Middle Ages

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9th century depiction of Charlemagne with popes Gelasius I and Gregory the Great

The Middle Ages of European history (adjective form mediaeval or medieval) are a period in history which lasted for roughly a millennium, commonly dated from the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century to the beginning of the Early Modern Period in the 16th century, marked by the division of Western Christianity in the Reformation, the rise of humanism in the Italian Renaissance, and the beginnings of European overseas expansion. There is some variation in the dating of the edges of these periods which is due mainly to differences in specialization and focus of individual scholars.

The Middle Ages form the middle period in a traditional schematic division of European history into three "ages": the classical civilization of Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the modern period. The idea of such a periodization is attributed to Flavio Biondo, an Italian Renaissance humanist historian but commonly seen periodization ranges span the years ca. 400–476 AD (the sackings of Rome by the Visigoths to the deposing of Romulus Augustus)[1] to ca. 1453–1517 (the Fall of Constantinople to the Protestant Reformation begun with Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses). Dates are approximate, and are based upon nuanced arguments; for other dating schemes and the reasoning behind them, see "periodization issues", below.

The Middle Ages witnessed the first sustained urbanization of northern and western Europe. Many modern European countries owe their origins to events unfolding in the Middle Ages; present European political boundaries are, in many regards, the result of the military and dynastic achievements during this tumultuous period.



Middle Ages in history

After the Middle Ages ended, subsequent generations imagined, portrayed, and interpreted the Middle Ages in very different ways. Every century has created its own vision of the Middle Ages; the 16th century view of the Middle Ages was entirely different from the 19th century, which was different from the 20th century view. The different perceptions of the Middle Ages remain with us today in the form of literature, art, revival styles of architecture, film, and popular conception.


Until the Renaissance (and for some time after that), the standard scheme of history was to divide history into six ages, inspired by the biblical six days of creation, or four monarchies based on Daniel 2:40. The early Renaissance historians, in their glorification of all things classical, declared two periods in history, that of Ancient times and that of the period referred to as the "Dark Age". Filippo Villani first mentioned a "middle period" between Antiquity and his present when he observed in a treatise of 1382 that the islands in the Mediterranean Sea were called by different names in priscis mediis modernisque temporibus ("primitive, middle, and modern times"). In the early 15th century, it was believed history had evolved from the Dark Age to a new period with its revival of things classical, so some scholars, such as Flavio Biondo, began to write about a middle period between the Ancient and Modern, which became known as the Middle Age. It was not until the late 17th century when German scholar Christoph Cellarius' published Universal History Divided into an Ancient, Medieval, and New Period that the tripartite periodization scheme began to be used more systemically.[2]

The plural form of the term, Middle Ages, is used in English, Dutch, Russian, Bulgarian, and Icelandic while other European languages use the singular form (Italian medioevo, French le moyen âge, German das Mittelalter, Spanish edad media, Romanian ev mediu, Russian Средние века). This difference originates in different Neo-Latin terms used for the Middle Ages before media aetas became the standard term. Some were singular (media aetas, media antiquitas, medium saeculum, and media tempestas),[3] others plural (media saecula and media tempora). There seems to be no simple reason why a particular language ended up with the singular or the plural form.[4] The term "medieval" (sometimes spelled "mediaeval") was first contracted from the Latin medium ævum, or more precisely "middle epoch", by Enlightenment thinkers as a pejorative descriptor of the Middle Ages.

The common subdivision into Early, High, and Late Middle Ages came into use after World War I. It was caused by the works of Henri Pirenne (in particular the article "Les périodes de l'historie du capitalisme" in Académie Royale de Belgique. Bulletin de la Classe des Lettres, 1914) and Johan Huizinga (The Autumn of the Middle Ages, 1919).

Dorothy Sayers, a noted scholar in medieval literature as well as a famous writer of detective books, strongly objected to the term. In the foreword to her translation of The Song of Roland, she writes "That new-washed world of clear sun and glittering colour, which we call the Middle Age (as though it were middle-aged), has perhaps a better right than the blown summer of the Renaissance to be called the Age of Re-Birth."

Periodization issues

Richard III is considered the last Medieval monarch of England.

