If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Pre-colonization European society

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


  • 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.


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.

Want to join the conversation?

  • piceratops sapling style avatar for user 林學鴻
    During the Middle Ages, disease decimated many large cities, shrinking population and concentrating wealth.
    Why wealth was concentrated ?
    (10 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Kim Kutz Elliott
      From the author:Fewer people meant more money for individuals. For example, imagine an economy where there are 100 people and 100 dollars to go around (this is a very simplified example). If wealth were divided evenly, every person would have $1. But now imagine that half of those people were killed by disease. Now everyone has $2. That doesn't sound like a lot, but if we think of it proportionally, it's twice as much as what they had before.

      Many historians credit the rise of the Renaissance to the Black Plague because it put more wealth in fewer hands, who went on to invest in the arts.
      (41 votes)
  • leafers seed style avatar for user sydney coxon
    the social studdies why is it important to learn social studdies in school
    (0 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user briancsherman
      Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. - George Santayana

      Making mistakes is one of the best ways we have of learning how to do things better and more effectively. We try something one way and see if it works - if it doesn't, then we try another. It is possible to not only learn from our own mistakes and successes, but from those of others. Learning social studies shows you how people have done things in the past and from that, we can see what works and what doesn't. We also learn how things came to be what they are today.

      For instance, this section on pre-colonization Europe teaches about the plague. That's serious stuff, a disease the spread and killed many people! It ties into many things we have to consider today. Healthcare is still an important issue in the world, and knowledge of diseases and best ways to treat illness can help us now and in the future.
      (32 votes)
  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user thepanda2713
    In the second to last paragraph,it says, "All events had a spiritual connotation. Sickness, for example, might be a sign that a person had sinned."
    So,my question is this:
    What happened if the priest got sick? I mean,what if someone in confession had a cold,didn't know it,infected the priest,and the priest caught it?Would they assume that the priest had sinned,or simply give him the benefit of the doubt and shrug it off as him having been out in the cold rain for a while? And on that note,has there ever been a recorded incident where the above has happened?
    (12 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • duskpin seedling style avatar for user Michelle Maldonado
      If the priest got sick then the people would have thought god is giving them a warning. If someone at confession had a cold, but didn't know the priest must have known but didn't use protection to help prevent him from getting sick. If the people thought the priest was sinned they would have tried t get rid of him instead on thinking that he got sick from the cold rain. There has been no recorded incident where the priest getting sick from a person or the cold rain.
      (4 votes)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user NicoleChoi
    how did the rats carry the black death?
    (7 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user briancsherman
      The Black Death is believed to be the bubonic plague, which is caused by a bacteria known as yersinia pestis. The bacteria can live in rodents and fleas as well as humans. So if a rat had the black death and a flea bit the rat, the flea then became a carrier of the bacteria. The flea could then bite a human, passing the bacteria to the person. The Black Death struck in the 1300s - bacteria weren't understood and identified until the late 1600s, so people didn't know how the black death was spreading when it happened. It didn't have to be through direct contact with a sick person - and fleas are hard to see.
      (13 votes)
  • blobby blue style avatar for user Ava
    Serfdom was similar to African Slavery because the Serfs were bound to the land and different because they received a benefit in return for working the land, is that correct? And also, the Christian Church had political power via very influential in the lives of the people and served as a gathering place. I'm not sure I understand the Christian Church's influence economically or on how to explain its control over European colonization. Could you help me better grasp that? Also, one thing that stood out to me in the 2nd paragraph of The role of religion in early Europe is, quote, "..atone for their acts and save themselves from eternal damnation." If I'm getting my theology right, there's a book in the Bible, Ephesians I think, that contains the text quote, "For by grace are you saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works so that no one can boast." That's in English Standard Version. I'm a bit of a Bible nerd so I couldn't help but notice that and it makes me wonder if there's a contradiction between those statements, respectfully. Please correct me if I'm wrong or missing something and thanks so much for the article and questions. I'm the brother of the owner of this username and couldn't get my own on and was worried on how to prepare for US History this year so I jumped in. Thanks!
    (6 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leafers tree style avatar for user L. E.
      Hmm... I believe for your first statement, serfdom was more like a permanent agreement one couldn't get out of, while slavery never had any agreement in the first place. Serfs worked for their masters (usually lords or nobles) in exchange for land to live on and protection in wars, while slaves worked for their masters for whatever the masters felt like (or didn't feel like) giving them.

      As for your second question... you're right. One is saved through Christ alone, not by anything one does (otherwise why the need for the cross?)

      The Catholic church, which was pretty much the only Christian denomination until the Protestant Reformation, believed in works-based salvation (sort of), and also if one donated to the church then one would get years off purgatory (which is not at all how it works-- the Catholic church of the Middle Ages was rather corrupt, honestly).

      If you're interested, I'd recommend: How Then Shall We Live by Francis Schaeffer, which is a very interesting study of the church, culture, and widespread human beliefs, all the way from the Roman times to today.

      Apologies for the rather scattered reply, but I hope this helps!
      (9 votes)
  • starky ultimate style avatar for user tienepperson
    Is this even U.S history anymore?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Success The Best💞
    It's rather sad what serfs went through...
    (6 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • male robot hal style avatar for user Zev Oster
      60% percent of all the years ever lived were by farmers of one sort or another, and it easy to believe that most of them were serfs. Once a people adopts agriculture, there seems to be a trend throughout history: it starts out small, becomes more efficient, the caveats of that efficiency take time away from hunting and gathering until it is rarely done at all. More food means more people requiring either more violence or stronger social structure to coexist. The reliance on a single food source allows blights and droughts to be far more damning. Eventually, the greater population size, by the laws of probability, produces someone smart and free enough to come up with the next big thing. These big things, over time, make the standard of living slightly higher. After many thousands of years, the average person's life doesn't completely suck anymore, but was all the hardship of the billions of people before us worth it?
      (6 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user sandra.luz.williamson
    This may be off topic of what it is teaching me,
    They are teaching us about the past of what has happened.
    So my question is?.....
    "Are they teaching us about the past or the future?"
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      If you have a cyclic view of time, then history is also the future.
      If you have a linear view of time, then history is repeating itself, because people didn't learn lessons the last time this stuff happened.

      If you have a pendular view of time, then the pendulum is swinging back to the other end of its arc.

      All of these are metaphors. Pick your poison.
      (4 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user tcescstudent.camsmi
    Why did they call it the black plague.
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • male robot hal style avatar for user cgentry03
    why did the plaque happen and why did it just stop?
    (6 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leafers sapling style avatar for user Allie Ma
      One of the main reasons as of how the Bubonic Plague was able to spread so much and so quickly was due to the Mongols.

      One of these factors were the Silk Road trade. During this time, the Mongols, who were now ruling over China in the Yuan Dynasty, supported the Silk Road trade network once more. They protected traders so well that it was believed that one could "walk from one end to the other with a gold plate on their head." Thus, people and animals such as rats would walk around more and spread this disease.

      Another factor was how the Mongols had fought with a fort somewhere around the Northeast of the Mediterranean Sea (I forgot the name of the place, sorry) and threw sick bodies into the sort continuously. It acted as an area of high "contamination" where animals would feed off of and become infested with the plague.

      Although the last part you may need to spend more time in researching into it, the Mongols did have a strong impact on the spread of the Bubonic Plague during their time.
      (2 votes)