World History Lecture Five

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In our last class we completed our study of the "ancient world." This class we begin learning about the Middle Ages, including the growing "Christendom" in Western Europe, such as Charlemagne (pronounced SHAR-luh-MAIN) and the Carolingian (pronounced kar-uh-LIN-jee-uhn) Court. We also learn about the rise of Islam in the Middle East, and its expansion to Africa, Spain and Asia.

Introduction to the Middle Ages

The "Middle Ages" is the 1000-year period between the fall of the western Roman empire and the "Renaissance". As a rough approximation, the dates of the Middle Ages are from A.D. 500 to 1500, even though the Renaissance actually began hundreds of years earlier than 1500 and Rome fell before 500. "Medieval" is an adjective meaning "Middle Ages"; "medieval times" means the Middle Ages.

Both the beginning and end of the Middle Ages occurred in what is now Italy. There was less centralized government during the Middle Ages, and there were fewer empires. The Middle Ages were a time of quiet feudalism and chivalry, and much spiritual growth as Christianity expanded.

Recall that the Germanic tribes destroyed the Roman empire in the west in the A.D. 400s, and in particular Alaric the Visigoth sacked Rome in A.D. 410. Many of the Germanic tribes eventually converted to Christianity, but their own customs made the social organization of the Roman empire impossible to maintain. The networks of roads, water, shipping and agriculture that flourished during the Roman empire began to decay. There was little obvious scholarship or artistic activity.

Christianity and its new network of churches helped filled the void. Also, a new method developed for protecting private property and encouraging farming on a local level rather than through a centralized empire: feudalism. It arose independently and simultaneously in Western Europe and Japan. Mystery: why the coincidence in feudalism arising at the same time in unrelated parts of the world?

During the Middle Ages, a huge church-state network called "Christendom" held influence over all of Europe. Christendom consisted of a religious hierarchy of priests, cardinals and a pope, and a secular (non-religious) hierarchy known as the imperium (from Latin, meaning "power"). These corresponded to man's spiritual needs and his worldly or temporal needs. In Western Europe, the pope of the Roman Catholic Church ruled over the religious side and an emperor ruled over the secular side, and they were often arguing with each other. Emperors tried to control church officials and vice-versa. The Church even had its own armies and cities, and a powerful pope named Innocent III even asserted the right to resolve disputes between kings. The pope would excommunicate (kick out of the Church) kings to show his disapproval, and at times even attempted to remove kings from power. This all makes for interesting reading and debate.

There were other threats to peace. Foreigners from Asia known as "Mongols" were vicious warriors who seemed invincible. And there was a terrible disease: the bubonic plague was probably the worst disease in all of history, killing a large percentage of the European population.

But before we reach those topics, there is something else of enormous importance that happened in the early part of the Middle Ages: Islam began. It attracted Arabs at first, and then spread as far away as Spain in the West and Southeast Asia in the East. Will Islam surpass Christianity as the world's most popular religion in the 21st century, despite Christianity starting hundreds of years earlier?

The Rise of Islam

There is only one major world religion that developed after Jesus Christ: Islam.[1] But it has gained more adherents and conquered more countries in the past 1300 years than any other non-Christian religion. The religion of Islam is one of the most important aspects of World History, and its significance is growing.

The word "Islam" means "submission to Allah." Its founder was Muhammad (A.D. 570-632), a successful merchant in Mecca. According to Islamic (Muslim) beliefs, Muhammad founded Islam based on revelations from the Angel Gabriel, whom many Christians recognize as having the same name as the angel who appeared to Mary, the mother of Jesus. (The angel Gabriel is also mentioned in the Old Testament, such as in the Book of Daniel.) In fact, Islam treats Mary, Jesus and the Old Testament prophets as very holy people, and Muslims consider Abraham to have been their father just as Jewish people do. Muslims considered Christians and Jews "people of the book," and allowed them special rights in the early days of Islam, a policy of cooperation that does not exist today.

Muhammad preached a new monotheistic religion based on only one god, Allah, at a time when Mecca was still polytheistic. Located in Mecca was the "Ka'aba", a temple which housed the "Black Stone," an important religious relic of the Arabs' polytheistic religion. Businessmen in Mecca — who made a substantial profit off of the swarms of pilgrims who came to see the holy shrine — feared that they might lose customers from Muhammad's preaching and they drove him out in A.D. 622 (the "hijra", or withdrawal). Muhammad's flight (to the town of Medina) marks the first year of the Islamic calendar.

Muhammad formed a community for this new religion, called the "umma". Their activities included helping the poor. Muhammed's teachings were recorded in the Qur'an (often spelled as "Koran" in English), which is the bible of Islam. Muhammad then returned to Mecca in A.D. 630 with his followers, and conquered it by force. By 632, Islam controlled nearly all of Arabia. Islam has quickly spread and expanded both in popularity and power ever since, at times growing faster than even Christianity. Islam had more adherents than any other religion in many parts of the Middle East, Arabia, North Africa and Central Asia. Pakistan is Muslim, while India is Hindu, causing those two nations to be in conflict with each other. At one point Islam became the most dominant religion in Spain, but that nation was later retaken by Catholicism.

Islam's religious beliefs are set forth in the "Five Pillars of Islam" and moral commands set forth in the Qur'an (Koran). The Five Pillars of Islam are these:

1. Submission is to one god, Allah, whose prophet was Muhammad. This basic concept of Islam is simple and powerful: submit. It is easy for everyone to understand quickly.

