Early Middle Ages (450-1066)

It's important to remember that the Middle Ages were highly practical, and that political, social, and cultural institutions were governed not by ideology but by need. This may seem like a nonsensical statement to modern readers, especially those freighted with an understanding of the Medieval Period packed with stereotypes about superstition, the use of magic, the mistreatment of women, courtly love, etc.

Of the expedient policies practiced in Europe, the most infamous and the most practical was the institution of feudalism, in which kings or nobles and fighting men formed mutually advantageous bonds involving and exchange of land for weapons and military service. We tend to think of this as a supremely blighted practice, but in reality it was probably the best way to manage an inherently warlike region like Western and Middle Europe.

Medieval feudalism arose out of a much older practice of the Franks and the Danes. This practice, known as comitatus, was a kind of treaty between a ruler and his warriors which ensured they wouldn't turn on him and that he would act in their best interest. It was not connected to the idea of land, but rather to ideals of honor and nobility.

When it became clear, however, that the warrior class would need sustenance, and that they weren't willing (or, given the amount of attention they devoted to their military instruction, able) to engage in agricultural work, the practice of landing vassals came into vogue. Kings or nobles needed knights to keep the peace and fight other kings and nobles; the knights needed to be kept in weapons, food, and horses; and the peasants needed to be kept safe from raids and wars in order to supply those needs.

While it sounds like a circular political structure, the Medieval Europeans didn't see it that way. They saw the feudal structure rather as a "great chain of being," a ladder on which everyone and everything was arranged just so in order to fulfill its God-given destiny and role. Take away a single rung, and the entire delicately balanced system would fall.

As indeed it did once Renaissance rationalism began to pervade society and trickle down to the middle and lower classes. But that was a long process, and for hundreds of years the peasants served the landed vassals who in turn served the nobility, all of them working together in a society predicated on military dominance, combat prowess, and rigid formal structures.

Feudal knighthood contrasted sharply with the army of the Roman Empire (which fell in 410 to Germanic raiders, unofficially kicking off the Middle Ages), in which troops were levied and paid but bore no direct relationship to their general or the Emperor. In feudal society, the knight was almost a son to the noble he served, and they coexisted on a nearly equal plane; the idea that feudalism rose from the Roman military tradition is misguided, and betrays a misunderstanding of the sober nature of vassalage (the knight being the vassal, and his lord-given perks his vassalage).

We can see the beginnings of citizen involvement in government here, especially if we remember that initially in Europe and its colonies voters were required to be landed men of age. There was a lot of give-and-take in the noble-knight relationship, and the knight counted on the lord's friendship and trust as much as the noble depended on the knight's fealty.

Things weren't all roses and sunshine, however, and the romantic images of knights-errant in pursuit of honor and a lady's love are largely apocryphal, certainly later additions to an already fading tradition in the form of songs and literature. The Middle Ages were bloody, everyone was prone to disease, and Death rode with his head held high, reaping wherever he went.

Yet to assume the Middle Ages were the barbaric, benighted times many modern scholars present is equally wrong. True, religion was reduced to a mere political expedient, poverty and ignorance were widespread, and there was war at every turn. But learning was on the rise, politics were gradually bending in favor of the people, and science was ever-so-slightly edging out superstition.

Not that any of these advances or conditions were in view at the outset. At the beginning of the 5th century, and for several hundred years after, things were pretty bleak. Feudalism, for its handful of virtues, did lead to the exploitation of massive amounts of the population of Europe, and serfs were no more than slaves bound to the land to be used at their lord's or knight's good pleasure (and quite often it wasn't good at all).

It is tempting to look on such unfamiliar times as "Dark Ages," to feel our own times much advanced and to smirk at the attitudes of our distant ancestors who could be so petty and so foolish. But every age is dark, including our own, obscured by the sin that separates men from God, and the Middle Ages were not substantially darker or lighter than any other era since the beginning of time.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.

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