Traditions and Encounters, AP Edition (Bentley), 5th Edition

Chapter 16: The Two Worlds of Christendom


After the fall of the Roman empire, two very different realms of European Christendom emerged. In the east, the Byzantine empire managed to flourish politically, economically, and socially. In contrast, western Europe's economy underwent a sharp constriction, and early medieval Europe was a world dominated by rural self-sufficiency and political decentralization. The differences in the two societies also manifested in the ritual and doctrinal differences between the two Christian communities that culminated in a schism between the eastern and western churches that exists to the present day.

Several unique features of the Byzantine civilization contributed to its prosperity:

  • A strategically located capital city called Constantinople that was one of the largest, most influential, and cosmopolitan urban centers in the world
  • A highly centralized and autocratic governmental structure consisting of an exalted emperor with an aura of divinity and a large and intricate bureaucracy
  • A rich Christian tradition elaborated by the emperor and the patriarchs that eventually evolved into an independent and separate faith referred to as Eastern Orthodox
  • An unusual and effective administration system whereby generals governed over free peasants who received small tracts of land to work in exchange for military service
  • The extension of Byzantine cultural traditions to eastern Europe and Russia through political, cultural, and economic relations

While other parts of the world were experiencing unprecedented prosperity during the postclassical era, Europe was laying the foundation for the development of the powerful society that would emerge during the high middle ages. That foundation rested on the following:

  • Hard-won political order, restored out of disruption caused by the fall of the Roman empire, centuries of destructive invasions, and dramatic depopulation; this order based on a highly decentralized but flexible system that vested political, military, and judicial authority in local and regional rulers
  • A long, slow process of economic recovery based first on increased agricultural production followed by gradually increasing trade, industry, and commerce and the eventual reurbanization of Europe
  • The cultural unity provided by the Christian church based in Rome

During this period Roman Christianity provided the impetus for cultural continuity and unity in western Europe. The office of the papacy and the monastic movement were two powerful institutions that helped to preserve Roman traditions and develop and consolidate a uniquely European culture.

Traditions & Encounters, 5e
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