The Crusades

When the armies of Islam established an empire that stretched from Spain to India, the Byzantine Empire based in Constantinople managed to hold on to Anatolia (that piece of land in western Asia that is today the country called Turkey) and the Balkans (southeastern Europe). Roman civilization and Christian teachings remained vibrant among the Byzantines while they also continued under different forms in western Europe. Three hundred years later, the Muslim empire was strengthened by an incursion of Turks from central Asia. (The Turks have not always lived in Turkey.) The Turks left the Abassid emperor on the throne but came to control the bureaucracy of the government and the army. They converted to Islam, adopted aspects of Persian culture, and sought to reclaim north African lands that had been lost to Abassid control, and also to conquer new lands for Islam.

The Byzantine Christians, now called Orthodox, had recently been declared outside the Church by the Pope and western Christians, now called Catholic. In spite of that division, Byzantine Emperor Alexius begged for reinforcements from western Europe to protect his land from the Muslim Turks. Pope Gregory, although willing to help, was distracted by the politics of the Investiture Controversy and his showdown with Holy Roman Emperor Henry. Gregory’s successor, Pope Urban, was even more willing to help. He declared a Crusade—an army of Christian soldiers who would wear the cross on their armor and would fight to defend the Christian faith against “infidels,” people unfaithful to Jesus Christ. (Muslims respect Jesus as a prophet but deny that he is the Son of God or is anyone’s Savior.)

Preachers declared the glory of fighting for Jesus Christ in the Holy Land and overthrowing nonChristian governments. Many Christians answered the call. The first to arrive in Constantinople were peasants seeking glory, untrained and unequipped for war. The Byzantine Emperor was not impressed, but he sent them to the front lines, where they were quickly overwhelmed by the Turks. Then, in 1095, the First Crusade arrived. The Emperor was still unimpressed, but he prepared to send these European knights to the front as well. To his surprise, they refused his command. They said that they had not come to defend Anatolia, but to capture Jerusalem and make it a Christian city. The Emperor had them sign an agreement that any land they captured from the Muslims would be part of the Byzantine Empire. They signed the agreement, but they did not keep it. Instead, they defeated the Muslims along the shore of the Mediterranean Sea and established western-style kingdoms in Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli, and Jerusalem.

The Abassids and Turks were also not impressed by the Crusaders. They were willing to cede these lands to Europeans if the Europeans would help them fight the Muslims in Egypt. Not to be outdone, the Egyptian Muslims offered to recognize the Crusader kingdoms if they helped to fight the Abassids and Turks. The Crusaders signed agreements with neither Muslim government. They clung to their conquests and ruled them for fifty to two hundred years (Edessa being the first to fall and Jerusalem the last).

When it became clear that the Crusaders were not strong enough to hold their kingdoms, European leaders called for additional crusades. The Second Crusade was sent in 1146, but did little to help the Crusader kingdoms survive. The Third Crusade, which began in 1201, was the Crusade of legendary proportions. The Muslim leader was Kurdish general al-Malik al-Nasir Salah el-Din Yusuf, known in Europe as Saladin. European leaders included Richard the Lion-Hearted of England, Phillip Augustus of France, and Frederick Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire. Each of these primas donnas expected full command of the Crusade and resented the presence of the others. Frederick died on his way to the Holy Land. According to legend, while wearing full armor he fell off his horse into a river and drowned, pulled to the bottom by all that metal. Phillip and Richard both made it to Jerusalem, but quarreled incessantly over leadership of the Crusading soldiers. Eventually Phillip took his French knights and went home. Richard finally also had to withdraw. Traveling through the Holy Roman Empire to avoid entering France (where he expected trouble from Phillip), Richard was captured and held for ransom. His mother was able to raise the money to set him free, even when his brother John and King Phillip of France offered a bribe to the Germans to keep Richard in prison.

