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Northwest Europe: 9th - 12th century

During the 9th and 10th century Scandinavia sends out the last great marauding group of Europeans, the Vikings. But the same period also sees the first settled kingdoms in the region.

By 811 Denmark has a king powerful enough to make a treaty with the Franks, and in the following century a Danish king, Harald Bluetooth, becomes the first Scandinavian ruler to convert to Christianity. He is baptized in about 960. A few years later a Norwegian king, Olaf I, takes the same step - between 995 and 999. Iceland becomes Christian in about 1000.

Denmark and Norway, linked in the 11th century in the empire of Canute, are by this time unshakably Christian kingdoms. But in the forests of Sweden the twin processes - unification and the defeat of paganism - begin later and take longer.

The first ruler of any part of Sweden to be baptized is Olaf, king of Götaland in the south, in about 1010. He and his successors struggle for more than a century against pagan rulers, whose most famous and jealously defended shrine is at Uppsala. Not until Uppsala is established as an archbishopric, in 1164, can Sweden be securely classified as Christian.

Feudal Europe: 10th - 15th century

Although feudalism develops as early as the 8th century, under the Carolingian dynasty, it does not prevail widely in Europe until the 10th century - by which time virtually the entire continent is Christian.

For the next 500 years, great accumulations of power and landed wealth pass between a few favoured players as if in a vast board game. The rules are complex, and to an outside eye deeply mysterious. But certain actions and qualifications bring a distinct advantage.

The top players in feudal Europe come from a small group of people - an aristocracy, based on skill in battle, with a shared commitment to a form of Christianity (at once power-hungry and idealistic) in which the pope in Rome has special powers as God's representative on earth. As a great feudal lord with moral pretensions, holding the ring between secular sovereigns, the pope can be seen as Europe's headmaster.

Bishops and abbots are part of the small feudal aristocracy, for they are mostly recruited from the noble families holding the great fiefs. Indeed bishops can often be found on the battlefield, fighting it out with with the best.

As in any other context, the strongest argument in feudalism - transcending the niceties of loyalty - is naked force. The Normans in England or in Sicily rule by right of conquest, and feudal disputes are regularly resolved in battle.

But feudalism also provides many varieties of justification for force. And the possession of a good justification is almost as reassuring to a knight as a good suit of armour.

One excellent excuse for warfare is the approval of the church. In 1059 the pope virtually commands the Normans to attack Sicily, by giving them feudal rights over territory not as yet theirs. Similarly Rome lets it be known that the Holy See is on the side of William when he invades England in 1066.

Another important form of justification is a dynastic claim to a territory. Generations of marriages, carefully arranged for material gain, result in an immensely complex web of relationships - reflected often in kingdoms of very surprising shape on the map of Europe.

A simple example is the vast swathe of land ruled over in the 12th century by Henry II. Stretching from Northumberland to the south of France, it has been brought together by a process of inheritance and dynastic marriage.

More complex, but equally typical of Christian feudalism, is the case of Sicily. In the 11th century the Normans seize it by invitation of the pope. In the 12th century the island is joined to distant Germany because the German king marries a Sicilian princess. And in the 13th century it is linked with France because the pope, intervening again, is now opposed to the Germans.

European prosperity: 12th - 14th century

The period differs profoundly from the previous five centuries in that it is no longer the people of Europe who are on the move. Since the declining years of the Roman empire, the Germanic tribes of the north have been jostling for space. Now they are settled. It is their leaders who are still restless for power, wealth and glory - within Europe but also to the east, where successive popes send them on crusades.

This change brings two contrasting results - a volatile scene of politics and warfare, with an underlying increase in stablity.

The shifting pattern of feudal alliances in medieval Europe is a process of surface adjustment. Corrections are made in long spasmodic conflicts, such as the Hundred Years War. Occasional victories between small numbers of heavily armed men redraw the map for succeeding generations.

Meanwhile the people of Europe are busy with matters of more basic importance - agriculture, crafts, trade and the development of commerce in towns of increasing wealth. Beneath the savage glitter of feudal Europe lies the steady growth of a continent capable once again of mighty achievements - evident, for example, in the spectacular Christian architecture of the period.

Intruders from the east: 13th - 14th century

The Russian steppes have long been vulnerable to invading groups of nomads, such as the Kipchak Turks. But from the 13th century Europe suffers much more violent incursions from the east.

In the long run the most successful intruders will be the Ottoman Turks, who first move into Europe through Gallipoli in 1354. But an earlier and more devastating destruction comes in the previous century with the arrival of the Mongols. They enter Russia in 1236. They sack Moscow in 1238 and Kiev in 1240. In 1241 they move further west and south.

