If there’s one common misconception about History that drives me crazy, it’s the assumption that civilization started out in a horrible, low place and has steadily increased and gotten better in a straight line incline. No. Just no. History doesn’t work like that. In fact, History is more of a wavy line of highs and lows, pitfalls and zeniths. At various points things have been better and they have been worse. The trick is to be born into one of the high points and to stay far, far away from the low points.
The Roman Empire was a high point. Civilization flourished and was full of amazing accomplishments, running water, massive architecture, gladiators…. It was awesome and everyone knew it. But the Roman Empire declined and fell. The pendulum swung in the wrong direction, and Europe muddled its way into a (somewhat misnamed) Dark Ages. And that’s it, right? Things didn’t really get better again until the 20th century, right?
Oh my gosh, wrong!
Let me tell you about a little something called the High Middle Ages. It is a time of economic stability and prosperity. Culture and learning flourished. New discoveries were made and life was pretty darn good. But for some reason, possibly because it was sandwiched between two frightening and disastrous eras, people forget just how sweet life was back then.
Let’s take a look.
The High Middle Ages is defined roughly as the years 1000 – 1300. The era before that is known either as the Early Middle Ages or the Dark Age. I hate the term Dark Age because it’s so subjective, but even I have to admit that life was precarious back then. Prior to 1000, if you lived in Europe you had to deal with Viking invasions, decentralized government marked by territorial infighting, rural life in distant towns separated by uncultivated land and forests, and very little productive trade or interaction between kingdoms. There was an extremely high probability that you stayed in the same place where you were born, and where your father was born and his father and his father, and you never ventured more than a few miles from your home.
In other words, this was the era that most people erroneously call to mind when they think “Middle Ages”.
But that wasn’t the High Middle Ages.
A little something started to happen around the end of the 10th century. The Vikings came to the conclusion that it was far easier to settle down in the lands they had been constantly invading for the last couple hundred years than to keep raiding and going home over and over. Powerful and forward thinking rulers, like Charlemagne in the 9th century, figured out that if they helped increase the power of the Church and educate the clergy, not only would agriculture and commerce become more efficient, restless local leaders could be redirected to support and benefit a centralized king. And new inventions, like the waterwheel and heavy plow increased the production of the land. More food meant more people, healthier people who lived longer. More healthy people meant that previously wild lands could be reclaimed and cultivated. And that’s exactly what happened.
So basically, the High Middle Ages were so awesome because after a long period of instability, Europe was stable, governmentally and economically. And nothing brings prosperity and progress like political and economic stability.
It happened in waves. Much of continental Europe was already well on its way to political stability after the reigns of Charlemagne and his successors in the 800s. There were still divisions. France wasn’t quite the France that we know and the Holy Roman Empire wasn’t everything that it would become once the Hapsburgs got their hands on it. But the smaller regional duchies and kingdoms that made up the whole were settling and developing in their own right. The Church was a major civilizing institute at this time. Monasteries flourished, which brought education and innovation with them as well as a sense of unity within the Church.Things took a turn for the better in England when King Cnut united the kingdoms of Denmark, England, Norway, and Sweden. Although it didn’t last past his death, this union of northern kingdoms ended Viking violence and brought Christianity firmly to the forefront of the lives of the people. Again with the whole monasteries, education, social work, and brotherhood of Christ. And then, of course, with the invasion of William the Conqueror, continental culture and ideals spread through the British Isles. William and his successors were strong leaders who were able to keep the lofty ambitions of their feudal lords in check. When local lords are not busy fighting each other and smashing and grabbing each other’s lands, prosperity happens.
Of course to me one of the most interesting and telling facts about the High Middle Ages, the one that supersedes kings and laws and the Church, is the fact that the weather was really good for a couple hundred years between 1000 and 1400. Yep, the weather. Here we are in the modern era, worrying about global warming, but in the High Middle Ages global warming was the difference between meager crops that were barely enough to feed the population and decades of surplus that improved the overall health and well-being of all of Europe.
The warmer weather didn’t just mean that there was more food to eat. It also meant that there was more livestock, more sheep, horses, and other beasts of burden that added to the now thriving economy. Surplus meant that people were eager to buy and sell things, and since you couldn’t sell or buy everything to or from the folks next door, longer trade routes opened up. Europe expanded on a massive scale. Not only did rulers send people to the hinterlands to found new cities and explore new resources, they decided to venture far, far from home to claim places like the Holy Land in the name of their own religion. Far from being tragically rural, Europe began to look global.
Of course this was just the beginning, the framework for a whole new lifestyle. And as we’ll see next week, living that life would have been pretty sweet….