BnF fr. 126 : Anonyme, Livre de l’information des princes (trad. Jean Golein, France, Rouen, v. 1450 © Source Gallica

The Middle Ages – A Short Overview of the History of the Medieval World

The history of the Middle Ages is about the history of the medieval world of Europe and its near peripheries.

2000 years of temperature oscillation. Red curve, most recentt measurement. Source: Wikipedia
2000 years of temperature oscillation. Red curve, most recentt measurement. Source: Wikipedia

Historically, the idea of “The Middle Ages” was forged in the Renaissance to mark out the period between AD 500-1500, between Antiquity and (Pre)Modernity. As such, the history of the Middle Ages should not be thought of as just any other period in our global history. Just as we have to acknowledge that the Chinese history of the Tang Dynasty between AD 618 – 907 touches very peripherally upon European history, we must think of “The Middle Ages” as a distinct period in the history of Europe, which only peripherally had an impact (if any) on the history of China in the said period. Today, it has become fashionable to write histories of the Global Middle Ages. Here, we consider this a conceptual misunderstanding. It is, indeed, possible to write a global history about the period between AD 500-1500. But this should not be called a History of the Middle Ages.

Also to be noted: In modern parlance, “medieval” is often used to characterise something as “feudal” or even “barbaric”. Or denote a befuddled “Dark Age” between the more splendid and homogeneous cultures preceding and succeeding the period in between. Thus, this in-between-age was characterised by a relatively continuous and distinct presence of only very feeble unitarian political structures. Smaller and larger polities and cultures – sometimes quite diminutive – came and went and waxed and waned, creating the diverse and floating political landscape that forged the various European states. Some of these ultimately foundered (Burgundy) while others flourished (Portugal). Surrounding this pandemonium, the Catholic Church, the Byzantines to the East and the Muslim World south of the Meditteranean may have appeared as three “imperial” institutions constituting opposing centres. The truth is, the constant fragmentation (infighting) in the peripheries of these three major players was the constant factor. Occasionally, seats of power crumbled or rose to new strength. However, the continuous raiding, war-faring, conquests and dissolution set the predominant tone.

Traditionally, the history of the interplay between these polities is divided into three major periods:

  • The Early Middle Ages AD 500 – 950
  • The High Middle Ages AD 950 – 1348
  • The Late Middle Ages AD 1348 – 1500

These shifts were framed by notable climatic and demographic shifts, termed:

  • LALIA – The Late Antique Little Ice Age  –  AD 536 – 700,  and the Justinian Plague – AD 541– 700
  • The Medieval Optimum – ca. AD 950 – 1300
  • Black Death – AD 1348 – 1700 accompanied by the Spörer Minimum ca. AD 1460 – 1560, ending in the Little Ice Age – ca. AD 1550 –1700


The end of the Roman Empire in the West

Detail - The Missorium of Theodosius. Ca AD 418. Source: Wikipedia/Ángel M. Felicísimo
Detail – The Missorium of Theodosius. Ca AD 418. Notice the Roman Emperor and the Gothic warriors. Source: Wikipedia/Ángel M. Felicísimo

At the dawn of the Middle Ages, a perfect storm seemed to rise. Climate changes set an end to the so-called Roman Optimum, a period with warm weather. After AD 200, the weather became more volatile. Likely, this change contributed to the major migrations of the Goths from the North and the Huns from the east in the third and fourth centuries. In the 370s, these two peoples (tribes, nations, bands of brothers) together with their allies collided to the North of the Danube. These events led to a massive migration of Goths across the Danube in AD 376, ending in the annihilation of a huge Roman army in AD 382. Following these events, the Gothic leader, Alaric, invaded Italy. This invasion ended in the sack of Rome in AD 410. Afterwards, his successors established the first barbaric kingdom inside Gaul (the Visigothic Kingdom in Toulouse), while another group – the Sueves – settled in Western Iberia. Meanwhile, the Western Roman Empire bled economically to death, trying to pay Germanic mercenaries to stop the Hunnic invasions. The period between AD 300-500 is conventionally termed Late Antiquity to indicate the period as a transitional interim leading to the advent of the Middle Ages. As with any transitional phase, the dates are nothing but useful indicators. The extent to which Roman civic culture continued to set its mark on the new Medieval Europe has been continuously debated. Nevertheless, we may conclude that between AD 500-600 – following a climatic collapse in the North and the ravages of the Justinian Plague, several barbaric successor kingdoms were established. Out of these grew the political and linguistic diversity of present-day Europe – a Europe of nations and nation-states.

