The Rise of Western Civilisation

  • R. A. Buchanan


The term ‘Western Civilisation’ is used in this book as a convenient label for the early stages of the civilisation to which we belong. The prefix ‘Western’ is not intended to be narrowly topographical or ideological, but refers to the Western European heartland, around the western Mediterranean and Atlantic seaboard, in which this civilisation arose. It also indicates a historical affinity with the territory of the Western Roman Empire, over against the more wealthy Eastern Empire centred upon Constantinople and the eastern Mediterranean. This Eastern Empire survived as ‘Byzantium’ until the fifteenth century, and when it collapsed there were other civilisations to the east which justified the continuance of the concept of a distinct ‘western’ civilisation. Only in the last two centuries, with the rapid industrialisation and world-ascendancy of our civilisation, has it become potentially ambiguous to describe it as ‘western’. Modern China, Japan, and India, have all been profoundly influenced by Western Civilisation, and particularly by its techniques of industrialisation, so that the geographical antithesis between east and west has ceased to have any significance in this respect. So we switch to the usage ‘Industrial Civilisation’ to describe this most recent period, in order to suggest the greatly increased scope of our civilisation. But there is an essential continuity between the ‘Western’ and ‘Industrial’ phases of our civilisation, which will be apparent in this and the following chapters. Our civilisation has had about a thousand years of uninterrupted development, and in this chapter we will be concerned with the first half of this period, from about AD 1000 to 1500. During this period Western Civilisation acquired a self-conscious identity and evolved through a long process of more or less isolated growth. There were slight external influences, as we will see, but for the most part Western Civilisation was allowed to consolidate and become self-confident without major challenges from outside.


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  1. 1.
    It has been necessary to cut some corners to deal with the complexities of feudalism here. For the outstanding scholarly treatment, however, see M. Bloch, Feudal Society ( English ed., Routledge, 1961 ).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    For a good summary of the economic and social aspects of Medieval expansion, see M. M. Postan, The Medieval Economy and Society ( London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972 ).Google Scholar
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    The term ‘middle class’ is used here despite the trenchant and entertaining critique of J. H. Hexter, ‘The Myth of the Middle Class in Tudor England’, in Reappraisals in History (Longmans 1961). While it is conceded that the rise of the middle class must not be overused as an explanatory concept, the term serves to describe a significant realignment in late medieval society and as such it is worth retaining.Google Scholar
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    A. P. D’Entreves provided a useful introduction to Thomist thought in Aquinas: Selected Political Writings (Basil Blackwell, 1948 ).Google Scholar
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    A recent assessment of the achievement of the medieval cathedral builders can be found in chapter 1 of Arnold Pacey, The Maze of Ingenuity (Allen Lane, 1974).Google Scholar
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    The outstanding study on this subject is Lynn White Jr, Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford University Press, 1962).Google Scholar
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    The authority on medieval universities is H. Rashdall, Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages, 3 vols (Oxford University Press, 1936).Google Scholar
  8. But for a colourful account of student life, see H. Waddell, Wandering Scholars (Constable, 1927; Doubleday, N. Y., 1955 ), and the same authoress’s evocation of the life of Peter Abelard ( Holt, N. Y., 1947 ).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© R. A. Buchanan 1979

Authors and Affiliations

  • R. A. Buchanan
    • 1
  1. 1.University of BathUK

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