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The postclassical period in western Europe, known as the Middle Ages, stretches between the fall of the Roman Empire and the fifteenth century. Typical postclassical themes prevailed. Civilization spread gradually beyond the Mediterranean zone. Christian missionaries converted Europeans from polytheistic faiths. Medieval Europe participated in the emerging international community. New tools andcrops expanded agricultural output; advanced technologies improved manufacturing. Mathematics, science, and philosophy were stimulated by new concepts.
Two Images. Although western European society was not as commercially or culturally developed as the great world civilizations, it had its own distinctive characteristics. Western political structures had many similarities with those of the othermore recent civilizations of Japan, Russia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Europeans long lived under threat of incursions from the stronger Islamic world. There were many indications of a developing, vital society: population growth, economic productivity, increased political complexity, technological innovation, and artistic and intellectual complexity. Major contributions to the development of Westerncivilization occurred in politics and social structure; in intellectual life medieval striving produced the university and Gothic architectural forms.
Stages of Postclassical Development. From the middle of the sixth century C.E. until about 900, disorder prevailed in western Europe. Rome's fall left Italy in economic, political, and intellectual decline. The Catholic Church remained strong.Muslim-controlled Spain maintained a vibrant intellectual and economic life but only later influenced European development. The center of the postclassical West was in France, the Low Countries, and southern and western Germany. England later joined the core. Continual raids by Scandinavian Vikings hindered political and economic development. Intellectual activity sharply diminished; most literateindividuals were Catholic monks and priests.
The Manorial System: Obligations and Allegiances. Until the tenth century, most political organization was local. Manorialism was a system of reciprocal economic and political obligations between landlords and peasants. Most individuals were serfs living on self-sufficient agricultural estates (manors). In return for protection, they gave lords part oftheir crops and provided labor services. Inferior technology limited agricultural output until the ninth century introduction of the moldboard plow and the three-field cultivation system increased yields. Serfs bore many burdens, but they were not slaves. They had heritable ownership of houses and land as long as they met obligations. Peasant villages provided community life and limitedself-government.
The Church: Political and Spiritual Power. The Catholic Church in the first centuries after 500 was the single example of firm organization. The popes headed a hierarchy based on the Roman imperial model; they appointed some bishops, regulated doctrine, and sponsored missionary activity. The conversion of Germanic kings, such as Clovis of the Franks, around 496, demonstrated the spiritualand political power of the church. It also developed the monastic movement. In Italy, Benedict of Nursia created the most important set of monastic rules in the sixth century. Monasteries had both spiritual and secular functions. They promoted Christian unity, served as examples of holy life, improved cultivation techniques, stressed productive work, and preserved the heritage of Greco-Romanculture.
Charlemagne and His Successors. The Carolingian dynasty of the Franks ruling in France, Belgium, and Germany grew stronger during the eighth century. Charles Martel defeated Muslim invaders at Tours in 732. Charlemagne built a substantial empire by 800. He helped to restore church-based education and revived traditions of Roman imperial government. The empire did not survive Charlemagne's...
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