The Middle Ages – The Church and Information

Breaking the Tripartite Elite


In the Early Middle Ages (5th – 7th centuries) the tripartite elite adapted to the smaller unit size of the various principalities, counties, and manors. The tripartite elite consisted of secular knight, prince, or king, the local clergy, and the troops that could be commanded from the country side or through oaths of fealty. Bishops were still part of the Roman elite. They were patricians educated alongside of the men being groomed for political leadership and had the same perceptions and values. They were skilled in rhetoric, knew something of music and poetry. They held that physical labor was demeaning. In short they had the attitudes and perceptions of upper class Romans.

Women were still very visible in church of the 5th and 6th centuries and received the education suitable to their class – upper class women knew how to read and keep accounts so they could run a manor. There was no specific education for churchmen and women. So information was still controlled by secular authorities, which meant it was controlled by the members of the existing elite. [1]

Over time, however, as the former Roman Empire became more and more ‘barbarian’ and more and more local. Literacy declined amongst the elite classes. The use of money declined in favor of barter, and payment in goods and labor. The roads were no longer maintained by any central authority, travel became dangerous, and long distance trade declined. Churchmen were hired by the small secular courts to attend to the spiritual welfare of the court and to act as scribes. By the eighth century there were few traces of Rome left in the provincial capitals or on the manors. The city of Rome no longer had people with the skills to maintain or repair the great buildings and so the city was full of ruins testifying to what had been but was no more.

This left people with the problem of protection from military force. [2] Politically and economically; each individual manor had the same political and economic structure as the Roman villa. The cities were important as the sees of Bishops and as local economic centers but they no longer had any real political or military function. To solve the military problem the elites formed a net of individual manors loosely allied for military protection. This organizational structure was similar to the alliances of a group of Germanic tribes each with its own chief or ruler providing military protection in exchange for fealty.[3]

The Church, Literacy, and Economics

The erosion of centralized political and economic authority contributed to a loss of learning because survival was based on a smaller economic unit – the manor – that could be administered without recourse to written records. Since alliances were based on loose promises of military support rather than on economic support it was not necessary for the people in political arm to be literate.

Further, the inherited tradition of the Germanic chiefs had not been literate so there was no indigenous western tradition of literacy and political leadership. Those few who maintained the educational traditions of the Roman villa were in the minority and over time, through repeated warfare invasion and chaos, they too lost their literate tradition.

Literacy was left to the Church.

Financially the Church was independent of political or military authority because it had the right to tax the populace directly through tithes.

Bishops had additional income from whatever fairs were held in their cities. The only cities that remained viable throughout the early Middle Ages were the seats of bishops.

The Church was a mixture of a centralized bureaucracy and an austere religious institution. It was the only part of the tripartite elite to retain its centralized organization and authority. And, like in many powerful secular bureaucracies, there was corruption.

In response to the corruption of the bishops the church underwent several reforms. Monasteries were formed that owed their existence, their financial independence and their allegiance only to their order and to the Pope in Rome. These abbeys and monasteries benefited economically from contributions from people locally, local fairs and markets, and from teaching local elites.  Thus, the monasteries maintained the tradition of learning and teaching while remaining aloof from the local political sphere.

Saint Benedict who started the monastic tradition placed work at the center of monastic life. Since many of the people who joined the monastic orders were upper class people they learned that work was worship. It was fit for gently born people. This had the effect of ennobling work generally. It was no longer considered necessarily demeaning to work or to innovate to make work easier.

Most importantly for our purposes, the combination of economic independence and learning broke the link between the control of information and the secular power structure – information became free of the tripartite elite.

Let us unpack this some.

Because the Church was free of any over all control by political authority and had the right of direct taxation through the tithe, it benefited from any increase in wealth of the citizenry.

For example, if a weaver or a cobbler made more from his labor or the labor of his shop the Church was a beneficiary. So the Church had a vested interest in encouraging commerce in general, and more especially, it had an interest in encouraging innovation which might result in an increase in wealth. Monasteries and abbeys often acted the way an agricultural station of today does – to carry out experiments and pass the results along to the populace.

