Archive for February, 2012

An Idiot’s History of Western Europe—Big Changes in the High Middle Ages (1000 to 1300)

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

The moral authority of the Roman Catholic Church was nearly unquestioned in the affairs of medieval Western Europe for most of Late Antiquity (A.D. 300 to 650) and throughout the Early Middle Ages (650 to 1000).  Contrary to conventional wisdom of the past few centuries, historians now regard the Catholic Christian intellectual and moral tradition as the foundation for Modern notions of rational inquiry, human rights, and civilized living.  But this tradition was compromised daily in temporal medieval practice.  No doubt the Church’s temporal and spiritual efforts to tame the knights and protect the weak against their arbitrary violence somehow fostered emergence of the Christian knight’s code of chivalry (from the same root as “cheval” for horse) by the advent of the High Middle Ages (1000 to 1300).  But contradictions were baked into the Church’s collaborative roles within the Romano-barbarian feudal system, as discussed in my previous post on “fallen institutions.”  Moreover, as times changed, any challenge to the feudal system became by association a challenge to the authority of the Church as well.  The High Middle Ages, and even more the Late Middle Ages (1300 to 1500), brought huge changes that challenged the feudal system and the Church itself, drastically transforming both but failing to destroy either.  Again I depend on Professor Bartlett’s course for most of what follows.

The Rise of Islam and the Crusades

Chronologically, the first major external challenge was the rise of Islam in the Early Middle Ages.  Islamic armies swept out of Arabia and overwhelmed the Christian Middle East and North Africa, then invaded Spain and moved north into southern France before being stopped by Christian (mainly Frankish) forces led by Charles Martel, most famously in the Battle of Poitiers (Tours) in 732.  Charles Martel then continued to defeat the Islamic forces and drove them south of the Pyrenees Mountains, never to return north into France.  What followed was a long period of Christian-Muslim standoff through the Early Middle Ages.  But ongoing Muslim control of the Holy Land rankled the Church until Christian nobles and peasants alike responded with unexpected enthusiasm to the call of Pope Urban II to go to the assistance of the Byzantine emperor to repel the invading Turks from Anatolia and retake Jerusalem for Christianity.  Thus was launched the First Crusade (1096-99), which succeeded in recapturing the Holy Land (though only for about a century).  This and the following eight crusades to the Holy Land were as much peoples’ movements as military campaigns.  They were often ill-disciplined and violent, with disastrous results for the Jewish and Christian communities through which these rag-tag swarms made their way like locusts through Europe and Anatolia toward the Holy Land.

Re-Emergence of Trade, Money Economy and Towns

We are familiar with the controversies over the Crusades, but generally not with how the Crusades stimulated the economic transformation of Europe.  In the one or two centuries before the Millennium, Western European populations began to grow again, due to improvements in agricultural productivity, especially the iron plowshare and moldboard, the horse collar that allowed horses rather than oxen to pull the plows, and the three-field rotation system.  With more food available, towns and even small cities could form and grow as trade centers with increasing specialization of labor.  However, the basically subsistence-oriented feudal system had made no provision for towns and cities—a rich merchant or craftsman had no more status than a peasant farmer; both were members of the Third Estate and could never aspire to the social status of even the poorest knight.  Moreover, the feudal system was based on the manorial subsistence economy that operated without money or enforceable commercial contracts, which are essential to facilitate long-distance trade.

The First Crusade sent thousands of knights and their retainers by sea to the Holy Land through the Italian city-states on the sea (Venice, Genoa, Pisa and Amalfi) that controlled Mediterranean Sea trading routes.  Small cities had managed to survive the Early Middle Ages on the Italian peninsula and were in prime position to take advantage of economic opportunity offered by the Crusaders.  Florentine families were already developing banking services to enable the cloth, linen and woolen trade between northern Italy and Flanders via the trade fairs of Champagne. Venetians were already dominating Mediterranean trade between Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire.  Many Italians and others along the several routes to the Holy Land became wealthy as they provided the goods and services needed by the pilgrim Crusaders.  The First Crusade jump started the nascent economic engine of Western Europe, stimulating revival of coinage (notably the Florentine florin and the Venetian ducat) and use of Roman law (with innovation of contract law, including the legal concept of the corporation owned by shareholders, which was developed from monastic life) and other commercial infrastructure vital for an economic boom that benefitted mainly the new towns and older cities.