One army from the Mongol horde advances into Poland in 1241. They defeat a joint force of German and Polish knights at Legnica in April. In the same month another Mongol army wins a crushing victory over the Hungarians at Mohi. The tribesmen spend that summer on the plains of Hungary, grasslands similar to their own steppes. Eastern Europe is ill-equipped to dislodge these fierce nomads. But a faraway event resolves the issue.

News comes in December that the great khan, Ogedai, has died in Karakorum. The leader of the horde, Batu, and other Mongol nobles must attend the quriltai which will elect his successor. Batu withdraws from Hungary, returning the horde to its grasslands around the Volga.

Ups and downs in the economy: 12th - 14th century

Throughout Europe the period from about 1150 to 1300 sees a steady increase in prosperity, linked with a rise in population. There are several reasons. More land is brought into cultivation - a process in which the Cistercians play an important part. Rich monasteries, controlled by powerful abbots, become a significant feature of feudal Europe.

In tandem with the improvement in rural wealth is the development of cities thriving on trade, in luxury goods as well as staple products such as wool.

Prominent among the trading centres of the 13th century are the coastal Italian cities, whose merchants ply the Mediterranean; Venice is particularly prosperous after the opportunities presented by the fourth crusade. In a similar way the cities of the Netherlands are well placed to profit from commerce between their three larger neighbours - England, France and the German states. And the Hanseatic towns handle the trade from the Baltic.

Together with this increase in trade goes the development of banking. Christian families, particularly in the towns of northern Italy, begin to amass fortunes by offering the financial services which have previously been the preserve of the Jews.

In the 14th century this economic prosperity falters. Land goes out of cultivation, the volume of trade drops. There are various possible reasons. There is an unusual run of disastrously bad harvests in many areas in the early part of the century. And social structures are painfully adjusting, as the old feudal system of obligations crumbles.

The final straw is the Black Death, which not only kills a third of Europe's population in 1348-9; it also ushers in an era when plague is a recurrent hazard. The 14th century is not the best in which to live. But in the 15th century - the time of the Renaissance in Europe, and the age of exploration - economic conditions improve again.

The economic troubles of the 14th century are reflected in disorder and unrest throughout much of Europe. This is true both at a grassroots level, in a series of peasants' revolts, and among great institutions of state. The papacy is unsettled, in exile in Avignon. France and England are engaged in the futile rivalry of the Hundred Years' War. The condottieri wreak havoc in Italy.

Bohemia is an exception, enjoying a period of stability under Charles IV. But the most significant political development, from the later part of the 14th century, is the accumulation of territory in the hands of the dukes of Burgundy.

The duchy of Burgundy: 1369-1491

Ever since the creation of Francia Media, Burgundy has been an important realm at the heart of western Europe - sometimes within the German empire, sometimes linked to the French kingdom, sometimes split between the two.

From the late 10th century the western part of Burgundy, lying to the west of the Saône river, is held as a dukedom by a junior line of the French royal family - first the Capetians and then, from 1363, the Valois.

Burgundy's rise to the status of a major European power begins in 1369 when the first Valois duke of Burgundy, Philip the Bold, marries Margaret, heiress to the county of Flanders.

The couple come into their Flemish inheritance in 1384. They and their descendants steadily increase their territories, aiming particularly to bridge the gap between Burgundy and the Netherlands with acquisitions such as Luxembourg (in 1443).

By 1470 their great-grandson Charles the Bold rules a vast territory stretching from Burgundy and Franche-Comté in the south through Alsace up to Friesland in the extreme north and then down the Atlantic coast as far as Calais.

In name Charles rules only a duchy. In reality he has an empire. But he has no son. The heir to these vast possessions is a daughter, Mary. As Europe's greatest marital prize she falls to a family, the Habsburgs, whose specialization is advantageous marriages. The Habsburgs bring dignity rather than territory. The head of their house, Frederick III, is the Holy Roman emperor.

From 1473 secret negotiations are undertaken between the Holy Roman emperor and Charles the Bold. The proposed bargain is that Frederick III will raise Burgundy from the status of a duchy to that of a kingdom, in return for which Charles's daughter Mary will marry Frederick's son Maximilian.

When Charles dies in battle in January 1477, neither plan has come to fruition. But it suits Burgundy to clinch this imperial alliance as security against its neighbour, France. The marriage plans are hurried through. Maximilian weds Mary by proxy in March and in person in August.

The French king, Louis XI, makes strenuous efforts to recover the part of the Burgundian inheritance which has been most closely linked to the French crown - the duchy of Burgundy to the west of the river Saône. He also covets the Franche-Comté ('free county' of Burgundy) to the east of the river, historically linked to the German empire but recently French.

The betrothal of his son to a Habsburg princess promises to secure both these territories for Louis. But in 1491 a different marriage is arranged for his son - bringing another prize, that of Britanny. The result is that only the duchy of Burgundy is merged with France, leaving everything east of the Saóne to the Habsburgs.

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