40 High Middle Ages

High Middle Ages

Society and Life

Medieval French manuscript illustration of the three classes of medieval society: those who prayed - the clergy, those who fought — the knights, and those who worked — the peasantry. The relationship between these classes was governed by feudalism and manorialism.
Figure 8-23: Representation of the tripartite social order of the middle ages by an unknown author is licensed under Public Domain

The High Middle Ages saw an expansion of population with rough estimates of the increase from the year 1000 until 1347 indicating that the population of Europe grew from 35 to 80 million. The exact cause or causes of the growth remain unclear; improved agricultural techniques, the decline of slaveholding, a more clement climate and the lack of invasion have all been put forward.

As much as 90 percent of the European population remained rural peasants. Many of them were no longer settled in isolated farms but had gathered into small communities, usually known as manors or villages. These peasants were often subject to noble overlords and owed them rents and other services, in a system known as manorialism. There remained a few free peasants throughout this period and beyond.

Illustration of the feudalism system with four tiers. The top includes the king alone. The second tier includes the Nobles. The third tier includes the Knights. The final, and largest, tier includes the Peasants.
Figure 8-24: European Feudal System by FSCJ is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Other sections of society included the nobility, clergy and townsmen. Nobles, both the titled and simple knights, were the exploiters of the manors and the peasants, although they did not own lands outright, rather they were granted rights to the income from a manor or other lands by an overlord through the system of feudalism. During the 11 th and 12 th centuries, these lands, or fiefs, came to be considered hereditary and in most areas they were no longer divisible between all the heirs as had been the case in the early medieval period.

Instead, most fiefs and lands went to the eldest son. The dominance of the nobility was built upon its control of the land, its military service as heavy cavalry, control of castles, and various immunities from taxes or other impositions. Stone castles began to be constructed in the 9 th and 10 th centuries in response to the disorders of the time, and allowed inhabitants to take refuge from invaders. Control of castles allowed the nobles to defy kings or other overlords.

The clergy was divided into two types — the secular clergy who lived in the world, and the regular clergy, or those who lived under a religious rule and were usually monks. Most of the regular clergy were drawn from the ranks of the nobility, the same social class that served as the recruiting ground for the upper levels of the secular clergy. The local parish priests were often drawn from the peasant class. Townsmen were in a somewhat unusual position, as they did not fit into the traditional three-fold division of society into nobles, clergy, and peasants. During the 12 thand 13 th centuries, the ranks of the townsmen expanded greatly as existing towns grew and new population centers were founded.

In Central and Northern Italy and in Flanders, the rise of towns that were, to a degree, self-governing, stimulated economic growth and created an environment for new types of trade associations. Commercial cities on the shores of the Baltic entered into agreements known as the Hanseatic League, and Italian city-states such as Venice, Genoa, and Pisa expanded their trade throughout the Mediterranean. Besides new trading opportunities, agricultural and technological improvements enabled the increase in crop yields, which in turn allowed the trade networks to expand. Rising trade brought new methods of dealing with money, and gold coinage was again minted in Europe, at first in Italy and later in France and other countries. New forms of commercial contracts emerged, allowing risk to be shared among merchants. Accounting methods improved, partly through the use of double-entry bookkeeping; letters of credit also emerged, to allow easy transmission of money through the trading networks. (101)

Political States

The High Middle Ages is the formative period in the history of the Western state. Kings in France, England and Spain consolidated their power, and set up lasting governing institutions. Also new kingdoms like Hungary and Poland, after their conversion to Christianity, became Central-European powers. The Papal Monarchy reached its apogee in the early 13 th century under the pontificate of Innocent III (pope 1198–1216). Northern Crusades and the advance of Christian kingdoms and military orders into previously pagan regions in the Baltic and Finnic northeast brought the forced assimilation of numerous native peoples into European culture.