Jews, Christians and Muslims – three kindred world religions

Roman Catacombs on Via Appia. The Catacomb of Comodilla. Source:
Roman Catacombs on Via Appia. The Catacomb of Comodilla, 4th century. Source:

Classical Greco-Roman religion was centred on a pantheon of civic gods celebrated in the forum of the city; and the household deities of the family venerated in the lararium in the atrium of their house or villa. Late Antiquity, however, came to nourish a new, more philosophical and religious ferment inspired by Eastern thinkers and pantheons. One ingredient was Neoplatonism, which fostered an inclination to believe in one divine power. Other options offered the Jews in their diaspora after AD 70, and the Christians op to and after AD 311, just as the military cult of Mithras presented an option to the army. Later, after AD 632, this Judeo-Christian tradition fostered Islam. All three traditions operate with the idea of one God (and his representative on earth) to whom people are ultimately answerable. Based on this idea, these three religions wielded a theocratic belief-system, in which office-holders got established according to the “nearness” to God

  • either as descendants of the “founding fathers” (Abraham, Isaac or Jacob)
  • or designated as vicarious heirs (the Patriarchs and after AD 426, the Rabbis, the Popes and Bishops, or the Caliphs) of the prophets (Moses, Peter or Muhammad)
  • or appointed by the representatives of these heirs as kings.

During the Middle Ages, these theocracies competed for power with secular autocracies such as those wielded by warlords and their retinues, as well as urban patriciates.

The poor and the powerful in the Middle Ages

Ploughing with an ard © National Museum of CopenhagenThus, during the Middle Ages, the theocracy sported by the religious institutions constantly entered into a rivalry with the competitive secular worldview of the relevant powers, whether kingdoms, warlords, or the more or less fragile justiciary institutions (public courts, guilds, things, moots and parliaments). In the early period and until the 13th century, kings, kinglets, warlords and their private armies and aristocratic retinues were the primary political actors, while the idea of civil servants was only kept alive in a religious setting.

At any time, at least 90% lived as peasants – whether as slaves, serfs, craftsmen, or small landed householders. Lordship would be excercised in different ways according to history, tradition, and natural ressources as well as available technologies. During Late Antiquity, the Roman villa continued to dominate the landscape with its slave economy. Later, manorialism, also called the manorial system, seignorialism, or the seignorial system was based on the extraction of surplus from peasants farming their own land as well as that of the desmesne. The basic unit was the castle or manor possessed as personal property (heritage) or fief that was under the control of the lord who enjoyed a variety of rights to corvee, taxes, income from monopolies, jurisdictional fees and other petty income form the landed serfs

Very few people lived in cities and had their income from plying crafts or trade. Seasonal markets and fairs were important places for the distribution of goods.

The Carolingians

Soldier in the army of CharlemagneAfter the final collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, and in the shadow of the climatic and demographic crises of the 6th and 7th centuries, the new successor kingdoms slowly established a new equilibrium. Major players were the Franks, the Visigoths, and the Lombards encircled by petty (often non-Christian) kingdoms in Anglo-Saxon England, Scandinavia, Saxony and further east (of the Elbe); and to the south in Iberia (after AD 711), the Muslim caliphate. During the 8th century, however, the Carolingians established a powerful ruling dynasty with a centre at Aachen and a dominion covering most parts of present-day France, Germany and Italy (north of Rome).

In AD 800, a power vacuum in Byzantium even opened up for the symbolic re-appropriation of the title of the emperor by a Western warlord, Charlemagne. As the supreme overlord, he presided over a massive effort to rule – and correct – the life and circumstances of his people according to the Gospel and the Church. Arguably, this was the first major experiment in rebuilding the Roman Empire in the West.


The turn of the first millennium

Kraka. A Viking Fishing Vessel reproduced by The Viking Museum in Roskilde. Source: Wikipedia
Kraka. A Viking Fishing Vessel reproduced by The Viking Museum in Roskilde. Source: Wikipedia

During the 9th century, however, this empire imploded. The political centre of gravitas moved to present-day Germany, where several new dynasties – the Ottonians, the Salians, and the Hohenstaufens (ca. AD  919 –1254) ruled as both kings and Holy Roman Emperors.

