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The Medieval World

Europe during the Middle Ages

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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The term "Middle Ages" was invented by the 15th century Renaissance scholars to describe that era of history which separated them from the scholars and artists of the Roman Empire. They believed that the Roman times and their own were two high points in civilization and dismissed the intervening centuries as "middle" or "dark" ages when nothing of any significance really happened.

The opposite in fact was true. The latter part of the Middle Ages, or "High Middle Ages" as it is commonly called, was a civilization in its own right.


The "Dark Ages" was the result of a Roman Empire which had become too vast to administer and defend. The Empire had grown continuously until about the 2nd century of the Christian Era but then massive inflation, running at more than 1 000 percent, took its toll. The imperial forces could no longer be maintained and a gradual withdrawal began.

The process was speeded up when Emperor Constantine moved the capital from Italy to Byzantium (then a fishing village on the Dardanelles) from which it was easier to defend the much more populous eastern sector of the empire. He renamed his capital Constantinople (now Istanbul).

The move meant that the sparsely populated west was virtually abandoned and quickly fell victim to the continual encroachments of the "barbarian"tribes from without. When, in the 5th century, Italy itself fell to the onslaught of a number of barbarian groups (such as the Visigoths), the western sector of the empire disintegrated.

It must be remembered, however, that this was not the end of the Roman Empire as such because the more important eastern sector would remain for another millennium. The disintegration of the western or European sector had major consequences.

The fact that the Frankish kings in the north-west fought continual fratricidal wars meant that life became insecure in the extreme. The wealthier Roman landlords in their country villas (known as villeins) took the law into their own hands and started a system of self-preservation which evolved into what is commonly known as feudalism.


Families offered themselves as vassals to the lords in return for protection. It was basically a two-way system whereby the vassals came to work for the lord while the lord supported and protected his vassals. By the 8th century feudalism, with its economic counterpart called manorialism, was firmly entrenched into European society.

Feudalism was to have a major impact on the concept of kingship as well. Basically, a man had no power unless he had a huge feudal power-base.

The Merovingian monarchy, which based its dynasty on traditional tribal authority, found that its power was waning to feudal lords with their vassals. In that way the Carolingians, who were the most powerful feudal lords of their time, managed to usurp the throne and so started the Carolingian dynasty.

Charlemagne was the greatest of the Carolingian kings and built his rule on feudalism and conquest. He was crowned emperor by the pope on Christmas day in the year 800 but his empire was doomed because it could not survive unless it maintained its feudal base, which it could not.

After the death of Louis the Pious (Charlemagne's son), civil war ensued and Europe again fragmented into feudal duchies. The onslaught of new barbarians (the Vikings, Magyars and Saracens) during the 9th and 10th centuries then cemented the entire feudal system.

At the same time, the little trade that still existed ground to a halt and Europe entered into a period where commerce ceased almost entirely, the "economy of no outlets" as Henri Pirenne calls it.

Only in the 10th century, with Otto the Great's systematic conquest of the Magyars and his formation of the German Empire, together with the conversion of the Vikings to Christianity, did trade at last begin to grow and Europe entered into a new civilization, commonly known as the "High Middle Ages".

In the meantime, society of Europe became feudal, with its military power being based on the feudal lords and its economy resting on the manor (manorialism). The peasant's sole task in life was to work the manor for the lord, while the feudal lord's primary function was as soldier, law-giver and judge.

He naturally depended upon a reliable army, which in turn depended upon men able to ride and fight on horse-back. Thereby was born the knight, at first a lesser vassal but who was given land on which to sustain himself. Gradually the knight rose in feudal importance until, by the High Middle Ages, he became the essence of feudal society.

At the same time, the Catholic Church rose in importance. Originally a minor sect within the Roman Empire, the Christian (Catholic) Church became the official state religion by the 4th century and then evolved into an integral part of feudalism itself, with a parallel feudal hierarchy of its own.

The birth of the Benedictine monasteries also allowed the Church of the Dark Ages to become the last candle of education and culture, where the only books were maintained and where new editions (especially of the Bible) were hand-written.

The Dark Ages were desperate times but, in retrospect, the era marked the occasion when two cultures, the Roman and the Germanic, were able to forge together to become one. The result was the birth of a new civilization which needed a period of peace to produce its first flower.

The peace happened in about the 11th century and the High Middle Ages was the first fruit of that civilization. It then grew and adapted until it has become the Western Civilization that we know today.


When Otto the Great, the Saxon Duke, defeated the Magyars at the battle of Lechfield in 962, he almost single-handedly ushered in the High Middle Ages. The Viking invasions had at last come to an end and, with the restoration of relative peace in Europe, trade revived.

