[RSArchive Icon]
Rudolf Steiner Archive Section Name Rudolf Steiner Archive & e.Lib



Highlight Words

History of the Middle Ages

Schmidt Number: S-0943

On-line since: 31st May, 2018

Lecture IV


8 November, 1904

A common prejudice is expressed in the maxim: Human evolution moves forward in regular succession, the unfolding of historical events makes no leaps. This is connected with another prejudice; for we are also told that Nature makes no leaps. This is repeated over and over again; but it is untrue both for Nature and for History. We never see Nature making mighty progress without leaps. Her progress is not gradual; on the contrary, small processes are followed by important results, and the most important of all result from leaps. Many cases could be enumerated in which Nature advances in such a way, that we can observe a transition of forms into their exact opposite.

In History this is particularly important, because there we have two significant occurences, which gradually prepared, but then ebbed away, only to make their eventual advance in a forward leap:

1. The founding of the free cities at the beginning of the Middle Ages.

2. The great inventions and discoveries at the end of the Middle Ages.

History moves very quickly forward at the change from the 11th to the 12th century. New forms of society evolve from old ones. From the fact that many men left their homes, to settle in the cities, sprang up — throughout Germany, France, England, Scotland, and as far as Russia and Italy — cities with new conditions of life, new organisations, laws and constitutions. At the end of the Middle Ages we find the great discoveries, the voyages to India, America, etc., and the world-wide invention of printing. All this shows us what a radical change has been affected through the birth of the new spirit of Science — through Copernicus.

Two incisions were made by this; and if we are to study the Middle Ages thoughtfully, these two occurances must be place in the right light. They appear as leaps, but such an event is gradually prepared, until with the force of an avalanche it breaks forth, and rushes forward in a flood. If we pursue them step by step, it will become clear that these two events had been prepared in the life of the Germani. We shall see through what circumstances it was that such great power was given to the Franks, such influence over the configuration of European relationships. For this purpose we must understand the character of that race, the necessary metamorphosis of industrial relationships, and the powerful penetration of Christianity in the 4th century. These two things indicate the alteration in the life of the Germani. They condition the evolution of the Middle Ages. It would be useless to follow all the wanderings of the Germani, to see how Odoacer dethroned the last West Roman Emperor, how the Goths were driven out of Italy by the Emperor Justinian, how the Longobards seized possession of Northern Italy — we see the same circumstances enacted over and over again.

In the southern regions, where the Gemani found political and industrial conditions already firmly established, the idiosyncrasies of their own tribes disappeared; they lost all significance. We hear nothing more of the Goths, Gepidae, etc., they have vanished, even to their names. In contrast to this, the Franks had arrived at free, not yet fixed, condition, where serious appropriation was as yet non-existent, and through this political configuration, the Franks became the ruling race.

Now we must see how these developed in the empire of the Franks, that which we call the Merovingian kingdom. It was actually nothing but many small kingdoms, formed in the most natural way. The Merovingians remained as victors, after they had overcome the others who were originally their equals. All these kingdoms had been formed in the following way: some little tribe wandered in, subjugated the inhabitants and divided the land in such a way that all the members received small or large properties. Thus all dominion was based on land ownership. The most powerful received the largest domain. For the tilling of these properties, a great number of people were employed, some taken from the inhabitants, but part were prisoners of war, made into workers. Simply through this difference between the ownership of less of more land, were power relationships developed. The largest landowner was the king. His power was based on his property — that is the characteristic trait. Out of these powerful relationships, the relationships of rights were formed, and it is interesting to observe how this came about. Certainly we find among the Germanic tribes, laws founded on customs evolved in ancient times, before we have any knowledge of them. Among the smaller tribes all the people assembled to administer justice; later, the members of the tribe only came together on March 1st, to take counsel about their concerns. But now the great landowner was not responsible to the others for what he did on his own property. True, we find a conservative clinging to the old prescriptive laws among the different tribes. We find them preserved for long periods among the Saxons, Thuringians and Frisians, also among the Cheruscans, whose tribe kept them longer than has been generally believed. It was different where large landowning had developed, because the proprietor, absolute in his own domain, became also irresponsible. This irresponsibility gave rise to a new legal position, in which the jurisdiction of power, the authority of the police, was exercised. If another man committed an offence, he was called to account for it; if the irresponsible one did it, the same offence was looked upon as lawful. What was illegal among those without power, was legal among the powerful. They were able to change might into right.