It is difficult to decide when the Middle Ages ended; in fact, scholars assign different dates in different parts of Europe. Most scholars who work in 15th century Italian history, for instance, consider themselves Renaissance, while anyone working elsewhere in Europe during the early 15th century is considered a medievalist. Others choose specific events, such as the Turkish capture of Constantinople or the end of the Anglo-French Hundred Years' War (both 1453), the invention of the moveable type printing press in Europe by Johann Gutenberg (around 1455, independently of Asian innovations in the field centuries earlier), the fall of Muslim Spain or Christopher Columbus's voyage to America (both 1492), the Protestant Reformation starting 1517, or the Battle of Lepanto (1571) to mark the period's end. In England, the change of monarchs which occurred on 22 August 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth is often considered to mark the end of the period, Richard III representing the old medieval world, and the Tudors a new royal house and a new historical period.[5]

Similar differences are now emerging in connection with the start of the period. Traditionally, the Middle Ages are said to have begun when the West Roman Empire formally ceased to exist in 476. However, that date is not important in itself, since the West Roman Empire had been very weak for some time, while Roman culture was to survive at least in Italy for yet a few decades or more. Today, some date the beginning of the Middle Ages to the division and Christianization of the Roman Empire (4th century); others, like Henri Pirenne, see the period to the rise of Islam (7th century) as "late Classical". Another argument for a late beginning to the Middle Ages was presented by Peter Brown. Brown championed the idea of Late Antiquity, a period that was culturally distinct from both the preceding Empire and from the rest of the Middle Ages. Brown’s argument rests less on the economic changes within the Mediterranean than on social and religious change within the Empire between 300 and 750. To Brown, the slow collapse of the Empire allowed a period of great creativity and expressiveness in which Christianity flourished and became institutionalized.

The Middle Ages in Western Europe are often subdivided into three intervals. This includes an early period (sometimes called the "Dark Ages", at least from the fifth to eighth centuries) of shifting polities, a relatively low level of economic activity, and successful incursions by non-Christian peoples (Slavs, Arabs, Scandinavians, Magyars). The middle period (the High Middle Ages) follows, a time of developed institutions of lordship and vassalage, castle-building and mounted warfare, and reviving urban and commercial life. The last span is a later period of growing royal power, the rise of commercial interests, and weakening customary ties of dependence, especially after the 14th century plague.

In the history of Scandinavia, the Middle Ages followed prehistory during the 11th century, as the rulers converted to Christianity, and substantial written records appeared. In the history of Estonia and Latvia, the Middle Ages followed prehistory during the 13th century, as the rulers converted to Christianity, and substantial written records appeared.

Geographic issues

While the term "medieval period", often used synonymously with "Middle Ages", is usually used to describe a period of European history, some 20th century historians have described non-European countries as "medieval" when those countries show characteristics of "feudal" organization. The pre-Westernization period in the history of Japan, and the pre-colonial period in developed parts of sub-Saharan Africa, are also sometimes termed "medieval." These terms have fallen out of favour, as modern historians are reluctant to try to fit the history of other regions to the European model.

Origins: The later Roman Empire

Map of territorial boundaries ca. 450 AD

The Roman empire reached its greatest territorial extent during the 2nd century. The following two centuries witnessed the slow decline of Roman control over its outlying territories. The Emperor Diocletian split the empire into separately administered eastern and western halves in 285. The division between east and west was encouraged by Constantine, who refounded the city of Byzantium as the new capital, Constantinople, in 330.

Military expenses increased steadily during the 4th century, even as Rome’s neighbours became restless and increasingly powerful. Tribes who previously had contact with the Romans as trading partners, rivals, or mercenaries had sought entrance to the empire and access to its wealth throughout the 4th century. Diocletian’s reforms had created a strong governmental bureaucracy, reformed taxation, and strengthened the army.[1] These reforms bought the Empire time, but they demanded money. Roman power had been maintained by its well-trained and equipped armies. These armies, however, were a constant drain on the Empire's finances. As warfare became more dependent on heavy cavalry, the infantry-based Roman military started to lose its advantage against its rivals. The defeat in 378 at the Battle of Adrianople, at the hands of mounted Gothic lancers, destroyed much of the Roman army and left the western empire undefended.[1] Without a strong army, the empire was forced to accommodate the large numbers of Germanic tribes who sought refuge within its frontiers.

Known in traditional historiography collectively as the “barbarian invasions”, the Migration Period, or the Völkerwanderung ("wandering of the peoples"), this migration was a complicated and gradual process. Some of these "barbarian" tribes rejected the classical culture of Rome, while others admired and aspired to it. In return for land to farm and, in some regions, the right to collect tax revenues for the state, federated tribes provided military support to the empire. Other incursions were small-scale military invasions of tribal groups assembled to gather plunder. The Huns, Bulgars, Avars, and Magyars all raided the Empire's territories and terrorised its inhabitants. Later, Slavic and Germanic peoples would settle the lands previously taken by these tribes. The most famous invasion culminated in the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410.

