Archive for category History Facts
Previously in this series, I wrote brief biographic sketches of two men: Anselm of Canterbury and Peter Abelard. Today, I want to contrast their views of the world and theology, particularly the topic of the atonement.
Basically, the atonement is a theological shorthand for “how did Jesus’ death save people?” It is a complex issue that has been debated for centuries and there are lots of opinions on it.
Before we get into it, let’s summarize what we learned about these two men’s lives. Anselm was from landed aristocracy and was involved in a lot of political debates in both the ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ realms. Abelard was a peasant philosopher who wrote theological love letters to his beloved Eloise.
Both Anselm and Abelard opposed the popular theology of the atonement they encountered among their fellow clerics. Basically it was taught that Satan owned you and Christ bought you or ransomed you from him. Neither man found this acceptable (and neither did most of the church fathers, but it was popular nonetheless).
Anselm’s Famous Syllogism
In his essay “Cur Deus Homo?” (Why God Man?), Anselm laid out what is essentially the modern Western view of the atonement. Here are some essential statements of his syllogism:
Everyone who sins must pay to God the honor he has taken away, and this is satisfaction, which every sinner must make to God.
Nothing is less tolerable in the order of things than for a creature to take away the honor due to the Creator and not make recompense for what he takes away.
When you render to God what you owe to Him, even without having sinned, you ought not to count it as payment for a debt you owe because of sin.
it is necessary that the Heavenly City be completed from among men, and if this completion can occur only if the aforementioned satisfaction is made, and if only God can make this satisfaction and only a man ought to make it: it is necessary that a God-man make it.
Anselm goes on, but this begins us down the road. He builds his syllogism thus:
- Sin creates a debt from the creation to the Creator.
- The debt must be paid by man.
- The debt is too big for man and only God can pay it.
- Thus, only a God-man could pay it.
- Jesus alone can satisfy the debt.
Anselm’s rhetoric is sound. He rejects the idea that Satan is involved in the atonement at all. It is strictly God and man. This was a radical idea indeed.
But notice the financial nature of his argument. Sin creates a debt to God – a requirement for payment.
Abelard rejected Anselm’s financial syllogism. He argued that the God-man was not required for the Atonement. Instead, he argued that Jesus’ atonement for sin was a manifestation of the reality of love. In essence, that salvation through Jesus’ death was the definition of love. It was not a necessary act, but rather a volitional act.
Where Anselm lived in a world of fealty and ownership, Abelard lived in a world of unrealized love and devotion. He was free from the ‘worldly’ concerns that consumed Anselm, and thus did not feel it necessary to define God’s forgiveness of sin by necessity and debt but rather by feeling and love.
Thus, forgiveness of sin was not found in the satisfaction of a debt but rather in the knowing of love.
Our redemption through the suffering of Christ is that deeper love within us which not only frees us from slavery to sin but also secures for us the true liberty of the children of God, in order that we might do all things out of love rather than out of fear – love for him who has shown us such grace that no greater can be found.
Who Was Right?
I will leave the final interpretation to you. Personally, I think both Anselm and Abelard captured part of the idea of the Atonement. My interest in them is bound up in my belief that truth exists in tension – that God allows diverse experiences and thinking to mold our diverse thinking and we then frame our theological concepts. Theology is not the rule of one true over many, but many facets of one grand thought in the mind of God, sparkling and kindling passions in the hearts of man.
It is a poor testimony to the state of the church in the 12th century that Abelard was essentially hunted down by Bernard of Clairvaux because he disagreed with Anselm. His view, known as the Moral Theory today, is virtually unknown in the western church.
Anselm was a political favorite of popes; Abelard was an obscure monk teaching the masses. Anselm’s theory has become church dogma; Abelard’s is viewed as nearly (not quite) heretical. Instead of appreciating the wonderful tension of the truth, generations rejected Abelard because they HAD TO BE RIGHT.
Last week, we began this series with a biographical sketch of Anselm of Canterbury. Today, we continue the series with a sketch of the life of Peter of Abelard.
Peter of Abelard, the Peasant Philosopher
Unlike Anselm, Peter Abelard was not born into a noble family. His family were Bretons, living in the town of Le Pallet – about ten miles east of Nantes in Brittany.
Also unlike Anselm, Abelard has no contemporary records of his life. All we know about his life is found in his writings and in the writings of those who opposed him. His autobiographical Historia Calamitatum (The Story of My Downfall) is our primary source for his personal life.
Strictly speaking, the two were only barely contemporaries. Peter Abelard was born in 1079, when Anselm was already in his mid forties. Still, as we will see next week, no two thinkers better embodied the differences of the theologies which emerged from the medieval period.
