Feudalism, which was the political system for most of the Middle Ages, provided advantages over the system which had prevailed in western and southern Europe during the Roman Empire. The imperial system had been centralized; power was distant, difficult to influence, and consolidated in the hands of a few people.
By contrast, feudalism was localized, so that one could meet face-to-face with those who managed the estates. Power was distributed among many estates, so that no one individual had much of it.
Impressively, feudalism created a structure with mutual obligations: the serfs, the common farmers at the bottom of the social structure, owed certain duties to their lords, but the lords also had certain responsibilities toward the serfs.
The economic system which paralleled feudalism was manorialism. Feudalism and manorialism are inseparable. Manorialism contained the economic analogues to feudalism’s political advantages of a decentralized, localized, flexible system in which the greater answered to the weaker as much as the serfs answered to their lords.
This was unlike the old Roman empire, in which those at the bottom owed a great deal to those at the top, but those at the top owed nothing to those beneath them. Historian Irma Simonton Black writes:
Since the distances from castle to castle were so great, each large estate had to be maintained separately, and the people living there relied on each other. Everyone, from the lowliest serf to the lord of the castle, had his own duties. They welcomed exciting diversions, like tournaments.
There was a diversity of Christian churches around the world: Coptic, Syriac, and others. In Europe, until 1054 A.D., “there was only one Christian church.” After that year, eastern Europe and western Europe each had its own type of church.
Almost every small town or village had its own church, and larger towns had several. Aside from churches, monasteries were major institutions for both learning and social services. “Monks, who dedicated their lives to God,” were responsible for copying by hand the manuscripts which preserved the literature and philosophy of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Because these monks were extremely familiar with texts by authors like Aristotle, Plato, and Cicero, monasteries became the home to mathematics, physics, and philosophy. Monks had detailed discussions of these and other academic topics. During the centuries we call ‘the Middle Ages,’ monks developed more advanced forms of logic, mathematics, astronomy, and physics.
The monks, who “lived in peaceful monasteries,” were also responsible for helping the poor. People who had no food or clothing, and couldn’t otherwise earn any, received these things at monasteries. The monks “tended gardens and went about a wide variety of spiritual and temporal duties.” The monasteries additionally provided employment and a place to live for homeless individuals and families.
Not everyone who lived or worked in a monastery was a monk. Many ordinary people were employed there. They were given houses in which to live and fields in which to grow crops.
It is difficult to mark a precise beginning point or ending point for the Middle Ages. A convenient starting point is the fall of the western Roman Empire in 476 A.D.; an endpoint is much less clear.
The end of the Middle Ages is often thought to be the beginning of the Renaissance, but that is equally ambiguous. Some historians mark the end of the Middle Ages as the time when Petrarch’s career reached its height, around 1341. Others see the rise of the printing press, around 1453, or Islam’s destruction of the city of Constantinople at about the same time, as the endpoint of the Middle Ages.
The reason it’s difficult to find exact dates for the Middle Ages is because this “age” is not a real or concrete historical event. It is a “construct” - an idea made up by later generations. Like most types of generalizations, then, it is difficult to pin down, liable to exceptions, and subject to competing interpretations.
Life on the great estates and in the monasteries went on as it had for many centuries, but very gradually a few things began to change. By the end of the Middle Ages, a new and powerful middle class had appeared in the fast-growing towns: one example of the progress made toward modern times during this very important period.
The economic developments of the Middle Ages - the rise of a cash economy to replace bartering and payments “in kind,” the emergence of the middle class, and the organization of skilled craftsmen into guilds - as well as the technological innovations like the printing press arose from the creativity fostered by the spiritual atmosphere of the times. Irma Simonton Black writes:
Inside the abbeys, monasteries and convents of the Roman Catholic Church life was orderly and serene. Many religious establishments dotted the landscape of the Middle Ages, and the churchmen and churchwomen who inhabited them were directly subject to the great Holy Father, or Pope, in Rome. They lived by stringent rules which forbade fighting.
The monasteries brewed beer and made wine, selling some of it to nearby towns. Monks and nuns took vows of poverty, and most of them lived up to those vows. The monasteries, therefore, did not spend much money on luxuries, and could direct funds to create schools, build libraries, and help the poor.