The Fourth Crusade set out for Jerusalem but never arrived. Stopping in Venice, they were promised transportation to the Holy Land if they would first attack Constantinople. (Venice and the Byzantines were competing for trade along the Silk Roads, especially in the Mediterranean Sea.) The Crusaders agreed, attacked Constantinople, and set up a western-style kingdom that lasted more than fifty years until their capital was retaken by the Byzantine army. The Fifth Crusade was no more successful in preserving the Crusader kingdoms in western Asia.

King Louis IX of France, the famous Saint Louis, attempted two crusades that would surprise the Muslims by landing in Egypt and working their way along the coast. Both attempts failed. In 1212, a rumor spread through Europe that the failure of the Crusaders was due to their sinful nature, being adult men, but that younger innocent boys could defeat the Muslims. Many boys left their homes and families to march to the Holy Land. Most became tired and turned back. A few were captured in port cities and sold elsewhere as slaves. None of them made it to Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, some Christians in Europe asked why they had to travel a thousand miles to fight the infidel when enemies of the Church could be found closer to home. The reconquest of Spain and Portugal was described as a Crusade. Battles against groups of Christian heretics (including the Albigensians) were called Crusades. Persecution of the Jewish communities in Europe grew more intense at this time; these attacks were also called Crusades. Even in 1518, the Holy Roman Emperor was hoping to form a Crusade to drive the Turks away from Vienna and to reclaim parts of southeastern Europe from the Ottoman Empire. This potential Crusade collapsed under distractions from Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.

For centuries, Muslim historians treated the Crusades as little more than a minor inconvenience. Only in the twentieth century, after the Ottoman Empire fell and Britain and France gained control in western Asia, did Muslims begin to list the Crusades among events when European Christians had been enemies to Islam. As the Muslim lands gained independence after the Second World War (but had to accept the existence of Israel among them), memories of the Crusades grew in significance for Muslim leaders. Christians today might be scolded about the evils of the Crusades, but while they were happening they were scarcely even noticed in the Muslim world. J.

Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be greatest must be servant to all.”

Although many events from medieval Church history seem to have been guided by the power of the Pope, head pastor in Rome and (according to the various popes) Vicar of Jesus Christ on Earth, Christianity was never united under a single worldly leader. Jesus Christ and the Bible unite Christians in heaven and on earth. Other attempts to impose unity and conformity upon Christians result only in division, separation, and sometimes violent opposition.

In early Church times, leaders of the Church in five cities were generally respected as foremost among Christians on Earth. Those cities were Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. Councils that discussed and defined the teachings of the Church did not submit to any of these five bishops; one council even condemned Pope Honorius as a heretic!

The sudden appearance of Islam overwhelmed the congregations in Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Antioch. While they still existed, they were much smaller and exerted little influence on the rest of Christianity. Given two powerful centers of the faith, it perhaps was inevitable that a showdown would arise involving the Pope in Rome and the Patriarch in Constantinople.

The groups of Christians led by these two figures disagreed about several matters. Probably the most important theological matter was the question of the Holy Spirit, whether he proceeds from the Father and the Son (as is taught in the western Church) or from the Father alone (as is taught in the eastern Church). A more practical matter on which the groups differed was the question of religious artwork. Byzantine emperors grew increasingly hostile toward artwork in the Church, pointing to the Ten Commandments, which include a prohibition of “graven images.” Defenders of such artwork were able to cite examples of artwork in Scripture—even in the book of Exodus, the same book which contains that prohibition of graven images, but which gives instructions for building the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant. They also indicated that artwork is helpful for teaching and for devotional life, insisting that the Biblical prohibition only forbids worshiping images. A Byzantine Emperor named Leo sent soldiers into churches to destroy images, prompting fierce opposition and large demonstrations from Christians defending the place of art in the Church. The compromise reached in the Byzantine Empire was stricter than Roman leaders liked. Ironically, eastern churches are now known for their icons representing Jesus Christ and certain saints and angels.

