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Middle Ages

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The Middle Ages formed the middle period in a schematic division of European history into three 'ages': Classical civilization, the Middle Ages, and Modern Civilization. It is commonly dated from the end of the Western Roman Empire (5th century) until the rise of national monarchies, European overseas exploration, the discovery and diffusion of printing, the classical revival known as the Renaissance around the 15th century in Italy, early 16th century in Northern Europe, as well as the Protestant Reformation starting in 1517. The various changes all mark the beginning of the Early Modern period.

(The corresponding adjective, from the Latin medius aevus, is spelled medieval in American English and sometimes mediaeval or mediæval in British English.)


The early Middle Ages

As the authority of the Roman Empire dwindled in Western Europe, its territories were entered and settled by succeeding waves of "barbarian" peoples, some of whom distrusted and rejected the classical culture of Rome, while others, like the Goths admired it and considered themselves the legatees and heirs of Rome. Prominent among these peoples in the movement that German historians term the Völkerwanderung were non-Germanic Huns and Avars and Magyars with the large number of Germanic and later Slavic peoples. The era of the migrations has historically been termed the "Dark Ages" by Western European historians. That term has now fallen from favor, partly to avoid the entrenched stereotypes associated with the phrase, but also partly because more recent research into the period has in fact revealed its surprising artistic sophistication, though its political and social senses were unevolved and its technologies undeveloped, compared to the preceding culture.

Although the settled population of the Roman period were not everywhere decimated, the new peoples greatly altered established society, and with it, law, culture and 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, and the gradual break-down of economic and social linkages and infrastructure. This break-down was often fast and dramatic as it became unsafe to travel or carry goods over any distance and there was a consequent collapse in trade and manufacture for export. Major industries that depended on 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 and some of the Mediterranean islands (including Sicily), increased localization by halting much of what remained of seaborne commerce. So where sites like Tintagel in Cornwall had managed to obtain supplies of Mediterranean luxury goods well into the 6th century, this connection too was lost. Administrative, educational and military infrastructure quickly vanished, leading to the rise of illiteracy among leadership.

A 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. Other outsiders, like Theodoric of the Ostrogoths, were civilized, though illiterate patrons, who saw themselves successors to the Roman tradition, employing cultured Roman ministers, like Cassiodorus. Like the Goths, many of the outsiders were foederati, military allies of the Empire, who had earned rights of settlement, including among others the Franks and the Burgundians. 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, Franks and Burgundians in Gaul and western Germany, and Saxons in England. These lands remained Christian, and their Arian Christian conquerors were soon converted, following the example of the pagan 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 centralised administrative systems of the Romans did not withstand the changes, and the institutional support for large scale chattel slavery largely disappeared.

However beyond these areas of Europe were many peoples with little or no contact with Christianity or with classic Roman culture. Warrior peoples such as the Avars and the Vikings were still capable of causing major disruption to the newly emerging societies of Western Europe. The Christian Church, the only centralised institution to survive the fall of the western Roman Empire intact, was the sole unifying cultural influence, preserving its selection from Latin learning, maintaining the art of writing, and a centralised administration through its network of bishops. The Early Middle Ages are characterized by the urban control of bishops and the territorial control exercised by dukes and counts. The rise of urban communes marked the beginning of the High Middle Ages.

Outside the de-urbanized remains of cities, the power of central government was greatly reduced. Consequently government authority, and responsibility for military organisation, 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 lay the beginnings of the feudal system. The High Middle Ages would 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.

This hierarchy of reciprocal obligations, known as feudalism or the feudal system, binding each man to serve his superior in return for the latter's protection, made for a confusion of territorial sovereignty (since allegiances were subject to change over time, and were sometimes mutually contradictory). The benefit of feudalism however, was its resiliency, and the ability of local arrangements to provide stable government in the absence of a strong royal power in a political order distinguished by its lack of uniformity. Territoriality was reduced to a network of personal allegiances.

