Geography of Europe
If YOU were there…
Your village is on the banks of a river. The river has created a flat plain where you can grow crops. The river also gives you a way to get to the sea and to trade with villages farther inland. You love your village and think it’s the perfect place to live. But your favorite uncle, the one everyone looks up to, says he is very worried. Your village is in a very dangerous place.
Why do you think your uncle is worried?
BUILDING BACKGROUND Many villages in Europe were built on rivers. But rivers were only one of the physical features that affected where and how people lived in Europe. All of Europe’s features—its landforms, its waterways, and its climates—played roles in shaping people’s lives.
The Physical Features of Europe
Europe is a small continent, but it is very diverse. Many different landforms, water features, and climates can be found there.
Although we call Europe a continent, it is actually part of Eurasia, the large landmass that includes both Europe and Asia. Geographers consider the Ural Mountains to be the boundary between the two continents.
Landforms and Waterways
Look at the map of Europe. You can see that different parts of Europe have very different features. In other words, Europe’s topography (tuh-PAH-gruh-fee) varies widely from place to place. Topography refers to the shape and elevation of land in refers a region.
Mountain ranges cover much of southern Europe. Some peaks in the Alps reach higher than 15,000 feet. The highest mountains have large snowfields and glaciers.
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North of the Alps, the land is much flatter than in southern Europe. In fact, most of northern Europe is part of the vast Northern European Plain. As you can see on the map, this plain stretches all the way from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Ural Mountains in the east. In the past, this huge expanse of land was covered with thick forests. Many types of trees grew well in the plain’s rich, fertile soils.
The Northern European Plain is also the location of most of Europe’s major rivers. Many of these rivers begin with melting snow in the southern mountains and flow out across the plain on their way northward to the sea.
If you travel even farther north from the Northern European Plain, the land starts to rise again. Far northern Europe has many rugged hills and low mountains.
You can see these hills and mountains in the northern part of the British Isles and in Scandinavia, Europe’s largest peninsula. Scandinavia is only one of Europe’s many peninsulas. Smaller peninsulas extend into the sea from many parts of Europe. These peninsulas give Europe a very long, jagged coastline.
Climate and Vegetation
Like its landforms, Europe’s climates and vegetation vary widely from region to region. For example, southern Europe is largely warm and sunny. As a result, shrubs and trees that don’t need a lot of water are common there.
Most of northwestern Europe, in contrast, has a mild and cooler, wetter climate. Cold winds from the north and northeast can bring freezing weather in winter.
Freezing weather is much more common in Scandinavia, though. That region is very cold throughout the year. Snow falls for much of the year, and few plants can survive the region’s cold climates.
Geography Shapes Life
As in other parts of the world, geography has affected history in Europe. It influenced where and how people lived.
In southern Europe, most people lived on coastal plains or in river valleys where the land was flat enough to farm. People grew crops like grapes and olives that could survive the region’s dry summers. In the mountains where the land was steep or rocky, people raised sheep and goats.
Because southern Europe has many peninsulas, people there don’t live far from the sea. As a result, many became traders and seafarers.
Most people in northern Europe lived farther from the sea. They still had access to the sea, however, through northern Europe’s rivers. Because rivers were an easy method of transportation, towns grew up along them. Rivers also provided protection. The city of Paris, France, for example, was built on an island in a river to make the city hard for raiders to reach.
In the fields around cities, farmers grew all sorts of crops. These fields were excellent farmlands, but the flat land also made an easy route for invaders to follow. No mountains blocked people’s access to northern Europe, and as a result, the region was frequently invaded.
SUMMARY AND PREVIEW You have just read about the role Europe’s geography played in its history. Because Europe has so many types of landforms and climates, many different ways of life developed there. Also, northern Europe had few natural barriers to prevent invasions. In the next section, you will learn how Europe changed when invasions did occur.
Europe after the Fall of Rome
If YOU were there…
You’re returning to your village in northern Europe after a hard day working in the fields. But as you reach the top of a hill, you smell smoke. Alarmed, you break into a run. Finally, your village comes into sight, and your fears are realized. Your village is on fire! In the distance, you can see sails moving away on the river.
What do you think has happened to your village?
