25 The Middle Ages

an empty church with pews and a bright window
Photo by Peter Herrmann on Unsplash

The Middle Ages or Medieval period is a stretch of European history that lasted from the 5 th until the 15th centuries It began with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, and was followed by the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. The Middle Ages is the middle period of the traditional division of Western history into Classical, Medieval, and Modern periods. The period is subdivided into the Early Middle Ages, the High Middle Ages, and the Late Middle Ages. For some Renaissance scholars, the years between the end of the Roman Empire and their own age were of little value. They saw 1000 years of darkness caused by the loss of the law and order of the Romans and its replacement by feudalism. Few strides were seen as being made in military strength, trade, or architecture. Roads deteriorated, making travel more difficult.

In the Early Middle Ages, depopulation, deurbanization, and barbarian invasions, which began in Late Antiquity, continued. The barbarian invaders formed new kingdoms in the remains of the Western Roman Empire. In the 7 th century North Africa and the Middle East, once part of the Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantine Empire), became an Islamic Empire after conquest by Muhammad’s successors. Although there were substantial changes in society and political structures, the break with Antiquity was not complete. The still sizeable Byzantine Empire survived and remained a major power. The empire’s law code, the Code of Justinian, was widely admired. In the West, most kingdoms incorporated extant Roman institutions, while monasteries were founded as Christianity expanded in western Europe. The Franks, under the Carolingian dynasty, established an empire covering much of western Europe; the Carolingian Empire endured until the 9 th century, when it succumbed to the pressures of invasion — the Vikings from the north; the Magyars from the east, and the Saracens from the south.

During the High Middle Ages, which began after AD 1000, the population of Europe increased greatly as technological and agricultural innovations allowed trade to flourish and crop yields to increase. Manorialism, the organization of peasants into villages that owed rent and labor services to the nobles; and feudalism, the political structure whereby knights and lower-status nobles owed military service to their overlords, in return for the right to rent from lands and manors – were two of the ways society was organized in the High Middle Ages. The Crusades, first preached in 1095, were military attempts, by western European Christians, to regain control of the Middle Eastern Holy Land from the Muslims. Kings became the heads of centralized nation states, reducing crime and violence but making the ideal of a unified Christendom more distant. Intellectual life was marked by scholasticism, a philosophy which emphasized joining faith to reason, and by the founding of universities. 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 such as Chartres are among the outstanding achievements of this period.

The Late Middle Ages were marked by difficulties and calamities, such as famine, plague, and war, which much diminished the population of western Europe; in the four years from 1347 through 1350, the Black Death killed approximately a third of the European population. Controversy, heresy, and schism within the Church paralleled the warfare between states, the civil war, and peasant revolts occurring in the kingdoms. Cultural and technological developments transformed European society, concluding the Late Middle Ages and beginning the Early Modern period.

Early Middle Ages

Although the political structure in western Europe had changed, the divide is not as extensive as some historians have claimed. Although the activity of the barbarians is usually described as “invasions”, they were not just military expeditions but were migrations of entire peoples into the Empire. Such movements were aided by the refusal of the western Roman elites to either support the army or pay the taxes that would have allowed the military to suppress the migration.

The 3rd-century Great Ludovisi sarcophagus depicts a battle between Goths and Romans.
Great Ludovisi sarcophagus by unknown artist from Wikimedia is licensed under Public Domain
This led to a fusion of the Roman culture with the customs of the invading tribes, including the popular assemblies which allowed free male tribal members more say in political matters. Material artifacts left by the Romans and the invaders are often similar, with tribal items often being obviously modeled on Roman objects. Similarly, much of the intellectual culture of the new kingdoms was directly based on Roman intellectual traditions.
An important difference was the gradual loss of tax revenue by the new polities. Many of the new political entities no longer provided their armies with tax revenues, instead allocating land or rents. This meant there was less need for large tax revenues and so the taxation systems decayed. Warfare was common between and within the kingdoms. Slavery declined as the supply declined, and society became more rural.
Map of Europe (ca. 650) illustrating the location of the kingdoms during the Middle Ages
Europe around 650 by Ramsey Muir is in the Public Domain

Between the 5 th and 8 th centuries, new peoples and powerful individuals filled the political void left by Roman centralized government. With the invasions came new ethnic groups into parts of Europe, but the settlement was uneven, with some regions such as Spain having a larger settlement of new peoples than other places. The settlement of peoples was accompanied by changes in languages. The Latin of the Western Roman Empire was gradually replaced by languages based on but distinct from Latin, which are collectively known as romance languages. These changes from Latin to the new languages took many centuries and went through a number of stages.

Society in western Europe changed with the new rulers. Some of the Roman elite families died out while others became more involved with Church than secular affairs. The older values of Latin scholarship and education mostly disappeared, and while literacy remained important, it became a practical skill rather than a sign of elite status.

By the late 6 th century, the principal means of religious instruction in the Church ceased to be the book and was replaced with music and art. Most intellectual efforts went towards imitating classical scholarship, but some original works were created, along with now-lost oral compositions.

