Middle Ages

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: General history

An early medieval Frankish king depicted with the Pope, from the Sacramentary of Charles the Bald (about 870).
An early medieval Frankish king depicted with the Pope, from the Sacramentary of Charles the Bald (about 870).

The Middle Ages formed the middle period in a traditional schematic division of European history into three "ages": the classical civilization of Antiquity, the Middle Ages and Modern Times. The Middle Ages of Western Europe are commonly dated from the 5th century division of the Roman Empire (into the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire) and the barbarian invasions until the 16th century schism of Christianity during the Protestant Reformation and the dispersal of Europeans worldwide in the start of the European overseas exploration. These various changes all mark the beginning of the Early Modern period that preceded the Industrial Revolution.

The Middle Ages are commonly referred to as the medieval period or simply medieval (sometimes spelled "mediaeval" or, historically, "mediæval").

Early Middle Ages

In Western Europe from the 3rd Century onward, the political unity of the Roman Empire began to fragment. As the central authority of Rome faded, the imperial territories were infiltrated by succeeding waves of " barbarian" tribal confederations. Some of these "barbarian" tribes rejected the classical culture of Rome, while others, like the Goths, admired and aspired to it. The Huns, Bulgars, Avars and Magyars along with a large number of Germanic and later Slavic peoples, were prominent tribal groups that migrated into Roman territory. Some of the incursions were by agreement, in which tribal groups were assigned lands to farm and settle in return for acting as allies and confederates of Rome. In other cases, particularly from the 4th Century onward, incursions were hostile, the land was seized and settled by force. By the end of the 5th Century, the institutions of the Western Roman Empire had crumbled under the pressure of these incursions. Where semblances of Roman governance survived, these were largely in the form of weak and isolated city governments or else regional military commanders who had turned themselves into local strongmen in the absence of central authority. In the more developed eastern half of the empire, however, centralized institutions still continued to function, centred on the impregnably defended city of Constantinople. Often now termed the Byzantine Empire, this Eastern Roman Empire was a direct continuation of the Christian Roman Empire of late antiquity.

This era, often characterized by historians as one of dramatic population and cultural change, is sometimes referred to as the Migration Period, and as the Völkerwanderung ("wandering of the peoples") by German historians. Historically this period has been more pejoratively termed the "Dark Ages" by some Western European historians. The term "Dark Ages" has now fallen from favour, partly to avoid the entrenched stereotypes associated with the phrase, but partly because more recent research and archaeological findings about the period has revealed that complex cultural influences persisted throughout this period.

Romanesque architecture flourished in the early Middle Ages: Hildesheim.
Romanesque architecture flourished in the early Middle Ages: Hildesheim.

The question of what happened to the settled and Romanized populations of the western Empire is a complex one. In few cases do historians consider that the existing populations were driven out or killed off entirely by the new arrivals. Only in England, the Rhine Valley and the Balkans did the languages spoken by the original inhabitants largely disappear, to be replaced by those of the incomers (the meaning of this is debated). However changes everywhere would have been notable as established society went through changes in law, culture, religion, and patterns of property ownership. The Pax Romana, with its accompanying benefits of safe conditions for trade and manufacture, and a unified cultural and educational milieu of far-ranging connections, had already been in decline for some time as the 5th century drew to a close. Now it was largely lost, to be replaced by the rule of local potentates with a dramatic change in economic and social linkages and infrastructure. Roman landholders, however, could not just pack up their land and move elsewhere. Some were dispossessed, others quickly changed their allegiances to those of 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. In such areas those who remained soon dropped their former pretences of Roman citizenship, so that within a generation or two it would have been difficult to distinguish between a Roman and a barbarian.