BUILDING BACKGROUND Europe was a dangerous place after Rome fell. Without the Roman government, Europe had no central authority to keep order. As a result, outlaws and bandits became common. At the same time, new groups of people were moving into Europe. Violence was common. Distressed, people looked for ways to bring order and comfort into their lives.
Christianity Spreads to Northern Europe
As the Roman Empire fell, various groups from the north and east moved into former Roman lands. As they moved in, these groups created their own states. The rulers of these states, usually powerful warlords, began to call themselves kings. These kings often fought among themselves. As a result, by the early 500s Europe was divided into many small kingdoms.
The creation of these kingdoms marked the beginning of the Middle Ages, a period that lasted from about 500 to about 1500. We call this time the “middle” ages because it falls between ancient times and modern times. Another name for the Middle Ages is the medieval (mee-DEE-vuhl) period, from the Latin words for “middle age.”
At the beginning of the Middle Ages, many of the kingdoms of northern Europe were not Christian. Christianity was only common in places that had been part of the Roman Empire, such as Italy and Spain. As time passed, however, Christianity slowly spread farther north. This spread was largely through the efforts of two groups of Christians—missionaries and monks.
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Perhaps the most powerful force that helped spread Christianity into northern Europe was the pope. Over the years, many popes sent missionaries to teach people in northern kingdoms about Christianity. Missionaries are people who try to convert others to a particular religion. Some missionaries traveled great distances to spread Christianity to new lands.
One of the first places to which popes sent missionaries was Britain. These missionaries traveled all over the island, and eventually most people in Britain became Christian. From Britain, other missionaries carried Christianity into what are now France and Germany.
Not all missionaries, though, were sent by the pope. In fact, one of the first missionaries to travel to northern Europe was Patrick, who took it upon himself to teach people about Christianity. In the mid-400s Patrick traveled from Britain to Ireland to convert the people there.
Unlike most missionaries, Patrick traveled alone. Although he faced resistance to his teachings, he eventually converted the Irish people to Christianity.
While missionaries traveled to spread Christian teachings, men called monks were equally dedicated to their faith. Monks were religious men who lived apart from society in isolated communities. In these communities, monks spent their time in prayer, work, and meditation.
Communities of monks, or monasteries, were built all over Europe in the Middle Ages. Life in a monastery was strictly organized. The monks had to follow rules that were intended to help them live as good Christians. These rules outlined the day-to-day affairs of the monastery, including how monks should dress and what they should eat.
Most European monasteries followed a set of rules created in the early 500s by an Italian monk named Benedict. His code was called the Benedictine Rule, and those who followed it were called Benedictine monks. But not all monks in Europe were Benedictines. Different groups of monks created their own rules. For example, monks in Ireland were very different from monks in France or Germany.
Even though they lived apart from society, monks had a big influence on Europe. Monks performed many services, both inside and outside of monasteries. Monasteries sometimes provided basic services, such as health care, that were unavailable to many members of their communities. The poor and needy would arrive at a monastery and the monks would give them aid.
In addition to giving aid to people in their communities, monks
ran schools and copied books for those who couldn’t read or
collected and saved ancient writings from Greece and Rome,
served as scribes and advisors to local rulers.
Monks also helped spread Christian teachings into new areas. Many monasteries were built in remote locations where Christians had never traveled before. People living near the monasteries learned about Christianity from the monks.
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The Franks Build an Empire
As Christianity was spreading into northern Europe, political changes were also taking place. In the 480s a powerful group called the Franks conquered Gaul, the region we now call France. Under a ruler named Clovis, the Franks became Christian and created one of the strongest kingdoms in Europe.
As strong as the Franks were under Clovis, though, they had yet to reach their greatest power. That power would not come until the late 700s, when a leader named Charlemagne (SHAHR-luh-mayn) appeared. Charlemagne was a brilliant warrior and a strong king, and he led the Franks in building a huge empire.
To build this empire, Charlemagne spent much of his time at war. He led his armies into battle against many neighboring kingdoms and conquered them. By the time he was finished, Charlemagne’s empire included all of what is now France. It also stretched into modern Germany, Austria, Italy, and northern Spain.
Charlemagne, a Christian king, had conquered parts of the former Roman Empire. For that reason, on Christmas Day in 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans. This title symbolized a return to the greatness of the Roman Empire.