By the end of the 5th century, Roman institutions were crumbling. Some early historians have given this period of societal collapse the epithet of "Dark Ages" because of the contrast to earlier times. The last emperor of the west, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by the barbarian king Odoacer in 476.[1] The Eastern Roman Empire (conventionally referred to as the "Byzantine Empire" after the fall of its western counterpart) had little ability to assert control over the lost western territories. Even though Byzantine emperors maintained a claim over the territory, and no "barbarian" king dared to elevate himself to the position of Emperor of the west, Byzantine control of most of the West could not be sustained; the renovatio imperii ("imperial restoration", entailing reconquest of the Italian peninsula and Mediterranean periphery) by Justinian was the sole, and temporary, exception. As Roman authority disappeared in the west, cities, literacy, trading networks and urban infrastructure declined. Where civic functions and infrastructure were maintained, it was mainly by the Christian Church. Augustine of Hippo is an example of one bishop who became a capable civic administrator.

Early Middle Ages

The Book of Kells is one of the most famous artworks of the Early Middle Ages.

Breakdown of Roman society

The breakdown of Roman society was dramatic. The patchwork of petty rulers was incapable of supporting the depth of civic infrastructure required to maintain libraries, public baths, arenas, and major educational institutions. Any new building was on a far smaller scale than before. The social effects of the fracture of the Roman state were manifold. Cities and merchants lost the economic benefits of safe conditions for trade and manufacture, and intellectual development suffered from the loss of a unified cultural and educational milieu of far-ranging connections. As it became unsafe to travel or carry goods over any distance, there was a collapse in trade and manufacture for export. The major industries that depended on long-distance trade, such as large-scale pottery manufacture, vanished almost overnight in places like Britain. Whereas sites like Tintagel in Cornwall (the extreme southwest of modern day England) had managed to obtain supplies of Mediterranean luxury goods well into the 6th century, this connection was now lost.

Between the 5th and 8th centuries, new peoples and powerful individuals filled the political void left by Roman centralized government. Germanic tribes established regional hegemonies within the former boundaries of the Empire, creating divided, decentralized kingdoms like those of the Ostrogoths in Italy, the Visigoths in Hispania, the Franks and Burgundians in Gaul and western Germany, the Angles and the Saxons in Britain, and the Vandals in North Africa.

Roman landholders beyond the confines of city walls were also vulnerable to extreme changes, and they could not simply pack up their land and move elsewhere. Some were dispossessed and fled to Byzantine regions; others quickly pledged their allegiances to their new rulers. In areas like Spain and Italy, this often meant little more than acknowledging a new overlord, while Roman forms of law and religion could be maintained. In other areas, where there was a greater weight of population movement, it might be necessary to adopt new modes of dress, language, and custom.

The Muslim conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries of the Persian Empire, Roman Syria, Roman Egypt, Roman North Africa, Visigothic Spain and Portugal, Sicily and southern Italy eroded the area of the Roman Empire and controlled strategic areas of the Mediterranean Sea. By the end of the 8th century, the former Western Roman Empire was decentralized and overwhelmingly rural.

Church and monasticism

The Catholic Church was the major unifying cultural influence, preserving its selection from Latin learning, maintaining the art of writing, and a centralized administration through its network of bishops. Some regions that were populated by Catholics were conquered by Arian rulers, which provoked much tension between Arian kings and the Catholic hierarchy. Clovis I of the Franks is a well-known example of a barbarian king who chose Catholic orthodoxy over Arianism. His conversion marked a turning point for the Frankish tribes of Gaul. Bishops were central to Middle Age society due to the literacy they possessed. As a result, they often played a significant role in governance. However, beyond the core areas of Western Europe, there remained many peoples with little or no contact with Christianity or with classical Roman culture. Martial societies such as the Avars and the Vikings were still capable of causing major disruption to the newly emerging societies of Western Europe.

The Early Middle Ages witnessed the rise of monasticism within the west. Although the impulse to withdraw from society to focus upon a spiritual life is experienced by people of all cultures, the shape of European monasticism was determined by traditions and ideas that originated in the deserts of Egypt and Syria.[6] The style of monasticism that focuses on community experience of the spiritual life, called cenobitism, was pioneered by the saint Pachomius in the 4th century. Monastic ideals spread from Egypt to western Europe in the 5th and 6th centuries through hagiographical literature such as the Life of Saint Anthony.[6] Saint Benedict wrote the definitive Rule for western monasticism during the 6th century, detailing the administrative and spiritual responsibilities of a community of monks led by an abbot.[6] The style of monasticism based upon the Benedictine Rule spread widely rapidly across Europe, replacing small clusters of cenobites. Monks and monasteries had a deep effect upon the religious and political life of the Early Middle Ages, in various cases acting as land trusts for powerful families, centres of propaganda and royal support in newly conquered regions, bases for mission, and proselytization. They were the main outposts of education and literacy.


