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Chapter 4: Medieval Society

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the Roman Catholic church acquired its
greatest authority and influence. Western Christendom still spoke a common language,
Latin, taught a single faith, and brought together rival monarchs for the Crusades to the
Holy Land. Only within the religious and cultural bonds of Christendom did Europe
find the unity it so conspicuously lacked in political affairs. The Norman Conquest had
identified England more directly with medieval European civilization, and the country
benefited greatly from the attachment. However, national stirrings made England one of
the first countries to show the marks of a separate and unique identity.

The Crusades

In England and in Europe the influence of the Crusades was profound and reflected the
magnitude of religious fervor of this period. Although the original goals of converting
the Muslim infidels and reconquering the Holy Land failed, several unanticipated
results of these religious wars were of real importance.
Appeal of the Crusades. Among the various motives that stirred the Crusaders to
action were: (1) the capture of the Holy Land by the Turks and the ensuing mistreatment
of Christians on pilgrimages to Jerusalem; (2) the hope of the Papacy to reunite the
Eastern church which had separated from the Roman Catholic church in 1054; (3) the
influence of powerful preachers, like Peter the Hermit, who could persuade the laity into
believing that the Crusades were the will of God; and (4) the promise of material reward
and foreign adventure which appealed to less chivalric nobles and knights.
Scope of the Crusades. The Crusades began in 1096 and continued intermittently for
two centuries. The First Crusade (1096-99) wrested the Holy Land from the Turks and
set up feudal Christian kingdoms; no later Crusade achieved any comparable military
success. The Second Crusade (1147-50) failed to recover ground lost to the Muslim
reconquest. The Third Crusade (1189-92), led by Richard I of England, Frederick
Barbarossa (the Holy Roman Emperor), and Philip Augustus of France, hoped to retake
Jerusalem from Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and Syria. Richard was successful in his siege
of Acre, but returned to England when he found his forces insufficient to attack
Jerusalem. Numerous other Crusades followed, although not all were fought agains the
Turks. Some were sidetracked into sacking Constantinople –asthe Fourth in 1204- or
fighting the Albigenses, the Christian herectics in France. The Knights Templar, one of
the new military orders that emerged during the Crusades, laid claim to the Baltic area.
Gradually, the Crusades lost their momentum and appeal as the original spirit became
vague or expired.
Results of the Crusades. When Acre, the last stronghold of the Chritians, fell to the
Turks in 1291, the hopes of reuniting Christendom and strengthening Constantinople
were abandoned. Despite these failures the results of the Crusades were significant. The
very failure of the Crusaders to break the Muslim barrier to overland trade with the East
forced Europe to seek new sea routes to the Orient. When these were discovered,
England’s maritime location would put her in an excellent position for trade. Other
indirect results included the increase of royal power in England because of the absence,
and frequently the death, of recalcitrant barons; a broadening of English cultural
horizons by the fruitful contact with the learning, history, and inventions (gunpowder,
paper) of the East; a remarkable growth in towns and commerce which had the effect of
increasing the circulation of money and raising prices; and the adoption of new
methods of warfare, especially the techniques of fortification and siege that were
employed by the Muslims in the Near East. More important, the Crusades contributed a
sense of national identity. For many Englishmen the expedition to the Holy Land was
their first trip away from their local community; they forgot their parochialism in a
foreign land and took pride in being identified as Englishmen.

