Brief Views of the Early Medieval World Part II: The Decline of the Roman Empire, Monarchs, and Islam

This post is the second part of some brief paragraphs on different aspects of the medieval world and the people and religions that helped to create the world we enjoy today. I hope you enjoy....

It was during the medieval time that the Islamic religion rose to greater prominence. Islam actually has the same roots as Christianity and Judaism as these three religions can be traced back to the Patriarch Abraham. Islam was a family-oriented religion stressing ties to family over ties to clan and giving men the ability to have more than one wife. This helped protect women in this society that had not had a male protector and probably also helped increase the birthrate helping create more expansion internally for the religion itself. The religion of Islam as well was born with both political and religious arms which would make it harder to eliminate and giving it sufficient 'room' for rapid expansion... In contrast, Christianity had several centuries of persecution and discrimination due to its religious only status until Christianity was able to gain a political foothold as well. Another explanation for the rapid expansion could also be the rapid military expansion of the Arab empire soon after the death of the founder and prophet of Islam, Mohammed. Another positive quirk about Islam is that its leaders rarely felt the need to force people to convert and areas ruled by Muslim leaders tended to have a high degree of religious tolerance- a far cry form what we may sometimes see today in Muslim communities... and may also be why the areas that Islam originally 'conquered' stayed Muslim from that time until today as conversions were sincere and not necessarily forced on the populations around them. That said, religious tolerance was not absolute and while Islam was a minority, Islamic rulers would tax members of all other religions living in their communities and cities. It also should be noted that Islam and Christianity have a few similar doctrines, such as one God and a strong moral code, which were very attractive to people during that time. Also, Islamic leaders tended to keep many things about their population's day to day life the same. The Byzantine empire didn't change a lot under their leadership as the leaders kept much of the previous culture and just used and defined it on their own terms.

There are almost too many intellectual gains made in the Muslim world during this time to list! It is a fact that the Arab societies in the Eastern part of the empire became places of learning and scientific advancement... achieving far more in these areas than anything in the western portion of the empire. Many advances in medicine and science that we have learned about from the medieval time period came from the eastern empire... not the west. Many of the ancient texts that both scientists and historians study for knowledge were preserved and saved in the Eastern empire- the western empire was more likely to burn or destroy ancient texts rather than save them. This was brought about by the needs of the new Arab leaders who needed to try and control populations with diverse languages and cultures. It was due to these challenges that the need for translations began in earnest so that the rulers of the empire and the local governments could have access to the knowledge that they felt they needed. By the mid eighth century, Muslim communities were flourishing and these communities were growing and thriving in knowledge in the areas of education, literature, science, mathematics and even medicine. An example is that the works of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle would have been made accessible to anyone in the eastern empire due to the widespread reading and translation of his works, but at the same time the West had changed so dramatically and become so dependent on surviving that very few people would have even heard of Aristotle or his work- education really can't be considered important if you can't feed yourself. Education was prized and the oldest university that is still functioning today is over 1100 years old and is called the Qarawiyyin in Morocco. And it was mostly from Islamic Spain that the Western world would slowly begin to get this knowledge and intellect.

The Merovingian dynasty that controlled the Frankish throne had been struggling with the chaos caused by its civil wars for several years by the time that the Carolingians arrived on the scene. However, a unique position in the Merovingian government gave the Carolingians an edge in their quest to control the aristocracy and control the throne. This unique advantage was a position within the Merovingian court called the 'mayor of the palace'. When the position had been created early in the dynasty, it was filled with the man who would be in charge of the king's household and the 'mayor' was also responsible for managing all royal affairs in the king's name- this also included granting land and other favors to the noble classes to keep them loyal to the king. But over time the power of the kings weakened and the monarchy became less secure and absolute. It was in this climate that the individual in this position gained more power... and this power would eventually be greater than the power of the king he served. Many of the individuals in this position were Carolingians and this position tended to be passed down from one Carolingian to another. It was using this position that the individuals in this position would use the prestige and powers it contained to make the nobles and the aristocracy loyal to them and not the king. And it was a man in this position as 'mayor of the palace' named Charles Martel that would eventually increase the size of the kingdom and win his heirs the right to the kingship by defeating the advancing Muslims in 732 AD. His win for Christendom was able to win him the support of the Pope and the Catholic church who then helped establish his legitimacy as the ruler. Charles Martel's son, Pippin the Short was then named King on his father's death... and the Merovingian dynasty ended with a quiet 'sigh'....