The coronation of Charlemagne depicted in the 14th century Grandes Chroniques de France

A nucleus of power developed in a region of northern Gaul and developed into kingdoms called Austrasia and Neustria. These kingdoms were ruled for three centuries by a dynasty of kings called the Merovingians, after their mythical founder Merovech. The history of the Merovingian kingdoms is one of family politics that frequently erupted into civil warfare between the branches of the family. The legitimacy of the Merovingian throne was granted by a reverence for the bloodline, and, even after powerful members of the Austrasian court, the mayors of the palace, took de facto power during the 7th century, the Merovingians were kept as ceremonial figureheads. The Merovingians engaged in trade with northern Europe through Baltic trade routes known to historians as the Northern Arc trade, and they are known to have minted small-denomination silver pennies called sceattae for circulation. Aspects of Merovingian culture could be described as "Romanized", such as the high value placed on Roman coinage as a symbol of rulership and the patronage of monasteries and bishoprics. Some have hypothesized that the Merovingians were in contact with Byzantium.[7] However, the Merovingians also buried the dead of their elite families in grave mounds and traced their lineage to a mythical sea beast called the Quinotaur.[7]

The 7th century was a tumultuous period of civil wars between Austrasia and Neustria. Such warfare was exploited by the patriarch of a family line, Pippin of Herstal, who curried favour with the Merovingians and had himself installed in the office of Mayor of the Palace at the service of the King. From this position of great influence, Pippin accrued wealth and supporters. Later members of his family line inherited the office, acting as advisors and regents. The dynasty took a new direction in 732, when Charles Martel won the Battle of Tours, halting the advance of Muslim armies across the Pyrenees.

Charlemagne's cathedral at Aachen

The Carolingian dynasty, as the successors to Charles Martel are known, officially took the reins of the kingdoms of Austrasia and Neustria in a coup of 753 led by Pippin III. A contemporary chronicle claims that Pippin sought, and gained, authority for this coup from the Pope.[8] Pippin's successful coup was reinforced with propaganda that portrayed the Merovingians as inept or cruel rulers and exalted the accomplishments of Charles Martel and circulated stories of the family's great piety. At the time of his death in 783, Pippin left his kingdoms in the hands of his two sons, Charles and Carloman. When Carloman died of natural causes, Charles blocked the succession of Carloman's minor son and installed himself as the king of the united Austrasia and Neustria. This Charles, known to his contemporaries as Charles the Great or Charlemagne, embarked in 774 upon a program of systematic expansion that would unify a large portion of Europe. In the wars that lasted just beyond 800, he rewarded loyal allies with war booty and command over parcels of land. Much of the nobility of the High Middle Ages was to claim its roots in the Carolingian nobility that was generated during this period of expansion.[8]

The Imperial Coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas Day of 800 is frequently regarded as a turning-point in medieval history, because it filled a power vacancy that had existed since 476. It also marks a change in Charlemagne's leadership, which assumed a more imperial character and tackled difficult aspects of controlling a medieval empire. He established a system of diplomats who possessed imperial authority, the missi, who in theory provided access to imperial justice in the farthest corners of the empire.[9] He also sought to reform the Church in his domains, pushing for uniformity in liturgy and material culture.

Carolingian Renaissance

Charlemagne's court in Aachen was the centre of a cultural revival that is sometimes referred to as the "Carolingian Renaissance". This period witnessed an increase of literacy, developments in the arts, architecture, and jurisprudence, as well as liturgical and scriptural studies. The English monk Alcuin was invited to Aachen, and brought with him the precise classical Latin education that was available in the monasteries of Northumbria. The return of this Latin proficiency to the kingdom of the Franks is regarded as an important step in the development of medieval Latin. Charlemagne's chancery made use of a type of script currently known as Carolingian minuscule, providing a common writing style that allowed for communication across most of Europe. After the decline of the Carolingian dynasty, the rise of the Saxon Dynasty in Germany was accompanied by the Ottonian Renaissance.

See also the careers of Charlemagne, Louis the Pious, and Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor.

Breakup of the Carolingian empire

Breakup of the Carolingian empire

While Charlemagne continued the Frankish tradition of dividing the regnum (kingdom) between all his heirs (at least those of age), the assumption of the imperium (imperial title) supplied a unifying force not available previously. Charlemagne was succeeded by his only legitimate son of adult age at his death, Louis the Pious.

Louis's long reign of 26 years was marked by numerous divisions of the empire among his sons and, after 829, numerous civil wars between various alliances of father and sons against other sons in an effort to determine a just division by battle. The final division was made at Crémieux in 838. The Emperor Louis recognized his eldest son Lothair I as emperor and confirmed him in the Regnum Italicum (Italy). He divided the rest of the empire between Lothair and Charles the Bald, his youngest son, giving Lothair the opportunity to choose his half. He chose East Francia, which comprised the empire on both banks of the Rhine and eastwards, leaving Charles West Francia, which comprised the empire to the west of the Rhineland and the Alps. Louis the German, the middle child, who had been rebellious to the last, was allowed to keep his subregnum of Bavaria under the suzerainty of his elder brother. The division was not undisputed. Pepin II of Aquitaine, the emperor's grandson, rebelled in a contest for Aquitaine, while Louis the German tried to annex all of East Francia. In two final campaigns, the emperor defeated both his rebellious descendants and vindicated the division of Crémieux before dying in 840.

