Noisms has mentioned an interest in learning more about the Middle Ages. I’m assuming he means the European Middle Ages, as this follow-up post implies.
My bachelor’s degree from UT Austin is technically in liberal arts, because UT doesn’t award undergraduate degrees in history. But it was the history sequence I completed with a focus on medieval Europe, especially England and France. UT has a great Medieval Studies program, and if you get the chance, I strongly recommend you take any class you can from Janet Meisel and Martha Newman.
Ask any historian about pretty much any topic, and they’ll want to cast back a handful hundred years to discuss how things got to be that way. I’m going to do the opposite and discuss the Middle Ages by hopping forward in time to answer the question, what were the Middle Ages?
The term comes from a time when very little was known about medieval Europe. So far as historians were concerned, European history kinda stopped with the fall of Rome, then restarted again with the Renaissance. Documents from the time were few and far between, and peppered with mythology, like King Arthur. (Want to see a medieval historian get all flustered? Ask ‘em about Joan of Arc.)
Modern efforts to restore and catalogue medieval documents have helped us fill in a lot of the gaps, however, and we now know far more about what happened during those days. The period called “the Dark Ages” has been pushed back to the handful of centuries just after the fall of Rome. Written sources are very rare for those years even now, and what we have to work with primarily comes from oral accounts later committed to vellum and the fruits of archeology.
What we do know is that, as the power of Rome declined, western Europe was awash in successive waves of invaders from the east. On the continent, Goths, Huns, and Franks pushed in from the east, conquering as they traveled, settling down, and merging their customs with those of the people they’d subdued. In the north, the invaders were Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Vikings.
When the armies of Islam had conquered the length of northern Africa and crossed into Spain, the peoples they fought there were Goths who had invaded a few centuries before. When the Saracens attempted to raid back east across the Pyrenees, they got their hinies handed to them supposedly thanks to a technological marvel that I think shaped what we know as the Middle Ages. The myth (remember what I said about the difficulties of separating fact from fantasy in medieval history) goes that seven men, draped in mail and riding powerful horses, each slew a hundred Saracens and only lost one of their own number at the Battle of Tours. These men would have been the first knights, and their exploits, whatever they might have truly been, were due in large part to the stirrup.
The stirrup had been in use in Asia for hundreds of years before the 8th century battle that saw the Islamic advance into modern France stymied. What the Franks did that was different was to use the stirrup to outfit their cavalry with heavy armour that made them nearly impervious to the standard weapons of the day. The weapon system of the armoured knight, while extremely effective, was also extremely expensive. Each knight needed a handful of mounts to be effective in battle, and these horses required oats to put on the bulk and muscle the knights required, especially as their armour grew heavier over the years. Knights also needed lots of training to get the most out of their mounts and their weapons. In short, a lot of man-hours were eaten up by the care, training, and breeding of horses for use in war.
In order to make sure he had knights when he needed them, a king would grant large tracts of land to his ablest warriors, in exchange for the promise, usually backed by sacred oath, to deliver a certain number of knights and infantry when the king called for them. Each warrior would organize the land and the peasants living on it to feed him and his servants while they went about the business of preparing for the next war. Such a lord might also divvy up his land into smaller parcels that would be given to other knights, so that they could do the same thing, creating a pyramidal organization of land passed down in exchange for oaths of service traveling up the pyramid. It was sort of like Amway, but with swords and battle axes.
And there you have the foundations of medieval Europe’s social structure. The granted land was called a fief, and the knight who ruled it could pretty much do as he pleased with it, so long as he delivered his quota of warriors to his king’s wars. In order to protect his fief, knights built castles on their lands, and divided their larger holdings into smaller fiefs so that they, too, could raise armies when the need arose.
Of course, in practice, things could get a bit messier than this perfect picture. Sometimes a knight might grow stronger than his lord, or even his king. Knights sworn to the same king might disagree about exactly where one fief ended and another began. Most fiefs were passed down to eldest sons when a knight died, but the exact details of such inheritance were sometimes settled by open warfare between knights. (A similar issue served as the pretext for William the Conqueror’s invasion of England in 1066.) Knights who had covered themselves in glory by slaughtering lots of people might attempt to ease their blood-spattered souls’ passage into Heaven by gifting churches and monasteries with their lands, allowing the Church to acquire great wealth and even, at times, raise its own armies.
In spite of all of this, the coming of the mounted knight pretty much ended the successive waves of invaders from the east. Islam was held at the Pyrenees and then slowly pushed back, first to the southern edge of Spain and then, in 1492, out of western Europe all together. In the east, Europe slowly went on the offensive, spreading Roman Catholicism by the sword into eastern Europe and the Middle East. As the Vikings found raiding more difficult and less profitable, they began to settle down. The Vikings who settled on the northern shores of modern France learned the ways of the knight. These Norsemen slowly became Normans and more French than even the French. When they invaded England in 1066, their chivalric heavy cavalry faced a shield wall which was more akin to their ancestors’ ways of making war than their own.
It was on this foundation of landed knights, supported by the serfs who toiled at menial tasks to support and equip them, that medieval Europe was built. Once you’ve got that down, it’s a lot easier to understand what came later, and how Europe slowly transformed into the modern nation-states we know today.
Photo credits: rutlo, frielp, magoexperto.