchy of Alfred the Great had been highly centralized—more so, even, than that of Charlemagne. But in 1066 Norman invaders from northern France led by William the Conqueror defeated the English in the Battle of Hastings. William then doled out fiefdoms in England to Norman aristocrats (and also required feudal service from the clergy in return for land grants). English feudalism was not decentralized as was that in France at the time. William retained control over taxation, the minting of currency, the raising of armies, etc., and made use of centralized state institutions created by previous Anglo-Saxon kings (e.g., the use of appointed sheriffs as administrators—think of the "Sheriff of Nottingham in the "Robin Hood" story).
William's dynastic descendants (esp. Henry I, 1100-1135; Henry II, 1154-1189) further strengthened the powers of the central monarchical government. Henry I began the process of building a government bureaucracy of trained clerks and judges; Henry II forced the English Church establishment to recognize the authority of royal law over the clergy (this was the basis of his famous conflict with Thomas Becket) and made royal law the basis of a well-regulated system of civil and criminal justice that employed trials before juries (made up of twelve men from among the local population). This later reform had three very important consequences: first, it brought commoners into participation in government through the jury process, which strengthened a sense of loyalty to the state; second, and perhaps more significantly, it gave all free men (but not serfs) the promise of equal status and protection under the law; and third, it helped strengthen the principle that like the people, the government, and even kings, must behave according to law and could not violate basic rights of Englishmen. The reforms of implemented by the Norman Kings proved so effective that the English monarchy worked quite well even without the presence of the King, as was demonstrated under King Richard "Lionheart," who spent virtually his entire ten-year reign abroad (fighting in France and in the Crusade).
The principles that the monarchy must follow law and that all free Englishmen had basic rights proved of crucial importance in the reign of Richard's brother, John (1199-1216). When in 1204 John's armies lost control of English-ruled territories in Northern France, the king needed to raise revenues to fund a military campaign against French King Philip Augustus. This was difficult in part because Richard's wars and Crusade had drained the royal coffers. To pay for his war, John imposed huge fines on the English nobles and raised taxes, acts that were widely viewed in England as abuses of royal power and violation of both the law and of Englishmen's rights. After John's defeat in France (in 1215), the great aristocratic families of England forced the king to sign the Magna Carta. a declaration or charter recognizing the basic liberties of the aristocracy. According to the Magna Carta, the King could not violate the basic "traditional" rights and privileges and the government had to behave within the limits of the law.
The Magna Carta was intended to prevent arbitrary abuse of monarchical power, and not to decentralize government. The process of extending and refining the powers and functions of the central government actually sped up under the rule of John's son, Henry III (1216-1272). Another major English innovation under Henry III's son, Edward I (1272-1307), also strengthened the power of the central monarchical government, even while it provided the aristocracy a greater role in governance: this innovation was 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. The basic institutions of the centralized English monarchical state in place by 1300 would endure for hundreds of years.
Examples of Feudal Monarchies: France
The history of centralized monarchy in France differed dramatically from that in England. When Hugh Capet assumed the French crown from the last Carolingian king in 987, he inherited a very weak monarchy that had little direct control over the countryside or over the aristocracy. Much of French territory lay outside the rule of the French kings (e.g., Normandy). But between 1000 and 1300, the Capetian kings gradually built a powerful centralized monarchy from their base in the great mercantile (and university) city of Paris in the agriculturally-rich Paris basin, in part by skillfully taming the aristocrats and exploiting patronage relationships with the church and the Papacy, and in part by building new state institutions.
The process of taming the aristocrats advanced quickly under Louis VI (1108-1137) and Philip Augustus (1180-1223), who strengthened feudal overlordship over aristocrats in central and western France. Philip imposed direct royal rule over newly conquered territories through use of royal agents ("baillis"), whose functions were similar to those of the English sheriffs, and who balanced centralized authority with concessions to local and regional traditions. Capetian exploitation of the royal relationship with the Church was clearest under kings Louis VIII (1223-1226) and Louis IX (1226-1270), who in return for Papal support wages campaigns against heresy (and against the Jews) in newly-acquired territories in the south of France. Capetian 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 from across the realm that the monarch could use to implement new taxes or to promulgate 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
The history of the monarchy in Germany seems in some ways the reverse of the story in France. At the onset of the High Middle Ages, Germany was composed of a series of principalities in which aristocratic dukes and counts, but these were subservient to a powerful Emperor. As under Charlemagne, the monarch claimed authority over Church institutions and appointed bishops and archbishops, who often also ruled territories in the Emperor's service. 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), not only did the nobles of Saxony rebel against royal policies, but Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) declared that the Emperor had no power over the church administration.