Charlemagne didn’t spend all of his energy on warfare, however. A great admirer of education, he built schools across Europe. He also brought scholars to teach in his capital at Aachen (AH-kuhn), now in western Germany. Among these scholars were some of the greatest religious scholars and teachers of the Middle Ages. Their teachings helped shape religious and social life in Europe for centuries.
Invaders Threaten Europe
Even while Charlemagne was building his empire, though, new threats appeared in Europe. Invaders began to attack settlements all over the continent. Muslim armies poured into southern France and northern Italy. Fierce warriors called the Magyars swept into Europe from the east, attacking towns and destroying fields. From Scandinavia came perhaps the most frightening invaders of all, the Vikings.
The Vikings raided Britain, Ireland, and other parts of western Europe. They looted towns and monasteries and took prisoners to sell into slavery. The attacks were swift and savage, and Europeans lived in terror of Viking raids.
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SUMMARY AND PREVIEW After the fall of Rome, northern Europe gradually became Christian. But Europe could still be a dangerous place. Invaders threatened Europeans constantly. In the next section, you will learn about ways people tried to protect themselves from invaders.
Feudalism and Manor Life
If YOU were there…
You are a peasant in the Middle Ages, living on the land of a noble. Although you and your family work very hard for many hours of the day, much of the food you grow goes to the noble and his family. Your house is very small, and it has a dirt floor. Your parents are tired and weak, and you wish you could do something to improve their lives.
Is there any way you could change your life?
BUILDING BACKGROUND Hard work was a constant theme in the lives of peasants in the Middle Ages. They worked long hours and had to obey the wishes of nobles. But most nobles weren’t free to live as they chose either. They were sworn to obey more powerful nobles, who had to obey the wishes of the king. Life in the Middle Ages was one big web of duties and obligations.
Feudalism Governs Knights and Nobles
When the Vikings, Magyars, and Muslims began their raids in the 800s, the Frankish kings were unable to defend their empire. Their army was too slow to defend against the lightning-fast attacks of their enemies. Because they couldn’t depend on protection from their kings, nobles had to defend their own lands. As a result, the power of nobles grew, and kings became less powerful. In fact, some nobles became as powerful as the kings themselves. Although these nobles remained loyal to the king, they ruled their lands as independent territories.
Knights and Land
To defend their lands, nobles needed soldiers. The best soldiers were knights, warriors who fought on horseback. However, knights needed weapons, armor, and horses. This equipment was expensive, and few people had money in the early Middle Ages.
As a result, nobles gave knights fiefs (FEEFS), or pieces of land, instead of money for their military service. A noble who gave land to a knight in this way was called a lord.
In return for the land, a knight promised to support the noble in battle or in other matters. A knight who promised to support a lord in exchange for land was called a vassal. The vassal swore that he would always remain loyal to his lord. Historians call this system of promises that governed the relationships between lords and vassals feudalism (FYOO-duh-lih-zuhm).
A Lord’s Duties
The ties between lords and vassals were the heart of feudalism. Each group had certain responsibilities toward the other. A lord had to send help to his vassals if an enemy attacked. In addition, he had to be fair toward his vassals. He couldn’t cheat them or punish them for no reason. If a lord failed to do what he was supposed to, his vassals could break all ties with him.
To defend their lands, many lords built castles. A castle is a large building with strong walls that can easily be defended against attacks. Early castles didn’t look like the towering structures we see in movies and storybooks. Those great castles were built much later in the Middle Ages. Most early castles were made of wood, not stone. Nevertheless, these castles provided security in times of war.
A Vassal’s Duties
When a lord went to war, he called on his vassals to fight with him. But fighting wasn’t a vassal’s only duty. For example, vassals had to give their lords money on special occasions, such as when a lord’s son became a knight or when his daughter got married. A vassal also had to give his lord food and shelter if he came to visit. If a vassal gained enough land, he could become a lord. In this way a person might be both a lord and a vassal. A knight could also accept fiefs from two different lords and become a vassal to both. Feudal obligations could become confusing.
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Feudalism was first created by the Franks. Before long the system began to spread into other kingdoms. In the 1000s, Frankish knights introduced feudalism into northern Italy, Spain, and Germany. Feudalism then spread into eastern Europe.
Feudalism also reached Britain in the 1000s. It was brought there by a French noble named William, who was the duke of Normandy in northern France. In 1066, he decided to conquer England.
