European Civilization: Historical Context thru 1300

by John D. Miles

Any study of a historical musical period must account for relevant information regarding the intellectual and artistical background as well as social institutions: it is quite often that this context is divorced from the subject at hand. Consequently, students of music are presented with an inaccurate account of the reasons underlying most musical institutions and developments they aspire to contemplate, with music history often treated as an abstract entity unto itself. As in any discipline, there are logical reasons why certain circumstances arose, resulting in significant repercussions. When a socio-musical connection can be made, the resulting association is usually quite inciteful.

When considering the medieval era, one is faced with a problem dealing with the great length of time that has occurred since the end of its era as well as its broad encompassing timespan. When taking into account musical developments, scholars have been beset by numerous problems: one of the larger has been explaining the scanty, heavily biased evidence which has survived. Only when musicologists begin to consult the findings of other disciplines to support or recant their own, will some of the misconceptions and misunderstandings of Medieval Music begin to disappear. So that an introduction of Medieval institutions can be achieved,the following condensed generalizations recant the historical background of Medieval Europe from the end of the Roman Empire forward thru the growth, spread and influence of Christianity and Islam, including the formation and disintegration of the Merovingian and Carolingian dynasty, concluding with the Clunaic reform as well as a consideration of Feudalism.

Modern European civilization undoubtedly grew from the vestiges of the Roman Empire. While Roman sculpture and architecture was based upon Greek models, manuscripts of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were unavailable to the Romans. Greek civilization had a greater influence upon the Renaissance than the Medieval, and shall be summarily dismissed. The Romans' influences were numerous, including political institutions and concepts, art-forms and architecture. Many Roman forms, such as their language, were assimilated into other cultures as the transition to Modern Western European civilization was made during the Medieval.

While the Romans prospered at first, by the first century A.D. emerging symptoms of decay such as inflation and political instability caused internal warfare, foreshadowing events which transpired during the next few centuries. With so much internal strife occurring, nomadic tribespeople of northern Europe and western Asia created pressures upon the open frontiers of the empire as they sought to gain control. During the brief reign of Aurelian, stability was momentarily achieved enabling the Romans to regain some of their former holdings.

During this time Christianity was practiced as an underground faith, with religious ceremonies commonly held at night in secret, as it was unsuccessfully suppressed by the Romans. As the religion grew, Christianity significantly advanced as to become tolerated during the reign of Diocletian (284- 305). It remained for Theodosius (379-395) to decree Christianity to be the compulsory religion for all citizens except for Jews. Men of social and political prominence were quick to take advantage of the Church as they became members of the clergy. As the Church attained extensive propertyholdings, it acquired wealth and power, with its ecclesiastical government modeled from the territorial organization of the Empire. Thus the central authoritative institution was well established before the final disintegration of the Roman Empire, becoming the sole stable element in Europe for the next millennium.

With the split of the Empire in the fifth century and the founding of the Eastern's capital at Constantinople, the Roman Empire rapidly disintegrated. The Byzantine Empire, able to maintain its political integrity, retained cultural and intellectual traditions destroyed in the West, significantly contributing to the rebuilding of Western civilization which occurred later. With the Huns, Visigoths and Ostrogoths, Vandals and others all fighting for control, the weaker forces were forced to retreat and reorganize into Roman territory. A shortage of Roman troops forced the government to hire northern mercenaries, enabling them to become citizens and gain high administrative positions. During the reign of the incompetent Honorius (395-423), the Visigoths subdued Roman, leaving the frontiers open to warfare and more invasion. The Eastern Emperor Zeno, whose only authority in the West was due to Honorius's abdication, resolved the instability by sending the Ostrogothic prince Theodoric to recapture Italy in the hopes that he might be killed in the process. However, Theodoric was successful, and ruled as a king of Italy from 493-526.

