The Thirteenth Century

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The Thirteenth Century

I f the twelfth century was the peak of the Middle Ages in Western Europe, the thirteenth century (or the 1200s) offered clear signs that the medieval period was drawing to a close. The Crusades continued, but the crusading spirit lost force; and though the church reached the pinnacle of its powers in the mid-1200s, other elements were gaining influence. Among these competing forces were kings and emerging nation-states such as France and England. But kings and popes were far from the only influential figures in thirteenth-century life: merchants and scholars, though they had little in common, threatened to tear down the power of both church and state.

The end of the Crusades

By the time of the Fourth Crusade (1202–04), Europeans had begun to lose faith in the whole crusading enterprise. Only a figure as strong as Innocent III (ruled 1198–1216), who controlled the papacy at the time of its greatest power, could even have mobilized the people for another crusade; even so, his initial call for troops in 1198 raised little interest. It took four years to pull together a big enough army.

Other than Innocent, this Crusade lacked the strong figures who had driven the first three ventures; this time the guiding force was Venice, which provided five hundred ships and expected to make a profit. The crusaders set off for Egypt, which they intended to conquer before going on to win back Jerusalem, but they never got past Constantinople. There they became involved in a power struggle in which they helped the Byzantine prince Alexis seize the throne from his father. In the meantime, they had to pay off their Venetian sponsors, so they captured one of the Byzantines' port cities, Zara, in October 1202. When the Byzantines overthrew Alexis in 1204, the crusaders took over Constantinople.

Words to Know: The Thirteenth Century

A semi-scientific discipline that holds that through the application of certain chemical processes, ordinary metals can be turned into gold.
A first stage in the training of a craftsman, in which a young boy went to work, for no wages, in the shop of a master.
The study of the stars and planets with the belief that their movement has an effect on personal events.
A type of cleric, neither a priest nor a monk, who both preaches and teaches.
An association to promote, and set standards for, a particular profession or business.
A middle stage in the training of a craftsman, in which a teenaged boy worked for wages; if he proved himself as a journeyman, the guild would declare him a master craftsman.
Dependent on charity for a living.
A wandering musician.
A geographical area composed largely of a single nationality, in which a single national government clearly holds power.
Working class:
A group between the middle class and the poor, who typically earn a living with their hands.

Thus the Byzantine capital became the center of yet another crusader state, the so-called Latin Empire, which consisted of little more than a portion of Greece. The Byzantines retreated to Trebizond in Turkey until the recapture of Constantinople in 1261 by Michael VIII Palaeologus (pay-lee-AHL-uh-gus; ruled 1259–82). Michael founded a dynasty under which Byzantium enjoyed its last gasp of power, but the damage done by the crusaders was irreparable. This probably bothered the Western Europeans little, however: they despised the Greeks even more than they did the Muslims and were happy to participate in Byzantium's destruction—even though to do so was to erode an empire that had long served as a buffer between Western Europe and its enemies to the east.

The Albigenses and the Inquisition

The next "crusade" did not even take place in the East, and its target was not Muslims but a religious group called the Cathars. Based in Albi, France, they were also called Albigenses (al-buh-JIN-seez), and they practiced a faith similar to Manichaeism. Like the Manichees long before, the Albigenses believed that all of existence was a battle between evil and good, and that they alone were capable of understanding the terms of this battle.

The church considered this heresy, and at first it dealt with the Albigenses by sending them missionaries such as St. Dominic (c. 1170–1221). Dominic later founded the Dominicans, a mendicant (that is, dependent on charity for a living) order of friars—neither monks nor priests, but preachers and teachers. Another mendicant order was the Franciscans, founded by St. Francis of Assisi (uh-SEE-see; c. 1182–1226).

Innocent III ultimately decided to deal harshly with the Albigenses, and in 1208 launched the so-called Albigensian Crusade. Invaders eager for land and treasure swarmed over southern France, seizing the estates of the nobility and replacing bishops who had sympathized with the Cathars.

The Albigensian Crusade, which ended in 1229, had a powerful effect on history. By displacing much of France's nobility, it greatly strengthened the French king, and from then on France would have a powerful central government in contrast to the looser system that had prevailed under feudalism. This in turn tied the French royal house close to the church, and eventually the two would become inseparable. The Albigensian Crusade also led to the establishment of the Inquisition by Pope Gregory IX in 1231.

