Episode 15 AD 1204-1238

The Medieval Polity and the foundations of Western Liberty

A few short years, so long ago. But the opening decades of the 1200s saw a wealth of spectacular and future-shaping events occur.

We start with an account of the nature of the medieval polity, of “feudal” political relations; we see the new Latin principalities of the east Mediterranean as prototypes of the European approach to political society; we also see that slavery and serfdom, perennial in human societies, gradually became extinct in the home countries of medieval Europe. We see the rise of a culture of Liberties, embodied in charters. We trace the great French dynastic civil war that created ‘France’ and began the process of the creation of ‘England’, and which framed and gave rise to the Magna Carta. Finally, we see the definitive reconquest of the Iberian peninsula for Christendom, and end with the emergence of parliamentary political institutions as the European norm during the 1200s.

Contents of the video (1 hour 27 mins.)

  • The meaning of ‘feudalism’ – the free and honourable obligation to support and aid on overlord in return for lands.
  • Medieval kings were of the sacred family, with many relatives – the senior lords of the realm, who could also be their rivals. The political community of immediate and lesser vassals was based on shared understanding of mutual obligations and of ‘rights’: a king could not be a monarch, as he had to rule with the assent of his vassals and the high clergy.
  • The example of the Frankish east – the Latin dominions of the dismembered Roman Empire of Constantinople. The Venetian mercantile empire of the eastern Mediterranean. The feudal constitutions of the Latin principalities. The flourishing court culture of the Latin princes in Greece.
  • Slavery in Europe became restricted to non-Christians. The withering away of serfdom due to scarcity of labour, the need for settlers and a sentiment that it was scandalous for Christians to be slaves. The free peasantry, living under explicitly delineated customary obligations to their lord.
  • The politics of Christendom, due to its fragmentation, were caught in the mechanism of ever-escalating competition for dominion. The conflict between the house of the Plantagenets and the house of Valois a set-piece example, lasting centuries. Phillipe Auguste’s startling military success brought Normandy to the crown of France.
  • King John of Anjou-England demanded increased royal funds from his vassals and the church to finance mercenaries and wage campaigns. Direct conflict with the papacy resulted. The resentment of his nobles increased.
  • Phillipe Auguste of France wins the decisive battle of Bouvines against Flanders and the Empire, establishing the predominance of the French crown over its vassals and expanding its territory greatly.
  • John’s disastrous campaign in France precipitated a revolt among his nobles.
  • The revolt against King John was a re-assertion of the traditional understanding of the limited power of the king, an understanding common across all Christendom. Magna Carta was a reactionary, conservative document and it was one example of several such documents across medieval Europe during these centuries. The German barons also limited the power of the Latin Emperor in a charter, eventually rendering the Emperorship elective.
  • The Almohads launched another jihādi invasion of Spain from Morocco. The military orders of Sant Iago, Alcantara and Calatrava formed in defence. The papacy rallied the Iberian kings to unite against the threat. The Crusade was declared to save Spain.
  • In 1212 King Alfonso led the Christian attack at Las Navas de Tolosa and won a stunning victory. Thereafter all of Muslim Spain, except the Emirate of Grenada, was retaken by the Christians. The Kingdom of Castile rose sharply in power as a result.
  • In eastern Spain, the King of Aragon also won great victories, taking the Balearic islands and the Emirate of Valencia from the Muslims.
  • The institutions of a consensual government first appeared in medieval Spain, the Cortes, or Estates and Parliaments as they became known elsewhere.
  • The Prince, ruling in and through a sitting of the vested social interests in a Parliament, became the norm across most of medieval Europe, laying the foundation for our modern constitutional political traditions.

Now with the audio-only version included

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