An Idiot’s History of Western Europe—“Fallen Institutions” of the Middle Ages

[This is the fourth installment of my mini-history—more to come]

I’ve been searching for years for a book or a course that would guide me through the intellectual history of Western Europe from the time of Charlemagne (A.D. 800) to the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment (1600-1800).  How did events and people in this time manage to unseat Christianity from its monopoly of moral authority in medieval Western Europe on questions of what is True and Right and Good (see my January 2011 post on “Science and Religion—Where is the Source of Authority?”).  In my just-previous post (April 2011), I shared my discovery that there was so much about the Medieval Mind, thoroughly imbued with the Christian worldview, that fostered development of the Modern Mind.  Yet the Modern Mind is deeply conflicted about Christianity as the Source of Authority, or even a source of authority, and wants to search for other authorities, any other for some of us.  What happened to cause this reaction, even rejection?  Most of us have taken for granted what popular authors of the past three centuries have glibly told us about religion, especially Christianity, as a reflection of ignorant bias, a cause of war and suffering, and an impediment to science and progress.  Satisfying as this dismissal may be for many, it has the unfortunate burden of being historically incorrect on all three counts of the indictment.  Therefore this glib dismissal itself must be a reflection of some ignorant bias.  Where did this bias come from?

I finally found a comprehensive course that filled the historical gap for me:  “The Development of European Civilization,” taught by Prof. Kenneth R. Bartlett of the University of Toronto as one of The Great Courses of The Teaching Company (, published in 2011.  Unless otherwise noted, my main source for the facts and interpretations I offer here and in the next four posts is this course by Professor Bartlett.  I am embarrassed to admit that millions of university students have taken a similar “European Civ” course as freshmen or sophomores to fulfill their core course requirements.  I did not.  I went to Cornell University, specifically because in the 1960s this was one of the first of the big-name universities to de-emphasize “liberal arts education” in favor of allowing eager students like me to focus almost immediately on a specialty—biological sciences in my case.  As I’ve puzzled over the difficult questions of life beyond my initial profession, I’ve keenly felt this deficit in my basic education and had to do remedial work (such as the reading for this Idiot’s History).  Often I’ve learned from my son’s coursework within a more traditional core curriculum (I’ll offer an example in a moment).

Fallen Institutions

I take the title of this post from a conversation with a friend, Dr. Robb Davis, an accomplished scientist, practitioner of international development and a deeply thoughtful Christian.  His conversation point is captured in this passage of an article Robb wrote for The Ellul Forum (p. 7 of the Fall 2010 issue):

Included in this broader understanding [from the writings of St. Paul] is the idea that institutions and systems which God has created for good act as dehumanizing forces; essentially trading their true role in maintaining the conditions for human flourishing for other ends, including their own survival.  In this way they reveal their ‘fallenness.’” (© International Jacques Ellul Society.

This point would have been understood easily by the Medieval Mind, because of the immense influence of St. Augustine’s writings, in particular on the concept of Original Sin.  Human institutions may be divinely conceived and constructed from divine inspiration, but they are nonetheless built, staffed and run by humans, who suffer the burden of Original Sin, which arose with the Fall of Adam and Eve from God’s Grace in the Garden of Eden.

This concept has enormous explanatory power for Christians trying to make sense of the ways of the world.  It generates a testable prediction, that a human being is not born good, only to be corrupted by interaction with family and society (which is a popular view in the Modern Mind), rather a child is born with free will, which has a tendency to self-absorbed evil in the absence of self-discipline that comes from education by adults who have mastered this self-discipline.  The Medieval Mind took this notion for granted, attributing this self-discipline to Christian education benefiting from God’s Grace through the work of the Holy Spirit.  It was no big stretch to extend the concept of “fallenness” from human individuals to human institutions—divinely inspired, perhaps specifically mandated by God, but subject to the entropy of human “fallenness,” constantly corroding all it touches and so requiring regular correction, just as a house needs an occasional new coat of paint and other forms of routine maintenance to keep it from rotting away and falling down.  The falling of institutions, even divinely-inspired ones, has been seen over and over as “trading their true role … for other ends, including their own survival.”  And so it must have been that dominance for a thousand years took their toll on Christianity and the Christian-soaked institutions of the Middle Ages.

