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A Brief Summary of the Middle Ages
Europe from Rome to the Renaissance
The Middle Ages are also sometimes called the Medieval Period of Western Civilization from medium (middle) + aevum (age). The Medieval Period extended from the late 400s to the late 1300s CE (around 900 years). Medieval civilization was created by a combining of three primary elements: Judeo- Christian religion and values, Classical (Greco-Roman) civilization and barbarian culture. To a lesser extent, the neighboring cultures of the Byzantine east and Muslim Spain also made contributions to Medieval Civilization.
The Fall of Rome. Roman Civilization began to deteriorate from about 200 CE onward, though in the Fourth Century (300s) there were several successful turnarounds of this trend. In the late 400s the weakness of the Empire, caused by corruption and various other stresses, combined with barbarian pressure from the northeast, causing a catastrophic collapse of the Roman government. The eastern portion of the Empire continued until the 1450s as the Byzantine Empire with its own Greek-based civilization.
The Dark Age. The collapse of Roman civilization in western Europe was followed by a Dark Age of barbarian invasion, settlement and supremacy, lasting around 300 years. The new barbarian kingdoms included Visigoths (Spain), Ostrogoths (Italy), Lombards (Italy), Franks (France) and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain. These Germanic kingdoms all eventually converted to Catholic Christianity and formed an alliance with the Church. The main civilizing factors during this dark period were the Christian Church and the manorial system.
- The Church preserved learning and the arts, mainly in the cathedral cities and in monastic houses, which began to form after the year 500. It also supplied strong leadership and organization during the dark years of chaos and deterioration.
- Manorialism was built around the nucleus of wealthy and powerful estates, called manors, which usually contained a fortified villa and surrounding lands with the associated industries. Together, these elements formed a unit which was virtually self-contained.
The Holy Roman Empire. The Frankish kingdom which replaced much of the former Roman province of Gaul, was at first ruled by a line of kings founded by the warlord Clovis and known as the Merovingian Dynasty.
Several centuries later, the Frankish kingdom became the model for the formation of medieval Europe through the leadership of Charles the Great. Charles conquered the nearby lands of the Lombards and Saxons as well as aiding the Christian rulers of northern Spain in pushing the Muslims further south. He was an able administrator and kept his diverse kingdom together through tight organization and supervision. Charles fostered a renewal of the arts and learning, known as the Carolingian Renaissance. For his successes and service to the Church, Charles was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800.
Charles’ success in reuniting a considerable portion of Rome’s former territory caused some people to hope that Rome could be revived permanently. Charles’ Holy Roman Empire began to weaken, however, during the final years of his reign and, in the time of his grandsons, was divided into three portions. In the late 800s the Carolingian attempt at reviving Rome’s empire was much reduced and fragmented, so that by the Tenth Century, Europe was again in survival mode as Magyars, Turks and Vikings raided, settled and spread havoc.
In this new situation, leadership was not provided by kings, but by local nobles who ruled their domains semi-independently. The exception to this rule was Tenth Century Germany, where Otto I dominated his nobles and recreated a version of the Holy Roman Empire for a time, until the nobility was able to re-assert control over their own domains.
The system under which order was established and maintained is known as feudalism. Lords awarded portions of land, called fiefs, to noblemen in exchange for oaths of loyalty and service. These men were called vassals and ruled their fiefs and the serfs (peasants and common people) living on them. Noblemen often served as heavy cavalry, or knights, in the service of a lord or vassal. In time, knights developed a code of warfare and behavior, called chivalry (the code of the horseman), in which the ideal Christian gentleman lived in courtesy, honor and religious devotion.
The High Middle Ages. By the Eleventh Century, strong leadership and stability began to re-emerge in several places, notably France and England. For example, in 1066 Duke William of Normandy invaded Britain and conquered the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom, making himself king. He awarded fiefs to his Norman and French knights, largely replacing the Anglo-Saxon nobility. His strong central government made Norman England the most stable kingdom in Europe.
The time between 1000 and 1300 are often thought of as the High Middle Ages. During these years, kings and nobles provided enough stability so that people could think beyond simple survival. New land was reclaimed from swamps, forests (and in Holland, even from the sea). Agricultural production increased. Trade flourished. Trade guilds were formed to regulate commerce and ensure the rights of merchants and tradesmen. New products were introduced from the Middle East and beyond. Large annual trade fairs were established throughout Europe. Coinage began to replace barter as the means of exchange. Castle building made attacks on neighboring lands difficult and costly. Technology advanced, along with basic civic planning.
During this time, the Papacy and the Catholic Church rose to a height of power and prestige. Popes and clergy could enforce their will upon nobles through the threat of excommunication. From Rome, the Vatican administered a vast empire including most of Western Europe. Gothic architecture expressed worship through ambitious new designs and building techniques. Catholics from across Europe were able to unite around the common venture of the Crusades (1099 – 1297).
Scholasticism. Re-contact with the Byzantine East and the Muslim world during the Crusades, the writings of the ancient Greeks, especially Aristotle, were re-discovered, studied and debated. Scholars were attracted to the life of learning, centered around major cathedrals. This advance in scholarship developed into scholasticism, which attempted to understand and explore all subject areas under the guidance of theology. Jewish scholasticism (Maimonides) and Muslim scholasticism (Averroes) interacted and argued with Catholic scholastics, like Thomas Aquinas, over the meaning and application of Aristotelian thought to contemporary issues. Christian scholastics debated whether Aristotle and other Greek thinkers could be helpful (or even compatible) with Christian thought and teachings. Major universities, such as Oxford, Cambridge and Paris were founded through the work of the scholastics.
During the High Middle Ages, feudalism began to lose its important function as the basis for society. Cities were re-invigorated and began to expand. Peasants began to leave the land, moving to cities to find a new life. Strong kings and nobles could afford to raise standing armies through tax revenues. This allowed kings to be less dependent upon vassals for military support, enabling them to gain greater control over their domains.
The Late Middle Ages. The Fourteenth Century saw several setbacks to the progress of the High Middle Ages. The Hundred Years’ War between England and France (1337-1453) drained both countries of resources. The ravages of the Bubonic Plague (1347 – 1350) killed between a quarter and a third of Europe’s population. These things, along with series of serious natural disasters, caused the population of Europe to decrease and social progress to slow down drastically.
In this period, the power of the nobility was reduced as kings imposed their will and made alliances with the merchants of the growing middle class. These strong central governments gave rise to the nations of modern Europe. At the same time, the power and prestige of the Papacy was damaged by popular reaction to the set-backs of the later crusades and by the refusal of kings to be intimidated by Vatican threats of excommunication. Movements like the one led by Francis of Assisi to criticize the wealth of the Catholic Church, began a rethinking of Christian practice and church allegiance. The revival of the classical viewpoint known as humanismbegan to take hold in the universities and other places as theological views were questioned and debated. This would give rise to the humanistic Renaissance beginning around 1400 in Italy.
The Middle Ages came to a close through the innovations of Renaissance, the discovery and exploration of the Americas and the drastic rethinking of Christianity in the Protestant Reformation. By the mid 1400s, with the Renaissance in full bloom, the Middle Ages would effectively come to an end.
Michael Bogart For more articles like this one, check out my website: mbogart.com