Lecture: High Medieval Society, Philosophy and Culture

Medieval Society and Communitarianism

The traditional classes of medieval society (those who work, those who pray, those who fight) help us understand people's roles (and those left out of them). But this model is not only simplistic, it is based on the duties of individuals. But medieval society was not individualistic. In fact, few of the eras we've studied have much in the way of individualism, the idea that individual people have separate minds, jobs and destinies (both literally and spiritually).

This makes the past hard for modern Americans to understand. When historians say a society was based on kinship tribes, or the polis, we still see individuals as embodied within these institutions. We have to shift our thinking to a larger view. In a kinship system, only the family or tribe matters. All honors, possessions, errors of judgement on the part of any of the members reflects on the entire group. Ones role within the clan is much more important that what one feels or does as a separate person.

During the Middle Ages, the view was much larger than even clans or cities in terms of how people viewed themselves. All of "Christendom" was seen as a single unit. Individuals had responsibilities and access to the spiritual world through the Church, and this mattered deeply to most of them, particularly "those who worked", i.e, ordinary people. Christendom was not even a religious concept - although defined by one religion, it was really about social interactions and responsibilities to others. Since few people ever travelled more than a few miles from their birthplace, their local ties were held together by their community. And all local communities were tied to others, and all were dedicated to God, but again, this is social as much as mystical.

Cathedrals and Visual Arts

Cathedrals are great examples of communitarianism in a medieval urban setting. We know already that Gild Merchants became government in the growing towns. Towns that attracted visitors and produced goods that people wanted to buy became famous (Bruges for woolen cloth, for example). During the 11th and 12th centuries, many of these towns began expanding their local church in such a way as to make it the pride and joy of a city, and a tourist attraction. Cathedral building brings together the best of the Middle Ages: community, wealth, church power, fine crafts, advanced technology, and a recognition of a higher order.

Romanesque churchThe architectural style changed accordingly. Churches before the 11th century tended to be in the "Romanesque" style (see right). The design both reflects and encourages the type of prayer that was popular then - head bowed in silent darkness to access the Lord. Romanesque churches are based on the Roman arch, which takes the weight of the walls above the windows, keeping them small, with thick walls needed to keep the roof high and the building large.

The Gothic style used new techniques to raise the roof higher, and open up areas for large windows in the walls. This also both reflected and encouraged the idea of God as in the sky, upward instead of evoked through quiet prayer. If you think about it, quiet prayer is individual. But a cathedral encourages mass worship in a space so large that it serves as a community center as well as a house of prayer.

Cathedrals could take several lifetimes to build. Town governments, merchants, craft guilds and ordinary people raised money to build them. The best stonemasons, designers, mathematicians, glassmakers, metalworkers, sculptors were hired, usually by the bishop in charge. Relics were found or purchased or brought from Crusades to make the cathedral a place where pilgrims from far away would want to pray. And the larger and more extravagant the church, the more it was a tribute to God. And the Church. And the community.

Chartres buttressesarches

Chartres Cathedral in France is a great example. Flying buttresses were a new technology that helped support the outer walls so the roof could be higher. Note the shape of the arches -- they are pointed instead of rounded, allowing the weight to press partly from the sides instead of straight down on top of the arch. And the two different spires (one 12th century and one 16th century) show how long it took to complete, although the basic building was built in record time between 1194 and 1220. The effort, as with many cathedrals, was led by one determined man. In this case it was Bishop Fulbert.

Its key relic was the Sancta Camisia, a tunic said to have been worn by the Virgin Mary. The relic had survived multiple fires, even the burning down of the original 12th century wooden cathedral.


Relics might include pieces of the True Cross (there were so many of these that the cross would have been 3,000 miles tall), or body parts of saints. The "cult of saints" was very important to medieval people. The hierarchy of the Church, with its intellectuals and powerful men, could seem very distant from the people. But saints had been ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, lauded by the church for their extreme Christianity. Saints were the intermediaries between ordinary people and the power of God. One prayed to saints to have them intercede on ones behalf. And people, even very good Christians, could not become saints without a witnessed miracle. Their relics provided a focus for prayer and access to their power as one prayed.

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Notice how in this story, Vuitbert's sight cannot be restored until he has re-entered the community of all Christians, and done so by asking their help. This is where communitarianism, worship, and daily life come together.

