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The Middle Ages:
Myth and Reality
The Middle Ages: The Myth
We think of knights in
shining armor, lavish
banquets, wandering
minstrels, kings, queens,
bishops, monks, pilgrims,
and glorious pageantry.
In film and in literature,
medieval life seems
heroic, entertaining, and
The Middle Ages: The Reality
In reality, life in the
Middle Ages, a period
that extended from
approximately the 5th
century to the 15th
century in Western
Europe, could also be
harsh, uncertain, and
The Lord of the Manor
For safety and
defense, people in the
Middle Ages formed
small communities
around a central lord
or master.
The Manor
Most people lived
on a manor, which
consisted of the
castle (or manor
house), the church,
the village, and the
surrounding farm
Each manor was largely selfsufficient, growing or producing
all of the basic items needed for
food, clothing, and shelter.
To meet these needs, the manor
had buildings devoted to special
purposes, such as:
The mill for grinding grain
The bake house for making bread
The blacksmith shop for creating
metal goods.
These manors were
isolated, with
occasional visits
from peddlers,
pilgrims on their way
to the Crusades, or
soldiers from other
The Feudal System
Under the feudal
system, the king
awarded land grants or
fiefs to his most
important nobles,
barons, and bishops, in
return for their
contribution of soldiers
for the king's armies.
Nobles and Vassals
Nobles divided their
land among the lesser
nobility, who became
their vassals. Many of
these vassals became
so powerful that the
kings had difficulty
controlling them.
The Magna Carta
In 1215, the English
barons formed an
alliance that forced
King John to sign the
Magna Carta. It limited
the king's powers of
taxation and required
trials by jury. It was the
first time that an
English monarch was
subject to the law.
The Peasants
At the lowest level of
society were the
peasants, also called
serfs or villeins.
The lord offered his
peasants protection in
exchange for living and
working on his land.
Hard Work & High Taxes
Peasants worked hard to
cultivate the land and
produce the goods that
the lord and his manor
They were heavily taxed
and were required to
relinquish much of what
they harvested.
Bound by law and custom…
It is the custom in England, as with other
countries, for the nobility to have great power
over the common people, who are serfs. This
means that they are bound by law and custom
to plough the field of their masters, harvest
the corn, gather it into barns, and thresh and
winnow the grain; they must also mow and
carry home the hay, cut and collect wood, and
perform all manner of tasks of this kind.
-- Jean Froissart, 1395
Cooperation and Mutual
Fief and Peasants
 Decentralized, local
 Dependent upon the
relationship between
members of the nobility
 Lord and his vassals
administered justice
and were the highest
authority in their land
 Agriculture the basis for
 Lands divided up into
self-sufficient manors
 Peasants (serfs) worked
the land and paid rent In
exchange for protection
 Barter the usual form of
Military Aid
Military Service
Farm the
The Catholic Church
The Catholic Church was
the only church in Europe
during the Middle Ages,
and it had its own laws and
large income.
Church leaders such as
bishops and archbishops
sat on the king's council
and played leading roles in
Monasteries in the Middle
Ages were based on the
rules set down by St.
Benedict in the sixth
century. The monks
became known as
Benedictines and took
vows of poverty, chastity,
and obedience to their
Monks were required to
perform manual labor
and were forbidden to
own property, leave the
monastery, or become
entangled in the concerns
of society.
Daily tasks were often
carried out in silence.
With the advent of
trade and
commerce, feudal
life declined. As
the tradesmen
became wealthier,
they resented
having to give their
profits to their
Medieval Trade
Arrangements were made
for the townspeople to pay
a fixed annual sum to the
lord or king and gain
independence for their
town as a "borough" with
the power to govern itself.
The marketplace became
the focus of many towns.
Town Governments
As the townspeople
became "free" citizens,
powerful families,
particularly in Italy,
struggled to gain control
of the communes or
boroughs. Town councils
were formed.
Guilds were established to
gain higher wages for
their members and protect
them from competitors.
As the guilds grew rich
and powerful, they built
guildhalls and began
taking an active role in
civic affairs, setting up
courts to settle disputes
and punish wrongdoers.
The Merchant Class
The new merchant class
included artisans,
masons, armorers,
bakers, shoemakers,
ropemakers, dyers, and
other skilled workers.
Of all the craftsmen,
the masons were the
highest paid and most
respected. They were,
after all, responsible
for building the
cathedrals, hospitals,
universities, castles,
and guildhalls.
Masons learned their
craft as apprentices
to a master mason,
living at lodges for
up to seven years.
The master mason
was essentially an
architect, a general
contractor, and a
The First Companies
The population of cities
swelled for the first time
since before the Dark
Ages. With the new
merchant activity,
companies were formed.
Merchants hired
bookkeepers, scribes,
and clerks, creating new
Charlemagne: 742 to 814
Charlemagne’s Empire
Pope Crowned Charlemagne
Holy Roman Emperor: Dec. 25, 800
Charlemagne’s Empire Collapses:
Treaty of Verdun, 843
The Rise of European Monarchies:
Evolution of England’s Political System
 Henry I:
 William’s son.
 set up a court system.
 Exchequer  dept. of royal finances.
 Henry II:
 established the principle of common law
throughout the kingdom.
 grand jury.
 trial by jury.
