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Tradition was also the major basis of the medieval social system. The various social groups or classes were deeply embedded in European traditions. The warrior class - the nobles - and the religious leaders - the bishops and abbots - had been the dominating classes since the fall of Rome. They gained stature because they were needed to protect Europeans from attack and to conduct worship. They maintained their place because they controlled the political and economic systems. As a result they were given the greatest privileges in the society: they did not have to do menial labor, they were given most of the fruits of the land, and they were allowed great freedom. But at the same time they bore a heavy responsiblity. The warriors had to risk their lives to protect European society from marauding Norsemen and religiously inspired. Moslems. The clergy had to see that God's will was done on earth and see that the members of their flock were admitted to the Kingdom of God.

The less privileged, the serfs, also bore a heavy burden. They had to see that the society stayed fed and clothed. Though they lacked many privileges, they were given certain rights, For example, they were protected by feudal law and the church from arbitrary action on the part of their lord. Though the serf was bound to the soil and could not lcave it, the lord could not take his land away without going through prescribed legal channels.

On the whole the society of medieval Europe was close to the traditional end of the spectrum. Its political system, its economy, and its social structure were based primarily upon the ways of the past. Yet this traditional way of life gave way to our modern innovative society. In their early history the non-western cultures of Asia and Africa had also been highly innovative, but like Europe, they slipped into traditionalism. But while Europe awakened during the late Middle Ages, the non-western world still clung to their hardened "cake of custom." Only in the twentieth century have the cultures of Asia and Africa begun to make giant strides toward the innovative end of the spectrum.

The traditional culture of the Middle Ages contained within it the seeds of our modern innovative society. Tradition, entrenched though it was, existed side by side with the creative genius from which our modern world has sprung

What caused Europe to become the first innovative society of modern times? Why was it not China or India or Egypt, each with its own proud heritage, that made the first halting step toward change?

The answers to these questions are not easy to determine, but a tentative explanation can be constructed from the evidence available. The evidence suggests that seeds of innovation did exist within the traditional society of medieval Europe. Change is brought about in two ways. An invention from within a society can produce far reaching innovation, or an idea or an implement diffused from another culture can trigger changes. In the medieval world, changes came as a result of both stimuli. Medieval man both invented new ideas and techniques, and learned them from other cultures.

Within the political system a chance for innovation emerged out of competition for positions of leadership. Three major groups competed for political power throughout the Middle Ages: the kings, the nobles, and the churchmen. Each of these groups had different objectives. The kings wished to unify national states, obtain armies under their own control, and increase their revenues and their power. The nobles were anxious in most cases to reduce the power of their monarchs and to gain more control of the political system, The churchmen, and particularly the Pope, anxious to meet the spiritual needs of Christians, found themselves so embroiled in politics that they often sought political power in secular as well as in religious affairs. In the later Middle Ages, merchants and petty manufacturers entered the competition for political power. The contest between these four groups of leaders provided many opportunities for new ideas and new institutions to emerge.

In France, the King emerged triumphant over both the nobles and the Church. Under attack from English kings, the French monarchs unified their realms and broke the power of their nobles. For a time, the French king also won control of the Pope. On the whole, he managed throughout the period to prevent the Pope from winning a key role in secular affairs in France. In England, the king emerged as monarch of a unified realm, but the power of the nobles, represented in Parliament, was never broken and was soon shared with commoners. These groups, who controlled funds the King needed for his various enterprises, pressed for changes in all areas of British society. The church played a more important role in the affairs of both the Germanies and the Italian states. Here too, however, the competition for political power opened the way to innovation.

The separation of secular and religious authority in western Europe removed many of the religious prohibitions which limited change in other cultures. When political leaders make religious considerations paramount in their decision making, they are unlikely to decide matters on the basis of how best to meet changing world conditions. They are much more likely to make decisions which will preserve the doctrines of the faith, regardless of whether or not the decision meets a practical earthly need. Since the Pope did not make most of the secular decisions and since the effective rulers would more readily consider the specific earthly needs of the moment, the chance for innovation was present.

The opportunity for change became more pronounced in the late Middle Ages. When the invasions of the Moslems, Magyars, and Norsemen came to a halt, peasants, priests, and nobles no longer needed to withdraw into feudal castles. Since medieval monarchs no longer needed their kingdoms, they had an opportunity to change the basis of their power. Medieval kings began to outfit commoners with long bows and thereby developed an army that was dependent solely upon them. The army made up of ordinary citizens was far more reliable than an army of strong nobles who were independent of the king. This development paved the way for the emergence of the unified national state, the characteristic political institution of the modern western world.

