Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Gen Eds H7b: Kings Rising in the Middle Ages

This is the second post in the seventh unit of my treatment of world history, a unit called, "The Age of the Church and Jihad."

These are posts in the World History part of my "General Education in a Nutshell" series. This series involves ten subjects you might study in a general education or "liberal arts" core at a university or college. The first topic in the overall series was philosophy. So far in the world history section:
The Fall of the Roman Empire
1. The Western Roman Empire effectively ended in 476, when a "barbarian" named Odoacer overthrew the last western emperor, Romulus. [1] The Roman Empire had been in serious decline for two or three centuries already by that point, drastically declining in population and without enough soldiers to defend its vast territories. Augustine had written the City of God after the Visigoths had sacked Rome in 410, arguing that the city of mortals (Rome) must decline at the same time that the city of God was increasing on earth (the Church).

Of course the Roman emperor Constantine had moved his headquarters to Constantinople in the east in 330 ("Istanbul was Constantinople. Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople"). For the next 150 years there were usually two emperors, one in the east and one in the west. After 476, the eastern empire would continue, but the western Roman empire was at an end.

2. Germanic tribes had been steadily pealing off territory the Romans had previously held in northwest Europe. The Visigoths who had sacked Rome in 410 settled in what is now southern France, Spain, and Portugal. By 450, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes had taken England after the Romans had abandoned the territory earlier in the century. [2] The Franks were a factor in northern Europe from the late 200s. In the late 400s, Clovis I and the Franks would take most of the territory of modern day France and Germany. [3]

The Byzantine Kingdom
3. The Roman Empire in the east would survive another thousand years. After Constantine moved the center of the Roman empire to Byzantium and renamed it Constantinople, a succession of kings would continue all the way until 1453 when the Ottoman Turks finally took the city. It remained an independent and at times very powerful kingdom, even giving rise to the first Crusade to protect it from the Seljuk Turks in 1096. [4] However, it was sacked by crusaders themselves in the Fourth Crusade (1204) and never fully recovered. [5]

4. The Franks continued to rule the parts of Europe we know today as France and Germany in the centuries that followed. At the Battle of Tours in 732, Charles Martel successfully stopped the advance of Islam up through Spain. In the late 700s, his grandson Charles the Great would expand the kingdom to cover the easternmost parts of present day Germany, Switzerland, and Italy down past Rome.

Charles the Great, known more commonly as Charlemagne, is sometimes thought of as the Father of Europe. He was a devout Catholic and had a close relation with the Pope (Leo III). [6] On Christmas Day in the year 800, the Pope declared Charlemagne the emperor of the Romans, although the Roman empire had never actually ceased in the east. Some later looked to this event as the birth of the "Holy Roman Empire," which would last until 1806 when Napoleon brought it to its end.

5. Charlesmagne's empire was divided into three parts with his grandchildren. The westernmost part would eventually develop into France and speak French. The easternmost part would become a collection of states that would speak German. A middle sliver running from top to bottom would be a collection of states running from the eventual Netherlands in the north to Switzerland and parts of Italy in the south.

Holy Roman Empire
6. The "Carolingian" dynasty only lasted a little more than 70 years after the death of Charlemagne. But the torch of empire would be picked up again by Otto I, who in 962 was crowned by the Pope as emperor. So Otto was understood to be the heir not only of Charlemagne's empire but of the Roman empire itself. His son would take the title "Emperor of the Romans," and after 1184, it would be known as the Holy Roman Empire. [7]

The HRE did not have a single capitol and was actually a collection of states. At the time of its end in 1806, there were over 1800 such territories. The emperor was elected and so, although it sometimes passed from father to son, at times it moved around. From the mid-1400s on, the Habsburg dynasty would be emperors based in Austria.

Norman Conquest
7. In the 900s, Norse conquerors began to settle in the north of France, intermingling with the Franks there, mixing with the Latin-influenced language there, and switching out Norse religion for Roman Catholicism. In 1066 William the Conqueror would invade England, displacing the ruling Saxons. Many of the kings in the next couple hundred years were as much French as they were English.

Cultural Developments
8. We see in the Middle Ages a number of key human transitions that have been formative toward the world we now live in. For example, the Middle Ages saw both the development and eventually the deterioration of feudalism. Many of the tribes of Europe at the end of the Roman Empire were not firmly established in a location. They slowly migrated westward.

One transition of the Middle Ages was thus the establishment of permanent areas that coincided with permanent people groups. The Celts that ended in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales had wandered from Turkey in the time before Paul all the way to France (Gaul) and up into what is now Britain. The Germanic peoples followed them into westernmost Europe.

But after Charlemagne, these peoples reach a certain stopping point. Regions become established. Lines are drawn across a land by human minds. Kings become established in permanent locations. Of course the Romans and other peoples had done this long before, but this is the first time it happened in the lands of northern Europe.

9. With locations now fixed, a hierarchy is established. Kings rule barons who now own land. Then there are serfs or vassals who work the land owned by the nobility in exchange for the lord's military protection. Feudalism thus implies a rather decentralized power structure such as typified the Holy Roman Empire.

Given the power of the Roman Catholic Church, the church became integrated into this feudal system. At times the church dictated the politics. At times the politics ran the church. When the emperors or kings were strong, they sometimes picked the Pope. At other points, the Pope picked the emperor. This was often a bad situation.

The rise of monasteries provided an opportunity for those without any means to have a meaningful life with adequate resources. They provided hope on a grass roots level. At other times, priests became far too powerful and involved in local politics. When the church took the role of "lords," the same abuses of power became possible.

10. A bright spot was the Magna Carta in 1215. It signaled the beginning of rights for the landowners under the king of England. It put limits on how much the king could ask of them. It protected against illegal imprisonment. It called for speedy justice. Although it was not often followed, it became part of the cultural expectations of England.

It thus created a trajectory, a culture that did not consider it appropriate for kings to do whatever they wanted. It would create a climate in which first a House of Lords would exist in which the landowners had a say that, at least a little, counter-balanced the power of the king. Eventually a House of Commons would be added, where the ordinary person was represented as well.

This was the trajectory that would eventually lead to modern representational democracy.

Take Aways
  • No earthly kingdom lasts forever.
  • It is by far for the best for church and state to be separated structurally, to where the church is free to be the church and the state is not under the control of the church.
Next Week: History 7c: Medieval Arabia, India, and China

[1] Others identify Julius Nepos as the last emperor. In Rome he was just before Romulus (474-75), and he continued to be the official emperor until he died in Dalmatia in 480.

[2] They pushed the Celtic people that the Romans had conquered to what is now Wales, Ireland, and Scotland.

[3] In 503, Clovis would convert to Christianity. His dynasty is known as the Merovingian dynasty.

[4] What is now Turkey had been part of the Byzantine empire, but the Seljuk Turks steadily conquered it in the late 1000s.

[5] See the previous post.

[6] Not least because Charles liberated Italy from the Lombards.

[7] Voltaire in the 1700s remarked that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.

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