Magyar campaigns in the 10th century. Most European nations were praying for mercy: "Sagittis hungarorum libera nos Domine" - "Lord save us from the arrows of Hungarians"

A three-year civil war followed his death. At the end of the conflict, Louis the German was in control of East Francia and Lothair was confined to Italy. By the Treaty of Verdun (843), a kingdom of Middle Francia was created for Lothair in the Low Countries and Burgundy, and his imperial title was recognized. East Francia would eventually morph into the Kingdom of Germany and West Francia into the Kingdom of France, around both of which the history of Western Europe can largely be described as a contest for control of the middle kingdom. Charlemagne's grandsons and great-grandsons divided their kingdoms between their sons until all of the various regna and the imperial title fell into the hands of Charles the Fat by 884. He was deposed in 887 and died in 888, to be replaced in all his kingdoms but two (Lotharingia and East Francia) by non-Carolingian "petty kings". The Carolingian Empire was destroyed, though the imperial tradition would eventually give rise to the Holy Roman Empire in 962.

The breakup of the Carolingian Empire was accompanied by the invasions, migrations, and raids of external foes as not seen since the Migration Period. The Atlantic and northern shores were harassed by the Vikings, who forced Charles the Bald to issue the Edict of Pistres against them and who besieged Paris in 885–886. The eastern frontiers, especially Germany and Italy, were under constant Magyar assault until their great defeat at the Battle of the Lechfeld in 955.[10] The Saracens also managed to establish bases at Garigliano and Fraxinetum, to sack Rome in 846 and to conquer the islands of Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily, and their pirates raided the Mediterranean coasts, as did the Vikings. The Christianization of the pagan Vikings provided an end to that threat.

Art and architecture

St Andrew's cathedral, Amalfi, Italy, completed in 1206

Few large stone buildings were attempted between the Constantinian basilicas of the 4th century, and the 8th century. At this time, the establishment of churches and monasteries, and a comparative political stability, brought about the development of a form of stone architecture loosely based upon Roman forms and hence later named Romanesque. Where available, Roman brick and stone buildings were heavily robbed for their materials. From the fairly tentative beginnings known as the First Romanesque, the style flourished and spread across Europe in a remarkably homogeneous form. The features are massive stone walls, openings topped by semi-circular arches, small windows, and, particularly in France, arched stone vaults and arrows

In the decorative arts, Celtic and Germanic barbarian forms were absorbed into Christian art, although the central impulse remained Roman and Byzantine. High quality jewellery and religious imagery were produced throughout Western Europe; Charlemagne and other monarchs provided patronage for religious artworks such as reliquaries and books. Some of the principal artworks of the age were the fabulous Illuminated manuscripts produced by monks on vellum, using gold, silver, and precious pigments to illustrate biblical narratives. Early examples include the Book of Kells and many Carolingian and Ottonian Frankish manuscripts.

High Middle Ages

The High Middle Ages were characterized by the urbanization of Europe, military expansion, and intellectual revival that historians identify between the 11th century and the end of the 13th century. This revival was aided by the conversion of the raiding Scandinavians and Magyars to Christianity, as well as the assertion of power by castellans to fill the power vacuum left by the Carolingian decline. The High Middle Ages saw an explosion in population. This population flowed into towns, sought conquests abroad, or cleared land for cultivation. The cities of antiquity had been clustered around the Mediterranean. By 1200, the growing urban centres were in the centre of the continent, connected by roads or rivers. By the end of this period, Paris might have had as many as 200,000 inhabitants.[11] In central and northern Italy and in Flanders, the rise of towns that were self-governing to some degree within their territories stimulated the economy and created an environment for new types of religious and trade associations. Trading cities on the shores of the Baltic entered into agreements known as the Hanseatic League, and Italian city-states such as Venice, Genoa, and Pisa expanded their trade throughout the Mediterranean. This period marks a formative one in the history of the western state as we know it, for kings in France, England, and Spain consolidated their power during this time period, setting up lasting institutions to help them govern. The Papacy, which had long since created an ideology of independence from the secular kings, first asserted its claims to temporal authority over the entire Christian world. The entity that historians call the Papal Monarchy reached its apogee in the early 13th century under the pontificate of Innocent III. Northern Crusades and the advance of Christian kingdoms and military orders into previously pagan regions in the Baltic and Finnic northeast brought the forced assimilation of numerous native peoples to the European entity. With the brief exception of the Kipchak and Mongol invasions, major barbarian incursions ceased.[12]


