Earned Knowledge, L10, P1

Western Civilization

Western civilization, to be clear, is not an extension of Greek or Roman civilization. We have borrowed from Greece and Rome (a sensible thing to do), but those were slave societies, and Christian Europe rejected slavery.

And so, the new European civilization that we call “Western,” had to develop in a very different way. It became something substantially new, embodying a model of life that hadn’t been seen before in human history.

This didn’t happen in a moment, of course; it happened over centuries. And it didn’t happen because the European people followed a brilliant plan. In fact, the text that most Europeans would have said was most important to them was the Bible, and the Bible doesn’t condemn slavery directly. Neither does it say much about how large numbers of people should live together, and very certainly the New Testament (the most essential part to Christians) doesn’t.

What happened in the years after Rome unraveled was that people paid a great deal of attention to what we’d call Judeo-Christian principles; concepts like these:

    • All men are brothers, and each is directly valued by God, the creator and judge of the universe.
    • That God inclines his ear to the humble and turns his back to the mighty.
    • That justice is ultimately of God, not of the ruler.
    • That we all have free will and are responsible for our actions.
    • That our relationship with God is personal, not collective.
    • That we are able to reform and improve; that God very much wants this.
    • That good people produce rather than plunder.
    • That we must control ourselves and act responsibly: toward our family, toward our neighbors, and toward the exterior world.
    • That we must love our enemies and forgive.

These ideas, and a few others like them, appeared in many forms over many years, and they were both taught and discussed continually. In fact, people were expected to live by them. They made errors, of course, but living by these principles was expected of them all the same.

Taken together, these principles made slavery impossible, made production necessary, and made rulership suspect.

All of this combined to create a new type of human organization.

The New Model

Again, this model didn’t form in an instant, was never one fixed thing, and never even held very precisely. Still, the ever-changing details of Western life were of a fairly specific type, and molded the new civilization.

We ended Lesson 8 (before detouring into technology) at about 900 AD, as the new Western civilization was taking on it’s own shape and was very different from what Rome had been. And so we’ll look at the areas of life that re-formed during these years, to see how they re-formed.

Whether or not an “enforcer of law” is present (and again, during this time they rarely were), daily life continues and certain human problems must be handled. So, with the emperor and his ways being gone, the Europeans of the early Middle Ages invented ways to handle these things as they went.

One of the first areas where this was necessary involved the resolution of disputes, or, as people think of it nowadays, the use of law.

Law, however, is not the term to use where power has evaporated. Rather, the concern in such situations is always justice. And methods of assuring justice formed separately in each village, creating local customs that endured for centuries. For example, historian R.H.C.Davis reports that,

The law might change from village to village; a thirteenth-century judge pointed out that in the various counties, cities, boroughs, and townships of England he had always to ask what was the local customary law and how it was employed before he could successfully try a case.

Historian Chris Wickham reports on a case from the 9th century, detailing how local law operated:

When disputes were dealt with, it was the villagers who reached judgment; they also acted as oath-swearers for the disputing parties, as sureties to ensure that losers accepted defeat. In one notable case of 858, a man tried to kill a priest of the monastery of Redon, and had to give a vineyard in compensations, as an alternative to losing his right hand. Six sureties were named, and could kill him if he tried such a thing again. The judges and sureties were peasants (simple farmers); the villages around Redon policed themselves.

What you can see in this case is that punishment was less of a concern, while restoring the victim and making sure it didn’t happen again were more of a concern.

These traditions of justice grew around a basic idea that we now call “negative rights.” That means the following:

You are free to do what you want, so long as you don’t transgress against others.

Law in the West grew slowly from this model of justice, and it was not arranged around laws and lawmakers (parliaments, congresses, etc.). Rather, law was a process of determining what was just or unjust; it was the findings of judges… the opinions of judges, which were passed around and discussed. A judge discovered, defined and explained justice.

The common law of England makes a good example of this. It was not the law of Parliament and legislation, and it was not the orders of kings. In fact, once kings tried to involve themselves in justice, they had to carefully acknowledge the laws of the judges. For example, a constitution written in England in 1164 AD called itself the “record and recognition of the customs, liberties and rights which ought to be observed and held.”

And when the barons (large landholders) of England rebelled against the king in 1215 AD, they forced the king to sign this:

No free man shall be taken, or imprisoned or dispossessed, or outlawed, or banished, nor will we go upon him, except by the legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.

Notice that the king had to follow “the law of the land,” which was produced by locals.

This type of practice went on all across Europe during those years. The example we used above, of the attempted murder of a priest, occurred in what is now France, and we’ve also described the situation on the island of Britain (aka, England). Similar things happened in Germany, where informal courts called the Vehm met and dispensed justice. And again, this was the law of local people, not the law of rulers.

Likewise safety was provided locally and privately. It came via a dense web of private contracts and relationships, not by rulers and not via police departments (of which there were none).


Paul Rosenberg