FC41.2: The Collapse of Political Order in Western Europe (c.800-1000 CE)



FC41.2 in the Hyperflow of History.
Covered in multimedia lecture #6714


As we have seen, most of the Germanic tribes that took over the lands of the Western Roman Empire had absorbed at least some respect for Roman civilization and a desire to maintain it. However, in the end, most of those Germanic kingdoms failed to establish strong long lasting states despite their efforts to carry on Roman traditions. The root of this failure lay in the fact that, despite their best intentions, the Germanic tribes still had a poor understanding of the Roman heritage they had taken over. This created problems in two ways.

First of all, no matter how much they may have admired Roman government and technology, the Germanic rulers had, at best, an imperfect understanding of how such things worked. Occasionally a ruler, such as Theoderic the Ostrogoth, would be smart enough to use Roman technicians and bureaucrats to run his state along Roman lines with some success. But that was the exception to the rule. More often, the barbarian kingdoms were loosely knit states with local nobles ruling their lands and sometimes following their kings in war. The few trained Roman bureaucrats that were left became scarcer with each generation. Bit by bit, orderly Roman rule gave way to a more casual kind of order, veering more and more toward anarchy. Taxes went uncollected; roads, bridges, and aqueducts went unrepaired; and public order broke down, sending towns and trade into decline.

The second problem, which tied in with the first, was the Germanic concept of the state, or lack of it. The Romans saw the state as an abstract concept that encompassed all the people. The Germanic concept of the state was that the crown and the loyalty of the subjects were the personal property of the king. A warrior had no loyalty to a state, only to his chieftain or king, and that was a very personal matter. It also led to serious problems. Since the kingdom was the personal property of the king, he divided it between his sons after he died much as we today will split our estates among our various children. These sons were naturally jealous of their brothers' shares, and civil wars often resulted.

Together, these civil wars and the breakdown of the old Roman economic and political order bred even more economic decline and the passing of money from circulation. This had two serious results. First of all, schools closed down without money to run them, and the trained Roman bureaucracy gradually died off without anyone to replace them. Second, with money disappearing from circulation, land was becoming the main source of wealth. These two factors forced the kings to rely more and more on local nobles to administer their kingdoms. And since money had virtually disappeared from circulation, kings had to pay their noble supporters with land. This was where their troubles really started to mount.

The problem with land as the main source of wealth was that it regenerated wealth in the form of crops. Giving nobles land that kept producing crops meant the nobles no longer needed the king. Therefore, they became more independent and started defying royal authority. For the king to bring these rebels under control, he would need an army. Unfortunately, he needed to pay his armies, and the only thing he had to pay them with was land, which started the whole vicious cycle over again. In such a way, kings in early medieval Europe saw their power continually disintegrating.

Two other factors led into this feedback process. One was the cycle of Church corruption and reform where people would donate land to the Church in hopes of saving their souls. This would make the Church rich and corrupt, which would trigger a new round of reforms by devout church members. The reformed Church would thus attract more donations of land, and the cycle would start over.

As a result, the Church had large amounts of land, making it a major source of wealth and power in the early medieval state. This created the problem of local nobles fighting and scheming to control Church lands. Typically, they would give their younger sons the offices of bishop or abbot (head of a monastery) while passing the family lands on to the older sons. However, putting a bishop's robes on a young noble did not usually change his wild and warlike ways, and we find bishops and abbots engaged in drinking bouts and fighting in the front ranks of battle along with the most unruly of the other nobles. The problem of these ambitious nobles trying to gain control of Church lands also fed into the vicious cycle of land regenerating wealth, making nobles more independent, and so on.

Naturally, this situation did little for the piety of the Church. Also, as a result, the lower clergy were largely unsupervised, illiterate, and ignorant of the religion they were supposedly in charge of, while carrying on fairly lax lifestyles themselves. This is not to say there were not any good pious Christians at the time. One of the remarkable things about the history of the medieval Church is the fact that pious individuals did exist and occasionally prevailed against the corruption that constantly plagued the Church. Still, the view we get of the early medieval Church is not a very pretty one.

