The Eleventh Century

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The Eleventh Century

A central theme of the eleventh century (the 1000s) in Europe was the struggle between church and state, or between popes and kings. From the mid-800s to the early eleventh century, a series of corrupt popes succeeded in nearly destroying the reputation of the papacy, just as emperors such as Otto the Great were enhancing their own power. In the 1000s, however, church reformers would bring Rome greater authority than it had ever enjoyed and would eventually launch Europe on an ambitious campaign of military and religious conquest called the Crusades.

Europe on the eve of the Crusades

Just as Charles Martel had established the Carolingian throne on the ruins of the Merovingian dynasty (see Chapter 3: The Merovingian Age), so medieval France grew from the ruins of Charlemagne's empire. In 987, the Carolingian ruler of the West Frankish Empire died without an heir; therefore French nobles and church leaders gathered to choose a successor. They elected a member of France's most powerful family, Hugh Capet (kuh-PAY; ruled 987–96), whose Capetian (kuh-PEE-shun) dynasty would rule the country until 1328. As his capital, Hugh Capet chose a city along the River Seine (SEHN), a town that had existed long before the Romans captured it in 52 b.c.: Paris.

Words to Know: The Eleventh Century

The head of a convent.
A monastery or convent.
The head of a monastery.
Forgiveness of sins, particularly by a priest.
A priest proclaimed pope by one group or another, but not officially recognized by the church.
An office in the Catholic Church higher than that of bishop or archbishop; the seventy cardinals in the "College of Cardinals" participate in electing the pope.
A priest.
In the Middle Ages, an area ruled by a relatively low-ranking type of nobleman called a count.
An area ruled by a duke, the highest rank of European noble below a prince.
Communion, or the Lord's Supper service.
The clothing worn by a monk or nun.
An unbeliever.
The granting of forgiveness of sins in exchange for an act of service for, or payment to, the church.
The power of a feudal lord to grant lands or offices.
A Catholic church service.
Formal appointment as a priest or minister.
An area ruled by a prince, the highest-ranking form of noble below a king.
A negative term used in medieval Europe to describe Muslims.
The practice of buying and selling church offices.
A rite in which a candidate for priesthood had part of his hair removed; later this became the name for the hair-style of monks and other clerics.
A noble or king who is subject to a more powerful noble or king.

Outside of a small region controlled by the Capetians, however, France was divided into a number of principalities, one of the most significant of which belonged to the Normans. Descendants of the Vikings, the Normans had first sailed up the Seine

in 820, and by 911 the Carolingian king had been forced to make a treaty recognizing their right to occupy a large area of northwestern France. The Normans agreed to convert to Christianity and to protect France from other invaders; in exchange, they received the region between the English Channel and Paris, which became known as Normandy.

In 1002, the English king Ethelred the Unready—so named for his inability to resist the invasions of Canute—married Emma, daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy. From then on, the Normans had their eye on the English throne, and in 1042, Ethelred's and Emma's son Edward the Confessor became king. During his reign, many Normans settled in England; then in 1066, the Normans launched a full-scale invasion of England. On October 14, they dealt the English a decisive blow on a beach near the town of Hastings. The leader of this victorious force, the new king of England, was William the Conqueror (c. 1028–1087; ruled 1066–1087).

As it turned out, the Norman Conquest would have wide-ranging effects felt even today (see box, "Chickens, Churches, and Normans"); more immediately, however, it posed a challenge for France. Kings of England after William held the title "duke of Normandy"; and after 1154, an English king was also count of Anjou (ahn-ZHOO), a French province. France began reconquering French lands in 1254, and by 1450 would place all of Normandy under the rule of Paris; along the way, however, English claims to French lands would spawn a series of conflicts.


Germany was formally under the control of the Holy Roman Empire, though that name did not actually appear until 1254. In any case, the Holy Roman Empire was—to quote a joke almost as old as the Middle Ages—neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. In fact it was a mask for the German empire, itself a loose collection of duchies such as Saxony and Bavaria. Each had its ruling nobles, and with the end of Carolingian power in 911, these began electing kings to lead the various German states.