Common people were tied to the manor and to the village. They had to wait until a tenancy or crafts shop became vacant before they could marry. This had the effect of controlling population. When there were many deaths people married early so had more children so populations rose again. And when there were few deaths they married late and produced fewer children so populations were controlled[4]. It also had the effect of keeping people tied to the lord who held their tenancy or living. Under the existing practices there was little the church could do to increase its wealth.

The Agricultural Revolution

The Church fostered an agricultural revolution in the late 800s CE that opened up new lands and made it possible for people who did not hold a tenancy or crafts shop to settle in new areas. It also changed how people saw their world. Lords were forced to offer competitive terms to get agricultural workers. The innovations in agriculture that vastly increased agricultural yields were encouraged and spread by the monasteries.

The combined technological improvements that began the change in these relationships were; the adoption of the heavy iron plow, hard horse collar, use of horse shoes, and the three field system of cultivation. These gave the people a new technological capability that changed the nature of their relationship with the land and to their overlords. And they changed the way people thought about the land and about their world. As Lynn White put it:

[T]he standard of land distribution ceased to be the needs of a family and became the ability of an engine to till the soil. No more fundamental modification in a man’s relation to his environment can be imagined: he ceased to be nature’s child and became her exploiter…. We feel free to use nature for our purposes because we feel abstracted from nature and its processes. [5]

White here, is aware of the alienation of the needs of a family from the land they till. The land had become separate from the tiller – this made it possible to think about it more objectively and to use it better. It was less embedded in the social understanding of a person and more of a resource for support.

The Church’s Support for Technology and Commerce

Paintings of the virtues and saints in the Western Church portray them with technological innovations. They are shown with clocks, astrolabes, compasses, and maps. The clear message is that technology is good and use of technology can help people to do good works and gain heaven. The virtues themselves approve of technology and innovation.[6]

The Church also encouraged economic commerce by holding and blessing fairs where people could come to sell their goods.

In the 12th century the non-combatant members of the Knights Templar managed a large economic infrastructure throughout Christendom, innovating financial techniques that were an early form of banking, including Letters of Credit to Europe, which had long been in use in China and the Mid East.  Starting in 1150, pilgrims journeying to the Holy Land deposited their valuables with a local Templar preceptory, in return they received a document stating the value of their deposit, when they arrived in the Holy Land they used the document to retrieve their funds. [7] The most famous of these early “banks” were in Paris and London.

The Church’s Support for Scholarship and Diversity

The Church, financed by the commons could administer itself and even set up its own military. It had a monopoly on religion and did not need either the protection of any of the small kings, dukes, counts and other secular powers or the totally disorganized military.

Churchmen of The Middle Ages were confident of their enough of their power and independence so they were free to encourage learning.

Churchmen worked with Islamic and Jewish scholars in the translation of Aristotle and encouraged scholarship and learning for people in all stations of life.[8]

The Church’s encouragement of innovation amongst the lower classes, and its support of lay learning, was to its own advantage. It was an entirely new approach to information – it set information free of the tripartite elite.

Contrasts with Byzantium, Islam and China


The fall of Rome in the West did not break the tripartite elite in Byzantium or in Islamic lands. Therefore information and especially religious information was treated differently with the result that the value systems evolved differently.

The Orthodox churches in the former Eastern Roman Empire – the Byzantine Empire – allied themselves with the state – a traditional tripartite elite structure of governance. Christianity became state-doctrine. The Emperor functioned in many ways as the Pope did in the West but because he was part of the tripartite elite the result was claustrophobic rather than liberating and resulted in a religious environment that permitted little dissension or argument and kept rigid control over information. It limited learning to churchmen and even churchmen were not encouraged in pursuit of science or technology. Its best scholars were writers of devotional treatises or encyclopaedists. Therefore, the Byzantine Empire is credited with few inventions.

