Print this pageHistorical Text Archive © 1990 - 2013
THE SHAPING OF
In this assignment, you should learn the meaning and significance of the following terms:
With the failure of the Eastern Romans to hold onto the reconquests of the Emperor Justinian (527-565), Western Europe was left relatively isolated at the far western end of the belt of civilizations. It was not heavily populated; it lacked any rich sources of raw materials to trade; its artistic standards had been declining for some time and the Germanic invasions had disrupted manufacturing to such a degree that the West could offer very little in the way of trade goods that would appeal to the sophisticated cultures to the East. Consequently, it was largely ignored and was left to develop without much foreign and advanced influences.
From 600 to about 900, Europe seemed to have been trying to reconstruct the old Roman Empire of the West. The Church, which had become a branch of the Roman imperial government in the course of the 300's, survived the collapse of the political and military of the Roman Empire in the West. It tried to preserve Roman imperial institutions and principles to the point where local bishops often took over the authority and regalia of the old Roman provincial governors. It was in the cathedrals and monasteries of the West that Roman learning was preserved to the extent that it was in fact preserved. As influential as the Church might have been however, it needed power to pursue its apparent goal of restoring the Roman Empire. It acquired that power in about 750, when it allied itself with the Franks, one of the most powerful of the Germanic peoples who had entered the territory of the old Empire. Acting almost as partners, Frankish kings and their ecclesiastical advisors and administrators began to try to central authority once again, to repair the ruined western transport system, to organize the Church more effectively, to conquer the lands that had comprised the Roman Empire in the West and to convert their pagan inhabitants, to improve agriculture, and to encourage the development of art, architecture, literature, and other cultural activities - - always favoring the model and standards of the Roman Empire, of course.
The efforts were finally successful in the year 800, when the Frankish king, Charles, was crowned as Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day. The rulers of Western Europe could at least claim that they had restored an independent Roman Empire of the West, although the new empire was only superficially like even the actual Roman Empire. Nevertheless, the reign of Charles the Great, usually called Charlemagne (768- 814), represented a considerable recovery, and is often regarded as a renaissance, or "rebirth" of Roman culture, by historians.
This happy situation did not last long. The Franks had the interesting custom of dividing their estates equally among all of their children. So Frankish kings would divide their kingdoms among their sons; the sons would soon be embroiled in a civil war until one of them won out over the others and reunified the king; and then he would die and the kingdom would be divided among his sons. Charlemagne had been lucky that his brother had decided to abdicate and enter a monastery, and all of Charlemagne's sons except Louis, his youngest, died before their father. Louis (814-840), however, had three sons survive him, and the civil war that broke out among them permanently divided the empire that Charlemagne had built.
While Louis' sons were fighting among themselves, Western Europe was attacked from all sides by a new wave of invaders, although these invaders tended to raid and plunder more than conquer and settle. From Scandinavia came the Vikings, sailing up and down the coasts of Europe and up its rivers deep into its interior. They were pagans, fierce warriors, and quite bloody- minded. For many years, it was common enough for priests to end their prayers with the words ... and from the fury of the Northmen, Good Lord, protect us. Amen. There were also new invaders from central Asia, people calling themselves Magyars, but called Huns by the inhabitants of Western Europe. Riding swift ponies, they raided much of German, France and northern Italy. Finally, the western Mediterranean Sea was dominated by the Saracens, inhabitants of the North African coast who had converted to the new (since 622) religion of Islam. The Saracens had seized the islands of the Western Mediterranean and southern Italy, controlled the access to Western Europe by sea, and engaged in almost continuous piratical raids. It is interesting to note that they continued to function as pirates until the early 1800, when the newly-independent United States attacked the Barbary Coast and curbed its pirate fleets.
The nature of these hit-and-run attacks was such that no central government could respond effectively, even if the rulers of the central governments had not been engrossed in fighting each other. Local strong men built fortresses that offered protection to the peasants in their locality, and these local "bosses" took military and political power into their own hands. The Kingdom of Germany disintegrated into a half dozen small states, while France collapsed into something close to anarchy, with literally hundreds of local barons each controlling the territory and the people around their castles.
From about 900 to about 1000, Europe was fighting for its very existence and, in the course of that struggle, developed new institutions and values that owed relatively little to the old Roman Empire. The local rulers of the time were too busy to engage in dreams of centralizing authority in a revived Roman Empire and were generally content to adopt whatever seemed to work. Europe emerged from that period with a society based upon three basic institutions. One was the local ruler who exercised governmental powers, protected his people with a castle in which they could take refuge in time of need, and defended them clad in armor and riding to battle mounted on a war-horse. The second was the churchman, either priest or monk, who represented a Church that was no longer interested in functioning as a branch of an imperial government, but sought to be independent of secular authority and to set the moral and ethical standards for Europe. The third was the peasant, organized into village communities that functioned as agricultural cooperatives, sharing the tasks of plowing and regarding the surrounding meadows and forests as a common possession. Each of these supported the other in important and even essential ways and, together, they were able to produce a sufficient surplus of food to support a great number of warriors.
The year 1000 marked an amazing change in the fortunes of Western Europe. The Vikings were converted to Christianity as were the Magyars, and their raids ceased. The merchants ships of the city-states of northern Italy fought the Saracen pirates and took control of the Western Mediterranean, and the trade between the lands of the region of the Baltic Sea and the Byzantine Empire, which had been moving along the rivers of Russia, now began to shift to Western Europe and to stimulate the development of the economy of the region. Almost unnoticed, several innovations in agricultural technology (the deep plow, the use of horses as draft animals, crop rotation) led to an increase in peasant production and productivity. This led to an increased population as well as a higher standard of living and workers who could be diverted from agriculture to manufacture. All this, in turn, led to an increase of wealth and -- at least potentially -- a decrease in expenditures for defense. Western Europe began investing more of its capital in education, research, technological development, and the arts.
Western Europe had, by now, more than recovered the wealth and population it had lost with the Germanic invasions and the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, and it had done so largely with its own resources. Inventions (such gunpowder, the compass, the astrolabe, the making of paper) eventually filtered in from the East, but these were not essential to what happened. Europe was reaching the status of an advanced civilization, and was doing so without relying on the labor of masses of slaves, without the direction and coordination of a central government, and without infusions of foreign capital either through trade or conquest. The Europeans were developing a civilization that was largely independent of, and, in many ways, basically different from, the other civilizations of the Old World.