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Western Europe and the Age of the Cathedrals, 1000–1300 C.E.

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Overview of this Period

This period witnessed great agricultural expansion, which made possible considerable population growth, which in turn contributed to the rise and growth of towns. A general commercial revival, especially of long-distance trade, brought Europeans, at least indirectly, into contact with many parts of the eastern Mediterranean, East Africa, East and Southeast Asia. Agricultural and commercial revivals allowed for upward social mobility. The period also saw remarkable intellectual creativity, with results including the uniquely European educational institution, the university; stunning architectural and artistic vitality; technological change, especially in the tremendous spurt in the use of energy, as in water and windmills and the discovery of new ironcasting techniques; and spiritual piety. Perhaps the best indication of all this change is the medieval cathedral, a symbol of local civic pride, wealth, architectural imagination, and deep religious feeling. In this rich and creative era, the Roman papacy led the way in the development of administrative techniques; England, in the formation of political institutions, including the law; and France, in the evolution of sophisticated cultural influences.


Xenophobia (especially against Muslims) resulted from the long crusading tradition; the general systematization of civil and ecclesiastical law stressing social and religious conformity led to increasing hostility against those perceived as social outsiders, aliens. This new intolerance manifested itself first in the expulsion of the Jews (from England in 1290, France in 1306), then in legislation against homosexuals, enacted in Norway (1250), Castile (1250), Siena (1262), Bologna (1265), England (1275), France (1283), Florence (c. 1340); adults convicted were sentenced to death by burning. These laws remained on the books until the 1960s.


The great availability of slave labor in the ancient and early medieval worlds had retarded thedevelopment of water mills. The 10th and 11th centuries, however, witnessed a spectacular increase in the number of water mills; for example, the Robec River near Rouen in Normandy had 2 mills in the 10th century, 4 in the 11th century, 10 in the 13th century, and 12 in the 14th century. The Domesday Book recorded 5,624 water mills in England in 1086; many manors had at least one mill for grinding grain, fulling (the process of scouring, cleaning, and thickening cloth), stone cutting, and wood cutting. The windmill (documented from the 12th century) was more complex than that used in the East, due to the more variable winds of Europe. Cistercian monks often took the lead in establishing mines: iron (Furness in Lancashire, Igny in Champagne), coal (Newbattle in Scotland, Grünhain in Bohemia), salt (Wachock near Kraków in Poland, Aussee in Austria), and silver (Grünhain, Altzelle in Saxony). Communications improved partly because bridge and road building was considered a social duty and partly because of the more effective use of animal power. Communication by sea was improved by the Lateen sail, in use in Italy in the 11th century, and by the sternpost rudder compass and the astrolabe, about which Europeans learned from the Muslims.

Along with the increase in the construction of stone bridges came an increase in the number of stone buildings; between 1180 and 1270 in France alone, 80 cathedrals, 500 abbey churches, and tens of thousands of parish churches were constructed in stone; more stone was quarried for churches in medieval France than had been extracted for the Great Pyramid in ancient Egypt, which alone had consumed 40.5 million cubic feet of stone. All these churches displayed a new architectural style, which 15th-century critics called gothic. Europeans’ greater knowledge of architectural techniques—the distribution of weight, arches—derived from Arabic contacts and sources.

The textile industry developed, making use of wool, linen, cotton, and silk. The spinning wheel dates from the 13th century and is the first example of belt-driven power transmission. Soap was also invented and produced on a large scale by the 12th century. The most important development was in the discovery of iron-casting techniques; tools and weapons could be more efficiently produced. Gunpowder, although known in Europe in the 13th century, did not become revolutionary until the 14th century, when it was first used to propel missiles


As in earlier centuries, women worked alongside men in all agricultural work, such as grain cultivation and viticulture, and in the preparation of wool and dyes in the textile industry; they dominated the production of ale and beer; they supplemented household income with poultry farming and the manufacture of cheese. Through a practical apprenticeship, women learned midwifery, and, until around 1400, women attended all births; beginning in the 13th century, midwives sometimes found it necessary to deliver the child by cesarian section, but in the 14th century doctors’ guilds and medical schools restricted the performance of cesarians to licensed surgeons, while denying women entrance to medical schools. By the late 14th century, women were engaged in every urban commercial activity as helpmates to husbands and independently; in many manufacturing trades (e.g., in the Parisian silk and woolen industries), women predominated. In the 15th century many craft guilds (such as at Cologne) greatly restricted or entirely excluded female members.

In the 12th century, the cult of the saints (persons considered outstanding in holiness) gained great popularity: resting on the customary relationship of mutual fidelity and aid, the pious offered prayers and gifts in return for support and healing. Initiative in creating a saint belonged to ordinary believers, in spite of papal efforts at centralization. Social structures in different parts of Europe had different models of holiness: Italy and Mediterranean lands chose popolani (non-nobles), whereas in France, Germany, and England, primarily persons of noble status tended to be selected as saints.

At the center of the new (12th-century) sacramental system stood the Eucharist of the Mass, which Christians believed after priestly consecration became the living body and blood of Christ and a most important channel of grace. Beginning in the 11th century, because of her special relationship to Christ, there was a huge outpouring of devotion to the Virgin Mary, as a powerful intercessor with Christ. Prayers, hymns, ceremonies were created to honor her; many churches, including all Cistercian monasteries, were dedicated to her.

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