Category Archives: Lesson 6 Middle Ages The East + Europe

Middle Ages: The East and Europe


Carolingian Empire

Charlemagne was a Christian military warrior.

  •  In 773, he led his army into Italy, crushed the Lombards, and took control of the Lombard state. Four years after subduing Italy,
  • He his forces advanced into northern Spain but failed to conquer it; the Basques harassed his army as it crossed the Pyrenees on the way home, and ambushed and annihilated his rear guard.
  • Charlemagne invaded the lands of the Bavarians in southeastern Germany in 787 where the southern Slavs and the Avars lived. He incorporated them into his empire by 788 . The latter disappeared from history after their defeat.
  • Charlemagne conquered eastern Germany, including the Saxons, who had settled between the Elbe River and the North Sea. However, his insistence that the Saxons, who were pagans,  convert to Christianity fueled their resistance. Not until 804, after eighteen campaigns, was Saxony finally defeated.
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By the end of the eighth century the Carolingian Empire controlled much of western and central Europe.


Not until the time of Napoleon in the nineteenth century would an empire of this size be seen again in Europe.

Administering the Carolingian Empire

The economy of the eighth and ninth centuries was based almost entirely on farming, which proved inadequate to maintain a large monarchical system. Charlemagne depended on the royal estates for the resources he needed to govern his empire. Food and goods derived from these lands provided support for the king, his household staff, and officials.

The Carolingian system was inefficient. Great distances had to be covered on horseback, making it impossible for Charlemagne and his household staff to exercise much supervision over local affairs. What held the system together was personal loyalty to a single ruler who was strong enough to ensure loyalty by force when necessary.

As a result, a new political and military order, known as fief-holding, subsequently evolved to become an integral part of the political world of the Middle Ages. Fief-holding was characterized by a decentralization of political power, in which lords exercised legal, administrative, and military power. This transferred public power into many private hands and seemed to provide the security sorely lacking in a time of weak central government and invasions by Muslims, Magyars, and Vikings.

The king’s chief representatives in local areas were the Counts, members of the nobility who had already existed under the Merovingians. They had come to control public services in their own lands and thus acted as judges, military leaders, and agents of the king.

Over time, many counts had simply attached the royal lands and services performed on behalf of the king to their own family possessions. In an effort to gain greater control over his kingdom, Charlemagne attempted to limit the power of the counts. They were required to serve outside their own family lands and were moved about periodically rather than being permitted to remain in a county for life. By making the offices appointive, Charlemagne tried to prevent the counts’ children from automatically inheriting their offices.

As another check on the counts, Charlemagne instituted the missi dominici (‘‘messengers of the lord king’’), two men, one lay lord and one church official, who were sent out to local districts to ensure that the counts were executing the king’s wishes. They had the power to remove counts if they were abusing their power, thus making the missi an important instrument in bolstering royal power.

Charlemagne also used the Catholic Church to govern his kingdom. Pepin and his son Charlemagne took up church reform to create a functional structure, creating new bishoprics and archbishoprics, restoring old ones, and seeing to it that the clergy accepted the orders of their superiors and executed their duties.

A growing alliance had emerged between the kingdom of the Franks and the papacy during the reign of Pepin. The popes welcomed this support, and in the course of the second half of the eighth century, they severed more and more of their ties with the Byzantine Empire and drew closer to the Frankish kingdom.

In 799, after a rebellion against his authority, Pope Leo III (795–816) fled escape from Rome and found safety at Charlemagne’s court. Charlemagne offered assistance, and when he went to Rome in November 800 , he was received by the pope like an emperor. On Christmas Day in 800, after Mass, Pope Leo placed a crown on Charlemagne’s head and proclaimed him emperor of the Romans.

The significance of this imperial coronation has been much debated by historians.

  • Charlemagne was now on a level of equality with the Byzantine emperor.
  • The papacy now had a defender of great stature.
  • Charlemagne’s coronation as Roman emperor demonstrated the strength of the concept of an enduring Roman Empire.
  • it symbolized the fusion of Roman, Christian, and Germanic elements.

A Germanic king had been crowned emperor of the Romans by the spiritual leader of western Christendom.

Had a new civilization emerged? And should Charlemagne be seen as the ‘‘father of Europe’’?3 Some historians disagree and argue that there was only a weak sense of community in Europe before 1000. As one has stated, ‘‘Europe was not born in the early Middle Ages. . . . There was no common European culture, and certainly not any Europe-wide economy.’’ Perhaps we could say the Carolingan Empire represented a precursor for what later developed as the idea of a distinct European identity

There was a shift from the Mediterranean as the centre of power. Italy and the Mediterranean had been the center of the Roman Empire. Charlemagne had created an empire that stretched from the North Sea in the north to Italy in the south, and from France in western Europe to Vienna in central Europe. This empire differed significantly from the Roman Empire, which encompassed much of the Mediterranean world. The lands north of the Alps now became the political center of Europe, and increasingly, Europe emerged as the focus and center of Western civilization.

The Carolingian Renaissance


Charlemagne had a strong desire to revive learning in his kingdom, an attitude that stemmed from his own intellectual curiosity as well as the need to provide educated clergy for the church and literate officials for the government.

Charlemagne personally promoted learning by establishing a palace school and encouraging scholars from all over Europe to come to the Carolingian court. These included men of letters from Italy, Spain, Germany, and Ireland.

