General State of Europe in the Eleventh Century
Before the end of the tenth century, Europe had reached a point of darkness and degradation beyond which it seemed impossible to go. Though long nominally converted to the Christian religion, the nations of Europe may be said to have scarcely exhibited, up to this period, a single distinctive mark of what men understand by Christian civilization. The barbarous nations,' says Dr. Robertson, when converted to Christianity, changed the object, not the spirit of their religious worship. They endeavored to conciliate the favor of the true God by means not unlike to those which they had employed in order to appease their false deities. Instead of aspiring to sanctity and virtue, which alone can render men acceptable to the great Author of order and of excellence, they imagined that they satisfied, every obligation of duty by a scrupulous observance of external ceremonies. Religion, according to their conception of it, comprehended nothing else; and the rites by which they persuaded themselves that they should gain the favor of Heaven, were of such a nature as might have been expected from the rude ideas of the ages which devised and introduced them.
They were either so unmeaning as to be altogether unworthy of the Being to whose honor they were consecrated, or so absurd as to be a disgrace to reason and humanity. Charlemagne in France, and Alfred the Great in England, endeavored to dispel this darkness, and gave their subjects a slight glimpse of light and knowledge. But the ignorance of the age was too powerful for their efforts and institutions. The darkness returned, and settled over Europe more thick and heavy than before.' The clergy were the only body of men among whom any knowledge or learning now remained; and this superiority they employed to continue, if not to deepen, the degradation into which society had fallen. The superstitious belief that moral crimes could be expiated by presents to the Deity, if not originated by them, at least found them its strenuous defenders, for the reason that a gift to God meant, in plainer language, a solatium to the church. The priests would have made men believe that avarice was the first attribute of the Deity, and that the saints made a traffic of their influence with Heaven. Hence Clovis is said to have jocularly remarked, that 'though St. Martin served his friends very well, he also made them pay well for his trouble.'
Persons in the highest ranks and most exalted stations could neither read nor write. Of the clergy themselves, many of them did not understand the Breviary which it was their duty to recite; and some of them, it is asserted, could scarcely read it. Those among the laity who had to express their assent in writing, did so by a sign of the cross attached to the document (sometimes also by a seal); and to this day, in consequence, we speak of signing a document when we subscribe our names.
The evils of the feudal system, too had by this time become excessive and insupportable. Every petty chief was a king in his own dominions, and his vassals were his subjects, if indeed they should not be called slaves. These barons made laws of their own, held courts of their own, coined money in their own names, and levied war at their own pleasure against their enemies; and these enemies were not unfrequently their kings. Indeed the kings of these times can be looked upon in no other light than as superior lords receiving a nominal and empty homage for lands which, in the fictitious language of feudal law, were said to be held of the crown. In these circumstances what might we expect to be the condition of the great body of the people? They were either actual slaves, or exposed to so many miseries, arising from pillage and oppression, that many of them made a voluntary surrender of their liberty in exchange for bread and protection from the feudal lords. There was no people, as that term is now understood. There was nothing morally in common,' says Guizot, between the lord and the serfs; they formed part of his domains, and were his property; under which designation were comprised all the rights that we at present call rights of public sovereignty, as well as the privileges of private property; he having the right of giving laws, of imposing taxes, and of inflicting punishment, as well as that of disposing and selling. In fact, as between the lord and the laborers on his domain, there were no recognized laws, no guarantees, no society, at least so far as may be predicated of any state in which men are brought into contact.' In what way society rose above so many accumulated evils, and light sprang from so much darkness, we shall now endeavor to show. The most remarkable and the most lasting influence, beyond all question, was that exerted by the Crusades.