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Middle Ages

The High Middle Ages

As Europe entered the period known as the High Middle Ages, the church became the universal and unifying institution. While some independence from feudal rule was gained by the rising towns (see commune, in medieval history), their system of guilds perpetuated the Christian and medieval spirit of economic life, which stressed the collective entity, disapproved of unregulated competition, and minimized the profit motive. Strong popes, notably Gregory VII, worked for a reinvigorated Europe guided by a centralized church, a goal virtually realized under Innocent III.

Militant religious zeal was expressed in the Crusades, which also stemmed from the growing strength of Europe. Security and prosperity stimulated intellectual life, newly centered in burgeoning universities (see colleges and universities), which developed under the auspices of the church. From the Crusades and other sources came contact with Arab culture, which had preserved works of Greek authors whose writings had not survived in Europe. Philosophy, science, and mathematics from the Classical and Hellenistic periods were assimilated into the tenets of the Christian faith and the prevailing philosophy of scholasticism; Aristotle, long associated with heresy, was adapted by St. Thomas Aquinas to Christian doctrine.

Christian values pervaded scholarship and literature, especially Medieval Latin literature, but Provençal literature also reflected Arab influence, and other flourishing medieval literatures, including German literature, Old Norse literature, and Middle English literature, incorporated the materials of pre-Christian traditions. The complex currents, vitality, and religious fervor of medieval culture are evident in the classics of Dante and Chaucer. Gothic architecture developed most notably in the 12th cent., against a background of the cultural and economic ascendancy of Western Europe.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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