2. Prayer is to Allah five times a day while facing Mecca. This is more than many Christians pray.

3. Fasting is expected for the entire month of Ramadan, whereby no food is eaten during daylight hours in that month. Fasting strengthens the body and soul.

4. Almsgiving: Muslims must donate to the poor.

5. The hajj or pilgrimage is made at least once during a Muslim's lifetime to Mecca, where Muhammad himself made a hajj from A.D. 629 to 632.

Islam also has a social law known as the "shariah" to dictate how people should relate to each other. The shariah can impose harsh punishments pursuant to the Qur'an for wrongful conduct. Islam strictly prohibits alcohol, drugs, gambling, prostitution, homosexuality, pornography and other harmful activity. Abortion is illegal under Islamic law.

The shariah requires women to wear veils to conceal their beauty in public, a practice known as "hijab". American women reporters in Iran today wear veils when appearing on television to provide us with live news. Women are expected to obey their husbands, and under Islamic law women are considered the property of their husbands and other male members of their household. Women in Saudi Arabia, which is 100% Muslim, first obtained the right to vote just recently in September 2011. Men are allowed to take up to four wives in some Muslim countries. In the earliest days of Islam (before the stricter Shiite branch of Islam took power), women were not required to wear veils.

Three-quarters of the 900 taxi drivers at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport are Somalis, many of them Muslim. As Muslims, they do not believe in allowing alcohol in their cab. About three times each day, a Muslim cab driver refuses a customer because he notices that the customer is carrying alcohol. "It is a religious issue," said one Muslim cabdriver. "I cannot force anybody to change their belief, but not in my cab. I don't want the guilt. I just want to be an innocent person." A flight-attendant described how she mentioned to a cabdriver to be careful with her suitcase because it contained wine. The driver then refused her service, and told other cabdrivers. Four other cabdrivers then refused her service. "What's going to be next?", she said. "Do I have to cover my head?" But a Muslim cabdriver responded, "According to Muslim law, a Muslim driver cannot question a person's faith or beliefs," he said. "It's not a matter of the person, it's what the person is carrying."

The Islamic religion adheres to the Arabic version of the Qur'an (Koran) as the only authentic version, and translations are not accepted. This caused the spread of the Arabic language throughout the Middle East and into Asia, and increased the influence of the new religion. This also prevents any translators from changing the meaning of the Qur'an.

Muhammad's first successor, or "caliph", was his friend Abu-Bakr. He held together the Islamic religion, but around A.D. 660 a schism occurred in Islam between the Sunnis, the largest group, and the stricter Shiites (or Shi'ites or Shia). They could not agree on who should be the successor to Muhammad, and the Shiites chose Ali, a son-in-law of Muhammad, as caliph. The Sunnis — made up of the members of the Umayyad clan — triumphed in this first period of Islamic history. During the reign of a Sunni king named Umar, Islam grew at an astounding rate. At the Battle of Yarmuk (A.D. 636 AD), 40,000 Muslims defeated an army of 120,000 Byzantines.

In 750 A.D., the Abbasid clan — whose members supported the Shiite sect — defeated the Umayyads. The rule of Abassid caliph "Harun al-Rashid" is known as the "Golden Age of Islam."

To this day, the Sunnis and Shiites clash with each other, with the Sunnis considered to be more moderate and friendlier to western countries like the United States, and the Shiites viewed as more extreme and hostile to western countries. The Sunnis are Arab and have ruled countries such as Saudi Arabia, while the Shiites have control of more aggressive nations like Iran.

The recent effort to form a democracy in Iraq has given the Shiites new power in one of the largest Muslim countries, causing concern among the Sunnis. The Shiites have religious practices that include beating their chests, slashing their forwards and weeping. The Sunnis are more reserved in their ceremonies. Jordan's King Abdullah II declared in December 2005 that he feared that Iran sought to create "a Shiite crescent" in the Middle East consisting of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The crescent (partial Moon) is the symbol of Islam and is used in many official flags of Muslim nations.

Official flag of Turkey, which is 97% Muslim, with the crescent Moon (the flag's background is red)

Islam is more forceful than other major religions in converting people and Islam is hostile to missionary work by other religions, such as Christianity. Unlike Christianity, Islam requires pro-Islam government and military policies. Islamic governments may favor Muslims by not requiring them to pay a poll tax, while requiring practitioners of other religions to pay the tax. Critics of Islam say that it encourages violence against "infidels" or non-believers. Occasionally there are news reports of brutal killings of Christian girls or imprisonment and death sentences for Christian missionaries in Muslim countries. In Afghanistan, after the United States invaded and established control, a Muslim was sentenced to death for converting to Christianity, though negative publicity worldwide then led to his release.

There is Muslim hostility and violence towards Jewish people. Biblical scholars trace the conflict to the rival sons of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac, as discussed in our Lecture One (see Mesopotamia section). In A.D. 691 Sunni Muslims built the Dome of the Rock, a mosque in Jerusalem, on the same site where Jews believe God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac: "Mount Moriah." It is probably the most controversial religious site in the world today. Some extreme Muslim groups in the Middle East are determined to destroy Israel, and acts of terrorism to kill Jewish people are common there. But while Muslim terrorist acts against defenseless Jewish civilians are common, there are almost never any similar acts of terrorist by Jewish people against innocent Muslim civilians.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Islam is the "jihad", which is defined in western dictionaries as any Muslim holy war against infidels. But another meaning of a "jihad" in Islam is an internal spiritual struggle within each person to attain self-control, in order to establish his complete allegiance to Allah. Muslim scholars describe jihad as being waged through the heart, the tongue, the hand, and the sword. Through jihad, Muslims believe they are guaranteed entrance into heaven.

