Medieval Europe Dynamic Culture Of

The Dynamic Culture of the Middle Ages

The European High Middle Ages, which lasted from about 1050 to 1300, evoke for many people romantic images of knights in shining armor, magnificent castles, and glorious cathedrals. And to many people, the word medieval (Latin medium aevum; "middle age") wrongly suggests a cultural intermission between the classical period of the Greek and Roman civilizations and the Renaissance. On the contrary, the High Middle Ages was a dynamic period that shaped European identity and development, stimulated in part by Europe’s interactions with other cultures in Eurasia and the Mediterranean. Many of the basic social and political patterns and institutions later associated with European history were formed during this era. Clear political boundaries and cultural identities emerged in the British Isles, France, Germany, Italy, eastern Europe, Iberia, and Scandinavia. Between 1000 and 1300, a chain reaction of developments in economy, society, and political life contributed to new trends in religion, scholarship, literature, and other arts—trends that shaped European culture to the present day.

Economic Expansion and the Emergence of Towns

Territorial expansion, innovations in agriculture, and the development of cities and trade brought rapid economic change to medieval Europe. Changes in the availability and consumption of material goods and in population distribution radically altered European social relations and political organization. These changes created new, more independent classes. These classes competed against and balanced each other so that no one group gained absolute power.

Migration and expansion of frontiers stretched the boundaries of European countries in the Mediterranean, eastern Europe, and Iberia. Much of this migration and expansion was led by warrior groups. One such warrior group was the Viking-descended Normans in France, who went to Sicily. Another was the Teutonic Knights, who moved German peasants eastward into Slavic territories. The Crusaders, warriors from throughout Europe, answered Pope Urban II’s call in 1095 to rescue the Holy Land from the Muslim Turks. In the 11th-century Christian reconquest of Iberia, known as the "Reconquista," the northern kingdoms of Aragón, Castile, and León expanded Christendom southward. This expansion took over the territories of the former Muslim caliphate of Córdoba, with its multicultural population of Muslims, Jews, and Christians.

The clearing of land and new techniques in agriculture led to higher food production, a rise in population, and greater economic freedom. Agricultural tools, such as the heavy plow, along with new methods for harnessing animal power, such as the horse collar, enabled farmers to work the rich, dense soil of northern Europe using less labor. The three-field system replaced two-field crop rotation, allowing farmers to cultivate two-thirds, instead of half, of their land at once, while leaving one-third to rest and build nutrients. In the 12th century, energy-producing devices such as the windmill and tidal mill for grinding grain also increased productivity. Consequently, Europeans began eating better; they lived longer and grew in number. An improved diet with iron-rich legumes increased women’s life span and helped them survive childbearing. Europe's population almost doubled between 1000 and 1350; in some regions, it tripled. Surplus food and population meant that more people could devote their energies to new crafts and trade instead of to subsistence agriculture.

This increase in productivity from the 11th through the 14th centuries led to urbanization, or the growth of market towns and cities. Townspeople bought foodstuffs and raw supplies from rural areas, and sold crafts made by local artisans as well as items imported from other regions. Towns and townspeople became independent of the landholding aristocracy and were able to regulate their own businesses through charters granted by kings. Coins became a convenient medium of exchange, and a money-based economy, complete with banking, investing, and lending activities, emerged. European merchants and investors formed competing trade networks. The merchants of the older Italian city-states, such as Genoa, Venice, and Pisa, brought luxury goods from the east and from North African ports in exchange for Europe's raw materials. In the 12th and 13th centuries, a group of northern German towns formed the Hanseatic League. The league monopolized the trade routes that transported raw goods, such as timber, furs, and metals, along the Baltic Sea, North Sea, and major rivers. In doing so, they linked Germany, England, the Low Countries, Scandinavia, and eastern European countries. Although the majority of Europeans still lived in rural areas, towns increasingly dominated the landscape.

Social Diversity

The economic changes brought about by increased trade and the emergence of cities created new tensions in medieval society. These tensions permeated the boundaries of class, gender, ethnicity, and religion. The interaction between rural and urban classes led to the establishment of new political organizations and laws designed to balance the needs of competing classes.

