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The Early Middle Ages: Feudalism, Christianity, the Art of Monks


From the chaos and power vacuum that followed the fall of Rome rose feudalism and Europe’s monastic movement. For centuries monasteries were the center of culture and monks were the great artists beautifully illustrating the books they transcribed.

Complete Video Script

[5, Hadrian's Villa, Tivoli, near Rome] Imagine: it's the year 500. The Roman Empire that had united Europe for centuries was crumbling — leaving a political vacuum. The city of Rome had been sacked and marauding tribes ravaged the countryside.

[6] After Rome fell, Europe was plunged into what used to be called the "Dark Ages." The once-united empire shattered into small warring kingdoms. Frightened people sought refuge inside crude fortresses…in towns surrounded by thick walls and moats…or atop remote hills. Tilling the fields, most lived their entire lives in a single place, poor and uneducated. For centuries, there was little travel, little trade, no building for the future…almost no progress. People were superstitious, living in fear of dark forces.

[7, Provins, 12–13 century, north–central France] Desperate for security, they bowed down to the local warlord, who was armed with a castle and knights, and backed by the Church. The lord promised land and protection in exchange for loyalty and a tax on anything produced. This was part of a societal structure called "feudalism."

[8, Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Emperor, c. 960, Imperial Treasury, Vienna] With peasants on the bottom, nobles and bishops in the middle, and the king or queen on top, this feudal hierarchy would dominate the Middle Ages and produce some of medieval Europe's earliest treasures: jeweled crowns, scepters, and fancy swords — the ceremonial objects that reinforced the message that the feudal order was endorsed by God and all-powerful.

[9, Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome] During those difficult times, one institution survived from ancient Rome — the Christian Church. It provided both stability and continuity.

[10] Roman senators became Christian bishops. The Roman emperor — called the "pontifex maximus" — became the Christian pope (also called the pontifex maximus). Rome's language, Latin, lived on as the language of Europe's educated elite. Towering ancient monuments were now capped not by Roman emperors…but by Christian saints. And rather than Caesar, it was Christ ruling from the all-powerful throne.

[11] As Christianity spread across Europe, monasteries and convents — communities of men and women who dedicated their lives to the service of God — flourished.

[12] In the darkest days of the early Middle Ages, when almost no one could read or write, it was monks who were the scribes and scholars of Europe.

[13, monastic ruins; Gallarus Oratory, 10th–11th century; Dingle Peninsula, Ireland] Many of these educated elites lived in the remote western-most corner of Europe. In fact, Ireland was nicknamed the Isle of Saints and Scholars. The earliest monastic communities were small — fortified hamlets of humble huts — built like stone igloos. Twelve hundred years ago those Irish monks stacked stones to build this chapel. Its finely fitted walls — stone without mortar — still keep out the rain.

[14] Monks lived simple lives of work and prayer. More educated than most, they kept alive or developed early technology like metal-working.

[15] Their most important task was meticulously copying sacred texts. In a mostly illiterate world, these monks preserved the knowledge of ancient times with beautifully illustrated books called "illuminated manuscripts."

[16] Copying books by hand was painstaking work. Ornamenting these pages was an opportunity for the monks to exercise their artistic creativity. They went to great lengths — using powders from crushed bugs and precious stones — to get the most vivid colors. They wrote on vellum — calfskin scraped with a knife.

[17] This holy book incorporates both Christian imagery and pagan motifs from the indigenous Celtic culture. With their hard work, education, and artistic flair, these monks were keeping literacy alive for Western civilization while creating some of the finest art of the age.

[18] Eventually, the monastic movement spread across Europe, growing big, rich, and powerful. Monasteries housing thousands of monks were part of a vast Christian network that stretched from Rome to Scotland. Giving the fragmented Continent some cohesiveness, they helped set the stage for a new era.