Because most of the monks and nuns were also pacifists, the energy which might have been devoted to war was instead used for artistic and scientific progress. By the mid 800s, one monastic philosopher, Johannes Scotus Eriugena, was already directing doubt toward the old Ptolemaic view of the universe.
The Greek language was also kept alive in Medieval Europe, from Ireland to Saxony, among the monks. Although some historians felt that Greek learning had died out, it was in fact never disrupted: continuously from 476 A.D. onward, the texts of Plato and Aristotle were studied in their original language across Europe.
The Medieval synthesis was, then, a mixture of preserving and analyzing the classical Greco-Roman heritage on the one hand, and on the other hand advancing areas of study like physics and mathematics with new and original scholarship.
Roman learning was preserved in monasteries and abbeys. Monks copied books and kept brief accounts of important happenings. They wrote in Latin, the language of the scholars.
Monks often knew three or more languages: their native language along with Greek and Latin. “The monks also taught” in the schools of the monasteries. They helped “young people to read and write.” Although the schools started in the monasteries, they also soon were planted in larger towns, where they were called ‘cathedral schools’ because they were usually located in the central church of the region.
The word ‘catholic’ means universal: for centuries, there was only one type of church in any region of Europe. This is unlike the modern United States, where you can find many different types of church in each town: Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian, etc.
The word “catholic” means general or universal, and the Catholic Church was just that for all the Christians of the Middle Ages, for they all belonged to one church.
Most of Europe was over 90% Christian, or at least more than 90% of the people in the region called themselves ‘Christian.’ The remaining people were Jewish. Relations between Christians and Jews in medieval Europe were varying. In some places and times, the two groups coexisted and even cooperated in a peaceful and friendly manner. In other situations, anti-Jewish hatred arose among those who called themselves Christians.
Islam first appeared in southwestern Europe around 711 A.D., when Muslim armies invaded and laid waste to parts of Spain. Similar incursions and plundering would take place in France and Italy, but Islam would not become a fixed presence in Europe until long after the Middle Ages.
Because Christianity had become legal only after 300 A.D., the Middle Ages was the first time that history had a chance to attempt to organize a society around the teachings of Jesus. There was a tension between the new patterns of life found among the Jesus followers on the one hand, and on the other hand that tendency toward selfishness and violence which had made itself apparent in the five or six thousand years of history leading up to the Middle Ages.
The conduct of the military was shaped by the spiritual outlook of those who were serious followers of Jesus:
The knights, for instance, who were the trained fighters of the day, were taught by the Church to respect God and defend the Christian faith, to protect the poor and weak. It was the Pope who proclaimed the Truce of God, which forbade all fighting on Saturdays and Sundays.
The ideal of protecting the poor and the weak was a medieval innovation. Even if it wasn’t carried out uniformly, it was a new concept in human civilization. The weekend ceasefire likewise was a humane attempt to reduce casualties and offer a chance for a diplomatically negotiated solution.
Most, but not all, knights conducted themselves in attempt to honor the ethic of Jesus - admittedly a difficult thing for a military man to do, given that Jesus was a pacifist who neither engaged in combat nor carried a sword. There was, however, at least the new thought of trying to introduce some humane aspect into the conduct of war: avoid harming civilians, women, and children; protect the weak and the poor.
Although “knights would sometimes disregard the Church’s commands,” this new sense of honor was unique among the world’s cultures. Medieval Europe’s sense of honor was a millennium earlier than Japan’s bushido and peculiarly more humane.
This sense of honor fits more naturally into civilian life than into the military. The feudal lords “recognized the Church as a peaceful influence in their world.” There were occasions, naturally, when it was necessary to correct or reform the Church itself, when it strayed away from the selfless pacifism which Jesus introduced. But, “in general, the nobles were willing to support the Church with money and gifts.”
Medieval Europe was a mixture of economic, political, and spiritual thoughts, trying sincerely but perhaps imperfectly to make a concrete social reality corresponding to its distinctive ethics of selflessness, pacificism, individual liberty, and a respect for human life.