Representation of the tripartite social order of the Middle Ages - oratores "those who pray" (cleric), bellatores "those who fight" (knight), and laboratories "those who work" (workman: peasant, worker, member of the lower middle class); book illustration France XIII century.

The Middle Ages form the middle period in a traditional division of European history into three "epochs": the classical civilization of antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the modern era. The period of the Middle Ages is usually dated from the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century to the beginning of the Renaissance in the fifteenth century.

With the demise of centralized Roman government in the West, trade, infrastructure, learning, and security declined. A feudal, or manorial system emerged based on reciprocal obligations between lords and vassals to provide protection and service respectively. The expansion and consolidation of large manors enabled the resumption of trade and the emergence of an artisan class. With the crowning of the Carolingian leader Charles "the Great" by Pope Leo III in Rome of Christmas Day in 800 C.E.-a symbolic act recalling the coronation of Saul by the high priest Samuel and consolidation of the tribes of Israel into a monarchy some two thousand years earlier-Charlemagne assumed leadership of a new Holy (Christian) Roman Empire. Sometimes called the "father of Europe," Charlemagne fostered a "Carolingian renaissance" in politics, church affairs, and arts and learning.

The promise of a unified Christian Europe was short-lived, however, as Frankish lords quarreled over territory and the kingdom was divided among Charlemagne's descendants. (The Holy Roman Empire survived as an anomalous political presence until 1806, famously described by Voltaire as "neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.") Similarly, the unity of the Church was decisively severed in 1054 with the Great Schism between the Eastern Orthodox and Western (Roman) Church over doctrinal disputes and issues of ecclesiastical authority.

The pope's role in Charlemagne's and later coronations lent new authority to the papacy, and the Church and secular rulers grew closely allied in a hierarchical system characteristic of the Middle Ages. At the height of influence in the thirteenth century, the Roman Church and its papal head exercised unprecedented power, conferring temporal authority upon kings and governing everyday affairs of the common people through a ubiquitous ecclesiastical infrastructure that fashioned Europe into a unified Christendom. Often termed the High Middle Ages, this was the age of magisterial cathedrals raised up across Europe to glorify God; of popular religious orders, such as the Franciscans and Dominicans, which exemplified Christian ideals of service and humility and recalled the Church to its spiritual mission; and of new centers of learning, which drew scholars and students from across the Continent and revitalized Christian thought through systematic theology grounded in Aristotelian logic.

The High Middle Ages witnessed the growing urbanization of northern and western Europe. Urban guilds were engines of trade and economic growth. The growing interchange of ideas, cross-cultural encounters among tradesmen, and increasing economic power of cities would contribute to the weakening of feudalism. Governance became more participatory, with charters such as the Magna Carta in England (1215) affirming the law above the absolute authority of the king, and the seating of representative bodies such as the Estates General in France and Parliament in England.

During the Late Middle Ages, the moral authority of the Church hierarchy was tainted by overreaching abuses, such as the increasingly brazen Crusades, ostensibly to reclaim formerly Christian lands from Muslim control, and persecution of dissenters such as during the Spanish Inquisition. The "exile" of the papacy to Avignon, France; the spectacle of, at one point, three popes claiming to be the legitimate vicar of Christ; and political, financial, and sexual corruption among church leadership further compromised the Church's moral legitimacy. The Black Death, considered one of the most lethal pandemics in human history, struck Europe in the 1340s. The plague reduced the population by one third to one half across the continent and engendered despair about the efficacy of both government and the Church.

The Middle Ages conventionally ends with the rebirth of classical arts during the Italian Renaissance; the epochal discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus and circumnavigation of the earth by Ferdinand Magellan; and European expansion around the globe, as the maritime nations of Spain and Portugal began their imperial projects. The dominance and power of the Roman Church was also about to end with the Protestant Reformation and the democratization of church life in Protestant Europe.

This thousand-year era of European history exemplified the promise of a unified political order informed and legitimized by the spiritual authority of the Church. At its best, it brought stability and prosperity to Europe lasting more than half a millennium. Yet failures of the ecclesiastic authorities to govern in the public interest and to uphold principles of service and humility led to the decline of the center. This would open the door to new views of life that could no longer be restrained, laying the foundations for the modern world.


