Historians distinguish the early Middle Ages, beginning around 500 A.D and lasting until around 1000 A.D., to the high Middle Ages. But such distinctions are at best vague and ambiguous, and should not be taken too seriously.
The eleventh century (1000 A.D. to 1099 A.D.) was a significant time, because it began with the turn of the millennium. Just as “Y2K” attracted large-scale public attention as the year 1999 drew to a close, the year 1000 was celebrated.
The century began with Islamic attacks on various parts of Europe: Muslims soldiers had occupied Spain for over 200 years, and in 1011, to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Islamic invasion of Spain, they organize a pogrom in Cordoba, killing large numbers of Jews: peaceful and innocent men, women, and children.
Another pogrom was conducted in Grenada in 1066, and coastal raids by Muslim ships continued to attack various coastal towns in Italy and southern France. Islam threatened Europe’s security.
In response, military expeditions were directed to the source of this military aggression: the Muslim lands of the Middle East. Largely unsuccessful, these missions managed to achieve, at best, a mere pause in the Muslim attacks on Europe. These campaigns were called the ‘Crusades’ and are still staple in the both history classes and romantic fiction.
The First Crusade was planned in 1095 and began in 1096. 330,000 people set out for Jerusalem, but only 40,000 arrived there. They were not prepared for the military skill of the Islamic armies.
In central Europe, away from the Mediterranean coast which took the brunt of the attacks, life was more peaceful. Culture and civilization could flourish. Brilliant thinkers like Hildegard of Bingen could work on projects as diverse as musical compositions and the chemistry of medicinal herbs.
Cloisters and monasteries were home to intellectual development. Housing the philosophical texts of the past, from the Greco-Roman heritage of significant thinkers, they were the incubators of the intellectual future, laying the foundations of what would become modern mathematics, chemistry, and physics.
Life in the eleventh century was difficult. The average lifespan was 35 years. But the numbers mislead: the average life expectancy was much older. If a person survived childhood, she or he had a reasonable chance of living past the age of 50.
Schools were continuously improving. The educational momentum had started two centuries earlier with emperor Karl the Great - known as ‘Charlemagne’ - and had continued during the reigns of Heinrich I (ruled 919 A.D. to 936 A.D.) and Otto the Great (ruled 962 A.D. to 973 A.D.).
Literacy was on the rise, students learned Latin grammar, and literature became major occupation.
The word ‘Germany’ was not often used at that time to denote what we think of as the country of Germany. There were many small independent Germanic kingdoms, held together by the emperor in a defensive coalition called the ‘Holy Roman Empire’ (which wasn’t holy, and wasn’t Roman).
The empire also included a few kingdoms which weren’t Germanic. So the word ‘German’ referred more to culture and language than to a unified political nation. The empire was Germanic, the emperors were almost all Germans, but non-Germanic kingdoms were included.
People would have thought of themselves as Saxons or Hessians or Prussians or Franconians - all regions within the boundaries of modern Germany. They rarely thought of themselves as Germans.
Six Germans became pope between 996 A.D. and 1085 A.D., which is significant because the popes not only had religious importance, but also contributed to cultural and political trends.
The German emperors had influence not only in Germanic regions, but also inside France and Italy. The eleventh century was a high point in cultural development and civilization.
One man who might be a good symbol for this era is Heinrich III - in many history books known as ‘Henry III’ - who began his career as a highly educated Germanic king. Historian Hanns Leo Mikoletzky writes:
Henry was the son of the emperor Conrad II and Gisela of Swabia. He was more thoroughly trained for his office than almost any other crown prince before or after. With the emperor’s approval, Gisela had taken charge of his upbringing, and she saw to it that he was educated by a number of tutors and acquired an interest in literature.
An emperor who promoted the intellectual work of the universities, and a spiritual man who valued prayer and peace, his reign began in 1039 with every prospect of being a cultural high point in European history - and in some ways, it was. But by the time he died in 1056, the empire was weakened. His would be the last strong reign for many decades.
The eleventh century was a high point, but it also marked the beginning of a time when Europe languished without the help of Frankish or Saxon ruler.