[Sunflower logo of the Kansas Heritage
Group]Lectures in Medieval History

Five Contributions of the Middle Ages

I'm not in love with the idea of "the contributions" of the past. It reminds me a bit too much of my elementary school days....

Teacher: What do we owe to the Ancient Greeks?
Class responding in unison: Democracy!.
Teacher: And what do we owe to the Ancient Romans?
Class responding in unison: Representative government!
Teacher: And what do we owe to the Ancient Egyptians?
Class responding in unison: Duh!
Teacher: Embalming! We owe embalming to the Ancient Egyptians.

I was only a kid, but I was already weighed down with a burden of debt and half expected a bunch of Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians to appear at my back door, demanding payment. I told myself that the Egyptians weren't going to get much from me since embalming was a yucky business at best.

But that's one way of studying history. There are other - and, in my humble opinion, better - ways of going about it. You can study a past civilization like an anthropologist observes the people of some South Sea Island, or you could simply relax and appreciate the way they did things, enjoy their art and architecture, literature and music, and peraps try to understand how their society worked and how they looked at the world. That's a pleasant and worthwhile thing to do. It broadens one's horizons, stimulates thought, and leads to a greater toleration of the variety of human beings and their ways. That's why History is usually classified as one of the Humanities, and it's why I usually view with suspicion people who stick it under the Social Sciences.

But that approach is not very useful, and people seem to like useful things, although I have noticed that they are very easily led to spend their money on football and basketball games, rock concerts, movies, posters, life-sized busts of Elvis Presley with a night light inside, and other things that that I don't believe actually qualify as really useful. But it's perfectly legitimate to study the past in order to look for the origins of those things that are presently important parts of our lives. Socrates' motto was Know yourself, by which he meant that you have to understand who you are, what your purpose in life is, and how you came to be the person you are before you try to understand other people and other things.

I'll go along with that. So let me suggest what I think are the things that originated in the middle ages that have been most important in shaping my life. I could jump at the obvious ones, and say that probably the most important contribution of medieval Europe was its development, in the thirteenth century, of eye-glasses. If there were no eye-glasses, I couldn't see well enough to avoid walking into houses and trees much less be able to earn a living. I suppose that Sam the Dog would continue to keep me from walking out into the street and getting run over, but Sam the Dog is getting old and can't see too well himself. He's beginning to depend upon me to point out squirrels that he can chase up into the trees, but that's another story. I'll try to limit myself to the big things, the sort of things that might have shaped your life as well as mine.


Sir Kenneth Clark wrote and directed a series of movies on the History of Art which he called Civilisation (which is how the British spell it. They also drink a mixture of beer and cider and make the worst coffee in the world). In the first scene of the first movie, Sir Kenneth is sitting with the great Roman aqueduct of Nimes (in France) behind him and is saying (as he nonchalantly waves his hand at the mass of stone behind him) I don't know what civilisation consists of, but I know it when I see it. I must confess that scene irritates me deeply, and that I often find myself muttering something like Yeah? Well, Kenny, old chap, how many slaves do you think were killed or beaten to death to build that thing behind you?

The fact of the matter is that Ancient Rome, like Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, and every other civilization preceding medieval Europe, was a slave society, and all of the great monuments of antiquity that we admire so much were built with the blood and sweat and bodies of slaves.

But, you might say, medieval Europe was not a free society, was it? What about the serfs and oppressed peasants? True enough, but the Romans thought of their slaves simply as possessions. The Roman slave-owner had absolute power over his slaves and could torture them to death for the fun of it if he wished, without anyone suggesting that there might be anything wrong with what he was doing. In medieval society, by contrast, every man and woman was regarded as a unique creation of God and as the possessor of a soul which was the gift of God. Throughout the medieval period, people became more and more convinced that slavery was evil and against the law of God. The passage from the Gospel According to St Matthew was often quoted: The laborer is worthy of his hire, which people understood to mean that labor had to be bought from a person, not simply taken away from him. By the close of the middle ages, slavery had virtually vanished from Western Europe.

But didn't those same Europeans enslave the Africans? Yes, that's true, but that was something of an exception. They imitated the long-standing Muslim trade in African slaves in order to get workers to exploit the fever-ridden lands of the New World. Black slavery reached its peak in the 17th and 18th centuries, but many Europeans had always thought that the slave trade was evil. It was Europeans who made it illegal and ended it during the nineteenth century. Hundreds of thousands of men of European descent died to end slavery in America. We often fall short of the ideal of freedom for all, but we do have that ideal. It was born in medieval Europe and sprang from the Europeans' view of the nature of human beings.


