Episode 11 AD 1075-1122

The first Crusade and the Flowering of Medieval Society

How did the Western tradition of civil society arise? Where do we look to find the deepest roots of constitutional government and the rule of law, for representative political institutions, for the first glimmers of a civic self-government?
These primary characteristics of our modern society are assumed to be the very antithesis of a society of intensifying religious fervour, where secular power drains away into the hands of an ascendant theocratic hierarchy, where wide sections of the population enthusiastically undertake wars of religiously-inspired reconquest.
But the paradox is that the roots and force of our modern civil institutions are to be found precisely in a period that also produced the Crusades, the medieval papacy, and saw the formation of the independence and power of the medieval Latin Christian church.
These things are, I suspect, intimately related. In this episode we observe their emergence and interaction, as a form of society engendering itself, as if on a rich laboratory growth medium.


  • In the Occident, in the centuries following the destructiveness of 850-950, society was marked by an extreme political fragmentation.
  • The warrior ethic of the armed and mounted class.
  • Fragmentation of authority unleashed universal, low-intensity anarchy, with local feuds being the stuff go politics.
  • One response to this was the Pax Dei movement, to place certain limits on noble warfare.
  • In this context, the papacy was largely successful in imposing its authority over the bishops and the nobilities of Latin Christendom.
  • At Clermont, pope Urban II appealed over the heads of the two figureheads of the Occident, the western Emperor and the King of France, to call for the reconquest of the Holy Land, later known as ‘the Crusade’.
  • The papacy’s struggle with the Latin Emperors (in Germany) weakened the latter’ hold on the northern Italian cities, where a rising merchant class grew rich from the renewal of commerce of Constantinople, thanks to their development of naval power to suppress piracy and Muslim control of the seas.
  • As part of a general social movement to repulse the nobles’ dominance and disruptiveness, communities throughout the West, within cities and often in villages, swore oaths to defend themselves and to administer their own justice.
  • The great advance of the Muslim Seljuk Turks across the heartland of the Roman Empire triggered the papacy to forge the lords and knights of Europe to launch an expedition, an armed pilgrimage, to push them back. The symbolic sites of the Holy Land acted as the unifier and focus of peoples’ imaginations.
  • A millennial enthusiasm seized large sections of the population of Latin Christendom, as witnessed by the so-called Peasants’ Crusade.
  • The united contingents of the western lords battled their way across Anatolia, took Antioch, and arriving at Jerusalem, were unexpectedly aided by a Genoese fleet, enabling them to take the city.
  • The massacre within the walls that followed was appalling; however it was far from being unusual for those centuries, by either side.
  • A Latin Patriarchate and a Latin kingdom established at Jerusalem. The news was welcomed at Constantinople, but the Christian success had for the first time demonstrated the relative weakness of the Romans.
  • Comparison of the simultaneous Christian thrusts into the Near East and into Muslim southern Spain. The Almoravid re-invasion of Spain from Muslim north Africa.
  • In the Occident, the Reform papacy emerged largely triumphant from its struggle with the Latin Emperors, creating a solid ecclesiastical structure around itself at Rome and through church networks across Europe.

Now with the audio-only version included

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