The election of Saxony's king Henry, father of Otto the Great, in 918 led to a century of Saxon domination. Otto vastly expanded Germany, transforming the kingdom into a true empire. His victories over the Slavs to the northeast added lands that would become Prussia, or eastern Germany, and the conquest of the Magyars in the southeast led to the establishment of the "eastern kingdom"—Österreich, or Austria. To the southwest, Otto reconquered territories formerly controlled by Charlemagne, including Lorraine and Burgundy, today in eastern France.

With Otto's conquest of Italy and the reviving of the Holy Roman Empire, German kings thenceforth claimed the title of emperor, which they usually received in a coronation ceremony overseen by the pope. Otto's grandson Otto III (ruled 983–1002), whose mother was a Byzantine princess, grew up nourished on grand dreams of an empire. He believed that the empire could become more than just a name. As emperor, he presented a crown to his counterpart in Byzantium, proclaiming him ruler of the East as Otto was of the West. The Byzantines, however, had no interest in an alliance, and Otto's magnificent visions of an empire died with him.


Italy had revived in the 700s, thanks to its increased contact with the highly civilized Arab world; but by the late 900s, it had become mired in a state of near-constant warfare that would not lift for more than three centuries. During this time, a force for stability was the port of Venice in northeastern Italy. Built on lagoons, islands, and mud flats, the city had existed since the 300s and had flourished as a province of the Byzantine Empire. By the 1000s, Venice remained one of the few Byzantine colonies on the Italian mainland, and

it would soon become clear that Byzantium lacked the power to control the city.

At the south end of the peninsula was the triangle-shaped island of Sicily, which had fallen under Muslim control in 827. Therefore the church was inclined to view the Normans who conquered it as heroes for Christ, though the truth was not so glorious. These Normans had first come south in the early 1000s, when the duke of Naples used them to subdue Lombard princes eager to reassert their power. In return, the Normans had received a county in Italy, thus establishing a foothold in the area.

The church and the German empire each wanted to oust the Byzantines, Lombards, and others, then establish full control over Italy. Their biggest rivals (besides one another) were the Normans, and specifically Robert and Roger Guiscard (gee-SKARD), sometimes known as the de Hauteville (DOHT-veel) brothers. At first the papacy attempted to stop the de Hautevilles with military force, but by 1059 the pope realized they were too powerful.

Chickens, Churches, and Normans

The Norman Conquest of 1066 was the central "before and after" in English history, and in the history of the English language. The Anglo-Saxon invasion of the 400s had established the Germanic roots of English, but the invasion by the French-speaking Normans added a whole new Latin-based (or Romance) layer. It is for this reason that English is perhaps the richest and most varied of languages.

To use an everyday example, there is the German word for chicken, Hünchen (HÜN-ken), which sounds much like its English counterpart. In French, this is poulet (poo-LAY), a close relative of the English word "poultry." Thus English has two words, where German and French each have just one. Another example involves the English words "church" and "ecclesiastical" (ee-klee-zee-AS-ti-kul), an adjective meaning "church-related." The first word is close to the German Kirke (KEER-kuh), the second to the French eglise (ay-GLEEZ).

An English-speaker who studies German will be pleasantly surprised at all the familiar-sound words such as Buch, Auto, and Freund (FROIND)—respectively "book," "auto," and "friend." German grammar, however, is much more of a challenge to English speakers, since English primarily took on Romance, rather than German, sentence structure.

So Rome tried a different strategy, much like the one used by French kings with the Normans' ancestors nearly 150 years before: in return for a promise that they would defend the Papal States against all other invaders, it conferred the title of duke on both brothers. The de Hautevilles also agreed to drive the Muslims out of Sicily, and Roger began conquering the island in 1061. Meanwhile Robert drove the Byzantines from southern Italy in 1071.

Eastern Europe

In Eastern Europe, Catholic nations prospered: Poland briefly flourished under the Piast (PYAHST) dynasty, and in 1085 Bohemia emerged as an independent kingdom. At the same time, Orthodox lands experienced a severe decline.

After the decline of Kiev, the only significant principality in Russia was Vladimir, an area to the northeast first settled in the 900s. Its people were originally Finnish in origin, but as Kievan Russia fell apart, more Slavs moved into the towns of Vladimir and Rostov, where they intermarried with the Finns to form a stable local population. Around 1147, the Russians established a fortress in the area, and named it Moscow. One day it would become the center of a great empire; but that day was long in the future.