Islam came very close to conquering Western Europe and forcibly converting Christians to Islam in the A.D. 700s. By then Spain was already under Muslim control by the Moors, and Muslim soldiers were advancing into Gaul (modern France). For twenty years they defeated Christian armies until the pivotal Battle of Tours (France) in 732, where massive Muslim forces met a determined Christian opponent named Charles Martel (the "Hammer"), who led the Germanic peoples known as "Franks" to a decisive defeat of the Muslims. All of Europe might have become Muslim if not for this single Christian victory. In the course of this battle, the Muslim leader Emir Abd er Rahman was killed, and the Muslims retreated back to Spain. Muslims today refer to this key battle as "The Court of Martyrs" in Arabic.

The most famous Muslim in the western world has been Muhammad Ali, a champion boxer in the 1960s and 1970s who was the most-recognized athlete at that time. Muhammad Ali converted to Islam and then refused to be drafted for the Vietnam War because he did not consider it to be a "holy war." Judges initially rejected his claim and he was jailed, until the United States Supreme Court held that this view qualified Muhammad Ali for the "conscientious objector" exemption from the draft. He was released from jail and then won back his boxing championship.

In November 2006, Keith Ellison became the first Muslim ever elected to the United States Congress. He's from Minnesota, where there is a strong Muslim neighborhood. Ellison then chose to take his oath his office on the Koran (Qur'an) rather than the Bible. The Detroit, Michigan, area has the largest settlement of Muslims in America. In France the growing Muslim population is very influential and Christianity has declined there.

Contributions by Islam to Society

Muslim countries helped facilitate trade between Asia and Europe. Muslims also transmitted Indian mathematical discoveries to Western Europe and Muslims helped established universities when other parts of Western Europe was declining. Islamic learning included the works of Ibn Sina (980-1037 A.D.) who wrote "Canon of the Medicine," a book describing many infectious diseases and their causes, during the Golden Age of Islam. Islamic architecture, as represented in mosques, is striking in design. Islam strictly prohibits artists from depicting the human form, and unique geometric designs are used instead in Muslim architecture. Omar Khayyam lived in Persia, was tutored by a sheik, was probably Islamic, and had accomplishments in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, and especially literature, including writing a famous collection of poems entitled the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

The Arabic language is closely related to Hebrew, as both belong to the Semitic group of languages. It spread with Islam to be the language of nearly 200 million persons today, and has given many words to the English language. Examples include "algebra", "cipher", "coffee" and "sugar".

Islam Today by Country

Country or Region Muslim Population[2]
Saudi Arabia 100%
Iran 99%
Turkey, Iraq 97%
West Bank (on Jordan River by Israel) 84%
38 nations or regions over 80%
only 13 nations or regions between 40% and 80%
France 7.5% (one out of every 13)
Netherlands 6% (one out of every 17)
England 2.7% (one of out every 37)
U.S. 1.4% (one of out every 71)

Russians, Slavs and Turks

Russia today is by far the largest country in the world in land mass, having almost twice the area of the second-largest country (Canada). Russia currently has the world's ninth largest population, ranking behind number one China, number two India, number three United States, several other Asian countries, and Brazil. Russia is 15% Muslim today.

Russia is located on what is known as the "steppe" (pronounced simply as "step"), which is a broad, flat grassland lacking trees. The steppe stretches across Asia and eastern Europe. The steppe has fertile soil and navigable rivers for trade. By A.D. 100, Slavic peoples (the "Slavs") had settled the steppe and cultivated the soil with iron tools. They lived in tribes and villages but were vulnerable to nomadic fighters such as the Huns (recall our encounter last week with "Attila the Hun"). The Slavs established an important trade city known as Kiev, which exists to this day, and named the territory "Rus", from which the name Russian comes.

The capital of Rus was Kiev from A.D. 882 to 1169, and it prospered. Prince Vladimir of Kiev chose Orthodox Christianity as the religion, and established the Russian Orthodox Church for the Russian people, which led to cultural exchanges between Russia and Byzantine. Some historians say that the prince rejected Islam because of its prohibition on alcohol, which has been a profitable export for Russia even to this day. The more likely reason for the rejection of Islam was that the prince was Christian himself, as he enthusiastically promoted Christian baptism for everyone.

Kiev furnished many slaves to the Byzantine empire (the word "Slav" comes from same word root as the word "slave"). This was enormously profitable. Kiev also traded in many other goods, and by A.D. 1000 was one of the wealthiest cities in the world. It later declined in the 13th century as the Mongols successfully invaded Russia and interfered with trade.

Meanwhile, Islam was converting many Turks, who were superb fighters. Many of them had been raised as slaves in the Abbasid empire. When these slaves were used as soldiers, they were called "mamelukes".