The breakdown of Roman society was often dramatic as it became unsafe to travel or carry goods over any distance and there was a collapse in trade and manufacture for export. Major industries that depended on long-distance trade, such as large-scale pottery manufacture, vanished almost overnight in places like Britain. The Islamic invasions of the 7th and 8th centuries, which conquered the Levant, North Africa, Spain, Portugal and some of the Mediterranean islands (including Sicily), increased localization by halting much of what remained of seaborne commerce. Thus, whereas sites like Tintagel in Cornwall had managed to obtain supplies of Mediterranean luxury goods well into the 6th century, this connection was now lost. The administrative, educational and military infrastructure of the Roman Empire quickly vanished, leading, among other things, to decreased literacy among the upper tiers (the majority of Rome's population were always illiterate) and the reduced governmental sophistication mentioned above. While the authority of Rome weakened, the authority of the bishops increased. Augustine of Hippo is such an example and is sometimes used to mark the end of the classical age and the beginning of the Middle Ages. One historian (Thomas Cahill) supports this saying that Augustine was the last of the classical men and the first of medieval men.

New order

Until recently it has been common to speak of " barbarian invasions" sweeping in from beyond Imperial borders and bringing about the end of the Roman Empire. Modern historians now acknowledge that this presents an incomplete portrait of a complex time of migration. In some important cases, such as that of the Franks entering Gaul, settlement of the newcomers took place over many decades, as groups seeking new economic opportunities crossed into Roman territory, retaining their own tribal leadership, and acculturating to, or displacing the Gallo-Roman society, often without widespread violence. This migration of the barbarians into the Roman empire took place over such a long period of time that, the Romans did not even perceive them as a threat. By speaking of this time as a time of "Barbarian invasions," it implies that it was an organized attack, which it certainly was not. Other outsiders, like Theodoric of the Ostrogoths, although warlike, also saw themselves as successors to the Roman tradition, employing cultured Roman ministers, like Cassiodorus. Like the Goths, the Franks and the Burgundians many of the outsiders were foederati, military allies of the Empire, who had earned rights of settlement.

Between the 5th and 8th centuries a completely new political and social infrastructure developed across the lands of the former empire, based upon powerful regional noble families, and the newly established kingdoms of the Ostrogoths in Italy, Visigoths in Spain and Portugal, Franks and Burgundians in Gaul and western Germany, and Saxons in England. These lands remained Christian, and their Arian conquerors were soon converted, following the example of the Frank Clovis I. The interaction between the culture of the newcomers, the remnants of classical culture, and Christian influences, produced a new model for society. The centralized administrative systems of the Romans did not withstand the changes for lack of a tax base, and the institutional support for large scale chattel slavery largely disappeared. The new system was incapable of supporting the depth of infrastructure required to maintain libraries, public baths, arenas and major educational institutions. While not actively destroying such things, the new rulers generally saw no point in striving to maintain them, and the economic base to support them no longer existed. New building was on a far smaller scale. Outside of Italy building in stone was rarely attempted until the 8th Century, when a new form of architecture called the Romanesque, and based on Roman forms, gradually developed.

In art, 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 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.

The Christian Church, the only centralized institution to survive the fall of the Western Roman Empire intact, 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. Bishops were central to Middle Age society due to the literacy they possessed. As a result, they often played a significant role in shaping good government. However beyond the core areas of Western Europe there remained many peoples with little or no contact with Christianity or with classic 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.

Map of the world civilizations, c. 820 (Old World unaware of the New World's existence, and vice versa)
Map of the world civilizations, c. 820 (Old World unaware of the New World's existence, and vice versa)

Outside the de-urbanized remains of cities, the power of central government was greatly reduced. Consequently government authority, and responsibility for military organization, taxation and law and order, was delegated to provincial and local lords, who supported themselves directly from the proceeds of the territories over which they held military, political and judicial power. In this was the beginnings of the feudal system. The hierarchy of military obligations, known as feudalism, bound each knight (Latin miles meaning soldier) to serve his superior in return for the latter's protection. This made for a confusion of territorial sovereignty (since allegiances were built up one on top of the other, could be contradictory, and were subject to change over time). The benefit of feudalism however, was its resiliency, and its ability to provide stable local government in the absence of a strong royal power.

