Although the heart of both societies was based in religion, the divergence of their beliefs led to many fundamental differences in the governmental, social, and economic structures of Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire in the Middle Ages. Both cultures believed themselves to be true heirs of Rome. Rome had lived on, they argued, each affirming that the land they occupied was the remnant of the once colossal empire. This deep-rooted controversy, along with the religious disputes, further strained the bridge between the two empires.
What we now know as the Greek Orthodox Church emerged from the Byzantine, while understandably the Roman Catholic Church surfaced within Western Europe in Italy. Bishops in the Catholic Church presided over a bishopric, or diocese. Eventually the bishop of Rome claimed to be the head of the Church, stating that they keys of Heaven were given to “Peter…the chief apostle and the first bishop of Rome.” Therefore as successors of Peter they were the rightful leaders of the Church. They came to be known as popes (from the Latin word for Father), and had both spiritual and political power. The Byzantines however, did not share this respect for the Pope. Reminiscent of the ancient Empire, they believed Rome was too distant to govern them effectively and in 381 they refused papal rule. They believed that the head of the church was not the Pope, but rather the emperor-their emperor-the emperor of Rome, not a false ‘emperor of the Franks’ ordained by the Catholic Church. Another issue, iconoclasm, or the breaking of images, stressed an already tense relationship. The tradition of icon painting-paintings of saints and religious figures- was accepted in the Greek Orthodox Church, but frowned on by the Pope. One theory about this is that Muslims accused Christians of being idol worshipers and to refute this claim various emperors ordered the religious art destroyed. This was carried out with more success in Western Europe, as where in Eastern Europe, or the Byzantine Empire, the use of icons was gradually restored. A further rift was created in 1054,when in Constantinople (Now located in modern-day Turkey), a church official questioned the policies of the Church in Rome. Were priests allowed to marry? If not, why? What sort of bread must be used for Communion? Although seemingly petty, at the time these questions were of great importance to church leaders, and the dispute hastened the split of the two branches. Finally, in disgust the Pope excommunicated the official and all of his followers, and in turn the Greek excommunicated all Roman Catholics.
Constantinople, built on the former city of Byzantium, became the capitol of Eastern Rome in AD330. While the Visigoths and Vandals were sacking Rome in the 5th century, the Byzantine Empire was flourishing, and constantly expanding its borders. Until the twelfth century, the Byzantine Empire and namely Constantinople, was the major center of trade and commerce, and the largest city in Medieval Europe. Western Europe was far more alienated, and in some ways, perhaps more primitive than the Empire to their East.
Medieval Europe depended on a governmental and social structure now known as feudalism. Although theoretically united under a common King or Emperor, Western Europe was, for the most part governed in large portion of lands called fiefs. The liege lords distributed the land given them to minor lords, they in turn farmed the lands using serfs and peasants, and regularly knights would receive land for faithful service to their lord. Despite the fact that this ‘age of chivalry’ lends itself to tales of romance and adventure, the system left Europe in disarray and in constant conflict. Rival lords battled over boundaries, and knights, more often than not abused the privileges given them. If not for the stabling force of the church, no doubt Western Europe, like Western Rome, would have declined and fallen into further disorder. In contrast the Byzantine Empire relied on a strong central power whom they believed to be the true Roman Emperor. Like his papal counterpart, the Emperor had both spiritual and political power. Comparable to Han China, bureaucrats were recruited from all social classes, but were primarily the aristocracy. The learned in the West however, came only from the nobility. Speaking Latin, the language of the Scriptures, was an indication of high birth in Europe, but in the East, the Bible was written in Greek, the language of the people.
As in all lasting civilizations, some source of wealth must exist, for the Byzantines it was their locations on the silk roads. Wealth from luxury products such as spices, cloth, and carpets allowed for the rise of merchant classes, but unlike in Western Europe, they never gained a significant amount of power, the government saw to that. The Crusades along with the merchants steady rise in the West, brought about great changes in both cultures. Lords in the West freed serfs as they left to fight the Muslims, and merchants built up towns, which previously did not fit into the feudal system. The Fourth Crusade was perhaps the most devastating in the Medieval Ages. Not only did it affect Western Europe and Israel, but the Byzantine Empire as well. In 1204 Constantinople fell and was sacked by invading Crusaders, one of only two times the city walls were fully breached. This attacked ended the Empire as a major power and it fell a final time to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Now a central power, Western Europe began to flourish and the Italian Renaissance began.