The two groups of Christians differed on other subjects as well, such as determining the date of Easter each year, the use of leavened or unleavened bread in Holy Communion (the Lord’s Supper), and other details about Christian life and worship. From a historical point of view, though, the biggest difference in opinion regarded the question of whether the Roman Pope is the head of all true Christians on Earth. In the year 1054, the Pope sent a messenger to Constantinople to lay a message on the altar of Hagia Sophia. This document excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople and anyone who agreed with the Patriarch in saying that the Pope is not the head of the Church on Earth. Somewhere between the two cities, the Pope’s messenger passed a messenger sent by the Patriarch excommunicating the Pope and anyone else who says that the Pope is the head of the Church on Earth. From this year until the present, every Christian on Earth has been excommunicated by one of those two documents (and some groups of Christians would be considered outside the Church according to both documents).

Christians who agreed with the Patriarch in Constantinople called themselves “orthodox.” This Greek word means “thinking correctly.” No doubt every Christian calls himself or herself orthodox; each of us believes that he or she has the correct faith. The Christians who agreed with the Pope called themselves “catholic.” This Latin word reflects the unity of the Church and also signifies that it exists everywhere. Again, every Christian would consider himself a member of the true catholic Church. While human organizations among Christians on Earth continue to use these labels, every believer in Jesus Christ in heaven and on earth is a member of the one true Church, which (by definition) is both orthodox and catholic.

Meanwhile, the Pope’s worldly authority over the city of Rome and other parts of Italy involved the Pope in battles with assorted other heads of state in Europe. Italy increasingly became a battleground for armies from the Holy Roman Empire, France, Spain, and other European powers. Finally, to escape the turmoil, Pope Clement V moved himself and his Church government to Avignon. That city today is in France, although in 1305 (when Clement became Pope) it was part of the country ruled from Naples. For seventy years, the Pope and cardinals governed the Church from Avignon. All these popes and most of the cardinals came from France, spoke French, and were politically allied with the government of France.

After Pope Gregory XI died in 1378, a group of Italian cardinals slipped back into Rome and elected Urban VI as Pope. The French cardinals, still in Avignon, proceeded to elect Clement VII. Now there were two popes, and Christians in Europe had to decide which of them was their head. Bishops and archbishops took sides; secular government took sides. Both popes died and were replaced with new popes by their respective groups of cardinals. Finally, in 1409, a church meeting in Pisa fired both popes and elected a new pope, named Alexander V. Unfortunately, neither of the other popes believed that he was fired, and now Christians had to choose from among three earthly heads.

Five years later, another church meeting was held in the city of Constance. Before electing a new pope, the leaders of the council persuaded all three current popes to resign. Two did so quickly—one even before the council began—hoping that their willingness to cooperate would buy them votes. The third held out for a while but eventually also resigned. All three were sent into retirement, and the Council of Constance elected Martin V to serve the Church as pope.

For a while, some Christians hoped that the power of popes would be reduced by these years of chaos and struggle. They hoped that Church Councils could provide leadership for Christians and could reunite Christians living on Earth. Instead, popes from this time onward insisted that only the Pope can convene church councils and that the Pope can instruct those councils how to vote and can overrule their decisions. Meanwhile, other Christian movements were brewing, movements that would produce further chaos and would provide even greater challenges to the popes in Rome. J.

Church and State in Medieval Times

An important theme in medieval European history was a struggle to define the relationship between the power of the Church and the power of human governments. The Cluny Reform represents one attempt by Church leaders to disentangle Church work and Church workers from worldly governments and their concerns. Yet, as long as Church leaders accepted gifts of land from donors, their leadership remained enmeshed in the feudal structure of Europe, which was political and sociological as well as economic.

A document called the Donation of Constantine supposedly gave the Pope, the head pastor in Rome, political control over not only the city of Rome but also many more properties in central Italy. Later research demonstrated that the Donation was not written in the time of Constantine but instead around the time of Charlemagne. Still, its existence and enforcement of its terms meant that Church leadership, beginning with the Pope, could not be separated from worldly power, not even by high-minded movements such as the Cluny Reform. The most significant form this struggle produced has come to be known as the Investiture Controversy.