As towns emerged, new social classes—such as merchants and artisans—disrupted the established social patterns of medieval society. According to the traditional view, three orders worked together in the rural community: the warrior aristocracy, or people who fight; the peasantry, or people who work; and the clergy, or people who pray. These traditional communities were organized in a hierarchy and bound together like a family, with the noble acting as a father figure over his household and the village inhabitants. Townspeople, who earned their living through crafts or commerce, broke from these rural obligations and familial ties, so they created new social networks through associations called guilds. Merchant guilds protected the town's interests by regulating trade with outsiders and providing benefits for members. Craft guilds organized by tanners, butchers, and weavers set wage and price controls and established rules for apprenticeship and membership. To some religious writers, the urban freedoms of the newly chartered towns seemed to undermine the traditional hierarchical order of society. Others thought merchants were worldly and materialistic because they did no work of their own but rather profited from others' labor by buying and selling goods. Contrary to this opinion, guilds spread their wealth by giving alms to the poor and building churches to visibly demonstrate their members’ collective piety.

The choices made by women in the patriarchal society of High Medieval Europe illustrate the new and increased variety of social classes. Women's roles usually were defined in relation to men, with marriage and childbearing as women’s main social and political functions. Nevertheless, women were active and influential throughout society. Royal and aristocratic women wielded authority at court and managed complex households, as Blanche of Castile did when she reigned as France's regent for her son, King Louis IX. Townswomen operated brewing and weaving businesses and even briefly formed their own guilds. Peasant women engaged in intensive manual labor, producing food and sustaining their households. Some women left such circumstances to become household servants in the manor or in towns, where their rights were minimal. Religious women chose to exchange the material life of marriage and family for a spiritual and intellectual life in a cloister. While women could not become priests, they did influence society as visionaries, spiritual advisors, and writers. One such influential woman was Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, Germany (1098 to 1179) who frequently spoke out on the religious, political, and social issues of her day.

In both the hierarchical and communal order of the Middle Ages, everyone had a place and knew it. One’s identity was linked to kinship, class, and faith; ignoring these boundaries threatened the order of society. In response to the perceived threat of non-Christian peoples, such as Jews, Muslims, Gypsies, and religious heretics, discriminatory laws placed those groups on the margins of society. Anti-Semitism, or the hatred of Jews, sometimes inspired Christian mobs to murder Jews as "Christ killers,"—as when the Crusaders passed through Germany in 1096. However, despite the discrimination and fear that oftentimes restricted their businesses and social contacts, Jewish communities maintained a strong internal network through family, synogogue, and contacts with Jews across and outside Europe. In fact, Jews played an integral role in medieval society by influencing medieval scholarship.

Political Centralization and the Development of Government by Consent

In the midst of the economic growth and social turmoil, the High Middle Ages witnessed the stabilization of Europe’s political boundaries and the growth of centralized governments throughout the continent. Building on the economic strength of towns and trade, the individual rulers of Europe developed competent bureaucracies to govern their domains, as is evident in the increased use of written legal documents. The power of these new rulers was limited, however, by pressure from competing social groups and political organizations, such as the aristocracy, townspeople, and the church.

In the 11th through 13th centuries, the growing communities in Europe developed stable political identities, usually under a central ruler. Royal control expanded in Angevin England, Capetian France, and Germany under the Holy Roman Emperors. Meanwhile, newly unified Christian kingdoms emerged in Iberia, with the kingdoms of Léon and Castile and Portugal; in Scandinavia, with Denmark, Norway, and Sweden; and in eastern Europe, with the Magyar-ruled Kingdom of Hungary, the Piast dynasty in Poland, and Kievan Russia. The Slavic peoples of eastern Europe were influenced by both western Europe and the Byzantine Empire. For example, Russia's Slavic population converted to Byzantine, or Eastern Orthodox, Christianity under the Kievan dynasty founded by Scandinavians in the 10th century. They formed a strong Slavic Christian culture that survived even the Mongol conquest of the 13th century.