Monks and Friars

To the medieval world the men who prayed were as indispensable a part of society as
those who fought or tilled the soil. The twelfth century became the golden age of the
monasteries, to be followed in the next century by the arrival of the mendicant orders.
English Monasticism. The Norman Conquest had produced few changes in monastic
life since the French abbotts continued the ways of their English predecessors. Lanfranc
(1069-89) and Anselm (1093-1109), the two outstanding monks who became
archbishops of Canterbury, had introduced the religious devotion and rigorous standards
of Bec Abbey. In twelfth-century England monasticism reached a fullness of
manifestation, albeit not of perfection. There were eighty-eight religious houses in 1100;
a century later, nearly four hundred. In 1066 one-sixth of the land was owned by
monasteries; by the death of King John (1216), between a quarter and a third. As
monastic ideals invariably became tarnished by excessive wealth and a laxity of
discipline and spiritual devotion, reform movements arose to give new life to the orders.
Foremost among the reformers was the Cistercian Order, which reverted to the austere
rule of St. Benedict, and which was to make the greatest impact on England. The
Cistercian order was founded at Citeaux by Robert of Molesme and Stephen Harding.
The latter, an Englishman, wrote the famous Cistercian constitution, Carta Caritatis
(Rule of Love). Several Englishmen joined the Cistercian order at Clairvaux where
Saint Bernard was the first abbot. Early in the twelfth century Cistercian foundations
appeared in Surrey and Yorkshire. Insisting on simplicity and asceticism, the monks
built in isolated fields, cultivated crops, and reared prize-winning sheep. One purely
English order, the Gilbertines, was also important in the thirteenth century; however,
their system of double monasteries, houses of nuns and houses of monks within the
same enclosure, never achieved the spiritual influence of the major orders.
The Mendicant Orders. In the thirteenth century new religious orders appeared which
hoped to avoid the pitfalls of previous monastic communities by serving society in a
different capacity. Rather than separate themselves in cloistered abbeys, the fréres or
friars lived in the world to convert sinners and upheld their spiritual values by
observance of a common rule and a total rejection of worldly possessions. The
Franciscans (founded by Saint Francis in 1210) emphasized a life of service to the poor
and sick through good works and charity. The Dominicans (founded in 1216 by Saint
Dominic, a Spanish scholar) set out to preach the Gospel and to suppress heresy; but
their missionary function never won a response like that of the Franciscans. The
Dominicans reached England in 1221 and the Franciscans in 1224. Both orders gained
popularity because of their zealous endeavor, their devotion, and the simplicity of their
lives. Two other begging orders, the Augustinians and the Carmelites, followed. Then,
like the monks before them, the four orders neglected the rules which had made them
Decline of the Religious Orders. The increase in power and possessions which had
caused laxity in the monastic orders, also affected the begging friars who grew “too
well-fed” and disregarded their vows of poverty and obedience. Contemporaneous
critics, Walter Map and Matthew Paris, lamented the greed and immorality found in
religious communities. Yet the monasteries continued to run schools, to offer hospitality
to travelers, and to administer relief to the sick and poor. Eventually, the schools and
hospitals which became dominant in the fields of education and social service were
founded outside the pale of the monasteries. As a result, great scholars and church
leaders were no longer monks by necessity. Up to the year 1189 all archbishops of
Canterbury, except Becket, had been from the regular clergy; after that date only throe
regulars became archbishops.