Best known was Alcuin, from the famous school atYork, founded as part of the great revival of learning in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. From 782 to 796,
while serving at Charlemagne’s court as an adviser on ecclesiastical affairs, Alcuin also provided the leadership for the palace school. He concentrated on teaching Classical Latin and adopted Cassiodorus’s sevenfold division of knowledge known as the liberal arts, which became the basis for all later medieval education.

Charlemagne’s official seal carried the words ‘‘renewal of the Roman Empire.’’ For Charlemagne, who made a number of visits to Italy, this included a revival of the arts, which meant looking to Italy for inspiration. Charlemagne encouraged his own artists to look to the arts of ancient Rome and the Byzantine Empire. The chapel he built at Aachen was modeled after the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, a church that had been built by the emperor Justinian. All in all, the Carolingian Renaissance played an important role in keeping the Classical heritage alive.

Much of the revival of Classical studies and the efforts to preserve Latin culture took place in the monasteries, many of which had been established by the Irish and English missionaries of the seventh and eighth centuries. By the ninth century, the work required of Benedictine monks was the copying of manuscripts. Monasteries established scriptoria, or writing rooms, where monks copied not only the works of early Christianity, such as the Bible and the treatises of the church fathers, but also the works of Classical Latin authors.Following the example of the Irish and English monks, their Carolingian counterparts developed new ways of producing books. Their texts were written on pages made of parchment or sheepskin rather than papyrus and then bound in covers decorated with jewels and precious metals. The use of parchment made books very expensive; making a Bible required an entire herd of sheep. (Papyrus was no longer available because Egypt was in Muslim hands, and the west could no longer afford to import it.)

Carolingian monastic scribes also developed a new writing style called the Carolingianminuscule. This was really hand printing rather than cursive writing and was far easier to read than the Merovingian script.

About eight thousand manuscripts survive from Carolingian times. Some 90 percent of the ancient Roman works that we have today exist because they were copied by Carolingian monks.

Life in the Carolingian World: religion, family, sexuality

In daily life as well as intellectual life, the Europe of the Carolingian era witnessed a fusion of Roman, Germanic, and, especially, Christian practices.

By Carolingian times, the Catholic Church had begun to make a significant impact on
Frankish family life and marital and sexual attitudes. Marriages in Frankish society were arranged by fathers or uncles to meet the needs of the extended family.

Although wives were expected to be faithful to their husbands, Frankish aristocrats often kept concubines, either slave girls or free women from their estates. Even the ‘‘most Christian king’’ Charlemagne had a number of concubines.

To limit such sexual license, the church increasingly emphasized its role in marriage and attempted to Christianize it. Although marriage was a civil arrangement, priests tried to add their blessings. To stabilize marriages, the church also began to emphasize monogamy and permanence. A Frankish church council in 789 stipulated that marriage was ‘‘indissoluble’’ and condemned concubinage and easy divorce.

During the reign of Emperor Louis the Pious (814–840), the church formally prohibited divorce. Now a husband was expected to remain with his wife ‘‘even though she were sterile, deformed, old, dirty, drunken, a frequenter of bad company, lascivious, vain, greedy, unfaithful, quarrelsome, abusive . . . for when that man was free, he freely engaged himself.’’5

This change was not easily accepted, however, and it was not until the thirteenth
century that divorce was largely stamped out among both the common people and the nobility.

The acceptance and spread of the Catholic Church’s views on the indissolubility of marriage encouraged the development of the nuclear family at the expense of the extended family. Although kinship was still an influential social and political
force, the conjugal unit came to be seen as the basic unit of society.

The new practice of young couples establishing their own households had a significant impact on women. In the extended family, the oldest woman controlled all the other female members; in the nuclear family, the wife was still dominated by her husband, but at least she now had control of her own household and children.

In aristocratic families, women had even more opportunity to play independent
roles. The wives of Carolingian aristocrats were often entrusted with the management of the household and even the administration of extensive landed
estates while their husbands were absent in the royal service or on a military campaign.

Christianity and sexuality

The early church fathers had stressed that celibacy and complete abstinence from sexual activity constituted an ideal state superior to marriage.

Subsequently, the early church gradually developed a case for clerical celibacy, although it proved impossible to enforce in the Early Middle Ages.

The early fathers had also emphasized, however, that not all people had the self-discipline to remain celibate. It was thus permissible to marry, as Paul had indicated in his first epistle to the Corinthians: ‘‘It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. . . . I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is
good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn [with passion].’’6

The church thus viewed marriage as the lesser of two evils; it was a concession to human weakness and fulfilled the need for companionship, sex, and children.

Although marriage was the subject of much debate in the early medieval church, it was generally agreed that marriage gave the right to indulge in sexual intercourse. Sex, then, was permissible within marriage, but only so long as it was used
for the purpose of procreation, or the begetting of children, not for pleasure.
Because the church developed the tradition that sexual relations between man and wife were legitimate only if engaged in for procreation, it condemned all forms of contraception.

The church accepted only one way to limit children: abstinence from intercourse, either periodic or total. The church also strongly condemned abortion, although its prohibition failed to stop the practice. Various herbal potions,whose formulas appear in writings from Roman and Byzantine doctors, were available to prevent conception or cause abortion.

Neither Roman religion nor Roman law had recognized any real difference between homosexual and heterosexual eroticism, and the Roman Empire had taken no legal measures against the practice of homosexuality between adults.