The economic system of the Middle Ages, rooted as it was in tradition, also contained the first sprouts of innovation. Beleagured as Europe was with repeated invasion and constant warfare, the thriving trade of the old Roman Empire never ceased completely. Historians and archeologists have uncovered evidence that papyrus and spices from the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea found their way into western Europe. Furthermore, technological innovations that had been made in the steppes of central Asia were diffused to the West. Medieval Europeans, trading with the Asian tribes of the steppes, learned of an improved plough which more easily broke the sod, the horse collar which allowed horses to do the work that oxen once had done, the harness which made it possible for two horses to work side by side, and the horse shoe which kept the horses fit for labor.

And medieval Europeans contributed their own inventions. In the area of mechanics, westerners developed the crank. Neither the Romans nor the Greeks had known of this device. The crank is essential for changing reciprocal motion (that is, motion going back and forth in a straight line) into rotary motion. The importance of this invention can be seen in the modern automobile. The source of power, the piston, moves by reciprocal motion, back and forth. But the wheels of the automobile move in rotary motion. The crank harnesses the reciprocal motion of the piston to the rotary motion of the wheels. Medieval men also developed new techniques of building. The Gothic cathedral, which was the hallmark of the age, could not have been built without the creation of the pointed arch and the flying buttress.

At least as important as new technology to change in the Middle Ages was the emergence of a new economic institution, the market. Spurred by increasing trade, the growth of towns, the effect of the Crusades, and the growth of unified national states which dissolved barriers to trade, more and more economic transactions came to be governed by the law of supply and demand. This development helped to dissolve the traditional bonds which had held the medieval economic system together. Men began to pay their dues in money rather than in kind. Serfs escaped to the city and became free men after they had lived there a year. Ownership of land lost its place as the sole measure of wealth. As a result, social mobility increased. The market economy may be one of the most fruitful inventions in the history of mankind. Its roots extend well back into the Middle Ages.

Though the medieval social structure was highly stratified with a place for everyone, it was possible for a man to change his social status. Most medieval men were born in a social class and remained in it throughout their lives. But some men escaped the class into which they had been born and earned their way into another. The most common route out of the peasant class was through the church. Anyone in medieval Europe was eligible to become a priest or a monk by learning the scriptures and the doctrines of the church. All that was necessary was that the would-be clergyman get an education. From the priesthood or the monastery it was possible for a man to rise in the hierarchy of the church.

Both the political and the economic systems of the later Middle Ages provided additional ways to escape from the position into which a man was born. Commoners sometimes were knighted for distinguished service to theit lords. Other commoners who had learned to read and write could rise rapidly through the crude civil service developing around Europe's new monarchs. Much larger numbers of men rose a step or two up the social ladder by acquiring wealth through trade or by escaping from a manor to a town. By the end of the Middle Ages, many fewer men were destined to live out their lives in their father's social position with no chance of escaping from it. A more fluid social system spelled the inevitable end of a society dominated by a tradition that each son trod only in his father's footsteps.

Finally, the very nature of Christianity itself encouraged innovation. Unlike most religions, Christianity did not lay down a host of specific rules to regulate daily life. Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism and the other great religions of the world contain scores of specific requirements about what their followers may eat and wear, where they may work, when they must pray, and when they must fast. Such specific requirements affect every area of human behavior and make innovation exceedingly difficult. Christianity, with its relatively few regulations, gave its believers wide latitude in secular affairs. This relative lack of regulation meant that Christians were able to experiment much more freely than followers of other religions.

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Furthermore, the Roman Church itself was quite open to new ideas. The Church did persecute and even fought wars against those it believed to be heretics. But medieval churchmen were also responsible for developing the arts and sciences of the day. The medieval theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, successfully synthesized the ideas of Aristotle with Catholic theology when the writings of the Greek philosopher were rediscovered by the West. The greatest scientist of the Middle Ages was the churchman Roger Bacon. Though the Church placed its greatest trust in the revealed word of God contained in the Holy Scriptures, it also admitted reason as a legitimate approach to truth, particularly to truths about the physical and secular world.

Though the Middle Ages was more a traditional than an innovative society, it still was not unchanging. More than any other society that existed at the same time, medieval culture was open to innovation. The changes that were made in these so-called "Dark Ages" established the foundation on which our modern society is based.



1300 A.D. to 1800 A.D.


In the Middle Ages changes did not take place at a rapid rate. Medieval society was more traditional than innovative; political and economic decisions and social structure were based primarily on the proven ways of the past. Toward the end of the era, however, the pace of change began to quicken. New political systems began to emerge, the traditional agrarian economy began to give way to a more innovative commercial economy, and the social structure gradually became more fluid. These changes were not pronounced and they were sporadic. Changes taking place in the British Isles were different from the changes taking place in Italy. Gradually the rate of change increased. Out of the Middle Ages developed the first elements of our modern society which places a high premium on adaptability and innovation. The next eight units will provide you with evidence by which you can determine hov and why these changes came about.

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