Peter ‘s father was a soldier by trade, which means he was more than likely a mercenary. We know nothing about his mother.
Encouraged by his quick intellect, Peter’s father provided him with a basic liberal education, perhaps thinking that his son could become something of an officer in the roaming corps of soldiers who worked in Europe.
Instead, Peter pursued philosophy. Particularly, he excelled at dialectics and became immersed in the thinking of Aristotle. He abandoned his home and wandered France, looking for intellectual challenges. He spent some time learning from Roscellinus of Compiegne before he moved to Paris and became a student at the great cathedral school of Notre-Dame de Paris.
Lecturing in Philosophy
In Paris, Peter changed his last name to Abelard. He began his studies under William of Champeaux and very shortly was outshining his teacher. Before too long, William and Peter were debating fiercely, with William taking the prevailing view of platonic Realism while Peter began to develop his own views based on Aristotelian Nominalism (more on these terms later).
In 1115, at the age of thirty-six, Peter had bested most of the greatest minds of his age and become the chair of the school of Notre-Dame. Unfortunately, he had also begun an affair with the young daughter of one of the canons.
The object of his affection was an intelligent woman named Heloise. Abelard claims to have fallen in love with her at first sight and expended tremendous effort to be made part of her father Fulbert’s household. Once in the household, he eventually won Heloise’s affection and they were secretly married.
Heloise and Abelard had a child named Astrolabe, and for some reason Fulbert publicly revealed their relationship. When she was forced to deny their marriage, Heloise was exiled to a nunnery, and Fulbert sent a group of local troublemakers to kidnap and castrate Abelard.
With his child under the care of a family member and his body maimed such that he could never be with Heloise again, Abelard abandoned his public career and joined a monastery. Heloise became a nun and eventually an abbotess.
Abelard and Heloise maintained a correspondence until their deaths. Their letters can only be described as eroticism of the theological. They wrote theological questions and answers as passionately as any couple ever wrote about intimacy and romance.
Nominalism and Aristotle
This was possible because Abelard’s nominalism freed him from the medieval philosophy of realism. Simply put, realism holds that everything in the world has itness. For example, all trees have a form of treeness that makes them trees. There is this central idea in the mind of God that is a tree.
When the neo-Platonists of the last couple centuries of the period before Christ taught this, they applied to the entire world. Thus, what we observe in the real world is a faulty reflection of the true itness. This was picked up by the Gnostics and extended to the idea that what we observe here – the material world – is corrupt and sinful. This idea, in its essentials, was carried into the medieval period by most philosophers of the day.
Nominalism however says that these ideas of itness, these universal realities, are created in the mind of man. Trees are all trees only because we human beings recognize the similarities and name them as treeness.
By the same token, what we define as “love” is only defined as love because we choose to define it that way. Thus, deprived of the physical acts we refer to as love and intimacy, Abelard and Heloise simply defined their theological conversations as intimacy and expressed their love that way.
In this Abelard followed Aristotle’s philosophy while the rest of the thinkers around him (or at least the majority) followed the realism of Plato, as interpreted by the neo-Platonists.
Life in the Monasteries
As you can imagine, Abelard’s view of the world were enough of an irritant to the people around him. But deprived of Heloise, he seems to have turned to intentionally irritating people. In the monasteries, he would apply his encyclopedic knowledge of church doctrine to question everything.
Eventually, he was pushed out of the monastery and became a hermit. From his simple hermitage at Nogent-sur-Seine, he build a hermitage known as the Oratory of the Paraclete. Driven again into exile by his enemies, he fled to southern Brittany. And yet, he managed to install Heloise as the abbotess at the Paraclete.
During his time at the Paraclete, Abelard’s teaching (and he was something of a rockstar in his day) attracted the attention of another popular teacher – Bernard of Clairveaux. Bernard would later become the instrumental preacher of the Second Crusade, but in 1136, he became enraged over Peter’s teaching and actively opposed him. He summoned a church trial and had Peter arrested.
The fifty-seven year old Peter stood trial and argued so convincingly that he was released. But Bernard was not easily deterred. He summoned a second court and had Peter imprisoned again. This time, Peter protested to Rome. In 1141, on his way to the Holy See, he died at the prior or St. Marcel. His last words were reportedly, “I don’t know.”
His body was initially buried at St. Marcel but was later transferred to Heloise’s care at the Paraclete. When Heloise died in 1163, she was buried next to her beloved Abelard. Their bodies still rest next to one another.
