Changes in European Institutions


Summary: In the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, Western Europe underwent a period of political, economic, and social upheaval that continued until about 900 CE. The one stabilizing force throughout most of Western Europe was the Roman Catholic Church. Only in Spain, dominated by Muslim influences, did the learning of the Greeks and Romans thrive in Western Europe.


Key Terms

benefice *





Gothic architecture*


Magna Carta *



Middle Ages*

moldboard plow



Manorialism and Feudalism in Western Europe

Even before the fall of the Roman Empire, declining prosperity in the final years of the empire had caused small landowners to sell off their land holdings to the owners of large estates. Although some peasants relocated to urban areas, others remained to work the land, receiving protection from their landlords in exchange for their agricultural labor. As trade continued to decline and political order disintegrated, manorialism became more widespread. When a wave of Vikings from Scandinavia invaded Europe in the ninth century, Western Europeans turned to feudalism to provide a means of protection.

Feudalism was a political, economic, and social system. Throughout most areas of Western Europe, nobles or landlords offered benefices , or privileges, to vassals in exchange for military service in the lord’s army or agricultural labor on the lord’s estate. Often the benefice was a grant of land, called a fief . Feudalism was structured so that a person could enjoy the position of a noble with vassals under him and, at the same time, serve as vassal to a noble of higher status. Knights, similar in their roles to the samurai of Japan, were vassals who served in the lord’s military forces. Like the samurai , the knights of Western Europe followed an honor code called chivalry . In contrast to the samurai code of bushido , however, chivalry was a reciprocal, or two-sided, contract between vassal and lord. Whereas the code of bushido applied to both men and women of the samurai class, chivalry was followed only by the knights.

Occupying the lowest rank on the medieval European manor were serfs, whose labor provided the agricultural produce needed to maintain the self-sufficiency of the manor. The life of serfs was difficult. In addition to giving the lord part of their crops, they had to spend a number of days each month working the lord’s lands or performing other types of labor service for the lord. The agricultural tools available to them were crude. Only after the invention of the heavy moldboard plow in the ninth century did they possess a tool adequate to turn the heavy sod of Western Europe. Serfdom was different from slavery; serfs could not be bought or sold and could pass on their property to their heirs.

Beginnings of Regional Governments

At the same time that feudalism provided protection to the inhabitants of Western Europe, people known as the Franks rose in prominence in the region of present-day northern France, western Germany, and Belgium. The Franks were the descendants of the Germanic tribe that overran Gaul (present-day France) after the fall of Rome. By the fifth century CE, the Franks had converted to Christianity. From the time of the ninth century onward, some areas of Western Europe saw the strengthening of regional kingdoms such as that of the Franks.

Rulers of northern Italy and Germany also gained prominence by the tenth century. Eventually, in an effort to connect with the classical empire of Rome, they began to call their territory the Holy Roman Empire. As the French philosopher Voltaire later commented, however, it was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” The new empire was but a fraction of the size of the original empire of the Romans. In spite of its grand claims, northern Italy continued to be organized into independent city-states, and Germany into numerous local states also overseen by feudal lords. While providing a measure of unity for a portion of Europe during the Middle Ages , the long-term political effect of the Holy Roman Empire was to delay the unification of both Germany and Italy into separate states until the end of the nineteenth century.

In England, an alternate form of feudalism took hold as a result of the Norman invasion of 1066. In that year, the Duke of Normandy, later called William the Conqueror, arrived in England from his province of Normandy in northern France. Of Viking descent, William transplanted his form of feudalism to England. Rather than following a complex structure of lords and vassals, William imposed a feudal structure that required all vassals to owe their allegiance directly to the monarch.

Growth of Parliamentary Government in England

The political structure of medieval England further distinguished itself by imposing limitations on the power of the monarchy, and establishing one of the earliest parliamentary governments. Even under the English style of feudalism, nobles continued to hold considerable influence. In 1215, in an effort to control the tax policies of King John, English nobles forced John to sign the Magna Carta. This document endowed the English nobility with basic rights that were later interpreted to extend to the other English social classes as well. The first English parliament , convened in 1265, also was an extension of feudal rights of collaboration between king and vassals. The first meeting of this representative body saw its division into a House of Lords representing the clergy and nobility and a House of Commons elected by urban elite classes. Parliaments also arose in Spain, France, Scandinavia, and parts of Germany.

Renewed Economic Growth

Although Western Europe experienced political disorder during the medieval period, by the ninth century the former Roman Empire began to witness signs of renewed economic growth and technological innovation. Contacts with the eastern portion of the former Roman Empire and with people of Central Asia had brought the moldboard plow into use in Western Europe. Also, the military effectiveness of the medieval knight was improved through the introduction of the stirrup.