The church’s condemnation of sexual activity outside marriage also included homosexuality. In 538 the Byzantine emperor Justinian condemned homosexuality,
claiming that it brought down the wrath of God (‘‘we have provoked Him to anger’’) and endangered the welfare of the state: ‘‘For because of such crimes, there are famines, earthquakes, and pestilences; wherefore we admonish men to abstain from the aforesaid unlawful acts, that they may not lose their souls.’’7

Justinian recommended that the guilty parties be punished by castration.

Although the early medieval church similarly condemned homosexuality, it also pursued a flexible policy in its treatment of homosexuals. In the Early Middle Ages, homosexuals were treated less harshly than married couples who practiced contraception.

New valuing of children

The Catholic Church also had an impact on another aspect of family life—children.
The ancient Romans had limited their family size through infanticide, primarily the exposure of unwanted children, which was accepted in Classical society. The Romans then paid much attention to the children chosen to survive, as is especially evident in the education of upper-class children.

In the early medieval world, German practices of child rearing became influential. the Germanic law codes listed wergelds, whose size represented acrude evaluation of a person’s  importance  The value of females was only half that of males, although it also jumped tremendously (to 250 solidi) for women between the ages of fifteen and forty because of their importance as bearers of children.

Although the Christian church condemned infanticide, it was not able to eliminate the practice, especially among the poor and among victims of seduction who did not want to keep their illegitimate offspring. Nevertheless, priests tried to discourage such practices by urging people to abandon unwanted children in churches. Often such children were taken in by monasteries and convents and raised to be monks
and nuns.

The Six Ages of Man. Medieval writers and artists adopted different systems for
identifying the ages of man, which were symbolically tied to the ages of the world ora Christian conception of history. This fifteenth-century French manuscript illustration shows the six ages of man: the infant in the cradle and learning to walk, the child playing with a hobbyhorse, the adolescent boy, the young man with a sword, the seated mature man, and the old man with white beard and walking stick.

The role of the monastery: hospitality

Monasteries served an important function in the early medieval world as providers of hospitality. Both monasteries and aristocratic households were expected to provide a place to stay for weary travelers, who were ever at risk from thieves or violence of many kinds.

Burgundian law stipulated that ‘‘anyone who refused to offer a visitor shelter and warmth shall pay a fine of three solidi.’’8

Hospitality, then, was a sacred duty,were especially active in providing it. It was customary for monasteries to have two guest houses, one for the rich and another for the poor. One could not always be sure of hospitality in the Early Middle Ages, however. The famous English missionary to Germany, Saint Boniface, reported that female pilgrims to Rome had been forced to become prostitutes in every town along their route in order to obtain their sustenance and reach their goal. The church responded by forbidding females to go on such pilgrimages.


Charlemagne was succeeded by his son Louis the Pious who was not a strong ruler and was unable to control either the Frankish aristocracy or his own four sons, who fought continually.


In 843, after their father’s death, the three surviving brothers signed the Treaty of Verdun, which divided the Carolingian Empire among them into three major sections: Charles the Bald (843–877) obtained the western Frankish lands, which
formed the core of the eventual kingdom of France; Louis the German (843–876) took the eastern lands, which became Germany; and Lothar (840–855) received the title of emperor and a ‘‘Middle Kingdom’’ extending from the North Sea to the Mediterranean, including the Netherlands, the Rhineland, and northern Italy. The territories of the Middle Kingdom became a source of incessant struggle between the other two Frankish rulers and their heirs. Indeed, France and Germany would fight over the territories of this Middle Kingdom for centuries.

Two different cultures began to emerge. Although the later kingdoms of France and Germany did not yet exist, by the ninth century, inhabitants of the western Frankish area were speaking a Romance language derived from Latin that became French. Eastern Franks spoke a Germanic dialect.

In the ninth century, the frequent struggles among the numerous heirs of the sons of Louis the Pious,  and aristocrats acquiring even more power in their own local territories, and external attacks on different parts of the old Carolingian world led to disintegration of the Carolingian Empire.

Invasions of the Ninth and Tenth centuries: Vikings, Magyars, Muslims.

In the ninth and tenth centuries, western Europe was beset by a wave of invasions by several non-Christian peoples—one old enemy, the Muslims, and two new ones, the Magyars  and the Vikings.

The Muslims began a new series of attacks in the Mediterranean in the ninth century.
They raided the southern coasts of Europe, especially Italy, and even threatened Rome in 843. Their invasion of Sicily in 827 eventually led to a successful occupation of the island. Muslim forces also destroyed the Carolingian defenses in northern Spain and conducted forays into southern France.

The Magyars were a people from western Asia who moved into eastern and central Europe by the end of the ninth century. They established themselves on the plains of
Hungary and from there made raids into western Europe.They were finally crushed at the Battle of Lechfeld in Germany in 955. At the end of the tenth century,
they were converted to Christianity and settled down to establish the kingdom of Hungary.


By far the most devastating and far-reaching attacks came from the Northmen or Norsemen of Scandinavia, also known to us as the Vikings. The Vikings were a Germanic people based in Scandinavia. They were warriors and superb shipbuilders and sailors. Their ships were the best of the period. Long and narrow with beautifully carved arched prows, the Viking dragon ships carried about fifty men. They had banks of oars as well as a single great sail. Their shallow draft enabled them to sail up European rivers and attack places at some distance inland.