Medieval art was showcased in the churches and cathedrals, in stained glass windows and frescoes. Frescoes were built into a wall, because they were painted with pigments mixed with plaster. Giotto, who lived later in the High Middle Ages, created such lifelike, modern-looking frescoes that some consider him the first Renaissance painter instead of a medieval painter. He used figures in modern dress to recreate Bible stories in a contemporary town setting. For example, The Meeting at the Golden Gate (1304-1306), portraying the parents of the Virgin Mary:

Giotto Meeting at the Golden Gate

Here, James Burke explains briefly why so many of these paintings, despite the genius in their composition and portrayals, look to use as though the artists didn't know what they were doing. They did:

Burke on Medieval Art.


So when we look at art, as we did with Greek and Hellenistic art, we have to keep in mind what the society was interested in expressing. Representing the "real" world wasn't near as interesting to medieval artists as the ideal (in this case Christian) worldview. That makes it more similar to Hellenic Greek art than the other eras we've studied.

Psalter illuminationThe style of Gothic art (that is, art of the 11th-14th centuries) was strongly influenced by Byzantine art, which had a lot of color. One of the best ways to look at medieval art is the illuminations in manuscript books. What we call a "book" today is actually a "codex", since book means anything on pages. A codex is what we would call a bound book, rather than a scroll or tablet. Codices (that's the plural) were supplanting scrolls by about the 6th century. The paper was papyrus (from Egypt) or parchment (made from sheepskin) so codices were expensive objects. Some were heavily illustrated, or illuminated, by monks or painters' guilds.

Stonemasons and sculptors created Gothic beauty too. As with Greek sculpture, with medieval sculptures we have the wrong impression. The white stone sculptures surrounding doorways and lining up across facades were not plain white stone - they were usually painted. Nowadays the stained glass windows stand out because they are color against white, but in medieval times you would have been surrounded by colors.

New Religious Orders

Despite the strong traditions and the control of the Church, new ideas came in that threatened orthodoxy and community. Merchants break the traditional model of society because they travel widely. A merchant or craft guild keeps the middle class tied to a place, but merchants travel and bring things (and ideas) back with them. Following the First Crusade in 1095, trade was opened with the east, source of silks, fine art, exotic languages, spices...oh, and Zoroastrianism, Greek Christianity, and Islam. In towns and universities, new ideas were discussed with great openness, and groups of people began to form around what the Church considered heresies.

Innocent III (whom you may recall made King John of England submit to his authority) was the pope to deal with these heresies, the most serious of which was centered around the town of Albi, France. The heretics called themselves Cathari (the pure), and rejected all the earthly aspects of the Church. Theirs was a dualistic view of good (heavenly) and evil (earthly). They thus believed the body to be inherently sinful, so Jesus could not have taken both bodily and spiritual form, and the body cannot be resurrected, only the soul. They would not make war, because Jesus said to turn the other cheek. As the heresy spread, Innocent called on the King of France to put it down. The result was an internal Crusade of great lords, who ultimately murdered Albigensian men, women and children.

Francis and InnocentOther efforts to suppress heresy were less bloody. Innocent III had heard of a man who was preaching in Assisi. This man, Francis, was the son of a draper (clothmaker), and had thrown off all his wordly goods (literally - he stripped naked in the town square) for a life of poverty and preaching in town. Innocent claimed that he had a dream where he saw Francis holding up a crumbling church. Innocent approved Francis and his followers as an "order" of the church, and they became "friars". Unlike monks in monasteries, friars preach in towns. Franciscans were a mendicant order, begging their food from those they spoke to.

Of course, Innocent III also approved the group of Dominic, the Dominicans (1214) or Black Friars, whose group was originally reformed Albigensians and who took a major role against them in the crusade. Dominicans later became popular for supervising the Inquisition, another way to get heretics to recant and come back to the fold of the Church.

OK, so to get away from forced conversions let's look at the monasteries.

You may recall that the Benedictine order had been founded back in the 6th century, and were into manual labor as well as prayer to get closer to God. Over time they, and other monasteries, had become wealthy. One reason was that monasteries tended to be given bad land, donated by a lord who wanted to have a monastery there to pray for him and his family, but didn't want to provide his best soil. That was fine with the monks, who usually wanted to live away from the hustle and bustle of villages and castles. To be self-sufficient, some monasteries became particularly good at reclaiming bad land, and making it fruitful, for example in the planting of grapes. This is how many monasteries got a reputation for making good wine, and raising sheep for good wool, and selling it.