The Three Estates of the Feudal System

Let’s look at those Christian-soaked institutions of Western Europe in the Middle Ages, in light of the course by Prof. Bartlett (who shows no pro- or anti-Christian bias in his presentation of history, as far as I can tell).  He starts with the disintegration of the Roman imperial system of laws, administration, roads and ports, and coinage to facilitate trade, in the fearsome chaos of successive barbarian invasions from the north and the east. All that was left was a diminished population with a shrinking economy shattered into hundreds of isolated pieces and a memory of the imperial system of which only the still-relatively-new state religion, the Roman version of Christianity, remained just barely standing.  As I explained in an earlier (March 2011) post, Thomas Cahill, in Mysteries of the Middle Ages (p.39), described the local bishop as often the only Roman official who stayed at his post and was “capable of implementing a body of law and custom that could reestablish social peace and guide the new barbarian ruler (and the mixed population of Romans and barbarians that he now ruled) toward a rational political settlement.” Roman popes and their bishops and priests had to make deals for the Western Church to survive; circumstances required that they be practical and flexible. This was not a time to be overly zealous about fine points of theology.  Romans long had a deeply practical streak, even in their theology, preferring to focus on the literally down-to-earth implications of the Incarnation of God as a human being like themselves.  If God could accommodate human beings through the Incarnation, surely the Roman Church could accommodate the barbarians in all their loathsomeness.  Moreover, the Church had no choice.

From the chaos, this awkward accommodation of Christian officials and barbarian overlords built the “feudal system” with its three “estates”—the landed nobility, the Church, and everyone else who did the hard work.  The feudal system had its origins partly in the Roman custom of patronage, in which prominent men drew prestige from literally being followed through the streets by less prominent men who sought prestige by association and a share of the favors the Man could provide to loyal followers.  Even more, the feudal system drew from the similar Germanic custom of comitatus, in which a heroic warrior was surrounded by other proven warriors who gained honor and favor through their valorous military service to their hero-chief as well as first pick of the spoils of victory in battle.  Prof. Bartlett offers the colorful analogy of these Germanic warrior alliances to modern biker gangs—in the absence of any effective state apparatus, they could do pretty much what they wanted, with no constraints other than their own code of ethics—public power in private hands.  However, to enjoy the spoils of their victory, these strong men (kings) and their henchmen (nobles) had to prepare for defense against the next wave of barbarians as well as the miscreants of their own tribe.  And they had to eat!  Without money to pay for the military service of the nobles, the king had to offer them control of food-producing land and the people who would work it for them.  So, with the collaboration of the Church (presumed to be essential for gaining the cooperation of the Third Estate), these biker gangs settled on the land and developed the feudal system and the “manorial economy.”

Knights and Monks

The stirrup, one of the many prosaic inventions of the Middle Ages, made it possible to fight on horseback, protected by heavy armor and able to use high-impact lances and other heavy weapons.  The warriors became knights, the fearsome medieval equivalent of modern military tanks.  The care and feeding of a knight and his horse “takes a village” and enough good land to feed and clothe both the knight’s family and the villagers and their priest, who all benefited from the knight’s protection from outsiders—this was the “manor” over which the knight ruled as he chose to rule, constrained only by the web of customary practice and mutual obligation that governed nobility and villagers alike with the blessing and help of the Christian authorities.   The king provided the land and people to support the knight and in return had the right to call upon his knights to gather in defense of the kingdom or to attack other kingdoms.  Otherwise, the knight was the lord of his own manor, with little support or interference from other knights.  The manor was a self-contained and self-supported economic and social unit.  All administration, economy and social life itself was supremely local and, in the best of times, mostly isolated from the rest of the world.  Trade among these local units was hampered not only by marauding bandits and lack of roads and bridges but also by lack of money—literally no currency with widely recognized value.

Some of these local units were abbeys—spiritual communities of monks (monasteries) or nuns (convents), most organized according to the Rule of St. Benedict.  Their number exploded in the period 550-700.  This seems strange in the chaos of the time, when we might assume that mere survival would trump the luxury of supporting whole communities of Christian contemplatives removed from the world.  The monastic movement was effectively autonomous of Church control but benefited from Church endorsement and grants of land by a king or other noble.  The phenomenal growth no doubt reflects the pervasive esteem for Christianity as well as the need to protect its traditions and learning from the barbarian onslaught and for many, of course, the opportunity to take refuge from the danger and hard work experienced by most people of the time.  An abbey was the fortified great house of a manor, supported in the same way as for a knight, by a village and land worked by the villagers for the benefit of the abbey’s residents.  Often the monks and nuns themselves worked very hard, too, along with the villagers, to support the manorial economy and protect life and property from marauders.  Moreover, the abbeys were responsible for much of the remarkable inventiveness of the Middle Ages and the preservation and advancement of learning and arts.

While recognizing that Wikipedia accounts need to be treated with caution, I find they often provide succinct descriptions as good or better than I can offer (for now, at least).  I will occasionally quote from Wikipedia to summarize what I have found in other sources that confirm the facts offered, such as this one (just as Wikipedia welcomes correction and amplification, so do I—please comment):

“The Benedictine monasteries went on to make considerable contributions not only to the monastic and the spiritual life of the West, but also to economics, education, and government, so that the years from 550 to 1150 may be called the ‘Benedictine centuries’.” 