Medieval illustration of the capture of Jerusalem during the First Crusade, 1099

The Crusades were armed pilgrimages intended to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim control. Jerusalem was part of the Muslim possessions won during a rapid military expansion in the 7th century through the Near East, Northern Africa, and Anatolia (in modern Turkey). The first Crusade was preached by Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont in 1095 in response to a request from the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos for aid against further advancement. Urban promised indulgence to any Christian who took the Crusader vow and set off for Jerusalem. The resulting fervour that swept through Europe mobilized tens of thousands of people from all levels of society, and resulted in the capture of Jerusalem in 1099, as well as other regions. The movement found its primary support in the Franks; it is by no coincidence that the Arabs referred to Crusaders generically as "Franj".[13] Although they were minorities within this region, the Crusaders tried to consolidate their conquests as a number of Crusader states – the Kingdom of Jerusalem, as well as the County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, and the County of Tripoli (collectively Outremer). During the 12th century and 13th century, there were a series of conflicts between these states and surrounding Islamic ones. Crusades were essentially resupply missions for these embattled kingdoms. Military orders such as the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller were formed to play an integral role in this support.

The Muslim conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries      Expansion under the Prophet Muhammad, 622–632      Expansion during the Patriarchal Caliphate, 632–661      Expansion during the Umayyad Caliphate, 661–750

By the end of the Middle Ages, the Christian Crusaders had captured all the Islamic territories in modern Spain, Portugal, and Southern Italy. Meanwhile, Islamic counter-attacks had retaken all the Crusader possessions on the Asian mainland, leaving a de facto boundary between Islam and western Christianity that continued until modern times.

Substantial areas of northern Europe also remained outside Christian influence until the 11th century or later; these areas also became crusading venues during the expansionist High Middle Ages. Throughout this period, the Byzantine Empire was in decline, having peaked in influence during the High Middle Ages. Beginning with the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, the empire underwent a cycle of decline and renewal, including the sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Despite another short upswing following the recapture of Constantinople in 1261, the empire continued to deteriorate.

Science and technology

Oxford University, Cambridge University, and many other universities were founded at this time.

During the early Middle Ages and the Islamic Golden Age, Islamic philosophy, science, and technology were more advanced than in Western Europe. Islamic scholars both preserved and built upon earlier Ancient Greek and Roman traditions and also added their own inventions and innovations. Islamic al-Andalus passed much of this on to Europe (see Islamic contributions to Medieval Europe). The replacement of Roman numerals with the decimal positional number system and the invention of algebra allowed more advanced mathematics. Another consequence was that the Latin-speaking world regained access to lost classical literature and philosophy. Latin translations of the 12th century fed a passion for Aristotelian philosophy and Islamic science that is frequently referred to as the Renaissance of the 12th century. Meanwhile, trade grew throughout Europe as the dangers of travel were reduced, and steady economic growth resumed. Cathedral schools and monasteries ceased to be the sole sources of education in the 11th century when universities were established in major European cities. Literacy became available to a wider class of people, and there were major advances in art, sculpture, music, and architecture. Large cathedrals were built across Europe, first in the Romanesque, and later in the more decorative Gothic style.

During the 12th and 13th century in Europe, there was a radical change in the rate of new inventions, innovations in the ways of managing traditional means of production, and economic growth. The period saw major technological advances, including the invention of cannon, spectacles, and artesian wells, and the cross-cultural introduction of gunpowder, silk, the compass, and the astrolabe from the east. There were also great improvements to ships and the clock. The latter advances made possible the dawn of the Age of Exploration. At the same time, huge numbers of Greek and Arabic works on medicine and the sciences were translated and distributed throughout Europe. Aristotle especially became very important, his rational and logical approach to knowledge influencing the scholars at the newly forming universities which were absorbing and disseminating the new knowledge during the 12th Century Renaissance.


Monastic reform became an important issue during the 11th century, when elites began to worry that monks were not adhering to their Rules with the discipline that was required for a good religious life. During this time, it was believed that monks were performing a very practical task by sending their prayers to God and inducing Him to make the world a better place for the virtuous. The time invested in this activity would be wasted, however, if the monks were not virtuous. The monastery of Cluny, founded in the Mâcon in 909, was founded as part of a larger movement of monastic reform in response to this fear.[14] It was a reformed monastery that quickly established a reputation for austerity and rigour. Cluny sought to maintain the high quality of spiritual life by electing its own abbot from within the cloister, and maintained an economic and political independence from local lords by placing itself under the protection of the Pope.[11] Cluny provided a popular solution to the problem of bad monastic codes, and in the 11th century its abbots were frequently called to participate in imperial politics as well as reform monasteries in France and Italy.