The Inquisition, which lasted until the 1300s, was the name for a court through which the church investigated, tried, and punished cases of heresy. Many inquisitors, Church officials appointed to oversee investigations, were excessive in their methods, but generally the Inquisition was not as harsh as is popularly believed. During the 1200s in France, for instance, only about one percent of accused heretics were burned at the stake; some ten percent were imprisoned, and the rest received lesser sentences. When modern people talk about the horrors of the Inquisition, what they are actually referring to is the Spanish Inquisition, an entirely separate system (see box, "The Iberian Peninsula," chapter 19).

Later Crusades

The year 1212 saw the pathetic "Children's Crusade." Some historians believe that the participants in this crusade were not children, but poor people from the countryside who were viewed as childlike innocents by medieval society. Perhaps, many believed, these "children" could achieve what kings and knights had not. In fact they never made it to the Holy Land, and though some returned home safely, many were captured and sold into slavery in the Arab world.

There were other such crusades by the downtrodden; meanwhile, formal Crusades continued with everdiminishing success. The Fifth Crusade (1217–21), also ordered by Innocent III, included leaders from England, Germany, Hungary, and Austria, and took place entirely in Egypt, which the crusaders tried unsuccessfully to conquer. The Sixth Crusade (1228–29) is significant not so much for its outcome as for its leader: Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (ruled 1212–50), a figure of many and varied talents whose interest in literature and science made his court an exciting place. He and Gregory IX also quarreled openly, as other emperors and popes before them had, and during his reign the Guelph-Ghibelline conflict turned into open warfare.

As for the crusade itself, it was chiefly a matter of diplomacy and not warfare. Though Frederick worked out an agreement with the Muslims regarding possession of Jerusalem and visits to holy sites, neither side was happy with the arrangement. Gregory also organized the Seventh Crusade (1239–40), another failure. The last two numbered Crusades, the Eighth (1248–54) and Ninth (1270–72), were led by France's King Louis IX (ruled 1226–70), better known as St. Louis. By then the Seljuks' power had faded, and the Mamluks were the enemy; but the results were the same.

The Mamluks conquered the last Christian stronghold at Acre in

1291, thus ending two centuries of European presence in the Holy Land. There were still crusades of a limited nature in later years, but the targets were usually in Asia Minor or Egypt. In addition, there were crusades against heretics or rebellious emperors, not to mention the Reconquista (ray-kawn-KEES-tah), or reconquest, of Spain from the Muslims (see box, "The Iberian Peninsula," chapter 19). The last crusade of any kind came in 1464, in response to the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in May 1453. Pope Pius II (ruled 1458–64) led the Crusade himself; but he died en route, and the crusading movement died with him.

The new Europe

In about 1100, Western Europe began changing rapidly, a change characterized by the reemergence of large towns and cities. The largest ones were Paris, with a population of some 200,000; London, somewhat smaller but still a great city; and Rome, struggling to return to its former glory. Then there were the great Italian cities, each with a population of about 100,000: Venice, Genoa, Pisa, and Florence.

Driving this growth was an economic boom, itself a partial result of the Crusades. The latter had exposed Europeans to the idea of international trade, which grew rapidly in the twelfth and thirteen centuries. The largest component of international trade, however, was not commerce with lands outside of Europe, but between European states. Such activity took place at large annual trading fairs that sprang up during the 1100s in two great centers: Champagne, a county in northwestern France; and Flanders, a coastal region in the area of modern-day Belgium and Holland.

Not only did merchants from all over Europe present their wares at these gatherings, but the fairs also facilitated cultural exchanges; and for peasants and poor people, they broke up the monotony of daily life. Soon the fairs became great celebrations with all sorts of entertainment provided by acrobats, minstrels, or wandering musicians, and others.

The growth of trade led to greater increases in knowledge. When Marco Polo (1254–1324) of Venice embarked in 1271 on his celebrated journey to China, his immediate purpose was commercial. Yet his later writings would give Europeans their first glimpses of the Far East and would establish geography as a science rather than a collection of fantastic stories about other lands.