“Investiture” means the giving of a job within the Church—a pastor or preacher in a local congregation, a bishop or overseer of several congregations, an archbishop overseeing a region with many congregations, or the Pope himself, who came to view himself as the overseer of all Christianity on earth, the Vicar of Christ representing his earthly authority over the Church. In feudal Europe, though, kings and emperors wanted to participate in the task of choosing Church leaders, particularly at the administrative level of bishops and archbishops. In a sinless world, Church leaders and worldly politicians would cooperate to find the best leaders for every open position in the Church hierarchy. Because both Church leaders and worldly politicians were imperfect sinners, they sometimes battled for control, each seeking appointments within the Church for his own benefit. Church leaders and worldly politicians all had relatives and friends to whom they owed favors, and the jobs of bishop and archbishop were highly-sought privileges. Church leaders wanted newly-named bishops and archbishops to be loyal to the Church; worldly politicians wanted bishops and archbishops to be loyal to the local authorities and to the people they served in their positions.

Sometimes worldly politicians would attempt to procure Church positions for men who were highly unqualified for leadership in the Church—men more interested in their own wealth and power than in service to Christ and His people, men who had not renounced sinful habits and ungodly living, men who had not even been educated in the Bible or the teachings of the Church. On the other hand, Church leaders sometimes imposed preachers and bishops upon their congregations who had no knowledge of the local customs or language, who had no interest in the part of Europe to which they were assigned, and who—on occasion—did not even bother to move to the location where they were assigned to serve, but merely told the congregation where to send the people’s offerings. Both sides in the Investiture Controversy could point to abuses made by the other side and could claim right motives for their own positions. As a result, the controversy raged for centuries.

The most famous episode of the Investiture Controversy involved a Holy Roman Emperor named Henry and a Pope named Gregory. When important Church positions opened within the borders of the Empire, Henry had men of his choice invested into those offices. Gregory objected, accused Henry of sinning against the Church and its Lord, and excommunicated Henry—indicating that Henry was no longer a Christian. Not being a Christian, Henry could not be Holy Roman Emperor, and Gregory actually chose a man to replace him. Of course Gregory had no authority to put that man in charge of the Empire, but Gregory’s proclamation led to civil war in the Empire which could only be ended by resolving the controversy. Henry visited a castle in northern Italy where Gregory was staying. According to tradition, the Emperor stood barefoot outside the castle for two days, waiting for the Pope to grant him an audience. (The actual two-day wait was probably spent mostly indoors, with occasional trips to the castle door to see if the Pope was ready yet to meet.) Eventually the leaders met and worked out a compromise that pleased them both, although it set no precedent for quarrels over Investiture at other times and in other places.

Another significant episode involved King John of England and Pope Innocent III. John is mostly known from the Robin Hood stories, although the real Robin Hood probably lived long after the time that John ruled. But John, like Emperor Henry before him, had a man of his own choice invested as Archbishop of Canterbury. Innocent demurred, preferring Stephen Langston for the office. Stephen was a talented scholar, who not only wrote profound commentaries on the Bible and penned a Pentecost hymn still sung often today, but who also is responsible for dividing the books of the Bible into chapters. Innocent not only excommunicated John; he also declared England to be under the Interdict until John capitulated and allowed Stephen to be invested. “Interdict” meant that the Church workers were out on strike. No church services. No weddings or funerals. No promise of forgiveness for sinners. The people of England panicked, and King John surrendered to the Pope; Stephen Langston became Archbishop of Canterbury.

King John was so weakened politically by this event that, not long afterward, he was forced by his nobles to sign the Magna Carta, or the Great Charter of England. Church life was free from political interference. Human rights were recognized in England. Taxes were limited and needed to be approved in advance by the nobles. While the Magna Carta was by no means the first effort to limit government in medieval Europe—Germanic customs had placed limits upon kings and emperors all along, providing a structure of government more in line with the Roman Republic than with the Empire of the Caesars—it was an important step toward the later recognition of human rights and of the need to limit government power in the lives of its citizens, including the principle of balancing power among the branches of government to provide such limits. J.