St Francis of Assisi, depicted by Bonaventura in 1235, brought about reform in the church

Monastic reform inspired change in the secular church, as well. The ideals that it was based upon were brought to the papacy by Pope Leo IX on his election in 1049, providing the ideology of clerical independence that fuelled the Investiture Controversy in the late 11th century. The Investiture Controversy involved Pope Gregory VII and Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor, who initially clashed over a specific bishop's appointment and turned into a battle over the ideas of investiture, clerical marriage, and simony. The Emperor, as a Christian ruler, saw the protection of the Church as one of his great rights and responsibilities. The Papacy, however, had begun insisting on its independence from secular lords. The open warfare ended with Henry IV's occupation of Rome in 1085 and the death of the Pope several months later, but the issues themselves remained unresolved even after the compromise of 1122 known as the Concordat of Worms. The conflict represents a significant stage in the creation of a papal monarchy separate from lay authorities. It also had the permanent consequence of empowering German princes at the expense of the German emperors.[11]

The High Middle Ages was a period of great religious movements. The Crusades, which have already been mentioned, have an undeniable religious aspect. Monastic reform was similarly a religious movement effected by monks and elites. Other groups sought to participate in new forms of religious life. Landed elites financed the construction of new parish churches in the European countryside, which increased the Church's impact upon the daily lives of peasants. Cathedral canons adopted monastic rules, groups of peasants and laypeople abandoned their possessions to live like the Apostles, and people formulated ideas about their religion that were deemed heretical. Although the success of the 12th century papacy in fashioning a Church that progressively affected the daily lives of everyday people cannot be denied, there are still indicators that the tail could wag the dog. The new religious groups called the Waldensians and the Humiliati were condemned for their refusal to accept a life of cloistered monasticism. In many aspects, however, they were not very different from the Franciscans and the Dominicans, who were approved by the papacy in the early 13th century (the Franciscan and the Dominancan friars developed the popular sermon). The picture that modern historians of the religious life present is one of great religious zeal welling up from the peasantry during the High Middle Ages, with clerical elites striving, only sometimes successfully, to understand and channel this power into familiar paths.

Late Middle Ages

A bishop blesses victims of the Black Death

The Late Middle Ages were a period initiated by calamities and upheavals. During this time, agriculture was affected by a climate change that has been documented by climate historians, and was felt by contemporaries in the form of periodic famines, including the Great Famine of 1315-1317. Medieval Britain was afflicted by 95 famines,[15] and France suffered the effects of 75 or more in the same period.[16] The Black Death, a disease that spread among the populace like wildfire, killed as much as a third of the population in the mid-14th century. In some regions, the toll was higher than one half of the population. Towns were especially hard-hit because of the crowded conditions. Large areas of land were left sparsely inhabited, and in some places fields were left unworked. As a consequence of the sudden decline in available labourers, the price of wages rose as landlords sought to entice workers to their fields. Workers also felt that they had a right to greater earnings, and popular uprisings broke out across Europe. This period of stress, paradoxically, witnessed creative social, economic, and technological responses that laid the groundwork for further great changes in the Early Modern Period. It was also a period when the Catholic Church was increasingly divided against itself. During the time of the Western Schism, the Church was led by as many as three popes at one time. The divisiveness of the Church undermined papal authority, and allowed the formation of national churches. The final fall of The Roman Empire was the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. It had a great effect upon the European economy and intellectual and religious life.

State resurgence

The Late Middle Ages also witnessed the rise of strong, royalty-based nation-states, particularly the Kingdom of England, the Kingdom of France, and the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula (Aragon, Castile, Navarre, and Portugal).

The long conflicts of this time, such as the Hundred Years' War fought between England and France, actually strengthened royal control over the kingdoms, even though they were extremely hard on the peasantry. Kings profited from warfare by gaining land.

The Allegory of Good Government was painted for the town council in Siena by Ambrogio Lorenzetti

France shows clear signs of a growth in royal power during the 14th century, from the active persecution of heretics and lepers, expulsion of the Jews, and the dissolution of the Knights Templar. In all of these cases, undertaken by Philip IV, the king confiscated land and wealth from these minority groups.[11] The conflict between Philip and Pope Boniface VIII, a conflict which began over Philip's unauthorized taxation of clergy, ended with the violent death of Boniface and the installation of Pope Clement V, a weak, French-controlled pope, in Avignon. This action enhanced French prestige, at the expense of the papacy.

England, too, began the 14th century with warfare and expansion. Edward I waged war against the Principality of Wales and the Kingdom of Scotland, with mixed success, to assert what he considered his right to the entire island of Great Britain.

Both the Kings of France and the Kings of England of this period presided over effective states administered by literate bureaucrats, and sought baronial consent for their decisions through early versions of parliamentary systems, called the Estates General in France and the Parliament in England. Towns and merchants allied with kings during the 15th century, allowing the kings to distance themselves further from the territorial lords. As a result of the power gained during the 14th and 15th centuries, late medieval kings built truly sovereign states, which were able to impose taxes, declare war, and create and enforce laws, all by the will of the king.[17] Kings encouraged cohesion in their administration by appointing ministers with broad ambitions and a loyalty to the state.[17] By the last half of the 15th century, kings like Henry VII of England and Louis XI of France were able to rule without much baronial interference.

