Failed civilizations require surprisingly long periods of time to reset. During these periods, power devolves and legitimacy – the belief that it is right for us to serve rulers – falls apart. Resetting legitimacy is ultimately more critical than restoring the ability to use force, and that's what gave our middle ages their unique character.
Continued from last week…
THE CENTURIES OF RESET
Between the 5th and 8th centuries, smaller ruling groups rushed to fill the political void left by the centralized Roman government. Germanic tribes built decentralized kingdoms where the Empire had been.1 Roman landholders in the countryside either set themselves up as independent rulers or fled to the Eastern Empire. Many made alliances with the Goths. In areas like Spain and Italy, this merely required the acknowledgement of a new overlord, but in other areas a change of dress, language, and custom might be required.
The one thing the Church2 needed was stability.3 Its legitimacy was balanced upon the ideas that existed in 25 or 30 million4 European minds. Minds, of course, are variable; they can change much faster than armies and weapons. So, constancy was paramount and the Church worked to keep the rule of the local priest strong, heresies to a minimum and princes controllable. The number of Church intrigues, of course, was immense: The Church watched, guided and manipulated princes and nobles incessantly. (And vice versa.)
One effect of Church manipulation was that it impeded the power of the rulers. This was probably best for the Church and it harmonized nicely with the general devolution of power through the period. The few rulers of large areas could be brought into especially close (and therefore safe) relationships with the Church, as happened with Charlemagne and his Carolingian empire. It was during this period of Church-state rule that a brief moment of centralization occurred during the Early Middle Ages.
The Carolingian Renaissance is generally thought of as a period of intellectual and cultural revival that began in the late 8th century and continued through much of the 9th. During this period there was an increase of literature, writing, various arts, architecture, jurisprudence and theological studies. However, this "renaissance" was not the birth of new cultural movements, but was an attempt to recreate the previous culture of the Roman Empire, and most of the changes were confined to the clergy. Truthfully, the reason that it is so strongly represented in our history books is because historians work from the records of elite classes, and the Carolingians produced the best elite records of the period.
Soon enough, the Carolingian Empire split. The underlying forces of the time could not support an empire – it was a time of small and devolving units of power.
The Vikings attacked the northern parts of the empire and went so far as to besiege Paris in 885–886. The Magyars attacked the eastern frontiers, especially Germany and Italy, and the Muslim Saracens were able to sack Rome in 846, as well as conquering Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily. Like the Vikings, they operated via pirate raid, which seemed an especially good military strategy during this era. Before long, however, the Vikings converted to Christianity, joined the newly forming Western civilization and stopped attacking. The Saracens, obviously, did not, and remained a threat.
So, as the Middle Ages rolled across Europe, the pattern was devolving power beneath and religious legitimacy above. By the end of this time, the vast majority of people lived in villages set in the midst of open fields. These villages normally contained between 20 and 100 houses, and were fairly evenly spaced. Around the clusters of houses were fields of wheat, oats, rye and barley.
A house was usually a two-room cottage of about 12 by 24 feet. It had one door and a window for each room. One room was usually used for animals, but if a separate stable was built, one room would be for sleeping and the other for cooking and eating. The floor would be dirt and the roof could be thatch, shingle or turf. Everyone worked in the fields.
The average peasant, as the rule of the Church solidified, was taught (and generally believed) that he or she was in the precise position that the creator and ruler of the universe wished for him. As a result, there was much reduced desire to improve one's self. Medieval man had few decisions to make; his life was scripted from cradle to grave.
Power was almost fully decentralized, with just a portion going up through many layers between the local fief5 and the king. A man from one layer of land-ownership may never have met the man two or three layers removed. The central ruler had the right to call up soldiers from the lower levels (by passing requests down, layer by layer), but not a great deal more, and this only about 40 days per year. Following is an example of how the hierarchy of land rights and ownership went, from the reign of King Edward I of England (1239-1307). It is from a slightly later time, but it shows the multiple layers and rights to the land's produce.
Note that the peasants are considered part of the land. This was the pattern set up by Rome's laws in response to the Crisis of the 3rd Century, but by this time it was justified much differently. The Emperor's edict was backed by power. By about 1100 A.D. slavery was gone, but there was serfdom, whereby the peasants were tied to the land more by religious obligation than by power.6 A serf was not the property of the lord; he rather belonged to the land. His parents, grandparents and so on were creatures of that sliver of geography and he inherited the same relationship. And, again, everyone of the era was assured that the serf's divinely-ordered place on earth was to produce food for everyone else.
So, here is a structure of ownership and rights from Edwardian England:
Roger of St. Germain holds land at Paxton in Huntingdonshire of Robert of Bedford,
who holds of Richard of Ilchester,
who holds of Alan of Chartres,
who holds of William le Boteler,
who holds of Gilbert Neville,
who holds of Devorguil,
who holds of the king of Scotland,
who holds of the king of England.
A village would have a pond, used for drinking water, wash water and water for powering the mill. In addition, animals would drink from this same pond. A large outdoor oven and a blacksmith's forge were shared in the village. In or near the village would be a small church and a residence for the priest. The one large residence in the village was the manor house. This was inhabited by the lord or the lord's agent, who might be either very rich or of such modest means that he would also work the fields.
Plowing was done with teams of oxen and iron plows, but few hand tools were available and roads for transporting grain were rare. Crops were planted in two-field or three-field rotations.
In many places, peasants were under constant surveillance by the forester or game-warden, to make sure that he did not hunt; hunting was the reserved privilege of the nobility, both for reasons of food and for sport. This illustrates the continuing exclusivity of predatory skills. The rulers had lethal weapons, used them and forbade all others to do so. The fundamental and ancient power equation remained – the rulers held both the ability and the legal right to violence; peasants were forbidden to do so. As it was in ancient Mesopotamia, so it was in Medieval Europe.
1The Ostrogoths in Italy, the Visigoths in Hispania, the Franks and Burgundians in Gaul and western Germany, the Angles and the Saxons in Britain and the Vandals in North Africa. And, of course, the situation was highly complicated. I am forced to generalize, as all historians are.
2When I use the capitalized word, Church, I am referring to the Roman Catholic Church, which was the church for a millennium and more.
3I should add – and this will be covered more in the next edition – that the Church did not jump fully-formed into the post-Roman world. There were competing versions of Christianity and consolidating legitimacy took time.
4The approximate population of Europe in the period between 400 and 1000 A.D.
5A fief referred to small piece of local land. But, more properly, it meant the right to exploit this particular piece of land and the obligation to provide some level of service to the lord above the fief-holder, in return for this right.
6There were a number of types of serfs, and opportunities opened for those serfs who desired more freedom to get it. It was never as easy as it "should" have been, but freedom did increase. And it should be added that serfs had rights and lords had obligations to them.
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To be continued…
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