Medieval rulers did not have absolute power; rather their competence lay in developing strategic relationships with the aristocracy, the towns, and the church. Even while kings were centralizing their power, new representative assemblies in medieval England's Parliament and France's Estates General laid down the roots of government by consent of the people. For example, England's Henry I, who reigned from 1100 to 1135, created an efficient government auditing system in the Exchequer, the body that managed the receipt and expenditure of revenue. His grandson Henry II, who reigned from 1154 to 1189, contributed to the development of common law that united the kingdom. But King John, who reigned from 1199 to 1216, was forced by his barons to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, a precursor to constitutional monarchy in England.

Often conflicts between these competing sources of authority gave rise to new political theories and laws. In the 11th-century Investiture Controversy, for example, popes and secular rulers debated the right to invest, or appoint, bishops. As European religious leaders developed more systematic authority over their churches, reformers sought to free local churches from the control of lay aristocrats and kings. However, Europe's kings were accustomed to appointing their own archbishops and bishops, as these men, who were usually from aristocratic families, served as royal administrators. When Gregory VII, pope from 1073 to 1085, challenged the German Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV's appointment of a bishop, he sparked a long conflict over the relationship of church and state. Subsequent popes, such as the dynamic Innocent III, pope from 1198 to 1216, used the same bureaucratic mechanisms that secular rulers used to develop legal theories freeing the church from secular influence. Although ultimately unsuccessful, the arguments made on both sides of the debate helped define the boundaries of political authority for both church autonomy and secular government.

Religion and Scholarship

Creative tensions in medieval society and politics led to new ideas, such as those exchanged in the debates over faith and reason in the new universities. They also led to the rise of new religious orders and forms of spirituality. New ideas emerged in popular religion during the struggle between orthodox Christianity and numerous heresies. The influence of Jewish and Muslim scholarship, the rise of an educated class of career scholars, and the growth of an urban reading public also contributed to this cultural and intellectual ferment in Europe.

During the 12th and 13th centuries, universities arose in the major European cities. These universities met the demand for education in the seven liberal arts—grammar, rhetoric, logic, astronomy, geometry, arithmetic, and music—education that became a significant path to career advancement. Universities specializing in the higher disciplines—law at Bologna, medicine at Salerno, and theology and philosophy at Paris—became centers for intellectual debate. The 12th-century philosophical school known as Scholasticism developed new systems of logic based on Europeans’ rediscovery of Aristotle from Islamic and Jewish sources. Scholars debated how humans can know truth—whether knowledge of truth occurs through faith, through human reason and investigation, or through some combination of both means. Although none of these scholars denied Christian truth as it was revealed in the Bible, some, such as Anselm of Canterbury, placed faith before reason. Others, such as Peter Abelard, put reason first. The great 13th-century Dominican philosopher Thomas Aquinas produced a brilliant synthesis of faith and reason, while a group of philosophers called nominalists questioned whether human language could accurately describe reality. These inquiries into the nature of knowledge contributed to scientific inquiry, evident in the experimental theories of English scientist and philosopher Roger Bacon (1214?-1294).

Meanwhile, many people sought a more spiritual, holistic experience of the world than what was offered through the intellect or through ordinary church rituals. Visionaries and reformers created new orders such as the Cistercians, Franciscans, and Dominicans. Saint Francis of Assisi rejected the urban materialism of his parents and local church. He established a mendicant, or beggar, lifestyle for the followers of his church-approved order—Franciscan friars for men and the Poor Clares for women. Many religious thinkers in the 1200s were influenced by the earlier philosophy of Christian Neoplatonism, a synthesis of Plato’s ideals and Christian mysticism. Under that influence, they rejected the Aristotelian focus on rationalizing religion and believed God's divine revelation could best be understood through experience. The Cistercian Bernard of Clairvaux, who died in 1153, feared that Abelard's scholastic logic would deaden true spiritual understanding. Later, Bonaventure, a Franciscan who lived from 1221 to 1274, developed a mystical philosophy guiding Christians toward contemplation of the ideal realm of God.