The Early Middle Ages were characterized by the urban control of bishops and the territorial control exercised by dukes and counts. The rise of independent urban communes free of lordly or episcopal control, marked the beginning of the High Middle Ages. The High Middle Ages would also see the regrowth of centralized power, and the growth of new "national" identities, as strong rulers sought to eliminate competition (and potential threat to their rule) from powerful feudal nobles. Well known examples of such consolidation include the Albigensian Crusade and the Wars of the Roses.

In the east, the Eastern Roman Empire (called by historians the "Byzantine Empire"), maintained a form of Christianized Roman rule in the lands of Asia Minor, Greece and the Slavic territories bordering Greece, and in Sicily and southern Italy. The eastern emperors had maintained a nominal claim to rule over the west, (partially reconquered by Belisarius), but this East Roman claim was a political fiction under Lombard rule and became strongly disputed from 800.

Rise of the Franks and Islamic invasions

Two dynamics combined to change Europe forever: the rise of Islam in the East (which led to the Islamic conquest of Iberia and invasions of Europe) and the rise of the Franks as the first real Imperial power in the West since Rome, along with their halting the tide of Islamic expansion under the rule of Charles Martel. The rise of Islam also began the long, slow, slide into extinction of the Eastern Roman Empire, which though it would endure for another seven hundred years, and even achieve renewed glory in the tenth century, would never again regain the territories in Africa and the Levant it had possessed before the Islamic conquests of the seventh century. Islam's coming had the unexpected result of shifting Christian power decisively to the West.

In the West, the first beginning of a new order arose with the Carolingians, who began as Mayors of the Palace for the Frankish Kings. At their onset, these were merely romanized Germanic barbarians, civilized to some degree by Christianity and a gradual evolution into a central government controlled by the Carolingian nobility, which actually ruled the Franks. This system came both to its height, and its end, during the reign of Charles Martel. At the beginning of Charles Martel's career, in 716, he had many internal opponents and felt the need to appoint his own kingly claimant, Clotaire IV, to the by then in-name only Kingship of the Franks. By his end, however, the dynamics of rulership in Francia had changed, no hallowed Meroving was needed, neither for defence nor legitimacy: Charles divided his realm between his sons without opposition (though he ignored his young son Bernard). In between, he strengthened the Frankish state by consistently defeating, through superior generalship, the host of hostile foreign nations which beset it on all sides, including the heathen Saxons, which his grandson Charlemagne would fully subdue, and Moors, which he halted on a path of continental domination.

Charles was a brilliant strategic general and tactical commander, able to adapt his plans mid-battle to the unforeseen and repeatedly defeat enemies, even, as at Tours, when they were far superior in men and weaponry. Charles used ground, time, place, and troop morale to offset his foes' superior weaponry and tactics.

He was also a skilled administrator and ruler, organizing what would become the medieval European government - a system of fiefdoms, loyal to barons, counts, dukes and ultimately the King, or in his case, simply maior domi princeps et dux Francorum. ("highest of the king's [great] household and commander of the Franks") His close coordination of church with state also began the medieval pattern for such government. He created the first western standing army since the fall of Rome. In essence, he changed western Europe from a horde of barbarians fighting with one another, to an organized state. He also halted Islamic expansion into Europe, and his crucial defeats of Muslim invading armies at Tours, Arles, and River Berre, stopped the Islamic tide while the Caliphate was still united, and set the stage for his son Pippin the Short to assume the Frankish Throne in what was already the basic Carolingian Empire, and his grandson to assume the title of the first Western Roman Emperor since Rome's fall, three centuries before.

West Roman Empire of Charlemagne (Post-800)

Charlemagne was crowned emperor in Rome by the Pope on Christmas Day, 800; his rule briefly united much of modern day France, western Germany and northern Italy. For 200 years after Charlemagne's death, Europe was in conflict, with east and west competing for power and influence in the partly un- christianized expanses of far northern Europe, and power devolving to more localized authorities.

The spread of Christianity in the Migrations Period, both from the Mediterranean area and from Ireland, occasioned a pre-eminent cultural and ideological role for its abbots, and the collapse of a res publica meant that the bishops became identified with the remains of urban government. Christianity provided a new cultural stability to people groups that were radically different. Whole people groups converted to win the support of the church, and to gain power and influence. Christianity provided the basis for a first European "identity," Christendom, unified until the separation of the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church in the Great Schism of 1054, one of the dates that marks the onset of the High Middle Ages.

