Those of us in the west generally think of the Middle Ages as the period of European history from the 5th to the 15th centuries. Falling as they did between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance or rebirth from the 14th century onward. The Middle Ages also divide what many consider to be the two great ages of human creativity, this line of thinking seems to indicate that there was nothing that happened during the middle ages but that is certainly not true. The middle ages are also known as the Medieval period. This designation can conjure up visions of chivalry, knights and squires. This image is one of high moral conduct and personal honor. Indeed this period also saw the rise in Christian Monasticism in Europe. Those who started these new orders were seeking a purer form of Christianity as many were concerned about the materialism of the time.

In common parlance, especially the early Middle Ages, are also known as the Dark Ages. The use of the term Dark Ages is often pejorative and refers to a time when society has been totally dominated by the church. It is true that the middle ages saw the rise of the power of the Papacy and the centralizing of the ecclesiastical power in Rome. As the Roman Empire began to fracture East and West (after the death of Constantine in 337) so too the Church became divided. Here too part of the cause for the schism was the power claimed by the Bishop of Rome, the Holy Roman Emperor and the Roman (Byzantine) Emperor of the East.

So, we see, that these were days of tension and great social change. There was a conflict between the emerging sense of nationalism as the crumbling Roman Empire gave way to budding nation states. This conflicted with an international Christendom that tried to maintain Christian unity. (Christianity being the state religion of the Roman Empire from 380.) The Early Middle Ages saw, depopulation, deurbanization, and increased barbarian (the term commonly used for the uncivilized (un-Christian) tribal peoples that surrounded the former empire) invasion. The Plague spread along trade routes which was a large contributing factor to the collapse of society. North Africa and the Middle East, once part of the Eastern Roman Empire, were conquered by Islam. Later in the period, the establishment of the feudal system in Europe provided some stability and allowed a return to systemic agriculture. This was followed by sustained urbanization in northern and western Europe.

During the High Middle Ages, Christian-oriented art and architecture flourished and Crusades were mounted to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslims. The influence of the emerging nation-state was tempered by the ideal of an international Christendom that would transcend national boundaries. The monasteries, began to become Universities, the Scholastic philosophers attempted to reconcile faith and reason. (This was not a new or unique development as this sort of thing is part of Jewish tradition as well and we can recall Philio, a Jew who lived at the time of Christ.) Outstanding achievement in this period include the Code of Justinian, the mathematics of Fibonacci and Oresme, the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, the painting of Giotto, the poetry of Dante and Chaucer, and the architecture of many great cathedrals such as Notre Dame de Paris.

Middle ages 476-1500

  1. Early Middle Ages 476-999
  2. High Middle Ages 1000-1299
  3. Late Middle Ages 1300-1499