In the east, the Eastern Roman Empire (called by historians the "Byzantine Empire"), maintained a form of Christianised 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, reconquered by Belisarius, but this was a political fiction under Lombard rule and became strongly disputed from 800, with the creation of the so-called Holy Roman Empire, under Charlemagne, briefly uniting much of modern day France, western Germany and northern Italy. From now on, Europe was to be bi-polar, with east and west competing for power and influence in the largely un-christianised expanses of northern Europe.

The spread of Christianity throughout Europe from the Mediterranean area, and its pre-eminent cultural and ideological role, meant that ecclesiastics became deeply involved in government. It provided the basis for a first European "identity," Christendom, unified in a religion common to most of the continent from at least the 9th century until the separation of Orthodox Churches from the Catholic Church in 1054.

A prime example of the force of this cultural identity was the period loosely identified as the Crusades, during which Popes, kings, and emperors drew on the concept of Christian unity to inspire the population of Europe to unite and defend Christendom from the perceived aggression of 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 Christendom until the twelfth century or later; these areas also became crusading venues.

The later Middle Ages

From roughly the year 1000 onward, 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 pagan regions in the Baltic and Finnic northeast brought the forced assimilation of numerous native peoples to the European entity.

In Spain, a slow reconquest of the captured Muslim-ruled territories began. One consequence of this was that the Latin-literate world gained access to libraries that included classical literature and philosophy. 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, largely to train the clergy. 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.

The period saw other major technological advances, including the invention of the printing, gunpowder, the astrolabe, spectacles, and greatly improved ships. They also inproved apon the clock. The latter advances made possible the dawn of the Age of Exploration.

Politically, the later Middle Ages were typified by the decline of feudal power, slowly increasing disorder, and the development of strong, royalty-based nation-states, partly as an outcome of these two trends. Wars between kingdoms, such as the Hundred Years' War between England and France, weakened the Christian nations in their confrontations with Islam. The Black Death or Plague of 1348, and the schism of the Christian church, were disastrous for the old medieval order, laying the groundwork for great changes in the 15th and 16th centuries.

In the east, the Byzantine Empire survived until 1453, but in a diminished and weakened form.


It is extremely difficult to decide when the Middle Ages ended, and in fact scholars assign different starting dates for the Renaissance in different parts of Europe. Most scholars who work in 15th century Italian history, for instance, consider themselves Renaissance or Early Modern historians, while anyone working on England in 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) or 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.

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 CE. 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 Christianisation 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.

Origin, history and usage of term

The term "Middle Age" (singular) was invented by Italian humanists in the early 15th Century. Until this time it was believed there had been two periods in history, that of Ancient times and that of the period later referred to as the "Dark Age." In the early 15th Century it was believed history had evolved to a Modern period and scholars began to write about a middle period between the Ancient and Modern, which became known as the Middle Age (singular). This is known as the 3 period view of history.

Later historians segmented it into the Early, High and Late Middle "Ages" (plural). This is common in the USA, Britain, Russia and Iceland. Many European scholars from countries such as France, Germany, Italy and Spain do not break the period into multiple ages and continue to use the original singular Middle Age.

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.

Religion in the Middle Ages

See also

Selected bibliography

External links

  • Medieval Sourcebook Primary source archive of the Middle Ages.
  • The Online Reference Book of Medieval Studies Academic peer reviewed articles.
  • The Labyrinth Resources for Medieval Studies.
  • NetSERF The Internet Connection for Medieval Resources.
  • The Middle Ages. A directory of articles and resources on the middle ages. Includes resources for teachers.
  • Interactive Medieval Map (Flash Plug-in Required.)
  • Cunnan: A Wiki collecting information for re-enactors of the Middle Ages and Renaissance with a heavy slant towards members of the SCA
  • Shadowed Realm - Your Guide to Medieval History A site containing articles, a glossary, a timeline, resources and links, and more.

History of Europe
Prehistoric Europe | Classical antiquity | Middle Ages | Renaissance | Early Modern Europe | Modern Europe

Last updated: 02-07-2005 18:13:03
Last updated: 02-26-2005 12:51:44