William and his knights sailed into England and defeated the English king in a battle near the town of Hastings. After winning the battle, William declared himself the new king of England. He became known as William the Conqueror. To reward his knights for their part in the victory, William gave them large estates of land in his new country. This was the beginning of feudalism in England.
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The Manor System
When a knight received a fief from his lord, he needed a way to farm it. Knights were fighters who didn’t have time to work in the fields. At the same time, peasants, or small farmers, needed to grow food to live. Very few peasants, however, owned any land.
As a result, a new economic system developed. Under this system, knights allowed peasants to farm land on their large estates. In return, the peasants had to give the knights food or other payment.
The large estate owned by a knight or lord was called a manor. In general, each manor included a large house or castle, pastures, fields, and forests. It also had a village where the peasants who worked on the manor lived.
Peasants, Serfs, and Other Workers
Most medieval lords kept about one-fourth to one-third of their land for their own use. The rest of the land was divided among peasants and serfs—workers who were tied to the land on which they lived.
Although they weren’t slaves, serfs weren’t allowed to leave their land without the lord’s permission. Serfs spent much of their time working in their lords’ fields. In return for this work, they got a small piece of land to farm for themselves. They also received their lords’ protection against outlaws and raiders.
The lives of serfs and peasants weren’t easy. Farm labor was hard, and they often worked in the fields late into the night. Men did most of the farming. Women made clothing, cooked, grew vegetables, and gathered firewood. Even children worked, tending sheep and chickens.
In addition to peasants and serfs, most manors had several skilled workers. These workers traded their goods and services to the peasants in exchange for food. Lords wanted the people who lived on the manor to produce everything they needed, including food and clothing.
The lord of a manor controlled everything that happened on his lands. His word was law. The lord resolved any disputes that arose on the manor and punished people who misbehaved. He also collected taxes from the people who lived on his manor.
As you would expect, manor lords and ladies lived more comfortably than other people on the manor. They had servants and large houses. Still, their lives weren’t easy. Lords who survived diseases faced the possibility of being killed in war.
Women in the Middle Ages
Regardless of their social class, women in the Middle Ages had fewer rights than men. Women generally had to obey the wishes of their fathers or husbands. But women still had important roles in society. As you have read, peasant women worked to support their families. Noblewomen also had duties. They ran manor households and supervised servants. Women governed manors when their husbands went to war. Some noblewomen, like the French woman Eleanor of Aquitaine, had great political power. Other women who wanted power and influence joined the most powerful of institutions, the Christian Church.
Towns and Trade Grow
In the Middle Ages, most people lived on manors or on small farms, not in towns. As a result, most towns were small. After about 1000, however, this situation began to change. Some towns became big cities. At the same time, new towns appeared.
What led to the growth of medieval towns? For one thing, Europe’s population increased, partly because more food was available. New technology helped farmers produce larger harvests than ever before. Among these improvements was a heavier plow. With this plow farmers could dig deeper into the soil, helping their plants grow better. Another new device, the horse collar, allowed farmers to plow fields using horses. In times past, farmers had used oxen, which were strong but slow. With horses, farmers could tend larger fields, grow more food, and feed more people.
Towns also grew because trade increased. As Europe’s population grew, so did trade. Trade routes spread all across Europe. Merchants also brought goods from Asia and Africa to sell in markets in Europe. The chance to make money in trade led many people to leave their farms and move to cities, causing cities to grow even larger.
In time, the growth of trade led to the decline of feudalism. Knights began to demand money for their services instead of land. At the same time, serfs and peasants left their manors for towns, slowly weakening the manor system.
If YOU were there…
You want to be a squire, a young person who trains to be a knight. Your best friend thinks you are foolish. He says that you’ll have to swear a vow of loyalty to your lord, and you’ll have to fight in battles for him. Your sister told you that you will have to follow a strict code of honor. But you still want to be a knight.
Why do you want to be a knight?
BUILDING BACKGROUND Knights were an important part of feudal society. People who wanted to be knights did have to swear vows of loyalty, fight in battles, and follow a code of honor. But European knights were not the only people who had to live by these rules. Half a world away, Japanese samurai lived under similar obligations. In fact, if you look at these two societies, you will see that many striking similarities existed between them.
Feudal Societies Share Common Elements
Feudalism was not unique to Europe. As you have already read, the Japanese developed a very similar system halfway around the world from Europe at about the same time. But how similar were the two societies?