At the beginning of this period, Europe was once again besieged by people from the North – the Vikings, the Magyars and the Slavs. While the rulers of present-day Germany succeeded in holding the fort, the Vikings gained significant footholds in Ireland, the Danelaw in England and Normandy in France. Also, in this period, the three kingdoms in Scandinavia were established following Christianity’s formal adoption. For a short while, Anglo-Saxon England was even conquered by the Danes, later to be superseded by the Normans. These people also invaded and settled in Sothern Italy and in Sicily. To the east, the Magyars established a kingdom in AD 1001, while the Slavs can date their polity, Poland, to AD 966. Most of Iberia continued to be ruled by Muslims until after the conquest of Toledo in 1086. During this period, the foundation was laid for those European States, which are still in existence today.

Accelerating growth and division of labour

3D reconstruction of Füzer Castle
3D reconstruction of Füzer Castle in the 13th century

Between AD 950 and 1250, Europe entered a new climatic upheaval characterised by warm and propitious weather. These favourable conditions were accompanied by changes in the economic, social, religious and cultural circumstances and the accelerated division of labour. Numerous explanations have been offered to why this growth took place – technological, religious, or ideological. Suffice it to say, changes in all these parameters took place, leading to an increase in food production, the castellation of the countryside, an acceleration of trade, and general urbanisation.

These changes were accompanied by a widespread decentralisation of power, leading to the establishment of a new form of lordship based on feudal-vassalic ties. Simultaneously, new juridical instruments were instituted to formalise the proper relations between kings, magnates, lords, bishops, priests, peasants and burghers. In England, this development involved establishing English Common Law, while Roman Law elsewhere came to influence the customary laws.

Gregorian reforms

Henry IV and Mathilda of Canossa. Source: Vita Mathildis, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Roma. PD
Henry IV and Mathilda of Canossa. Source: Vita Mathildis, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Roma. PD

During the same period, a significant rethinking of the theology and organisation of the Catholic Church took place. In terms of theology, the reforms reinvigorated the simple and austere living of the early Benedictines, focusing on manual labour and self-sufficiency. In the wider Church, the moral leadership of priests became of utmost importance. Simony, priestly marriages, and lustful lives were to be uprooted.

In terms of the Church, the self-government of the “mystical body of Christ” came to be uppermost in politics of the 11th-12th centuries. These ideas led to several spectacular conflicts between popes, bishops, kings, and emperors, which became known as the struggle between Church and State.

One major objective of these reforms was to quench the rampant violence, which followed in the footsteps of the feudalised society. At first, the peace movement known as “The peace of God” was established to set up the rules for engagement. This endeavour was followed by the development of the concept of chivalry, as well as the launch of the crusading movement.

The New Man and the New King

St Thomas Aquinas, author of Summa Theologiae

Parallel to these new ways of thinking about the role of the Church in wider society, a new form of philosophical thinking, scholasticism, came into being. A major impetus came from rediscovering the works of Aristotle and other mathematical and astronomical works, which had over-wintered in the Islamic world. More a learning method than an actual philosophy or theology, scholasticism emphasised reasoning and logical thinking to resolve contradictions. The principal example of such a debate was on the nature of the transubstantiation of the Eucharist. This set of questions continued to be debated until 1215 at the fourth council of the Lateran, which decided the question (for now).

Scholastic or scholar means schoolman. Thus new schools, the first Universities, accompanied the development of scholasticism in Bologna (AD 1088) and soon after in Paris (ca. 1150) and in Oxford (1167). The importance of these universities as secular institutions was considerable so far as the law became one of the significant new fields for study. Central here was the rediscovery of the 6th-century Corpus Iuris Civilis at Pisa, which was taught at Bologna from 1088. The idea of a new man was forged in this crucible – rational and competent, given to contracts, agreements, deliberations and justice. This “new man” was destined to work in the new and growing cities.

Following the scholarly discovery of this collection of Roman laws, a fable developed for gathering and writing down or even composing new rules of laws. The 12th and 13th centuries witnessed the publication of several significant compilations of laws. We might mention the Sachsenspiegel of Eike von Repgow (Germany, c. 1200 – 1230), the Siete Partidas (Spain, c. 1256 – 1265), Jyske Lov (Denmark 1244). Other work was published as tracts, for instance, that of Henry de Bracton, Tractatus de legibus et consuetudinibus Anglie from c. 1235 or John of Salisbury and his Policraticus, written between 1154 and 59. Later, Marsilius of Padua and Bartoldus of Saxoferrato took up the mantle of political writings. At the centre was the question of how to legitimise a king. Formerly, kings had been legitimised by their ritualised anointings and coronations. Now the sanctified oil of the church became reserved for the clergy and other religious persons (a substitute was developed for coronations). Instead, kings were to be legitimised dynastically – as heirs according to laws of inheritance. Or they became recognised as givers of laws while enacting their role as supreme judge. Also, where kings had formerly signalled their power through rituals, wealth and magnificence became steadily more important.