With laymen, a similar change took place, with the aristocratic culture focusing on great feasts held in halls. Clothing for the elites was richly embellished with jewels and gold. Lords and kings supported entourages of fighters who formed the backbone of the military forces of the time. Family ties within the elites were important, as were the virtues of loyalty, courage, and honor.

Peasant society is much less documented than the nobility. Most of the surviving information available to historians comes from archaeology; few detailed written records documenting peasant life remain from before the 9 thcentury. Most the descriptions of the lower classes come from either law codes or writers from the upper classes. Landholding patterns in the West were not uniform, with some areas having greatly fragmented landholding patterns and other areas with a pattern of large, contiguous blocks of land being the norm. These differences allowed for a wide variety of peasant societies with some being dominated by aristocratic landholders and others having a great deal of autonomy.

Medieval illustration depicting manorial manager directing three peasants in their field labor.
Medieval illustration of men harvesting wheat with reaping-hooks by Ann Scott is in the Public Domain

Land settlement also varied greatly. Some peasants lived in large settlements that numbered as many as 700 inhabitants. Others lived in small groups of a few families and still others lived on isolated farms spread over the countryside. There were also areas where the pattern was a mix of two or more of those systems. Unlike in the late Roman period, there was no sharp break between the legal status of the free peasant and the aristocrat, and it was possible for a free peasant’s family to rise into the aristocracy over a number of generations through military service to a powerful lord.
Roman city life and culture changed greatly in the early Middle Ages. Although Italian cities remained inhabited places, they contracted greatly in size. Rome shrank from a population of hundreds of thousands to around 30,000 by the end of the 6 th century. Roman temples were converted into Christian churches and the city walls remained in use. In Northern Europe, cities also shrank, while the public monuments and other public buildings were raided for building materials. The establishment of new kingdoms often meant some growth for the towns chosen as capitals.

Question to consider: In what ways do you think the average person’s life suffered after the fall of the Roman Empire?

Life in the High Middle Ages

Medieval French manuscript illustration of the three classes of medieval society
“Representation of the tripartite social order of the middle ages” by an unknown author is licensed under Public Domain.

The High Middle Ages saw an expansion of population with rough estimates of the increase from the year 1000 until 1347 indicating that the population of Europe grew from 35 to 80 million. The exact cause or causes of the growth remain unclear, though improved agricultural techniques, the decline of slaveholding, a more clement climate and the lack of invasion may all have contributed.

As much as 90 percent of the European population lived in rural areas. Many of them were no longer settled in isolated farms but had gathered into manors or villages. These peasants were often subject to noble overlords and owed them rents and other services, in a system known as manorialism.

The clergy was divided into two types — the secular clergy who lived in the world, and the regular clergy, or those who lived under a religious rule and were usually monks. Most of the regular clergy were drawn from the ranks of the nobility, the same social class that served as the recruiting ground for the upper levels of the secular clergy. The local parish priests were often drawn from the peasant class.


Painting of Louis VII of France leading his armored cavalry against an unarmored Muslim cavalry.
A battle of the Second Crusade” by anonymous is licensed under Public Domain.

The Crusades were intended to seize Jerusalem from Muslim control. The first Crusade was proclaimed by Pope Urban II (pope 1088–1099). Tens of thousands of people from all levels of society mobilized across Europe, and captured Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade. Further crusades were called to aid the crusaders in conflicts with Islamic states, or such as the Third Crusade, called to try to regain Jerusalem, which was captured in 1187.
Popes called for crusades to take place other than in the Holy Land, with crusades being proclaimed in Spain, southern France, and along the Baltic. The Spanish crusades became fused with the Reconquista, or reconquest, of Spain from the Muslims.

Technology and military

In the 12 th and 13 th centuries, Europe saw a number of innovations in methods of production and economic growth. Major technological advances included the invention of the windmill, the first mechanical clocks, the first investigations of optics and the creation of crude lenses, the manufacture of distilled spirits and the use of the astrolabe. Glassmaking advanced with the development of a process that allowed the creation of transparent glass in the early 13 th century. Transparent glass made possible the science of optics by Roger Bacon (d. 1294), who is credited with the invention of eyeglasses.

A major agricultural innovation was the development of a 3-field rotation system for planting crops. The development of the heavy plow allowed heavier soils to be farmed more efficiently, an advance that was helped along by the spread of the horse collar, which led to the use of draught horses in place of oxen. Horses are faster than oxen and require less pasture, factors which aided the utilization of the 3-field system.

Paper and ink sketch of the crossbow mechanism by Leonardo da Vinci
“DaVinci Crossbow” by Leonardo da Vinci is licensed under Public Domain.

Crossbows, which had been known in Late Antiquity, increased in use, partly because of the increase in siege warfare in the 10 th and 11 th centuries. Military affairs saw an increase in the use of infantry with specialized roles during this period. Besides the still dominant heavy cavalry, armies often included both mounted and infantry crossbowmen, as well as sappers and engineers. The increasing use of crossbows during the 12 th and 13 thcenturies led to the use of closed-face helmets, heavy body armor, as well as horse armor. By the mid-13th century, gunpowder had also become evident in warfare.

Adapted from Humanities: Prehistory to the 15th Century by Lumen Learning is licensed CC-BY-4.0


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