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The High Middle Ages

Steven Ozment

If experimentation and preservation characterized the early Middle Ages, self-discovery and definition marked the high Middle Ages (1000–1300). In this period Western people began to assert their identity as they came to know and impose themselves on others. Two larger developments made this possible. The first was the revival of trade and towns in the eleventh century, which provided new resources for the higher tasks of civilization. The second was the emperor Otto I’s defeat of the Hungarians at Lechfeld in 955, a victory that secured Western borders against foreign invasion from the East and made possible a long-absent internal political stability.

A new self-awareness gripped both the church and the “state” during the high Middle Ages. In the tenth century a monastic reform movement swept the church, and the clergy determined to make themselves sole masters within the spiritual realm. Emerging from the monastery in Cluny in south-central France, this movement reached its peak in the pontificate of Pope Gregory VII (1073–85), the pope who brought the emperor Henry IV to his knees in the snows of Canossa. The Investiture Struggle, which persisted through the last quarter of the eleventh and into the twelfth century, saw popes and kings alternately humiliate each other. It also gave rise to the distinctive Western separation of church and state when the emperor signed the Concordat of Worms in 1122, forfeiting any right to invest bishops with the ring and staff symbolic of spiritual authority. The spheres of ecclesiastical and secular jurisdiction were firmly demarcated, although emperors continued to aspire to be popes and popes to be emperors. The Cluny reform and Gregorian papacy brought a new religious discipline and sense of purpose to the western church at the papal, episcopal, and parochial levels. This council promulgated the dogma of transubstantiation, placed limits on the number of religious orders, and made annual confession and communion mandatory for all laity.

Parallel developments occurred in secular politics and society. It was during the high Middle Ages that national dynasties and distinctive parliamentary institutions formed in France and England. In this period a new sense of regional loyalty and lay administrative competence appeared, and secular values began to displace those of the clergy. This gave rise over the centuries to a view of the king and the nation-state, rather than the pope and the church, as the community commanding the highest allegiance. On the foundations of the new political stability, urbanization, and religious reform, a true cultural renaissance occurred in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It was marked by the rise of universities and scholasticism and the recovery of the full corpus of Aristotle’s work. Professional elites of physicians, lawyers, and theologians appeared for the first time, and trade associations and guilds were formed to protect the interests of merchants and skilled artisans. At every level people discovered and defined themselves by making new boundaries, alliances, dogmas, laws, and organizations.

The new strength of Western people also affected their character. Previously fearful and preyed upon by foreign invaders, they now became themselves the known world’s aggressor and missionary with the launching of a long series of crusades to the Holy Land in 1095. These initially religious ventures dramatized the new Western cultural and religious unity and also, especially after the Fourth Crusade conquered Constantinople in 1204, opened new routes of Western commerce.

For such reasons the twelfth and thirteenth centuries have been described as “the fullest development of all the potentialities of medieval civilization.” Many medieval scholars even argue that these centuries were of greater significance for the formation of Western ideas and institutions than the later Italian Renaissance and Protestant Reformation.

From The Age of Reform, 1250–1550 by Steven Ozment. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.

Steven Ozment was McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History Emeritus at Harvard University. 

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