Osebergship820CE Oslo
Oseberg Viking Ship 820 Viking Ship Museum, Oslo, Norway

Viking raids became more regular and devastating in the ninth century. Vikings sacked villages and towns, destroyed churches. Viking attacks frightened people and we still use the phrase ‘rape, pillage, plunder’ to describe raid like the Viking raids.

Norwegian Vikings moved into Ireland and western England; Danes attacked eastern England, Frisia, and the Rhineland and navigated rivers to enter western Frankish lands. Swedish Vikings dominated the Baltic Sea and progressed into the Slavic areas to the east. Moving into northwestern Russia, they went down the rivers of Russia to Novgorod and Kiev and established fortified ports throughout these territories. There they made contact with the Byzantine Empire, either as traders or as invaders. They also made contact with Arab traders on the Volga River and the Sea of Azov.

By 850, groups of Norsemen had settled in Ireland, and northeastern England by 878. Agreeing to accept Christianity, the Danes were eventually assimilated into a larger Anglo- Saxon kingdom. Beginning in 911, the ruler of the western Frankish lands gave one band of Vikings land at the mouth of the Seine River, forming a section of France that ultimately came to be known as Normandy. This policy of settling the Vikings and converting them to Christianity was a deliberate one, since the new inhabitants served as protectors against additional Norseman attacks.

The Vikings were daring explorers. After 860, they sailed westward in their long ships across the North Atlantic Ocean, reaching Iceland in 874. Erik the Red traveled even farther west and discovered Greenland in 985. A Viking site has also been found in Newfoundland in North America.

By the tenth century, greater control by the monarchs of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden over their inhabitants and the increasing Christianization of the Scandinavian kings and peoples were inhibiting Viking expansion. But by then, Viking settlements had been established in many parts of Europe. Like the Magyars, the Vikings were assimilated into European civilization. Christianity proved a decisive civilizing force and Europe and Christianity were becoming virtually synonymous.

The inability of royal authorities to stem Viking raids and settlements caused local populations to turn instead to local aristocrats for protection. As a result, the landed aristocrats increased their strength and prestige and assumed more of the functions of local government that had previously belonged to the kings; over time these developments led to a new political and military order.

The Emerging World of Lords + Vassals (feudalism)

When governments ceased to be able to defend their subjects, it became important to find some powerful lord who could offer protection in exchange for service. The contract sworn between a lord and his subordinate is the basis of a form of social organization that historians have called feudalism (although many historians today prefer to avoid using the term).


The Germanic practice of vassalage involved warriors swearing an oath of loyalty to their leader. They fought for their chief, and he in turn took care of their needs. By the eighth century, an individual who served a lord in a military capacity was known as a vassal.

Remember the hoplite revolution and how it led to democratic power for the poor (because the rich needed them to fight)? In the Carolingian era, a change in fighting techniques also contributed to social change (but in a very different way). The Frankish army had originally consisted of foot soldiers,dressed in coats of mail and armed with swords. But with the introduction of larger horses and the stirrup in the eighth century,a military change began to occur. Earlier, horsemen had been throwers of spears. Now they wore armored coats of mail (the larger horse could carry the weight) and wielded long lances that enabled them to act as battering rams (the stirrups kept the riders on their horses). The horse, armor, and weapons for this kind of fighting were expensive and learning to wield these instruments skillfully from horseback took much time and practice.

Consequently, lords who wanted men to fight for them had to grant each vassal a piece of land that provided for the support of the vassal and his family. In return for the land, the vassal provided his lord with one major service, his fighting skills. Each needed the other.

In the society of the Early Middle Ages there was little trade and wealth was based
primarily on land ownership. So land was the most important gift a lord could give to a vassal in return for military service.


The land or some other type of income granted to a vassal in return for military service came to be known as a fief. In time, many vassals who held such grants of land came to
exercise rights of jurisdiction or political and legal authority within their fiefs. As the Carolingian world disintegrated politically, many people were now responsible
for keeping order. In some areas of France, for example, some lords—called castellans—constructed castles and asserted their authority to collect taxes and dispense justice to the local population.

Lack of effective central control led to ever-larger numbers of castellans and complicated subinfeudation. The vassals of a king, who were themselves great lords, might also have vassals who would owe them military service in return for a grant of land from their estates. Those vassals, in turn, might likewise have vassals, who at such a level would be simple knights with barely enough land to provide their equipment. The lord-vassal relationship bound together both greater and lesser landowners.

Historians used to speak of a hierarchy with the king at the top, greater lords on the next level, lesser lords on the next, and simple knights at the bottom; this model was rarely reflected reality. The reality in the tenth-century west Frankish kingdom was that the Capetian kings actually controlled only the region around Paris. They possessed little real power over the great lords who held fiefs throughout France.

The lord-vassal relationship at all levels always constituted an honorable relationship between free men and did not imply any sense of servitude.

Subinfeudation became ever more widespread in the ninth century. The new practice of lordship was basically a product of the Carolingian world, but it also spread to England, Germany, and central Europe, and in modified form to Italy. Fief-holding came to be characterized by a set of practices worked out in the course of the tenth century, but such obligations varied considerably from place to place and even from fief to fief. As usual, practice almost always diverged from theory.