Paraphrasing Jens Kaalhauge Nielsen on the Byzantine Empire, although merchants in Byzantium could become wealthy they were politically powerless. Intellectually, Byzantium was a sterile culture. Few Empires have had so much control and done so much supervision of its people. The result was a claustrophobic, quasi-fundamentalist environment. Its bureaucracy became hereditary. The Byzantine state even tried to make certain crafts hereditary, trying to install a kind of caste-system. All in all, the state did its best to create an Empire of social immobility.  In comparison the Middle Age of Western Europe was a golden age of creative, critical and persistently accumulative thinking.[9]

Even art was dominated by stereotyped religious icons that were striving for symbolic depiction rather than realistic or naturalistic depiction of holy personages. Art was only useful to adorn churches and it was meant to lead the devoted toward the contemplation of higher things rather than toward innovation and good works. Figure 1

Figure 1  Icon from the Byzantine Church {insert Icon}

Also unlike the Western Catholic Church the Eastern Churches had competition – Islam. This made it expedient for the Church to be allied with the state. It had a vested interest in maintaining the “Christian friendly” rulers against the encroachment of Islam.


Islam was founded by raiders and traders. They were inheritors of the pastoral kinship tradition, rather than the agricultural tradition. As we saw in the first part of the book the kind of economic tradition – agricultural or pastoral/nomadic – determines the kind of war that develops. Therefore their notion of security did not rest on developing and holding land for crops it rested on more mobile assets – livestock and precious goods. They continued their way of life and integrated it into their religious experience.[10] Thus the Islamic empire grew through raiding and conquest, but this wasn’t a religious conquest per se, it was a continuation and elaboration of a pre-Islamic way of life.

Kinships, as we have seen, change when they become kingships. The general pattern is for one group to become dominant and subjugate other groups in his geographic area to his rule. However, in a kin group that is not tied to a geographic area subjugation involves patronage and tribute rather than taking over land.[11] Thus, a system of tribute, protection, and patronage is established in Islamic areas instead of a class based hierarchy.

Administration of justice amongst kin groups is up to the patriarchal leader. If the wrong done, is within the group, then the patriarch decides what will be done. However, if the wrong done, is done by a member of another group then ultimately, if the two groups cannot mediate the difference then a blood feud may result.

Over time, in order to maintain trading relationships, and avoid blood feuds, people develop fictional kin ties so that everyone will know where they stand in the social order. Over time, as networks and populations increase, those ties become more obviously fictional and strained.

Eric Wolf, in his chapter, The Social Organization of Mecca and the Origins of Islam, says that the beginning of Islam part of a major cultural change:

It [was a]… change from a type of society organized on the basis of kin relationships to a type of society possessed of an organized, if rudimentary, state. .. this change took place in an urban environment and was causally connected with the spread of trade.[12]

Like other kin groups, pre-Islamic Arab peoples, had their own gods. Many of those gods were worshiped at Mecca. Allah, before Mohammad, was the god that governed relationships between non-kin.

Settled agriculturalists and settled traders met pastoralists and nomadic traders at Mecca. So Mecca was already the meeting place for Arabic people with the greater Empires – Byzantium and Persia.

The emergence of Islam allowed a more functional relationship to be developed. As Wolf says:

The religious revolution associated with the name of Mohammed made possible the transition …to a society possessed of the elements that permit state organization. The success of Mohammed’s prophetic mission permitted these elements to crystallize out of the preceding social network, in which kin relationships had become increasingly fictional and disruptive.[13]

What evolved was that religious leaders became similar to the patriarch of a kin group but one who is concerned with the governance of the city as well as the religious well being of the people. The way he ruled was by tribute and patronage rather than by administering territory. The theocracy of Islam integrated the tripartite elite into a single entity under the patriarch.

Growth of Empire

Initially, as the Empire grew Islam developed a cosmopolitan relationship to information. The prophet Mohammad had encouraged learning, literacy and scholarship for men and women.

However, as the Islamic Empire was taken over by the Saracens and expanded it became harder and harder to govern. No tradition of administration had developed because the Empire was still a quasi-kin structure riddled by internal factionalism. The kin structure had reached its information limit.

The break up of the Empire into factions made it necessary for scholars to find private patrons to support their work. Scholarship became a leisurely activity for the elite and science was pursued for its scholarly and aesthetic merits rather than for practical purposes.

There was less encouragement for the education of common people, or experimentation, and, over time, science and learning became solely a scholarly activity rather than an expanding activity encouraged for all people. Therefore, education became a monopoly of the elite and did not inform the activities related to production of goods.

