Term used by Europeans to describe the period between ancient history and the Renaissance. It is not a precise term, but is often taken to cover the time from the fall of the western Roman Empire in AD 476 to the fall of Constantinople (Istanbul) and the end of the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453, or alternatively Columbus's voyage to the Americas in 1492. The term Dark Ages is sometimes used to cover the period from AD 476 to AD 1000, because it was a time when learning and the rule of law were at a low ebb in Europe. During this period Germanic and Scandinavian tribes overran Europe, bringing with them changes in language and culture.
The High Middle Ages The period 1066–1500 is sometimes called the High Middle Ages. The period saw the development of nation states in Europe, particularly England, Scotland, France, Norway, Sweden, Hungary, and Poland, and development of the role of the monarchy.
At the heart of Europe was the Holy Roman Empire, associated territorially with a loose confederation of German states and occasionally with north and central Italy. The Holy Roman Emperor was the temporal (earthly) protector of the pope, head of the Roman Catholic Church, but was never able to exercise any real authority over the kings of France, England, and the Iberian peninsula. However, the kingdoms saw cooperation between pope and emperor as a guarantee of stability. Clashes between pope and emperor over issues of sovereignty (absolute authority) in the 12th and 13th centuries, when the popes often withheld coronation, brought divided allegiances and encouraged instability.
Over all was the power of the Catholic medieval church, with the pope, who lived in Rome, as the supreme spiritual authority. Religion played a large part in people's lives. Communities spent large amounts of time and money in building religious buildings, from the humblest parish churches to magnificent cathedrals.
The feudal system prevailed as a form of government and society. Great barons held land from the monarch of each state, and in turn lesser people held lands from them. At the bottom of this pyramid were the peasants, very small landholders, and the villeins, landless people who worked as labourers or servants.
The later Middle Ages saw many changes. Some were brought about by the Black Death, an epidemic of plague that ravaged Europe in 1347–51, killing about a third of the population. This resulted for the first time in a labour shortage, caused inflation, and eventually led to the end of the feudal system. Other changes were due to the growing power of individual rulers, and from time to time splits in the church. In 1309–77 the popes moved from Rome to Avignon in France. This was followed by a period of rival popes, known as the Great Schism; some popes were based in Rome, others at Avignon (1378–1417).
Cultural achievements While attempts to ensure unified political leadership in Western Europe failed, the highest human and cultural achievements of the Middle Ages in Romanesque and Gothic art and architecture were made, and Arabic learning, and with it the learning of the ancient Greeks, spread through the Muslim-occupied areas of Spain and Sicily.
Science and religion Scientific knowledge came back to Europe from the Arabs. Aristotelian science, with its emphasis on humans as political beings and as the basis of political organization, threatened the papal view of power as deriving from God through the pope, and represented a challenge to traditional notions, which even the attempts of the Italian philosopher and theologian St Thomas Aquinas, who argued that reason and faith were compatible, failed to silence.
Language and literature Latin was the international language of diplomacy and scholarship, while medieval English literature in local languages was developed by, among others, Dante Alighieri in Italy and Geoffrey Chaucer in England. The period also saw the rise of the universities, notably those of Bologna, Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge.
The end of the Middle Ages The Crusades to free the Holy Land (Palestine) from Islam were effectively Western Europe's first colonial venture, sustained by a rising population, a trend which continued into the early 1300s. Elements of this flourishing culture, however, carried the seeds of medieval Europe's destruction. National kings grew in power, while the Holy Roman Empire declined after the death of Frederick II in 1250. These threats to the structure of medieval Europe coincided with other events such as the loss of the last Crusader foothold in the Holy Land in 1291; the Black Death; the Great Schism in the church; and constant warfare, especially the Hundred Years' War between England and France, and in England, the War of the Roses. Everything suggested decay and collapse, a theme with which writers were increasingly obsessed. In the 1400s the leaders of the Italian Renaissance and the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus in northern Europe looked to antiquity for a new order, helping to give the Middle Ages a reputation for darkness and obscurantism which its earlier great achievements did not merit.
Medieval Sourcebook: Witchcraft Documents
Online Medieval and Classical Library
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