A group of Turks known as the Seljuks had converted to become Sunni Muslims, and they gained control of trade routes connecting Asia and Europe. In A.D. 1055, the Seljuks captured Baghdad from the Persians, and killed the Shiite officials there. The Seljuk Turks gained in power and defeated the Byzantine empire in 1071 at the Battle of Manzikert, and soon controlled Anatolia. But the Turks did not adopt the Arabic language. Instead, they adopted the culture and language of Persia, referred to their rulers as "shah", and almost obliterated the Arabic language from Persia. Seljuk ruler Malik Shah (1055-1092) supported Persian artists and culture. They were not great engineers, and the Persian irrigation and canal system collapsed. Disagreements between the Sunnis and Shiites emerged, and the Seljuk power declined after the death of Malik Shah.

It was the occupation of Jerusalem by the Sunni Seljuk Turks that later led to the Crusades to recapture Jerusalem for Christianity, which we will discuss in the next class. Today Turkey is 99% Muslim, but it is controlled by the military, which prohibits the wearing of head coverings by women in schools and government buildings. Today, about 3 million Muslims in Germany are immigrants from Turkey.

Western Europe in the early Middle Ages

After the Roman empire fell in the A.D. 400s there was the possibility that all of the achievements of the classical civilizations, including much of their knowledge, would be lost. Who would preserve the geometry discoveries of Euclid, or the philosophical advances of Plato and Aristotle? Who would maintain copies of the Gospels to preserve the teachings of Jesus? Who would safeguard history books?

The period from the 5th to the 8th century is remembered by historians as a particularly bleak time, when havoc and barbarians "ruled". This period, A.D. 400s through 700s, is known as the "Dark Ages" in Western Europe. Everything visible and cultural seemed to decline, and nothing outstanding seemed to emerge. Rome was sacked (invaded and looted) three times during this period, for example. Barbaric tribes terrorized everyone. The culture and economy declined. Roads and waterways fell into disrepair. The western world was at risk of losing all its knowledge and advances.


Historians credit Christian monasteries for preserving culture and knowledge during these "dark" times. The monasteries were communities of Christian monks, usually male, who had committed the rest of their lives to God. They often moved apart so that they could be by themselves and pray many times a day. While not praying, the monks would read and write and teach, and they preserved the knowledge and history that might otherwise have been lost.

The most famous of these "orders" or communities was one established by St. Benedict in Italy in about A.D. 520. His "Rule of St. Benedict" is a strict set of disciplinary guidelines that require giving away all of one's possessions and vowing obedience to the "abbot", a monk elected to supervise the others. The Rule also includes other requirements, such a vow of stability (a promise not to move somewhere else), and the Rule stresses the importance of prayer and manual labor ("ora et labora"). St. Benedict had a sister, St. Scholastica, who established a similar rule for devout, unmarried women (nuns) to live by.

Abiding by strict rules of discipline and living separate from society, monks had no distractions. So they established schools and libraries, and transcribed or copied great works that needed to be preserved and duplicated (the printing press was not invented until about A.D. 1440). Venerable Bede, an English monk, wrote a history of England in A.D. 731 that is considered a masterpiece.

Monasteries continue to exist to this day. There is a Benedictine monastery known as "Delbarton" in Morristown, New Jersey, only about fifteen minutes away from our classroom. These monks still abide by the same Rule that St. Benedict established in A.D. 520, though monks today do not have to copy long books anymore!

Britain, King Arthur and the Anglo-Saxons

As the Roman empire was collapsing in the A.D. 400s, it withdrew from Britain. In the view of some, the legend of King Arthur dates to this time, when a hero named Ambrosius Aurelianus emerged for the British people. But no one knows how much truth there is in the legend of King Arthur, Camelot, the Knights of the Round Table, Lancelot and Guinevere, who was Arthur's wife (a romantic couple like the one below right).

From King Arthur times.jpg

Who were the British people at that time? The "Anglo-Saxons", who were Germanic tribes that conquered England and ruled it in a chaotic manner until the Norman conquest of A.D. 1066 brought order and prosperity to the entire island. The "Anglo-Saxons" were actually a mixture of three different Germanic peoples: the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes. The "Picts" were another group of people who emerged in Scotland at this time. During this period, much of England was captured by the Vikings from Scandinavia, with eventually only Wessex free of Viking control. From Wessex the greatest Anglo-Saxon ruler, Alfred the Great, emerged to free the rest of England from Viking occupation in the A.D. 800s.

Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine of Canterbury to convert Britain to Christianity in A.D. 596, and English monks and nuns helped that effort in the centuries that followed.

Charlemagne and the Carolingian Court

Small Germanic kingdoms dominated Western Europe after the fall of the Roman empire. But Christianity continued to grow, and in Rome the Catholic Church increased its power. Bit by bit, person by person, the Germans were converted to become Catholics. Clovis, the leader of a German group known as "Franks", ruled over the important area of Gaul that corresponds to modern France and portions of its surroundings. His wife Clotilda converted Clovis to Catholicism, and then Clovis converted his entire army too. The pope then supported Clovis and he became even more powerful. This was how the Roman Catholic Church interacted with military rulers.

One of the most significant popes was Gregory the Great (Gregory I) (A.D. 540-604). He decided to use church money for non-religious (secular) purposes, such as establishing government programs for the poor (welfare), supporting armies, and paying for public projects such as roads. Pope Gregory blurred the lines between church and government. The use of church power in non-religious matters became known as the "temporal power" of the Catholic Church, and this would become a source of enormous conflict in future centuries.

Gaul (now France) became the most significant part of the former Roman empire, and many terms come from it. "Major domo," for example, is the term for the major of the palace, which in Gaul was the most powerful person in the kingdom.

