Europe started out with weak or nonexistent kings but by the end of the Middle Ages, we’re going to be at the height of absolute monarchy. Basically picture an old European monarch – incredible wigs, huge palace, men and women at court, shooting pheasants probably (I literally never hear about pheasants unless they’re being killed by a rich guy). So how did they get there?
When Charlemagne unites most of western Europe again, he jumpstarts this process. His empire splits apart but his heirs become the kings of each new section – namely, France and the Holy Roman Empire (which is a collection of principalities – ruled by princes – that are all loosely joined in this empire that’s basically modern-day Austria and Germany.) So western continental Europe is starting to take shape into the boundaries we know today.
Meanwhile, across the pond… so England sort of originates when the Anglo-Saxons arrive. They were another Germanic group that ended up in modern-day England and southern Scotland around the time of the fall of Rome. They introduced the Old English language and warred with many of the other groups there, including the people of Wales, Cornwall, and the Old North (I bet there was a John Snow there. I hope he survived.)
England was also populated by Norsemen from Scandinavia and Vikings who made raids on the island and it was eventually conquered by William. They called him William the Conqueror because… well, you know. At the time there were literally two Harolds fighting each other – really, one was from Norway and one was from England.
king john I
Anyway, it’s really confusing, William conquers England but then a new house comes into power and it’s this new house that has a guy named King John. Remember Richard the Lionheart from the Crusades? Yeah this is his little brother. Imagine trying to live up to an older brother who’s nicknamed was “the Lionheart.”
Also, Richard and John’s mother was this total badass named Eleanor of Aquitaine. Through some thrifty marrying, she was actually both the Queen of England and France at different points in her life. She also lead one of the Holy Crusades – she justified going with her husband to tend to the wounded and care for the soldiers but she ended up leading armies into battle. So awesome.
Anyway, King John has a LOT to live up to and he is currently having trouble with his nobles – he wants more money from them to wage war on France and they are unhappy with his fiscal policies.
You see, at this time there was no such thing really as a parliament or any sort of official advisory group for the king. It was just another feudal relationship – albeit on a national scale. So if the king needed support from his vassals – the nobles – he would call them, hold out his hand, and say “Money please!” and they were supposed to support him. But the barons had had enough of that and they forced King John to sign a document saying that they had some rights that even he couldn’t take away – it was a Great Charter, or the Magna Carta.
the Magna Carta
So what didn’t the Magna Carta do? It didn’t guarantee rights for everyone – just for noble men. Typical. It didn’t even really guarantee rights for noblemen because John almost immediately went back on his word and didn’t honor the Magna Carta, which causes a revolt backed by France. “Ah, now we see the violence inherent in the system! Help help I’m being repressed!”
But, the Magna Carta did set an incredibly important precedent for the establishment of basic rights in England. In the document the king promised to protect the nobles from false imprisonment with access to swift justice (this is where we get our “fair and speedy trial” idea).
It also limited feudal payments to the Crown and set up an advisory council of 25 barons to oversee these payments – these are the origins of the British Parliament. Every new king was expected to re-sign this document and it sets England on this vastly different path than the rest of Europe.
While continental Europe is firmly entrenched in their absolute monarchies (basically, where kings/queens can do whatever they want with little protection for their citizens), England is beginning to establish what will become a constitutional monarchy. This is huge for them and also huge for the United States – but more on that in a few episodes.
Late MEdieval Warfare
In other political developments, the Crusades play a big role in consolidating the power of the kings. As armies go off to fight, they start as small groups of men fighting for their lord but they grow until they come to represent entire nations. Also, since the Christians ultimately lost the Crusades (womp womp) it casts a negative light on the Church (who kept claiming that God was on their side) and people’s allegiances slowly shifted toward their king. They didn’t become disloyal to the Pope, but he now had to share the spotlight.
Finally, a war between England and France is going to begin the steady growth of nationalism in Europe. It lasts for around 100 years and it’s called, well, you know, The Hundred Years’ War. It actually lasted 116 years but that doesn’t sound as catchy.
Honestly, it’s not that important why this war started (it was a debate over the succession of the French throne) or how it ended (spoiler alert: France wins). What is important is that it is considered the beginning of what historians call “national consciousness.”
Up until this point, boundaries shifted regularly with England often claiming land on the continent and vice versa. But this war solidifies national boundaries between England and France and the rivalry between the two nations. Whereas before, you would have identified as John a Christian peasant who lived in some countryside, now you would consider yourself John a Christian Englishman.
So Monty Python and the Holy Grail had to have been set after the Hundred Years War, or else the silly rivalry with the French guy on top of the castle wouldn’t have made much sense. “I am French! Why do you think I have this outrageous accent?!” Also, when he insults the King by saying “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberry” what he’s saying is that his mom “got around” (because hamsters procreate very… efficiently) and that his dad was a drunk (because a common wine was made from elderberries.) #medievalburn
JOan of arc
Also, the Hundred Years War is the war of Joan of Arc. When Joan of Arc was 13 she started hearing voices. Believing them to be messages from God, she believed that she had been sent a mission to free France from the invading English who had taken over the throne and to install the French prince, or Dauphin, Charles as the rightful king.
