The Middle Ages, or the Medieval period, was formed from a mixture of Roman, Germanic, and Christian cultures. Western Europe was eventually conquered by militarily superior Germanic tribes, who accepted Roman culture. In the east a distinct Byzantine culture developed around the great city of Constantinople. On the southern fringe of the Mediterranean a dynamic new force, Islam, arose to challenge both the Western European and Eastern Byzantine civilizations. After the prophet Muhammads death, the faith of Islam spread dramatically across the entire southern tier of the old Roman Empire. The one organization that could respond to both the Germanic and Muslim invasions in the West was the Catholic Church, which had modeled its administration on that of the Roman Empire. At the head of the Church was the pope ("father") in Rome, who ruled over the only literate elite in Europe. Great discipline and devotion were further derived through the monastic movement, which gave the Church a stability that any monarch could envy. Even so, the pope did not become a new kind of emperor. No greater example of monarchial success can be found in the early Middle Ages than the Carolingian ruler Charlemagne. His coronation as a Holy Roman Emperor by the pope himself further illuminated his elevated position. The organization of his kingdom, with its emphasis on central authority ruling through local administrators (counts), was a clear sign of the tension in medieval society between central and local authority tension that was not fully resolved for centuries. Despite this problem, Charlemagnes era ushered in something of an intellectual revolution. For the first time in centuries, an interest in the ancient works was noticeable. Important changes also affected the agricultural system, leading to a harshly regulated serfdom that was little better than slavery. The system was administered by vassals who in turn served the great lords and counts who came to overshadow kings and emperors during the centuries of invasion and turmoil. Nevertheless, this arrangement provided significant security for large numbers of people, and by the ninth century had become a settled way of life in western and central Europe.
After reading this chapter you should understand:
- The Germanic invasions of Western Europe and North Africa, culminating in the Frankish empires.
- The development of the Byzantine Empire.
- The expansion and accomplishments of Islam.
- The rise to power of the Catholic Church in the west, especially the roles of the pope and the monastic movement.
- The breakup of Charlemagnes empire and the rise of feudalism.