Undermining the Feudal System

To quote Professor Bartlett again:

The rise of urban life, long distance trade, and a money economy were the factors that first challenged and then corroded the rural, subsistence, localized feudal world.  The development of trade and a money economy permitted people living in towns to develop wealth and power to the point that they could ultimately join in the undoing of feudal fragmentation by assisting a central authority—like the king—in establishing power and weakening the resistance of the fractious nobility.”

The increasing demand for luxury goods among the feudal nobility damaged their economic power and introduced a cash economy that undermined the manorial system.  Inflation affected everyone.  Grain prices rose faster than wages throughout the late medieval period.  Mutual obligations, personal loyalty, customary regulations, cooperative agriculture all began to be undermined by the introduction of money into the system.”

Thus the rising power of townspeople created a new center of gravity in medieval Europe, in tension with the centralized authority of the Church and the decentralized authorities of local feudal lords, over which kings had little real control.  On the margins of the long-standing feudal system, the king and the townspeople generally found alliance against the feudal lords to be in their mutual interest, and the Church often found itself in the middle.

Dissonance of Church Behavior and the Judeo-Christian Idea

For almost a millennium, the Roman Catholic Church had provided coherence to Western Europe with a common religious worldview guided by one institutional hierarchy with one language of learning and continental communication.  This cultural dominance was abetted by extreme fragmentation of political and ethnic loyalties.  As the growth of trade and towns made movement around the continent easier and safer, ideas and the people who held them could also move more easily from one region to another, giving Western Europe a sense of cultural coherence that it hasn’t enjoyed in more recent centuries, when nation states and ethnic identities have divided Europeans profoundly.  One by-product of this cultural unity was a growing awareness and resentment of the dissonance between the “fallen” behavior of the Church and the great Judeo-Christian idea, as David Brog calls it in his In Defense of Faith: The Judeo-Christian Idea and the Struggle for Humanity the belief in the sanctity and equality of all humans at the core of both Judaism and Christianity.  As often as the Church stood up for its great idea in the face of cruel expediency, it allowed its officials to cling to hierarchic social privilege and material luxury, to engage in political adventurism, and even to cruelly suppress ideological and political opponents.  All this undermined the Church’s spiritual as well as social authority and invited “heresy.”


Let me reflect a moment on the meaning of heresy for the medieval Church.  We moderns find the medieval worldview extremely difficult to understand, the sense that all life is bound up with God, that nothing has meaning except in its relationship to God’s will, which is basically that each of us should strive toward eventual union with God in an eternal life beyond this material world.  The medieval mind regarded the Church’s highest calling as guiding and supporting the individual soul’s journey to God.  Anything or anybody who derailed that journey was committing mortal sin that destroys the soul.  Misleading a great many minds constituted a mortal threat to whole societies of souls.  It was the Church’s solemn responsibility in the material world to prevent such misguiding influences, or heresy, from destroying souls.  The Church could tolerate a good deal of quiet disagreement with the teachings of the Church, but it could not tolerate aggressive spreading of heretical teaching to unsuspecting minds and souls.

It seems that most of the early heresies against Church teachings involved a reaction to the seemingly inexplicable corruption and evil doings of the real world, including within the Church itself.  Surely there could not be one benevolent God at work – there had to be a dualism between the God of love and another god of evil, often posed as a god of the spirit and a god of the here-and-now.  This heresy often devolved into denial of the reality or value of material life in favor of a purely spiritual world.  In effect, God could not have created the material world, much less have manifested as a material person – Jesus.  The practical implications were anarchic denial of social institutions, such as marriage and procreation and even the value of the human person as a material being.  Apart from how this thinking could distract the soul from its journey, the Church had to be deeply concerned about the social disintegration such heresy could cause.  The danger in such concern, however, was that the Church could perceive any threat to its dominant position in society as a threat to social order—generating a reactionary response.  (In later centuries, heresy often took the form of objecting to the Church’s claim to be the sole legitimate intermediary between an individual and his or her God, but more on that later.)