The Church naturally wanted to maintain its independence and often looked to kings for protection from the nobles. The kings in turn looked to the Church for land (or at least support from the land), spiritual support to make them popular, and monks to provide what few educated officials there were. One striking example of this mutual support was when the German monarch, Otto I, went into Italy in 96l, roughly 75% of his troops were supplied from Church lands. This made it critical for early medieval monarchs to control the elections of bishops and abbots, which would give them control of the Church's extensive lands and wealth. If they could do this, they were in a good position for ruling their states. In later centuries, when both kings and popes became powerful independently of one another, there would be trouble between church and state. However, in the chaos of the early medieval world, church and state often relied heavily upon one another out of necessity.

The other factor contributing to the decline of the early medieval state was the spread of a simple invention that would revolutionize medieval warfare and, to a large extent, medieval society: the stirrup. The main function of the stirrup was to hold the rider more securely in the saddle. This allowed him to use the impetus of his charging horse to drive a lance through an opponent without himself being thrown from the saddle. The success of this new shock cavalry forced defeated enemies to adopt the stirrup if they were to survive. This led to the further spread of shock cavalry until it had become the dominant form of warfare in Western Europe.

Such shock tactics, as they are called, required a large warhorse, lance, heavier armor, and professional troops trained in riding a horse and using a lance. However, such an army was expensive, especially by medieval standards. The Frankish leader Charles Martel's confiscation of large amounts of church lands in 732, the year before the battle of Tours, suggests he was building up an army of this new type of cavalry, paying them land in order to support them while they trained and fought.

Because of this cycle, Western Europe disintegrated into anarchy as local nobles rebelled against their kings and fought each other in their own private wars. This in turn would encourage raids and invasions by such peoples as Vikings from the north, Arabs from the south, and nomadic Magyars from the east. Such raids and invasions would only encourage more turmoil, which would bring in more invasions and so on. To aggravate matters even further, this cycle of anarchy and invasions would also feed back into the original cycle involving land as a source of wealth. And so it would go, as these mutually reinforcing cycles of decline, anarchy, and invasions would continue to feed into one another, dragging Western Europe down into further chaos. Not until money came back into circulation could the nobles' stranglehold be broken. This was because money did not regenerate itself, thus keeping nobles and officials constantly dependent on the king.


Out of this chaos there emerged a new political order, known as feudalism. This was a decentralized political order where a king or lord would give his nobles land worked by serfs (peasants bound to the soil) in return for military and other forms of service. Each of those dukes and counts wanted his own army. Therefore, they subinfeudated (subdivided) their lands, giving them to lower nobles in return for service from them. Those nobles in turn might subinfeudate to get their own armies from loyal followers. And so it would go until the whole kingdom was split up into dozens of little states. A petty noble who owed service to his overlord, and probably was owed service by vassals beneath him ran each of these. Theoretically, every noble owed allegiance to the king, but in reality he dealt mainly with his immediate overlords and vassals. What resulted were innumerable little wars that usually amounted to little more than border raids that burned some crops, inflicted few if any casualties, and added greatly to the confusion already plaguing Western Europe.

Manorialism was the economic counterpart to feudalism. As the name implies, Western Europe's economy centered on isolated agricultural manors worked by the local lords' serfs. Because of its isolation, the manor had to be virtually self-sufficient. It had agricultural land divided into two or three fields (one always fallow), wasteland which was the lord's private preserve for hunting, a peasant village, a church, a mill, and the lord's manor house or castle (generally made of wood until the 1100's).

The feudal order was an extremely localized and decentralized arrangement. States were so small and poor, and terms of service were so short (in France, usually only 40 days a year) that no one was able to build up much power. However, in the absence of a strong central government, feudalism did provide some degree of defense against the constant raids and invasions then besetting Europe. By l000 C.E., things would settle down and a certain amount of stability had been established as the Viking, Muslim, and Magyar raids died down. This stability set the stage for a revival of civilization in Western Europe known as the High Middle Ages. Out of that civilization would evolve our own modern Western Civilization.