Civic planning at its finest

The main drive through town hosts a number of fast-food restaurants, as well as a variety of other shops—hair and nail salons, clothing boutiques, a car wash, a gas station, and the like. One of the places we used to visit sells hot dogs and frozen desserts, the latter consisting of frozen yogurt mixed with any desired combination of fruits, nuts, candies, and similar ingredients. We used to go there after supper once in a while to get a banana split or a chocolate concrete or a sundae, and we would sit outdoors and eat our treats and watch the traffic going up and down the road.

Three years ago some construction began right across the street from our favorite treat place. I felt a little bad about the construction because it was happening next door to a funeral parlor, or mortuary. I figured that the construction noise must be a disturbance to the families and friends gathering for visitations and visitation services at the mortuary. My dismay was relieved, though, when I saw that the new construction was designed to be one of those emergency medical clinics, the kind intended to replace hospital emergency rooms, able to offer quicker service because emergency treatment is all they do. What could be a more sensible partnership, I asked myself, than to have emergency medical treatment in one establishment and, if needed, a mortuary right next door?

The clinic opened and is getting lots of business. I have no idea how many referrals they are sending next door. But this summer, ground broke on another new building the other side of the clinic from the mortuary. I was interested, waiting to learn what would be joining the convenience line on that side of the street, and I recently found out that the newest establishment will be an orthodontist service. That makes a suitable neighbor to the medical clinic, especially since the long-standing business on the other side of the new orthodontist office is a school for the martial arts. So, if something goes wrong in martial arts class, they have an orthodontist right next door. If that isn’t enough, they have an emergency clinic next to that, and then a mortuary just beyond that. It seems like perfect city planning, the kind of row of businesses my children might have put into one of their SimCity exercises.

And what is on the other side of the mortuary, you might ask. Right next to their parking lot is a building with several offices, one of which is used by a law firm. So what could be better than to move from the martial arts school to the orthodontist, the emergency medical clinic, the mortuary, and then the law office? And, at any time in the process, one can always cross the street for a tasty hot dog and dessert! J.

Early medieval civilization

More than fifteen hundred years ago, pirates captured a British boy named Patrick from the largest of the British Isles. They sold him as a slave on the second-largest island, the island known as Ireland. Patrick was British, but not in the sense of Anglo-Saxon. The Angles and Saxons were only beginning to invade Britain at that time. Patrick was a Celtic Briton, trained in some Roman ways (including Christianity). He would become the patron saint of the Irish; he is the Saint Patrick who is dimly remembered every 17th of March with leprechauns, shamrocks, parades, and green beer.

After a few years, Patrick escaped from slavery. He ended up in France, where he joined a monastery and became active in the Christian monastic life. That life included the preservation of holy and historic texts, including the Bible and the Church fathers, but also various classic Greek and Roman writings. Patrick remembered the pagan Irish who had been his masters, and he felt a yearning to bring them the Christian Gospel. Sent as a missionary, Patrick preached the Gospel in Ireland. He also established monasteries like the one where he had lived in France. While the various Germanic tribes stirred around the mainland and the largest of the British Isles, Christianity and its literate tradition remained strong in Ireland. When Europe became more settled, Irish missionaries carried their Christian teachings and traditions back to Britain and the mainland. Like other Germanic tribes, the Franks embraced this form of Christianity, and in so doing they become the heirs of Greco-Roman civilization.

The same civilization was continuing unbroken in the Byzantine Empire. The western version of those traditions differed in small ways from the eastern version; over time, those differences would increase. Charlemagne was especially interested in preserving and spreading the literate civilization of the monasteries. His royal court included literate monks from the regions he ruled and also from beyond those regions. Even later raids from the Vikings could not extinguish the light of European civilization that had been inherited from Greece and Rome and had been perpetuated in the monastic movement, especially in Ireland.