Hundred Years' War

Joan of Arc in a 15th century miniature

The Hundred Years' War was a conflict between France and England lasting 116 years, from 1337 to 1453. It was fought primarily over claims by the English kings to the French throne and was punctuated by several brief and two lengthy periods of peace before it finally ended in the expulsion of the English from France, with the exception of the Calais Pale. Thus, the war was in fact a series of conflicts, and is commonly divided into three or four phases: the Edwardian War (1337–1360), the Caroline War (1369–1389), the Lancastrian War (1415–1429), and the slow decline of English fortunes after the appearance of Joan of Arc (1429–1453). Though primarily a dynastic conflict, the war gave impetus to ideas of both French and English nationality. Militarily, it saw the introduction of new weapons and tactics, which eroded the older system of feudal armies dominated by heavy cavalry. The first standing armies in Western Europe since the time of the Western Roman Empire were introduced for the war, thus changing the role of the peasantry. For all this, as well as for its long duration, it is often viewed as one of the most significant conflicts in the history of medieval warfare.

Controversy within the Church

The troubled 14th century saw both the Avignon Papacy of 1305–1378, also called the Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy (a reference to the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews), and the so-called Western Schism that lasted from 1378–1418. The practice of granting papal indulgences, fairly commonplace since the 11th century, was reformulated and explicitly monetized in the 14th century.[11] Indulgences came to be an important source of revenue for the Church, revenue that filtered through parish churches to bishoprics and then to the pope himself. This was viewed by many as a corruption of the Church. In the early years of the 15th century, after a century of turmoil, ecclesiastical officials convened in Constance in 1417 to discuss a resolution to the Schism.[11] Traditionally, councils needed to be called by the Pope, and none of the contenders were willing to call a council and risk being unseated. The act of convening a council without papal approval was justified by the argument that the Church was represented by the whole population of the faithful. The council deposed the warring popes and elected Martin V. The turmoil of the Church, and the perception that it was a corrupted institution, sapped the legitimacy of the papacy within Europe and fostered greater loyalty to regional or national churches. Martin Luther published objections to the Church. Although his disenchantment had long been forming, the denunciation of the Church was precipitated by the arrival of preachers raising money to rebuild the Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome. Luther might have been silenced by the Church, but the death of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I brought the imperial succession to the forefront of concern. Lutherans' split with the Church in 1517, and the subsequent division of Catholicism into Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Anabaptism, put a definitive end to the unified Church built during the Middle Ages.



See also

Middle Ages related pages:


  1. ^ a b c d Treadgold, Warren (1997). A History of the Byzantine State and Society (first edition ed.). Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804726302. 
  2. ^ John Burrow. A History of Histories. 2007. ISBN 978-0-7139-9337-0 - see page 416 for Christoph (Keller) Cellarius.
  3. ^ The latter coined by Giovanni Andrea Bussi.
  4. ^ Robinson, F.C. (October 1984). "Medieval, the Middle Ages". 'Speculum' 59 (4): 745–56. doi:10.2307/2846695. 
  5. ^ Prudames, David. Lottery cash kicks off search for the real Bosworth battlefield, 24 Hour Museum 20 January 2005.
  6. ^ a b c Lawrence, C.H (2001). Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages (third edition ed.). Longman. ISBN 0582404274. 
  7. ^ a b Wood, Ian (1995). The Merovingian Kingdoms 450-751. Pearson Education. ISBN 0582493722. 
  8. ^ a b Riché, Pierre (1993). The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0812213424. 
  9. ^ Although the missus dominicus makes appearances during the second half of the 8th century, it is after 800 that they were institutionalized. Riché, Pierre (1993). The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0812213424. 
  10. ^ The Maygars of Hungary
  11. ^ a b c d e f Rosenwein, Barbara H (2001). A Short History of the Middle Ages. Broadview Press. ISBN 1551112906. 
  12. ^ The Destruction of Kiev
  13. ^ Maalouf, Amin (1989). Crusades Through Arab Eyes. Schocken. ISBN 0805208984. 
  14. ^ Rosenwein, Barbara H (1982). Rhinoceros Bound: Cluny in the Tenth Century. University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 40–41. ISBN 0812278305. 
  15. ^ Poor studies will always be with us. By James Bartholomew. Telegraph. August 7. 2004.
  16. ^ Famine. Encyclopædia Britannica.
  17. ^ a b Kagan, Donald; Ozment, Steven, Turner, Frank M. (1993). The Western Heritage: Since 1300 (eighth edition ed.). Prentice Hall. ISBN 0131828835. 


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