The Middle Ages are a period of roughly one thousand years in European history, from the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century to Early modern Europe, which began with the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery in the 15th century.
The Migration Period from the 4th to the 6th century marked the end of the Western Roman Empire (while the east survived as the Byzantine Empire) and the expansion of Germanic tribes across western and southern Europe.
The Middle Ages saw the spread of Christianity to every part of Europe, the Islamic Golden Age with the Caliphates expanding to the Iberian and Balkan peninsulas and the subsequent Christian crusades to the Holy Land as well as the Mongolian invasion from the east and the Black Death killing a substantial part of the European population. During this long period of time many empires and societies emerged, flourished and disappeared.
The periodization varies between parts of Europe; in the Nordic countries the Middle Ages are held to have begun around AD 1000 with the establishment of Christianity and the decline of Viking raids. Some historians also argue that it was the rise of Islam, not the fall of the Roman Empire that caused the biggest shift in the Mediterranean world. Similarly the Renaissance, commonly held to be the transition from medieval to modern times began perhaps as much as a century earlier in Italy than north of the Alps.
The Early Middle Ages from the 5th to the 10th century was a time when political and economic power were largely decentralized. European kingdoms were founded in this period by peoples such as the Franks.
The High Middle Ages from the 11th to the 13th century was a period of urbanization, with foundation of castles, cathedrals, universities and merchant companies such as the Hanseatic League. The crusades united Catholic kingdoms in wars to conquer the Holy Land and other non-Catholic realms. The Mongol Empire reached eastern Europe in the 13th century, opening the Silk Road for European travellers such as Marco Polo.
The Late Middle Ages of the 14th and 15th centuries was marked by crises such as the 1340s Black Death and the Hundred Years War between England and the Kingdom of France. During this period, the nobles and the church lost power to peasants and townsmen for several reasons. The Black Death created a labour shortage, while crop rotation and other technologies improved food production. The printing press made books available to common people. Gunpowder weapons as part of the new "pike and shot" formations (a carefully determined ratio of pikemen and people equipped with firearms) would crush the old heavy infantry armies and the Swiss Confederacy briefly became an European power as it had perfected this method of warfare. While the armies turned from nobles to mercenary professionals ideas that the "war should feed itself" developed, resulting in horrific destruction.
The dominant political and economic system in medieval Europe is known as feudalism. While the word lacks a universal definition, it implies that power was held by local landowners (usually nobles or clergy) and gave some legal privileges, combined with the duty to serve the monarch. Feudalism has been analyzed in different ways, but among the more common ways is a delegation of authority from top (king and high nobles) to lower ranks as well as comparing it to a "protection racket" as organized crime would later establish it - the feudal lords would demand obedience and "taxes" from their underlings in exchange for "protection" - and when a feudal underling was out of line and the overlord had the resources to enforce their will, they were made an example of. Serfdom, a kind of forced servitude where workers were bound to the land for life, was prevalent in many countries (in particular east of River Elbe) but was abolished over time - in the Russian Empire serfdom lasted well into the nineteenth century but took on a uniquely "Russian" character that weirdly had some aspects of agrarian proto-socialism of sorts. While the system of feudalism may seem harsh and brutal to modern observers, it did manage to keep life for most normal peasants largely peaceful, and eventually even managed to establish "perpetual peace of the realm" which ended feuds and highwaymanship. Cities managed to largely free themselves from the feudal system but instead had guilds and wealthy burghers who formed the top few percent of society run the show. There was a rule in many places that a serf who had run away to the city would become free (in the Germanies often "after a year and a day") for which the phrase "Stadtluft macht frei" ("City air frees") was coined. Still, the urban underclasses were not necessarily better off than serfs and virtually every city in Europe had a high mortality rate not made up by their birth rates so they could only maintain their population (or grow) through continuous immigration from rural areas. Apprenticeship was the rule for pretty much any non-agricultural manual labor. Journeymen and apprentices had little rights and even for those who owned their own shop there were often strictly enforced guild rules on quality, price and sometimes even techniques allowed to produce goods. Still medieval handicraft achieved remarkable precision and quality if not nearly the output of later industrial production.