During the early High Middle Ages, Germany was ruled by the Saxon dynasty, which struggled to control the powerful dukes ruling over territorial duchies tracing back to the Migration period. In 1024, the ruling dynasty changed to the Salian dynasty, who famously clashed with the papacy under Emperor Henry IV (r. 1084–1105) over church appointments. His successors continued to struggle against the papacy as well as the German nobility.

France under the Capetian dynasty, began to slowly expand its power over the nobility, managing to expand out of the Ile de France to exert control over more of the country as the 11 th and 12 th centuries. They faced a powerful rival in the Dukes of Normandy, who in 1066 under William the Conqueror (duke 1035–1087), conquered England (r. 1066–1087) and created a cross-channel empire that would last, in various forms, throughout the rest of the Middle Ages. Normans not only expanded into England, but also settled in Sicily and southern Italy, when Robert Guiscard (d. 1085) landed there in 1059 and established a duchy that later became a kingdom. Under the Angevin dynasty of King Henry II (r. 1154–1189) and his son King Richard I, the kings of England ruled over England and large sections of France, brought to the family by Henry II’s marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, heiress to much of southern France.

However, Richard’s younger brother King John (r. 1199–1216) lost Normandy and the rest of the northern French possessions in 1204 to the French king Philip II Augustus. This led to dissension among the English nobility, while John’s financial exactions to pay for his unsuccessful attempts to regain Normandy led in 1215 to Magna Carta, a charter that confirmed the rights and privileges of free men in England. Under Henry III (r. 1216–1272), John’s son, further concessions were made to the nobility, and royal power was diminished. The French monarchy continued to make gains against the nobility during the late 12 th and 13 th centuries, bringing more territories within the kingdom under their personal rule and centralizing the royal administration. Under King Louis IX, royal prestige rose to new heights as Louis served as a mediator for most of Europe. (101)


Painting of Louis VII of France leading his armored cavalry against an unarmored Muslim cavalry.
Figure 8-25: A battle of the Second Crusade by anonymus is licensed under Public Domain

In the 11 th century, the Seljuk Turks took over much of the Middle East, taking Persia during the 1040s, Armenia in the 1060s, and capturing Jerusalem in 1070. In 1071, the Turkish army defeated the Byzantine army at the Battle of Manzikert and captured the Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV (r. 1068–1071). This allowed the Turks to invade Asia Minor, which dealt a dangerous blow to the Byzantine Empire by seizing a large part of the empire’s population and its economic heartland. Although the Byzantines managed to regroup and recover somewhat, they never regained Asia Minor and were often on the defensive afterwards. The Turks also ran into difficulties, losing control of Jerusalem to the Fatimids of Egypt and suffering from a series of internal civil wars.

The Crusades were intended to seize Jerusalem from Muslim control. The first Crusade was proclaimed by Pope Urban II (pope 1088–1099) at the Council of Clermont in 1095 in response to a request from the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081–1118) for aid against further Muslim advances. Urban promised indulgence to anyone who took part. Tens of thousands of people from all levels of society mobilized across Europe, and captured Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade. The crusaders consolidated their conquests in a number of crusader states. During the 12 th century and 13 th century, there were a series of conflicts between these states and the surrounding Islamic states. Further crusades were called to aid the crusaders, or such as the Third Crusade, called to try to regain Jerusalem, which was captured by Saladin in 1187. In 1203, the Fourth Crusade was diverted from the Holy Land to Constantinople, and captured that city in 1204, setting up a Latin Empire of Constantinople and greatly weakening the Byzantine Empire, which finally recaptured Constantinople in 1261, but the Byzantines never regained their former strength. By 1291 all the crusader states had been either captured or forced from the mainland, with a titular Kingdom of Jerusalem surviving on the island of Cyprus for a number of years after 1291.

