During this time, many of the advances and inventions of the ancient world were lost. Many Europeans turned to military leaders and the Roman Catholic Church for leadership. The most famous military leader was the Germanic King Charlemagne. He brought political order to his kingdom. He fought to increase the size of his kingdom, and he worked to improve the lives of those who lived there.
News of Charlemagne’s accomplishments reached the Catholic Church. The Pope recognized that joining forces with Charlemagne might bring greater power to the Church. The Pope crowned Charlemagne the new Holy Roman Emperor. Education improved, the government became stronger, and Catholicism spread.
During the Middle Ages, each community was centered around a church. The church offered religious services, established orphanages, and helped care for the poor, sick, and elderly. They hosted feasts, festivals, and other celebrations. Community members would donate money and labor to build new and larger churches.
Some people chose to dedicate their lives to serving God and the Church. These religious people were called monks and nuns. Monks were men who devoted their time to praying, studying, and copying and decorating holy books by hand. Monks lived in communities called monasteries. Monasteries were important centers of learning in medieval society. Nuns were women who lived in secluded communities called convents. They prayed, sewed, taught young girls, cared for the poor, and also copied and decorated books.
Almost all the land was owned by powerful nobles. The central government was not very strong. The nobles sometimes even controlled the king and fought among themselves. To protect their lands and position, the nobles developed a system known as feudalism. Feudalism was a system of political ties in which the nobles, such as kings, gave out lands to less powerful nobles, such as knights. In return for land, the noble (vassal) made a vow to provide services to the lord. The services included: arms for battle, knights, and foot soldiers.
The land granted to a vassal was called a fief. The center of the lord’s fief was a manor. Manor: large house/castle, surrounding farmland, villages, and a church. Peasants lived and farmed on a manor because they did not have their own land. A system of manorialism developed as lords and peasants had to learn how to live with each other. Manorialism is a system in which the lord received food and work from peasants and in exchange he protected them. Some peasants, known as serfs, actually belonged to the fief on which they lived. They were not slaves, but they were not free to leave the land without the permission of the lord.
The manor houses or castles may have been large, but they were built more for defense than for comfort. Thick stone walls and few windows made the rooms cold, damp, and dark. Fires added warmth but made the air smoky. Lice and other pests usually infested families’ mattresses. Most castles did not have indoor plumbing. Peasants lived outside the castle in small dwellings with dirt floors and straw roofs. It was common for peasant families to keep the farm animals inside the home. Peasants often worked two or three days a week harvesting crops and repairing roads for their lord. The rest of the week they farmed their own land.
Many days were religious festivals during which no one worked. Life improved for many people with the development of new farming methods. The supply of food increased and the time it took to harvest crops shortened. Fewer farmers were needed. Workers began to leave the countryside in search of other opportunities. People moved into towns which grew into booming centers of trade. The population increased and more and more people owned property or started businesses. As competition among local business people grew, tradespeople and craftspeople created their own guilds. Guilds are business associations. A guild protected worker’s rights, set wages and prices, and settled disputes. Membership in a guild was a requirement for citizens who sought public office.
As time went on, towns grew in size, power, and wealth. Citizens began to establish local government and elect leaders. Kings and nobles struggled with each other for power. In England, nobles rebelled against King John. High taxes and failures on the battlefield were reasons the people of England hated the king.
In 1215, the nobles forced King John to sign a document called the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta limited the king’s power and gave nobles a larger role in government. The Magna Carta ended up influencing the creators of the U.S. Constitution.