Mutual obligations

The major obligation of a vassal to his lord was to perform military service.  In turn, a lord had responsibilities toward his vassals. His major obligation was to protect his vassal, either by defendinghim militarily or by taking his side in a court of law if necessary.The lord was also responsible for the maintenance of thevassal, usually by granting him a fief.

Failing obligations. If a lord acted improperly toward his vassal, the bond between them could be dissolved. Likewise, if a vassal failed to fulfill his vow of loyalty, he was subject to forfeiture of his fief.

By the tenth century fiefs tended to be hereditary.Following the principle of primogeniture, the eldest son inherited the father’s fief. If a vassal died without heirs, the lord could reclaim the fief.

East and West Frankish Kingdoms in the Tenth Century

In the tenth century, Europe began to recover from the invasions of the century before.  In the east Frankish kingdom Germany (as we think of it) , the last Carolingian king died in 911, whereupon local rulers, first elected one of their own number, Conrad of Franconia, to serve as king. But Conrad did not last long, and after his death, the German dukes chose Henry the Fowler, duke of Saxony, as the new king of Germany (919–936).

Henry’s son, Otto I, Duke of Saxony  (936–973) defeated the Magyars in 955 and encouraged an ongoing program of Christianization of both the Slavic and the Scandinavian peoples and relied on bishops and abbots in governing his kingdom.  Otto was crowned emperor of the Romans by the pope in 962, . But the creation of a new ‘‘Roman Empire’’ in the hands of the eastern Franks (or Germans) added the task of ruling Italy as well. It proved impossible task.

In the ninth and tenth centuries, the Carolingian kings had little success in controlling the great lords of the western Frankish kingdom (later called France). In 987, when the Carolingian king died, the western Frankish nobles and chief prelates of the church chose Hugh Capet, count of Orleans and Paris, as the new king (987–996).

Coronation of Hugh Capet

The territory (later to become France) France was not a unified kingdom but a loose alliance of powerful lords who treated the king as an equal. They assisted him only when it was in their own interests to do so. Although the nobles did not intend to establish a new royal dynasty, the Capetian dynasty did come to rule the western Frankish kingdom for centuries.


England in the early middle ages


England’s development in the ninth and tenth centuries was defined by a long struggle of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms against the Viking invasions ultimately produced a unified kingdom. Alfred the Great, king of Wessex (871–899), played a crucial role. He defeated a Danish army in 879, and made peace with the Danes in 886 after strengthening his army and creating a navy.

Alfred of Wessex

Alfred believed in the power of education. He invited scholars to his court and encouraged the translation of the works of such church fathers as Augustine and Gregory the Great from Latin into Anglo-Saxon (Old English), the vernacular, or the language spoken by the people. Old English was also soon used for official correspondence as well.

Alfred’s successors established a unified Anglo-Saxon monarchy. By the time of King Edgar (959–975), Anglo-Saxon England had a well-developed and strong monarchical government. In the counties or shires, the king was assisted by the shire-reeve or sheriff.

The Manorial System

The landholding class of nobles and knights comprised a military elite whose ability to function as warriors depended on having the leisure time to pursue the arts of war.

Landed estates worked by a dependent peasant class provided the economic
sustenance that made this way of life possible. A manor (see Map 8.3) was simply an agricultural estate operated by a lord and worked by peasants. Lords provided protection; peasants gave up their freedom, became tied to the lord’s land, and provided labor services for him.

Manorialism grew out of the need of small farming families for protection or food in a time of bad harvests. Free peasants gave up their freedom to the lords of large landed estates in return for protection and use of the lord’s land.

Although a large class of free peasants continued to exist, increasing numbers of them became bound to the land as serfs. Unlike slaves, serfs could not be bought and sold, but they were subservient to their lords in a variety of ways. Serfs were required to provide labor services, pay rents, and be subject to the lord’s jurisdiction. By the ninth century, probably 60 percent of the population of western Europe had become serfs.

reeve_and_serfsA common work obligation was three days a week. The serfs paid rent by giving their lord a share of every product they raised. Serfs also paid the lord for the use of the manor’s common pasture lands, streams, ponds, and surrounding woodlands. For example, if tenants fished in the pond or stream on a manor, they turned over part of the catch to their lord. For grazing a cow in the common pasture, a serf paid a
rent in cheese produced from the cow’s milk. Serfs were also obliged to pay a tithe (a tenth of their produce) to their local village church.

Lords possessed a variety of legal rights over their serfs, giving him virtual control over both the lives and the property of his serfs.Serfs were legally bound to the lord’s land; they could not leave without his permission. Although free to marry, serfs could not marry anyone outside their manor without the lord’s approval. Moreover, lords sometimes exercised public rights or political authority on their lands. This gave the lord the right to try serfs in his own court, although only for lesser crimes (called ‘‘low justice’’). In fact, the lord’s manorial court provided the only law that most serfs knew.

Manorial system

Finally, the lord’s political authority enabled him to establish monopolies on certain services that provided additional revenues. Serfs could be required to bring their grain to the lord’s mill and pay a fee to have it ground into flour.


The Byzantine Empire

Compared with the Byzantine Empire or Muslim caliphates, western Europe in the Early Middle Ages was an underdeveloped, predominantly agrarian society and could not begin to match the splendor of either of the other heirs of the Roman Empire.The tenth century was the golden age of a prosperous and flourishing Byzantine civilization. Under the Macedonian dynasty, trade flourished, the Bulgars were defeated, Muslim armies were repelled, and Byzantine territory was increased.