Contrasting Abelard with Anselm
The differences between Abelard and Anselm should be immediately obvious if you have read these brief sketches of their lives. Anselm – landed nobility, chaste until death – had little in common with Abelard – Breton peasant turned teacher, castrated for his affair with a younger woman. There are three things to remember about Peter Abelard:
- Not a landowner, Abelard had no sense of fealty or vassalage. He was a free agent, no matter what he did.
- Abelard knew love and passion. He embraced love as the defining attribute of God.
- Abelard valued the human mind over ‘ultimate reality.’
I decided to take a little break from writing about medieval politics to focus on a couple characters who deserve our attention. One crafted a theological argument that continues to reverberate in our theological treatises today. The other was possibly the best theological and philosophical mind that Europe ever produced. The first is so well-known that there is a college in my area named after him. The other is mentioned, when he is mentioned, only in brief passing in a few medieval history books.
Today, I will focus on the first - Anselm of Canterbury. We will get a brief biographic sketch. Next week, I will present his counterpart and oft adversary – Peter of Abelard. The following week, I will show the core issues of their disagreements and the reasons that Anselm is known while Abelard is nothing more than obscure footnote.
The Life of Anselm of Canterbury
Anselm was born into a noble family in 1033. His family lived in Aosta - a region of the Kingdom of Burgundy in what is now northern Italy.
Candia and Norman Blood
His father’s family was from the House of Candia. Originally a line of Lombard nobles, they came under the Normans around the time of Anselm’s birth. This was less than a century after the Normans arrived in Europe, and they were in the process of conquering Italy and Sicily.
Led by the sons of Tancred of Hauteville, the Normans had conquered Greece, much of Italy and eventually Sicily; waged a war against the Byzantines; and served as soldiers of fortune in various other campaigns. Tancred’s fourth son, Robert d’Guisgard, was particularly influential in Italy, but he spent most of his time in the southern part of the peninsula.
The House of Savoy
While Anselm’s father had Norman ties, his mother’s family was related to the House of Savoy – a landed, Frankish noble family. The founder of the house, Humbert I, had gained control of a semi-autonomous, secluded county within the Kingdom of Burgundy centered in Aosta. Although the relationship is not clear from the record, Anselm’s mother was related to Humbert and possibly a cousin to his son and successor, Otto.
In response to the Norman conquests, Burgundy had been incorporated into the Holy Roman Empire as the Kingdom of Arles (or Arelat). Although it was autonomous, it had been ruled by the titular emperor since 993 but this shift meant a change in allegiances and fealty which doubtless would have influenced young Anselm as he was growing up.
Anselm as a Noble
I recount all of this to demonstrated that Anselm was born into the landed nobility, even if it was in a secluded area. What’s more, he was part of a family that was ruling but now under the influence of the burgeoning Holy Roman Empire. He also knew of the Normans and their own form of nobility, including the precursors of the code of chivalry.
Every man is a product of his age. Anselm was no different. His childhood years were spent in the circle of nobles who were trying to make sense of 11th century Italy and France, which is to say that he was living at the end of what is known as “The Dark Age” and the High Middle Ages.
His Career Path
At the age of fifteen, Anselm asked his father to allow him to take monastic orders. His father refused, probably because Anselm already demonstrated the acumen and skill necessary to take over the family’s holdings. But Anselm was heartbroken and fell into some kind of psychosomatic illness for years.
While Anselm was ill, his mother died. Rebelling against his father, Anselm fled to France. Somehow, he wound up in Normandy where, in 1059, he took his orders. Sometime thereafter, he became abbot of Bec.
Twenty years later, Anselm is still in Normandy, but we find him embroiled in a land dispute with the Duke of Normandy. In 1079, he was consecrated as bishop of Bec, which had not previously been a diocese.
The reason for this move is significant. The archdiocese of Rouen was vacate, and had been for quite some time. One churchman, the bishop of Évreux, wanted the seat but knew that others were angling to install Anselm at Rouen.This would have meant that Évreux would have had to swear fealty to Anselm as archbishop.
The bishop of Évreux installed Anselm as bishop of Bec, thus disallowing him from becoming archbishop. He then was able to bypass Anselm and become archbishop himself.
This kind of political move happened often in Norman France. Anselm was not oblivious to it or naive. It was simply the way things worked.
Archbishop of Canterbury
As most people who had Western Civ during high school know, in 1066 the armies of William the Conqueror landed in England and made William the King of England. William set about putting England in order, but in 1070 he had the current archbishop of Canterbury, Stigand.
William then summoned a Lombard-Norman bishop, Lanfranc, from Normandy to take over as archbishop. It took a couple of years for Lanfranc to stabilize his hold on the English church, but by 1073, he was firmly ensconced.