Meanwhile, culture in western Europe had not come to a standstill. The Church was not merely preserving treasured documents from the past; it was also producing new literature, beginning with the Roman bishops Pope Leo the Great and Pope Gregory the Great. Other great writers of the early medieval time included Boethius (who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy), the writer known as Pseudo-Dionysius, John Scotus Eriugena, and the Venerable Bede. All these writers contributed to the progress of civilization that was happening in Europe during the early Middle Ages.

Many Christians joined the monasteries. Others supported the monasteries with gifts, including bequests of land. By the time Carolingian rulers were being replaced by Capetians and Ottonians (Saxon kings named Otto who were crowned as emperors), some congregations and monasteries possessed great wealth in land, serfs, and treasures. This led to divergence from the original intention of monasteries, even abuse of the Christian religion. Rather than keeping their pledges of chastity, poverty, and obedience, monks had live-in girlfriends. They ate better than the peasants and even than some of the nobility. They used their influence to control the politics of the regions where they lived. Through these abuses, they were giving Christ and his Church a bad name in Europe.

A reform movement began in the 800s and gathered steam in the 900s, reversing this trend of worldliness and deceit in the Church. Associated with the Cluny Abbey in Aquitaine—then in the country of Burgundy, but now part of France—the Cluny Reform (or Cluniac Reform) spread throughout France, Spain, Italy, and England. Monasteries following the new set of rules (which reaffirmed the goals of earlier monasticism) networked with one another and were, for a time, the largest religious influence in Europe. Several leaders of this reform movement were later elected popes. Although Protestant Christians often think of reformation as a series of events during the sixteenth century, the Cluny Reform and later reformations of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries also helped sustain the life of genuine Christianity in a world that frequently tempts Christian leaders to depart from Christ’s paths and to travel their own direction. J.

The Feudal (not futile) Era

Charlemagne’s empire crystalized an economic, social, and political system called feudalism. This system flowed from the mixture of Roman and Germanic ways of life as channeled by Christian beliefs and practices. Roman society favored a landed estate, owned by the aristocracy and worked by slaves. Christian teachings did not prohibit slavery—both Old and New Testament regulated slavery rather than forbidding it, but the New Testament also stresses the brotherhood and equality of all Christians under the Lord Christ and in His Church. Under Germanic leaders, the working class shifted from slaves to serfs. Serfs, unlike slaves, were not property to be bought and sold. They belonged to the land and could not be removed from the land; when the land changed hands, owners moved but serfs remained. The genius of feudalism was that mutual obligations and services existed at every level of society. Like a lease between renter and landlord today, the agreement between serfs and lords placed each party under obligation to the other. Serfs tended the land, produced a crop for the lords, and had other duties on the estate. Lords protected their serfs, acknowledged their rights, and saw that their basic needs were met. Abuses happened in feudalism, as was the case with slaves and masters and is the case with employers and workers today. But feudalism was right for Europe’s Middle Ages (and similar systems existed in India, China, and especially Japan around the same time).

Lords owned land and directed the serfs who lived on the land. But lords answered to higher officials—to counts and dukes and earls and other nobility. Those counts and dukes and earls answered to kings. The kings answered to an emperor. The emperor answered to God—sometimes directly and sometimes through Church officials (and that balance could be contentious at times). Each of these relationships involved promises of loyalty and protection, and the feudal bonds could be broken if promises were not kept. Many of the landowners—lords, counts, dukes, and earls—were warriors, or knights, who served their kings and their emperor. They needed wealth to be knights—to have armor and weapons and a horse, as well as means to maintain them and training to use them properly. They might train some of their serfs as infantry, but warfare relied upon the cavalry of knights, and those knights were expected to follow the rules of warfare and of society according to the code of chivalry.