Carolingian Renaissance

During Charlemagne's lifetime, however, as well as that of his son, Louis the Pious, the Frankish-ruled Holy Roman Empire experienced a flourishing of intellectual and cultural revival. During this period there was an increase of literature, the arts, architecture, jurisprudence, liturgical and scriptural studies. The period also saw the development of Medieval Latin and Carolingian minuscule, providing a common language and 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.

High Middle Ages

Beginning about the year 1000, greater stability came to the lands of Western Europe. With the brief exception of the Mongol incursions, major barbarian invasions had ceased. The advance of Christian kingdoms and military orders into previously regions in the Baltic and Finnic northeast brought the forced assimilation of numerous native peoples to the European entity.

The "High Middle Ages" describes the expansionist culture and intellectual revival from the late 11th century to the beginning of the 14th (the " 12th Century Renaissance"). The High Middle Ages saw an explosion in population. In central and northern Italy and in Flanders the rise of towns that were self-governing to some degree within their territories marked a beginning for re-urbanization in Western Europe.

In Spain and Portugal, a slow reconquest of the urbane and literate Muslim-ruled territories began. One consequence of this was that the Latin-literate world gained access to libraries that included classical literature and philosophy. Through translations these libraries gave rise to a vogue for the philosophy of Aristotle. Meanwhile, trade grew throughout Europe as the dangers of travel were reduced, and steady economic growth resumed. This period saw the formation of the Hanseatic league and other trading and banking institutions that operated across western Europe. The first universities were established in major European cities from 1080 onwards, bringing in a new interest and inquisitiveness about the world. Literacy began to grow, 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.


Following the Great Schism, prime examples of the force of the divided cultural identities of Christendom can be found in the unfolding developments of the Crusades, during which popes, kings, and emperors drew on the concept of Christian unity to inspire the population of Western Europe to unite to fight against Islam. From the 7th century onward, Islam had been gaining ground along Europe's southern and eastern borders. Muslim armies conquered Egypt, the rest of North Africa, Jerusalem, Spain, Sicily, and most of Anatolia (in modern Turkey), although they were finally turned back in western Europe by Christian armies at the Battle of Tours in southern France. Political unanimity in Europe was less secure than it appeared, however, and the military support for most crusades was drawn from limited regions of Europe. Substantial areas of northern Europe also remained outside Christianity until the twelfth century or later; these areas also became crusading venues during the expansionist High Middle Ages.

Science and technology

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 cannons, 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.

Late Middle Ages

The first half of the 14th century witnessed an economic decline that began with the first retrenchment after the long, gently inflationary rise of a unified economy that had been under way since the 11th century. The European climate itself was worsening, after the long Medieval Warm Period, leading to the onset of the Little Ice Age. In the Black Death, large areas of Western Europe lost around a third—in some places as much as half—of their population to disease, especially in the crowded conditions of the towns. As a consequence, the mass population loss greatly accelerated social and economic change during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In Western Europe, the sudden scarcity of cheap labour provided an incentive for landlords to compete for peasants by offering wages and freedoms, an innovation that, some argue, represents the roots of capitalism.

Politically, the later Middle Ages were typified by the decline of feudal power replaced by the development of strong, royalty-based nation-states, especially in England, France and the Iberian Peninsula. This consolidation did not decrease the frequency of war, the Late Middle Ages seeing such protracted conflicts as the Hundred Years' War between England and France. Participation in these wars weakened the eastern Christian nations in their confrontations with an increasing expanding Islamic world. Indeed, throughout this period the Byzantine Empire was in decline, having peaked in influence during the Early Middle Ages. After the Battle of Manzikert (1071), the former empire was reduced to a shell; it survived in a diminished and weakened form until 1453, and ceased to exist by the end of the Late Medieval period.