Five years later (1078), William died and Lanfranc was instrumental in having William’s son, William Rufus, crowned as William II. In 1089, Lanfranc contracted a fever and died.
William II was in a difficult position. Lanfranc had done much to consolidate the Norman control of the English church. William needed to appoint a Norman successor who would continue to move this agenda forward.
In 1093, William II the Norman king of England needed to replace Lanfranc. He looked around for a supporter of the Norman cause who was not necessarily a Norman. He also needed someone who was qualified for an archbishop’s mitre. He found his man in Anselm.
Anselm, however, was no man’s fool. What’s more, he had been cheated out of the archdiocese of Rouen. Pope Gregory VII had made sweeping reforms to European catholicism after becoming pope in 1073, and Anselm had embraced these reforms at Bec. So, Anselm made hefty demands of William before he would take the archdiocese of Canterbury.
He boldly demanded that William recognize the authority of Pope Urban II (there was a papal schism at the time). He required William to return any lands he or his father had seized from the see of Canterbury. And perhaps most bold of his demands, Anselm demanded that William would acceptance Anselm’s spiritual advise at a level that almost amounted to an Old Testament prophet.
William and Anselm compromised, with William only returning the lands and taking the other demands under advisement. On December 4, 1093, Anselm swore fealty to William and was enthroned. Almost immediately, the two began to tussle.
English Kings and Papal Authority
Anselm was a papist, and he wanted to unite the English church more closely with Rome. What’s more, he supported the Gregorian reforms which included a ban on secular investiture (kings appointing priests and bishops) and clerical marriage. Anselm was himself a celibate monk with an absolute devotion to Rome.
Under Landfranc, the English clergy had been encouraged in their independence. They had no desire to come under papal authority. In 1095, they called for William to depose Anselm; but the Anglo-Norman nobles sided with Anselm, so William did not.
Anselm continued to call for reform. He demanded that William allow him to go to Rome to seek papal confirmation of his see and to ask the pope to resolve the conflicts. William flatly told Anselm that if he left, it would be to exile. Anselm left anyway.
Archbishop in Exile
As soon as Anselm left, William seized the see’s property. Anselm wound up in Lyon, in France. He then traveled to Rome where Pope Urban II affirmed the Gregorian reforms, including a ban on secular investiture – denying king’s the right to appoint bishops. Although Urban confirmed Anselm’s enthronement, he chose to stay out of the dispute.
In 1100, William II died and his successor Henry I invited Anselm back to England. Henry was unwilling to return the see’s land, and found himself at odds with Anselm as his brother had been. Their argument was taken again to the Pope, and Urban’s successor Paschal II confirmed Anselm’s place while still denying secular investiture.
Henry refused to accept Paschal’s ruling and continued to ordain bishops in England. Furious, Anselm then went into exile again over the dispute. At one point, he threatened to excommunicate Henry I over the issue. Finally, in 1106, Paschal mediated a compromise.
Anselm refused to return, staying this time at his former abbey in Bec. It was not until Henry journeyed to Bec and met Anselm personally that the two signed the Concordat of London and Anselm returned. He spent his final two years working with Henry to consolidate the Church of England and bring the churches more and more under the pope’s authority. He died in 1109.
This is the world of Anselm’s Theology
This should clue us in as to the nature of Anselm’s world. Medieval Europe, Normandy and England especially, was a place where vassalage and land rights were a big deal. The abbots of monasteries were often vassals of secular lords.
Land and vassalage were more than economic niceties. They were cultural sin quo non. You simply could not have had any kind of society or culture without them. The European feudal system had been developed in the wake of the fall of central government in Italy and had become so integrated into their thinking that medieval people could not think outside of it. (That’s not to say they didn’t try.)
Thus, whenever we read Anselm, we have to remember that this is his world. Particularly, there are three points I want the readers to note:
- Anselm was born into landed nobility.
- Anselm had no romantic or intimate involvement with women that we know of.
- Anselm worked toward a church unified under Rome’s primacy.
These three factors will come into play in a BIG WAY when we discuss Anselm’s theology in a later post.
It might surprise you to discover that “Robin Hood” is not a name at all. In the 13th-16th centuries, it was relatively common for the authorities to refer to any itinerant criminal as a Robinhood or Robehood. The name might be tied to either the word rob (as in stealing) or robe (as in a cloak). The word hood actually derives from the same German origin as the word hat.
The earliest appearance of the term is around 1250, and the first written sources date from around 1380 in Piers Plowman. There was plenty of time for the term to be associated with an individual, but it could just as easily have been an amplification of the term. During that time period, there was a lot of brigandage in Europe and Britain. Outlaws roamed the hills and forests – usually mercenaries who were currently unemployed and needed to make ends meet.