Now, in this way the Franks could farther extend their power, and, especially in the northeast, could conquer great territories. At a time when war followed war, the less powerful were dependent on the protection of the mightier. Thus arose the fief and vassal system, which called forth a selection of powerful men. Then an arrangement for transferring certain rights by means of contracts sprang up.

The great landed property, the king's estate, required special legal conditions, which could be transferred to others by the king or the owner. Together with the land, the jurisdiction and the police authority would be transferred. King's law and the law of the small vassal came into being. As the result of this innovation we see the development of a powerful official class, not on a basis of stipend, but of land owning. Such justiciaries were the highest judges. In the beginning, when they still had to take into consideration the rights of powerful tribes, they were bound to respect ancient laws. Gradually, however, their position became that of an absolute judicature, so that, in course of time, side by side with the kingdom, there was formed in France a kind of official aristocracy which grew to be a rival of the kingship.

Thus in the 6th century, a rivalry developed between the sovereign and the new nobility, and this attained the greatest significance.

The original governing race, which sprang from the Merovingians, the large land owners, was succeeded by the Carlovingians who had originally belonged to the official aristocracy. They had been mayors of the palace to the ruling race, which had been overthrown by the rivalry of the aristocratic officials. Essentially, therefore, it was the possession of large property that was the basis of power relations; and the strongest moral current of the church, had to initiate its rule in this roundabout way through the large land owner.

It was the characteristic feature of the Frankish Church that, to begin with, it represented nothing but a number of large land owners; we see the rise of bishoprics and abbacies, and of vassals who placed themselves under the protection of the Church, in order to receive fiefs from it. Thus, side by side with the large, worldly land owners, clerical proprietors also arose. This is the reason why we see so little depth, and why the spiritual element which we find in Christianity is essentially due to foreign influence. It was not the Frankish race, but men of the British Isles who succeeded in creating those mighty currents which then flowed out eastwards. In the British Isles, many learned men and pious monks were deeply engaged in work. Real work was being done, as we may see, in particular, by the resumption of Platonism and its alliance with Christianity. We see mysticism, dogmatism, but also enthusiasm and pathos, issuing from here. From here come the first missionaries: Columba, Gallus and Winfried-Boniface, the converter of the Germans. And because these first missionaries had nothing in their mind but the spiritual side of Christianity they were not inclined to conform to the conditions of the Frankish tribes. Theirs was the healing virtue, and they found, especially through Boniface, their chief influence exercised among the East Germani. For this reason, Rome acquired an increasing influence at this time in the empire of the Franks. Two heterogenous elements combined together: the rugged force of the Germani and the spiritual strength of Christianity. They fitted in to each other in such a way that it seems wonderful how these tribes submitted to Christianity, and how Christianity itself modified its nature, to adapt itself to the Germani. These missionaries worked differently from the Frankish kings, who spread Christianity by force of arms. It was not forced into their souls as something alien; their places of worship and sacred customs were preserved; their practices and personalities so respected that old institutions were made use of to diffuse the new content. It is interesting to notice how what is old becomes the garment, what is new becomes the soul. From the Saxon tribe we possess an account of the Life of Jesus: all the details concerning the figure of Jesus were clothed in Germanic dress. Jesus appears as a German duke; his intercourse with the disciples resembles a tribal assembly. This is how the life of Jesus is presented in Heiland.

Ancient heroes were transformed into saints; ancient festivals and ritual customs became Christian. Much of what appears today as exclusively Christian was transferred at that time from heathen customs. In the Frankish empire, on the contrary, we see in ecclesiastical Christianity a means of consolidating power; a Frankish code of law begins with an invocation to “Christ, Who loves the Franks above all other peoples.” In the days when the British missionaries represented the moral influence of Christianity, the influence of the Roman Church also increased considerably. The Frankish kings sought alliance with the papacy. The Longobards had seized possession of Italy, and harassed the bishop of Rome, in particular. They were Aryan Christians. That was why the Roman bishop turned first to the Franks for help, at the same time tendering his influence to the Franks. So the Frankish king became the protector of the pope; and the pope anointed the king. Hence the Frankish kings derived their exalted position, their dignity, from this consecration by the pope. It was an enhancement of what the Franks saw in Christianity. All this took place in the west, in the 7th centure. This alliance between the papacy and the Frankish authority, formed a gradual preparation for the subsequent rule of Charlemagne. Thus we see the accomplishment of important spiritual and social changes. This alone, however, would not have led to an event which proved to be of the greatest importance, a material revolution: the founding of cities. For something was lacking in the Frankish Christian culture, although it had efficiency, intellect and depth.