These two challenges to Imperial authority became intertwined and posed such a threat to the monarchy that Henry IV had to beg the Pope's forgiveness, in hopes of ending the conflict, in 1077. Still, the civil war in Saxony and conflict between the Papacy and the Emperor continued, and by the death of Henry V in 1125 the German nobility had taken advantage of the Emperor's weakness to become functionally independent of monarchical power. After Henry V's death, the nobles who ruled Germany's patchwork of principalities "elected" each new emperor, who was then appointed by the Pope. Both the nobles and the Church had a stake in keeping Imperial power weak and limited.
There were, however, significant efforts to restore Imperial authority, most notably 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), in an effort to claim that his rule, like that of Justinian and Charlemagne, was based on God's blessing. Like the Capetian kings, he sought to impose his overlordship over the aristocracy; he also doled out the nobles the spoils of his wars of expansion in the East. Barbarossa re-established Imperial influence in northern Italy and won agreement from the Pope under which the northern Italian cities paid tribute to the emperor. His son, Henry VI, then gained control over most of southern Italy, so that the Empire had effectively surrounded the Papacy. Imperial control over Germany and most of Italy would continue under the reign of Fredrick II (whose remarkable personality and reign is discussed in more detail in Coffin, pp. 338-339). But Fredrick II overextended imperial power and pursued his conflict with the Papacy to the point of being excommunicated. By his death, his empire was engulfed in civil war. The title "Holy Roman Emperor" continued to be assigned by the Papacy after Frederick II, but future monarchs had very limited authority. Instead, real power rested with the 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, the Muslims still ruled most of Iberia. The "reconquista" (re-conquest) of Iberia by Christian rulers proceeded in stages that stretched over several centuries. As a consequence, by 1300 Iberia 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. Unification and the creation of a strong central government in Spain would not take place until the late 1400s.
Byzantium in the High Middle Ages
The growth of commerce in Western Europe was linked to the history of the Crusades, and the history of the Crusades was linked to the history of Byzantium, and so we must take a very brief detour and look at what was happening in the Byzantine Empire in 1000-1300. As I noted in the previous lecture, Byzantium had faced threats from its Muslim neighbors to the east and south in the early middle ages; it also was one of the states hectored by the Vikings (who invaded along a route that ran through Russia).
But signs of a Byzantium revival could be seen in the 900s: the Byzantine army successfully drove back the threat on its southern and eastern borders from the Abbasid Caliphate (which itself had been weakened by invaders from Central Asia—the Turks). To the northeast, the Slavic princes of Kiev (the state that would become Russia) converted to Orthodox Christianity and aligned themselves with Byzantium. To the west, the pagan Slavic peoples of the Balkans converted to Christianity under the influence of the missionaries (Saints) Cyril and Methodius (who also developed an alphabet for the Slavic languages, known as the Cyrillic alphabet). By the early 1000s, Byzantium had re-absorbed the Balkans (including Greece).
Note: Paid advertisement! The conversion of Kiev and Rus relations with Byzantium is one of the topics discussed in my 300 level course on early Russian history.
But despite (and perhaps because) of its revived expansion, Byzantium soon again fell into decline. Tensions grew between the Emperor and powerful aristocratic families, who competed for power and influence. Under a series of weak emperors after 1025, the aristocrats increased their hold over the countryside, enserfed their peasants, and appropriated for themselves more and more of the countryside's wealth, which otherwise would have contributed to royal tax revenues. The consequent Imperial monetary policy (devalued currency) weakened Byzantium's international trade. By 1100, Italian merchant from Venice (etc) had taken over Byzantium's share of the Eastern Mediterranean and North African trade.
Then, in 1071, the Seljuk Turks destroyed the Byzantine army (see lecture 8) in Byzantium's eastern province of Armenia; Turks also captured control of the Holy Land. In the 1085 the new Byzantine Emperor, Alexis Comnenus (a member of one of the rival aristocratic families that had fought for power in the 900s), 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 requested that the Pope Urban II help provide thousands of Christian Knights to join in the fight against the Islamic Turks. This set the scene for the First Crusade.
