The Church, disease, and large urban centers dictated societal structure in European societies before colonization of the New World.

Overview

  • During the Middle Ages, disease decimated many large cities, shrinking population and concentrating wealth.
  • European societies used the feudal system to organize labor and power in the Middle Ages. Europeans operated under a belief of private property rights, as opposed to communal African or Native American societies of the time.
  • These societies were united by the Christian Church, which served as the foundational organizing institution of many Europeans' daily lives.

Plague and repopulation

The fall of the Roman Empire (476 CE) and the beginning of the European Renaissance in the late fourteenth century roughly bookend the period of the Middle Ages. Without a dominant centralized power or overarching cultural hub, Europe experienced political and military discord. Social and economic devastation arrived in the 1340s when Genoese merchants returning from the Black Sea unwittingly brought with them a rat-borne and highly contagious disease: the bubonic plague. In a few short years, it had killed about one-third of Europe’s population. The effects of the devastating disease are known as the Black Death.
A high birth rate, however, coupled with bountiful harvests, meant that the population grew during the next century. By 1450, a newly rejuvenated European society, smaller and more prosperous than before, was on the brink of renaissance.
The plague. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Feudalism

During the Middle Ages, most Europeans lived in small villages that consisted of a manorial house or castle for the lord, a church, and simple homes for the peasants or serfs, who altogether made up about 60 percent of western Europe’s population.
Europe’s feudal society was a mutually supportive system, at least in theory. The lords owned the land; the knights gave military service to a lord and carried out his justice; the serfs worked the land in return for the protection from invaders within the walls of the lord’s castle or city. Feudal society was first based on communal farming, but as lords became more powerful, they privatized their ownership and rented land to their subjects. Thus, although they were technically free, serfs were effectively bound to the land they worked, which supported them and their families, as well as the lord and all who depended on him. In practice, serfdom looked more like slavery than employment.
A serf’s life was difficult. Women often died in childbirth, and perhaps one-third of children died before the age of five. Without sanitation or medicine, many people perished from diseases we consider inconsequential today; few lived to be older than forty-five. Most individuals owned no more than two sets of clothing, consisting of a woolen jacket or tunic and linen undergarments, and bathed only when the waters melted in spring. In an agrarian society, the seasons dictated the rhythm of life. Bad weather, crop disease, or insect infestation could cause an entire village to starve or force the survivors to relocate.
The feudal system depicted. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The role of religion in early Europe

After the fall of Rome, the Christian Church—united in dogma but unofficially divided into western and eastern branches—was the only organized institution in medieval Europe. Before the Protestant Reformation, Christianity had one dominant sect: Catholicism. Just as agrarian life depended on the seasons, village and family life revolved around the Church. The sacraments, or special ceremonies of the Church, marked every stage of life, from birth to marriage to burial. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, it replaced pagan and animistic views, explaining supernatural events and forces of nature in its own terms. God in heaven, creator of the universe and beyond the realm of nature and the known, controlled all events, warring against the force of darkness, known as the Devil or Satan, here on earth.
All events had a spiritual connotation. Sickness, for example, might be a sign that a person had sinned. Penitents confessed to the priest, who absolved them and assigned them penance to atone for their acts and save themselves from eternal damnation. Thus the parish priest held enormous power over the lives of his parishioners.
Ultimately, the pope decided all matters of theology, interpreting the will of God to the people, but he also had authority over temporal matters. Because the Church had the ability to excommunicate people, or ban them from the church, even monarchs feared to challenge its power. It was also the seat of all knowledge. Latin, the language of the Church, served as a unifying factor for a continent of isolated regions, each with its own dialect. The mostly illiterate serfs were thus dependent on those literate priests to read and interpret the Bible, the word of God, for them. The feudal system, therefore, relied on the sanctity and fervor of religion to keep serfs tied to their lord.
Reverence of the Catholic church. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

What do you think?

How was serfdom similar to African slavery? How was it different?
How did the Christian Church affect political, economic, and social life of the Middle Ages?
Explain how the Christian church dictated future European colonization projects.
This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
This article was adapted from Europe on the Brink of Change. OpenStax College, US History. OpenStax CNX. 2016.
Notes
  1. David Kennedy and Lizabeth Cohen, The American Pageant: A History of the American People, 15th (AP) edition (Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2013)
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