Posterity has depicted the Medieval justice system as harsh, with death and corporal punishment even for petty crimes. The truth was more complex. In many Germanic cultures, most prevalent in Scandinavia, justice was carried out in things, local assemblies where all free men had a voice. Death penalty was in many cases replaced by outlawing; where the condemned lost the protection of the law and could be killed without consequence. In essence outlawing and exile were often nigh-overlapping as losing the protection of society was often a nigh death sentence for people. And after all, if the perpetrator left and never showed up again, he or she was someone else's problem. While corporal punishment was prevalent, many "medieval" torture methods such as the "iron maiden" were unattested, and either based on legend or made up by posterity. See also history of justice. The East Roman Empire under Justinian, the last ruler to speak Latin natively, compiled the most extensive collection of Roman law, the Corpus Iuris Civilis, which continues to form the basis of Civil Law in many European jurisdictions and began to be combined with Germanic (largely oral) legal traditions in Catholic Europe in the High Middle Ages. Germanic law texts where they were written down often take both tradition ("the laws as our forefathers knew them") and the justice of a king as their justification and are often an interesting insight both into the language of their era (though many were also written in Latin) and the concepts of justice. An old Germanic legal concept that might seem alien to modern observers is "were-gild" or "man money" - a payment the perpetrator of a killing could pay to the next of kin of the victim as restitution. While this might seem a disproportionately low penalty for modern sensibilities, it reduced the danger of endless cycles of revenge killings and is in a way still a part of Anglo-Saxon law with "wrongful death" torts to this day.
Scholarship and art
With the fall of the Roman Empire, literacy and cultural output declined, with the clergy remaining as the caretakers of the written word, and Latin as the language of scholarship and the Catholic church; a role that remains until present day. For reasons still not entirely understood the vast majority of ancient literature was lost in a relatively short time frame. Cassiodorus who lived in the 6th century in Italy tried to conserve ancient learning in a cloister called "Vivarium" he had founded and all the books he could get his hands on are still available to us today, but apparently a much vaster number had already been lost by then. A further problem was the knowledge of Greek in the West declined substantially and most learned men in the Latin West could only access Greek writing if there was a Latin translation available.
The High Middle Ages saw the rise of universities and scholasticism, an intellectual movement based on Christian theology and Graeco-Roman philosophy. The scholastic view of the natural and spiritual world grew complex over the century; a famous exposé is Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, depicting hell (inferno), purgatory and paradise. It was published in 1319 in Dante's native Tuscan language, which over the succeeding centuries became established as standard Italian. Besides being notable as one of the first works of literature in a Romance vernacular to reach a mass audience, it is also a surprisingly "modern" work as it is in essence "self insert fan fiction" in which Dante makes not-so-veiled commentary about Italian politics of his age, his admiration for the poet Virgil and his admiration for a woman who probably barely knew him.
Functional folk medicine and folk science (such as the understanding of weather) overlapped with folklore and surviving pagan faiths. Crafts such as astrology and alchemy were to a large extent based on superstition; still, many of their methods were the foundation for the scientific revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries. Folk magic, practiced by cunning men and women, was at times called witchcraft; but the witch-hunts which are today commonly associated with the Middle Ages began in earnest only in the late 15th century. Witch hunting was just as often combatted by the Catholic clergy as it was encouraged and several non-Catholic areas engaged in severe persecution. The famed Spanish Inquisition actually established a standard of proof for any "witchcraft" accusation that was nigh-impossible to match, given that witchcraft does not actually exist. There are also records of people deliberately committing "heresy" after having been accused of a "secular" crime in order to be tried by a church court which sometimes had higher standards of evidence and less use of torture.