In 1071, the same year they were driven from Italy, the Byzantines had suffered a devastating defeat by the Turks at Manzikert. Fearing Muslim conquest, Emperor Alexis I Comnenus (kahm-NEEN-us; ruled 1081–1118) appealed to the pope for military help. Despite the relatively recent break between the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, Alexis had reason to believe that his Christian brothers would aid him in the fight against the infidels. He had no idea of the forces he was unleashing, however. Over the next two centuries, Byzantium would get more "help" than it could stand as Europeans unleashed a series of wars called the Crusades, which would have a devastating effect on the Byzantine Empire.

The recovery of the church

The church had declined during the 800s and 900s, a period in which many church leaders obtained their posts not through great devotion to God but in return for money. The practice of buying and selling church offices was called simony, and the church took no specific measures against it until the 1000s. Another issue of concern was that of clerical marriage, which in the view of many church leaders would only encourage priests to think about sex. Therefore the church officially prohibited clerical marriage in 1059.

The pope who put the ailing church on the road to recovery was Gregory VII (ruled 1073–85). Gregory started as a Benedictine monk, and under his leadership the monasteries or abbeys became an important instrument of reform. Gregory's new activist monasticism would later find its fullest expression with the establishment of the Cistercian (sis-TUR-shun) order in France. Cistercian monks, who typically lived in isolated areas, worked hard clearing land for agricultural use, growing crops, making wine, keeping bees for honey, and even mining.

The organization of the church

By the eleventh century, the church had a well-established system of organization for monks and nuns. They were usually led by an abbot or abbess, and they wore simple garments of rough, loose-fitting material called a habit. Monks were a part of the priesthood, and all priests were distinguished by the tonsure (TAHN-shoor), a type of hairstyle in which the top of the head was shaven. After meeting certain obligations, a candidate for priesthood joined the church, then progressed through a series of "minor orders." A man could leave the minor orders if he chose, but ordination—the act of formal appointment as a priest—was irreversible, and leaving the priesthood was a grave sin.

Given its size, the organizational system of the church was exceedingly simple. For a long time, the only level above a priest was a bishop, with the bishop of Rome occupying the leading position as pope. By 1059, however, the church came to recognize certain "cardinal"—most important—bishops, eventually known simply as cardinals. Like bishops, the cardinals represented given regions, though their regions were larger, and there were fewer of them. Originally there were only seven, but in time this number grew to seventy, a group known as the College of Cardinals. Distinguished by their red caps, cardinals were the men who gathered to elect a new pope upon the death of the old one.

Another key instrument of church organization was the ecumenical councils. Actually, the last truly ecumenical one—joining both Eastern and Western churches—was the Fourth Council of Constantinople in 869, or eighth ecumenical council. Then, more than 250 years later, Catholic bishops in 1123 met at Rome's Lateran (LAT-ur-un) Palace, the papal residence. Whereas the first eight councils had focused on issues of belief and heresy, the four Lateran councils and others that followed centered on matters relating to church discipline.

The church-state struggle: round one

With the church on the rise after a period of decline, and with German emperors seeking to establish their power, the two forces were bound to collide. The showdown came in 1075, when Gregory faced off with Emperor Henry IV (ruled 1056–1106) in a bitter struggle called the Investiture Controversy. The term investiture referred to a king's authority to give property to appoint or "invest" local church leaders, a right Henry claimed on the grounds that bishops and abbots held political as well as spiritual power.

On December 8, 1075, Gregory sent Henry orders to stop appointing bishops and abbots, and Henry responded by calling Gregory a "false monk." Gregory then brought the full power of his papal authority to bear: not only was Henry excommunicated (1076) and his rulership of Germany declared null and void, he was condemned to eternal damnation. Henry quickly lost the support of his nobles, so in January 1077, in a symbolic act of humility and submission, he appeared at the castle of Canossa (kuh-NAH-suh) in northern Italy, where the pope was temporarily residing, and waited barefoot outside in the snow for days until the pope granted him absolution.

Transubstantiation: Body and Blood

A central aspect of worship during the Middle Ages was ritual, and nowhere was this tendency more apparent than in the Eucharist (YOO-kuh-rist), or Communion service. The Eucharist had originated with the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples. There Jesus stated that the bread they ate was his body, which would soon be broken on the cross, and the wine they drank was his blood, which would soon be shed. In the future, he told them, they should eat bread and drink wine together "in remembrance of me."