But this caused a problem, because Benedictine monasteries became so wealthy and involved in commerce and daily life that they were no longer retreats from the world. In 1098 a band of French monks left their monastery in Cluny to found a new one that would truly follow the Rule of St Benedict. Named after their new location, they were called Cistercians, and their adventure really shows the difficulty of being good at what you do! Although they meant to get away from society by founding their monastery on marshland, they drained the marsh and got really good at engineering and agriculture. In 1113, a "daughter house" was founded by Bernard of Clairvaux, who would oppose Peter Abelard (see below). There were 500 Cistercian houses by the end of that century, located all over Europe, and they were, ironically, very wealthy and splendid. plant

Monks served the community. They were called in by lords and popes for their knowledge of science and engineering. Some monks had come to the monasteries after fighting in the Crusades or leading lives in business or politics. While they might have rejected the military or personal wealth in favor of the religious life, they also brought their knowledge. Almost all monasteries had, in addition to their farms, herb gardens planted with medicinal herbs, and the monastery was the place to go for medical knowledge if your local wise woman's herbal remedies weren't enough.

Women's work

woman giving birth

Women dominated the fields of medicine and midwifery in the Middle Ages. The positions they held during this period, as with men, depended on their class. Although technically not allowed to enroll in university medical schools, we have a number of sources suggesting that they did. This would include Trotula of Salerno, who was chair of medicine in the 11th century, and wrote a textbook on gynecology. Salerno had one of the first medical schools and, possibly benefitting from the Islamic Golden Age, was advanced in treatment and divided their hospitals into wards.

Women of all classes worked hard. Aristocratic women had major responsibilities on the manor, and many noble daughters were sought out as wives if they had skills in running large households. They supervised household servants, food preparation, storage of goods, paying bills and much more. When their noble husband was away, they also organized defense and aspects of trade and business as well as the agricultural doings of the estate. For this reason, good artistocratic wives had to be literate and trained in many different areas.

Townswomen had even more independence and responsibility, because they were often in charge of the family business. In crafts, they ran the workshops with apprentices when the master was busy or away, all while watching the children. Merchant women were usually in charge of sales while their husbands did the travelling.

Peasant women, of course, worked extremely hard at manual labor, and often brought their babies and children out to the fields with them. As soon as a child could work the land, s/he was needed.


Townswomen and peasant women did not, however, benefit from the new cultural rage of the artistocracy: chivalry. Chivalry was at first about horsemanship, and likely emerged as a military code of behavior and honor among mounted knights.

Chivalric culture emerged as a way to apply this code of behavior to elite society. The most interesting aspect of chilvalry is the elevation of women to an untouchable, inspirational status. This idea may have derived from the Byzantine Empire, and have come into Europe with the Crusaders. In the east, the Virgin Mary was worshipped more than Jesus. This may have been an evolution of the Hellenistic superiority of Isis-Aphrodite, the all-powerful goddess. "Mariolatry" may have helped mitigate the Church's view of women as representing Eve, the evil temptress in the garden.

The greatest court of chivalry was that of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor had first been married to the King of France, but got the marriage annulled and married Henry II of England, with whom she had four children, including King John (yes, the Magna Carta guy). It was Eleanor's huge landholdings in France that created Henry's Angevin Empire (Angevin named for him, the Count of Anjou). But Eleanor spent much of her time in France, and her court was open to troubadors, acrobats, and entertainers of all sorts, from near and far. Her wealth patronized many artists who spread the literary and musical works of chilvaric culture.

The songs sung of chivalric deeds were called "chansons de geste". One of the most popular was the story of Roland, who had brought up the rear in Charlemagne's guard, against the evil Saracens:

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I've always found it interesting that Roland dies a hero, I guess because he didn't ask for help. But wouldn't it have been smarter to blow the damn horn and get some reinforcements?

The other major aspect of chivalric culture was something we call "courtly love". This is the practice of male-female relations among the elite, according to the chivalric standard. Men, like Roland, are to be brave and succeed (or die) in war. Women are to be pure and untouchable. The ideal setup was a noble knight, going off to war against the infidel, inspired by his pure love for his liege lord's noble wife. As wars were represented in tournaments, these knights would earn a token from the lady with their love, and carry it into battle. It's always looked to me like Mariolatry incarnate, the woman standing in for idealized love and goodness, untouchable and inspirational, like the Virgin Mary. (In fact, of course, some knights and lords' wives unfortunately fell in love, about which other great stories were written, like Tristan and Isolde, or the stories of Lancelot and Guinevere in the King Arthur legends.)