The Positive Side of the Crusades

In the modern view, the Crusades were a shameful episode in European history, a time when savagery in the name of God reached a low point. The truth, however, is far more complex: though the Crusades were unquestionably a brutal act of invasion—not to mention a massive failure—they were crucial to the opening of trade routes to the East and to the reawakening of Europe. Through these vicious, misguided "holy wars," Western Europeans gained exposure to Byzantium and the Arab world, civilizations in which learning had never faded.

Arab figures such as Avicenna and Averroës helped reintroduce Greek learning to the West. In fact, contact with Arab civilization led to nothing short of a full-scale reintroduction of scientific learning in Europe. At that point, neither the Arabs nor the Europeans knew the difference between real science and false science: thus the Arabs passed on both scientific astronomy and the hocus-pocus of astrology, not to mention the "science" most closely associated with the Middle Ages, alchemy. From the latter, however, would come the serious scientific discipline of chemistry.

There are other legacies of the Crusades in almost every aspect of life—for instance, chess. The game originated in India during the 500s, and later spread throughout the Muslim world, where it reached the crusaders. Originally the figures on the chess board were based on ranks within the Indian army; later they took on a specifically European character that reflected the power of the church: hence the most useful piece, after the queen, is the bishop. Of course the king is not a particularly useful piece, but his loss marks the end of the game—checkmate, a term that comes from a Persian expression, shah mat.

International commerce also forced an improvement in European travel conditions. New roads were built for the first time since the fall of Rome, and civil authorities sought to make travel safe by providing protection against highway robbers. This in turn led to the strengthening of national governments: as in the modern United States, maintenance of large

"interstate highways" was more practical at a national than at a local level.

Guilds and classes

In Germany, which lacked a national government, cities began banding together in 1160 to form the Hanseatic (han-see-AT-ik) League, designed to help them secure greater trade privileges in international markets. The Hanseatic League was itself an outgrowth of another change in commercial life, the reemergence of guilds, or associations, to promote a particular profession or business.

Guilds had existed in ancient times, but had disappeared until the 1000s, and thereafter they became much more organized than their ancient counterparts. There were merchant guilds such as those that made up the Hanseatic League, and there were craft guilds. The latter represented specific crafts, such as that of stonemason, and protected their economic interests while establishing standards for their members. A young man rising through the ranks of the guilds went through stages akin to those of a prospective knight, working first as an apprentice, then as a journeyman in his teens before finally emerging as a master—and thus as a full member of the guild.

The growth of commerce in general, and the guilds in particular, led to the expansion of the middle class and working class, both of which separated the very rich from the very poor. As for the poor, they had plenty of incentive to move to the cities, where they stood a chance of rising to one of the more fortunate classes; all that awaited them in the country, by contrast, was a lifetime of toil on a feudal lord's manor. The resulting desertion of the countryside, combined with the growth of new classes, signaled the end of feudalism as an economic system—though not yet as a political system. Peasants no longer needed the protection of feudal lords, but the latter retained considerable power and wealth, and would continue to do so for several centuries.

New ideas

An increase in learning accompanied the expansion of trade. The first real colleges made their appearance in France and Italy during the late 1100s; then in 1221, a French scholar first used the term "university" to describe a type of college that offered students a broader range of studies and greater freedom in which to pursue them. For the first time, education was open to young men outside the priesthood, and this led to an explosion of learning as profound as the economic boom then taking place.

Of course the church itself was still the home of many intellectuals, among them Thomas Aquinas (uh-KWYN-us; 1226–1274). Thomas, who replaced Averroës as the leading interpreter of Aristotle, represents the fullest development of Scholasticism. His contemporary, Roger Bacon (c. 1220–1292), another priest, was a forerunner of modern thought who insisted that a scientific approach to the natural world was not inconsistent with Christian belief. The church, on the other hand, considered science a threat to its dominant position in European intellectual life.

Nations and non-nations

Across the European continent, nations were coming together and empires falling apart. In Eastern Europe, Byzantium—permanently crippled by the Crusades—limped along, while the city-states of Russia, led by Novgorod, gradually gathered strength. Greatest of Novgorod's leaders was Alexander Nevsky (c. 1220–1263), a prince who repelled invasions by the Swedes in 1240 and the Teutonic knights in 1242. His defeat of the knights, in a battle on a frozen lake, is one of the most celebrated events of Russian history.