Lords and Vassals
In Europe, the basis for the feudal system was land. Kings and lords gave land to knights. In return, the knights promised to serve their lords and fight for them when necessary. Many knights owned large manors. Peasants and serfs worked on the manors and paid the lords in food.
A very similar system existed in Japan. There, the emperor gave land to great lords who were later called daimyo. In turn, these lords employed warriors called samurai. Like European knights, the samurai promised to serve and fight for their lords. In exchange, the samurai received rice and grain. Lords got the grain from peasants who farmed their land. Peasants had to pay their lords in grain.
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Knights and Samurai
The lives of knights and samurai were, in many ways, very similar. Both had to swear vows of loyalty to their lords. These lords expected them to fight well and to be fearless in battle. The lords also expected their knights or samurai to live disciplined and honorable lives.
Both European knights and Japanese samurai had to follow strict codes of honor that governed how they behaved. You have already learned about Bushido, the Japanese code of the samurai. Europeans called their code of honorable behavior for knights chivalry (SHIV-uhl-ree). Like Bushido, chivalry required knights to be brave and loyal but humble and modest at the same time. It also required them to be kind and generous when dealing with people, especially women.
Because of their loyalty and dedication, both knights and samurai were greatly admired by other members of their societies. This admiration can often be seen in literary descriptions of the men, such as this description of the French knight Roland and his comrades who are greatly outnumbered by their enemies:
“The battle is fearful and full of grief. Oliver and Roland strike like good men, the Archbishop, more than a thousand blows, and the Twelve Peers do not hang back, they strike! the French fight side by side, all as one man. The pagans die by hundreds, by thousands: whoever does not flee finds no refuge from death, like it or not, there he ends his days.”
–from The Song of Roland, translated by Frederick Goldin
Even though Roland and the others were almost certain that they would die, they continued to fight. They became heroes, admired for their courage and bravery.
The Japanese also admired their warriors for their courage. A passage from a Japanese text shows a similar admiration for warriors fighting impossible odds:
“Where Naozane galloped, Sueshige followed; where Sueshige galloped, Naozane followed. Neither willing to be outdone, they dashed in by turns, whipping their horses and attacking until the sparks flew…Naozane pulled out the arrows that were lodged in his own armor, tossed them aside, faced the stronghold with a scowl, and shouted in a mighty voice, ‘I am Naozane, the man who left Kamakura last winter determined to give his life for Lord Yoritomo… Confront me! Confront me!’”
–from The Tale of the Heike, translated by Helen Craig McCullough
Europe and Japan Differ
Although European and Japanese societies were the same in some ways, in most ways they were not. Their two cultures were also very different.
Perhaps the main difference between medieval Europeans and Japanese was religion. Nearly all Europeans were Christian, while the Japanese blended elements of Buddhism, Shinto, and Confucianism. European and Japanese religions taught very different ways of looking at the world. People in those places, therefore, did not act the same way.
The differences between Europe and Japan can also be seen in the artistic forms popular in each place. European art in the Middle Ages dealt mostly with religious themes. Paintings showed scenes from the Bible, and writers tried to inspire people with stories about great Christians.
In Japan, on the other hand, most art dealt with natural themes. Paintings of nature were common, and people built many gardens. Buildings blended with nature, rather than standing out. Japanese literature also celebrated nature. For example, Japanese poets in the 1600s created haiku (HY-koo), short, three-line poems of 17 syllables that describe nature scenes.
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***COMPARE AND CONTRAST EUROPE AND JAPAN***
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Here is one example of haiku:
Very soon they die—
but of that there is no sign
in the locust-cry.
–Matsuo Basho, from Anthology of Japanese Literature,
edited by Donald Keene
Although European and Japanese feudal systems seemed similar, the cultures that lay behind them were different. Still, it is remarkable to think that feudal systems so similar could exist so far apart.
SUMMARY AND PREVIEW In this section you learned how to compare feudalism in Europe and Japan. Although both Europe and Japan had feudal societies, there were many differences in the two societies. Feudalism lasted much longer in Japan than it did in Europe, not disappearing until the 1800s. In the next chapter you will learn about how European society changed after feudalism disappeared in the later Middle Ages. One major change was the growing importance of religion.