For more earthy expressions of love, between free and consenting adults, chilvalry promoted an idea of love that was based on the male emotions:

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Notice how love is supposed to be intense, secret, jealous. It is an imitation of the chilvalric relation between knight and untouchable lady.

Sexuality and the Church

But idealized forms of love could only go so far when it came to lust, and Mariolatry could only go so far when it came to the Church's view of sexual relations. The views of the early Church fathers held sway here, and most of them were highly distrustful of the body and its functions. This may have been for the same reason Augustine separated the City of God from the City of Man, like separating Christianity from Rome, and good from evil. While most dualistic systems don't necessarily see the body as evil, there was a definite anti-sexual tendency in the writings of the Church fathers.

St Paul recommended that people who couldn't control their sexual impulses should get married, but since when he marries it entangles him even more in earthly affairs, it's better to be celibate. St Augustine himself affirmed Paul's view, and added that experiencing lust was what caused Adam and Eve to cover their bodies, so there should be no lust in married sex at all - it should be done solely for procreation (read him yourself). 19th century historian Edward Gibbon, who wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, explains that this was why divorce and remarriage are forbidden. It is also likely that procreation is emphasized because of the population decline in the first centuries of the new millenium.

By the Middle Ages, these attitudes about sex had been codified and were dogma in the Church, and thus in Christendom. We know which sexual acts were being enjoyed by medieval people, because the Church published penitentials (books of penance) so that priests knew what penance to assign for each sin. The extraordinary detail in these penitentials makes it clear that the Church knew exactly what everyone was doing in bed, and for the most part disapproved, particularly of any act that did not lead to procreation. This 11th century churchman discusses the gradations of sins inherent in gay love.

Scholastic philosophy

Thinking about higher matters was, of course, a specialty of the medieval universities. Universities could begin as monastic schools, or they may have emerged from cathedral schools (as did the University of Paris), or they were created by guilds of scholars. At first universities were places to study advanced specialties, like medicine or theology. But the 11th and 12th centuries, exposed to new ideas from the east, were thirsty for knowledge. Governments began to form schools, teaching the classical curriculum, which eventually included the areas of knowledge noted by Aristotle, including rhetoric, logic and arithmetic. In fact, the recovery of Aristotle's work is considered a turning point. Much of it had been preserved and translated into Arabic by scholars like ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes), who represent the Golden Age of Islam. In Muslim Spain, Jewish scholars were working to translate Aristotle into Latin. These translations gradually became available, and their emphasis on logic caused the development of scholasticism.

Scholasticism was the movement in European universities that attempted to apply Aristotelian logic to the writings of Christianity. To me it's an effort to reconcile faith and reason, by using logic to discuss and explain matters of faith which were, after all, written about by human beings.

Peter Abelard (12th century) was a scholar at the University of Paris, and his efforts at scholasticism may have simply been too much, too soon. He openly questioned the works of the Church fathers, even though his use of logic always affirmed the faith in the documents.

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Like Socrates, he taught new techniques to young people which were not approved by others. The biggest "other" here was St Bernard of Clairvaux, the founder of the wealthy "daughter" Cistercian monasteries. He denounced Abelard's teachings, succeeded in getting Abelard's work declared heretical, and eventually defeated him at the council of bishops, forcing Abelard to retire.

(On a side note, Abelard had a rough life anyway. He fell in love with Heloise, in most ways his intellectual equal. They had an affair and didn't want to get married because of Abelard's career, but she gave birth to his son, so they married in secret to placate her uncle, who then told everyone. When Abelard sequestered Heloise in a monastery, her uncle thought Abelard was forcing Heloise to become a nun, and had him castrated by force in the middle of the night.)

I believe that the 12th century simply wasn't ready for what Abelard was doing -- it seemed too much like doubting the writings of the Church fathers. But this was the time when new heresies and ideas were entering Europe and affecting the people. By the 13th century, the time of Pope Innocent III, the Church was ready to tackle the new heresies with any tools available, even Aristotelian logic.

I think this is why Abelard was maligned, but Thomas Aquinas became a saint. He used a similar method to Abelard, applying logic to church writings.

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Aquinas' work is considered the pinnacle of scholasticism, and it served the need to convince people to return to orthodoxy, at a time when people were ready to argue against the Church's teachings rather than just accept it. Must be that university education!

Lessons of History

1. Cathedrals were symbols of urban prosperity and community.

2. Medieval artists created extraordinary and complex works in painting, sculpture, glasswork, and more.

3. The cultural trends of chivalry and scholasticism mark the era's new directions in elite culture and intellectualism.




All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.