Meanwhile, the Merovingian Clovis became leader of the Franks after removing all rivals including the Alamans, Burgundians and Visigoths, establishing the Frankish dynasty of Merovingian kings. The boundaries of the Frankish empire were extended westward to the Pyrennes and eastward beyond the Rhine, where the Franks were held in abeyance by Theodoric. These events determined the prevailing social and political conditions of the next several centuries, including the assimilation of Roman and Germanic elements at the expense of civilization which had already been declining. Christianity spread along with the persisting Roman influence, as Germanic peoples abandoned their languages in favor of bastardized Latin as spoken by invaded peoples. These "Romance languages" survived, with the areas where these languages are still spoken corresponding to the most "latinized" portions of Western Europe. New social classes evolved: the aristocracy, based upon their military strength and property holdings; and the peasants, emerging from lower social classes, who were exploited by the aristocracy, ensuring the survival of both types.

During the sixth century the Franks became the most powerful people in West Europe. When other kingdoms weakened the Eastern Emperor Justinian attempted to reconquer the West. Recapturing Italy and Spain led to the exhaustion of the Western Empire and the total destruction of civilization, enabling the Lombards to invade Italy in 568, creating numerous petty states which survived until the late 1800's. The vacuum enabled the papacy to become the sole central administrative authority. The Popes became the political leaders of Rome, holding no interest in the Empire's restoration. The Petrine theory of papal supremacy, disputed in the East, held that the Bishop of Rome was the supreme authority of Christendom. Finally, Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) established the independence of the Western Church.

The creation, rise, and spread of Islamic religious fervor in the seventh century encouraged Arabs to invade other lands under the auspices of the Holy War of Islam (Jihad). Within a century the Moslems controlled Persia, Afghanistan and northern Africa, and in 655 destroyed the Western Imperial fleet, bringing the Mediterranean under Islamic control. Along with territorial expansion, the imposition of a new culture and religion created great civilization, firmly establishing Islam as a major religion. The Moors, after their defeat by the Moslems, invaded Iberia, defeated the Visigoths, and soon held almost the entire peninsula. Their raids into Gaul were checked by Charlemagne's grandfather Charles Martel in 732. While the Moslems briefly held Rome in 846, they were finally expelled in the early 900's.

Despite their common language, culture and civilization, the Islamic world was unable to maintain political or religious unity. However, the contact between Islam and the accumulated knowledge of earlier civilizations greatly benefitted Europe. Many Greek documents were first known in Latin through Arabic translations. In Baghdad, where Greek manuscripts were housed, translated, and studied, contact with Oriental cultures was established via the trade routes to India and China. The development of mathematics has been made possible through adoption of the Arabic numeral system. In addition, significant contributions in architecture, specifically the principles of the arch and the dome, have been in use in Western buildings since their introduction by the Arabs. Musically, the rich contributions of the Islamic world are immeasurable, drawing upon a rich heritage which is shared with southern Asia and Northern Africa. Arabs credit themselves with the invention of measured notation and polyphony.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the aristocracy had degenerated into warlord landholders who waged war for pleasure and profit. Coupled with the ignorance of the peasantry, superstition bred irrationality, with hundreds of people being executed as witches during the 7th and 8th centuries. The Church was eager to eradicate earlier pagan religions and maintain control. While the Church maintained a perfunctory amount of intellectual activity, serving to promote the true faith, true "Classical" learning was forgotten. The spread of papal influence and control went unchecked until the reign of King Charlemagne and the "Carolingian Renaissance," the first rebuilding steps of culture.

The Carolingian dynasty reached its height under Pepin's son Charlemagne, who allied with the Papacy, conquered/Christianized the Lombards, Saxons, Bavarians and Avars, creating a series of military districts to organize his holdings along his Empire's Eastern frontier from the Baltic to the Adriatic. Charlemagne, while able to maintain control of a vast empire, was still not able to expel the Moslems from Spain. In 799, an insurrection in Rome forced Pope Leo III to take refuge with Charlemagne. Charlemagne attacked Rome, reinstated the Pope and was proclaimed Emperor of the Romans. Charlemagne then created a jurisdiction superceding that of the papacy, which was quite beneficial for him but created problems for his successors.

