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Medieval Culture
Content Goals and Objectives:
Goal 6 – Medieval Society and Culture
The student will examine the various social structures and intellectual, scientific,
literature, and architectural movements of medieval Europe.
6.01 Define the feudal society of medieval Europe and evaluate its impact on cultural and
political developments of Europe.
6.03 Outline the causes and effects of the growth of towns and trade in medieval Europe.
6.04 Evaluate the causes and effects of developments of learning and education in
medieval Europe.
6.05 Summarize the developments of science and technology in medieval Europe.
6.06 Categorize the different forms of literature of medieval Europe and their influence
on the culture of Europe.
6.07 Reconstruct the developments of architecture in medieval Europe including but not
limited to Romanesque and Gothic forms.
Goal 9 – Economic Developments of the Late Middle Ages
The student will examine the various economic developments of medieval Europe.
9.01 Analyze the causes and effects of the Agricultural Revolution in Europe.
9.02 Assess the development of technology, trade, commerce and the growth of guilds in
medieval Europe.
9.03 Trace the causes and evaluate the lasting effects of the Bubonic Plagues during the
14th century on cultural and economic developments in medieval Europe.
Goal 10 – The Renaissance
The student will evaluate the causes and effects of the Renaissance and Reformation
on Europe.
10.01 Define the geopolitical setting of Italy in 1350 on the eve of the Renaissance.
10.02 Summarize the Humanistic movements of the 14th century.
10.03 Trace the cultural and intellectual developments of the Renaissance.
10.04 Assess the influence of the Renaissance as a catalyst for change in medieval
10.05 Compare the role of women in the Renaissance to previous cultural and intellectual
movements of medieval Europe.
Economic Improvements
As kings centralized their powers, Europe began to experience many improvements
economically. These improvements were, in part, due to the economic interest generated
by the Crusades in products from the East but also because of agricultural advances and a
population explosion. In the field of agriculture three advancements were made that
increased production: a heavier plow, the collar harness, and the three-field system. The
increased agricultural production led to an increased birth rate as peasants wanted more
hands to work the fields. This population explosion led to the revival of towns. While
some towns gained population and remerged on the map, others just exploded on the
scene such as Venice in Italy and Flanders in France. All of the trends in the High Middle
Ages led to even more economic growth. The development of trade fairs, guilds, banking,
and even the rise of the merchant or middle class in towns added even more fuel to the
economic fire of Europe. This economic abundance had a significant impact on the
culture of medieval Europe.
Education and Learning
With the economic boom and the rise of the middle class in towns, education became
more in demand and available. The schools moved away from monasteries to universities
which started out as guilds of teachers in a central location. By the 13th century
universities had spread throughout Europe. The most notable, at the time, were the
University of Bologna in Italy known for law, the University of Paris in France famous
for theology, and the University of Oxford in England noted for the liberal arts. The new
universities were infused with old forgotten sources of knowledge that poured in from the
Middle East during the Crusades and Spain during the Reconquista. A majority of the
ancient sources were writings of Greek philosophy, especially Aristotle (The Muslims
were less shy about preserving ancient pagan writing than the European monks!). Many
scholars tried to apply and reconcile Aristotle’s philosophy to Christian theological
questions. Two scholars led this movement referred to as scholasticism: Peter Abelard
from the University Paris who wrote Sic et Non (Yes and No), and Thomas Aquinas also
from the University of Paris who wrote the massive theological tome Summa Theologicia
or Summary of Religious Thought.
Literature also flourished during the economic boom of the High Middle Ages.
Troubadours who were traveling poet musicians sang about heroic knights and their
deeds. These developed into the literary form called Chansons de geste which were
French epic songs which celebrated the courage of the knights and the chivalric code.
Literature started to be written in the vernacular language or everyday language of the
people. The most famous of these beginning vernacular works were The Divine Comedy
by Dante Alighieri and The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.
With the Highs Come the Lows
The economic and cultural highs of the High Middle Ages were followed by some very
low moments during the Late Middle Ages. These moments shook the foundation of the
medieval culture and called many of its institutions into question.
The Hundred Years’ War
One of the events that shock the fabric of medieval culture and devastated continental
Europe was the Hundred Years’ War. This war which lasted over one hundred years from
1337 to 1453 was between the developing nations of France and England. The war began
over feudal disputes over lands in northwestern France and feudal claims that the English
had over the throne of France. For a majority of the war the English dominated the
French defeating them at the major engagements of the Battle of Crecy (1346) and of the
Battle of Agincourt (1415). It wasn’t until a simple seventeen year old peasant girl, Joan
of Arc, emerged on the political and military scene that the French began to turn it
around. Joan believed that she received messages from God to help return the French
king to the throne. By 1429, she had persuaded Charles, the heir to the French throne, to
supply her an army for this task. Joan helped to lift the siege of Orleans and oversaw the
crowning of the king of France, Charles VII, at the traditional site of Reims. Later she
was captured and executed by the English as a witch; but her impact on the war could not
be stopped. The French rallied around Charles and the memory of Joan and pushed the
English forces from France by 1453.
There were some positives that came out of the Hundred Years’ War. The French had
developed of a sense of unity (Not nationalism that is later.). Feudalism again was
adversely affected and continued to decline in its power. But in the long run, it caused
devastation and chaos for continental Europe. Trade and agriculture were hampered by
the hundred years plus of war. That, in turn, effected the growth of medieval culture.
