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Influence of Christianity
The International History Project
During the reign of Clovis, Christianity began to lift Europe from the Dark Ages. The first step was the conversion of Clovis in 496. Many barbarians had become Christians earlier, but most of them held the Arian doctrine, condemned as heresy by the Roman Catholic church.
When Clovis became a Roman Catholic, his Franks began to receive the support of the bishop of Rome--that is, the pope. This opened to the Franks the residue of Roman culture sustained by the church. Its monks, living in retreats called monasteries, had preserved a knowledge of Roman arts, crafts, and industries. They now began to spread this learning.
Christianity's influence widened when the great Charlemagne became king of the Franks in 768 and brought the Lombards and heathen Saxons under his sway. In 800 the pope proclaimed him ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. Charlemagne vigorously sought to provide his people with education. He founded schools in monasteries and churches for the poor as well as for the nobility.
As Charlemagne's empire passed to weak descendants, Europe was terrorized by new invasions. Sea-going Vikings swept down on England and the west coast of Europe and darted up rivers to raid inland. Hungarians drove from the east into Germany, France, and Italy. Moors from Africa and Spain slashed into southern Europe.
The inept kings of the broken Holy Roman Empire could not provide defense. They turned to the powerful lords of the realm, sometimes granting land for aid. Many lords built fortified dwellings, or castles. Peasants built their villages of huts near the castles and served the lords in return for protection. They farmed the lords' lands, worked in their households, and fought in their forces.
A lord became a suzerain when he accepted the service of a lesser lord, or vassal. The suzerain gave the vassal a fief, or tract of land. In return the vassal "did homage" to the suzerain--that is, he pledged loyalty to the suzerain and promised to supply him with warriors.
As peasants exchanged their work--and vassals, their service--for protection, they gave up their independence. Even the most powerful suzerains were vassals of greater overlords, such as kings or bishops.
This way of life, typical of the Middle Ages, is called feudalism. The word comes from feudum, which in medieval Latin meant "possession" or "property."