The brilliance of the urban cultures of both the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world stood in marked contrast to the underdeveloped rural world of Europe.

Byzantine Empire
Michael III 842–867
Macedonian dynasty 867–1056
Leo VI 886–912
Basil II 976–1025
Vladimir’s conversion to Christianity 987

In the seventh and eighth centuries, the Byzantine Empire had lost much of its territory to Slavs, Bulgars, and Muslims. During the reign of Michael III (842–867), the Byzantine Empire began to experience a revival.  reforms were made in education, church life, the military, and the peasant economy. There was an intellectual renewal.

But the Byzantine Empire under Michael was still plagued by persistent problems. The Bulgars mounted new attacks, and the Arabs continued to harass the empire. There were religious differences over differences between the pope as leader of the western Christian church and the patriarch of Constantinople as leader of the eastern (or Orthodox) Christian church.

The Macedonian Dynasty

The problems that arose during Michael’s reign were dealt with by a new dynasty of Byzantine emperors known as the Macedonians (867–1056).

This dynastic line held off its external enemies, went on the offensive, and reestablish domestic order. Supported by the church, the emperors thought of the Byzantine Empire as a continuation of the Christian Roman Empire of late antiquity.(Remember, the Roman General Mark Anthony had actually wanted to move the centre of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople). For diplomatic reasons they occasionally recognized the imperial title of western emperors, such as Charlemagne, they still regarded them as little more than barbarians.

Achievements of the The Macedonian emperors in the late ninth and tenth centuries.

Strengthened the position of the free farmers, who felt threatened by the attempts of landed aristocrats to expand their estates at the expense of the farmers who made up the rank and file of the Byzantine cavalry and provided the military strength of the empire.

Fostered economic prosperity by expanding trade relations with western Europe, especially by selling silks and metalwork. The Byzantine empire was well-situated for trade at the intersection of the Silk Roads, the Volga river and the Mediterranean.


Further developed Constantinople. Thanks to this prosperity, the city of Constantinople flourished. Foreign visitors continued to be astounded by its size, wealth, and physical surroundings. To western Europeans, it was the stuff of legends and fables.

Expanded Byzantine cultural influence through the active missionary efforts of eastern Byzantine Christians. Eastern Orthodox Christianity was spread to eastern European peoples, such as the Bulgars and Serbs. Perhaps the greatest missionary success occurred when the prince of Kiev in Russia converted to Christianity in 987.


Maintained strong rule, with efficient civil service, talented emperors, and military advances. The Byzantine civil service was staffed by well-educated, competent aristocrats from Constantinople who oversaw the collection of taxes, domestic administration, and foreign policy. Outstanding emperors skilled in administration and law, included Leo VI (886–912) and Basil II (976–1025).

In the tenth century, the Bulgars were defeated, and the Byzantines annexed Bulgaria. The Byzantines added the islands of Crete and Cyprus to the empire, defeated Muslim forces in Syria, expanding the empire to the upper Euphrates. By the end of the reign of Basil II in 1025, the Byzantine Empire was the largest it had been since the beginning of the seventh century.


Women in Byzantium

In Byzantium, as in western Europe, women were regarded as inferior to men, and at times, even considered to be the instrument of the devil.

In general, women were expected to remain at home. They could leave to shop, visit parents, and take part in civic celebrations, but they were supposed to wear veils on these occasions.

Women were generally expected to fulfill three major functions: to marry and bear children, to maintain the household, and to weave clothes for their families.

Contrary to these ideal female roles, some women in the Byzantine world
worked outside the home as artisans and sellers, especially of foodstuffs, in the markets of Constantinople. Others served as midwives, bakers, cooks, or dancers, although some dancers also worked as prostitutes.

Upper-class women had greater opportunities to play important roles in the empire. Some aristocratic wives funded the establishment of monasteries, occupied important positions at court, and patronized the arts. Imperial wives could exercise considerable political power as regents for their sons; some even became empresses in their own right. Irene, for example, served as regent for her son until 797 when she blinded and deposed him; she then ruled in her own right until her death in 802.

Islamic developments

Overthrow of Umayyad dynasty by Abbasids 750
Harun al-Rashid 786–809
al-Ma’mun 813–833
Creation of caliphate of al-Andalus 929
Establishment of Fatimid caliphate in Egypt 973

arabian pennisulaThe Arabs had a long history of nomadic trading between the Persian Gulf and the Eastern Mediterranean, and then as far as Yemen and across the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. . When Muhammad developed his religious teachings, he based them in part on Christian and Jewish beliefs of the region. In the year 622 he moved from Mecca to Medina, and that year is known as year 1 in the Islamic calender. The Muslim faith was based on submission to the will of Allah (God) and their system saw no separation between politics and religion. Once established in Medina the faith quickly came to dominate the Arabian pennisula.

The Umayyad dynasty of caliphs had established Damascus as the center of an Islamic empire created by Arab expansion in the seventh and eighth centuries. In the eighth century, the new Abbasid dynasty moved the capital east to Baghdad, where Persian influence was more pronounced.

Greek and Persian scientific and philosophical writings were translated into Arabic, and the Muslims created a brilliant urban culture.