Then, the English longbow was developed during the early 1300′s. These weapons had a 200-lb pull, which required enormous strength and lifelong practice and training. Studies of the skeletons of archers actually revealed bone spurs caused by their overdeveloped musculature.
The English longbow had a range greater than two football fields (over 200 yards) and could send an arrow through most plate armor. Only the finest quality armor was effective at stopping them, but even then the kinetic energy of an arrow fired from a longbow was sometimes sufficient to unhorse an knight. The arrows easily pierced leather jerkins and chainmail.
That the longbow could kill both peasants and knights alike allowed the English King Edward III to win resounding victories at the Battles of Crecy and Poitiers. The longbowman was considered an unchivalrous but effective weapon.
Unfortunately, someone who wielded a longbow had to commit his life to his art. That meant that when there was not a war to fight, he often became a brigand. This probably gave birth to the myths of Robin Hood and his ‘merry men.’ (By the way, the term merry did not mean laughing and jocular as it means today. It actually meant ‘companions of an outlaw’.)
More than likely, Robin Hood was a composite image of the yeomen (archers) who roamed the English countryside during the long periods of peace in the Hundred Years’ War. It is very unlikely that he actually existed, and the image that history gives us is somewhat less appealing than the ‘noble outlaw’ of later stories.
The Hundred Years’ War was actually a series of conflicts between the Plantagenet kings of England and the Valois kings of France. On the surface, the war was over the succession to the throne of France.
In 1314, Philip IV of France died. He was the last of the Capetian kings and left three potential heirs: Louis X, Philip V, and Charles IV. He also had an illegitimate daughter, Isabella, who had been married to the English king Edward II of England and had given birth to a son in 1312, Edward of Windsor.
When Louis X died in 1316 without issue, and then his brother Philip V died in 1322, Charles IV inherited the throne of England. When he died in 1328 without a male heir, the issue of succession became hotly contested. Edward of Windsor, now King Edward III of England, believed that as the closest male relation to Philip IV (his grandfather), he was the rightful heir to the French throne.
The French nobles argued that the Salic Law required the passage of the throne through a male child, thus since Edward was related to Philip IV through his mother, he was ineligible. They crowned another descendant of Philip III, Philip of Valois, as king of France.
Philip of Valois was the son of Philip IV’s brother Charles of Valois, so he was Edward’s great uncle. The English protested but did not take any martial actions.
Then, in 1333, Edward III made war on Scotland, and Philip of Valois, now Philip VI of France, moved to take the last English footholds in France, coastal Gascony. Edward continued to deal with Scotland through a general and rushed to defend his holdings in France.
This first part of the war is called “The War of Breton Succession” and lasted from 1337 until 1360. It was marked with the end of ‘chivalrous war’ with the Battle of Crécy in 1347 when English longbowmen decimated the French nobility. Later, in 1356, Edward’s son, known as “The Black Prince” invaded France and even captured the French king, John II at the Battle of Poitiers in 1358.
John was held for ransom, but the French could not raise the money so he remained in English hands until the French traded Acquitaine for him. Then, the Dauphin, John’s soon-to-be-successor Charles V, successfully held off the English advances until finally the two sides signed the Treaty of Brétigny in 1360.
The peace lasted until 1369, when the now King of France, Charles V, recognized the potential for victory and renewed the conflict. With the Black Prince busy in Iberia, and Edward III aging and close to death, Charles attacked anew. The French won resounding victories and the English finally sued for peace in 1389.
This peace lasted until 1415 when the reign of the mad king Charles VI resulted in a French civil war between his brother John the Fearless and his cousin Louis of Orléans. The English then invaded France to solve the rivalry, and were largely successful in their campaigns until the French gained help from an unlikely source.
Joan of Arc, a peasant girl, claimed to have received messages from God. For some reason, the Dauphin (Charles VII) listened to her and broke a siege in Orléans. After that, the French fought steadily forward until expelling the English from France in 1453 and declaring all Plantagenet claims to French land or the French crown void.
Not ironically, 1453 was the same year that Constantinople fell to the Turks – largely because all of Western Europe was consumed and tied into the Hundred Years’ War. But that’s a matter for another time.
In coming weeks, we will start talking about the Hundred Years’ War, possibly the most important war of the Middle Ages especially for the nations of England and France. But before we do, I want to offer a couple vignettes of two women you’ve probably never heard of.
The Empress Matilda
The first is the Emperess Matilda. She was the daughter of Henry I, the last legitimate Norman king of England, and his queen consort, Matilda of Scotland. The story of their marriage is another post all its own, but Matilda was born in 1102 shortly after their wedding.
