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The Spread of Ancient Knowledge and Its Impact on the Church

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  • 0:05 The High Middle Ages
  • 1:18 The Spread of…
  • 4:22 Classical Learning and…
  • 5:52 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Jessica Elam Miller

Jessica has taught college History and has a Master of Arts in History

Classical knowledge comes from ancient cultures like the Greeks and Romans. When Christians fought in the Crusades, they discovered some of these texts. This lesson explores the impact of classical learning on the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages.

The High Middle Ages

In Europe, the Middle Ages was a time period that spanned from around the fifth century until around the fifteenth century. This is a time considered between antiquity (think of the ancient Romans and Greeks) and modern periods. The Middle Ages can be divided into three separate time periods: the Early Middle Ages, the High Middle Ages and the Late Middle Ages. For this lesson, we will focus on how people learned and were taught during the High Middle Ages.

The High Middle Ages lasted from the 11th century through around the end of the 13th century. During this time period, crop production increased quickly because of some new technology. Agricultural advances led to an increase in the population of Europe. Also during this time, a military campaign pushed Christians to gain control of the Holy Land from the Muslims. Fighting occurred at intervals for years. These holy wars are known as the Crusades.

In large part because of the Crusades, the High Middle Ages also experienced a rediscovery of classical knowledge. When using the term classical, we are generally referencing ancient Greece, especially ancient Greek scientists or philosophers like Aristotle.

The Spread of Classical Knowledge

People living in ancient cultures were curious. They wondered about the stars and the human body. They developed mathematical practices. People who lived near the Mediterranean Sea (like the Greeks) studied mathematics, astronomy and philosophy. Essentially, they were studying wisdom. Romans wrote about literature, history and politics.

One of the most important means of preserving and spreading knowledge was the development of paper and books. Text was originally kept on stone tablets, but eventually parchment was developed. Parchment was made from stretched animal skin. Early books made from this material were expensive. In the eighth century, Asians developed a cheaper writing material: paper. Creating paper became popular and spread through Africa and Europe. Books became more accessible and more abundant.

Prior to the 11th century, knowledge in Western Europe was somewhat limited. Many books and manuscripts were being preserved by the church. They would be copied by monks to ensure their continued survival. Although classical knowledge could be found in these texts, it was not studied because they were seen as a treasure and not something to spread knowledge. Outside of the church, there were a limited number of people with the ability to read. Those who could read and write focused on creating poetry and romance stories rather than focusing on reason and science.

Classical knowledge spread throughout Western Europe after the discovery of works of the ancient Greeks and Romans. During the Crusades, there was a large amount of people traveling to the East to join the movement. Classical manuscripts could be found in places like Armenia, Constantinople, Syria and Alexandria. Many manuscripts were obtained and brought back to Europe. Many intellectuals would hunt for these manuscripts and work to translate them from Greek into Latin, a language more well-known in Western Europe. As they worked to study ancient wisdom, they opened a door to modern learning.

As growth developed in trade and administration, a growing need for literacy also developed. People who were able to keep records, like clerics and scribes, were highly in demand. Church educators could not meet the needs of education for the time. Schools began to develop around the 12th century. Rather than focusing on the ability to simply copy letters, town schools taught children in a way that encouraged discussion and the exchange of ideas.

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