Popular religion also reflected this social and religious ferment. Most people in medieval Europe were Christian by baptism at birth and participated in church rituals throughout their lives. They did penance for sins, attended Mass, and went on pilgrimages to holy sites containing relics of saints. In the cities, lay people began seeking a more intense religious experience to counterbalance the materialism of their urban lives. Many were drawn into new religious movements, not all of which were approved by the church. This led to conflict between church-taught orthodox teachings and practices and heresy, beliefs and practices that were condemned as false by the church and considered a danger to Christendom. Like the religious orders, heresies such as the Cathars (also known as the Albigensians), the Waldensians, and the Spiritual Franciscans emphasized spiritual life; however, they also criticized the church's materialism and challenged its authority. For instance, the Cathars rejected the body as evil and saw no need for priests. Church leaders condemned them as heretics, while secular rulers, bent on suppressing local rebellions against their authority, carried out a military crusade to destroy their strongholds in southern France. The church, whose doctrine and order were threatened by these groups, appointed preachers such as the Dominicans to teach correct doctrine and also commissioned inquisitors to detect heretics and recommend them for punishment.

Literature and the Arts

Growth in urban society, intellectual innovations, and the tension between spirituality and order in the church all contributed to the development of new creative styles in literature, the visual arts, architecture, and music. Trade and the money-based economy of Europe supported this creativity, as was evident in the importation of styles and materials from abroad, in aristocratic patronage of the arts, and in the craft and merchant guilds’ contributions for the construction of monumental churches in their towns.

Literacy increased in medieval Europe, especially among the urban lay populations, who had more time to read. While most books were written in Latin, which was considered the dominant language of learning, more books were being produced in regional languages, such as English, French, and German. From this vernacular literature, new styles and genres evolved. At the courts, troubadours wrote and performed lyric poetry celebrating the love between knights and ladies. Epic tales of warrior heroism, such as Beowulf, gave way to romances celebrating courtly love and knightly chivalry, exemplified in Arthurian books such as The Quest of the Holy Grail and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The popular fabliaux, or animal fables, often emphasized the virtues and cleverness of working people over those traits of the higher classes. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales poked fun at all societal classes. Religious books—sermons, biographies of saints, and stories of miracles—provided enlightening literature for pious readers, increasingly women. Books were handwritten manuscripts, laboriously copied by scribes using quill or reed pens to write on animal skin parchment. Expensive manuscripts were decorated with illustrations painted in gold and brilliant colors— full page portraits of Christ and other saints or intricately drawn vines, plants, and fantastic beasts intertwined down the margins.

Stylistic changes also occurred in visual arts, such as painting, sculpture, metalwork, stained glass, and architecture, and in performing arts, such as music and drama. Supported by religious and secular patrons and influenced by Islamic and Byzantine civilizations, an artistic renaissance developed the Romanesque style in the 11th and 12th centuries. Romanesque architecture featured solid, imposing cathedrals with rounded arches and fantastic stone carvings. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Gothic style introduced new engineering innovations and emphasized greater emotional expression. The pointed arches, vaulted ribs, and flying buttresses of Gothic cathedrals, such as Notre Dame in Paris, allowed engineers to build higher and lighter walls, while stained glass windows gave the interior a sense of heavenly illumination. On the exterior of Gothic cathedrals, tall, slender statues of beautifully calm saints portrayed an idealized humanity. During this period, music and notation, like Gothic architecture, developed in complexity. The single line melodies of monophonic Gregorian chant, instrumental dance pieces, and troubadour ballads evolved into more complex polyphonic music weaving together multiple parts. Music was an integral part of emotional expression in medieval life. Performances included the secular, from courtly lyrics and lively dances to drinking songs in taverns, and the religious, from sung portions of the Mass to mystery plays that reenacted biblical stories. Much of the art of this period is still admired today.


The Middle Ages were marked by the diversification and growth of economy and society and by the subsequent social tension and political and religious conflict. These developments also led to creative new approaches in artistic expression, legal theory, and philosophy. The dynamic, lively culture that emerged from medieval European economy, society, politics, religion, scholarship, and the arts brought Europeans onto a world stage.

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