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The geography of the Western World illustrated a grand expanse of Islamic states in the south; a vast and fragile Byzantine empire in the east; a unified Holy Roman Empire under Charlemane; and the Franks to the west. Churches, sub-states, and city states divided Europe with castles, monasteries and cathedrals denoting the architecture of the land. Nearly every city in the western world of the Middle Ages has a cathedral with a powerful bishop at the helm of the church and often the state. The cathedral became representative of the city.
Rulers in the Middle Ages
The course of the extension of the king's powers followed an uneven path, but the growth of central power was a fact of life in most of the regions of Europe-excepting Germany during the High Middle Ages. No two monarchies went about the task of consolidating and extending royal power in exactly the same way, but the case of England gives us an example of how the king's central problem, asserting royal authority over feudal magnates, could be successfully handled. In England William the Conqueror was the beneficiary of a "clean slate" by virtue of his act of conquest. He was still, however, highly dependent upon the feudal magnates for maintenance of central authority. Royal authority could be asserted through the magnates, but could not be directly applied over their heads to their vassals. William the Conqueror's successor, however, William Rufus, managed to gather a little more power into his hands by means of practicing financial extortion against the magnates. His successor, Henry I, greatly consolidated royal power by professionalizing the curia regis, and by allowing nascent bureaucracies to emerge in the fields of finance and law. The financial instrument, the Exchequer, made financial resources available to the crown which surpassed anything available to the barons. The legal instrument allowed the extension of royal power by extending the crown's right to adjudicate, a prime component of power and prestige in a feudal society. Henry II vastly increased the power of English kings by further extending royal legal jurisdiction through the use of the jury system and circuit court system, and by a systematic reduction of the military assets-castles-of the magnates. Under John Lackland royal power was badly abused and a reaction set in-signalized by the Magna Carta, a document created by the barony and designed to further their interests, not the interests of commoners, by limiting the power of the crown to impose excessive financial demands on the aristocracy. By the time of Magna Carta, however, the die was cast and further growth of royal power was inevitable.
Rulers in France During the Middle Ages
With respect to growth of royal power in France, three of the Capetian kings are important:
- Louis the Fat
- Louis VII
- Phillip Augustus
The first was instrumental in bringing about good order within the Ile de France; in this he was aided by an alliance with the church, an alliance which procured for him the services of Abbot Suger. Suger also served Louis VII whose record was inconsistent, but who managed to begin the process of royal encroachments on the prerogatives and power of the nobles within their fiefs. The real work of consolidation was accomplished by Phillip Augustus who may have learned something from the statecraft of his rival Henry II of England. In order to curb the corrupt practices of the prevots or tax farmers, Phillip sent out royal officials to investigate practices in newly conquered territories-something not unlike Henry's use of circuit court justices. Phillip also developed a nascent bureaucratic apparatus by commissioning baillis to administer in the royal name in outlying areas.
In Germany some consolidation had occurred under the Ottonians, but the Hohenstaufen, Frederick II, embroiled himself in Italian affairs and an on-going dispute with papacy; he preserved his own power, but his sons could not prevail over a reinvigorated and aggressive church. The result was a progressive break down of central power and authority and the development of that curious entity, the Holy Roman Empire of the later Middle Ages, an entity in which power was quite diffuse.
"Warlike" was a paramount virtue for a Medieval monarch; a Renaissance prince might also wished to be called this, but he/she would also like to be called "subtle" with respect to diplomacy and "a scholar" with respect to letters and languages. And the middle classes aped their betters; the merchant gentleman of Utrecht or Antwerp displayed many of the tastes and proclivities of the aristocrats of Parma or Seville. The Renaissance softened society. It revivified the classical notion (Protagoras) of man as "the measure of all things" and, in doing so, it created an ideal type, the scholar-warrior-poet-statesman-courtier type, that established the tone of the social aspirations of that time and remains influential to this day.
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