Popes called for crusades to take place other than in the Holy Land, with crusades being proclaimed in Spain, southern France, and along the Baltic. The Spanish crusades became fused with the Reconquista, or reconquest, of Spain from the Muslims. Although the Templars and Hospitallers took part in the Spanish crusades, Spanish military religious orders were also founded similar to the Templars and Hospitallers, with most of them becoming part of the two main orders of Calatrava and Santiago by the beginning of the 12 th century. Northern Europe also remained outside Christian influence until the 11 th century or later; these areas also became crusading venues as part of the Northern Crusades of the 12 th through the 14 th centuries. These crusades also spawned a military order, the Order of the Sword Brothers. Another order, the Teutonic Knights, although originally founded in the Crusader states, focused much of its activity in the Baltic after 1225, and in 1309 moved its headquarters to Marienburg in Prussia. (101)

Intellectual life

During the 11 th century, developments in philosophy and theology led to increased intellectual activity. There was debate between the realists and the nominalists over the concept of ” universals”. Philosophical discourse was stimulated by the rediscovery of Aristotle and his emphasis on empiricism and rationalism. Scholars such as Peter Abelard (d. 1142) and Peter Lombard (d. 1164) introduced Aristotelian logic into theology. The late 11 th and early 12 th century also saw the rise of cathedral schools throughout western Europe, signaling the shift of learning from monasteries to cathedrals and towns. Cathedral schools were then in turn replaced in the late 11 th century by the universities established in major European cities.

Philosophy and theology fused in scholasticism, an attempt by 12 th and 13 th -century scholars to reconcile Christian theology with itself, which eventually resulted in a system of thought that tried to employ a systemic approach to truth and reason. This culminated in the thought of Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), who wrote the Summa Theologica, or Summary of Theology.

Painting of St. Thomas Aquinas sitting between Aristotle and Plato. Aquinas holds his theological work, Summa Theologica, in his lap. The brilliant light that emanates from the book connote its inspired status.
Figure 8-26: St. Thomas Aquinas sitting between Aristotle and Plato by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH is licensed under Public Domain

Besides the universities, royal and noble courts saw the development of chivalry and the ethos of courtly love. This culture was expressed in the vernacular languages rather than Latin, and comprised poems, stories, legends and popular songs spread by troubadors, or wandering minstrels. Often the stories were written down in the chansons de geste, or “songs of great deeds”, such as The Song of Roland or The Song of Hildebrand.

Besides these products of chivalry, other writers composed histories, both secular and religious. Geoffrey of Monmouth (d. around 1155) composed his Historia Regum Britanniae, which was a collection of stories and legends about Arthur. Other works were more clearly history, such as Otto von Freising’s (d. 1158) Gesta Friderici Imperatoris detailing the deeds of Emperor Frederick I or William of Malmesbury’s (d. around 1143) Gesta Regum on the kings of England.

Legal studies also advanced during the 12 th century. Both secular law and canon law, or ecclesiastical law, were studied in the High Middle Ages. Secular law, or Roman law, was advanced greatly by the discovery of the corpus iuris civilis in the 11 th century, and by 1100 Roman law was being taught at Bologna. This led to the recording and standardization of legal codes throughout western Europe. Canon law was also studied, and around 1140 a monk named Gratian ( flourished 12 th century), a teacher at Bologna, wrote what became the standard text of canon law — the Decretum.

Among the results of the Greek and Islamic influence on this period in European history was the replacement of Roman numerals with the decimal positional number system and the invention of algebra, which allowed more advanced mathematics. Astronomy also advanced, with the translation of Ptolemy’s Almagest from Greek into Latin in the late 12 th century. Medicine was also studied, especially in southern Italy, where Islamic medicine influenced the school at Salerno. (101)

Technology and military

In the 12 th and 13 th centuries, Europe saw a number of innovations in methods of production and economic growth. Major technological advances included the invention of the windmill, the first mechanical clocks, the first investigations of optics and the creation of crude lenses, the manufacture of distilled spirits and the use of the astrolabe. Glassmaking advanced with the development of a process that allowed the creation of transparent glass in the early 13 th century. Transparent glass made possible the science of optics by Roger Bacon (d. 1294), who is credited with the invention of eyeglasses.