Romantic Love—A Matter of Economics?

Unlike marriage, sex, and procreation, romantic love has not always been a part of life; even today, the concept is virtually unknown in traditional societies. In order for romantic love to take root in a society, there has to be a certain amount of wealth and leisure. There also has to be a period between the first manifestations of sexual desire, which typically happen in puberty, and their fulfillment. In societies where most people are poor and live off the land, there is a great incentive to marry at puberty and start having offspring so that children can help on the farm. There is simply no time to fall in love.

The idea of romantic love had existed in ancient Greece and Rome and parts of the Middle East—the Bible's Song of Solomon is clear evidence of this—but had largely faded from Western Europe with the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Then, in the High Middle Ages (1100–1300), it took hold among the upper classes, as the popularity of courtly love illustrates. During the thirteenth century and later, the concept spread to the middle class. Marriage prior to that time had been chiefly a business arrangement, with the young man's family offering some advantage to the young woman's family, and the latter providing a dowry (the wealth that a bride brings to a marriage) in exchange. Perhaps the couple might grow to love one another, but this was only a happy accident, and not considered a vital part of marriage.

With the emergence of the middle class, however, it became possible for a young man and woman to marry for love, and not primarily for money. Ironically, the people who were least free to marry for love were the most wealthy and powerful: the motivation behind the vast majority of royal or noble marriages remained political or economic, not romantic.

Alexander did not act so decisively against a new breed of invaders

from the east, the nomadic Mongols of Central Asia. By 1241, they had swarmed over Russia, the Ukraine, Poland, and Hungary, and had reached the gates of Vienna, Austria's capital. Alexander saw the Mongols as protection from enemies to the west, and submitted to their rule. Upon his death, he made his son Daniel ruler over Moscow, which thenceforth became known as the principality of Muscovy. During the centuries that followed, the Mongols would rule Russia until Muscovy became powerful enough to overthrow them; in the process, the Russian system would become characterized by highly centralized authority, with a prince whose subjects did not dare question his power.

Quite the opposite thing was happening in England, where the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 led to greater power for the nobility over the king—and ultimately to greater power for the people over both. In other countries, too, the central authority lost power, but not by such orderly means as in England. Italy remained a confused collection of warring states, and Germany began to fall apart when the Hohenstaufens lost the imperial throne in 1254. In 1273, however, the election of Rudolf I (ruled 1273–91) as emperor established the powerful Hapsburg dynasty, destined to remain a factor in European politics until 1918.

The strongest nation in Western Europe was France, where a series of powerful kings increased the dominance of the royalty over all other forces in French life. Philip IV (the Fair; ruled 1285–1314) proved just how strong a French king could be when he went up against Pope Boniface VIII (BAHN-i-fus; ruled 1294–1303) and won. The conflict began when Philip's government established a tax to pay for a series of wars with England, and a group of Cistercians protested the tax. They appealed to Boniface for support, and Boniface ordered all French bishops to Rome so that he could review Philip's policies. Philip responded by supporting a group who kidnapped the pope.

Though Boniface was only held prisoner for a few days, the incident marked the end of the papal dominance over kings. Philip later arranged to have a pope who would do his bidding, Clement V (ruled 1305–14), placed on the throne. In 1309, Clement moved the papal seat from Rome to Avignon (AV-in-yawn) in southern France. This in turn sparked one of the greatest crises in the history of the Catholic Church, as Western Europe was divided between supporters of the Avignon papacy and those who submitted to a rival pope in Rome. The church would recover from this rift, but its power would never again be as great.

For More Information


Dijkstra, Henk, editor. History of the Ancient and Medieval World, Volume 10: Medieval Politics and Life. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1996, pp. 1303–44.

Jones, Terry, and Alan Ereira. Crusades. New York: Facts on File, 1995, pp. 181–241.

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

Severy, Merle, editor. The Age of Chivalry. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1969, pp. 272–89.

Web Sites

The Catholic Encyclopedia. [Online] Available (last accessed July 28, 2000).

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The Thirteenth Century

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