The Middle Ages, also sometimes referred to as the Medieval Period, had its origins in the fall of the Roman Empire and ran from the 5th to the 15th centuries AD, and was succeeded by the Renaissance movement of the 14th century. Because the Middle Age period spans a large segment of human history, historians have split it into three categories: the Early, High, and Late Middle Age periods. Historians have not always agreed on the finer details of this periodization, such as the exact dates, moments, and events that mark the beginning and end of each period, but find it helpful and usable nonetheless.
Early Middle Ages (+- 500 – 1000 AD)
Despite its negative reputation (and often referred to as the Dark Ages), historians have found the Early Middle Ages to also have been a time of development and progress. For one, it witnessed the rise of Islam in the 7th century, which grew strong after the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 when Muslim armies begun conquering new territories. Armies invaded Roman Palestine, Roman Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, and parts of Asia Minor, while also conquering a number of European lands such as Cyprus, Crete, Malta, areas in the south of Italy, and much of the Iberian Peninsula. This expansion was accompanied by intellectual progress within the Islamic territories under the Abbasid empire where prominent Arab thinkers penned numerous philosophical, scientific, and poetic works (see the Golden Age of Islam).
The Early Middle Age was also the time of the Norsemen Vikings, who were a culture of seafarers living across Scandinavia and Britain between the years 793 and 1066 remembered for their rich religious and mythological beliefs. They engaged in trade and warfare, and, over the course of several centuries, ransacked Christian communities and sometimes enslaved Christian populations. Their trading industry assisted them in exploring new parts of Europe, Asia, and Northern Africa. The Vikings were advanced seafarers and their long-ship technology, designed for speed and agility, greatly benefited the couriering of goods and the transportation of soldiers. In fact, it was a Viking explorer, Leif Erikson (c. 970 – c. 1020), who was the first European to set foot on North America when he landed in Canada around 1000 AD.
This period within European history also stood witness to the development of feudalism. Under this social system the nobility held lands from the Crown in exchange for military service. Vassals were the tenants of the nobles, and serfs (peasants) were allowed to live on their lord’s land but needed to pay homage, labour, and a share of the produce in exchange for military protection in the event of enemy invasions. Feudalism dominated the European continent for six centuries but due to the devastating Black Death plague and the migration of people into towns and cities, the system largely fell away by the 1500s.
High Middle Ages (+- 1000 – 1300 AD)
Between the years 1000 to 1350, the was a significant increase of the European population likely attributable to changes in climate, advances in agriculture, and less warfare. The vast majority of the population were peasants, and women (including noblewomen) were relegated to domestic and household responsibilities.
At the end of the Early Middle Ages the Catholic Church had become the most powerful institution in Europe, a position it held well into the High Middle Ages. Powerful people such as kings and queens formed alliances with the Church, and peasants and ordinary people were obligated to tithe 10% of their earnings to the Church each year. Such income, combined with the Church’s tax exemption, assisted in the institution obtaining a great deal of power and money. A period of archeological development, as witnessed in the construction of monasteries and cathedrals across European towns and cities, followed. Cathedrals bared a unique appearance given they were fashioned according to the Romanesque style which incorporated a fusion of Roman and Ottonian architectural elements. A few centuries later there was the introduction of Gothic architecture and its own novel stained-glass windows, arches, pointed vaults, arches, spires, and flying buttresses. Cathedrals were also decorated on the inside by large paintings and decorative images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Saints.
Scholasticism and universities too spawned during this period leading to intellectual progress. Many modern western universities have their genesis within the Medieval Church. A number of universities, such as the University of Paris (founded in 1150), the University of Oxford (1096), and others in Italy, France, Spain, and England, grew from schools that were once a part of cathedrals. Scholasticism, which flourished from 1100 to 1700 AD, was based heavily upon Aristotelian logic and the writings of the early Christian Fathers. As a philosophical system and school of thought, scholasticism emphasized tradition, rational defenses of the existence of God, and the relationship between Christian theology, reason, faith and philosophy. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) is perhaps the most widely known of the scholastics due to his extensive attempts to connect faith and reason, and work with Aristotelian logic on the topics of metaphysics, creation, and divine providence.
Those living during the High Middle Ages also witnessed the crusades. The crusades, which first begun in 1095 when Pope Urban II (1035-1099) sent Christian forces to re-conquer Jerusalem (this was followed by seven more before ending in 1291), were the Church’s attempts to regain sacred land previously captured by Muslim forces. Many of the crusaders engaged in violent conflicts which included the massacres of civilians populations (Muslims, Jews, and non-Christians), and attempted to suppress and obliterate paganism and heresy. Despite the crusades proving unsuccessful at the very end in terms of driving out the Muslims, it broadened the reach of Christianity and Western civilization, and increased the wealth of the Catholic Church.
The Late Middle Ages (+- 1300 – 1500 AD)
Events within the Late Middle Ages were propelled forth by trajectories already set during the High Middle Ages. This included a further considerable increase in population due to fewer invasions and warfare, and an increase in political stability, trade, and technologies for agricultural purposes. Population growth peaked at around 1300 before a plethora of diseases, plagues, and famines tore through European societies and populations. Casualties were extensive and ran into the millions: 30% of Europe’s population in the span of three to six years succumbed to the Black Death, which was a bubonic plague epidemic that circulated among wild rodents living in great numbers and density. The Black Death plague was an insect-borne disease that spread from rats to human populations via flees. It is believed to have originated in China and then to have found its way into Europe upon the ships of oblivious Italian traders returning to Italy. Plagues were especially deadly in towns and cities where diseases were easily transmitted from one person to another. The poor were particularly vulnerable as they not only lived within overcrowded conditions but also had weakened immunities due to malnutrition, diet deficiency, and poor sanitation.
The Late Middle Ages experienced political instability and conflict. The Hundred Years’ War, fought from 1337 to 1453 between the House of Plantagenet and the House of Valois over the Kingdom of France became the longest military conflict in European history. In 1381 there was a peasant uprising which resulted in a massive backlash against English rulership. Rebels spearheading the uprising sought reduction in taxations, the discontinuation of serfdom, and engaged in a wide revolt resulting in the death of many royal officials. Just a few years prior and in 1358, France witnessed violent peasant uprisings which lasted only a short time before being suppressed.
Despite such calamities, not all was doom and gloom as some trends evidence gray social and cultural progress. The Italian Renaissance, beginning in 1420, had artists and scholars increase their efforts in attempt to recapture the classical art and culture of ancient Greece and Rome. This resulted in a flurry of achievements within philosophy, science, art, painting, architecture, music, and literature.
Europeans were also seeking to discover new trading routes, and this led to a time of discovery, often referred to as the Age of Discovery. Explorers such as Vasco da Gama and Christoper Columbus ventured across the oceans in hope to learn more about the world, discover valuable materials, and expand territory. These ventures bring forth their share of moral conundrums and concerns but nonetheless testify to the developments that were taking place within Medieval Europe.