About the Author
Norman F. Cantor was Emeritus Professor of History, Sociology, and Comparative Literature at New York University. His academic honors include appointments as a Rhodes Scholar, Porter Ogden Jacobus Fellow at Princeton University, and Fulbright Professor at Tel Aviv University. His many books include the New York Times bestseller In the Wake of the Plague, Antiquity, Inventing the Middle Ages, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, and The Civilization of the Middle Ages, the most widely read narrative of the Middle Ages in the English language.
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Medieval history is generally regarded as extending from about A.D. 300 to 1500. European medieval civilization was not produced by any one event or series of events, but by the absorption by western Europe of certain ways of life, ideas, and religious attitudes that had prevailed for many centuries in the Mediterranean world. These ideas and values were pulled northward into western Europe-into northern France, southern England, northern Italy, and the Rhine valley-and in the process, certain aspects of Mediterranean culture were adapted and changed. (It is perhaps even more significant that many aspects were not changed.) Before the Middle Ages, then, there was a Mediterranean culture and society that was adopted and absorbed. An understanding of that civilization is essential to an understanding of the medieval world.
The culture that was eventually absorbed by medieval western Europe made its first appearance in the Mesopotamian Tigris-Euphrates valley late in the fourth millennium B.C. and perhaps a little later in the Egyptian Nile valley. That is the point where civilization began, if we define civilization primarily as structured society, organized government, and specialized economy over a large area. Men were no longer all herdsmen or all hunters; they became kings, priests, soldiers, farmers, or craftsmen.
The earliest civilized communities of the ancient Near East were dominated by a small, self-sustaining aristocracy as early as 3000 B.C. The nobility, or elite, of these Egyptian and Mesopotamian societies controlled nearlyall the economic resources of these societies. One of the noble families became the ruling dynasty. From the same families and from the ranks of the bureaucrats who served the monarchy were drawn the priests who controlled the temples. Thus the ideology of the ruling religious group sanctioned the prevailing government and social structure.
In these early societies there were, in essence, only two social groups, or "classes" (to use a term that has been central to historical thought since the nineteenth century). One class was the elite: the aristocratic group that controlled both rural and urban wealth and dominated the religious institutions, the government, and the bureaucracy. The other class was a mass peasantry, who may or may not have been slaves, but in any case were bound to till the soil in the interests of the ruling elite. We have no reliable statistical information about these early societies--indeed, it is difficult to give social statistics for any period before the late Middle Ages--but a safe estimate would be that the elite comprised 5 percent of the total population. The vast majority of the population, somewhere around 80 percent, belonged to the peasantry.
In the cities of the ancient Near East, particularly in Mesopotamia, where there were few large urban centers like Babylon and Ur, an urban working class of artisans comprised perhaps 10 or 15 percent of the population of the whole state. Even in these ancient societies there was a merchant class, maybe 2 percent of the total population, whose function was to engage in international commerce and to serve as adjuncts or assistants to the aristocracy. The merchants played an important role in the economy, but they had scarcely any more political or social power than did the peasants.
It is said in the Hebrew Bible that the Hebrews were slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt. The point here is that almost everybody was a slave (legally or empirically) unto Pharaoh and unto a small elite. It could be said, indeed, that these were one-class societies; only the aristocracy had any real consciousness of its identity, its rights, or its destiny. The aristocrats held a monopoly of power, learning, and culture, and they alone had a sense of their special and privileged place in the world.
In the long run, the existence of this intensely elitist society in the ancient Near East was of enormous importance to the history of western civilization. At late as 1700, the prevailing European social system was still one in which vast power, the greater part of landed wealth, and the prime control of political life belonged to the hereditary landed aristocracy. In the social history of premodern western civilization--whether the modern era is designated as beginning in 1500 or in the eighteenth century--a series of aristocracies perpetuated the control over the resources of society held by the ancient Near Eastern elite. It is a history in which successive challenges were made on moral and ideological grounds to the aristocratic control of society and its resources. Obviously, there is a substantial pattern of change and development in premodern social history, and these changes are highly significant and deserve close examination. Nevertheless, the factor of continuity--of the perpetuation down to the modern industrial world of a one-class social structure, or, in another phrasing, of the domination of a landed aristocracy--is one of the fundamental facts and continuing conditions of the history of western civilization.
It is natural to wonder how the Near Eastern aristocracy came to gain its dominant position, but it is not a question to which any certain answer can be given. Literacy did not begin in Mesopotamia and Egypt until the late fourth millennium B.C., and in the first written records the aristocracy had already emerged and the forms of government and social control had already been established. Historians speculate that these societies assumed their fundamental structure during the so-called prehistoric (i.e., preliterate) period--that is, somewhere around the middle of the fourth millennium B.C. However, we can only guess from archaeological evidence at the process by which the aristocracy came to dominate society, and although the evidence is substantial and has been carefully examined by scholars, it provides only an approximation of the truth at best. Archaeologists work with material objects, and the process of prehistorical social change has therefore been established according to the materialistic bias. They are bound to attribute social changes to alterations in the means of production because their evidence only discloses such alterations. Artifacts alone, without written records, cannot reveal great changes in human values or ideological upheavals that may have determined social change. Some historians have postulated a great intellectual revolution, some tremendous shift in human consciousness, behind the emergence of the first ancient civilizations, but in the absence of written records, this explanation can be no more than a happy guess. Civilization of the Middle Ages. Copyright © by Norman F. Cantor. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.