Meritocracy Corroding into Aristocracy

This feudal system lasted so long because it met the needs of people bereft of the protection and administration of a larger government.  It was most developed in France, England and Germany but similar forms were widespread throughout the former Roman Empire.  It worked especially well when it was still a meritocracy, with the bravest, most capable warriors becoming knights and the most spiritually committed Christians becoming priests, monks and nuns, thereby justifying the privileges and honor yielded to them by the Third Estate in exchange for their protection and assistance in the temporal and spiritual worlds.

Over the centuries, however, meritocracy corroded into aristocracy.  A knight’s investment in the years of training and equipment needed to prepare his successor was most efficiently focused on the knight’s own sons.  And to maintain the minimal size necessary for a manor to support a knight and his family and horse and so on, the “law of primogeniture” arose to forbid the knight from dividing his manor among his sons.  From these practical constraints arose the cultural assumption that succession was the eldest son’s birthright, sometimes in spite of rather than because of the son’s competence.  Surplus sons were destined to join the Church, as the only respectable alternative profession for the sons of nobility.  While members of the Third Estate could become priests and advance up the ranks of the Church, most commonly the privileged status of the nobility adhered to the sons who joined the Church, so that privileged positions of status within the Church, especially the bishops and abbots, were mostly given to those born of noble families.  Given that the boys typically did not freely choose to join the Church, they were not dependably pious or even of good moral character.  For both knights and leaders of the Church, moral leadership and self-sacrifice for the common good, even administrative competence, too often melted away, leaving only the seeking and protection of privilege and luxury.  These baked-in contradictions of the feudal system would play out over many, many centuries, even well beyond the Middle Ages.

The principal contradiction was between the ideal of the Christian life (loving and serving God and each other as God’s children, each an invaluable part of the mystical body of Christ) and the Roman and barbarian reality (violence met with violence and might making the right to enforce a rigid hierarchy of status, rights and privileges).  Being the state religion at the time of imperial disintegration and the only widespread and remotely effective guardian of moral and civic order afterward, the Roman Catholic Church had both the opportunity and the self-imposed duty to concern itself with the temporal as well as spiritual lives of its parishioners, Roman citizens and barbarians alike.  In retrospect, it is easy for us to foresee the danger in religious leaders (promoters of the ideal life) taking responsibility for the messy job of creating and maintaining civic order.  But only some of the religious could exercise the monastic option to attempt withdrawal from the real world.  The rest, from the Pope to the parish priests, had to find a way to work with and even support the emerging social and political order, no matter how far it was from the Christian ideal.  The danger, of course, is guilt by association.  If you undertake to fix it, you often end up owning it.  After centuries, the Church was thoroughly entangled with the feudal system.

Beowulf and the Unpleasant Compromise

The tension and danger in the process of Christianizing the barbarians is illustrated by the earliest of Old English literature, the epic poem Beowulf, the date and author unknown but believed to be as early as the 700s (but maybe as late as 1000).  My son, Jeremy Dunford, wrote a “final paper” for Loyola Marymount University’s History 100, in which he interpreted Beowulf as emblematic of the tension in the Middle Ages that finally produced an unpleasant compromise.  In addition to the history course on European civilization, Jeremy drew from his Jesuit high school freshman English course that focused on the study of Beowulf.  At Jeremy’s age, I would not have been caught dead reading Beowulf, nor did he choose to read it!  But he clearly gained a much deeper understanding of both European history and Christianity from this forced exposure, as well as benefiting in some way from reading one of the Great Books of our civilization.  I learned so much from his essay that I thought it worthwhile to share it (posted just before this piece).

The relevant point in Jeremy’s essay is that the poet employs all the classic elements of a Norse epic to introduce his pagan audience to the Christian worldview and way of life.   Beowulf is the proud hero that the Germanic newcomers to England could admire and understand, a man who flaunts his raw power and unmatched wit, whose valor and accomplishments were admired above all else.  Having established his credibility as a true hero in pagan eyes, Beowulf gradually morphs into a Christian in what he says and does, embodying Christian virtues.  In death, Beowulf becomes a Christ-like figure, saving his people from the clutches of evil and fulfilling his duty to promote the common good of humanity.  Jeremy’s interpretation is that the poet engaged in a very modern type of message packaging—telling the Christian story to pagan Germanics in the language of their own culture and in terms they could understand and embrace.  However, the flash of insight (from either Jeremy or his teachers or both) is that “While millions of pagans were converted when Christianity mixed with paganism, the influence was not a one-way street.”  The Church’s accommodation with the barbarians created the feudal system, but it proved to be a Faustian bargain.

Quoting from Professor Bartlett:

Thus, by the end of the 11th century, Western Europe was fragmented into small units, ruled by a professional warrior class, who obeyed no laws but their own principles of feudal practice and custom, known as chivalry.  Although the Church knew that it could not change these professional killing machines into men of peace, it also knew that their power and aggression could be turned against the enemies of Christendom.  It was not an accident, then, that the Crusades erupted at just the time when these principles of chivalry were beginning.