Also England, once defeated, plunged into a civil war called the War of the Roses from
1455 to 1485 which exasperated these economic effects of the war. So the Hundred
Years’ War did not start the Late Middle Ages out on the right foot at all.
The Black Death
The Black Death, one of the most virulent episodes of bubonic plague landed in Europe
during the Late Middle Ages and its time of political and spiritual turmoil. The epidemic
carried by flea-infested rats came in the caravans that traveled the trade routes of central
Asia where it originated. Tartar armies besieging the port city of Kaffa on the Black Sea
contracted the disease which was brought to Europe when merchant ships that housed
infected rats fled Kaffa to Italian ports. The disease spread fast and by 1348, France,
England, and Spain were devastated by the plague. A year later Russia, Scandinavia, and
Germany experienced the suffering caused by the Black Death. Although the numbers
cannot be known exactly, it is estimated that before the Black Death disappeared from the
continent after 1350 over one-third of the population or approximately 25 million people
succumbed to its horrific death.
The people left after the Black Death moved on asked the question: why? To some
degree it was the economic boom of the High Middle Ages which left Europe open to
such a devastating event. Because of the economic boom and resulting population
increase, towns became too large too fast. They were overpopulated and lacked proper
sanitation. So the Black Death found a good breeding ground in the towns. The increase
of trade during the economic high times also allowed for the spread of the Black Death.
The disease followed all of the land and sea trade routes right to the overpopulated towns.
Finally it can be argued that the conflicts of Europe that came during the Late Middle
Ages left the health and constitution of the people in a weakened state. Food and energy
had been devoted to war and when the plague hit Europe the collective resources of the
food and energy were too low to combat the disease. Regardless of the debatable causes
there were two very tangible effects.
First the Church’s authority came into question. Church authority was weakened by the
controversies of the 14th and 15th centuries. Additionally, questions of involving the why
of the Black Death were not being sufficiently answered by the Church. A call for reform
in Church was heard across Europe. The first of these reformers of the Late Middle Ages
was John Wycliffe. This 14th century scholar of Oxford University criticized the wealth
and corruption of the Church as well as the pope’s claim to absolute authority. He wanted
the monarchs to step in and remove corrupt church officials from their positions of
spiritual authority. Wycliffe also believed that that Bible was the sole authority for
religious truth not the Church. In response he translated the Bible from Latin to English
so all of the English people could read it. After his death his followers, called Lollards,
continued his call for reform in the Church. The next reformer was Jan Hus, a Czech,
from the region of modern day Bohemia, Germany, who started a more violent call for
change. As a professor of the University of Prague he produced copies of the Bible and
pamphlets in the vernacular language of Czechoslovakian. For these actions in 1415 he
was burnt at the stake as a heretic. But his supporters, named Hussites, continued on
violently fighting the crusading knights of Bohemia until finally in 1436 the German
Holy Roman Emperor compromised with the Hussite leaders and their reforms.
Another tangible result of the Black Death was the start of a period of cultural
reawakening. After the Black Death moved on, survivors were, of course, sad for the
death of loved ones but also grateful to be alive. This gratitude resulted in an increase of
trade and cultural achievements in Europe which will be later called by historians, the
Renaissance (1350-1500). The movements began in the independent city-states of Italy,
most notably Florence and Venice, which benefited financially from the trade from the
Mediterranean Sea basin. With the extra cash and the attachment to classical traditions
(Roman ruins surrounded them!), scholars delved deep into Roman and Greek classics
which had lain in monastery libraries gathering dust. The older traditions of humanism
and classical culture resurfaced on the European landscape and spread through the
universities and to others able to hear its message.
Renaissance literature such as the work of Dante or Niccolo Machiavelli who wrote The
Prince, had a humanist perspective. This perspective found in Renaissance writings
focused on the daily life and true feelings of people and challenged long-accepted
traditions, assumptions, and institutions. Some historians point to this period as key to the
development of modern literature. Renaissance art was less religious in subject matter
and worldlier than the art of the Middle Ages. It also included aspects of pagan classical
mythology that medieval artists never dared depict. New artistic techniques were
developed involving perspective, anatomical correctness and human emotions. Famous
artists like Donatello, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael (They were
Renaissance artists before they were Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!) developed these
new techniques in paintings and sculptures that continue to influence art today. The Mona
Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci is one of the most recognized paintings in the world.
The Northern Renaissance
Eventually the excitement of the Renaissance could no longer be contained in Italy. It
spread to northern Europe through war, trade and the invention of the printing press by
Johannes Gutenberg. The Northern European Renaissance had a more religious tone
represented in the works of Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) who wrote the Praise of
Folly, a work very critical of the Catholic Church and Thomas More (1478-1535) an
English philosopher and writer who wrote Utopia. Also the artwork of the Northern
Renaissance retained a distinctive perspective by remaining more medieval than classical
in focus with the oil painting of Jan and Hubert van Eyek and Pieter Brueghel being the
most notable.
The End of the Road
All of this rebirth in learning and culture caused problems for the foundations of
medieval Europe, namely the monarchy and the Church. Both institutions had become
established powers by the High Middle Ages but the Later Middle Ages brought their
authority into serious question. With the Renaissance emphasis on humanism,
questioning of the authority did not stop but seriously multiplied and medieval Europe
changed into modern Europe as a result.