Chapters in Western Civilization - Vol. 1

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John Hine Mundy

The Middle Ages began during the fall of the Roman empire, the collapse of a cultural and economic union that had bound together the lands around the Mediterranean Sea. Historians have sought causes for this fall in every aspect of late classical life. A spiritual and social withdrawal from the ideals of Roman and Hellenic society seems to have been of prime importance. Beautiful in themselves, these ideas had become contaminated by being used, first, to justify the Greek and Roman conquests of the Near East and Africa, and then to buttress the growing despotism of the late Roman state. The principal practical aspects of this withdrawal were expressed in a gradual movement toward political separatism and an urge toward economic autarchy. This separatism was accompanied by the decline of cities, which had linked together the empire's parts, and by the rise of rural power. Furthermore, the turmoil within Mediterranean society invited intervention from the outside. From the fifth century A.D. until the tenth, successive waves of invaders from Europe and Asia precipitated or hastened the disintegration of Mediterranean unity. By the eighth century A.D., this once relatively unified cultural area had been divided between three grand linguistic, institutional, and religious groupings: the Latin west, the Greek east, and Islam in North Africa and the Near East.

The breakup of the Mediterranean world was also social and economic. This was most clearly exemplified in the West, the area most profoundly influenced by the earlier barbarian invasions (those of the Germans during the fifth and sixth centuries A.D.). There, from Roman times, state power and authority was slowly but surely decentralized, devolving upon ever more local authorities. In the language of institutional history, social command passed from emperors and kings, through kinglets and princes, to the petty


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