The Middle Ages are referred to as the "medieval period" (sometimes spelled "mediaeval") from the Latin medius (middle) and ævus (age).1 Some early historians have described non-European countries as "medieval" when those countries show characteristics of "feudal" organization. The pre-Westernization period in the history of Japan, and the pre-colonial period in developed parts of sub-Saharan Africa, are also sometimes termed "medieval." Modern historians are far more reluctant to try to fit the history of other regions to the European model, however, and these applications of the term beyond Europe have fallen out of favor.

Origins: The later Roman Empire

The Roman Rmpire reached its greatest territorial extent during the second century. The following two centuries witnessed the slow decline of Roman control over its outlying territories. The Emperor Diocletian split the empire into separately administered eastern and western provinces in 285 C.E. Under his arrangement, the western Roman empire was governed from Ravenna by a lesser emperor, and the region was considered subordinate to the wealthier east. The division between east and west was encouraged by Constantine, who refounded the city of Byzantium as the new capital, Constantinople, in 330.

Military expenses increased steadily during the ffourth century, even as Rome's neighbors became restless and increasingly powerful. Tribes who previously had contact with the Romans as trading partners, rivals, or mercenaries had sought entrance to the empire and access to its wealth throughout the fourth century. Diocletian's reforms had created a strong governmental bureaucracy, reformed taxation, and strengthened the army. These changes bought the Empire time, but these reforms demanded money. Rome's declining revenue left it dangerously dependent on tax revenue. Future setbacks forced Rome to pour ever more wealth into its armies, spreading the empire's wealth thinly into its border regions. In periods of expansion, this would not be a critical problem. The defeat in 378 at the Battle of Adrianople, however, destroyed much of the Roman army, leaving the western empire undefended. Without a strong army in the west, and with no promise of salvation coming from the emperor in Constantinople, the western Empire sought compromise.

Known in traditional historiography collectively as the “barbarian invasions,” the Migration Period, or the Volkerwanderung ("wandering of the peoples") specifically by German historians, this migration of peoples was a complicated and gradual process. Some early historians have given this period the epithet of "Dark Ages."23 Recent research and archaeology have also revealed complex cultures persisting throughout the period. Some of these "barbarian" tribes rejected the classical culture of Rome, while others admired and aspired to it. Theodoric the Great of the Ostrogoths, as only one example, had been raised in Constantinople and considered himself an heir to its culture, employing erudite Roman ministers like Cassiodorus. Other prominent tribal groups that migrated into Roman territory were the Huns, Bulgars, Avars and Magyars, along with a large number of Germanic, and later Slavic peoples. Some tribes settled in the empire's territory with the approval of the Roman senate or emperor. In return for land to farm and, in some regions, the right to collect tax revenues for the state, federated tribes provided military support to the empire. Other incursions were small-scale military invasions of tribal groups assembled to gather plunder. The most famous invasion culminated in the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410.

By the end of the fifth century, Roman institutions were crumbling. The final independent, ethnically Roman emperor in the west, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by the barbarian king Odoacer in 476. The Eastern Roman Empire (referred to as the "Byzantine Empire" after the fall of its western counterpart) maintained its order by abandoning the west to its fate. Even though Byzantine emperors maintained a claim over the territory, and no barbarian king dared to elevate himself to the position of emperor of the west, attempts to reassert Byzantine control over the west failed. For the next three centuries, the western empire would be without a legitimate emperor. It was, instead, ruled by kings who enjoyed the support of the largely barbarian armies. Some kings ruled as regents for titular emperors, and some ruled in their own name. Throughout the fifth century, cities throughout the empire declined, receding inside heavily fortified walls. The western empire, particularly, experienced the decay of infrastructure which was not adequately maintained by the central government. Where civic functions and infrastructure such as chariot races, aqueducts, and roads were maintained, the work was frequently done at the expense of city officials and bishops. Augustine of Hippo is an example of a bishop who acted as an able administrator. One scholar, Thomas Cahill, has dubbed Augustine the last of the classical men and the first of medieval men.