I’ll let Jeremy finish this post:

Certain pagan values such as militancy and material prosperity were adopted into a new sense of piety that proved to be the driving spirit of the Crusades.  Nothing in Jesus’ or Augustine’s Christianity would have allowed for such brutal massacre or such worldly desires, yet in 1099, as described by William of Tyre, the crusaders butchered the inhabitants of Jerusalem, showing no mercy and leaving no survivors. Concealed by the veil of “God’s will,” crusaders’ passion overtook their Biblical foundations. After killing all and sundry, the pillagers selfishly claimed any possessions that they wanted, completely discarding the principles of moderation and sacrifice. These were not starving peasants, but wealthy lords who were claiming more for themselves. Without the promise of land, they probably would never have left to fight in the first place. Their greed vanquished any remaining ounce of true Christian character.  Moreover, immediately after killing and raping the people of Jerusalem and stealing all of their possessions, the crusaders knelt to pray. Clearly they were under the impression that they were working for God, assuming that, because they had been sent by Pope Urban, this was the will of the Church. Since the Church defined what “Christianity” meant at any given time, Christianity itself was now a religion of self-interested rich men looking to get richer by any means possible while hiding under the mask of doing God’s will. This could not be farther towards the opposite end of the spectrum from those to whom Christianity originally appealed – the poor, oppressed, and downtrodden.

Historians agree that the ‘Dark Ages’ for European culture ended around the turn of the millennium. The darkest days for Christianity, on the other hand, lasted much longer. By the time of the Crusades, the Christianity of Jesus and Augustine had been so greatly influenced by pagan materialism that greed replaced piety, acquisitive militancy replaced mercy, and corrupt misconceptions of God’s will replaced the testament of the disciples.  Francis of Assisi recognized this overwhelming materialism at the forefront of Christianity and dedicated his life toward reestablishing the spirit of sacrifice on which it was founded, marking a decisive turning point in the Church’s history and setting it on course to restore its former virtuous glory.”

Not that the medieval Church approved of all that the Christian knights did or that it took no effective action to moderate their behavior, but the society that gave rise to the Crusades was formed in large part by the Roman Catholic Church.  The Crusades were only one of the new developments in the High Middle Ages that ultimately undermined the moral authority of the Church as well as the feudal system.  In my next post, I will delve into specifics of what happened and how figures like St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas sparked a true renaissance that might have saved Christianity from its later fate.

Copyright 2012 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (


3 Responses to “An Idiot’s History of Western Europe—“Fallen Institutions” of the Middle Ages”

  1. 1 Robb February 6, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    I appreciate the thesis you seem to suggest that the “fallenness” of the church evolved as less stellar individuals (“not dependably pious or even of good moral character”) took over leadership of the church. However, if one reads more recent theological writing on the issue of “fallen powers” (Jacques Ellul, John Howard Yoder, Hendrick Berkhof, William Stringfellow, Walter Wink and Marva Dawn), one sees that the problem is not merely that fallen institutions are made up of fallen people but rather that institutions tendency towards their own survival and “autonomy” from the purpose for which God intended them is independent of the people that work within them. In other words, institutions are part of fallen matrix of the created order–shaping even as they are shaped by the people that make them up.

    Another point (minor perhaps): The authors noted above would probably say that institutions are given by God (not “inspired” by God) to help “order” society. Whether it be the state, the university, the corporation or the clan–the role of these entities is circumscribed (limited) by a narrow calling designed to serve the needs of humanity. Again, the problem is that these institutions constantly seek to expand their sphere of power and set themselves up as autonomous to God’s desire for them.

    Finally, while the focus here is on “institutions”, most of the above authors would extend the concept of the “powers” to include things like ideologies, customs, the market, “Mammon” and other “tools” (marketing, propaganda, techniques of all sorts) used by institutions to further their own ends.

    Thanks for these reflections!

  2. 2 Robb February 6, 2012 at 5:45 pm

    Sorry, one more thing… For those who accept as “given” that religious institutions are (uniquely) responsible for all manner of violence and general divisiveness in the world, please consider reading William Cavanaugh’s “The Myth of Religious Violence”.

    • 3 chrisdunford February 12, 2012 at 8:03 pm

      Thanks, Robb, for these really important clarifications. I appreciate your taking the time and thought to share these insights with us on DarwinWatch.


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This blog by Chris Dunford explores the meaning of Charles Darwin's life, work and words in relation to the Science-Religion Debate. It is committed to intellectual honesty and historical perspective. Please click on the "Why this Blog" tab under the banner photo to learn more. Started in July 2008, this has been a very slow work-in-progress. Be patient with me and check in occasionally, if only to enjoy the banner photo!

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