The image of Medieval scholarship as ignorant and superstitious has been exaggerated in modern times. For instance, few if any scholars believed that Earth was flat; good estimates of Earth's circumference were made already in Hellenic Greece. While the Voyages of Columbus made Europeans aware of the New World, few people doubted that Earth was spherical. In fact, it was those very estimates of earth's size (pretty accurate, as it turns out) that were used as arguments against Columbus' proposals - he'd have run out of provisions well before getting anywhere if the Americas hadn't been "conveniently" where they are.
- See also: Old towns
In western Europe, the Early Middle Ages left behind fewer and smaller buildings than the lost Roman Empire, most of them stone churches, monasteries and fortifications. Roman architecture survived and evolved in the Byzantine Empire; the Hagia Sophia was built in the 6th century. Despite Vitruvius remaining a well-studied classic in the Latin West, the lack of manpower and resources made many Roman architectural techniques and technologies disappear.
The High Middle Ages saw the rise of Romanesque architecture, with similarities to Roman architecture, and later Gothic architecture, prevalent in churches, universities and some grand houses. Renaissance architecture arose from the 14th century. These styles have seen later revivals, in particular during the romantic nationalism of the 19th century; buildings that look medieval might be much younger. In the High Middle Ages many towns would embark on truly "generational" projects with the construction of major churches - often it would take over a century from laying the first stones to topping out the roof. As structural engineering in those days was more art than science, some buildings collapsed during building, but it is more common that safety margins were so large that the structures have endured into our times - some even surviving aerial bombardment in World War II. To give an example of the timescales involved, construction of Cologne Cathedral was started in 1248, fizzled out in the mid 16th century, was restarted in the 1840s, completed in 1880 and there has been ongoing renovation for most of the post-war period.
At least since the High Middle Ages, most medieval towns and cities had some fortifications. Castles were fortified residences for a king or some other ruler; some of them large enough to contain a whole town. City walls could be used for defense, though their daily usage was for toll collection. City walls and castles became obsolete as gunpowder weapons became more advanced. Most walls were torn down as cities grew - often to make way for railways or the automobile. Given their role in toll collection, they had few defenders at the time they were torn down. While quite a few remain, it is rare for them to still be complete. Walls were often accompanied with a ditch, sometimes filled with water - where those remain they form a pleasant bit of green space or waterfront right in the heart of the city. Former walls often form ghostly relics in the shape of circular streets around the core old town, sometimes even named to indicate the former site of the city fortifications.
In rural regions and for nonrepresentative buildings the cheapest materials usually had to suffice. Sometimes this was locally quarried rock, but oftentimes no sufficiently hard material was in reach and thus mud, dung and other substances were filled into a wood "skeleton" making delightful half timbered houses which used to dominate the old towns of much of Central Europe before firebombing. The widespread use of timber in construction is a serendipitous blessing for modern archeologists as the science of dendrochronology can date trees by their telltale sequences of year-rings. In Europe this can be used for absolute datings (of the time a tree was cut down, not necessarily when it came to its final use) well into the medieval age.
Historiography and remembrance
The term "Middle Ages" is obviously made up by posterity, popularized from the 17th century, to describe the "dark age" of ignorance and savagery between the Roman Empire and the Renaissance.
The idea of the "Dark Ages" while deprecated among scholars still sees widespread use among the general public. When it was used as a scholarly term it referred to a break in the written record, especially when previously literate societies stopped producing written works. The term is still used to some extent in that sense for ancient Greece between the Bronze Age Collapse and the Classical Age. If the concept of the "dark middle age" is applicable at all, it would be specific for western Europe from the 5th to 8th centuries, as the legacy of written records, architecture and artifacts was meager, but far from absent - even in the "darkest" times someone in Europe was writing things down and the erstwhile much neglected oral record (often in the form of sagas or legends) preserves some things also confirmed by archaeology. Finally, many peoples outside the Roman Empire were illiterate both during and after the Roman age, and appear to have been barely affected by the fall of Rome if at all.