The Mendicant Orders

In contrast to the heretical movements, there arose in the late 1100s and early 1200s religiously orthodox but highly unconventional movements to reinvigorate the life of the Church in service of the Judeo-Christian idea.  These were the “mendicant orders” – the main ones being the Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, Servites and Augustinians – who walked a fine line between challenging the institutional Church and adhering to its teachings.  Inspired by Francis of Assisi and his follower Anthony of Padua, they passed up the comfort of the parish and monastery to take to the streets and rural roads as “friars,” preaching the Gospel and serving the poor.  The label “mendicant” comes from their begging or depending on the charity of ordinary people, in imitation of the life of Jesus and his disciples.  They sought to provide a model of God active in the world, much in contrast to the dualist heresies.  Despite the embarrassment of being upstaged by these ragged, roving preachers to the people, the Church recognized their orthodoxy and wisely blessed and adopted the main mendicant orders as part of the life of the Church, alongside its parishes and monasteries.  Not coincidentally, the friars were particularly welcomed in the emerging towns.

Saint Francis of Assisi

G.K. Chesterton claimed in his biographies of Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas that these two men in particular set European civilization on positive new paths we take for granted today.  Saint Francis of Assisi was the son of a wealthy merchant of the Umbrian hill town Assisi.  Francis was fascinated by the French troubadours, the minstrels who entertained the medieval towns with their epic ballads of unrequited love of knights for the lady of the local lord.  After a humiliating failure to achieve valor and honor in war, Francis experienced a profound conversion to true devotion to Christ.  He was a small, intense, often flamboyant man who turned his life into a religious form of performance art, starting with a dramatic gesture in the public square of Assisi.  He handed his clothes to his wealthy father in front of the local bishop and walked naked into the surrounding hills, singing of his love of God and all God’s creation.  This was a profound repudiation of the existing social order but through a personal demonstration of a different way to live.  Francis was an extreme romantic, a self-described Troubadour of God.  He was an ecstatic yet anchored firmly in reason and the real world.  He attracted companions by his profoundly sincere interest in and acceptance of every person he encountered as he wandered the Umbrian countryside.  Even highwaymen who would normally rob and kill would fall under his spell.  He was an original, unique in every sense.  Some thought Francis was Christ himself, come again, but Francis would hear none of that.

In one of his many grand gestures, perhaps the grandest of all, Francis decided to end the Crusades by simply persuading the Saracen Muslims to become Christians.  So he made his way to Egypt where the Crusaders were laying siege to Damietta.  According to Wikipedia, Francis took advantage of a cease-fire to cross the military lines and enter the encampment of the Saracens, where he was received by none other than the Sultan of Egypt (nephew of the great Saladin).  His conversion effort failed, but his safe return to Italy (and subsequent Saracen tolerance of the Franciscans as custodians of Christian sites in the Holy Land) testified that the Saracens realized they were in the presence of a truly holy man, a true Christian, not a Crusader.

G. K. Chesterton believed that St. Francis revived the Europeans’ emotional connection to their religion and introduced new patterns of thought that underpin humanitarianism and the arts as we know them today (he is considered the first Italian poet, writing in the local Umbrian dialect such verse as the Canticle to the Sun).  In his devotion to God and his imitation of Jesus, Francis embraced humanity and nature as God’s creation, to be revered as part of God, not to be dismissed, transcended or destroyed.

Saint Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas was the son of a prominent Italian family near Naples with blood relation to the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II.  He was a very large and placid man with a profound intellect.  As a youth, Thomas was clearly predisposed to religious life, but he rejected his family’s design that he should become prominent in the local Benedictine abbey.  Despite the family’s excessive effort to prevent him, he joined the new order of mendicant Dominicans and took to the streets and roads to beg and preach for his living.  He was of the generation that followed Francis of Assisi or Dominic Guzman, the founder of the Dominican order.  St. Dominic was a Spaniard who decided that the way to counter the Cathar heresy in southern France was to use reason and disputation to persuade the Cathars to abandon their obstinacy.  The attempt failed, and ultimately the Cathars were wiped out in a “crusade” that ultimately was about northern France dominating southern France.  But Dominic had established an order of friars that educated local populations in the true meaning of Christianity.  Thomas Aquinas took this charge to the next level under the initial tutelage of the Dominican Alfred the Great in Cologne, Germany.  Together they later established themselves at the new University of Paris.  The gentle giant, called by fellow students the Dumb Ox because of his shy silence, turned out to be the greatest intellect of his time and, according to G. K. Chesterton, the greatest philosopher of all time.