Early Middle Ages

Map of territorial boundaries ca. 450 C.E.The Muslim conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries ██ Expansion under the Prophet Mohammad, 622-632 ██ Expansion during the Patriarchal Caliphate, 632-661 ██ Expansion during the Umayyad Caliphate, 661-750Map of Europe in 998.

The end of the eighth century found the former western Roman empire an overwhelmingly rural and decentralized region that had lost its privileged position as the centre of a great power. Between the fifth and eighth centuries, new peoples and powerful individuals filled the political void left by Roman centralized government. Elite families from both Roman aristocracy and barbarian nobility established regional hegemonies within the former boundaries of the Empire, creating weak kingdoms like that of the Ostrogoths in Italy, the Visigoths in Spain and Portugal, the Franks and Burgundians in Gaul and western Germany, and Saxons in England. The social effects of the fracture of the Roman state were manifold. Cities and merchants lost the economic benefits of safe conditions for trade and manufacture, and intellectual development suffered from the loss of a unified cultural and educational milieu of far-ranging connections.

The breakdown of Roman society was often dramatic. As it became unsafe to travel or carry goods over any distance, there was a collapse in trade and manufacture for export. The major industries that depended on long-distance trade, such as large-scale pottery manufacture, vanished almost overnight in places like Britain.

The Muslim conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries, which included the Persian Empire, Roman Syria, Roman Egypt, Roman North Africa, Visigothic Spain and Portugal, and other parts of the Mediterranean, including Sicily and southern Italy, increased localization by halting much of what remained of seaborne commerce. Thus, whereas sites like Tintagel in Cornwall had managed to obtain supplies of Mediterranean luxury goods well into the sixth century, this connection was now lost.

The patchwork of petty rulers was incapable of supporting the depth of civic infrastructure required to maintain libraries, public baths, arenas and major educational institutions. Any new building was on a far smaller scale than before. Roman landholders beyond the confines of city walls were also vulnerable to extreme changes, and they could not simply pack up their land and move elsewhere. Some were dispossessed and fled to Byzantine regions, others quickly pledged their allegiances to their new rulers. In areas like Spain and Italy, this often meant little more than acknowledging a new overlord, while Roman forms of law and religion could be maintained. In other areas where there was a greater weight of population movement, it might be necessary to adopt new modes of dress, language and custom.

The Catholic Church was the major unifying cultural influence, preserving Latin learning and the art of writing, and maintaining a centralized administration through its network of bishops. Some regions that had previously been Catholic were occupied by Arian Christians, which raised debates over orthodoxy. Clovis I of the Franks is a well-known example of a barbarian king who chose Catholic orthodoxy over Arianism. His conversion marked a turning point for the Frankish tribes of Gaul. Bishops were central to Middle Age society due to the literacy they possessed. As a result, they often played a significant role in shaping good government. However beyond the core areas of Western Europe there remained many peoples with little or no contact with Christianity or with classical Roman culture. Martial societies such as the Avars and the Vikings were still capable of causing major disruption to the newly emerging societies of Western Europe.

Rise of Monasticism

The Early Middle Ages also witnessed the rise of monasticism within the west. Although the impulse to withdraw from society to focus upon a spiritual life is experienced by people of all cultures, the shape of European monasticism was determined by traditions and ideas that originated in the deserts of Egypt and Syria. The style of monasticism that focuses on community experience of the spiritual life, called cenobitism, was pioneered by the saint Pachomius in the fourth century. Monastic ideals spread from Egypt to western Europe in the fifth and sixth centuries through hagiographical literature such as the Life of Saint Anthony. Saint Benedict wrote the definitive Rule for western monasticism during the sixth century, detailing the administrative and spiritual responsibilities of a community of monks led by an abbot. Monks and monasteries had a deep effect upon the religious and political life of the Early Middle Ages, in various cases acting as land trusts for powerful families, centers of propaganda and royal support in newly conquered regions, bases for mission and proselytization, or outposts of education and literacy.

Romanesque architecture flourished in the early Middle Ages: Hildesheim.