Christendom was increasingly divided in this period, notably during the 14th century. This troubled century saw both the Avignon Papacy of 1305-1378, also called the Babylonian Captivity, and the so-called Western Schism that lasted from 1378-1418. These divides resulted in greater loyalty to regional or national churches, and though lay piety rarely wavered, secular solutions, rather than religious ones, were increasingly sought for the social problems of the time. The Lutherans' split with the Roman Catholic Church in 1517, and the subsequent division between Catholicism and Protestantism signaled the end of the old order.

Throughout the Late Middle Ages, stresses such as the Great Famine of 1315-1317, the Black Death of 1348, and popular uprisings, particularly in the west, encouraged creative social, economic, and technological responses that signaled the end of the old medieval order and laid the groundwork for further great changes in the Early Modern Period.


Middle Ages in history

After the Middle Ages ended subsequent generations imagined, portrayed and interpreted the Middle Ages in different ways. Every century has created its own vision of the Middle Ages; the 18th century view of the Middle Ages was entirely different from the 19th century which was different from the 16th century view. The reality of these images remains with us today in the form of film, architecture, literature, art and popular conception.

Medieval and Middle Ages

"Middle Age"

The term "Middle Age" ("medium ævum") was first coined by Flavio Biondo, an Italian humanist, in the early 15th Century. Until the Renaissance (and some time after) 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". In the early 15th Century it was believed history had evolved from the Dark Age to a Modern period with its revival of things classical so scholars began to write about a middle period between the Ancient and Modern, which became known as the Middle Age. This is known as the three period view of history.

The plural form of the term, Middle Ages, is used in English, Dutch, Russian and Icelandic while other European languages use the singular form ( Italian medioevo, French le moyen âge, German das Mittelalter). 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), others plural (media saecula and media tempora). There seem to be no simple reason why a particular language ended up with the singular or the plural form. Further information can be found in Fred C. Robinson: "Medieval, the Middle Ages" in Speculum, Vol. 59:4 (Oct. 1984), p. 745-56. The term "medieval" (traditionally 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 periodes de l'historie du capitalism" in Academie Royale de Belgique. Bulletin de la Classe des Lettres, 1914) and Johan Huizinga ( The Autumn of the Middle Ages, 1919).

A medieval era can also be applied to other parts of the world that historians have seen as embodying the same feudal characteristics as Europe in this period. The pre-westernization period in the history of Japan is sometimes referred to as medieval. The pre-colonial period in the developed parts of sub-Saharan Africa is also sometimes termed medieval. Today historians are far more reluctant to try to fit the history of other regions to the European model and these terms are less often used.

Periodization issues

It is difficult to decide when the Middle Ages ended, and 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 printing by Johann Gutenberg (around 1455), the fall of Muslim Spain or Columbus's voyage to America (both 1492), or the Protestant Reformation starting 1517 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.

Similar differences are now emerging in connection with the start of the period. Traditionally, the Middle Ages is said to begin 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) while others, like Henri Pirenne see the period to the rise of Islam (7th century) as "late Classical".

The Middle Ages are often subdivided into 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); a middle period (the High Middle Ages) of developed institutions of lordship and vassalage, castle-building and mounted warfare, and reviving urban and commercial life; and a later period of growing royal power, the rise of commercial interests and weakening customary ties of dependence, especially after the 14th-century plague.


  • Holy Roman Empire
  • The Crusades
  • Pilgrimage
  • Papacy
  • Medieval Inquisition
  • Heresy (for example, Arian; Cathar; John Wyclif)
  • Monastic orders
    • Benedictines
    • Carthusians
    • Cistercians
  • Mendicant friars
    • Franciscans
    • Dominicans
    • Carmelites
    • Augustinians
  • Judaism
  • Islam (Western Europe): Moors
  • Islam (Eastern Europe): Sultanate of Rûm & Ottoman Empire

Article by regions

  • Medieval Britain
  • Byzantine Empire
  • Bulgarian Empire
  • Medieval Czechs lands
  • Medieval France
  • Medieval Germany
  • Medieval Italy
  • Medieval Poland
  • Medieval Romania
  • Medieval Scotland
  • Medieval Spain

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