Originally it was understood that the bread and wine were symbols of Christ's body and blood, but by the 1000s, the church had come to embrace the idea of transubstantiation (trans-sub-stan-shee-AY-shun). According to transubstantiation, the bread became Christ's literal body, and the wine his actual blood. This did not mean it was physically the same as actual flesh and blood, but it was Christ's body and blood all the same. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council confirmed the doctrine of transubstantiation.

But the story did not end with Henry in the snow at Canossa. Seven years later, Henry marched into Rome and had Gregory removed, to be replaced by the antipope Clement III (c. 1025–1100). Only the help of Robert Guiscard returned Gregory to power, but in the process Robert's troops so badly devastated the city that the people turned against Gregory. He lived out his days under the protection of the de Hautevilles. Yet Gregory passed his fervor for reform and papal authority on to Urban II (ruled 1088–99), who would prove the ability of the church to make emperors and kings do its bidding.

The First Crusade (1095–99)

During the Middle Ages pilgrimages became popular both as an act of devotion to God and as a form of retribution for sins or even crimes (see box, "Punishment, Prison, and Pilgrimage"). A favorite site for pilgrims from France was Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, where the apostle James had supposedly been buried. In Europe as a whole, the leading spot was Rome, not only as the center of the papacy, but also because of its association with the saints and martyrs of the early Church. Yet one place exceeded the glory even of Rome. This was the place where Jesus himself had walked, and where many events from the Bible had occurred: the Holy Land, or Palestine, specifically the city of Jerusalem.

For centuries, the Holy Land had belonged to the Muslims, or Saracens (SAR-uh-sunz) as many Europeans called them. The Arab caliphate had respected the right of Christian pilgrims to visit Jerusalem, a city holy to Islam as well; yet the Seljuks had proven less tolerant than the Arabs and had begun harassing pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. Therefore when Alexis I Comnenus sent a request to Urban II for military help against the Turks, Urban saw it as something much bigger: a chance to reclaim the Holy Land for Christ, to bring the Orthodox Church back within the Catholic fold—and to make the pope the most powerful man in the world. Furthermore, he needed a foreign war to occupy the energies of the Normans.

Launching of the crusade

Like Gregory before him, Urban had found himself dependent on the de Hautevilles, in his case Robert's son Bohemond I (BOH-aymaw; c. 1050–1111). Bohemond took Rome from Henry IV in 1094, and thus allowed Urban to take control of the Lateran. Certainly Urban was grateful for the assistance, but he was also aware that the Normans were interested primarily in conquest and treasure, not the church. Therefore they could easily become dangerous foes, and Urban was only too happy to send them far, far away to attack someone else. In so doing, he claimed, that would be performing God's work.

There were other, equally ungodly, forces motivating the "wars of the cross," or Crusades, that followed. Kings and nobles were eager for a chance to prove the strength of their armies. Later crusades would involve commercial powers such as Venice, whose interest was expansion of trade. Among the common people, plenty were drawn by the desire for riches, or even worse by a lust for killing. Certainly some genuinely believed that they were fighting to rescue God's holy city from the hands of unbelievers—but many of these same people believed that this gave them justification to kill every Muslim or Jew they found.

In the speech that began the First Crusade, Urban promised that participants would enjoy the protection of the church over their homes and loved ones while they were away, and that they would earn complete forgiveness for their sins. This was an early example of an indulgence, the granting of forgiveness for sins in exchange for some act of service to the church. Many powerful men heeded his call, and in turn mobilized their armies, setting a pattern for crusades to come. Aside from Bohemond, there was his nephew Tancred; the French noble Godfrey of Bouillon (boo-YAWn) in France, later to be idealized as the perfect knight; Godfrey's brother Baldwin of Boulogne (boo-LAWN); and Raymond IV, count of Toulouse (tuh-LOOS).

Punishment, Prison, and Pilgrimage

Medieval justice had severe punishments, such as branding or mutilation, for serious crimes. For less serious offenses, however, or for crimes committed by persons of high social rank, fines were generally imposed. Later, the practice of judicial pilgrimage replaced fines as a punishment.