From Gaul a leader emerged named Charles Martel (popularly known as "Charles the Hammer"). He ruled the Franks from A.D. 719-741 and, as his nickname suggests, he expanded he territory. He was the one who saved Christian Europe by crushing the Muslim invasion at the Battle of Tours in 732.

Charles' son had the humorous name "Pepin the Short." Despite the name, he was also a brilliant leader of the Franks. Pepin conquered territory around Rome and then gave it as a gift to the pope. The pope returned the favor with the "Donation of Pepin," laying the foundation for the Papal States, which were territories under the control of the pope. Charles Martel and Pepin's family were the Carolingian dynasty that ruled the Franks from 751 all the way to 987.

Pepin's son (and Charles Martel's grandson) was Charlemagne (A.D. 742-814), who became the most famous member of the family. The name "Charlemagne" is from the Latin "Carolus Magnum," which means "Charles the Great." He attempted to reestablish the Roman empire by conquering the same territory; he educated children in palace schools; and he created the "missi dominici" (king's officials) to watch over his empire. His revival of education became known as the Carolingian Renaissance, a brief period of progress or light in what is otherwise criticized as the Dark Ages.

Charlemagne was a well-educated Christian, known to be highly intelligent, and was a promoter of arts and learning. He served as king of the Franks from A.D. 768 until his death in 814. The Franks were offended by a practice of another Germanic tribe, the Saxons, whereby they would leave their dead out on funeral pyres to be consumed by animals. This seemed contrary to the Christian faith in the resurrection, and for 35 years Charlemagne attempted to forcibly convert the Saxons to Christianity. But the Saxons would revert to paganism after every conversion, until Charlemagne made paganism a crime against the state. Critics say that Charlemagne treated non-Christians badly, and cite an example of how Charlemagne ordered 4,500 Saxons to be beheaded after they destroyed one of his armies.

Charlemagne was very good to Christians and he was crowned "Holy Roman Emperor" by Pope Leo III in A.D. 800, supposedly by the pope placing a crown on him by surprise from behind during Christmas mass in Rome (a "coronation"). This established the precedent for the new practice that pope decided who would be king, a practice continued by Charlemagne's son. The power of the Catholic Church thereby grew even stronger. This moment in A.D. 800, the crowning of Charlemagne in Rome, is considered to be the birth of the "Holy Roman Empire," which is not to be confused with the ancient "Roman Empire."

Charlemagne had great prestige that many future kings in the Middle Ages attempted unsuccessfully to duplicate. His empire, also known also known as the Carolingian empire, covered modern-day France, Germany to the River Elbe, much of Italy and part of Spain. One of the most lasting effects of his rule was the establishment of Christianity as the primary religion in the West.

The capital of the Carolingian empire was not Rome, but Aachen in what is now Germany. Charlemagne's son Louis "the Pious" then held this empire together from 814-840, but when he died his three sons fought with each other. They split the empire three ways in the Treaty of Verdun in 843. Western Europe was just too vast and diverse for a single ruler, and a new system was needed. That new system was feudalism.

Feudalism in Western Europe

The new system of government and economics for Western Europe was feudalism, also known as manorialism. The feudal system arose in the 8th century in the Frankish kingdom (now France) as a way to protect against foreign invasions, especially invasions by Vikings ("Danes") from Scandinavia. The Normans (descendants of Scandinavians and Franks from Normandy, France) brought feudalism to southern Italy and Sicily. The Norman conquest of Britain in 1066 brought the feudal system to England, Scotland and Ireland. Viking invasions lasted until the 10th century, by which time many Vikings had accepted Christianity and settled into civilizations of their own in northern Europe. The end of the Viking raids enabled trade to increase in Western Europe.

The basic feudal system consisted of a "noble" or "lord" who owned land (called a "fief") given by the king. The lords lived in castles surrounded by moats, and rented their land out to "vassals." Vassals were also considered nobles, but with less power. They provided military service to the lords in exchange for protection and land, which they in turn rented out to the "peasants" or "serfs" to farm. The system had some similarities to the plantation system used in the south in America before the Civil War, except the peasants and vassals were not always bound to their lord in Western Europe and thus were not slaves. Instead, the peasants were sometimes bound to their land rather than to their "lord", and when one lord sold all the land to another lord, the peasants did not move. Warfare among the various different estates was common under feudalism, due to the lack of any kind of centralized government, and peasants were required to fight for their lords against foreign invaders. They were also required to provide their lord with a share of their crops.

Initially, most peasants were free men, but eventually became more and more dependent on the lords, especially as serfdom increased. Serfs were bound to the land by custom and heredity and were not particularly free. The peasants did not have the iron plow until about A.D. 1000, and it was hard work to till the soil with the primitive wooden plows. After inventing the iron plow, food production soared.

The peasants worked on these estates or "manors" in order to obtain a "benefice" (privilege) to keep some of the food they grew for their own families, and also to benefit from the protection against foreign invasion. So the deal was this: the lord allowed the peasant to farm land on the lord's estate (the "manor") in exchange for the peasant giving the lord some of the food and fighting in wars as needed. In the words of a popular business expression today, this was a "win-win" situation for both, though obviously the lord benefits more. Critics say that women were discriminated against with respect to ownership of property, because they did not have the opportunity to serve in the army to acquire land and only sons, not daughters, inherited fiefs.