Feudalism helped to maintain a stable society, but it also opened the door to a passage toward our modern economy. Not all peasants were serfs who worked the land on the lords’ estates. Some serfs on the estates, and some peasants not tied to the land, excelled in crafts that were not agricultural. Some were builders in stone or in wood. Some were smiths, working with metals. Some made clothing. Sheep were raised for their wool, so the fabric industry needed shepherds, shearers, spinners, weavers, fullers, dyers, and tailors. Likewise, cattle were raised for milk, for farm labor, for meat, and for leather. Tanners and shoemakers came from the peasantry. (Consider how many of these crafts became last names that still are used today.) Some serfs were released from their manorial duties and became free peasants. Some ran away from the estate. Some already lived in free cities. Together, they formed a class of workers who were able to unite into guilds that oversaw their crafts and protected their rights as workers.

A city might have three shoemaking shops, each owned and operated by a craftsman and his family. The three shops did not compete for customers; instead, the master shoemakers met frequently as a guild to set prices for shoes and to discuss their work. If a fourth shoemaker moved to town, he could not open a shop without joining the guild and receiving its permission to work in the city. Likewise, each master shoemaker had assistants who were learning to make shoes—perhaps his own sons, perhaps apprentices from other families. These assistants might hope to open their own shop one day, or they might hope to take the place of their master when he died; but they could do neither without permission from the guild. Every craft had its own guild. The lords, the counts and dukes and earls, the kings, even the emperor and the Church leaders could not interfere with the guilds. They made their own rules and governed their own affairs. The seeds of capitalism were already sprouting during the Middle Ages within the guilds.

Merchants had their guilds as well. They bought items in one city and sold them in another; they also purchased and sold items that had traveled the silk roads from far-away lands. Medieval merchants were also proto-capitalists as they combined forces to protect their trade and to resist interference from governments and the Church. One of the most powerful merchant guilds, the Hanseatic League, operated in northern Europe at the height of the Middle Ages. Travel between cities was both protected and financed by merchants in the various cities of the League. Even the emperor and the archbishops of the Church had no power to tell the members of the Hanseatic League what to do with their money, their purchases, and their sales.

Rudimentary banking existed in ancient empires, including Rome, but most people preferred barter and personal trade to government currency. Money from the government was used mostly to pay taxes, not as exchange between citizens. Lending institutions were problematic, because the Bible prohibits usury—lending money or items of value for repayment with interest assessed on the loan. Instead of usury, Christians were expected to care for one another, to lend to the needy without expecting (or demanding) repayment, to pay a worker timely wages and to prefer heavenly treasure over earthly wealth. One loophole used during the Middle Ages was for Christians to lend to Jews and for Jews to lend to Christians. They could charge interest on their loans, since they were not family under the same religion. Since Jews were barred from owning land in most European countries, banking was one of the few businesses open to them. (Jews have no natural gifts for banking or desire to handle money; Christian rulers essentially forced them into the banking business.) By the High Middle Ages, usury was redefined from “lending at interest” to “lending at excessive interest.” By that definition, Christians were able to finance one another’s ventures. Some families, such as the Fuggers, became very wealthy under this system. Historians who claim that modern banking was invented in Italy during the Renaissance overlook the development of capitalistic financial practices in Europe long before the Italian banks were established in the 1400s.

These times were not Dark Ages in Europe. They were times of development and improvement, times which were leading Europeans toward the modern era. Science, education, and theology were also taking strides at this same time, as I will show in a future post. J.

The so-called “Dark Ages”

Historians once labeled the medieval period of Europe’s history “the Dark Ages.” This misleading label suggested that a glorious past existed under Roman rule, but that all that was good from Rome disappeared for centuries because of barbarian invasions. The same historians designated the end of the Dark Ages the “Renaissance” or rebirth; a slightly later age they called the “Enlightenment,” as if at that time the barbarian darkness was finally dispelled. This approach overlooks the continuity of Rome’s glory in the Byzantine Empire. It also sidesteps the efforts of Germanic tribes to continue the best of Roman ways in combination with their own cultures, not only continuing Roman civilization, but improving upon it. To show the deception of these labels, one needs only to ask when the Dark Ages ended—when did Europe become civilized again? No matter how hard one strives to identify a beginning to the rebirth, the enlightenment, the glory of modern Europe, its origins and sponsors are always found within that medieval period that has been described as Dark Ages.