Once the empire was stabilized, Charlemagne, aware of the need to educate the ruling class and improve the educational system, founded a school at Aix-la-Chapelle founded on the traditional liberal arts (trivium and quadrivium) with Alcuin (735-804) as its director. Unfortunately, only grammar was studied with any degree of thoroughness, since science and Greek philosophy were yet unknown, and mathematics, based on Roman numerals, was impractical. Since the study of music originated with the study of interval ratios, the discipline was placed in the scientific quadrivium. Sounds related to numbers: numbers and proportions were considered to regulate the universe. While performers and composers were considered removed from the intellectual aspects of music, they continued to evolve new types: only the "educated" who possessed "reason" were considered to be musicians. Available to Carolingian scholars were the works of Boethius (philosophical speculations on the nature of music and its effects/relations to the world of humans), Cassiodorus and Alcuin. Contemporaneous with the school at Aix-la-Chapelle, was the institution of the monastery, where literature, liturgy and musical manuscripts were transcribed or translated by scribes, who developed the Carolingian miniscule which evolved into modern styles of handwriting. While few contributions were made by these scholars, a new interest in learning generated a renewal of Latin education.

Charlemagne's son, Louis the Pious (814-840), though well educated, was unable to deal with the stress caused by managing an empire which was now besought by multiple invasions of the barbarous kind. Upon his death, Charlemagne's policy of splitting the landholdings equally among the male heirs backfired: upon successive inheritances the estates would soon dwindle to insignificance. The Carolingian Empire was split amongst Louis' three sons, creating a rivalry which was resolved in Verdun (843) with Lothair, King of Italy, becoming Emperor. The East and West chunks eventually developed into France and Germany. The Magyars (Hungarians) invaded Europe, enabling the complete collapse of the Carolingian Empire. The remaining Dukes or Barons of the provincial districts which Charlemagne created ruled as equal and independent sovereigns, reducing Europe into warring feudal states. The collapse of military strength produced a rapid decline in papal authority, producing a series of weak corrupt popes who brought the papacy a low state of degradation, leaving 10th C Europe in a state of chaos.

In the latter ninth century Europe was besieged with invasions from the Vikings, or Norsemen (Normans). The Vikings soon conquered Britain, Ireland, and the inner regions of Europe, besieging Paris in 886. With no regard for the Church, monasteries were an easy target for plundering. The Normans settled in England and Northern France (Normandy), adopting the culture of the lands they controlled. In the eleventh century, the Normans settled in south Italy and Sicily, exploiting England and Western Europe (William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy in 1066). Vikings from Sweden invaded East Europe from Kiev to the Black Sea. This created a threat to the Byzantines, who called them Rhos (Russians), but their conversion to Christianity maintained the dominance of Byzantine culture.

A reformation of the papacy at Clury in 910 enabled the Church to be revitalized, with a reconstruction of the civilization corresponding with the rise of Papal authority. A new wave of religious frenzy swept Europe during the Clunaic reform, which grew under emperor Henry III (1039-1056). A renewal of Christian ideals brought about many great monuments of art, but the witch-hunts for heretics, scapegoats and undesirables began anew.

The major institution of this time besides the Church was the system known as Feudalism, which was originated by Charlemagne as a way to control his holdings. Feudalism was a manorial system which supported an agrarian society, providing the people with protection and a livelihood. The only change from Charlemagne's time was the policy of inheritance among the sons of the aristocrats, modified to enable the eldest son to inherit the estate. Feudalization of the Church led to the weakening of central organization, producing constant warfare. The aristocrats benefitted from the feudalist system: it provided them with profit and a livelihood, proving the feudalist system worked well for aris- tocrats and peasants alike. Fortunately for the aristocracy, someone realized that if the warfare continued, they would probably get invaded again, so they decided to join forces and go fight the Moslems, kicking the Moors out of Spain in 1492. These wars were known as the Crusades. One benefit of Feudalism was that the protective courts and castles attracted a lot of people, and when they weren't busy getting attacked, these settlements became centers for the cultivation of literature, music, and other secular interests.

While the above account is admittedly brief, a basic explanation of events brings into context a significantly lengthy period of time in which many developments and changes transpired. Given the amount of instability of the period when taking into account all aspects, one can get a feeling for the time by imagining what it must have been like to have lived then. Whatever station of life, life was a game of survival, where survival of the fittest was the law. The only way out was to drop out, tune in, shave your head weird, become a monk or nun, live a life of solitude and meditation, memorize your church modes (becoming able to improvise melissmas between the neumes), and write secular songs extolling the virtuous pleasures of sex!