First introduced in Ireland during the 500s, judicial pilgrimage might seem like an easy sentence. But this was a time when travel in any form was highly uncomfortable—especially if one had to walk barefoot and in chains, as most criminals did. Persons accused of murder often had to walk with their murder weapons chained to them, and these might come in handy, since the roads of Europe were teeming with bandits and cutthroats.

The Peasants' Crusade

Alongside these figures were men who possessed neither wealth nor official power, but who could command masses of followers. Most notable among the latter was Peter the Hermit (c. 1050–1115), a French ascetic who mobilized thousands with his speeches; and Gautier Sans Avoir

(GOH-tee-ay SAWNZ a-VWAH, "Walter the Penniless"), a French knight. These two led the disastrous Peasants' Crusade (1096–97), which shadowed the official First Crusade.

The armies of peasants first made a shameful name for themselves in 1096, when they massacred countless German Jews as "enemies of Christ," then helped themselves to the Jews' possessions. From there they headed southeastward in a traditional pilgrims' route that took them through Hungary. When they entered Byzantine territory at the city of Belgrade, the frightened Byzantines tried to turn them back, so the peasants began looting and pillaging. They were attacked by troops in Bulgaria, and by the time they reached Constantinople, their numbers had been reduced by one-quarter. They began conducting raids against Byzantine homes and churches, so Emperor Alexis wisely offered to ferry the entire peasant army across the strait called the Bosporus (BAHS-pur-us) and into Anatolia. They never got much farther: a local Turkish leader led the "Franks"—the Turks' name for the Europeans—into a trap, and most of them died. Peter himself, away in Constantinople to seek aid from Alexis, survived.

Spoils for the victors

Meanwhile the official crusade was just getting started. Unlike the peasants, the nobles had taken time to organize and prepare their armies, which reached the Holy Land in early 1097. They scored their first major victory at Nicaea in June—but only with the help of Alexis, who claimed the city for Byzantium. A few months later, Baldwin took Edessa in eastern Asia Minor and established the County of Edessa, the first of several "crusader states"; but he seized it from Armenian Christians, not Turks. Meanwhile the main body of crusaders besieged Antioch (AN-tee-ahk), an ancient city on the border between Turkey and Syria that had been an important center of the early church. Antioch

became another crusader state, under the rule of Bohemond.

Then in July 1099, forces under Tancred and others conducted a brutal assault on Jerusalem, and seized the city after slaughtering thousands of Muslims. Ironically, Jerusalem was no longer in the hands of the Turks; a year earlier, it had fallen under the control of the Egyptians, who despised the Turks almost as much as the Europeans did. The Egyptians had promised that once they controlled Jerusalem, the Christians would have full access to all holy sites. But the original purpose of the Crusades had already been lost: the Europeans wanted land and treasure, and they could only get those by stealing. In the end, Godfrey of Bouillon emerged as the ruler of the new Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.

With the establishment of a fourth crusader state, the County of Tripoli, the crusaders controlled the entire Mediterranean coast of what is now Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. Though the Crusades would continue for centuries, this was the high point from the Europeans' perspective; from then on, they would mostly be fighting to hold on to what they had gained in the 1090s. Eventually the Muslims, caught off guard by the First Crusade, would begin to react in a spirit of jihad. One of the most negative outcomes of the Crusades—a deep hatred of Christians among many Muslims—had been set into motion.

For More Information


Dijkstra, Henk, editor. History of the Ancient and Medieval World, Volume 9: The Middle Ages. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1996, pp. 1213–24.

Hanawalt, Barbara A. The Middle Ages: An Illustrated History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Jones, Terry, and Alan Ereira. Crusades. New York: Facts on File, 1995, pp. 11–80.

Langley, Andrew. Medieval Life. New York: Knopf, 1996.

Severy, Merle, editor. The Age of Chivalry. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1969, pp. 92–130.

Web Sites

"The Cistercians." [Online] Available (last accessed July 28, 2000).

"The First Crusade." [Online] Available (last accessed July 28, 2000).

Medieval Sourcebook: Empire and Papacy. [On-line] Available (last accessed July 28, 2000).

The Norman Conquest. [Online] Available (last accessed July 28, 2000).

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The Eleventh Century

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The Eleventh Century