Of course the British Isles were only lightly touched by Rome. The Celts had come to Britain long before the Romans, displacing an earlier group, those responsible for monuments such as Stonehenge. Julius Caesar crossed the channel and asserted Roman authority over some of the Celts; the emperors who followed Caesar continued to claim that authority. Eventually, though, the Roman armies were withdrawn. Germanic tribes crossed from the mainland: Saxons and Angles and others. Arthur, King of the Britons, was among the Romanized (and Christian) Celts who tried to prevent the incursion, but eventually the newcomers and older tribes mingled to create England. Later generations saw the Vikings come. In the middle of the eleventh century, England was a prize to be claimed by one of three Viking clans. The winner, in 1066, was William the Conqueror, who came from Normandy ( a settlement of Vikings on the coast of France) to claim England from another Viking ruler, King Harold, who had repelled an invasion from Danish Vikings just before William’s victory.

During these same centuries, Iberia was settled by Gothic Germans who blended their ways with Roman civilization. They were then displaced by Muslim rulers who controlled Iberia for several generations, until Christian rulers slowly claimed the land for themselves, establishing minor kingdoms which would eventually coalesce into the modern nations of Spain and Portugal.

But most important among the nations of the early medieval period was the Franks. This Germanic tribe had been persuaded by the Romans to guard the border for Rome, allowing Roman troops to strengthen the empire’s position elsewhere. With the withdrawal of Roman power to Constantinople, the Merovingian kings of the Franks grew in power and importance. Clovis, King of the Franks, considered the teachings of two groups of Christian missionaries, accepting the Trinitarian doctrine of one group and rejecting the Arian heresy of the other; this selection was vital for the survival and growth of genuine Christianity in Europe. Over time, the Franks established control over much of the territory that the Romans had called Gaul; over those same centuries, the Merovingian king became increasingly a figurehead, as real leadership rested in his assistant, dubbed the Mayor of the Palace. One of those Mayors, Charles Martel, stopped the Muslim advance into western Europe. His son, Pepin, made a proposal to the Merovingian king, Childerec: he suggested that Childerec wanted to become a monk and leave the kingdom to Pepin. Childerec looked at the soldiers standing with Pepin and saw their weapons, realized he had no defenders standing on his side, and agreed that he had always wanted to be a monk. Pepin began the Carolingian line of kings, a line named for Pepin’s son Charles, who is known as Charlemagne, or Charles the Great.

Charles expanded the Frankish kingdom into central Europe, defeating Germanic tribes and converting the survivors to Christianity. He also battled Germanic tribes in Italy, receiving the thanks of Pope Leo III. On Christmas Day in the year 800, Pope Leo placed a crown on the head of King Charles, declaring Charlemagne to be Roman Emperor. This coronation shows that western Europeans still considered themselves to be the heirs of Rome. It also was taken by later popes to demonstrate the authority of the Church over earthly kings and emperors.

Charlemagne intended to divide his kingdom among his sons, but he outlived all but one of those sons. Louis the Pious replaced his father on the throne; when he died twenty-five years later, the Carolingian kingdom was divided among his three sons. Charles in the west and Louis in the east squeezed their brother Lothar out of his lands in the middle (although Lothar was equally eager to vanquish his brothers and claim the entire kingdom for himself). The western portion of the kingdom became France; the eastern portion, several centuries later, would become Germany.

The Carolingian line remained in control of France for 150 years, in spite of some rebellions and rival rulers. Their biggest problem was the incursion of the Vikings from the north. The Carolingian line endured in the east less than a century, but the imperial power remained under other rulers. The result in central Europe was a confederation of kingdoms, cities, and other lands, all of which acknowledged one man as Holy Roman Emperor; this political entity survived until the time of Napoleon. Meanwhile, France likewise held together as a European power through the centuries until its royal government was terminated in the French Revolution, which would go on to produce the very same Napoleon. J.