Many non-Western civilizations saw tremendous progress during this millennium. The Islamic Golden Age developed the Graeco-Roman heritage of philosophy, medicine, architecture and art. And even within Europe, there were periods of tremendous advancement like the "Carolingian renaissance" under Charlemagne or the High Medieval era when cities flourished and scholasticism (later derided as "monks arguing about how many angels can dance on a pinpoint" by anti-Catholic authors) reached levels of sophistication comparable to ancient philosophy.
For those and other reasons, the term "Middle Ages" has been challenged by historians since the 20th century; some preferring to call it the "postclassical age".
The 19th century romantic movement revised the patronising view of the Middle Ages, and depicted medieval life as close to nature, full of adventure and mystery. Nationalist movements searched for a common past, and the re-interpretation of legends such as the Nibelungenlied, Beowulf, the Finnish Kalevala (composed in the 19th century but based on oral traditions claimed to be medieval), King Arthur and Robin Hood.
Since the 19th century, the Middle Ages and their folklore have inspired fiction; both historical fiction, horror fiction and fantasy worlds, including Dracula, JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and some Astrid Lindgren works. Goethe's magnum opus "Faust" is ultimately based on a medieval folk tale and the famous first scene occurs (according to stage directions) "in a high Gothic room". The Middle Ages are a popular setting for reenactment and live-action roleplaying. "Renaissance fares" or "middle age markets" are held in many towns aiming for more or less accurate recreations of medieval times.
The music of the Middle Ages was the predecessor for European classical music and folk music, as well as contemporary medieval music with varying degrees of authenticity. Among perhaps the best known pieces of medieval music are the Carmina Burana (songs from Benediktbeuren in Bavaria) which are however best known with the melodies Carl Orff added to them as scholarship could not recreate the original melodies back then - it now can and the medieval melodies of course sound nothing like what Orff created. Medieval inspired music (again of varying degrees of authenticity) is often played at Middle Age Markets and some of the bands from that subculture have achieved mainstream success.
All over Europe there are countless buildings and towns from the Middle Ages, some in better condition, some in ruins. Being a period of many small states and much warfare, virtually every urban settlement had a defensive wall. While they were made less useful by the advent of gunpowder weapons many of them were preserved into the railroad or even automotive age when traffic necessities were deemed more important than "outdated stuff" in many towns. Castles also flourished during the medieval era and many remain in various states of ruin or preservation.
- 1 Aachen. The residence of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, who ordered the Palatine Chapel to be built. This was to become the first part of the world heritage listed Aachen cathedral, which is also the emperor's final resting place.
- 2 Avignon. This city was the abode of the popes from 1309 to 1376 and then to one of two claimants to the Papacy (the other being in Rome) until 1403. The legacy of that period, sometimes called the "Babylonian captivity" of the popes, is the Palais des Papes (Papal Palace). It is an imposing building, and while many of its frescoes were destroyed by anti-clerical French revolutionaries, it is still very much worth seeing.
- 3 Barcelona. La Ciudad Condal, the City of the Counts, always a place of great trade and importance, it was the royal seat of the Crown of Aragon by the time it merged with the Crown of Castile to form Spain. The Royal Dockyards, today the Naval Museum, feature lovely Gothic military architecture, and the most preserved extant bits of the former city wall, of Roman origin.
- 4 Battle. The site of the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066, when the invading Normans under William the Conqueror beat the Anglo-Saxon army and killed the king Harold Godwinson. The Normans would eventually conquer all of England, William became the England's first Norman king and he ordered the Tower of London to be built.
- 5 Bremen. A Hanseatic city, still an independent free city, equivalent to a German state, together with its harbour Bremerhaven. Famous for its "Four Musicians" from the Grimm brothers' fairy tale. Has a lovely preserved medieval city centre.
