High Middle Ages (1000-1200)

Study Questions


Describe the Norman Conquest of England and explain why it went beyond the substitution of one king for another.

Even though William the Bastard defeated Harold Godwinson decisively enough to be crowned William I on Christmas 1066, he faced problems for the rest of the decade. All of these revolts failed though, because 1) the Anglosaxon army had been destroyed, 2) all of the revolts were in York, far from William's center of power, and 3) there was no good candidate as an anti-king. However, in putting down revolts, William changed England, decapitating the top of Anglosaxon society. His conquest started as a dynastic change, yet when he saw opposition, he started to do away with native nobility, substituting French feudal aristocrats in their place. With the complete destruction of the Anglosaxon military and hierarchy, all their ideas regarding government and administration could be taken over by the Normans and modified to better fit their aims. Part of this involved the increasing personalization of rule and a more feudal approach.

Two more things shaped the English dynamic. 1) In order to get support in continental Europe, William promised Pope Gregory VII to reform the English church. This succeeded in attracting papal support. When William became entrenched in England, he ousted most of their bishops, abbots, and put in French ones. 2) In 1069, he devastated Northern England to deny his opponent Estrithson a base of operations. This demographically altered the region in a profound, lasting manner.


By the late 10th century the French kingdom was feudally fragmented and the German king was Europe's strongest. Why did royal power collapse in France but survive in Germany?

In the late 900s, Germany was becoming more unified and controllable by a central authority, and was able to influence affairs outside its pre-940 borders. Unlike the monarch's credibility and power in Germany, France's royalty was unable to enforce its prerogative on the counts, and quickly degenerated into a feudal quagmire. There are many reasons for this, ranging from foreign influence to feudal ideas.

The France of the early 900s was suffering from an inexorable Viking onslaught. The way it dealt with them produced central authority's downfall. First, the king relied increasingly on the dukes and counts; he encouraged them to build defensive castles, and in the case of the Norsemen (Normans), Charles the Simple, appraised them by granting them lands in 911, in Normandy. This was a flawed tactic. Castles also caused problems in that the counts became as impervious to royal power as they were to the Vikings. Thus the power of government contracted to the local level. This progressed later in the 10th century with the advent of the Motte and Bailey castles which allowed poorer counts to erect many castles quite quickly and thereby impose their will on the peasant. Therefore, in south and eastern France and parts of Lorraine, government contracted to the local level and its nature was spasmodic and personal. Because of time and distance constraints, the king could not impose his will.

Also, during the same period, the French monarchy was abdicating power. Because of its impoverishment, it relinquished land to counts in return for loyalty and services. As they ran out of land they were forced to relinquish government power, sometimes in the form of urban control, in return for prior services. With a hereditary nature, these powers made their holders see them as their personal property, and loyalty to the crown suffered. Viking invasions affected the power of Hugh Capet and his descendents in another way. The crown could not stop them, and this led to a lower estimation of monarchical power, as well as a loss of credibility. Since the normal tendency of feudal lords is to increase their power if possible, any hint of lost monarchical power resulted in nobles' usurpation. This led to internecine strife and a bastardization of the feudal relationship. Vassals had many lands, and thus many conflicts, and the lack of any powerful central authority or hierarchy created and arena for expansionism.

Germany, on the other hand, differed. Though Magyar invasions had somewhat debilitated German kings, by the 930s Henry the Fowler had beaten them back badly enough to reassert monarchical credibility. Also, because Otto I was able to subdue two revolts and had a quasi-Carolingian past, the clergy supported him: 1) they thought a king was good for social stability, and 2) he supported them against the dukes. Further, when he embraced the clergy's assistance in government in 955 by taking rebel land and giving it to them, he received in return 1) a ministerial army, 2) literate administrative personnel, and 3) good logistical support. Further, by setting up marcher lordships in Germany, he was identified with the activities of successful leaders: missionizing and conquest. Finally, by imposing his will in Italy, he further strengthened his prestige and was able enforce the support of his underlings.


Describe and explain the Italian Towns' rise. Why did they grow and how did they become independent? What kind of governments emerged?

The spur for Italian Towns' growth was the relearning of Ancient Rome's agricultural lessons. 1) They re- terraced the hills; 2) dyked the rivers; and 3) drained the swamps. With the resulting financial surplus towns were able to form. In the mid to late 1000s, a new type of government formed, the commune. A sworn association, members pledged to care for each other and terrorize common enemies. They possessed an elected assembly and two consuls as a government. At this stage they went out to surrounding countrysides and forced nobles into the towns. Three things permitted this: 1) economically, they survived based on the town-country exchange of wares for food. 2) Independent city-states were only possible in a post-Investiture Controversy Northern Italy when German imperial power was at a low-ebb; there was no challenging power until Barbarossa in 1158. 3) Italian nobility never adopted primogeniture, but kept dividing inheritances between the sons, so there were no large domains, and very little power. Also, unlike Northern European nobles, they would often move into towns, unless forcibly brought in

Another factor behind Italian town growth was the trans-Mediterranean trade of Pisa, Genoa, Venice, and Amalfi. By 1123, the Mediterranean was an Italian lake: the Egyptian navy was destroyed , and Levantine trade brought funds and self-sufficiency.

However, the towns' early governments failed, because when nobles entered the towns, so did feuds. In towns, noble alliances fought a lot, reducing the areas to urban battle zones. Towns could not maintain mutually friendly relations, as the post-1176 Lombard league collapse indicates. The urban strife proved too much to support further growth.