A major agricultural innovation was the development of a 3-field rotation system for planting crops. The development of the heavy plow allowed heavier soils to be farmed more efficiently, an advance that was helped along by the spread of the horse collar, which led to the use of draught horses in place of oxen. Horses are faster than oxen and require less pasture, factors which aided the utilization of the 3-field system.

The development of cathedrals and castles advanced building technology, leading to the development of large stone buildings. Ancillary structures included new town halls, houses, bridges, and tithe barns. Shipbuilding also improved, with the use of the rib and plank method rather than the old Roman system of mortice and tenon. Other improvements to ships included the use of lateen sails and the stern-post rudder, both of which increased the speed at which ships could be sailed.

Paper and ink sketch of the crossbow mechanism by Leonardo da Vinci
Figure 8-27: DaVinci Crossbow by Leonardo da Vinci is licensed under Public Domain

Crossbows, which had been known in Late Antiquity, increased in use, partly because of the increase in siege warfare in the 10 th and 11 th centuries. Military affairs saw an increase in the use of infantry with specialized roles during this period. Besides the still dominant heavy cavalry, armies often included both mounted and infantry crossbowmen, as well as sappers and engineers. The increasing use of crossbows during the 12 th and 13 thcenturies led to the use of closed-face helmets, heavy body armor, as well as horse armor. Gunpowder was known in Europe by the mid-13 th century with a recorded use in European warfare by the English against the Scots in 1304, although it was merely used as an explosive and not as a weapon. Cannon were being used for sieges in the 1320s, and hand held guns were known and in use by the 1360s. (101)

Architecture and Art

The High Middle Ages gave rise to two new art traditions in the West: The Romanesque and Gothic styles of art.Romanesque art refers to the art of Europe from the late 10 th century to the rise of the Gothic style in the 13 thcentury or later, depending on region. The term “Romanesque” was invented by 19 th century art historians to refer specifically to architecture of the time period, which retained many basic features of Roman architectural style — most notably semi-circular arches — but retained distinctive regional characteristics.

In Southern France, Spain, and Italy, there was architectural continuity with the Late Antique period, but the Romanesque style was the first style to spread across the whole of Catholic Europe and thus the first pan-European style since Imperial Roman Architecture. Romanesque art was also influenced by Byzantine art, especially in painting, and by the anti-classical energy of the decoration of the Insular art of the British Isles. From these elements was forged a highly innovative and coherent style. (107)

Romanesque Art and Architecture

Combining features of Roman and Byzantine buildings along with other local traditions, Romanesque architecture is distinguished by massive quality, thick walls, round arches, sturdy piers, groin vaults, large towers, and decorative arcades. Each building has clearly defined forms and a symmetrical plan, resulting in a much simpler appearance than the Gothic buildings that would follow. The style can be identified across Europe, despite regional characteristics and materials. (107)

Picture of Maria Laach Abbey in Germany. From the outside, one sees three large towers that welcome visitors into the cathedral. A long nave follows with the chancel in the rear of the cathedral.
Figure 8-28: Maria Laach Abbey by Goldi64 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0


Aside from architecture, the art of the period was characterized by a vigorous style in both painting and sculpture. In churches, painting continued to follow Byzantine iconographic models. Christ in Majesty, the Last Judgement and scenes from the Life of Christ remained among the most common depictions. In illuminated manuscripts , the most lavishly decorated examples of the period included bibles or psalters . As new scenes were depicted, more originality developed. They used intensely saturated primary colors , which now exist in their original brightness only in stained glass and well-preserved manuscripts. Stained glass first came to wide use during this period, although there are few surviving examples.