Outside of Italy, building in stone was rarely attempted - until the eighth century, when a new form of architecture called the Romanesque, based on Roman forms, gradually developed. Celtic and Germanic barbarian forms were absorbed into Christian art, although the central impulse remained Roman and Byzantine. High quality jewelery and religious imagery were produced throughout Western Europe, Charlemagne and other monarchs provided patronage for religious artworks and books. Some of the principal artworks of the age were the fabulous Illuminated manuscripts produced by monks on vellum, using gold, silver and precious pigments to illustrate biblical narratives. Early examples include the Book of Kells and many Carolingian and Ottonian Frankish manuscripts.

The Merovingian Kingdoms

A nucleus of power developed in a region of northern Gaul and developed into kingdoms called Austrasia and Neustria. These kingdoms were ruled for three centuries by a dynasty of kings called the Merovingians, after their mythical founder Merovech. The history of the Merovingian kingdoms is one of family politics that frequently erupted into civil warfare between the branches of the family. The legitimacy of the Merovingian throne was granted by a reverence for the bloodline, and even after powerful members of the Austrasian court took de facto power during the seventh century, the Merovingians were kept as ceremonial figureheads. The Merovingians engaged in trade with northern Europe through Baltic trade routes known to historians as the Northern Arc trade, and they are known to have minted small-denomination silver pennies called sceattae for circulation. Aspects of Merovingian culture could be described as "Romanized," such as the high value placed on Roman coinage as a symbol of rulership and the patronage of monasteries and bishoprics. Some have hypothesized that the Merovingians were in contact with Byzantium.4 However, the Merovingians also buried the dead of their elite families in grave mounds and traced their lineage to a mythical sea beast called the Quinotaur.

Rise of the Carolingians

The seventh century was a tumultuous period of civil wars between Austrasia and Neustria. Such warfare was exploited by the patriarch of a family line, Pippin of Herstal, who curried favor with the Merovingians and had himself installed in the office of Mayor of the Palace at the service of the King. From this position of great influence, Pippin accrued wealth and supporters. Later members of his family line inherited the office, acting as advisors and regents. The dynasty took a new direction in 732, when Charles Martel won the Battle of Tours, halting the advance of Muslim armies across the Pyrenees. The Carolingian dynasty, as the successors to Charles Martel is known, officially took the reigns of the kingdoms of Austrasia and Neustria in a coup of 753 led by Pippin III. A contemporary chronicle claims that Pippin sought, and gained, authority for this coup from the Pope.5 Pippin's successful coup was reinforced with propaganda that portrayed the Merovingians as inept or cruel rulers and exalted the accomplishments of Charles Martel and circulated stories of the family's great piety.

The Carolingian Empire

At the time of his death in 783, Pippin left his kingdoms in the hands of his two sons, Charles and Carloman. When Carloman died of natural causes, Charles blocked the succession of Carloman's minor son and installed himself as the king of the united Austrasia and Neustria. This Charles, known to his contemporaries as Charles the Great or Charlemagne, embarked in 774 upon a program of systematic expansion that would unify a large portion of Europe. In the wars that lasted just beyond 800, he rewarded loyal allies with war booty and command over parcels of land. Much of the nobility of the High Middle Ages was to claim its roots in the Carolingian nobility that was generated during this period of expansion.

The Imperial Coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas day of 800 is frequently regarded as a turning-point in medieval history, because it filled a power vacancy that had existed since 476. It also marks a change in Charlemagne's leadership, which assumed a more imperial character and tackled difficult aspects of controlling a medieval empire. He established a system of diplomats who possessed imperial authority, the missi, who in theory provided access to imperial justice in the farthest corners of the empire.6. He also sought to reform the Church in his domains, pushing for uniformity in liturgy and material culture.

Carolingian political theory

Political theory held that society was ultimately governed by God through God's Son, Christ as Lord of Lords who deputized the Pope, as head of the Church on earth, with both temporal and spiritual authority. The former was delegated to the princes and their assistants, the nobles and knights, while the Pope administered the second himself assisted by his bishops and priests. In practice, the Emperor almost certainly saw himself as the pope's patron rather than as the Pope's servant, since without his military support, the Pope could easily be removed from office. On the other hand, the Emperor and any prince needed the Church's blessing if they were to be recognized as legitimate. While the hereditary principle was generally accepted, kings could not rely on anyone's loyalty simply because of their birthright. The whole system worked because the authority of those who occupied positions of responsibility was believed to derive, ultimately, from God. If authority was not divine in origin, why should subordinates, whether noble or peasant, obey? Why not replace them with someone else, or why not allow anarchy to replace the hierarchical system?