You're probably surprised that I think that a stratified and status-ridden society like medieval Europe was the origin of the concept of equality. As I said, we often fall short of our ideals, but our ideal of the integrity of the individual was born in medieval Europe. The Greek Stoics, whose philosophy had a great effect on the early Christian Church, held that there was a Brotherhood of Man and that the highest calling of every person was to treat others justly and compassionately. In the minds of the Stoics, however, this meant that people should be kind to their slaves, not that there shouldn't be any slaves at all.

Under the best of conditions, such as in a well-run Benedictine monastery, medieval Europeans strove to achieve this ideal of equality. A tightly-run organization such as a monastery required some hierarchy, but the Benedictines based theirs solely upon seniority. Whoever had entered the monastery first held precedence over all those who had entered afterwards, regardless of what rank or status they might have held in secular life. There is a neat story about this. A nobleman had decided to abandon secular life and enter a monastery that he had endowed with considerable wealth. When he rode up to the gate of the monastery, with his slave trotting along behind him and carrying his luggage, the abbot had the gates opened wide and greeted the noble with deference. When he was asked to step inside, the noble told his slave to take in his baggage. The slave did so and entered the monastery a couple of paces in front of his master. For the rest of his life, the noble had to defer to his former slave since the slave had entered monastic life before he had.

It's easy enough to see that the idea of democracy, that the people should have the deciding voice in the actions of the state, society, and economy, depends upon the acceptance of the ideals of freedom and equality. That being the case, the idea that we owe democracy to the Greeks is a fiction. The people of Athens, the most "democratic" of the Greek city-states, did not allow women, slaves, and foreigners to vote, and a person was considered to be a foreigner unless his grandfather had enjoyed the rights of Athenian citizenship. It was, in fact, a closed society, and no one was allowed in.


As long as we're talking about monasteries, you might consider re-reading the Benedictine Rule, the written law that governed monastic life through the medieval period and down to the present day. You'll note that the abbot has absolute power, except that he must keep to the regulations laid down in the Rule and that he must confer with his monks on all important matters. The fact was that a chapter of the Rule was read to the monks each day, so that they knew what those regulations were. Benedict never said anything in his rule about rebellion, but one can find numerous instance in the history of the period when monks rejected the authority of an abbot who was ignoring the Rule, expelled him, and elected another leader in his place. So the authority of the abbot was not absolute, but was limited by a written document which everyone understood. I should think that is the essence of constitutional law.

This sort of approach to governance was largely limited to the cloistered monastery, but I suspect that it had a slow and steady influence upon the secular world, if only as an ideal. Benedictine monks served the kings and princes of Western Europe as administrators and advisors throughout the medieval period. Lanfranc was the advisor of William I of England, and Anselm was the advisor of William II. Both had been abbots of the little Norman Benedictine monastery of Bec, where the study of law had reached a high point in the early eleventh century. At the same time, scholars such as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas emphasized that there were universal laws, established by God, that humans, no matter how powerful they might be, could not set aside. Although much is made of the degree to which the Founding Fathers of the United States were influenced by the Romans, the opening words of the Declaration of Independence

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights...

read very much as if Thomas Jefferson was influenced by the medieval thinkers who searched for the relationship between Divine and the Natural Laws. His phrase, the laws of Nature and of Nature's God, would seem to me to confirm that the fundamental ideals of our nation were derived as much from medieval thought as from either the Greeks or the Romans.


There was, in the small town where I went to high school, quite a gap between the social classes. On the one hand, there were several wealthy families who owned factories and, on the other hand, the people who worked in those factories. There were also the families of doctors, lawyers, and store-owners who tried very hard to keep up with the wealthy families. My parents came from what used to be called "the working class," and both I and my friends worked full- or part-time from the age of sixteen, the minimum age when it became legal to do so. The sons and daughters of the wealthy families in my town lived quite differently. While I and my friends worked in a factory during the summers, they spent their summers in their family's summer home on Georgian Bay or some similar place, or travelled to Europe. The person with the lead role in the school play, the winner of the Daughters of the American Revolution Essay contest, the class valedictorian, the cheer leaders, and even the half- back who was sent in to score a touchdown after the football team had taken the ball down to the one-yard line were all the sons and daughters of the wealthy. I don't know if such social inequities and snobbery still exist in small towns today. I hope not. But it might explain why I think that the concept of the dignity of labor is so important.