Urbanisation, literacy and double-entry bookkeeping

Medieval Lawyers in Bologna
Medieval Lawyers in Bologna. From the Tomb of jurist Giovanni da Legnano, The Medieval Museum in Bologna / Wikimedia Commons

In Late Antiquity, towns had continued to function as centres for tax-collection, judicial institutions, civic culture and learning. During the 5th and 6th century, most cities were reduced to smaller walled centres holding bishops, seats, and cathedrals. It took until the turn of the Millennium to see a substantive growth of these cities and towns. Mostly, this development was set in motion by the new and more independent bishops. However, guilds and the new merchants were also active in creating these new and vigorous marketplaces. In need of a juridical system of law and order, the cities grew up around the old idea of a” res publica”, a common order of public matters.

The new schools and universities, with their stress on literacy and (later in the 13th century) double bookkeeping, also played a significant role. Ambulating tradesmen turned into proper merchants. A precondition was the new shipbuilding techniques, which vastly improved the possibilities of moving goods around Europe.


Crisis and contraction

Gainsthorpe Farm is all that remains of the deserted medieval village of Gainsthorpe © Richard Croft
Gainsthorpe Farm is all that remains of the deserted medieval village of Gainsthorpe © Richard Croft

At the end of the 13th century, growth stalled. Once again, climate changes set the process in motion. Periods of droughts and rainy weather alternated, creating the preconditions for periods of hunger, pestilence and a general economic downturn. The final coup was the Black Death, which hit Europe after 1348, killing at least 40% of the population. This crisis unfolded in the shadow of a European struggle for supremacy between the French and English kings, with parallel wars fought in Scandinavia, between the Hanseatic faction and the Danish Kingdom, warring between the Poles, the Czechs and the Hungarians, conflicts between Italian city-states, and finally the progressive re-conquest of the Muslim petty kings by the Castillian and Aragonian crowns.

One may well ask how these armies were manned in view of the lack of manpower which followed the plague. One way of coping in the countryside, was the marked shift from intensive to an extensive rural economy. Also, the dispersal of all the orphaned wealth floating around in the deserted villages created what must have felt like a bonanza for the survivors.

The retreat of the church and the spiritual renewal

Portraits of Joos Vijd and Elisabeth Borluut, donators of the Ghent Altarpiece. Source: Closer to Ghent Altarpiece
Portraits of Joos Vijd and Elisabeth Borluut, donors of the Ghent Altarpiece. Source: Closer to Ghent Altarpiece

In the same period, the Church gave ground to its hierocratic aspirations by finally transforming the popes into worldly princes. No longer driven by universalistic pretensions, the Church lost its moral and spiritual leadership. From 1309 to 1376, the Pope lived in the Babylonian Captivity in Avignon, while spiritual sustenance was provided by poor local priests or the Franciscans; even lay movements like the Beguines and later the Devotio Moderna came to solace the souls in the 15th century. No longer was scholastic thinking or teaching promulgated; rather, the inner spiritual life of a person became important.

The later Middle Ages witnessed the transformation of rational thinking persons to sensitive and emotional beings complete with inner selves and ensconced in their families and domestic setting. This new spiritual sensibility led eventually to the Reformation in the 16th century.

The Gutenberg Galaxy

At the end of the Middle Ages, a new technology, the invention of the printing press, came to define the moment. Famously termed the Gutenberg Galaxy by Marshall McLuhan, movable types forged a new world where texts might be reproduced accurately, swiftly and ready to be consumed by everyone. Suddenly, a mighty lord or a lofty priest no longer had the full power to filter the world of the peasant. Widespread literacy followed, creating a vast space of possibilities – including overseas travels and trade on a global scale. The Renaissance – and later, the Enlightenment and Modernity – had arrived.

The printing press as invented by Gutenberg 1440. Source: wikipedia
The printing press as invented by Gutenberg 1440. Source: wikipedia


Anonyme, Livre de l’information des princes. Translated by Jean Golein, France, Rouen, v. 1450. BnF  fr. 126, fol 7r. Source Gallica