Matilda was born t0 wed, and was betrothed to Henry V, the Holy Roman Emperor, when she was only a child. They were married in 1114, when she was twelve years old.
During her time as Emperess, she showed herself to be a strong, self-possessed woman and when Henry V died just short of the age of forty in 1125, she found herself as one of the more available widows of Europe. Lothair III, an unrelated German noble, succeeded Henry as German king and Matilda found herself back at her father’s court in England.
Henry named her as his heir after her brother William died in 1120, and then arranged a marriage between Matilda and one of his enemies in France, Geoffrey Plantagenet, in 1127. Geoffrey thus received Matilda’s inheritance as her consort and became the successor to the Duchy of Normandy.
Geoffrey was already one of the most powerful men in France. He was already the titular Count of Maine, and when his father, Fulk of Anjou, abdicated his seat as Count of Anjou so he could journey to Jerusalem in 1127 and succeed his friend Baldwin II as King of Jerusalem, Geoffrey added Anjou to his growing list of lands.
Geoffrey and Matilda had something of a stormy marriage, but they still managed to have three children. The oldest son, Henry Curtmantle, was born in 1133 and grew up in Anjou with his father, then spent some time in England from age 9 until 11 before returning to France to serve with his father in Normandy.
In 1135, Henry I died. Stephen of Blois, a grandson of William the Conqueror through his daughter Adela, rushed to England and claimed the throne since Matilda was a woman and thus, in his mind not eligible to rule England. He may or may not have been aware of Matilda’s son Henry who was at the time less than two years old.
Matilda protested Stephen’s ascension, since her son Henry was the next legitimate heir. She and Geoffrey quickly acted against Stephen, marching on his lands in France and beginning a twenty year civil war known as “The Anarchy.” In 1141, her armies actually captured Stephen and she reigned for England, but her victory was short-lived and the people turned on her. Stephen then was returned and continue the war.
In 1148, Geoffrey conquered Normandy and handed it over to his son, Henry. Aged and worn, Geoffrey returned to Anjou.
“The Anarchy” reached a crescendo. In 1151, Geoffrey died. Then, in 1153, Stephen’s son and heir Eustace died.
Stephen and Matilda both realized that something had to give. In 1153, they met and signed the Treaty of Wallingford, which named named Matilda’s son, Henry Curtmantle, as Stephen’s successor.
When Stephen died, Henry would be not only King of England but also the Duke of Normandy, the Count of Anjou, a title he received from his father when he had died in 1151, the Count of Maine, and the Count of Touraine. Together, Normandy, Anjou, Maine and Touraine constituted a large portion of French territory. Nominally, Henry was a vassal to the French king, Louis VII and while he controlled a large portion of France, he was not really powerful enough to threaten the King – that is until another women entered his life – Eleanor of Acquitaine.
Eleanor of Acquitaine
Eleanor was the daughter of William X of Acquitaine. She inherited suo jure both the Duchy of Acquitaine and the County of Poitiers when she was still only 15 years old. The King of France at the time, Louis VI, arranged her marriage to his son, Louis VII, but the match was not a good one.
After his ascension, Louis and Eleanor went on the Second Crusade together. But Eleanor tired of the Crusade and demanded to be returned to France. She and Louis engaged in a terrible, running spat – in which she insulted him publicly and he actually had her imprisoned.
Returning to France, they were divorced and only two months later, Eleanor married Henry Curtmantle. Then, Henry’s mother negotiated the Treaty of Winchester with Stephen of England, and when Stephen died, Henry ascended the throne of England.
So, not only was Henry the Duke of Normandy, Count of Maine, Count of Touraine and the Count of Anjou; but thanks to Eleanor, he was also now Duke of Acquitaine and Count of Poitiers. He installed his brother William as Count of Nantes in 1156 and by 1160, Henry had reduced Brittany to a satellite of English rule.
This made him easily the strongest and most powerful man in France. Understandably, Louis was terrified. One of his vassals was not far more powerful than he was and what’s more was King of England.
(All of these names of Duchies and Counties can be confusing. Put simply, Henry controlled almost all of western France either directly or indirectly.)
After seeing Henry crowned, Matilda retired to Normandy where she acted as Henry’s representative ruler in his absence. She spent most of her time dealing with the difficult relationship between Henry and his brother Geoffrey, who had actually tried to kidnap and marry Eleanor back in 1152 and gain power for himself. Henry finally appeasd Geoffrey by having the people of Nantes accept him as their Count. This ironically turned Geoffrey from an enemy (he actually sided with Louis in most conflicts until this point) into a nominal, or at least neutral, ally.