Pictorial compositions usually had little depth as they were limited to the narrow spaces of historiated initials,column capitals , and church tympanums. The tension between a tight frame and a composition that sometimes escapes its designated space is a recurrent theme in Romanesque art. Figures often varied in size in relation to their importance, and landscape backgrounds were absent or closer to abstract decorations than realism, as in the trees in the “Morgan Leaf.” Human forms were often elongated and contorted to fit the shape provided and at times appeared to be floating in space. These figures focused on linear details with emphasis on drapery folds and hair.(107)

Picture of the 'Morgan Leaf', or page from the Winchester Bible. This particular leaf tells the story of David becoming king in five illustrated boxes.
Figure 8-29: The Morgan Leaf by an unknown author is licensed under Public Domain


Sculpture also exhibited a vigorous style, evident in the carved capitals of columns, which often depicted complete scenes consisting of several figures. Precious objects sculpted in metal, enamel, and ivory , such as reliquaries , also had high status in this period. While the large wooden crucifix and statues of the enthroned Madonna were German innovations at the start of the period, the high relief carvings of architectural elements are most evocative of this style.

In a significant innovation, the tympanums of important church portals were carved with monumental schemes, again depicting Christ in Majesty or the Last Judgement but treated with more freedom than in painted versions. These portal sculptures were meant to both intimidate and educate the viewer . As there were no equivalent Byzantine models, Romanesque sculptors felt free to expand in their treatment of tympanums. (107)

Gothic Art and Architecture

Gothic art developed after the Romanesque , in the 12 th century. The style continued to be used well into the 16 thcentury in some parts of Europe, while giving way to the Renaissance style earlier in other regions. The style was developed in Northern France due to socioeconomic, political, and theological reasons.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, people fled cities as they were no longer safe. The Romanesque era saw many people living in the countryside of France while cities remained largely abandoned. During this time period, the French monarchy was weak and feudal landowners exerted a large amount of regional power. In the 12 th century, the French royalty strengthened their power, their titles, and their landholdings, which led to more centralized government. Additionally, due to advancements in agriculture, population and trade increased. These changes brought people back to the cities, which is where we find the most expressive medium for the Gothic style — cathedrals. (108)

Gothic Architecture

Gothic architecture is unique in that we can pinpoint the exact place, the exact moment, and the exact person who developed it. Around 1137, Abbot Suger began re-building the Abbey Church of St. Denis. In his re-designs, which he wrote about extensively, we can see elements of what would become Gothic architecture, including the use ofsymmetry in design and ratios.

Ratios became essential to French Gothic cathedrals because they expressed the perfection of the universe created by God. This is where we also see stained glass emerge in Gothic architecture. Abbot Suger adopted the idea that light equates to God. He wrote that he placed pictures in the glass to replace wall paintings and talked about them as educational devices. A form of visual media for the uneducated masses, the windows were instructional in theology during the Gothic era, and the light itself was a metaphor for the presence of God.

Cathedrals served as religious centers and they were important for local economies. Pilgrims would travel throughout Europe to see relics , which would bring an influx of travelers and money to cities with Cathedrals. (108)

The ambulatory at St. Denis depicting two columns behind which lie the chapels of the cathedral.
Figure 8-30: St Denis Chorumgang by Beckstet is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

While the Gothic style was developed in Northern France, it spread throughout Europe where different regional styles were adopted. In England, for example, cathedrals became longer than they were tall and architects in Italy typically did not incorporate stained glass windows in the manner that the French did.

Boundless. “Gothic Art. Boundless Art History Boundless, 20 Nov. 2016. Retrieved 16 Dec. 2016 from boundless Website

Gothic Painting

Illuminated manuscripts provide excellent examples of Gothic painting. A prayer book, known as the book of hours, became increasingly popular during the Gothic age and was treated as a luxury item. The Hours of Mary of Burgundy, produced in Flanders c. 1477, contains a miniature showing Mary of Burgundy in devotion with a wonderful depiction of a French Gothic Cathedral behind her.

