Earned Knowledge, L10, P4

The New Europe

By 1300 AD or so Europe was a new thing, and a much better thing than it had been under Roman domination. By this time, Western civilization was rooted in Christian principles and a new commercial model. More than that, they were passing these principles through their generations very effectively. Even illiterate Europeans were hearing the sayings of Jesus on a regular basis, in church. And when people have access to little information, they tend to hold what little they have more dearly. They knew, surprisingly well, what Jesus had said.

Farming also builds certain character traits into its long-term practitioners, and it taught the majority of Europeans to be forward thinking, to cooperate and to respect property.

So, the mentality of Europeans generally coalesced over centuries into a form we call “Western civilization.” Here are some practical features of this civilization:

    • A high-trust culture: A high-trust culture is one is which people can be relied upon to do what is right, without being forced. Christian beliefs produced a large number of people who did the right thing for internal reasons, and Europe discovered that living this way was reliable, efficient and pleasant.
    • Co-dominance. Between gospel passages (the records of what Jesus said) and unregulated commerce (which recognizes only individuals), people learned to interact apart from status and hierarchy. Status is something humans are sensitive to, of course, and so it always had some effects, but neither the Christian God nor an open market recognize it, and so its power over these people was substantially less than it has been at other times. The replacement for status is co-dominance, a recognition that multiple parties can be strong at the same time, and don’t have to be subservient to one another.
    • Long-range thinking: When people consider the future results of their actions, instead of just the immediate results, they act better and produce better results. Europeans produced a great deal of this because they understood farming. To survive on a farm, one must think ahead and save seed for the next year and be prepared for both planting and reaping. This pattern leads men to think about their actions before taking them rashly.
    • Distributed enforcement of good conduct: Because this was a highly cooperative culture, the people in it expected everyone else to cooperate. When members of the society acted uncooperatively, by placing obstacles in the paths of others or by disrupting their activities, any number of nearby persons would express dissatisfaction. This assured good conduct far better than a police force can. When a man’s family, neighbors, coworkers and even local shop owners become enforcers of good conduct, he either learns to cooperate or he leaves.
    • Understanding wealth-production: Europeans began to understand their new commerial process and saw that it increased wealth. Plunder was no longer required.

The Re-Forming of Hierarchy

Hierarchy, by 700 AD, was minimal in Europe, even absent in most places. Nonetheless, hierarchy appeals to large numbers of humans and it slowly began coming back.

With rulership failing badly, the Church (and by now the Roman Catholic church was by far the largest form of Christianity in Europe) was more or less the only visible entity that was highly esteemed. (A family of kings in what are now France and Germany attempted an empire during the early 9th century, but it split-up fairly quickly.)

And so the Church, by now very hierarchical and widely respected (representing Christ, after all), sought to become the center of reference for every person in Europe. At the same time, they gathered as much land and physical power as they could. They claimed, at various time, the ownership of nearly all of Europe (which rulers mostly ignored), became overlords of some significant pieces of land, and made useful deals with the largest rulers.

The Church began to amass a tremendous amount of wealth at this time, mostly through bequests to the Church. A substantial gift to the Church assured that the deceased would have many Masses said for him, greatly reducing the unpleasant time he would otherwise have to spend in Purgatory. And so, by 16th century, the Catholic Church owned a shockingly large number of properties in Europe. This may have exceeded a third of all the land that comprises modern France.

Rulers began to amass power by about 1400 AD, but they were restrained by a lack of legitimacy. The Church remained far more respected than rulers, and had no interest in letting that go. And so battles over legitimacy would affect Europe a great deal in the centuries to come, but we’ll save that for our next lesson.



As always, go slowly and be sure the students understand the lesson as completely as possible.

This lesson’s overarching points are that Western civilization had a unique formation, combining:

    • A significant emotional vacuum left behind by Rome.
    • A continuing decentralization, as Rome’s successors (the barbarians) couldn’t hold the system together, followed by a near total breakdown of power.
    • A new philosophy that was antithetic to power and it’s use.
    • A significant inheritance of both technology and the belief that it could be pursued successfully.
    •  moral rejection of slavery that pushed people into doing hard economic things, rather than the easiest things.

I’ve mentioned these points throughout the lesson, but it will probably be best for your students if you reiterate them.

And, as always, don’t be hesitant to take side-paths that seem fruitful. Sometimes they will be, and perhaps sometimes they won’t, but until you try, you’ll never know. Take some risks.

Now, just a few more notes:

When mentioning the less than respectable types of early Europe, I left out prostitutes. They were very definitely part of this group, but I didn’t want to throw the term at children who might not have been exposed to it. My general feeling is that children should be insulated from the uglier parts of life for as long as is practical. Certainly they must be taught about such things at some point (and before they crash into them), but picking that point will vary from family to family and child to child. I leave you to make your own choices there.

Regarding negative rights, the opposing theory of “positive rights,” says that you can do only those things which are specifically permitted. What we generally call common law is based upon negative rights (as is the golden rule), whereas what we generally call civil law or Napoleonic law is based upon positive rights.

Again I’ve italicized new and significant words. You may want to spend time on these with your students:


Courts, as in a king’s court.

Counsel, as advice.




Pilgrim’s guides. (A fascinating study which can bleed over into geography and many other things.)

Establishment. I mean this in a 1970s way: A rigid hierarchy devoted to itself above all, even though they speak otherwise.



Commercial. Pertaining to commerce; independent business actions.

Bartering. (A good jumping off point for explaining currency and its importance.)


Minting. Manufacturing coins.

Capitalism. By this I refer to free, unregulated commerce, not to state-controlled, crony capitalism. (Again, a good jumping off point.)

Gospel. Referring to the four Christian gospels containing the words of Jesus.

Co-dominance: Multiple parties being strong concurrently, not one above another.

Church. The capitalized Church meaning the Roman Catholic church.


Masses: The formal Catholic religious ceremonies.


The line from Jesus where he asks, “why don’t you judge of your own selves what is right?” is Luke 12:57.

The library of Mont Saint-Michael, as of the 11th century, contained texts from Cato, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil and Horace.

The early schools that still exist in England were The King’s School, Rochester (founded in 604), St Peter’s School, York, (627), Thetford Grammar School (631), Royal Grammar School, Worcester (685) and Beverley Grammar School (700).

Rev. Alban Butler compiled these stories for his book, the Lives of the Saints, between 1756 and 1759.

The universities of Europe began with those in Bologna (1088), Paris (1160), Oxford (1167), Cambridge (1209), Palencia (1212), Salamanca (1218), Montpellier (1220), Padua (1222) and others.

The story of Peter Abelard is fascinating, but be aware that the man was literally castrated by his enemies. That may be too dark and intense for beneficial use.

The family of kings attempting an empire during the early 9th century were the Carolingians.

The R.H.C.Davis passage is from his book, A History of Medieval Europe: From Constantine to Saint Louis.

The Chris Wickham passage is from his book, The Inheritance of Rome.



Paul Rosenberg