The Empress Matilda died in 1167 with her son Henry reigning as King of England and master of most of France. Her other sons, Geoffrey and William, were nobles under Henry’s influence with Geoffrey as Count of Nantes and William was eventually installed as Count of Poitiers.
Eleanor outlived Henry, spending the last couple decades of Henry’s life in prison for trying to overthrow him. She must have been a difficult woman to get along with, since Henry was the second of her husbands to have to incarcerate her for insurrection and insubordination.
After Henry died, their son, Richard I (The Lionheart) freed her. She outlived Richard, finally dying during the reign of his brother John. John terribly mismanaged the French territories his mother and grandmother had worked so hard to gain.
When Matilda died in 1204, John was already backpedaling as a feudal lord in France. It was John’s blunderings that ultimately led to the French taking over almost all of the regions of France consolidated by Henry II. In less than a generation, all but parts of coastal Normandy had been lost to Luis VII and his son Louis VIII. At one point, the barons of England even declared Louis VIII as the King of England!
Almost single-handedly, Matilda and Eleanor managed to set up the transition of power in western Europe from France to England. Matilda strengthened England while Eleanor alternately strengthened and weakened England. They contributed to the identity of the English monarchy, and setup the rivalry of the crowns of England and France.
A century later, England and France would enter what is known as “The Hundred Years’ War” – a series of conflicts over the territories originally held by Henry II, thanks to Matilda and Eleanor. But that’s a topic for another day.
His name was Guillaume, and he was destined for greatness. He was a strong, healthy child who became a robust, powerful man. He came from a line of ever more powerful Norman nobles and established a line of even greater nobles who would be engaged in almost never-ending warfare during the Middle Ages. Today, we call him “William the Conqueror” because in 1066, he led an army across the English Channel and after the Battle of Hastings became the king of England.
Where did he come from?
Norman is a portmanteau of North and Man. It denoted the origins of the Normans as Viking raiders in the 9th and 10th centuries. One of their leaders,Hrólfr, became a vassal to the Frankish (French) king Charles III and took the Christian name of Robert. Robert became the count of Normandy. (His descendants later took the title dux or duke.)
William the Conqueror was a direct descendant of Robert. He was also the great nephew of Emma, who had been the queen consort to two kings of England (Æthelred and Cnut the Dane) and the mother of two more (Harthacnut and Edward the Confessor). When Edward the Confessor died, he left no sons. He had named his nephew Edgar as his successor, but the nobility refused to accept him. There were at least three claimants to the throne, but Harold Godwinson claimed that Edward had named him to the throne.
William, who was Edwards first cousin, once removed, was a powerful, young duke in Normandy. He was already ruling Normandy when Edward returned to England in 1041-1042. When Edward died, William claimed that while still in exile, Edward, had named him as his successor. The power vacuum in England was such that William had quite a few supporters there.
After Harold Godwinson was killed at the Battle of Hastings, William became the ruler of England, establishing the House of Normandy which ruled for less than a century before being supplanted by the House of Plantagenet, which was far more French (from the ruling nobles of Anjou) than the Normans were.
What is interesting is that the English, who were themselves descended from Angle stock, had thrown off the rule of the Danes in 1042 only to now accept the rule of a Norman in 1066. (Although their acceptance wasn’t exactly voluntarily.) All three could be considered ‘Northern’ tribes, and they all spoke remarkably similar versions of High German. This three-fold presence of northern ruling classes created a very distinctly Germanic cultural layer (although the Normans themselves spoke an early form of French) that would eventually surface as the primary distinction between the English and the French, and would ultimately lead to the greatest conflict of medieval Europe – the Hundred Years’ War.
In the Middle Ages, there was virtually no literacy in Europe except within the Church societies. Really, this was not much of a significant change from the ancient world since most people in the ancient world had little use for written materials. Anything of value for your occupation was transmitted orally from master to apprentice. There was simply no need for it outside of the Church.
Many of the European languages such as Frankish, Celtic and the Scandinavian languages had no written form anyway and were more conglomerations of various local dialects than they were broadly spoken languages.
On top of that, most of the Mediterranean world spoke either Latin or Greek in the Roman period, and as Roman power retreated from Europe, the existing peoples – mostly Celtics or Germans – adopted Latin to their purposes. As a result, they developed a number of Romance languages – languages based on Latin.
These languages which were referred to as vernacular or “household”, took on characteristics of their own during the medieval period but were not used as written languages until after the year 1000 as these new national identities began to take hold and form their own corpora of literature. During the next few hundred years, reading and writing in one’s own language became more and more part of your identity as part of a nation, and that in turn standardized the vernaculars into more formal languages.