Painting of a woman reading a book, sitting in front of a miniature depiction of Mary with the child Jesus on her lap.
Figure 8-31: Painting of a woman reading a book, sitting in front of a miniature depiction of Mary with the child Jesus on her lap by die beiden Künstler Nicolas Spierinc und Liétard van Lathem is licensed under Public Domain

Sculpture & Metalwork

Sculpture during the Gothic era really sheds light on the knowledge of artists working during this time period. Some historians believed that artists and artisans during the Gothic era had “forgotten” how to create realistic works of art, or art influenced by the classical age. However, a viewer only needs to look at the work of Nicolas of Verdun to see that artists could and did work in a classical style during the Gothic era. Additionally, sculpture produced in Germany during the Gothic era is especially noted for its lifelikeness.

Image of the glimmering Shrine of the Three Kings as Cologne Cathedral. Laden with gold, legend holds that the sarcophagus holds the bones of the Magi who visited Jesus at his birth.
Figure 8-32: Shrine of the Three Kings by Arminia is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Church Life

Monastic reform became an important issue during the 11 th century, as elites began to worry that monks were not adhering to the rules binding them to a strictly religious life. Cluny Abbey, founded in the Mâcon region of France in 909, was established as part of the Cluniac Reforms, a larger movement of monastic reform in response to this fear. Cluny quickly established a reputation for austerity and rigor and sought to maintain a high quality of spiritual life by electing its own abbot without interference from laymen, thus maintaining economic and political independence from local lords and placing itself under the protection of the papacy.

Monastic reform inspired change in the secular church. The ideals that it was based upon were brought to the papacy by Pope Leo IX (pope 1049–1054), and provided the ideology of the clerical independence that led to the Investiture Controversy in the late 11 th century. This involved Pope Gregory VII (pope 1073–1085) and Emperor Henry IV, who initially clashed over episcopal appointments, a dispute that turned into a battle over the ideas of investiture, clerical marriage, and simony. The emperor saw the protection of the Church as one of his responsibilities as well as wanting to preserve the right to appoint his own choices as bishops within his lands, but the papacy insisted on the Church’s independence from secular lords. These issues themselves remained unresolved after the compromise of 1122 known as the Concordat of Worms. The conflict represents a significant stage in the creation of a papal monarchy separate from and equal to lay authorities. It also had the permanent consequence of empowering German princes at the expense of the German emperors.

Painting of white-robed St. Bernard kneeling before the Virgin and child along with a throng of angels.
Figure 8-33: Vision of St. Bernard with St. Benedict and John the Evangelist  by Web Gallery of Art is licensed under Public Domain

The High Middle Ages was a period of great religious movements. Besides the Crusades and monastic reforms, people sought to participate in new forms of religious life. New monastic orders were founded, including the Carthusians and the Cistercians. The Cistercians, especially, expanded rapidly in their early years under the guidance of Bernard of Clairvaux. These new orders were formed in response to the feeling of the laity that Benedictine monasticism no longer met the needs of the laymen. Laymen and those wishing to enter the religious life wanted to return to the simpler hermetical monasticism of early Christianity or to live an Apostolic life. Besides new monastic orders, religious pilgrimages were encouraged, with old pilgrimage sites such as Rome, Jerusalem, and Compostela seeing renewed visitation and new sites such as Monte Gargano and Bari rising to prominence.

In the 13 th century, mendicant orders — the Franciscans and the Dominicans — who swore vows of poverty and earned their living by begging, were approved by the papacy. Besides the recognized orders, other religious groups such as the Waldensians and the Humiliati attempted to return to the life of early Christianity in the middle 12 thand early 13 th centuries, but they were condemned as heretical by the papacy. Others joined the Cathars, another heretical movement condemned by the papacy. In 1209, a crusade was preached against the Cathars, the Albigensian Crusade, which in combination with the medieval Inquisition, finally eliminated them. (101)


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Humanities: Prehistory to the 15th Century Copyright © by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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