Europe 1215 CE

European feudalism is at its height.

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What is happening in Europe in 1215CE

Medieval Europe at its height

The previous centuries have seen the rise of feudalism in western Europe. The ad-hoc arrangements by which rulers have won the support of the feudal nobility have been underpinned by a quasi-religious code of chivalry. This has been promoted by the Church and seeks to direct the warlike activities of nobles and knights towards more humane ends than might otherwise have been the case.

These centuries have also seen the western Church, headed by the popes in Rome, reach the height of its power.

Church against state

Few kingdoms in western Europe have escaped its impact. In some places (for example, France) the Church’s influence has strengthened royal power by providing religious sanctions against those who oppose it; in other places (notably Germany and Italy, both of which are wholly or partly within the Holy Roman Empire) it has gravely weakened central authority by offering religious support for rebellious nobles. In yet others (England) the clash between royal and church power has been dramatic but indecisive.

The Crusades

Despite these tensions, Christendom has continued to expand in northern, central and eastern Europe. In Spain, too, the Christian kingdoms have won considerable territory from the Muslims.

Another field for expansion for western (Catholic) Christendom has been in the Middle East. A succession of great military expeditions, called into action by the popes and known as the Crusades, initially succeeded in taking the holy city of Jerusalem from the Muslims and creating a number of Crusader states in Syria and Palestine. However, Muslim forces have now driven the Crusaders back to small coastal enclaves. In fact the Crusaders have recently turned against the historic Christian city of Constantinople, and the Byzantine empire is now under occupation by Crusader rulers and their forces.

Commercial expansion

One by-product of the Crusades, however, has been that Christian (mainly Italian) shipping has come to dominate much of the trade of the Mediterranean, and this has helped lift European commerce. So too has an increase in trade in the Baltic and North Sea.

These developments are but part of a general upswing in Europe’s economic fortunes in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. Much new land had been brought under the plough (much heavier than any before, developed especially for the heavy soil of northern climates) and populations have expanded strongly. The feudal system has succeeded in enforcing a certain degree of order on an unruly society, and this has allowed local as well as international trade to increase. A new class of prosperous merchants are helping to turn the growing towns and cities into centres of power in their own right.

New wealth has been devoted to the construction of magnificent cathedrals and churches across Europe. Some of it is also going into the foundation of new schools and universities. Learning is returning to the region. Much of this – especially in science, mathematics and medicine – is coming into Christendom from the Muslim world.

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