Learning and Literature

Long before the intellectual renaissance of the twelfth century -with its establishment of
new schools, deeper study of law, logic, and classical literature, and new spirit of
inquiry- the English church had promoted education. Until the thirteenth century the
church was for all practical purposes the exclusive patron of the liberal arts. Gradually
new schools were opened independent of the monasteries, and, instead of scholars
moving to monasteries, churchmen now studied at Oxford and Cambridge.
The New Universities. A direct result of the intellectual revival was the rise of the
universities in the twelfth century. These schools consisted of teachers and students with
few, if any, buildings. When either the teachers or students organized a guild for the
purpose of administering their academic affairs, a university came into existence. These
universities were characterized by a cosmopolitan student body, faculties of teachers
who had master’s degrees, and specialization in one of the higher faculties of law,
medicine, or theology. Oxford was ”founded” when a quarrel between Henry II and
Becket caused English students to leave the University of Paris and form a studium
generate at Oxford around 1167. In the next century a town-and-gown riot at Oxford
contributed to a segment of the academic community migrating to Cambridge. The first
Oxford college, Merton, was formally established in 1264, and the first Cambridge
college, Peterhouse, twenty years later.
Architecture. The artistic dimension in medieval England was most beautifully
expressed in church architecture. Sixteen of England’s present cathedrals (including
Canterbury, Lincoln, Durham, Chester, and Gloucester) were originally monastic
churches built by men serving both as artists and craftsmen. The architects of Durham
Cathedral solved a major problem of medieval architecture -the construction and
support of a ribbed vault, oblong in plan, over a central aisle. The French introduced
Norman architecture, in adaptation of Romanesque, with sturdy, massive design,
semicircular arches, and fiat buttresses. Gothic architecture reached England in the
reign of Henry II and soon developed distinctive variations: Early English (c. 1180-
1280) with a steeply-pitched roof, lancet windows, and pointed arches; Decorated
Gothic (c. 1280-1380) with broader windows and embellished spires; and the
Perpendicular (c. 1380-1530) with square towers and flatter-pointed arches. New
architectural styles were also reflected in castles that incorporated stronger fortifications
with round towers and curved walls -an idea brought back by the Crusaders. The manor
houses of the country gentry changed little in this period: their central feature remained
the great hall.
Writers and Scholars. Western civilization is forever indebted to the monastic scribes
who preserved and copied classical manuscripts and who, until the fifteenth century,
recorded almost all the chronicles. The abbey of St. Albans was particularly important,
for here Roger Wendover and Matthew Paris wrote a detailed account of the period of
Henry in in the Flowers of History. Other chroniclers who described their times were
William of Malmesbury (1125), William of Newbury (1160), and Roger of Havedon
(1200). Walter Map (1190) was a satirist. Geoffrey of Monmouth (1150) was a Welsh
bishop who sketched the chivalry of the era in his collection of Celtic legends which
idealized King Arthur. In the twelfth century Archbishops Lanfranc and Anselm were
important scholastics. John of Salisbury, the foremost platonist of the age, wrote a
defense of logic and in Policraticus described the government, culture, and ethics of the
period. Two scholars at Oxford, Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon, gained fame in
the next century. Grosseteste, first chancellor of Oxford University and later bishop of
Lincoln, was a mathematician, physicist, and theologian who often, and rightly, directed
charges against the pope and King Henry III. His writings include the Compendium
Scientiarum. Grosseteste’s pupil at Oxford, Friar Bacon, was a brilliant and independent
thinker who promoted the inductive and experimental method in the study of science
and mathematics. This approach ran counter to the syllogistic method of the scholastics
who were attempting to reconcile reason and religious dogma through deductive logic.
Bacon’s Opus Ma jus was a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge, with treatises on
philosophy, physics, mathematics, logic, and grammar. Henry de Bracton (d. 1268) was
England’s outstanding medieval jurist. His Lau’s and Customs of England is still
considered the finest exposition of the laws of England in the Middle Ages.
Feudal law protected the baron and his farm laborers, but the town-dweller also began
to insist on his rights. Those who did not fit into feudal framework formed separate
communities and set up their own laws and regulations. Those corporations of
burgesses, craftsmen, or students played an increasingly important role in the changing
economy and society of England.
The Boroughs. During the early Middle Ages town life was replaced by the manor and
its closed domestic economy. Then in the eleventh and twelveth centuries town life
began to revive as a result of better security and greater self-confidence which, in turn,
promoted commerce and industry. After the Norman Conquest law and order
accelerated trade in England by providing safe communication within the country.
Later, the contacts with the Angevin empire, the immigration of Jews, and the Crusades
spurred cornmercial activities. Although by 1300 towns had doubled in number to two
hundred, London with its forty thousand inhabitants remained the only city of any great
Political Status. Since the time of William the Conquerer every town was subservient
to a local lord and the townspeople, were under the jurisdictions of the manor court and
the sheriff. Gradually the burgesses bargained for special privileges and bought charters
from the King or their landlords. Like the monasteries and colleges, these free towns
became independent corporations with the rights to own property, to raise taxes, to hold
court, and to elect a mayor and councilors in place of a royal official. They could also
deal directly with the King like any important vassal. Since the rising middle class in
the boroughs had wealth, one of the quickest ways for a monarch to raise money was to
sell borough charters that granted one or more of these rights. The borough citizens
determined voting and legal rights and participated in government; whereas in the
county only the nobility had influence. The towns, therefore, usually offered increased
personal freedom to the citizen and an opportunity to the serf to become legally free if
he remained in town for a year and a day.
Merchant Guilds. The first important guild was composed of the leading merchants of
the town who regulated trade and protected the vendor and the buyer against excessive
competition: this meant selling at a just price to the consumer and protecting the local
merchant from outside competition. Guild economic policy opposed an open market
and free competition. This policy, in turn, kept the economy from fluctuating by
avoiding an artificial rise and fall in prices since both the middlemen and speculators
were restricted by guild laws.
Craft Guilds. Townsmen practicing the same craft, such as carpentry, tanning, or
goldsmithing, developed craft guilds which regulated admission to the trade and the
quality of workmanship. The guild included the master of the trade and his
apprentices,who could anticipate becoming master craftsmen by serving the required
seven-year apprenticeship. By the fifteenth century the fees for the mastership became
so excessive and the masters so exclusive that many expert craftsmen could not set up
their own shop; they continued as hired workmen or journeymen for a master and
formed a separate guild or ”trade, union” to protect their interests. Capitalism was
beginning to appear.
Consequences of the Rise of Towns. The revival of town life brought about several
significant developments. (1) Wealth was no longer only in land; liquid capital was
becoming important. (2) Rural peasants found an escape valve in the towns as
individual serfs won emancipation. (3) The cities took an active role in Government,
and the burgesses represented the urban community in the emerging House of
Commons. (4) The townsfolk increasingly sided with the King against their mutual rival
-the landed nobles. (5) The urban dwellers became the first to encounter foreign
influences: the commercial revolution, the Renaissance, and the Reformation first won
support in the towns; however, change came much more slowly in the rural north.
The Medieval Community. Since the medieval world thought in terms of communities
rather than of individuals, whatever rights existed were as part of the community. The
greatest unifying force was the church. The concept of Corpus Christianum made
possible the church’s dominant role in the shaping of society, and for education,
literature, and Government to be so intimately identified with churchmen. Within this
ecclesiastical framework more specific communities developed. The feudal
arrangement provided laws and privileges for the warrior, landlord, and, indirectly, the
serf. When all segments of society could not fit into this military and agricultural
structure, clergy and laymen found security in their own associations and insisted on
their own rights. Thus when the House of Commons emerged, it did so as a house of
communities representing counties, towns, and universities.