History of the Middle Ages
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The history of the Middle Ages lasts from the 5th to the late 15th centuries. It began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and evolved through the Renaissance and Age of Exploration. While Western history is divided into classical antiquity, the Middle Ages (or medieval period), and the modern period, the Middle Ages are divided into the Early, High, and Late Middle Ages.
A number of trends began in Late Antiquity and continued into the Early Middle Ages. Foremost among them, population declined, cities shrank, and government collapsed. With that, various Germanic peoples formed new kingdoms in the lands of the old Western Roman Empire. The Empire of Islam rose in the 7th century to bring North Africa and the Middle East—including former lands of the Byzantine Empire—into the fold of the Umayyad Caliphate. This brought changes in society and governance, but they did not break with classical antiquity. Indeed, much of the Eastern Roman Empire continued on in the Eastern Mediterranean where it remained powerful. Roman institutions were accepted by most kingdoms in the West. For example, the Byzantines revitalized the precepts of their ancient legal code, the Corpus Juris Civilis or “Code of Justinian”, which was rediscovered in Northern Italy in the 11th century. Then, monasticism began as a campaign to Christianize pagan Europe. During the later 8th and early 9th centuries, the Franks established the Carolingian Empire. It briefly brought much of Western Europe under its sway, but was soon overcome by civil war and invasions by Vikings from the north, Magyars from the plains of Hungary, and Muslim Saracens from the south.
During the High Middle Ages, which began after 1000, the population of Europe fattened on technological and farming innovations. With that, trade began to flourish and the warming climate allowed crop yields to increase. Manorialism brought peasants that owed rent and labor services to the nobles, and feudalism attracted knights and lower-status nobles who gave military service to their lords in return for the right to occupy their lands and manors. Then, beginning in 1095, the Crusades were organized by Western European Christians in an effort to regain control of the Holy Land from Muslims. As a result, kings became the heads of centralized nation-states, and crime and violence were reduced, but it contravened the ideal of a unified Christendom. Intellectual life was marked by scholasticism, a philosophy that attempted to bridge the growing gap between faith and reason, and Europe’s first universities were founded. In all, the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, the paintings of Giotto, the poetry of Dante and Chaucer, the travels of Marco Polo, and the architecture of Gothic cathedrals like Chartres all contributed immensely to the flourishing culture of the High Middle Ages.
But the Late Middle Ages was plagued by famine, epidemic, and war, which devastated the population of Europe; the Black Death alone killed about one-third of Europeans in just the four years from 1347 through 1350. Adding to the misery was the turmoil of the Western Schism in the Catholic Church that mirrored the inter-state conflict, civil war, and peasant uprisings that broke out in the kingdoms. Much as “the distressed tree bears the sweetest fruit”, new trends in culture and technological innovations arose to bring an end to the Late Middle Ages and the beginning the early modern period.
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Middle Ages Index | Early Middle Ages: Merovingian Dynasty | Carolingian Empire: Power: Charlemagne • Governance • Expansion • Invasions • Frankish Kingdoms • Louis the Pious • Disintegration • Legacy | High Middle Ages: Culture • Cathedrals: Gothic Cathedrals • Romanesque Cathedrals | Law | Language | Learning | Literature: Courtly Romances • Sagas | Philosophy | Science and Technology | Power: Capetian Dynasty • Holy Roman Empire: Hohenstaufen Dynasty | Northern and Central Europe | Russia | Late Middle Ages: Society: Family • Plague | Religion | England | France: Society • Power | Germany: Power | Holy Roman Empire | Italy | Spain
Early Middle Ages
Early Middle Ages: Index
Carolingian Empire: Index
Carolingian Empire: Power
Carolingian Empire: Governance
Carolingian Empire: Expansion
Carolingian Empire: Invasions
Carolingian Empire: Louis the Pious
Carolingian Empire: Disintegration
Carolingian Empire: Legacy
High Middle Ages
High Middle Ages: Index
Literature: Courtly Romances
Science and Technology
France: Capetian Dynasty
Holy Roman Empire
Holy Roman Empire: Habsburg Dynasty
Holy Roman Empire: Hohenstaufen Dynasty
Northern and Central Europe
Late Middle Ages
Late Middle Ages: Index