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Lectures for A Medieval Survey

Lynn H. Nelson

Europe in 1300

7:00 a.m., Sunday 10 April 13th: the high point of the Middle Ages. Jubilee Year in Rome, with all of Europe paying its respects to the Church, which had at last appeared to have triumphed over its opponents, freed itself from secular control and emerged as the moral arbiter of European affairs.

Despite this apparent unity, two political philosophies were contending for dominance. The Church preserved the Roman ideal of a centralized and disciplined state encompassing all of Christendom, while the secular governments had abandoned this ideal. Unlike China, Mesopotamia, and other parts of the Old World that had sustained empires throughout their history, western Europe did not have a central plain or river system upon which such an empire could be based. Instead, there were many states, each following its own path of development: England: constitutional monarchy; Aragon: social contract; Florence: political machine; Milan, military dictatorship; Rome, theocracy; France: absolute monarchy; Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden (Switzerland): pure democracy; London: syndicalism; Venice: oligarchy; Poland: parliamentary government; and so forth. Probably at no time in history or anywhere on Earth had so many different approaches to statecraft existed in such close proximity.

The greatest of these states was the Church.

  • . The Church: the International State of Europe
    • It had an effective executive authority: the pope and curia
    • It enjoyed a trained and organized personnel: secular and regular clergy.
    • It was the wealthiest state inEurope
      • Held about 25% of the land of Europe
      • Held other wealth in the form of endowments
      • Collected "fees" for the delivery of the sacraments
      • d. Collected about 14% of the gross production of Europe as taxes
        • Tithes: 10% income tax paid by everyone
        • First fruits: 3 1/3% tax upon total production
        • Special levies could be levied in case of need
    • Judicial powers
      • Ecclesiastical courts that handled a wide range of cases
      • Sophisticated system of canon law and professional lawyers
      • Enforcement
        • Sanctions: penance, excommunication, interdict
        • Inquisition: a highly trained force organized to maintain spiritual discipline
        • Military orders: Templars, Hospitallers, Teutonic Knights, and others
    • The church enjoyed great popular support
      • It held a monopoly of sacraments: the path to salvation
      • It administered health and welfare
      • It maintained effective communication with the faithful
      • d. The mass of people were genuinely concerned with spiritual things
  • TheNational States
    • Based upon the identification of people and state
    • Pursued the elimination of "foreign" authority
    • Upheld the supremacy of the interests of the state.
      • France
      • England
      • Spain: Castile, Aragon, Portugal
      • Germany
      • Italy
  • The Western World
    • The Byzantine Empire: weakened by the Ottoman Turks
    • Islam: weakened by the Mongol conquest of Persia
    • Europe: was growing stronger and more populous
  • Contemporary views of medieval society
    • The biological analogy: society is like a human body
    • It should be a harmony of disparate elements
    • The goal of society should be integration and stability
  • The 14th century and the end of the illusion Europe had pursued the ideal of a society that would achieve unity without imposing uniformity, and, in 1300, it appeared to contemporaries as if it had achieved that goal. In less than a decade, that belief would be shattered by the first of a series of catastrophes.

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    Copyright ©1999, Lynn H. Nelson. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.