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Medieval Empires and Borderlands: The Latin West
By 750, several new kingdoms emerged in what had been the western part of the Roman Empire. The kingdoms were politically, ethnically, and linguistically diverse, yet shared certain social and religious characteristics.
The Germanic peoples who established these kingdoms maintained their own cultural identity despite borrowing from Roman law. Christianity and the Latin language also provided unifying forces.
Roman civilization vanished more completely from Britain than anywhere else in Europe and left virtually no mark on the culture of the Germanic Anglo-Saxons who established kingdoms there.
Following the collapse of imperial authority in Gaul, the Franks, under their ruler Clovis, established a large, powerful kingdom, which later split into the realms that would eventually become France and Germany.
The Visigoth kings of Spain failed to impose their Arianism on the local population, instead converting to Catholicism themselves before being defeated by invading Muslim armies.
Lombard rule in Italy suffered from internal division as well as pressure from the Byzantines and Franks, and eventually the Frankish king Charlemagne crushed them in 774.
With the exception of England, Germanic rulers blended Roman and Germanic traditions in government and law in order to unify their kingdoms, with Christianity also serving as a common bond.
Germanic rulers such as Clovis continued to maintain parts of the Roman administrative system, controlling all appointments to these offices and also adopting the Roman practice of the monarch being the source of all law.
The leaders of the Germanic tribes had been war chiefs and the personal loyalty of warriors to their leader continued to be an important element in the Germanic kingdoms, as did the hierarchical networks of clan and kin, which revenged any harm done to one of their own unless appeased by financial compensation for that person's worth - the wergild.
By 750, most of the western kingdoms had become Catholic, which facilitated the intermarriage of Germanics and Romans and helped give unity to kingdoms. Unity was also enhanced when Romans increasingly chose to live according to Germanic, and not Roman, law.
The influence of Roman law on Germanic societies can be seen in the way that Germanic settlers came to accept a woman's right to inherit land.
Missionary monks played a key role in the spread of Catholic Christianity throughout the new kingdoms.
Through clever diplomacy and shrewd political maneuvering, the popes were able to build up support in western Europe and eventually make themselves the independent rulers of part of Italy.
Never part of the Roman Empire, Ireland also never developed any sort of urban living, and so its missionaries, like Patrick, had to adapt the institutional and educational structures of the Church to an overwhelmingly rural environment. They did this by establishing monasteries, which became centers of learning, eventually sending out their own missionary monks to establish monasteries in England, France, and Germany.
Pope Gregory the Great hoped to create a European Christian community. To achieve this, he advocated the conversion of as many people as possible, the allowance of local variations in worship, and the revision of harmless remnants of pre-Christian worship practices. By 600, Irish missionaries were established in Scotland, England, and parts of continental Europe. Irish monks seeking to convert England found themselves working withmissionary monks sent from Rome. The two groups disagreed on several practices, a dispute that was finally resolved in Rome's favor in 664.
The monks sent from Rome were Benedictines, who emphasized religious learning and whose monasteries became centers of learning and intellectual activity. Part of this was the copying of manuscripts, and while most of these were religious, the monks preserved classical texts as well. Monks also wrote books and transported books to new places, as well as operated schools.
A religious minority throughout Latin Christendom, the specific circumstances of Jews' lives varied, depending upon in which kingdom they resided. While Christian attitudes towards Jews tended to be hostile, actual treatment of the Jews ranged from persecution to protection.
When Pepin the Short deposed the last of the Merovingian kings of the Franks, he inaugurated a new ruling dynasty: the Carolingians. But both suffered from the succession custom of the Franks that caused a king to divide his kingdom among his sons.
Ruthlessly seizing his deceased brother's kingdom over the rights of his nephews, Charlemagne managed, in a reign of almost constant warfare, to make himself the mightiest ruler in western Europe, heading up an empire that was a dramatic departure from the small, loosely governed kingdoms that had prevailed since the end of the western Roman Empire.
Ruling all of western Europe except for southern Italy, Spain, and the British Isles, Charlemagne's coronation as a Roman emperor in 800 exemplified the two most prominent characteristics of the Carolingians: conscious imitation of the ancient Roman Empire and an obligation to protect the pope, in exchange for which the pope sanctioned Carolingian rule.