By the beginning of the 11th century a new civilization was flowering and it would be in full bloom during the 12th and 13th centuries.

A major feature of the High Middle Ages was the renewal of learning and the arts. Architecture, which had remained virtually dormant for centuries, began to prosper. Immense cathedrals began to be built, at first designed along Romanesque lines and then, as courage grew and technique was mastered, the magnificent gothic structures appeared.

It is estimated that more stone was quarried during the two hundred years of this era than during the entire pyramid-building phase of the ancient Egyptians.

Parish schools began to appear, universities started up in the major cities, poetry, art and sculpture proliferated. These were the days of Chaucer whose tales encompassed knightly honour and debauchery.

Philosophy rose to heights not seen since ancient Greek times, with Thomas Aquinas producing a work in philosophy and theology which would remain the theoretical backbone of the Catholic Church to the present day.

It was also the heyday of the Catholic Church, with the rise of the imperial papacy. Popes, such as Gregory VII and Innocent III, commanded such power that they could excommunicate kings and emperors at will.

Pope Urban II made use of his powers to initiate the Crusades whereby the awesome fighting ability of the feudal kings and knights was flung against the "infidel" Moslems in the Holy Land.

Originally religious wars, later with strong political overtones, the Crusades succeeded in harnessing the destructive nature of the knights into "holy" paths, with the result that warfare sharply declined in Europe during the High Middle Ages.

It was also the pinnacle of monasticism and religious orders. The Benedictine monasteries, many of which had fallen into abuse by the beginning of the era, were transformed through reform measures initiated by the Cluniac movement.

Other monasteries, such as the Carthusians and Cistercians, were founded and prospered. Mendicant orders, such as the Franciscans (founded by St Francis of Assisi) and the Dominicans (founded by St Dominic), were started and prospered during times when religion was clearly close to the hearts of the people.

On the economic front, crafts and guilds began to prosper in the towns. Apprenticeship became the norm for young townsmen wishing to learn a craft but only the most expert was considered a master craftsman. He had then to belong to the guild, a society which looked to the protection of its members and which insisted on the highest degree of professionalism from its members.

Socially, new classes of society appeared. Knighthood was now transformed from its rather lowly position of the earlier centuries to the pinnacle of society. Whereas knights once strove to become lords, now all feudal lords became knights and the system was sanctified by the Church which demanded vows of the knights and that they live according to a code of chivalry.

On the other hand, the growing towns became the home of the new order of town-dwellers or bourgeoisie who began the struggle to break the economic and legal stranglehold of the country lords who knew little about the affairs of the towns. Mercantile law was thereby invented.


All good things have to end, however, and the 14th century saw a series of crises which were catastrophic in proportion. By then the majority of the forests had been cut down to make way for fields to feed the population explosion. Much was of inferior fertility.

The beginning of the century was marked by a little ice age which lowered temperatures and increased rainfall, thereby destroying harvests. It was followed by the Black Death, a bubonic plague transmitted by rats and their fleas, for which there was no cure. Millions died and the population of Europe dropped by an estimated 20 to 40 percent.

Coupled with the catastrophe came a major decline in the papacy. A clash between Pope Boniface VIII and the French king led to the humiliation of the former, which was followed by the removal of the papacy from Rome to Avignon in France.

The popes were not bad men as such but their lives of luxury, paid for by taxing the often destitute people, caused a scandal. They also became puppets in a great political game as the rising national monarchies either supported them (in the case of France) or opposed them (in the case of Britain and Germany).

The crisis then culminated in the Great Schism where there were no less than three popes all claiming to head the Catholic Church simultaneously, one in France and two in Rome.

The times were clearly changing and would culminate in the Reformation of the 16th century. Other events were also afoot, however, as the Ottoman Empire of the Turks rose to new heights and midway through the 15th century at last succeeded in conquering Byzantium, the remaining segment of the Roman Empire in the east.

The lucrative trade route to the east, to India and China, was abruptly ended and Europe was forced either to withdraw into its shell or find a new way to the east. Several European states chose the latter route and, led by Spain and Portugal, voyages of discovery began which would open up the new worlds of Africa, Asia, America and Australia.

The High Middle Ages was the first flowering of a civilization which would then evolve into our modern Western Society. It flourished suddenly and became a shining beacon at the end of the so-called Dark Ages.

At the same time, however, it ushered in new forces of national monarchies and independent religious thought which would cause major crises in the centuries to come. The High Middle Ages can therefore be seen both as a fulfilment of the "Dark Age" culture, as well as the birth of a society yet to mature.

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