Europe Was Politically Unstable During the Middle Ages
During the middle-ages, Europe was unstable, and conflict between groups and kingdoms was common.
The Roman Empire dominated western Europe until the 6th century. When Rome collapsed, Western Europe became politically fragmented between various large and small kingdoms. Competition between monarchs for land and influence was intense, and borders shifted often.
Causes of European instability before the 15th century
Conflict and power struggles were constants on the European continent during the middle ages. The following are a few factors that led to Europe’s political instability.
- Muslim armies invaded and conquered Christian Spain in the 8th century.
- In the 9th century, North European Scandinavian Vikings began raiding settlements across Northern and Western Europe.
- In the 9th and 10th centuries, Magyar tribes (modern Hungarians) from the Urals mountain areas in Russia began a series of raids across Europe. These tribes later settled and founded a Hungarian Christian state in 1000.
Feudalism Was the Dominant Political System in Europe
As a result of unstable societies and conflict, Europe developed a feudal society in which the elite classes owned nearly all land and property. The nobility (land owners) often had more powers than kings and queens.
Feudalism dominated Europe between 800 – 1300.
What is feudalism?
European feudalism was a system of mutual rights and obligations for different members of society. Think of it as you do this for me, and I will do this for you.
- Monarchs would grant land to elite nobles who would provide the king with military service and tax revenue.
- Nobles kept much of the property for personal use. They then gave unused land to vassals (lesser lords) loyal to them.
- Nobles used the wealth of their land to employ personal armies of knights loyal to them.
- Commoners (peasants and serfs) lived on the grounds of nobles and vassals. They provided labor in exchange for protection from the noble and his knights.
Feudalism was also the dominant system in Japan following the end of the Heian period in 1185. As a result, scholars often compare Europe and Japan in the middle-ages. Feudalism was also the dominant system in Ethiopia during this period.
Feudalism's impact on government in Europe
Large government bureaucracies were not typical in Europe during the Middle Ages. Most kingdoms’ governments were small. The decisions of kings and queens had little effect on the daily lives of most Europeans. Feudal lords that controlled the land that a person lived on made most of the governing decisions that directly affected people’s day-to-day existence.
The role of kings and queens: In European feudalism, monarchs were often not the most powerful member of the ruling class.
- The monarch served more as a unifying figure than an all-powerful ruler.
- The monarch’s power was subservient to individual members of the feudal nobility.
- His primary role was to keep the peace and manage relationships between the various feudal lords in his kingdom.
- Kings also maintained relations with neighboring kingdoms. If the king needed to fight a war, he would raise an army from his nobles’ knights and troops and lead them into battle.
- The king was reliant on the money provided to him by his nobles through taxes they collected from commoners living on their vast agricultural estates.
The nobility: The feudal nobility held actual power in Europe. Kings had to be very careful to keep most nobles happy or risk civil war or their removal from the throne.
- These noble lords help great wealth, often far above the king’s wealth. Their wealth came from the vast landholdings they maintained.
- Lords kept private armies of knights. These armies were the primary protection force for the peasants and serfs that lived on the lord’s lands. Lords also provided knights to the monarch in the event of war.
- Their wealth, personal armies, and control over tax revenue given to the monarch meant that the king could not just ignore his nobles’ wishes.
The monarch was a unifying figure that kept nobles from fighting and civil war from breaking out. They often held court and issued judgments when there were disagreements between nobles.
The monarch was the most powerful leader in the territory and actively managed the state. The monarch trusted ministers to run the departments of the state and make policies to strengthen his rule and the state. The government created policies that promoted trade and commerce as well as the arts and sciences.
Feudalism Weakened by the 15th Century
By the 15th century, feudal systems in Europe had weakened. Kings and queens became more powerful as nobles’ power slowly declined. Increasing trade increased the wealth and influence of the merchant class.
Starting in the 14th century, Europe underwent a social, political, and economic revival. One of the significant changes was the slow breakdown of feudalism. The complete end of feudalism did not happen quickly and often took several hundred years. In some European locations, feudalism persisted into the 18th and 19th centuries.
Causes of the end of feudalism in Europe
The end of feudalism had many causes, including:
The end of feudalism resulted in changes to the European social structure
The end of feudalism resulted in declining power for some groups and increasing strength for others.
Comparison across regions: By the start of the 15th century, Europe entered a period of increasing commercialization. However, Europe would not reach the same level of commercialization that was reached by the 9th and 10th centuries in China until the 18th and 19th centuries.