The Medieval Period in European History
When we hear the word “medieval”, most of us have a general idea of the time period to which it refers. Or do we? What is the first thing you think of when you hear the term? Knights in shining armor? Damsels in distress? If so, you would be right—in a sense. There were knights during the Medieval Period, as, most certainly, there were distressed damsels. But the Medieval Period in Europe encompasses a much longer time period than most of us realize. In fact, many people today assume that the Medieval Period brought western civilization out of the Dark Ages—a time of violent Viking incursions and mass people movements across the continent. But is this a correct assumption?
In short, no. Actually, the Dark Ages and the Medieval Period are one and the same. Originally, the term “Dark Ages” was meant to describe the period between the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century and the full flowering of the Renaissance in the late 15th or early 16th centuries—the start of the Modern Age. Historians coined the term to reflect the relative scarcity of written historical records of the time. However, as we have learned more about this period and the people in it, historians have become dissatisfied with the negative connotations inherent in the term. They now tend to refer to this period as either the Middle Ages or the Medieval Period. Therefore, Dark Ages = Middle Ages = Medieval Period. They all refer to the same thousand year period between the 5th and 16th centuries.
But as this was a millennium of such enormous upheaval and transition in Europe, and indeed most of the world, historians have now subdivided this period into three sub periods, the Early, High, and Late Medieval Periods.
The Early Medieval Period is the period that most of us would think of as the Dark Ages. It began with the Gothic sacking of Rome and saw a number of mass movements of large people groups like the Vikings, Franks, Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. It ended in the 11th century around the time of the Norman conquest of England in 1066. It is interesting to note that the Normans were a product of these migrations and were descended from Viking invaders who had settled in Normandy. They succeeded in conquering a nation that had taken on the name of one of its earlier invaders, the Angles. England is a derivation of the term Angle Land, or land of the Angles.
The High Medieval Period, from about 1000 to the 1340s, is, to us, more recognizably medieval. It was a time of enormous expansion in Europe and it has been estimated that the population increased from around 35 million to 80 million people. It was during this period that we see the emergence of what we would now call the modern state. The rulers of France, England, and Spain were able to consolidate their power and set up lasting government institutions, while new kingdoms, like Hungary and Poland, began to exert influence in Central and Eastern Europe. The High Medieval Period also saw a substantial increase in the worldly authority of the Church, a development which would have far-reaching side effects. There was a sharp increase in the number of Christian monastic orders and most of the great cathedrals of Europe were completed during this period. The Crusades, on the other hand, were a far darker byproduct, the repercussions of which are still felt today.
The Late Medieval Period is the time we most readily identify as truly medieval—steel encased knights hammering at one another in the lists under the watchful eyes of their adoring ladies. It lasted from about 1340 to 1500 and was ushered in by two catastrophic events that occurred almost simultaneously. Undergoing a period of severe climate change, Europe was already staggering under an acute food shortage. In the midst of this suffering, a long and destructive conflict between the Kingdoms of England and France known as the Hundred Years War had begun over competing claims to the French throne. As the name implies, this war would smolder on for more than a century, draining the treasure and vitality from both kingdoms, along with their allies. The second hammer blow came within a decade in the form of a devastating plague that swept across Europe between the years 1347 and 1353. We now know it as the Black Death. It indiscriminately ravaged the stunned inhabitants, decreasing their numbers by between 30 and 60%. Nothing would ever be the same. Making matters worse, within another hundred years the tottering Byzantine Empire based in Constantinople would finally fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Europe seemed cursed.
Historians and anthropologists have puzzled and theorized over the exact sequence of events that set in motion the flowering of western thought and culture that would bring an end to this calamitous and fascinating period in history. There is very little doubt that it all started in Italy in the late 14th century. It would be well into the 15th century before the rest of Europe followed. Its causes are more obscure. Some see it as a reaction to the prevailing pessimism of the Late Medieval Period, aided by the weakening of the Church’s secular power. Others credit the resurgence of classical thought driven by the flight of Byzantine scholars driven from Constantinople by the Turks. Whatever the cause, the resulting transformation of western society in areas as diverse as philosophy, religion, politics, science, music, and art, serve as a sufficiently defining moment for historians to warrant the delineation of a new era. Though the exact date of its demise is open to interpretation, there is general consensus that by the beginning of the 16th century European culture had been fundamentally transformed and the Medieval Period had come to an end.