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Brief History of Europe before 18th century

We begin our study with a short summary of key events in ancient and medieval Europe history. This part is not in your syllabus, but we have included here just for sake of background knowledge.

Roman Empire

From 2nd century BC to 5th century AD, the towns of Europe and Middle East were ruled by the Roman Empire. At its zenith, the Roman empire spread in east up to Greece, Turkey, Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia; in south up to include the Africa, North of the Sahara from Egypt to the Atlantic; in north and west of Europe within its borders the Danube and the Rhine, and included Great Britain south of Scotland Hadrian’s Wall.

As Rome grew in size and population, the rulers of Rome became very corrupt. Rather than serving the interests of the Empire, rulers, generals, and politicians became more concerned with protecting themselves. Civil wars between groups waged, taxes increased, and inflation soared. To stem the forces of history, the empire was divided in two {East and West} by Diocletian. The Eastern Empire was able to thrive, but western was susceptible to invasion and ruin. This ruin came in the form of invasions of nomadic tribes (including Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Franks, Anglo-Saxons etc) from the North. The once great Roman empire vanished by the dawn of 5th century.

In eighth century, there were serious attempts to re-establish the grandeur of the fallen Roman Empire. At that time, Roman Catholic Church was the only stable and unifying institution that survived since the old Roman Days. It was able to dominate the lifestyle of the day and claimed superiority over all political establishments. The Church started imposing and deposing the emperors and thus became superior to kings. A complex relation between Church and State was established which continued for almost one thousand years.

Feudalism in Europe

Since it was practically difficult to maintain strict control over the widespread lands; governance rested mainly in the hands of local nobility. Theoretically, the king owned the land which he granted to the nobles called Lords; who in return would give service, usually in the form of military aid. This feudalism was somewhat similar to the Indian Feudalism. However, it was also significantly different. These estates called fiefs were sometimes so large for a lord that he himself was unable to administer.  So, the Lords pledged the fiefs and granted use of part of the land to lesser lords who pledged their service in return. This system continued on until, at the lowest level, the lord administered only a small feudal estate. This is something which we don’t find in Indian Feudalism.

The farming and other labor on the land were performed by serfs who were bound to the land and actually transferred from one landlord to another with its title. They produced the necessities of the estate. In return, they received protection by the nobles and a share of the produce of the land.

The serf was not a slave theoretically for, a class of slaves, usually non-Christian prisoners, also existed altogether. Then, there was also a small class of free men who won their freedom by giving some special service or showing some extraordinary talent to their lords. They usually performed the special skills of craftsmen, artisans, and merchants. These free men later descended into the middle class in Europe.

The wars were common. The most affected people from these near constant wars were the people who loved in the serfs. The slave like status of the residents of these serfs was mainly because they needed constant protection from the wars.

The Economy of the Fiefs

Each fiefdom or serfdom was an individual economic unit, almost self sufficient due to the wars and due to the lack of trade. Each feudal estate featured a fortified castle surrounded by protective walls. The surrounding areas were the fields, herds and villages where serfs lived and worked. The serfs by their labor provided everything needed on the estate.

The Dark Ages

There was almost negligible travel, trade and communication in the medieval Europe. This was opposite to the Roman Empire in which there had been great and widespread trade relations. In Medieval Europe, the travel became dangerous. The perils of travel along with the ignorance and lack of desire to change the situations led the trade to vanish. That is why the medieval Europe is called Dark Ages.

The Indian feudalism had also resulted in the immobility of the population and isolation from the test of the world. Yet, the implication of the Indian Feudalism was very profound such as development of localized customs, languages and rituals.

The Medieval Europe is also designated as Dark Ages due to the fact that there was a steep decline in learning and education. The serfs and slaves were busy in their daily lives and there was no government to sponsor education. These were the times, when Asia was flourishing. Asia became the hub of knowledge, wealth and prosperity, much ahead of the contemporary Europe. The only centre of knowledge during these times was the Roman Catholic Church. This implies that the learning was generally religion based.

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