St. Alfred was a proto-scientist, a natural philosopher among his many other disciplines.  He observed and described the natural phenomena of the real world in an effort to understand God better by understanding God’s creation.  Alfred’s method was inspired by Aristotle’s effort to comprehensively describe how the natural world works.  Most of Aristotle’s writing, along with most of ancient Greek learning, had been long lost to medieval Western Europe but was regained from Arab and Byzantine sources (many discovered during and after the First Crusade) and a frenzy of translation from Greek and Arabic into Latin in the 1100s.  In contrast to Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, for whom the ethereal world of ideal “forms” was the true reality (while our material here-and-now world is merely an imperfect, even distorted reflection of these ideal forms), Aristotle insisted that the material world was the only reality.  He was a materialist.  Some historians of philosophy contend that Plato and Aristotle, teacher and student, represent the two main opposing arguments of all philosophy, from antiquity to this day.  Their opposition was captured subtly but dramatically in the fresco painting by Raphael, School of Athens (c. 1510), in which the world’s greatest philosophers are depicted together in one scene, at the center of which are Plato, pointing to the heavens, and Aristotle, pointing to the ground.  We moderns continue to be torn between the two ancient Greek thinkers—in simplest terms, between idealism and realism.

At first, despite enormous medieval respect for his rational system, Aristotle was regarded with great suspicion by many intellectual leaders of the Roman Church.  First, Aristotle was a pagan materialist.  Moreover, his ideas and commentary on those ideas by the Arab scholar Averroes caused a flood of new thinking in the cathedral schools (originally established by Charlemagne) and the new universities in Paris and Oxford.  This flood heightened the Church’s concern about heresy.  Plato had been revived and massaged long ago by the Neo-Platonists of the first few centuries of the Christian era, and their interpretations of Plato’s thought had been reconciled to Judeo-Christian thinking by St. Augustine in the 400s.  Through the enormous influence of Augustine, Plato’s emphasis on the spiritual world had held Christianity in thrall for centuries.  So Aristotle’s materialism was a true challenge to Christian thinking; Alfred was “pushing the envelope” just by emulating Aristotle’s rational method of natural philosophy.  At the same time, the Dominicans found Aristotle’s reputation and ideas useful for rational argument against less rational heretical ideas.  Into this scene came Thomas Aquinas.

St. Thomas did for Aristotle what St. Augustine had done for Plato—he reconciled Aristotle’s work and thinking to the orthodox Christian thinking of the day.  Building on Alfred the Great’s attention to the working of the real world as a reflection of God’s mind and on Aristotle’s use of logic to deduce reality from first principles, Thomas constructed a coherent explanation of the Christian worldview that was eminently rational.  It was derived from the “first principles” given by Judeo-Christian scripture and grounded in what Aristotle and Alfred contended were the real facts on the ground.  Thomas’s Summa Theologiae might be regarded as a rigorously reasoned update of Augustine’s reconciliation of the Two Books of nature and scripture (and much more!).  For Thomas, this grand explanation had to be anchored in the reality of the world we live in.  With this insistence on reason and reality, St. Thomas Aquinas set out on the path to modern natural philosophy, now known as “science.”  Chesterton wrote it far more eloquently:

“… Thomas was a very great man who reconciled religion with reason, who expanded it toward experimental science, who insisted that the senses were the windows of the soul and that the reason had a divine right to feed upon facts, and that it was the business of the Faith to digest the strong meat of the toughest and most practical of pagan philosophies.” (pp. 13-14).

Moreover, he used his brilliant mind and powers of disputation to win over the Church to embrace Aristotle and his “science,” just as Thomas had earlier defended the mendicant orders as a boon rather than threat to the advance of orthodox Christianity.  The impact of St. Thomas Aquinas on Christian thinking going forward was and continues to be enormous.

Renaissance of Emotion and Reason in Christianity

In essence, St. Francis of Assisi revived the emotional life of Christianity, and St. Thomas Aquinas revived the rational life of Christianity.  To quote Chesterton again, “These saints were, in the most exact sense of the term, Humanists; because they were insisting on the immense importance of the human being in the theological scheme of things” (p. 16).  Together they fomented a true renaissance of Western European civilization.  Ironically, this was not the Renaissance of historians.

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


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