Between 987 and 1314 the French monarchy grew in power and prestige until it dominated the machinery of government. France became the first large, unified state in the medieval West.
The Beginnings of the Secular State
In literature, as in science and in social and economic life, Latin continued to be the language of the church and of learned communication everywhere in western Europe. All the churchmen—John of Salisbury, Abelard, Bernard, Aquinas, and the rest—wrote Latin even when corresponding informally with their friends. Children began their schooling by learning it. It was also the language of the law and of politics; all documents were written in Latin. Sermons were delivered in Latin, and church hymns and popular songs were written and sung in it.
The Middle Ages saw considerable achievement in natural science. Modern scholars have revised downward the reputation of the Oxford Franciscan Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1294) as a lone, heroic devotee of “true” experimental methods; but they have revised upward such reputations as those of Adelard of Bath (twelfth century), who was a pioneer in the study of Arab science; William of Conches (twelfth century), whose greatly improved cosmology was cited for its particularly elegant clarity; and Robert Grossteste (c. 1175-1253) at Oxford, who clearly did employ experimental methods.
There was throughout the West a growing interest in scientific inquiry that served to unite peoples.
Science had always been international, since ideas cannot be restrained within the borders of a state, but technology—that is, the application of science to practical ends—may for a time be held within the confines of a single nation through legislation or restrictions on immigration.
Thus England, France, and the German states were cautiously setting themselves apart from the ready acceptance of all logic as deriving from churchly authority.
By the late thirteenth century the earlier medieval belief that law is custom and that it cannot be made was fading, and Edward I enacted a great series of systematizing statutes. Edward’s statutes were framed by the experts of the small council, who elaborated and expanded the machinery of government. Each of the statutes was really a large bundle of different enactments.
It is to these years under Henry III that historians turn for the earliest signs of the major contribution of the English Middle Ages to the West—the development of Parliament. The word parliament comes from French and simply means a “talk” or “parley”—a conference of any kind. The word was applied in France to that part of the curia regis which acted as a court of justice.
A quarrel with perhaps a third of the English barons arose from John’s ruthlessness in raising money for the campaign in France and from his practice of punishing vassals without trial. The barons hostile to John renounced their homage to him and drew up a list of demands, most of which they forced him to accept on June 15, 1215, at a meadow called Runnymede on the banks of the Thames. The document that he agreed to send out under the royal seal to all the shires in England had sixty-three chapters, in the legal form of a feudal grant or conveyance, known as Magna Carta, the “Great Charter.”
Henry Ifs son, Richard the Lionhearted (r. 1189-1199), spent less than six months of his ten-year reign in England, but thanks to Henry II, the bureaucracy functioned without the presence of the king. Indeed, it functioned all too well for the liking of the population, since Richard needed more money than had ever been needed before to pay for his Crusade, for his ransom from captivity, and for his wars against Philip Augustus of France.
William’s immediate successors extended his system. They made their administrators depend on the king alone by paying them fixed salaries. Household and curia regis grew in size, and special functions began to develop. Within the curia regis the king’s immediate advisers became a “small council” and the full body met less often. The royal chancery (secretariat), also grew.
William successfully asserted his rights over the vigorous and tough Norman nobility. He allowed no castle to be built without his license, and insisted that, once built, each castle be put at his disposal on demand. The Norman cavalry was formidable and early perfected the technique of charging with the lance held couched, so that all the force of horse and rider was concentrated in the point of the weapon at the moment of shock.
England became a major power as the result of the Norman Conquest of 1066. In that year William, duke of Normandy (c. 1027-1087), defeated the Anglo-Saxon forces at Hastings on the south coast of England. The Anglo-Saxon monarchy had, since the death of Canute in 1035, fallen prey to factions.
Upon the death of Edward the Confessor (r. 1042-1066), a pious but ineffectual monarch, his brother-in-law Harold had succeeded to the throne. But William of Normandy had an excellent competing claim to the English Crown.
After the death of St. Louis, the French monarchy experienced a trend toward centralization and consolidation of administrative functions. This tendency began with the reign of St. Louis’s grandson, Philip IV (r. 1285-1314). Called “the Fair,” Philip ruthlessly pushed the royal power; the towns, the nobles, and the church suffered further invasions of their rights by his agents. Against the excesses of Philip the Fair, the medieval checks against tyranny failed to operate.
Further advances in royal power came with Louis IX. Deeply pious, Louis carried his high standards over into his role as king. He wore simple clothes, gave alms to beggars, washed the feet of lepers, built hospitals, and created in Paris the Sainte-Chapelle (Holy Chapel) to hold a reliquary containing Christ’s Crown of Thorns. The church made Louis a saint in 1297 for personally leading two Crusades against the Muslims.
Administrative advances kept pace with territorial gains. Philip Augustus systematically collected detailed information on precisely what was owed to him from the different royal fiefs. He increased the number of his own vassals, and exacted stringent guarantees—such as a promise that if a vassal did not perform his duties within a month, he would surrender his person as a prisoner until the situation was resolved.
The Capetians next moved to take over the rich Mediterranean south. Its people belonged to the heretical church of the Cathars, with its center at the town of Albi. Hence, they were called Albigensians. They believed that the history of the universe was one long struggle between the forces of light (good) and the forces of darkness (evil).
When Hugh Capet (c. 938-996) came to the throne of France in 987, he was the first of a male line that was to continue uninterrupted for almost 350 years. Like the Byzantine emperors, but with better luck, the Capetians had procured the election and coronation of the king’s eldest son during his father’s lifetime. When the father died, the son would already be king.
Between 987 and 1314 the French monarchy grew in power and prestige until it dominated the machinery of government. France became the first large and unified state in the medieval West, a state built largely by the monarchy.
In those lands that became France and England, a series of strong monarchs emerged to provide the state with a center of authority that could contest with the church for the loyalties of the people.
While open conflict with the papacy was not yet contemplated, and no state in western Europe was secular in the sense of placing
the monarch above the papacy, both France and England were experiencing a rise of collective identity that would lead to a succession of royal triumphs.