Urban II welcomed this invitation to intervene in the fight against the Turks, since it might strengthen Papal authority in the East and held the promise of re-establishing Christian (and Papal) control over the Holy Land. It also might strengthen the Papacy's position in Western Europe. German Emperor Henry IV, who held the title "Roman Emperor," like Charlemagne claimed authority over all Christendom and secular primacy over the Pope; a successful Papal-led campaign against the Turks would reinforce the Pope's authority. It would also divert the violent aggression of Europe's Knights against a non-Christian enemy, which Urban II hoped would bring an end to warfare in Europe.
Thousands of aristocratic knights from across Western Europe heeded Urban's call to a crusade against the Turks to recapture the Holy Land. Joining the Crusade was no simple task—the knights would have to travel thousands of miles, at a huge personal cost (which they often had to borrow). With them came tens of thousands of retainers, pages, serfs, and artisans (often with their wives and children), as well as thousands of "camp followers." Some were driven by the promise of plunder, but most had come out of religious fervor: not only did they hope to "free" the "Christian" Holy Land from the Muslims; the Church had promised Crusaders "plenary indulgence" (forgiveness from sins and freedom from purgatory after death), and direct assent to heaven for those who died in the holy cause.
Note: Zeal for the "Holy Cause" against the Muslims led Crusaders to attack other non-Christians they encountered on their path, such as the Jewish communities of Germany and France. Mass killings and forced conversion of Jews during the First Crusade initiated the long history of anti-Jewish violence in the Middle Ages. (Another Paid Advertisement: This is one of the topics discussed in my 400-level course on European Jewish History)
A decade after Emperor Alexis' call for aid, the thousands of Crusaders began arriving in Constantinople (where their relationship with the Byzantine government was tense at best). By the year 1100, the Crusaders had defeated the splintered Turkish and Egyptian Islamic forces in the Holy Land and taken Jerusalem. Their military victory owed in part to divisions among their enemies, in part to their superior armor, and in part to naval assistance from the Italian cities of Genoa and Pisa (who aimed at controlling the trade through Middle East to India). The Crusaders not only defeated the Muslim armies: they slaughtered the population of Damascus, Sidon, Jerusalem, and every other city they captured—man, woman, and child, Muslim, Jew, and even Christian. Although none of the Crusader Knights was enthusiastic about remaining in Jerusalem, they established a Catholic "Crusader Kingdom" along the Mediterranean coast of Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria.
The Crusaders' hold on this territory did not last long. Within The Muslim forces rebounded within a generation, and recaptured Syria. The King of France and the German Emperor led a Second Crusade (1145-1149), but they were beaten back by the Turks. In 1187 the Muslim Sultan (Caliph) Saladin recaptured Jerusalem, leaving the Crusaders in control of only a tiny sliver of territory. A Third Crusade (1187-1192) failed as well, despite the personal participation of 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 (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 the Italian merchant city states.) A Fifth Crusade (1217-1221) similarly failed. The attention of Crusaders now shifted to attacked the Egyptian Sultanate (in the Sixth and Seventh Crusades, in 1248-54 and 1270).
By the end of the Fourth Crusade (1201-1204), this bloody warfare was no longer primarily about controlling the Holy Land—instead, it had become a battle to control trade routes to Asia and Africa. Venice, Genoa, and other Italian merchant city states, had taken advantage of the Crusades to strengthen themselves. The Venetians and then the Genoese, for instance, now controlled the Byzantine crown, which gave them control over the western terminus of overland trade routes from China and Central Asia. (They would be overtrown by the Turks in the 1300s). The minor victories of the Crusaders in Palestine North Africa gave the Venetians and Genoese greater access to already existing trade routes from India (source of valuable spices) and Africa (source of gold). At a very important level, the Crusades became an effort to bypass Islamic control over trade routes that brought Asian luxury goods to Europe. The failure to achieve this goal through warfare would lead the Italian city states (and then the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, and the French) to seek maritime routes to the east; in a sense, then, the failure of the Crusades helped launched the Age of Exploration (which we will discuss in lecture 12).