Improved agricultural techniques resulted in population growth, a trend that also increased the size of urban areas. Warmer temperatures between 800 and 1300 also contributed to urban revival. Landlords often extended their landholdings, sometimes paying serfs a salary to work these new lands. A degree of security returned to Western Europe as many of the Vikings, now Christian, ceased their raids and became settled peoples. In present-day France, palace schools were established to educate local children.

The Crusades

The Crusades between the Western and Eastern worlds and between Christianity and Islam opened up new contacts. As a result of their campaigns to retake the Holy Land from the Seljuk Turks, Western Europeans were exposed to the larger and more prosperous urban areas of the Byzantine Empire with their magnificent examples of Eastern architecture. The Crusades also introduced the West to sugarcane, spices, and luxury goods such as porcelain, glassware, and carpets from the Eastern world. Trade between East and West increased, although it proved an unbalanced trade; while the West was attracted to the fine goods of the East, the Eastern world displayed little interest in the inferior trade items offered by the West. Western appreciation for the treasures of the East was not universal, however. During the Fourth Crusade, merchants from Venice expressed their intense rivalry with Eastern merchants by looting the city of Constantinople.

As Western Europe widened its knowledge of other peoples through trade, its growing population also extended into neighboring areas. After settling down in Europe during the tenth century, the Vikings explored the northern Atlantic, inhabiting Iceland and establishing temporary settlements in Greenland and the northeastern portion of North America. Seeking new agricultural lands, the people of Western Europe also pushed into areas of Eastern Europe.

Conflicts Between Church and State

While Western Europeans engaged in commercial rivalries with other societies, a second rivalry had developed in Western Europe: one between church leaders and monarchs. Throughout the Middle Ages, the church had sometimes taken the role of a feudal lord, owning large landholdings. In some cases, the growing wealth of the Roman Catholic Church served as a temptation for priests and monks to set aside their spiritual responsibilities to concentrate on the acquisition of material possessions.

Conflicts between church leaders and secular leaders arose over the issue of investiture . Lay investiture was a process by which monarchs appointed church bishops. Especially intense was the controversy between Pope Gregory VII (1073 to 1085) and Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, which culminated with the excommunication of Henry IV. Henry’s subsequent confession demonstrated that, in this instance, the pope had gained the upper hand.

Role of Women in Medieval European Society

Throughout the Middle Ages, Western European women carried out traditional roles of homemaker and childcare provider. It is possible that among the elite classes, the position of women declined over that of earlier ages as the code of chivalry reinforced ideas of women as weak and subordinate to men. Women who resided in medieval towns were allowed a few privileges such as participation in trade and in some craft guilds. Convents also offered some women opportunities for service in their communities. For the most part, however, medieval European women were expected to serve as reflections of their husbands.

High Middle Ages in Western Europe

By the eleventh century, significant changes occurred in Western Europe to indicate the region’s gradual emergence from the relative cultural decline of the medieval period. Termed the High Middle Ages, the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries saw the following changes in Western European society:

•  Gothic architecture ––Cathedrals with tall spires and arched windows with stained glass reflected Muslim designs and Western architectural technology.

•  Increased urbanization—The size of Western European cities still could not compare with the much larger urban areas of China.

•  Rise of universities

•  Decline in the number of serfs on the manor. Some serfs received wages to work in new agricultural lands, while others fled to towns. A serf who remained in a town for a year and a day was considered a free person.

•  Emergence of centralized monarchies

•  Strengthening of nation-states. The Hundred Years’ War (1337 to 1453) increased the power of both France and England and is also considered by many historians as the end of Europe’s medieval period.

•  Increased Eurasian trade

•  Growth of banking

•  New warfare technology such as gunpowder and cannon that made castles increasingly obsolete

The renewal of economic and intellectual vigor and the tendency toward centralized regional political authority marked the beginning of a new era on the European continent.

Images Rapid Review

The decline of Roman authority in Western Europe resulted in the rise of feudalism as a system of protection. Feudalism in Western Europe bore some similarities to Japanese feudalism. Although Western European feudalism created local governments, in some areas of Europe, such as France, regional kingdoms arose. Characteristic of feudal Europe was a persistent conflict between popes and kings concerning secular authority. Many European women continued in traditional roles. By the eleventh century, Western Europe demonstrated signs of revival as universities were established, trade increased, and some serfs began to leave the manor.