I mentioned that civilizations before medieval Europe were all based upon the exploitation of a mass of enslaved human beings. In such a society, it would have been impossible not to consider labor a pursuit fitting only to a slave. Even if free people were forced to work in order to gain food and shelter, they were regarded as having lowered themselves by soiling their hands with labor. People went to extremes in order to demonstrate to everyone that they did not have to work for a living. In China, the Mandarins, or upper class, used to let their fingernails grow to such a length that they could scarcely hold a tea cup in their hands. They bound up the feet of their daughters so that the girls would grow up to have club feet and be unable to walk unaided. All of this was to show that they did not, could not, labor. Traces of this attitude still exist today. Why do people go to tanning parlors when they know that tanning harms the skin and can lead to skin cancer? The answer would seem to be that a tanned skin is considered beautiful. It shows that you don't have to spend summer days in a factory or office. Back when most people worked outside, some people were very careful to wear broad-brimmed hats or wear gloves and carry parasols to shield their skin from the sun, and used white powder on their face and arms. Thorstein Veblen wrote an interesting book on this matter called The Theory of the Leisure Class.

Medieval society might have been stratified into "Those who fight, those who work, and those who pray," but, throughout the medieval period, the Church exerted a steady influence in establishing that work was not demeaning and that a human being did not lose his or her dignity through labor. The Benedictine monks were supposed to spend one third of their time sleeping, one-third praying, and one-third working. The work might consist of painting pictures or copying manuscripts, but it was still considered work, and the monks of Cluny emphasized to all of their rich and noble patrons that they each did physical labor. "Joyous labor is a praise of God" was one of the mottos of the time. Even the holy hermits who retreated into isolation built their shelters with their own hands and worked little gardens from which they fed themselves. The wandering Franciscans who lived by charity were ordered not simply to accept food that was given to them, but to ask to be given some work to do so that they might earn what they received. Over the years, Europeans developed an attitude toward labor that was unique among the advanced civilizations of the world.

Of course, it's not easy for people to accept the idea that, somehow or another, it's better to work than to goof off, or that something that is earned is worth more than something that is simply given to one. The human is, so they say, innately lazy, and so class distinctions and snobbery keep creeping back into society. But the general tendency is for the mass of the people to reject the idea that they are somehow inferior because they have to work for what they get, and this is an important factor in keeping our society as free as it is. Our problems seem to spring from a lack of truly productive jobs, not an aversion to them.


Many students, in their answers to history essay questions, write such things as the people did this or the people demanded that. For the most part, throughout history, the people have had little or no say in what happened to them. Even when they did, not everyone thought that it was a good idea. The Founding Fathers of the United States tended to equate democracy with mob rule, and tried to avoid it by limiting the power of the people by removing them from the actual processes of decision-making. Ancient Athens is supposed to have been a democracy, but participation in the government of the city was limited to a minority of the population. Ancient Rome is supposed to have had representative government, but the Roman Senate was an hereditary body limited to the wealthy and noble, in which the Senators represented nobody except themselves.

The principle of popular sovereignty seems to have been a product of the middle ages. The Church would sometime note vox populi vox Dei, "The voice of the people is the voice of God," but didn't often put the principle into practice. The residents of the medieval towns of the eleventh and twelfth centuries did put it into practice, however, when they rebelled against their overlords, gained charters of liberties, and set themselves up as independent, self-governing "commonwealths." The Swiss peasants of the mountain cantons of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden put it into practice when they overthrew their Habsburg lords and began to rule themselves. So did John Ball, John Wyclif, and Jan Hus (why was everyone named "John"?) when they rejected the notion that God intended that a few should rule over the many. So, too, did William of Ockham, when he argued that "categories" such as justice, truth, and beauty were constructed by common consent.

Most of the medieval institutions of popular will did not survive. Parliament, Switzerland, the folk moot of Iceland, and a few others lasted into the modern era, but it was not until the so-called liberal revolutions that began in the late eighteenth century that the mass of the people began to attempt to seize power for themselves. I don't believe, though, that this would have happened if it had not been for the men and women of medieval Europe. For centuries, they kept challenging the idea that the submission of the many to the few was a natural state of affairs or in accordance with Divine Will. The men and women of modern times simply continued what their forebears had begun, until the time came when it was possible to challenge aristocratic rule directly. I don't suppose than anyone would argue that the mass of the people really decides what happens in modern society, but that is the ideal toward which most of us strive we, and the world would be a much worse place were that not so.

Anyway, that's my choice for the five most important contributions of the middle ages to the modern world. This sort of thing is always a personal matter; someone else might propose five completely different things. One might argue for the university, Protestantism, the establishment of a world economy, the Industrial Revolution, the Capitalist system, or any one of a number of other things. The challenge is to try to decide what is basic.


Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of
Medieval History
The University of Kansas
Lawrence, Kansas

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