- 7 Constantinople. In 330 Emperor Constantine who earlier had converted to Christianity as the first Roman emperor moved his capital to the former town of Byzantium (present-day Istanbul). This led to the split of the Roman Empire into a western and an eastern part. The western part would survive for about a century and a half, but the eastern part, known as the Byzantine Empire, would survive for more than a millenium, until 1453 when the Ottomans marched in. Known as the "second Rome", it would become the center for the Eastern Orthodox Christianity after the Great Schism in 1054.
- 8 Córdoba. Former capital of a Roman province (Hispania Ulterior), an Arab State (Al-Andalus) and a Caliphate, it has seen the birth of figures like Seneca, Averroes, and Maimonides.
- 9 Dubrovnik. Formerly known as Ragusa, this city was a protectorate of the Byzantine Empire and one of the major Mediterranean merchant republics.
What about Rome?
Rome is famous for attractions from two eras: from the Empire and from the Renaissance and newer times. But what happened there during the Middle Ages? While the city didn't disappear into a void, it was a much less lively city for a millenium or so. But the most important institution in Medieval Europe, the Catholic church, was based here for most of the time. On the site of the present-day St. Peter's Basilica stood the Old St. Peter's Basilica where many Holy Roman Emperors were crowned by the pope beginning with Charlemagne in 800.
- 10 Florence (Firenze). Politically, economically, and culturally, Florence was the most important city in Europe for around 250 years, from some time before 1300 until the early 1500s. Florentines reinvented money, in the form of the gold florin. This currency was the engine that drove Europe out of the Dark Ages, a term invented by Petrarch, a Florentine whose family had been exiled to Arezzo. However, the period Florence is best known for is the Renaissance.
- 11 Genoa (Genova). The capital of one of the most powerful maritime republics for over seven centuries, from the 11th century to 1797, nicknamed la Superba ("the proud one") by Petrarch due to its glories on the seas and impressive landmarks. Particularly from the 12th to the 15th century, the city was a powerhouse in the commercial trade in Europe, one of the largest naval powers of the continent, and among the wealthiest cities in the world.
- 12 Granada. Former capital of the Emirate of Granada, which fell in 1492, the last target of the Spanish Christian Reconquista. It features a must-see Arab royal palace and fortress, the Alhambra.
- 13 Kraków. A lively trading point during the Middle Ages, and the Polish capital from 1038 to 1596, which was sacked by the Mongols and rebuilt. Notable sights are the royal Wawel Castle complex and the old town square.
- 14 Lübeck. One of the most important cities of the Hanseatic League with some impressive brick Gothic buildings from the Middle Ages.
- 15 Malbork. The town is called Marienburg in German, and so does its main attraction – the world's largest castle measured by land area. The large Gothic brick Malbork Castle was finished in 1406 as the headquarters of the Teutonic Order, a Catholic order that took part in crusades to the Holy Land and ruled much of today's Baltic states in the Late Middle Ages.
- 16 Nördlingen (Bavarian Swabia). Built inside a 15 million year old, 25 km diameter wide impact crater - the Nördlinger Ries - of a meteorite which hit with an estimated speed of 70,000 km/h, and left the area riddled with an estimated 72,000 tons of micro-diamonds. First mentioned in recorded history in 898, in 1998 the town celebrated its 1100th anniversary. The town was the location of two battles during the Thirty Years' War.
- 17 Novgorod. First mentioned in manuscripts as early as 859. Together with Kyiv, Novgorod was a very important cultural, social, and economical centre in Rus, and was the capital of one of the first European democracies, the Novgorod Republic, addressed publicly as Gospodin Veliky Novgorod, "Lord Novgorod the Great".
- 18 Prague. Prague Castle, towering over the city and listed as the "largest ancient castle in the world" by the Guinness World Records was built during the 9th century, and soon a city started growing around it. It became the Bohemian capital, and in the 14th century the Holy Roman capital during the rule of Charles IV.
