The High Middle Ages and Order

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The millennium of European history we call medieval has known more than

one scheme for subdivision into shorter thematic and chronological periods.

Charles Homer Haskins’s Renaissance of the Twelfth Century stands among the

most enduring, fruitful, and debated of these plans.1 However polemical its

chosen title, however excessive we may think the book’s untiring emphasis on

revived classicism as the key indicator and engine of change, Haskins’s book

was one of the key works to focus our attention on the period beginning in

roughly the mid-eleventh century (or even earlier, as many scholars would

now insist), often termed the Central or High Middle Ages. A distinguished

body of scholarship emphasizes the fundamental importance of this period of

European history: to Henri Pirenne, Roberto Lopez, M. M. Postan, it represented

the transformation of economic and urban life; it was the influential

‘second feudal age’ for Marc Bloch; for R. W. Southern the age embodied

‘medieval humanism’; for Robert Fossier it was ‘the beginnings of Europe’, for

Georges Duby it brought the ‘early growth of the European economy’ and the

‘age of the cathedrals’; for Joseph Strayer it created the ‘origins of the modern

state’; for Karl Leyser its early decades marked ‘the ascent of Latin Europe’.2

The list could be considerably extended, but the basic point remains that many

historians have argued that in so many varied and important dimensions of life

the generations between something like the eleventh and the early fourteenth

centuries saw change and accomplishment on a scale truly important for the

long course of Western history.

1 Hasking, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century.

2 Pirenne, Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe; Lopez, The Commercial Revolution of

the Middle Ages; Postan, Medieval Trade and Finance and Medieval Society and Economy; Marc

Bloch, Société Féodale; Southern, Medieval Humanism and Other Studies; Fossier, Enfance de

l’Europe; Duby, Early Growth of the European Economy and Age of the Cathedrals: Strayer, Medieval

Origins; Leyser, Ascent of Latin Europe .

Change on this scale inevitably produces tensions, many of which have been

explored by medievalists. The uneasy coexistence of spirituality and commercial

expansion is an excellent case in point.3 Yet in all of the discussion of this

central period of medieval history one of the most significant issues has

attracted less close analysis than it deserves. This basic issue is public order. We

have studied ecclesiastical and lay government in detail, we have analysed war,

and, more recently, crime; chivalry as an ideal has long attracted scholars, and

some have even descended to consider it in daily life; but we cannot truly

understand public order by studying any one of these topics in isolation.

Working to create and sustain the order, the regularity, the acceptable

degree of peacefulness that make civilized life possible is, of course, a fundamental

need of all societies. The effort will always raise significant questions.

What violence is licit or even sanctified? What violence is considered destructive

of necessary order? Who has the power to decide these questions and how

are such decisions actually secured?

If these questions are universal, however, Western Europeans in the High

Middle Ages confronted the issues with particular urgency; they had quite

specific and compelling reasons to concern themselves with issues of violence

and order. How do we know this?

We can be certain of their concerns because they so clearly uttered them and

because they effected broad changes in the institutions and ideas by which they

lived. Looking at the views of several twelfth-century historical writers can

give us an initial sense of this evidence; then, after briefly considering some

well-known evidence about social and institutional change, we will turn to the

rich field of imaginative literature.4