The Abbasid Dynasty

In 750, Abu al-Abbas, a descendant of the uncle of Muhammad, brought an end to the Umayyad dynasty and established the Abbasid (uh-BAH-sid or AB-uh-sid) dynasty, which lasted until 1258.

Abbasid dynasty

The Abbasid rulers brought much change to the world of Islam. They tried to break down the distinctions between Arab and non-Arab Muslims. All Muslims, regardless of their ethnic background, could now hold both civil and military offices. This helped open Islamic life to the influences of the civilizations the Arabs had conquered. Many Arabs now began to intermarry with the peoples they had conquered.

In 762, the Abbasids built a new capital city, Baghdad, on the Tigris River
far to the east of Damascus. The new capital was well placed. It took advantage
of river traffic to the Persian Gulf and at the same time was located on
the caravan route from the Mediterranean to Central Asia. The move eastward
allowed Persian influence to come to the fore, encouraging a new cultural orientation. Under the Abbasids, judges, merchants, and government officials, rather than warriors, were viewed as the ideal citizens.

The Abbasid dynasty experienced a period of splendid rule well into the ninth century. The reign of Harun al-Rashid  (786–809) is often described as the golden age of the Abbasid caliphate. His son al-Ma’mun (813–833) was a great patron of learning. He founded an astronomical observatory and created a foundation for translating Classical Greek works.

This was also a period of growing economic prosperity. The Arabs had conquered many of the richest provinces of the old Roman Empire, and they now controlled the trade routes to the east. Baghdad became the center of an enormous trade empire that extended into Europe, Asia, and Africa, greatly adding to the wealth of the Islamic world.


The Abbasid kingdom tended towards disintegration even as Islamic culture spread. Rulers of the provinces of the empire broke away from the control of the caliphs and established their own independent dynasties.

Islamic Moors entered Spain from North Africa around 710. Spain had already established its own caliphate when Abd al-Rahman fled there. In 756, he seized control of southern Spain and then expanded his power into the center of the peninsula. He set up the emirate of al-Andalus (the Arabic name for Spain) with its center at Cordoba. The rulers of al-Andalus developed a unique society in which all religions were tolerated. They also supported writers and artists, creating a brilliant and flourishing culture.

The Moor’s also attacked Constantinople in 717 southern France in 732, and were defeated in both attempts. If they hadn’t been then Byzantine and European histories would have been very different.

In 973 the Fatimid family established a caliphate in Egypt in 973, and an independent dynasty also operated in North Africa. Despite the political disunity of the Islamic world, there was an underlying Islamic civilization based on two common bonds, the Qur’an and the Arabic language.

Islamic Civilization

From the beginning of their empire, Muslim Arabs had demonstrated a willingness to absorb the culture of their conquered territories. They were truly heirs to the remaining Greco-Roman culture of the Roman Empire.  Just as readily, they assimilated Byzantine and Persian culture.

In the eighth and ninth centuries, numerous Greek, Syrian, and Persian scientific and philosophical works were translated into Arabic.

As the chief language in the southern Mediterranean and the Near East and the required language of Muslims, Arabic became a truly international tongue.

The Muslims created a brilliant urban culture at a time when western Europe was predominantly a rural world of farming villages.

This can be seen in such new cities as Baghdad and Cairo, but also in Cordoba, the capital of the Umayyad caliphate in Spain. With a population of possibly 100,000, Cordoba was Europe’s largest city after Constantinople. It had seventy public libraries, and the number of manuscripts in the caliph’s private library reached 400,000. The Moors translated all great works they could lay their hands on from the ancients into Arabic and Latin. This included the knowledge of Egypt, Kush, India, China and the Greece. Translated works included those on geography that later proved valuable to Western sailors and merchants.

The Moors promoted literacy and the advancement of the general population. Schools were everywhere, many of them free of charge. The Great Mosque of Cordoba became a center for scholars from all over the Islamic world. Large numbers of women served as teachers and librarians in Cordoba.

mosque of Cristo de la Luz Toledo 999
Mosque Cristo del la Luz Toledo 999

Islamic cities had a distinctive physical appearance due to their common use of certain architectural features, such as the pointed arch and traceried windows, and specific kinds of buildings.


The latter included palaces and public buildings with fountains and secluded courtyards, mosques for worship, public baths, and bazaars or marketplaces. Muslims embellished their buildings with a unique decorative art.

Seville Giralda Aljama Mosque 1195
Seville Giralda

Although the Qur’an instructed men to treat women with respect, the male was dominant in Muslim society. Women were to be good mothers and wives by raising their children and caring for their husbands. Nevertheless, women did have the right to own and inherit property.

Islamic custom required that women be secluded in their homes and kept from social contacts with males outside their own families.

One jurist wrote that ‘‘a woman should leave her house on three occasions only: when she is conducted to the house of her bridegroom, on the deaths of her parents, and when she goes to her own grave.’’16

The custom of requiring women to cover virtually all parts of their bodies when appearing in public was common in the cities and is still practiced today in many Islamic societies. It should be noted, however, that these customs owed more to traditional Arab practice than to the Qur’an.

Islamic Culture

During the first few centuries of the Arab Empire, it was the Islamic world that saved and spread the scientific and philosophical works of ancient civilizations.
At a time when the ancient Greek philosophers were largely unknown in Europe, key works by Plato and Aristotle were translated into Arabic. They were put in a library called the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, where they were read and
studied by Muslim scholars. Texts on mathematics were brought from India.