- 19 Rothenburg ob der Tauber (Middle Franconia). A former free Holy Roman Imperial city, famous for its medieval town centre (Altstadt), seemingly untouched by the passage of time, encircled by its undamaged 14th-century town wall.
- 20 Santiago de Compostela. This walled city is legendary as the place where the remains of the Apostle, St. James are said to have been discovered. These relics gave rise to a chapel during the reign of Alfonso II of Asturias and Galicia (791–842), and then a church in 899. The current grand cathedral was constructed from 1075-1122 and consecrated in 1211. A number of changes were made in subsequent centuries, including the addition of a Baroque façade in the 18th century, but the building can still be considered basically Romanesque. It is a major site for pilgrimages; see Way of St. James.
- 21 Sigtuna. Sweden's capital from the 10th to the 13th centuries; sacked by pirates in 1187, leading to the construction of a castle in Stockholm which later became the country's capital. Between 1648 and 1666, the city suffered three city fires and was eventually abandoned. It was revived in the 1910s as a nationalist project.
- 22 Stockholm. Sweden's capital since the 13th century. Gamla stan is a preserved medieval city, with Life of Vikings, the Museum of Medieval Stockholm, the Historical Museum, the Nordic Museum, and Skansen.
- 23 Toledo. A former Roman fortress city, perched atop a dramatic bend of the Tagus river, has been a Visigothic royal seat as well, and features Spain's most important cathedral, in Gothic style.
- 24 Trier. The former Roman city lays claim the title of "oldest German city". A big local center of power since the Roman Imperial Crisis of the 3rd century, certainly the most important Roman town of the Germania province, it features a unique mix of Roman repurposed and Romanesque architecture.
- 25 Tours. On 10 October 732 the Battle of Tours was fought between the Franks and the Umayyad Caliphate. The Franks were victorious, the Umayyad commander Abd al-Rahman ibn Abd Allah al-Ghafiqi was killed in battle, and it marked the end of the spread of Islam in Western Europe.
- 26 Trabzon. A Greek colony and trade hub on a nice natural harbour at the southeastern coast of the Black Sea. After a Turkmen attack on the city was repelled by a local force in the 1080s, the city broke relations with the Byzantine Empire, becoming an independent state, the Empire of Trebizond ruled by the Komnenos family, which also provided several emperors to the Byzantine throne in Constantinople. The longest surviving rump Byzantine state, the empire of Trebizond was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1461, almost a decade after the fall of Constantinople.
- 27 Uppsala. The site of a famous pagan temple, which was torn down in the 11th century, as Sweden was christianized. Seat of the Swedish archbishop since the 12th century, and of Uppsala University since 1477.
- 28 Venice. During this timeline, La Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia rose to become the world's wealthiest and most successful city-state, and this is reflected in its historic sights.
- 29 Visby (Gotland). Known for the city wall, the Cathedral and many church ruins. In 1995 the old city on the west coast of Sweden's largest island was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Has an annual Medieval festival, Medeltidsveckan.
- 30 Worms. Claiming to be the site of some of the events of the Niebelungenlied (if they are indeed based on real events, it is not entirely sure they did take place in Worms) and also the site of some Imperial Diets which gives the humorous (in English) turn of phrase "Diet of Worms".
- 31 York. The ancient capital of the former Roman province of Britannia Inferior is rich in Roman, Viking, Norman and medieval English history. The city walls are well-preserved and within are the magnificent Minster, cobbled alleys and wharves, and a teetering castle stump.
Historical countries, entities and periods with separate articles:
- Medieval Britain and Ireland
- Byzantine Empire
- Kingdom of France
- Islamic Golden Age
- Al-Andalus, Islamic Iberia
- Vikings and the Old Norse
- Nordic history
- Mongol Empire
- Hanseatic League
- Medieval and Renaissance Italy
- Russian Empire
- Ottoman Empire
- Austrian Empire
- Age of Discovery
- Protestant Reformation