Charlemagne, another member of the Carolingian dynasty, successfully linked politics and religion in his reign and used religion as a way to help him cement his power. Upon his conversion, he was a 'zealous' missionary and followed a strict policy of 'conversion or die' to all of the people that he fought. As part of his 'foreign policy', Charlemagne continued the policies of his father towards the church and he became the 'warrior' arm of the church- their protector, etc... He used religion to prop up his rule with elaborate rituals and as well as the 'support' of the Pope. One example was his coronation by Pope Leo III on Christmas day in 800- this showed everyone that he was 'God's choice' for ruler and also linked him heavily with the church. Some have noted that his reign was a reign of pure conquest... 'by the sword and the cross'. Another example was Charlemagne’s decisions to convey meetings of church officials as well as privileged laymen to consider his agenda and when it was agreed upon he expected not only the laymen but the bishops of the church to help enforce this agenda. Some of his reforms were to strengthen the Catholic church's hierarchy and clarifying their powers- this seems like quite a big deal for a secular ruler to help set the agendas and form he rules that a different spiritual organization would follow. He also built lots of churches and made not following the Catholic faith a capital offense. This ruler truly wanted to create a stability in his lands that had not existed for several decades and he used three major ideas to do so; culture, Christianity, and the good traditions of the Roman past.

It was very important to Charlemagne to connect himself to the good legacy of the Roman empire. Some parts of it, such as education, the use of Latin, the Christian church, and even the peace and unity that were known and romanticized about the thoughts of the Roman empire. He stressed the traditions of this time and saw value in education and classical knowledge. In fact, Pope Leo III called Charlemagne a 'great and peace giving emperor' at the later's coronation...giving Charlemagne a symbolic title and beginning the time we now call the 'Holy Roman Empire'.

Charlemagne's new title of Holy Roman Emperor gave him the respect of the Byzantine Emperor. He was also an admirer of the knowledge held by the eastern empire and copied the eastern architecture for buildings and attempted to start a large educational system. It is also known that Charlemagne at one point has hopes of adding the Byzantine empire to his territory and tried to marry one of the royal women in the eastern empire to strengthen his position. As the emperor of the eastern part has ambitions to also own the 'western' lands again, the relationship between Charlemagne and the Byzantine Emperor must have been fairly tense and distrustful at times. At one point, the tension came to actual warfare, but for the most part, both of these empire co existed peacefully after an agreement was reach between both emperors.

Charlemagne's relations with the Islamic empire are actually a little complicated. The Islamic Empire had control over the pertinent parts of Africa and of Spain. Charlemagne's agreement and ceding of some land to the Byzantine Empire gave this ruler a large empire that had no access to the Mediterranean sea and was surrounded by the Byzantine and Islamic empires. The Islamic empire when looking at a map appears to have been bigger than both Charlemagne's empire and the Byzantine empire combined... and the Islamic empire had a lot of wealth and resources. Much thought and care was given by Charlemagne to a 'buffer zone' between his empire and Spain to try and keep peace between these two kingdoms. The main reason that Charlemagne didn't have to fight the Islamists in his time was that Charles Martel had stopped their continued aggressive conquests of Europe in the land known as France several years before the reign of Charlemagne. His approach seemed to be to mostly to try to leave them alone and try to be prepared in case they didn't.

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