She took a vow of chastity (her father tried to force her to marry at 16 but she convinced the court to not allow it) and dedicated herself to this mission. She chopped her hair off, dressed in men’s clothes, and road off to meet with Charles. Pretty gutsy for a teenage girl – but then again, as a high school teacher I can definitively say that teenage girls are terrifying.
Charles allowed her to join his fight, probably because it was a good PR move to have a young girl who claimed to be speaking directly with God. I imagine he didn’t expect her to do any real fighting, but just to inspire the troops. Instead, she took command and drove the English back at the Battle of Orleans (the Old Orleans, not the New Orleans. That would be weird.) Her reputation grew and she insisted that Charles should continue pushing to retake Paris, but others in the court started to worry that she was becoming too powerful. She was eventually taken prisoner during a battle and put on trial.
She had to answer to 70 different crimes, including witchcraft, heresy, and dressing like a man. Because apparently those were all equally bad. Charles did not defend her. After a year in prison she relented and signed a confession but just days later she wore men’s clothes again and it got her burned at the stake at the age of 19. The Middle Ages were crazy, man.
late medieval literature
Culturally, the High (or Late) Middle Ages saw the growth of non-religious literature. Poetry and songs of courtly love were all the rage, especially from knights and soldiers who had gone off to fight in the Crusades. A lot of them say things like “I hope I can stay faithful to you because I really love you.” You know what you could do to prove you love me? Drop the “hope” and just stay faithful. Am I right, ladies?
Every year when we talk about chivalry in my high school class I show them the clip from 10 Things I Hate About You where Heath Ledger serenades Kat with some Frankie Valli. And every year I get sadder because less and less kids know who Heath Ledger is. Time is cruel.
There were also some female writers who challenged medieval society and it’s view of women as an object of affection to be “won.” Christine de Pizan is the most famous. Her book The City of Women profiles a bunch of notable women of the day and is considered one of the first feminist texts.
the economic impact of the Crusades
Just as politics and culture are growing, so is the economy. Towns begin forming trading alliances which eventually get consolidated under kingdoms. And two seemingly unrelated events really do a lot to jumpstart the economy.
First, the Crusades. Think about this: most men in the Middle Ages had never left the village where they were born. Then, all of a sudden, they march off, get on a ship, and end up in the Byzantine Empire or the Holy Land. That must have been so insane and hard to process. But once they did, they looked around and were like, “Whoa. Everyone else has way nicer stuff than us.” Also, a lot of these guys don’t go home – some become merchants, staying behind in the port cities where they got off the ship after returning from the Crusades.
Most of these new trading cities were in Italy, which was geographically positioned perfectly to send soldiers off across the Mediterranean to fight in the Middle East. Italian city-states rise and powerful families of merchants gain influence – we’ll come back to them later, they’re the people who are going to hire guys like Leonardo and Michelangelo.
Side note: the Crusades also spark learning, knowledge and curiosity about the outside world again. When the Roman Empire collapsed it was the Byzantines and, eventually, the Islamic Empires that preserved Greco-Roman knowledge. As the Crusaders travel through the Holy Land they are not just exposed to new people, but old ideas about philosophy, math, science, and art. The Crusades open back up the eyes of Europeans to the outside world.
the Black Death
However, this new exchange of goods and people also brings disease. Cue: the Black Death. In the mid-1300s (right around the time the Mongols are sweeping across Asia – not a coincidence – we’ll talk about that next episode), the bubonic plague destroys Europe. Some estimates are as high as ⅓ of all people dying of the plague. So that scene where the guy is yelling at everyone to “Bring out your dead!” is probably not that far off.
According to legend, the children’s song Ring Around the Rosy was written during one of the plagues and it alludes to the fact that people would fill their pockets with flowers to ward off the smell. “Ring Around the Rosy, Pocket Full of Posies, Ashes Ashes, We All Fall Down.” So every horror movie that has a small child singing this song just got infinitely more terrifying.
The Black Death has a lot of obvious negative impacts, including some incredible skeleton art. But it also has a weird, unintentional positive effect on peasants – the ones who survived, obviously.
Before the Black Death, peasants were not worth much. But now, after so many have died, they become incredibly valuable resources. If you are a lord on a manor, you might have lost ¼ to a ⅓ of your workforce. At the same time, jobs in the nearby town are opening up and your peasants are looking to leave.
Now that peasants have more options, a lot of them choose to escape to the growing towns and take up jobs as apprentices to craftsmen or traders. This does two things: it helps break down the manorial system into a more modern economy and it fuels the rise of trade and production in Europe.
This is another reason why Monty Python has to be set in the Late Middle Ages. Coconuts originated in the Pacific, which was linked into the Indian Ocean trade. But western Europe didn’t become part of this global trade network until after the Crusades and so it’s very unlikely that they would have had access to coconuts before around 1200. Even if they were carried by an African swallow.