Magna Carta, 1215
 King John I
 Runnymeade
 “Great Charter”
 monarchs were not
above the law.
 kings had to
consult a council of
 kings could not tax
The Beginnings of the British Parliament
 Great Council:
 middle class merchants, townspeople
[burgesses in Eng., bourgeoisie in Fr.,
burghers in Ger.] were added at the
end of the 13c.
 eventually called Parliament.
 by 1400, two chambers evolved:
o House of Lords  nobles & clergy.
o House of Commons  knights and
The Rise of European Monarchies:
Gothic Architectural Style
 Pointed arches.
 High, narrow
 Thinner walls.
 Flying buttresses.
 Elaborate, ornate,
airier interiors.
 Stained-glass windows.
“Flying” Buttresses
Setting Out on Crusade
Christian Crusades: East and West
1. Controversy Over Succession
The French nobility selected Philip
of Valois, a cousin of the last king
through the male line.
He founded a new French dynasty
that ruled through the 16c.
He was chosen in preference to
King Edward III of England,
whose mother was the daughter of
the late king, Philip IV.
In 1340, Edward claimed the title
“King of France.”
2. Fr. Land Belonging to Br.
A longer standing issue
was the status of lands
within France that
belonged to English
Edward was actually a
vassal of Philip’s,
holding sizable French
territories as fiefs from
the king of France [it
went back to the Norman
3. Conflict Over Flanders
The ‘dagger’ pointing
at the ‘heart’ of
Wool industry.
Flanders wants its
independence from
French control.
Asks England for help.
4. A Struggle for National Identity
France was
NOT a united
country before
the war began.
The French
king only
about half of
the country.
Military Characteristics
The War was a series of short
raids and expeditions
punctuated by a few major
battles, marked off by truces
or ineffective treaties.
The relative strengths of each
country dictated the sporadic
nature of the struggle.
French Advantages
Population of about 16,000,000.
Far richer and more populous than England.
At one point, the French fielded an army of over
50,000  at most, Britain mustered only 32,000.
British Advantages
Weapons Technologies.
In almost every engagement, the
English were outnumbered.
Britain’s most successful strategies:
/ Avoid pitched battles.
/ Engage in quick, profitable raids
 Steal what you can.
 Destroy everything else.
 Capture enemy knights to hold for ransom.
The Longbow as a Weapon
The use of the
English defensive
position was the
use of the longbow.
Its arrows had more
penetrating power
than a bolt from a
Could pierce an
inch of wood or the
armor of a knight at
200 yards!
The British Longbow:
The Battle of Poitiers, 1356
Early English Victories
The Effective Use of the Cannon at
Poitiers, 1356
French Confusion
The English captured the French king,
John II [r.1350-1364].
France was now ruled by the Estates
A representative council of townspeople
and nobles.
Created in 1355.
Purpose  to secure funds for the war.
In theory, the French king could
not levy taxes on his own!!
The Jacquerie, 1358
In the confusion and unrest following
the French disaster at Poitiers, this
rural movement began.
It was a response to the longstanding
economic and political grievances in
the countryside worsened by warfare.
The rebels were defeated by
aristocratic armies.
Trouble in England
Peasant Revolt in 1381 was put down
by King Richard II
[r. 1377-1399].
After charges of tyranny, Richard II
was forced to abdicate in 1300.
Parliament elected Henry IV
[r. 1399-1413], the first ruler from the
House of Lancaster.
Henry avoided war taxes.
He was careful not to alienate the
Therefore, a truce was signed ending
French and British hostilities [for the
time being, at least].
King Henry V (r. 1412-1422)
Renewed his family’s
claim to the French
At Agincourt in 1415,
the English, led by
Henry himself, goaded a
larger French army into
attacking a fortified
English position.
With the aid of the
dukes of Burgundy,
Henry gained control
over Normandy, Paris,
and much of northern
A Burgundian Presence
Treaty of Troyes (1420)
Charles VI’s son [the future
Charles VII], was declared
illegitimate and disinherited.
Henry V married Catherine, the
daughter of Charles VI.
 Henry was declared the
legitimate heir to the French
A final English victory seemed
assured, but both Charles VI and
Henry V died in 1422.
This left Henry’s infant son,
Henry VI [r. 1422-1461], to
inherit BOTH thrones.
Height of English Dominance
The French “Reconquest”
The two kings’ deaths
ushered in the final
stage of the 100 Years’
War [1422-1453].
Even though in 1428 the military
and political power seemed firmly
in British hands, the French
reversed the situation.
In 1429, with the aid of
the mysterious Joan of
Arc, the French king,
Charles VII, was able
to raise the English
siege of Orleans.
Joan of Arc (1412-1432)
The daughter of prosperous
peasants from an area of
Burgundy that had suffered
under the English.
Like many medieval mystics, she
reported regular visions of divine
Her “voices” told her to go to
the king and assist him in
driving out the English.
She dressed like a man and was
Charles’ most charismatic and
feared military leader!
Cannons Used at Orleons
Joan of Arc (1412-1432)
She brought inspiration and a sense of national identity
and self-confidence.
With her aid, the king was crowned at Reims [ending
the “disinheritance”].
She was captured during an attack on Paris and fell
into English hands.
Because of her “unnatural dress” and claim to divine
guidance, she was condemned and burned as a heretic
in 1432.
She instantly became a symbol of French resistance.
The End of the War
Despite Joan’s capture, the
French advance continued.
By 1450 the English had lost all
their major centers except Calais.
In 1453 the French armies
captured an English-held fortress.
This was the last battle of the war.
There was not treaty, only a
cessation of hostilities.
France Becomes Unified!
France in 1453
France in 1337