With each change in the Empire, women’s scholarship and the encouragement of women’s literacy also declined. Each faction of the Islamic Empire, like the city-states, kingships, and empires that had been before, controlled information for its own purposes. In the Islamic version of the tripartite elite the religious leaders took the leading role instead of the more secular powers – the executive and the military.


The West has borrowed, imitated, or stolen much of its technology from China so naturally the thought presents itself. Why didn’t China invent capitalism? Why didn’t China develop some kind of dynamic economic and technologically advanced culture?

Again the answer is in the existence of the tripartite elite. The people venerated the Emperor with a cult-like devotion. So when someone invented something new it was natural and in their interest to give it to the Emperor or to the local war lord. The Emperor or war lord would reward the inventor suitably and the invention would be used as the Emperor or the war lord saw fit. Often it was given over to the elite members of the Confucian civil service and the inventor rewarded with membership in the elite. Hence the invention wouldn’t be out circulating in the public market for others to use, copy, improve upon, and learn from.

There were some great schools in China but they were on the fringes of the culture and had little impact on the cognitive structure of the mass of people. Therefore the common folk did not alienate their thinking about how goods were produced and so did not have the “thinking” or information tools to improve either production or finance.

Finally, there was no incentive for the information owners to encourage the common people to learn or to develop ideas. The ideals of the East like those of the Roman Empire and every other empire before them was to keep information for the elites so to better control the common people.[14]

Discussion Conclusion

In the last chapter we saw that Rome had reached its information limit – it had reached the limit of what could be governed by the existing administrative structure. The administrative structures set up by Diocletian and Constantine together with the organization of the “barbarian” hordes determined the organizational structure of the Early Middle Ages.

After the fall of Rome, only the Church retained its centralized organizational structure and it controlled information. Because the church had the right of direct taxation, (the tithe) a monopoly in religion, and did not have to contend with a strong military or political presence, it had an incentive to encourage the economic development of the common folk. Thus the church’s attitude toward work went from the dominant attitude of the Roman Empire – work is demeaning to gentle folk – to the Benedictine attitude – work is worship. Work became something to think about and people were encouraged to do things in a better way. So improving production, was improving work, and thereby improving worship.

This was not the case in other places. Though Byzantium, China and Islam all had great scholars the tripartite elite continued to govern. Despite the fact that Byzantium was Christian (as was the West) and Mohammed encouraged learning for all, the political and economic reality was that the elite had a vested interest in controlling information, so they did.

The new Western attitude toward information was one which had not existed since the invention of agriculture. It was, perhaps the most important information revolution in eight thousand years. It was the information revolution that liberated information from elite control and thus was truly radical (going back to first principles– the principles of hunter/gatherers) and it was, surprisingly, fostered by the Roman Church.

In the next chapter we will see how important that was.

[1] Geary, P
Before France and Germany:

[2] Miskimin, H. A.
1975. The Economy of Early Renaissance Europe, 1300-1460, (paperback) Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK

[3] North, D. C.
1981. Structure and Change in Economic History, W.W.Norton, NY

[4] Schofield, R. S. and Wrigley, E. O.
1986. The Population History of England 1541-1871. Cambridge University Press

[5] White, L. T. Jr.
1978. Medieval Religion and Technology: Collected Essays, University of California Press, Berkley p.145

[6] White, p.181-204.

[7] Martin, S.
2005. The Knights Templar: The History & Myths of the Legendary Military Order, Basic Books, NY p.47-48

[8] Rubenstein , R. E.
2003. Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Dark Ages. Harcourt, NY.

[9] Kaalhauge Nielsen, J.
2008. Why did the industrial revolution happen in Europe? Why not China? (Part 6)

[10] Wolf, E.R.
2001. Pathways of Power: Building an Anthropology of the Modern World, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. Chapter7, The Social Organization of Mecca and the Origins of Islam, p.100 – 123.

[11] Whitney-Smith, E.
1996 War, Information and History: Changing Paradigms, Cyberwar: Security, Strategy and Conflict in the Information Age. A. D. Campen, D. H. Dearth and T. T. Goodden (eds) AFCEA Fairfax, VA p. 53 – 70.

[12] Wolf, p. 101

[13] Wolf, p. 114-115.

[14] For a discussion of China and Technology see Appendix B