The feudal system was quite flexible, and was a successful way to run an economy. Lords, vassals, and peasants often had contractual agreements with each other, which led to the development of charters stating lists of rights and privileges. A lord could himself be a vassal to another lord, and thus multiple layers could develop. In this respect the system was like a version of multilevel systems of marketing used today (like Amway): everyone earns a share of workers he recruits to work for him, and those workers in turn have an incentive to recruit more workers. Modern corporations likewise have multiple layers of employees and compensation systems, though not tied to land as on the feudal estates.

The feudal system had elements of free enterprise that remain beneficial to us today. Everyone in the feudal system had an incentive to work hard. The ability to buy, sell and inherit property created substantial rewards. There was no centralized government or national regulations, so each lord was free to become as strong and powerful as he could. All sources of wealth at that time consisted of land (unlike today, where stocks, cash, oil wells, copyrights, patents and other forms of property are a big part of the overall wealth, and unlike Jesus's time, when much wealth consisted of ownership of sheep, cattle and other animals). Feudalism converted much useless land and forests into productive farmland.

Later, beginning in 1099 and continuing until the 1300s, the accumulation of wealth and highly trained soldiers made possible the Crusades to recapture Jerusalem (which had fallen under Muslim control).

"Chivalry" developed as a code of behavior for everyone, and it required loyalty to one's lord and to God. Christianity was honored, as were women, who under the code of chivalry were to be considered the equivalent of the Virgin Mary. When an enemy was conquered, they were to be treated fairly and with good sportsmanship. Tournaments of jousting knights were held to entertain spectators and improve combat skills. On the military side, there was a free enterprise approach to the military, whereby each lord developed his own army. The system developed very good soldiers, and they kept their skills sharp by engaging in frequent battles with rival manors or estates. Through competition and free enterprise, the warriors became fighters superior to the foreign invaders, and the invasions stopped.

Translating Medieval Chivalry to Today

Rules of Chivalry For Boys Rules of Chivalry for Girls
When you see a girl carrying something heavy, offer to carry it for her. When a boy does help you, as in carrying something or opening a door, thank him.
Stand up when a girl or woman enters the room, or open doors for them. Do not attempt to embarrass a boy, as in trying to beat him in arm-wrestling or bragging that you did better on a test.
Speak in a respectful manner in front of a girl. Avoid gossip.
Compliment girls appropriately. Put your superior social skills to good use by welcoming others.
Offer to purchase tickets or meals for girls, and develop a work ethic to provide money for that Be respectful of your parents' wishes.
Watch out for the safety of girls. Watch out for the safety of boys.

Impact of Feudalism Today

Feudalism had an enormous impact on society, and still does. Our law of real property (land) is based on the feudal system. Homes today are usually owned as a "fee" or "fee simple," which is the concept developed by the feudal system to represent a grant of land to someone.

The roots of our free enterprise economic system of private property are in feudalism. The impact goes beyond private property. The entire concept of "customer service" and "the customer is always right" can be traced to the chivalry developed under feudalism.

The institution of marriage was strengthened by feudalism. There was no place for unmarried adult couples, or polygamy, which have harmed other societies throughout history.

The concept of "sportsmanship", which we hear so much about today, comes from the chivalry that developed during feudalism. The chivalry of looking out for each other, and particularly for children and the elderly, became strong too.

Feudalism had much that many people miss today. For example, people worked close to home, and there was no commuting or traveling to a job. No one was "laid off" by a big company then and left without work. Communities were strong and people defended each other against foreign enemies. Families stayed close together. Perhaps the roots of homeschooling are in feudalism!

Communism, which did not develop until the 20th century, is the exact opposite of chivalry: under communism, everyone is treated "equally" poorly: boys and girls, men and women, young and old.

Feudalism and Religion in Japan

On the other side of the world, in the "Far East," Japan was independently developing a feudal system similar to that in Western Europe. That is an odd coincidence because the religious beliefs of the two different parts of the world were completely different!

The centralized system of Japan had weakened and declined just as it had in Western Europe. The reasons were different, however. The Japanese culture always stressed self-discipline and military skills, and when combined with introduction of writing in the 5th century and Buddhism in the 6th century, there was little need for a centralized government. In addition, the central government that did exist, which was known as the Heian court, lost credibility through its own extravagance and waste.

Many aristocratic clans had dominated Japan until A.D. 500, when one Yamato clan gradually gained greater prominence as the leading clan and then named themselves "emperor". But the real power remained controlled by those of noble birth, and then (like now) the "emperor" was just a figurehead. Shinto was the dominant religion, though it has since merged somewhat with Buddhism.

Feudalism then developed in Japan as families began to acquire control over land and establish independent estates, just as the lords did in Western Europe. The peasants were bound to both the land and their master in Japan. Like medieval Europe, fortresses were constructed to protect the large estates and moats were even used to surround the fortress, for added protection. An example of a family that built a large, independent estate was the Fujiwara.

The world's first psychological novel, "The Tale of Genji," was written in the 1000s by Lady Murasaki about Japanese culture during the Heian period (794-1185). This was a period of great style in Japan with its center at the capital at Heian, where Kyoto is today.[3]

Skilled military leaders or generals, known as "bushi", raised their own armies of "samurai" soldiers to protect their estates. Like the chivalry in Western Europe, the samurai lived by a code of conduct known as the "bushido", meaning "the way of the warrior." One difference is that bushido included a code for Japanese women to follow, while chivalry did not. Bushido involved a ritual known as "seppuku", by which samurai committed suicide through self-disembowelment. Seppuku was practiced when a warrior faced the prospect of dishonor, or to avoid disloyalty, or to display protest.