The fall of Constantinople (1453) and invention of the moveable type printing press (1436) sounded the end of the medieval ages and the illiteracy that accompanied it.
It is commonly believed that the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) held supreme authority over the Church during the Middle Ages and that his power was broken only by the Protestant Reformation.
In fact, the papacy fluctuated in power quite a bit during the Middle Ages and the office was not acknowledged as supreme until after the Protestant Reformation.
The Bishop of Rome was the only Western patriarchate in the Roman Empire and when the Western half of the Empire disintegrated in the 5th century CE, it was relegated to something of a frontier status. After the fall, the other three patriarchs actually elevated the bishop of Constantinople to patriarchate status precisely because Rome was no longer part of the Empire and the power had shifted east. Of course, the bishop of Rome protested this move and never acknowledged it. The legates literally packed up their toys and went home.
Rome became prominent as a secular power long before it was a powerful religious force in Europe. The original interactions with Pepin the Short and Charlemagne – the Carolingian kings of the Franks – came about because the bishop of Rome held lands in Italy that were threatened by the Lombards. Both kings helped Rome out in return for favors – culminating in the pope crowning Charlemagne as “Emperor of the Romans” in 800 CE.
But the relationship between Rome and the rest of Europe was not necessarily a peaceful one. During the 11th century CE, there was a conflict between Rome and the Germans known as the “Investiture Controversy” during which the German emperors simply appointed competing popes and refused to acknowledge the pope. Then came the Avignon Papacy (1309-1378), during which the popes were all French and ruled from a French resort town. And there was the Papal Schism (1379-1417) when there were sometimes as many as three popes all claiming apostolic authority.
It was only in the early 15th century that the pope consolidated his power and relocated to Rome. In 1450, Nicholas V declared a Jubilee in Rome. Throughout the year, pilgrims flocked to the city to gain indulgences and to fill the coffers of the churches there.
After Nicholas V, there was a rapid succession of powerful popes drawn from the most influential families of Italy who used their power and money to leverage themselves over most of Europe. It was this corrupt papacy, filled with Medicis and Borgias, that Martin Luther rebelled against – a papacy which really had only held prominence for less than a century.
There’s a lot more stuff that occurred during the Middle Ages, but hopefully this illustrates the true nature of the papacy during the Middle Ages. I haven’t even touched on the views of the Patriarchs in the east who represented the vast majority of Christians until the coming of the Muslims in the 7th century CE.
It might surprise you to know that the supposed ‘Dark Ages’ between the fall of Rome (476 CE) and the Renaissance (c. 1500) were not all that dark.
The term “Dark Ages” was first used by the Italian poet Petrarch to describe the poor quality of medieval Latin literature. In that point, Petrarch was correct. Latin evolved extensively during the Middle Ages, becoming the Romance languages such as French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian. But written Latin remained stagnant and somewhat anachronistic. As a result, the Latin literature of this period was not vibrant and moving as the Classic Latin literature had been because it was no longer the language of the people writing it. They spoke a very different form of Latin – the proto-Romance languages – so it is not surprising that literature failed miserably.
It was not until the Renaissance that literature in Latin’s child languages really flourished. Latin took centuries to be displaced in academic circles, even after French had become essentially ‘the’ language of Western Europe during the Middle Ages.
The Middle Ages did not produce much in the way of great literature, but they were not scientifically void. Between the years 1000 and 1300, the population of continental Europe tripled due to the technological and agricultural advances of that period. Among them were the development of the iron plow, the horse collar and the chimney. Additionally, the Basques of the Middle Ages made significant advances in sailing technology which, when finally provided to the other Europeans, gave birth to the age of exploration.
People often think of the Middle Ages as a violent, barbaric period but in fact, it was no less barbaric than the Modern Age that followed it. Considering the fact that the Romans (those great civilizers) routinely threw people to the floor of the coliseums to be torn apart by wild animals and that the modern age has seen battles where more soldiers died in a single day than in the entire Hundred Years’ War, one has to wonder whose definition of violent and barbaric we should use.
In short, the Middle Ages might have been a bit dirtier and slightly less hygienic than our modern world. They might not have been the most literate period in Europe (less than 5% of the population could read), but they were not really all that dark. We see them that way because we’ve always been told it was that way; but in reality, the Middle Ages were the time when our modern world was born. The modern nations of France, England, Germany and Spain were born from the events of the Middle Ages. Their languages were forged during this period. In short, we should be calling them the ‘Birthing Ages’ rather than the Dark Ages.