Carolingian Renaissance

Charlemagne's court in Aachen was the centre of a cultural revival that is sometimes referred to as the "Carolingian Renaissance." This period witnessed an increase of literacy, developments in the arts, architecture, and jurisprudence, as well as liturgical and scriptural studies. The English monk Alcuin was invited to Aachen, and brought with him the precise classical Latin education that was available in the monasteries of Northumbria. The return of this Latin proficiency to the kingdom of the Franks is regarded as an important step in the development of Medieval Latin. Charlemagne's chancery made use of a type of script currently known as Carolingian minuscule, providing a common writing style that allowed for communication across most of Europe. After the decline of the Carolingian dynasty, the rise of the Saxon Dynasty in Germany was accompanied by the Ottonian Renaissance.

Breakup of the Carolingian empire

While Charlemagne continued the Frankish tradition of dividing the regnum (kingdom) between all his heirs (at least those of age), the assumption of the imperium (imperial title) supplied a unifying force not available previously. Charlemagne was succeeded by his only legitimate son of adult age at his death, Louis the Pious.

Louis's long reign of 26 years was marked by numerous divisions of the empire among his sons and, after 829, numerous civil wars between various alliances of father and sons against other sons in an effort to determine a just division by battle. The final division was made at Crémieux in 838. The Emperor Louis recognized his eldest son Lothair I as emperor and confirmed him in the Regnum Italicum (Italy). He divided the rest of the empire between Lothair and Charles the Bald, his youngest son, giving Lothair the opportunity to choose his half. He chose East Francia, which comprised the empire on both banks of the Rhine and eastwards, leaving Charles West Francia, which comprised the empire to the west of the Rhineland and the Alps. Louis the German, the middle child, who had been rebellious to the last, was allowed to keep his subregnum of Bavaria under the suzerainty of his elder brother. The division was not undisputed. Pepin II of Aquitaine, the emperor's grandson, rebelled in a contest for Aquitaine while Louis the German tried to annex all of East Francia. In two final campaigns, the emperor defeated both his rebellious descendants and vindicated the division of Crémieux before dying in 840.

A three-year civil war followed his death. At the end of the conflict, Louis the German was in control of East Francia and Lothair was confined to Italy. By the Treaty of Verdun (843), a kingdom of Middle Francia was created for Lothair in the Low Countries and Burgundy and his imperial title was recognized. East Francia would eventually morph into the Kingdom of Germany and West Francia into the Kingdom of France, around both of which the history of Western Europe can largely be described as a contest for control of the middle kingdom. Charlemagne's grandsons and great-grandsons divided their kingdoms between their sons until all of the various regna and the imperial title fell into the hands of Charles the Fat by 884. He was deposed in 887 and died in 888, to be replaced in all his kingdoms but two (Lotharingia and East Francia) by non-Carolingian "petty kings." The Carolingian Empire was destroyed, though the imperial tradition would eventually give rise to the Holy Roman Empire in 962.

The breakup of the Carolingian Empire was accompanied by the invasions, migrations, and raids of external foes as not seen since the Migration Period. The Atlantic and northern shores were harassed by the Vikings, who forced Charles the Bald to issue the Edict of Pistres against them and who besieged Paris in 885-886. The eastern frontiers, especially Italy, were under constant Magyar assault until their great defeat at the Battle of the Lechfeld in 955. The Saracens also managed to establish bases at Garigliano and Fraxinetum and to conquer the islands of Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily, and their pirates raided the Mediterranean coasts, as did the Vikings. The Christianization of the pagan Vikings provided an end to that threat.

