role of wealth and religion in premodern Europe Essay

Submitted By jjglover333
Words: 1979
Pages: 8

All Hail God and The Finer Things:
The Use of Wealth and Religion in Secular and Sacred Influence Pre-modern Europe was shaped by a plethora of factors, two of which were the fear of god and strength in arms. Conflicts came down to two ideas: which side has won God’s favor and which army has the loyalty of the strongest warrior. If these two factors favored a certain side in a conflict, then the outcome of the conflict would follow suit. In pre-modern Europe, both sacred and secular authorities used wealth and religion to secure loyalty and establish control, with religion emerging as the more influential means of coercion, thus showing the greater power of sacred over secular authority in securing control over a kingdom. In general, kings had an impressive amount of influence over the lands they ruled. One of the ways a king or a lord would secure loyalty from great warriors is through gifts of various kinds of wealth. An example of this way of acquiring loyalty by the use of wealth is in the epic poem Beowulf, created in roughly the seventh or eighth century and then transcribed about two centuries later. The story takes place in common day Scandinavia retelling the exploits of a great warrior from the tribe of the Geats. After Beowulf defeats the monster known as Grendel in king Hrothgar’s famous mead hall, the king gives as gifts to Beowulf “Healfdene’s sword,/and a battle banner, woven with gold,/and a helmet and a corslet, as rewards for victory.”i(Beowulf 34) All of these valuable items were given with the intent that if Hrothgar’s kingdom was put in danger again, Beowulf would have a desire to come and aid the King in the kingdom’s protection. Later on in the story, Grendel’s Mom attacks Hrothgar’s mead hall and Beowulf defeats yet another monster for Hrothgar’s sake. Hrothgar promises yet again “many treasures” (Beowulf 59) to Beowulf for his victory. After receiving more wealth from Hrothgar, Beowulf and his men part from the king with these words, “If I can in any way win more of your affection,/O ruler of men, then I have done already,/I will come at once, eager for combat. If news reaches me over the seas/ that you are threatened by those around you/I will bring thousands of thanes.” (Beowulf 60-61) Beowulf and Hrothgar’s relationship is a clear example of how the use of wealth by a secular power helps to secure the loyalty of men, more specifically warriors towards the cause of the king. Beowulf receives wealth when he shows loyalty towards the king, therefore the king is incentivizing the great warrior to continue to show loyalty with the hopes of receiving more wealth. While crucial in securing loyalty, wealth also played a sig role in establishing control. Upon the Norman conquest of England in the late eleventh century by William the Conqueror, a feudal system was implemented creating a pyramid hierarchy of power. The Duke of Normandy, at the top of the pyramid, rewarded land to his countrymen who became vassals of that land after an oath of fealty was sworn to the duke. The vassal then profited and was protected due to homage performed and paid by the people occupying his land by the rights of tenure. In order for the duke to protect himself from revolts by different vassals, stipulations were put on the rights of a vassal including, “All those living in the province are bound to do and to maintain fealty to the duke. For this they are bound to show themselves inoffensive and faithful to him in all things. Whoever may be discovered to have violated this…their possessions shall forever remain to the prince” (Duke of Normandy 68). By threatening the seizure of all possessions and thus all wealth as punishment for breaking an oath of loyalty, the king was using wealth as a means to establish control over his subjects. Certainly wealth was not the only way authority figures secured loyalty and control. Both secular and sacred authorities used religion as a means of obtaining loyalty from men and