Images Review Questions

1 .    In contrast to Japanese feudalism, Western European feudalism

      (A)  included women in the feudal relationship

      (B)  created a reciprocal relationship between lord and vassal

      (C)  was based on a noncontractual relationship

      (D)  did not lead to centralized regional governments

2 .    Early medieval Europe’s strongest state was

      (A)  the Papal States

      (B)  England

      (C)  France

      (D)  the Holy Roman Empire

3 .    The period of greatest population decline in Europe during the Middle Ages was

      (A)  from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries

      (B)  the fourteenth century

      (C)  the fifth and sixth centuries

      (D)  the fifteenth century

4 .    During the Middle Ages, the concept of limited government was seen most clearly in

      (A)  France

      (B)  Germany

      (C)  England

      (D)  Italy

5 .    Which statement describes Europe between the ninth to fifteenth centuries?

      (A)  The consolidation of Germanic kingdoms into a single Germanic state

      (B)  The end of pressure from migratory peoples

      (C)  Steady decline of educational opportunities

      (D)  The expansion of the Eastern world into Western Europe

6 .    Trade during the medieval period

      (A)  weakened in the Baltic regions as continental routes broadened

      (B)  placed the power of the merchant classes in competition with monarchical power

      (C)  shifted away from the Mediterranean basin after the fall of Rome

      (D)  placed Europe within the Muslim commercial network

7 .    The fifteenth century was characterized by

      (A)  the beginnings of nation-states in Italy and Germany

      (B)  the strengthening of nation-states in England and France

      (C)  decentralization of political power in Spain

      (D)  the establishment of Western European political tradition in the Middle East

8 .    Medieval Europe

      (A)  extended local schools found on the manor

      (B)  developed new banking institutions from multicultural contacts

      (C)  saw the rise of universities after the conclusion of the Hundred Years’ War

      (D)  produced urban areas that rivaled those of Eastern empires

Images Answers and Explanations

1 .   B   Feudalism in Western Europe was based on a reciprocal, or mutual relationship of responsibility between lord and vassal, whereas Japanese feudalism exacted obedience from the samurai regardless of the responsibility of the daimyo . European chivalry was binding to the knights only, whereas Japanese bushido applied to both men and women of the samurai class (A). The European relationship between lord and vassal was based on a contract, whereas the Japanese bushido was based on samurai honor (C). Although Japanese feudalism did not lead to the establishment of regional governments, Europe saw the prominence of centralized regional governments in France, England, and the Holy Roman Empire (D).

2 .   D   The Holy Roman Empire brought a measure of unity to central Europe, essentially embracing the city-states of northern Italy and the principalities of Germany. The Papal States consisted of a small territory in the central Italian peninsula (A). Both England (B) and France (C) saw the beginnings of regional governments that did not compare in size with that of the Holy Roman Empire.

3 .   B   European population declined drastically during the fourteenth century because of the devastation of the bubonic plague. This decline was reversed during the fifteenth century (D). European population saw a steady rise between the tenth to the thirteenth centuries as a result of the introduction of new crops and farming methods (A). Although European population declined somewhat after the fall of Rome in the fifth century (C), this decline was not as dramatic as that of the fourteenth century.

4 .   C   England witnessed the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 and the first parliament in 1265, both placing limits on the power of the monarchy. France remained under the control of monarchs (A). Germany (B) and Italy (D), not yet united as nation-states, were part of the Holy Roman Empire.

5 .   D   From 711 to 1492, portions of Spain were dominated by the empire of Islam. Silk Roads trade continued to forge contacts between East and West, and contact with the Eastern world escalated as a result of the Crusades. German provinces were not united into a single German state (A). The Vikings moved into Europe, not forming settled communities on a large scale until about the year 1000 (B). By the ninth century, palace schools had arisen in Western Europe, and by the eleventh century several universities were in operation (C).

6 .   D   During the Muslim occupation of Spain, al-Andalus became part of the Muslim trade network. During the European Middle Ages, trade increased in the Baltic regions (A) and continued in the Mediterranean basin, even though it weakened after the fall of Rome (C). Merchant classes tended to prefer the stability that monarchs could bring to the commercial world (B).

7 .   B   The end of the Hundred Years’ War in 1453 saw the strengthening of the concept of the nation-state in both France and England. Italy and Germany were not organized into nation-states until the late nineteenth century (A). Power in Spain was centralized under both Muslim rule and under Christian rulers as they began the reconquest (C). The Middle East was uninterested in the establishment of Western political traditions (D).

8 .   B   Letters of credit used in the Chinese and Muslim worlds became forerunners of the Western European banking institution in the Middle Ages. Medieval European manors did not usually provide schools for manor children (A). Universities had already begun to appear in various parts of Europe by the twelfth century (C). Eastern urban areas, especially those in China, tended to be much larger than those in Western Europe (D).

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