High Middle Ages

The High Middle Ages were characterized by the urbanization of Europe, military expansion, and an intellectual revival that historians identify between the 11th century and the end of the 13th. This revival was aided by the cessation of invasions by Scandinavians and Hungarians, as well as the assertion of power by castellans to fill the power vacuum left by the Carolingian decline. The High Middle Ages saw an explosion in population. This population flowed into towns, sought conquests abroad, or cleared land for cultivation. The cities of antiquity had been clustered around the Mediterranean. By 1200 the growing urban areas were in the centre of the continent, connected by roads or rivers. By the end of this period Paris might have had as many as 200,000 inhabitants. In central and northern Italy and in Flanders the rise of towns that were self-governing to some degree within their territories stimulated the economy and created an environment for new types of religious and trade associations. Trading cities on the shores of the Baltic entered into agreements known as the Hanseatic League, and Italian city-states such as Venice, Genoa, and Pisa expanded their trade throughout the Mediterranean. This period marks a formative one in the history of the western state as we know it, for kings in France, England, and Spain consolidated their power during this time period, setting up lasting institutions to help them govern. The Papacy, which had long since created an ideology of independence from the secular kings, first asserted its claims to temporal authority over the entire Christian world. The entity that historians call the Papal Monarchy reached its apogee in the early 13th century under the pontificate of Innocent III. Northern Crusades and the advance of Christian kingdoms and military orders into previously pagan regions in the Baltic and Finnic northeast brought the forced assimilation of numerous native peoples to the European entity. With the brief exception of the Mongol invasions, major barbarian incursions ceased.

Science and technology

During the early Middle Ages and the Islamic Golden Age, Islamic philosophy, science, and technology were more advanced than in Western Europe. Islamic scholars both preserved and built upon earlier traditions and also added their own inventions and innovations. Islamic al-Andalus passed much of this on to Europe. The replacement of Roman numerals with the decimal positional number system and the invention of algebra allowed more advanced mathematics. Another consequence was that the Latin-speaking world regained access to lost classical literature and philosophy. Latin translations of the twelfth century fed a passion for Aristotelian philosophy and Islamic science that is frequently referred to as the Renaissance of the 12th century. Meanwhile, trade grew throughout Europe as the dangers of travel were reduced, and steady economic growth resumed. Cathedral schools and monasteries ceased to be the sole sources of education in the eleventh century when universities were established in major European cities. Literacy became available to a wider class of people, and there were major advances in art, sculpture, music and architecture. Large cathedrals were built across Europe, first in the Romanesque, and later in the more decorative Gothic style.

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Europe there was a radical change in the rate of new inventions, innovations in the ways of managing traditional means of production, and economic growth. The period saw major technological advances, including the invention of cannon, spectacles, and artesian wells; and the cross-cultural introduction of gunpowder, silk, the compass, and the astrolabe from the east. There were also great improvements to ships and the clock. The latter advances made possible the dawn of the Age of Exploration. At the same time huge numbers of Greek and Arabic works on medicine and the sciences were translated and distributed throughout Europe. Aristotle especially became very important, his rational and logical approach to knowledge influencing the scholars at the newly forming universities which were absorbing and disseminating the new knowledge during the twelfth century Renaissance.

Religious and social change

Monastic reform became an important issue during the 11th century, when elites began to worry that monks were not adhering to their Rules with the discipline that was required for a good religious life. During this time, it was believed that monks were performing a very practical task by sending their prayers to God and inducing him to make the world a better place for the virtuous. The time invested in this activity would be wasted, however, if the monks were not virtuous. The monastery of Cluny, founded in the Mâcon in 909, was founded as part of a larger movement of monastic reform in response to this fear.7 It was a reformed monastery that quickly established a reputation for austerity and rigor. Cluny sought to maintain the high quality of spiritual life by electing its own abbot from within the cloister, and maintained an economic and political independence from local lords by placing itself under the protection of the Pope. Cluny provided a popular solution to the problem of bad monastic codes, and in the 11th century its abbots were frequently called to participate in imperial politics as well as reform monasteries in France and Italy.

Monastic reform inspired change in the secular church, as well. The ideals that it was based upon were brought to the papacy by Pope Leo IX on his election in 1049, providing the ideology of clerical independence that fuelled the Investiture Controversy in the late eleventh century. The Investiture Controversy involved Pope Gregory VII and Henry IV, Holy