Western Europe in the Middle Ages: A Short History

By Joseph R. Strayer | Go to book overview

I. THE TEMPER OF THE TWELFTH CENTURY

WESTERN EUROPE, in the last years of the eleventh century, had made remarkable advances in social organization, in intellectual interests, and in the intangible qualities of spirit and conscience which make civilization possible. This improvement continued at an accelerated rate during the twelfth century. The people of Western Europe showed tremendous energy and persistence in all their activities--religious, political, economic, and cultural. They had a willingness to experiment with new types of organization, a receptiveness to new ideas, an originality in solving their problems which has seldom been equaled. They produced great leaders who gave form and substance to their aspirations and ideals, but the leaders would have had little success if they had not been supported by the efforts and desires of thousands of anonymous workers. Great churchmen, like St. Bernard, were almost entirely dependent on public opinion; they could dominate Europe because the people of Europe believed in the ideals which they expressed. Great kings, like Henry II of England, drew their strength from the general desire for law and order. Abelard was a great teacher because he had eager students; he could hardly live without an audience. Abbot Suger of St. Denis could build the first Gothic church only because hundreds of experiments in new architectural devices had been made in the churches of France. It is hardly necessary to point out that the building of new towns, the establishment of new businesses, and the clearing of new land needed group efforts as well as the initiative of a few wealthy entrepreneurs.

But if the civilization of the twelfth century was the work of a large part of the Western European population, then it is important to know what were the dominant interests and ideals of this

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