Lacking a standing army and navy, professional civil servants, properly maintained roads, regular communications, a money economy, and even a permanent capital city, the Carolingian system of government was based on personality, not institutions. Despite the use of capitularies (collections of written decrees) and counties (territorial units in which counts represented royal power), the strongest bond unifying the Carolingian realm was personal loyalty to the emperor. What little administration that did exist, however, depended entirely on the church, which the Carolingians supported and whose monasteries provided what literate administrators the Carolingians had.
Under Charlemagne's patronage, there was a revival of interest in ancient literature and an intensified effort at education, including the establishment of a school staffed by the finest scholars in Europe, which made Charlemagne's court a lively center of intellectual exchange.
The personal empire created by Charlemagne was not able to be maintained by his less capable successors, as subsequent generations continued to divide up what had been one empire, a fragmentation that increased warfare and violence.
In the ninth and tenth centuries, polytheist tribes raided the Christian heart of Europe, but Christianity not only survived, it eventually converted the invaders.
Of the pagan raiders that harassed Christian Europe, the two most important were the Magyars, who eventually formed their own kingdom of Hungary and accepted Christianity, and the Vikings, who caused the most havoc in western Europe. By the mid-ninth century, the Vikings, or Northmen, were shifting from raiding to invading and settling, resulting in a lasting impact in France, Britain, and the North Atlantic.
The disintegration of the Carolingian order resulted in a shift of power from central, royal authority to local warlords.
By the eighth century, the Germanic society of warriors led by chiefs had been formalized into relationships between lords and vassals. Vassals swore loyalty and obedience to their lord, and in return the lord promised to protect his vassal and sometimes granted him land which was called a fief, a system known as feudalism. In the disorder of the ninth and tenth centuries, lords gained extensive political and legal rights over the communities in their lands. Although in theory feudalism created a hierarchy of authority, in actuality the situation was more complex.
Feudalism transformed kings into the lords of other lords, in which maintaining royal authority was difficult. Kings sought to ensure loyalty by granting favors to loyal vassals and by emphasizing the sacred character of kingship, in the process enhancing the idea of kingship and encouraging the perception of the kingdom as more than the king's personal possession. The Saxon dynasty of East Francia, which consisted primarily of German-speaking tribes, promoted Christian missions to the Slavs and candinavians. Francia, the Capets used their relationship with the church to strengthen their authorityad made their crown hereditary, eventually giving the name of their feudal domain, France, to the entire kingdom. England became united under Alfred the Great and his successors, only to be conquered by Duke William of Normandy in 1066.
In the frontiers of the Latin West, when a king or chieftain converted to Christianity, his people followed, although the inculcation of Christian principles and forms of worship took more time and effort. To combat the tendencies towards localism, missionaries and Christian rulers established geographical areas known as bishoprics to enforce correct belief and punish immorality. Unlike the Bulgarians and the Kievan Rus, the Poles, Bohemians, Magyars, and Scandinavians favored Latin Christianity. This connection forged closer political and cultural connections with western Europe.
The papacy gave powerful religious sanctions to Christian military expeditions against the Muslims in Palestine, leading to eight major Crusades between 1095 and 1291.
The original call for a crusade came in response to the threat that the Muslims posed to Christians and holy places in the eastern Mediterranean. Crusaders, a new sort of armed pilgrim, sought both spiritual and material rewards as they battled to take Jerusalem, which many identified with Paradise itself.
The First Crusade (1095-1099) landed in the Middle East to find Arab states weakened from fighting the Turks and internal theological disputes. Crusaders captured Jerusalem and established Latin principalities in what is today Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine. This was the only really successful crusade. Subsequent crusades either failed or, in the case of the Fourth Crusade, blatantly subverted religious aims to worldly ones.
The Crusader hold in the Middle East did not last long, nor did the Crusades facilitate the transmission to Europe of Islamic cultural and intellectual influences, which instead came via Sicily and Spain. The Crusades helped destabilize the Byzantine Empire, which made it an easy target for Muslim conquest. Most importantly, the Crusades led to the expansion of European trade, leading to an era of exuberant economic growth.
In the Early Middle Ages, the distinction between eastern and western Europe emerged based primarily upon different forms of Christianity, while interaction with Muslim powers and civilization helped define the southern border of Christian Europe. These factors helped develop a tentative unity among western European Christians, based primarily upon Roman Catholicism. By the end of this era, western Europe was also characterized by the system of lordship and vassalage. After recovering from invasions and after strengthening themselves with new political and ecclesiastical institutions, Latin Christian kingdoms attempted to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims, and thus engaged in aggressive contact outside of the West's borders.