That which we call Science, purely external Science, did not exist for them. We have followed a merely material and moral movement. What Science there was among them had remained at the same level as at their first contact with Christianity. And just as the Frankish tribes took no interest in the improvement of their simple agriculture, and never thought of developing it economically, similarly the Church only sought to build up its moral influence. Primitive tillage offered no special difficulties, such as, in Egypt, have led to the evolution of physics, geometry and technical science. Everything here was simpler, more primitive; thus the financial trading, which was already in use, gave place again to barter.

So European culture needed a new stimulus, and cannot be understood without taking this stimulus into account. Out of Asia, form the far East, whence Christianity once came, came now this new culture, from the Arabs. The religion founded there by Mahomet is, in its content, simpler than Christianity. The spiritual content of Mohammedanism is, essentially, based on simple monotheistic ideas confined to a divine fundamental Being, whose nature and form is not closely investigated, but to whose will men surrender, because they have faith. Hence this religion produces proud confidence in this will, a confidence which leads to fatalism, to a complete self-surrender. This is how it became possible for these tribes to extend Arabian rule, in a few generations, over Syria, Mesopotamia and North Africa, as far as to the realm of the Visigoths in Spain, so that, as early as the turn of the 7th to the 8th century, Moorish rulers were established there, and implanted their own culture in place of that of the Visigoths.

Thus something quite new, of an entirely different nature, flowed into European culture. The spirit of Arabism culture was not filled with dogma concerning angels and demons, etc., but precisely with that which was lacking in the Christian Germanic tribes namely, with external science. Here we find all such sciences — medicine, chemistry, mathematical thinking — well developed. The practical spirit brought over from Asia to Spain found employment now in seafaring, etc. It was brought over at a moment when an unscientific spirit had established its kingdom there The Moorish cities became centers of serious scientific work; we see here a culture which cannot fail to be admired by all who know it. Humboldt says of it: “This depth, this intensity, this exactitude of knowledge is unexampled in the history of culture.” The Moorish intellectuals had width of outlook and depth of thought; and not only did they, like the Germani, embrace Greek science, they developed it farther. Aristotle also contiuned to live among them, but with the Arabs, it was the true Aristotle who was honoured, with a wide outlook, as the father of Science. It is interesting to see how the Alexandrine culture, started in Greece, continued its existence here, and with this we tough upon one of the most remarkable currents in the human mind. The Arabs laid the foundations of Objective Science. From them, this flowed, in the first place, into the Anglo-Saxon monasteries in England and Ireland, where the old energetic Celtic blood now dwelt. It is strange to see what active intercourse had been introduced between them and Spain, and how, where profundity of mind and capacity to think were present, Science revived through the medium of the Arabs.

And it is a remarkable phenomenon that the Arabs who, to begin with, took possession of the whole of Spain, were soon outwardly conquered by the Franks under Charles Martel a the Battle of Poiters in 732. By this victory the physical strength of the Franks overcame the physical strength of the Moors. But the spiritual strength of the Arabs remained invincible; and just as, once, Greek culture rose triumphant in Rome, so Arab culture conquered the West, in opposition to the victorious Germani. Now, when the science which was needed to extend the horizon of trade and world intercourse, when city culture, arose, we see that it was Arab influence which made themselves felt here. Quite new elements flowing in sought to adapt themselves to the old.

We see expressed by Walther von der Vogelweide the perplexity which may assail anyone who follows, with an open mind, the conflicting currents of the Middle Ages. The poet saw how the Germanic tribes were striving for power, and how an opposing current was flowing from Christianity. That which flowed through the Middle Ages was transmuted by Walther von der Vogelweide into feeling, in the following sorrowful description:


No answer came into my mind
How men might come by these three things,
So that no man need to perish.
Two are honour and worldly goods;
These often do each other harm
The third, the chiefest of them all,
Is simply pleasing God. I longed to have them in one shrine
Alas, that that can never be!
For worldly goods and honour
Dwell not, within one human heart,
Together with the grace of God.
Hindrances are everywhere,
Faithlessness sets endless snares,
Haughty force lays all men low.
Thus Peace and Right are done to death.
Never will the Three find refuge
Till these two are healed and well.


We shall see shortly how difficult it was for the man of the Middle Ages to combine these three things in their heart, and how these three gave rise to the great struggles which rent that age asunder




Last Modified: 28-Oct-2018
The Rudolf Steiner Archive is maintained by:
The e.Librarian: elibrarian@elib.com
[Spacing]