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7th Grade Social Studies / Lesson 4 - Shapping Eastern Europe

   What will we be learning in this unit?
  • How did geography influence developments in Eastern Europe?
  • Why did Eastern Europe become a cultural crossroads with a diverse mix of people?
  • What threats did the early kingdoms of Europe face?

The Geography of Eastern Europe
  • The region known as Eastern Europe is a wide swath of territory lying between German-speaking Central Europe to the west and the largest Slavic nation, Russia, to the east. Many peoples and many nations have flourished in the area over the centuries.
  • Eastern Europe reaches from the chilly waters of the Baltic Sea, down across the plains of Poland, then through the mountainous Balkans. The Balkan Peninsula, a roughly triangular arm of land, juts southward into the warm Mediterranean. Several geographic features contributed to developments in Eastern Europe. Much of the region lies on the great European plain that links up with the steppes of southern Russia.

 The Geography of Eastern Europe
  • The main rivers of Eastern Europe, like the Danube and the Vistula, flow either south into the Black Sea or north into the Baltic Sea. Goods and cultural influences traveled along these river routes. As a result, the Balkans in the south felt the impact of the Byzantine empire and, later, the Muslim Ottoman empire. In contrast, the northern regions bordering Germany and the Baltic Sea forged closer links to Western Europe.

A diverse mix of people
  • Eastern Europe's geography has made it a cultural crossroads. The ease of migration encouraged many different peoples to seek new homes, as well as increased power, in the region. As a result, Eastern Europe now includes a wealth of languages and cultures.
  • In the early Middle Ages, the Slavs spread out from a central heartland in Russia. The West Slavs filtered into present-day Poland and the Czech and Slovak republics. The South Slavs descended into the Balkans and became the ancestors of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.

   A diverse mix of people
  • The Balkans were peopled by other ethnic groups as well. An ethnic group is a large group of people who share the same language and cultural heritage. Waves of Asian peoples migrated into Eastern Europe, among them the Huns, Avars, Bulgars, Khazars, and Magyars. Vikings and other Germanic peoples added to the mix.
  • Powerful neighboring states exercised strong cultural influences on Eastern Europe. Byzantine missionaries carried Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Byzantine culture throughout the Balkans. German knights and missionaries from the West spread Roman Catholic Christianity to Poland, Hungary, the Czech area, and the western Balkans. In the 1300s, the Ottomans invaded the Balkans, spreading Islam into pockets of that area.

A diverse mix of people
  • In the late Middle Ages, Eastern Europe was a refuge for many Jewish settlers. Western European Christians launched brutal attacks on Jewish communities, particularly during the Crusades and the Black Death. To escape persecution, many Jews fled east. Monarchs in England, France, and Spain also expelled Jews from their lands. 
  • In the 1300s, Polish kings followed a policy of toleration toward Jews. As a result, Jewish villages sprang up in Poland and other sparsely populated areas of Eastern Europe. Jewish merchants and scholars contributed to the economic and cultural development of Poland during this period.

Early Kingdom
  • During the Middle Ages, Eastern Europe included many kingdoms and small states. Sometimes, empires absorbed national groups. Alliances or royal marriages might bind others together for a time. To get a sense of these shifting fortunes, we will look at the kingdoms of Poland, Hungary, and Serbia.

   Early Kingdom
  • Missionaries brought Roman Catholicism to the West Slavs of Poland in the 900s. A century later, the first Polish king was crowned. To survive, Poland often had to battle Germans, Russians, and Mongols. 
  • Poland's greatest age came after Queen Jadwiga married Duke Wladyslav Jagiello of Lithuania in 1386. Poland-Lithuania controlled the largest state in Europe, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Jadwiga supported a university in Cracow, which became a major center of science and the arts.

Early Kingdom
  • Unlike Russia or Western Europe, Poland gradually increased the power of its nobles at the expense of the monarch. They met in a diet, or assembly, where the vote of a single noble was enough to block the passage of a law. This liberum veto, or "free veto," made it hard for the government to take decisive action. 
  • Without a strong central government, Poland declined. It enjoyed a final moment of glory in 1683 when the Polish king Jan Sobieski broke the Ottoman siege of Vienna. In the next century, however, Poland was gobbled up by ambitious neighbors and disappeared from the map entirely.

Early Kingdom
  • The Magyars raided Europe from the Asian steppes and settled in Hungary. Like the West Slavs of Poland, they adopted Roman Catholic Christianity. During the Middle Ages, the country was much larger than it is today. Hungarian rulers controlled present-day Slovakia, Croatia, and parts of Romania. 
  • Like King John of England, the Hungarian king was forced to sign a charter recognizing the rights of his nobles. Known as the Golden Bull of 1222, it strictly limited royal power. 
  • The Mongols overran Hungary in 1241, killing perhaps as much as half its population. They soon withdrew, so their invasion did not have the same impact it had on Russia. The expansion of the Ottoman Turks, though, ended Hungarian independence in 1526.

  Early Kingdom

  • During the 600s, South Slavs settled the mountainous Balkans. Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, and other Slavic peoples in the Balkans had different histories during the Middle Ages. The Serbs accepted Orthodox Christianity. By the late 1100s, they had set up their own state, which reached its height under Stefan Du-¡an. Stefan also encouraged Byzantine culture, even modeling his law code on that of Justinian. 
  • Du-an's successors lacked his political gifts, however, and Serbia could not withstand the advance of Ottoman Turks. At the battle of Kosovo in 1389, Serbs fought to the death, a memory still honored by their descendants more than 600 years later.


Looking Ahead
  • Migration, conquest, dynastic marriages, and missionary activity helped produce a tangle of overlapping claims to territories in Eastern Europe. During the 1600s and 1700s, large empires to the east and west swallowed up much of the region. Yet whenever they had a chance, the peoples of Eastern Europe tried to recover their independence. In later chapters, we will see how the desire to rebuild separate states repeatedly ignited new turmoil.