Even more than in Western Europe, strict loyalty to one's lord was emphasized in Japan. About a thousand years later this code would make the Japanese extremely tenacious fighters against Americans in World War II. The bushido required the samurai never to retreat or surrender. Family values were part of the bushido also. A version of Buddhism developed that ensured salvation and heaven for those who lived upright lives.

For hundreds of years the aristocrats gained more and more land in Japan until A.D. 1185, when the Minamoto clan became the most powerful and announced that their leader would serve as a military governor called a "shogun". This clan then ruled Japan for nearly 400 years from its capital at Kamakura, which is south of present-day Tokyo.

When the Minamoto clan seized power in the 12th century, they held onto it for a few hundred years. Some of their emperors were children. Civil war eventually erupted in Japan in 1467, and the country fell back into feudalism consisting of many tiny kingdoms, with each one ruled by a "daimyo". The daimyo held the same role in Japan as the lords in the feudalism of Western Europe.

The national religion of Japan is Shinto, which considered the emperor to be a living god. Shinto is more like a code of conduct than a religion. Shinto has no afterlife. Instead, it demands loyalty and obedience of all to the emperor, who is divine. It led to extreme nationalism in Japan that made it a very tough opponent of the United States in World War II. It was not until the United States defeated Japan in World War II that the emperor renounced his status as a god and the state religion of Shinto ended. Today Shinto consists of the worship of "kami" in shrines supervised by priests. Worship consists of personal purification and daily prayers to the kumi.

Shinto has similarities to Buddhism, but there is a major difference in Japan: Shinto is a religion of life used for marriage, while Buddhism is a religion of death used for funerals.


There were five noteworthy ancient American civilizations:

  • Teotihuacan (Mexico) in A.D. 100-900
  • Maya (modern-day Guatemala) in A.D. 300-900
  • Moche in A.D. 200-700 (later became the important Incas)
  • Toltecs in A.D. 900-1200 (these were nomads)
  • Aztecs in A.D. 1200-1521

They all engaged in human sacrifice, and all practiced polytheistic religions. They shared a common belief in Quetzelcoatl (KWET-suhl-kuh-WA-tuhl), a god of the wind and air depicted as a feathered serpent. The Aztec civilization, which came much later, also worshiped this god. The Teotihuacan, Maya, and Moche civilizations used a truncated pyramid similar to a ziggurat. They had ball-playing sports-like activities for entertainment, and relied on corn as a crop. They are known as "Pre-Columbian" because they predate the arrival to the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Each of these civilizations is explained below, along with their proper pronunciations:

The Teotihuacan

Known as "City of the gods," Teotihuacan (pronounced TA-oh-TEE-wuh-KHAN) (A.D. 100-900) was perhaps the most powerful and largest city-state in Mesoamerica (central Mexico), having up to 200,000 people at its peak. They worshiped gods of the sun and moon, as well as goddesses of rain and water. People lived in barrios (suburbs or ghettos) around the city. Like many ancient societies, they had an upper class of priests and nobles (wealthy men who controlled much of the land). It is a spectacular archaeological site today.

The Maya

Maya map.jpg

The civilization of the Maya (MAH-yuh or MEYE-uh) (A.D. 300-900) in Central America was located on the Yucatan peninsula (bordering the southwest side of the Gulf of Mexico), which had a substantial population of 5-16 million people. The Mayans have been called the "Greeks of the New World" by many historians. The Mayans had some knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, ritual ballgames for entertainment, and the use of their own pictographic language. Unlike Europeans at the time, Mayans did understand the concept of zero just as the Indians in South Asia did.

The Mayans used a yearly solar calendar that was perhaps more precise than the Roman (Julian) calendar, with 18 months and 20 days per month, which has almost the same number of days as our 365-day calendar. The Mayans also built temples looking very similar to the ziggurats used in Mesopotamia, puzzling many historians. The Mayans constructed a spectacular capital at Tikal and a worship center at Chichen Itza featuring the ziggurats. For food, the Mayans grew maize (corn), squash and beans. They also traded in stones, salt, honey and shells. Like American Indians, the Mayans had no coins or paper money, but sometimes traded in cacao (chocolate) beans. Unlike the American Indians, the Mayans used a written language based on symbols or "glyphs", as in hieroglyphics.

The Mayan religion was polytheistic and Mayans "appeased the gods" by sacrificing children to them. The Mayans believed in creation as explained in their religious text named the "Popol Vuh," and the Mayans hoped that a god named Quetzalcoatl would return to rule in peace. Wealthy women enjoyed some rights in the society. Most women stayed in the home to raise children.

The reason for the decline of the Mayan civilization is unknown. Mayan cities were abruptly abandoned in the A.D. 800s and by the mid-900s the civilization was just a shadow of its former self. It disintegrated into independent towns, or city-states. But today 4 million people still speak the Mayan language.

The Toltecs

The Toltecs (A.D. 900-1200) were a northern Mexican nomadic tribe that ruled about 50 miles north of present-day Mexico City, in a city called Tula. They were fighters who helped conquer the city of Teotihuacan in the 8th century. But living by the sword meant they would also be conquered by the sword, as Jesus said, and the Toltecs fell at the hands of northern Chichimec tribes.