The preservation of ancient texts was aided by the use of paper. The making of paper was introduced from China in the eighth century, and by the end of that century, paper factories had been established in Baghdad. Booksellers and libraries soon followed. European universities later benefited from this scholarship when these works were translated from Arabic into Latin.

Islamic scholars preserved much of the Classical knowledge for the West, and also made considerable advances of their own, especially in mathematics, astronomy and the other natural sciences.

The Muslims adopted and passed on the numerical system of India, including the use of the zero. In Europe, it became known as the Arabic system. Al-Khwarizmi, a ninth-century Persian mathematician, developed the discipline of algebra. In astronomy, the Muslims were aware that the earth was round, and they set up an observatory at Baghdad to study the stars, many of which they named. They also perfected the astrolabe, an instrument used by sailors to determine their location by observing the positions of heavenly bodies. It was the astrolabe that made it possible for Europeans to sail to the Americas.

Muslim scholars also made discoveries in chemistry and developed medicine as a field of scientific study. Especially renowned was Ibn Sina (980–1037), known as Avicenna (av-i-SENN-uh) in the West, who wrote a medical encyclopedia that, among other things, stressed the contagious nature of certain diseases and showed how they could be spread by contaminated water supplies. After its translation into Latin, Avicenna’s work became a basic medical textbook for medieval European university students.

Avicenna was but one of many Muslim scholars whose work was translated into Latin and contributed to the development of intellectual life in Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. So there we have a continuation of Eastern innovation and diffusion to the West.

East-West diffusion in the middle ages (from Spielvogel, and Hobson)

Early Middle Ages Europe witnessed a decline in trade. But trade never entirely disappeared. Even in an agrarian society, surplus products could be exchanged at local markets. More significant, however, was that both aristocrats and wealthy clerics desired merchandise not produced locally, such as spices, silk cloth, wine, and gold and silver jewelry, and it took trade to obtain these items.


Much of the trade in luxury goods, especially beginning in the ninth century, was conducted with the Byzantine Empire, particularly the city of Constantinople, and the Islamic caliphs of Baghdad. Products from the west included iron, timber, furs, and slaves (many from eastern Europe, including captured Slavs, from whom the modern word slave is derived). Traders, often Jews, carried goods by boat on European rivers or on caravans with horses or mules.

An Arab geographer of the ninth century left this account of Jewish traders from
southern France:

[They] speak Arabic, Persian, Greek, Frankish, Spanish, and Slavonic. They travel from west to east and from east to west, by land and by sea. From the west they bring eunuchs, slavegirls, boys, brocade, marten and other furs, and swords. They take ship from Frankland in the western Mediterranean sea and land at Farama, whence they take their merchandise on camel-back to Qulzum. . . . Then they sail on the eastern [Red] sea from Qulzum, and onward to India and China. From China they bring back musk, aloes, camphor, cinnamon, and other products of those parts, and return to Qulzum. Then they transport them to Farama and sail again on the western sea. Some sail with their goods to Constantinople and sell them to the Greeks, and some take them to the king of theFranks and sell them there.14

By 900, Italian merchants, especially the Venetians, were involved the trade picture.



John Hobson notes:

With the birth of the Carolingian empire in 751 in Western Europe and the emergence of various Italian trading city states in the eighth and ninth centuries, the global trading system extended into Europe, thereby linking both extremes of the Eurasian landmass into one continuous network of interlinked world empires.

A series of interlinked world empires enabled a significantly pacified environment within which overland – as well as seaborne – trade could flourish.11 The rise of T’ang China (618–907), the Islamic Ummayad/Abbasid empire in the Middle East (661–1258), as well as the Fatimids in North Africa (909–1171) were crucial to the emergence of a sufficiently extensive global trading network.

McNeill has recently argued, the prosperity and commercialisation of the Arab and Chinese (as well as the South Asian) world acted like a huge bellows that fanned the flames of an emergent global economy.

Much of the East-West diffusion was oiled by the wheels of Islamic commerce.

Islam spread not only westwards to Europe but also eastwards right across to India, South-east Asia and China, as well as southwards into Africa through either religious or commercial influence (and often both). Its economic reach was extraordinary for the time – so much so that one scholar has aptly stated that, ‘the self-evident fact must be accepted that they [the Arabs] were among the pioneers of commerce in those far-away countries …  Certainly, by the ninth century – as various contemporary documents confirm – one long, continuous line of transcontinental trade pioneered by Islamic merchants reached from China to the Mediterranean.23

The Middle Eastern Ummayads (661–750), Abbasids (750–1258) and North African Fatimids were especially important, serving to unite various arteries of long-distance trade known in antiquity between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. These included the Red Sea and Persian Gulf routes. The Abbasid capital, Baghdad, was linked to the Persian Gulf route, which in turn fanned out through the Indian Ocean and beyond into the South China Sea as well as the East China Sea.

As Jeffrey Sachs observes in his Globalization course, this is an east-west dynamic:



Jackson Spielvogel, Western Civilization.

John Hobson, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization.

Jeffrey Sachs, Globalization (online course)

Note: the above lesson notes summarize sections of these three texts, Spilevogel in particular. Summaries and extracts shared privately with students for educational purposes only. Please consult your copies of the texts for further information and publisher’s details.