Middle Ages

Middle Ages, a period of about 1,000 years in European history. It is also called the medieval period (from the Latin for “middle” and “age”). The history of Western civilization is traditionally divided into three periods—ancient, medieval, and modern. The Middle Ages is usually defined as the period between the fall of the last Roman emperor in the West (476 A.D.) and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks (1453) or the discovery of America (1492).

The custom of calling this period the “Middle Ages” began during the Renaissance, because scholars saw it as a barbaric era separating their own age from the glories of ancient Greece and Rome. The period, especially its early part, is sometimes called the “Dark Ages” because western Europe was overrun by barbarians and much of the culture and wealth of classical civilization was lost. (Many modern historians, however, prefer not to use this term, pointing out that two great civilizations—the Byzantine and the Arabic—flourished during this period and that many of the traditions of classical civilization were preserved in the monasteries of Western Europe.) Gradually a new civilization developed, dominated by the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. During the later Middle Ages national kingdoms developed, commerce and exploration expanded, and science began to assume its modern form.

Government and Economy

The kingdoms that succeeded the Roman Empire were unstable. Charlemagne (742–814) reunited much of western Europe, but his empire was divided soon after his death. From about 900 to 1300 feudalism, a decentralized form of government, prevailed. After 1100 France, England, and Spain began to develop into strong monarchies.

During the early Middle Ages trade and commerce declined greatly from their level in ancient times. The manor, a unit consisting of village and fields, was practically self-sufficient. A lord ruled the manor, and peasants tilled the soil. Most of the peasants were serfs, unfree laborers. After 1000, trade revived, towns grew, and serfdom began to decline. Craftsmen and merchants settled in towns and organized guilds to protect their interests.

Life and Culture

The Three Estates. There were three social and political classes, or estates —nobles, clergy, and common people. The function of the nobles was to govern, and that of the clergy was to worship God and tend to society's religious needs. The common people, working as peasants, craftsmen, and merchants supported the two privileged classes. Even the wealthiest nobles and clergymen lacked comforts that are taken for granted in the modern world. The peasants usually lived on the verge of famine.

Amusements of the nobility included fighting, hunting, attending tournaments, and listening to the songs and stories of minstrels and bards. Markets, fairs, and church festivals provided entertainment for peasants and townspeople.

Religion. Almost all the people of western Europe were members of the Roman Catholic Church. The church owned vast lands and provided all formal education. The popes ruled central Italy and greatly influenced the politics of Europe.

Medieval people usually accepted the church's authority unquestioningly, though often violating its rules. Both common people and nobles were capable of acts of gross brutality, but also of religious enthusiasm and self-denial. The Crusades provided an outlet for both their religious zeal and their love of warfare. Because of the importance of religion in the Middle Ages, the period is called “The Age of Faith.”

Education. Medieval education was derived from Christian teachings and from Europe's classical heritage. By 1200, universities had been founded at Bologna, Paris, and Oxford, under the auspices of the church. The main intellectual movement, which arose between the 9th and 12th century, was scholasticism, an attempt to buttress Christian faith with formal reasoning.

Literature and the Arts. The medieval period was the formative age of European literature. The period began with the sagas, epics, and ballads of unlettered peoples, and ended with such masterpieces as the works of Dante and Chaucer.

The great Gothic cathedrals of Europe are a testament to medieval piety and devotion to beauty. Painting and sculpture stressed religious themes, often allegorically treated. New forms of music developed, both religious and secular.