The Toltecs may have traded with a group that lived in the southwestern portion of the United States, the Anasazi. Some historians feel that the Toltecs traded obsidian, which is black volcanic glass having a unique shape, for jade with the Anasazians.

The Toltecs had a religious leader named Topiltzin-Quetzalcoatl. According to legend, war forced him to flee into the Gulf of Mexico, but he vowed to return one day. This legend was transmitted to the Aztecs, who rose to power in the Valley of Mexico once the Toltecs declined.

The Aztecs

The Aztecs (the Mexica) (A.D. 1200-1521) adopted many of the legends, ballgames, calendar and customs of their predecessors, but were more warlike. In 1325, they built their capital named Tenochtitlan in central Mexico on an island in Lake Texcoco pursuant to a prophecy, and constructed three causeways to connect it to the mainland. The capital city was magnificent, featuring splendid pyramids and temples. The Aztecs trade with far-away peoples, and acquired wealth through trade and tributes. Intellectually, however, the Aztecs did not advance knowledge or civilization.

For food they used plots of floating land called "chinampas", which were made from soil dredged from the bottom of the lake. They grew mostly corn and some squash and beans. They traded gems, cacoa (chocolate), and animal skins. They were more powerful than their neighbors and even formed a "Triple Alliance" with the city-states of Tlacopan and Texcoco to keep peace. The Aztecs had very little bureaucracy and did not maintain a standing army. There was no reason to, as soldiers could be summoned as needed.

The Aztecs funded their activities based on mandatory tributes, and they would sacrifice people (including their enemies) with greater frequency than prior civilizations. For example, the Aztecs worshiped a war god named Huitzilopochtli, to whom the Aztecs sacrificed prisoners of war. They felt this helped their future with the gods.

Montezuma II was the ruler when the Spanish arrived and conquered the Aztecs in 1519. Historians feel that the Aztecs had already been weakened internally, partly due to their demands of tribute and human sacrifice. The Spaniards, under Hernando Cortes, crushed the Aztecs in 1521 and destroyed the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City). Cortes founded Mexico City as the new capital.

The Incas

The Incas (the Quechua) (beginning in A.D. 1250, but especially 1438-1537) developed a massive empire in the Andes Mountains in South America, considered to be the largest civilization in all of the Americas. Its beginnings were in the Moche civilization that thrived in South America in the first millennium, along the Andes mountain range. Their culture was based on a system of "reciprocity", whereby people traded favors and work in a cooperative manner, and on "verticality", whereby people exploited the advantages of different altitudes in the mountains for jobs like growing different crops.

A ruler named Pachacuti (A.D. 1438-1471) conquered the surroundings of Lake Titicaca and then gained control of the previously powerful coastal Chimu, by cutting off its irrigation system. He established an empire on the west side of South America that extended along the coast from nearly from the top (north) of South America to its bottom (south), including present-day Ecuador and Chile. The empire also extended many miles inland, including the high regions of the mountains. Its population was 12 million people of many different ethnic backgrounds. Loyalty was obtained by taking important hostages from conquered peoples, and also by settling reliable Quechua loyalists in each conquered area. The capital was at Cuzco.

The Incas lacked a written language, which made it different from other civilizations. Instead, the Incas used a large cord to administer their empire. The "quipu" was a third cord that held together many different cords of various colors, shapes and sizes. The cords kept an accounting of things in the empire, such as population. The Incas had superb roads and system of messengers and soldiers to transmit messages and maintain order. Stations existed along the roads for supplies, food, and overnight stays, like hotels. Overall, the Incas were good administrators of their vast empire.

The Incas differed from the Aztecs in that the Incas did not demand tribute to fund the empire. Instead, the Incas required people to work in "mita", which were shifts of mandatory farming, building, or mining. Small groups formed ("ayllu") to do community projects. Women cared for the households and did tasks like making clothes. Like the Central American ("Mesoamerican") societies, daughters inherited wealth from their moms and sons inherited from their dads, under a system known as "parallel descent."

The Spanish called the Incas "big ears" because the wealthy (aristocrats) would wear earrings so heavy that they would stretch their ears. The king, or "Inca", was considered to be a god who descended from the sun, while his main wife was considered to be from the moon. Like the Egyptians, mummification was used to preserve the rulers after they died, and major decisions would even be made in the presence of the mummies supposedly to benefit from their wisdom.

Religion played a key role. There was a god believed to be the creator, named Viracocha. Human sacrifice was used but animal sacrifice was more popular. Sin was recognized and punished in an afterlife. The main religious city was probably Machu Picchu, located high in the Andes and first discovered in 1912 by archaeologist Hiram Bingham.

The Incas used irrigation and food was plentiful. They devised a system to freeze-dry potatoes in order to survive famine. However, the Incas had very few skilled artisans, in contrast to Mesoamerica.

Civil war caused decline in the Inca empire in 1525, when ruler Huayna Capac died and his two sons, Atahualpa and Huascar, fought. Although Atahualpa won, his empire was weakened and he was no match for the Spaniards when they arrived from Europe.


  1. The small Indian religion of Sikhism, which broke off from Hinduism to defend against Islam, also developed after Christianity.
  3. In 1997, Kyoto became known as the place where many nations attempted to limit the alleged global warming through the "Kyoto Treaty" for reducing factory and car emissions, a treaty that the United States Senate never ratified.