Going Medieval

In the run up to my impending Medieval exam tomorrow I’ve been revising two topics that I will be tasked with writing about, topics that I feel confident enough about to share with you.
I know this is somewhat odd from me but I feel that this is a good way of retaining knowledge, one of the many benefits of blogging if you would.

ClermontPope Urban and the Council of Clermont
The Council of Clermont was conveyed in 1095 by Pope Urban II in response to a plea for military aid from the Byzantine Empire based in Constantinople. Many reasons, each very valid, are believed to be behind the Pope gathering a mass of powerful and influential people from across Europe. At the time the Byzantines were fighting a war against the Islamic Turks who had seized much land in the middle east, including the ‘holy land’ of Jerusalem. Another reason was that the rise of Islam had not gone unnoticed by the Christian church, Islam presented a threat to the survival of the faith and therefore needed addressing. However the greatest reason was arguably that Constantinople represented the last remnant of what had once been the Eastern Roman Empire, a point of national and pious pride for European clerics and nobles alike.

In his sermon to the Council of Clermont Pope Urban II presents his cause to be a just one which has the full backing of the Christian faith. The Pope expresses his wish for European nations to cease warfare both internationally and domestically so they may unite as one force under the Christian banner against ‘the infidel’. Urban goes further than this and reaches out to “all people of whatever rank”, inviting all levels of society neatly structured by Georges Duby’s ‘orders’ (those who pray, those who fight, those who work) to partake in the Crusade against Islam. The fall of Constantinople to Islam would effectively symbolize the defeat of Christianity at the hands of Islam, something completely anathema to the church.

It is a point of some contention whether the Byzantines were in favor of a full-scale Crusade against the Turks in the middle east or not but this is what was preached by Urban during his sermon. Urban sought to safeguard the future of the faith and if this meant eradicating Islam from the face of the earth then so be it. Although he sought first and foremost to reclaim the symbolic city of Jerusalem from the Turks Urban was effectively preaching genocide against an entire race of people in the name of religion.

When assessing the success or failure of Urban’s sermon it is imperative to examine both the short term and long term results of the Crusades. In the short term Urban arguably achieved what he had set out to accomplish. European nobles united against Islam and managed to amass an international coalition the likes of which had never been seen until this point in history, a coalition which included people from all levels of medieval society from the richest knight to the poorest farmer. Also, not only was Jerusalem reclaimed from the Turks but several ‘Crusader States’ such as Cyprus and Rhodes sprung up around the region which helped relieve the pressure on Constantinople.

However things look different in the long term. The Crusades lasted for much longer than anyone in Europe could have envisioned, becoming a campaign which spanned centuries rather than decades and drained considerable resources from Europe to maintain. The initial sense of unity that Pope Urban had managed to achieve in Europe did not last, wars such as the Hundred Years War broke out on the continent and class friction only seemed to intensify resulting in rebellions such as the English Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. To make matters worse for the church almost all of the land claimed by the Crusaders in early campaigns was reclaimed by the resurgent Muslims and to add insult to injury Constantinople was conquered by the Arabic Ottoman Empire in 1453.

The final result is something of an historical irony. When Pope Urban preached for the Crusades he did so with the intent of preserving the future of Christendom but in instigating the Crusades he unwittingly paved the way for the Renaissance and subsequent Reformation which did more damage to the church than Islam could have ever done. Crusaders returning from the middle east brought with them trinkets, artifacts, and documents from the Arab world which bore the influence of the classical world. In addition to this the fall of Constantinople and the refugee scholars it brought to Europe helped ignite the Renaissance.
Overall, Pope Urban failed in his mission he set out at the Council of Clermont.

RevoltWhat are the strengths and weaknesses of chronicles and legal documents as sources of study for 1381 Peasants’ Revolt?
The Peasant’s Revolt broke out in England in 1381. The revolt came about through a combination of various causes ranging from the Black Death, to religious fear, to a sharp increase in taxation and growing discontent with the feudal system of serfdom. Initially a loose band of rebels the revolt came to be lead by a peasant called Wat Tyler, who led a group of fellow peasants against the monarch king Richard II. Although the rebellion was ruthlessly crushed by lay authorities it did affect change in the centuries which followed by bringing about the decline of serfdom, the prevention of a controversial and disliked ‘poll tax’, and the dwindling of costly wars.

The historiography surrounding this event is nothing short of fascinating. Evidence exists from the time in the form of chronicles and legal documents which, despite inherent flaws, provide insight into the events of the revolt. A commonly referred chronicle is that of the ‘Anonimalle’, an anonymous account supposedly written from the perspective of a scribe who traveled with the court of king Richard II during the rebellion. Other chronicles, written by Thomas Walsingham and Jean Froissart, detail the rebellion and its participants to varying degrees. However, all of these chronicles share a number of common glaring weaknesses which severely hinder their use as reliable historical sources. Firstly the overwhelming majority of documents present during this era, including each of the aforementioned, were written by the literate minority who also happened to occupy positions of power. Logically, one can deduce that such chroniclers are highly unlikely to view subversion against their positions in a positive light. Secondly there exist almost no records or testimonials from the peasants who took part in the rebellion which leads to historians having to cope with a one-sided view of a crucial event in English history.

However, the bias that dominated the perception of the rebellion would not last. Revised scholarship starting around the late eighteenth century began addressing the aforementioned issues and put reasonable questions to the validity of the chronicles written during the period. Revisionist historians gathered more impetus during the nineteenth century with one William Stubbs in particular delivering a critical analysis which led to a more impartial understanding of the revolt. This contrast of the now-and-then is best highlighted by the changes in societal structure between the medieval world in which the rebellion occurred in and the early modern world in which the evidence of the past was questioned. During the medieval era the societal model preached by Georges Duby meant that the literate minority governed society and left the peasantry with little to no leeway to voice their opinions. In contrast, the early modern world not only brought about the printing press which enabled the easier sharing of ideas and information but also brought about the proliferation of education which meant that the middle and lower classes of society could find their voices.

Still, despite the inherent bias present in chronicles and legal documents commonly used to study the Peasants’ Revolt they still have uses as legitimate historical sources. If one follows the mantra of modern historian Geoffrey Elton and “engages the past on its own terms” then chronicles and legal documents are incredibly rich sources of information. Even if one does not follow the Eltonian school of thought one can still discern credible information from the documents, information which details the machinations of the medieval court system for example.
No source is completely free of bias, that is just the nature of history. It is therefore the duty of historians to identify this bias when it is present and either find ways of engaging with it or weighing it up against revised historiography or other documents from the time.

One comment

  1. I chose to do one of my final papers on the civil unrest caused by the Black Death. I got my hands on the Anonimalle chronicle, a collection of legal statutes, and a bunch of court cases that were essentially lords bickering with one another about who got the rights to workers. In another sourcebook there was a sermon named “The Sin of Pride” directed at clergy who were leaving their posts and relocating to diocese that would essentially pay them more. Because of my dark sense of humor, much sarcasm was written into my analysis.

    I hope you did exceptional on your exam! This reads extremely well and is fantastically detailed. I love the choice of illustrations and the closing paragraph is great. Have you taken a class on historiography or is it just covered in every class?

    To be honest, reading these makes me miss UCF (even the late nights in the library). I’m using my time now to volunteer (representing 12-13th c. Aquitaine) but it’s not the same.

    Thanks for sharing!

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