Portal:Middle Ages

The Middle Ages portal

The Cross of Mathilde, a crux gemmata made for Mathilde, Abbess of Essen (973–1011), who is shown kneeling before the Virgin and Child in the enamel plaque.
Essen Cathedral Treasury, Germany

In the history of Europe, the Middle Ages or medieval period lasted approximately from the late 5th to the late 15th centuries, similar to the post-classical period of global history. It began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and transitioned into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. The Middle Ages is the middle period of the three traditional divisions of Western history: classical antiquity, the medieval period, and the modern period. The medieval period is itself subdivided into the Early, High, and Late Middle Ages.

Population decline, counterurbanisation, the collapse of centralized authority, invasions, and mass migrations of tribes, which had begun in late antiquity, continued into the Early Middle Ages. The large-scale movements of the Migration Period, including various Germanic peoples, formed new kingdoms in what remained of the Western Roman Empire. In the 7th century, North Africa and the Middle East – most recently part of the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire – came under the rule of the Umayyad Caliphate, an Islamic empire, after conquest by Muhammad's successors. Although there were substantial changes in society and political structures, the break with classical antiquity was not complete. The still-sizeable Byzantine Empire, Rome's direct continuation, survived in the Eastern Mediterranean and remained a major power. Secular law was advanced greatly by the Code of Justinian. In the West, most kingdoms incorporated extant Roman institutions, while new bishoprics and monasteries were founded as Christianity expanded in Europe. The Franks, under the Carolingian dynasty, briefly established the Carolingian Empire during the later 8th and early 9th centuries. It covered much of Western Europe but later succumbed to the pressures of internal civil wars combined with external invasions: Vikings from the north, Magyars from the east, and Saracens from the south.

During the High Middle Ages, which began after 1000, the population of Europe increased greatly as technological and agricultural innovations allowed trade to flourish and the Medieval Warm Period climate change allowed crop yields to increase. Manorialism, the organisation of peasants into villages that owed rent and labour services to the nobles, and feudalism, the political structure whereby knights and lower-status nobles owed military service to their overlords in return for the right to rent from lands and manors, were two of the ways society was organised in the High Middle Ages. This period also saw the formal division of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, with the East–West Schism of 1054. The Crusades, which began in 1095, were military attempts by Western European Christians to regain control of the Holy Land from Muslims, and also contributed to the expansion of Latin Christendom in the Baltic region and the Iberian Peninsula. Kings became the heads of centralised nation states, reducing crime and violence but making the ideal of a unified Christendom more distant. In the West, intellectual life was marked by scholasticism, a philosophy that emphasised joining faith to reason, and by the founding of universities. The theology of Thomas Aquinas, the paintings of Giotto, the poetry of Dante and Chaucer, the travels of Marco Polo, and the Gothic architecture of cathedrals such as Chartres mark the end of this period.

The Late Middle Ages was marked by difficulties and calamities including famine, plague, and war, which significantly diminished the population of Europe; between 1347 and 1350, the Black Death killed about a third of Europeans. Controversy, heresy, and the Western Schism within the Catholic Church paralleled the interstate conflict, civil strife, and peasant revolts that occurred in the kingdoms. Cultural and technological developments transformed European society, concluding the Late Middle Ages and beginning the early modern period. (Full article...)

Selected article

A Seal of the Knights Templar, with their famous image of two knights on a single horse, a symbol of their early poverty. The text is in Greek and Latin characters, Sigillum Militum Xpisti: followed by a cross, which means "the Seal of the Soldiers of Christ".
The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon (Latin: Pauperes commilitones Christi Templique Solomonici), commonly known as the Knights Templar or the Order of the Temple (French: Ordre du Temple or Templiers), were among the most famous of the Western Christian military orders.The organization existed for approximately two centuries in the Middle Ages. It was founded in the aftermath of the First Crusade of 1096, its original purpose to ensure the safety of the many Europeans who made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem after its conquest.Officially endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church around 1129, the Order became a favored charity across Europe and grew rapidly in membership and power. Templar knights, in their distinctive white mantles quartered by a red cross, were among the most skilled fighting units of the Crusades.Non-combatant members of the Order managed a large economic infrastructure throughout Christendom, innovating financial techniques that were an early form of banking, and building many fortifications across Europe and the Holy Land.The Templars' success was tied closely to the Crusades; when the Holy Land was lost, support for the Order faded. Rumors about the Templars' secret initiation ceremony created mistrust, and King Philip IV of France, deeply in debt to the Order, began pressuring Pope Clement V to take action against the Order.

Selected biography

Seal Of Doge Domenico Selvo.png

Domenico Selvo (died 1087) was the 31st Doge of Venice, serving from 1071 to 1084. During his reign as Doge, his domestic policies, the alliances that he forged, and the battles that the Venetian military won and lost laid the foundations for much of the subsequent foreign and domestic policy of the Republic of Venice. He avoided confrontations with the Byzantine Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Roman Catholic Church at a time in European history when conflict threatened to upset the balance of power. At the same time, he forged new agreements with the major nations that would set up a long period of prosperity for the Republic of Venice. Through his military alliance with the Byzantine Empire, Emperor Alexios I Komnenos awarded Venice economic favors with the declaration of a Golden Bull that would allow for the development of the republic's international trade over the next few centuries.

Within the city itself, he supervised a longer period of the construction of the modern St Mark's Basilica than any other Doge. The basilica's complex architecture and expensive decorations stand as a testament to the prosperity of Venetian traders during this period. The essentially democratic way in which he not only was elected but also removed from power was part of an important transition of Venetian political philosophy. The overthrow of his rule in 1084 was one of many forced abdications in the early history of the republic that further blurred the lines between the powers of the Doge, the common electorate, and the nobility. (Read More. . .)

Did you know...

  • ...that a paillasse is a thin mattress filled with hay or sawdust and was commonly used in the middle ages?
  • ...that a barbican is a tower or other fortification defending the drawbridge, usually the gateway?
  • ...that a coif is a type of armored head-covering made out of chain-mail and worn under the helmet for extra protection?
  • ...that a heriot is a payment owed to the lord of the manor by a serf’s family upon the serf’s death; usually the family’s best animal, such as a cow, horse or most commonly ox?
  • ...that before 1066, it was noted in the Domesday Book, if one Welshman killed another, the dead man’s relatives could exact retribution on the killer and his family (even burning their houses) until burial of the victim the next day?
  • ...that buboes are pus-filled egg-sized swellings of the lymph glands of the neck, armpits, and groin; typically found in cases of bubonic plague?
  • ...that laws passed in the late 1300s aimed at maintaining class distinctions by prohibiting lower classes from dressing as if they belonged to higher classes?
  • ...that Pier Gerlofs Donia, a 15th century Frisian freedom fighter of 7 feet tall was alleged to be so strong that he could lift a 1000 pound horse?
  • ...that Edgar Ætheling was the last of the Anglo-Saxon Kings of England, but was only proclaimed, never crowned?

Selected image

Double-headed eagle of the Holy Roman Empire, by Hans Burgkmair.
Credit: Steven G. Johnson

The double-headed eagle is a common symbol in heraldry and vexillology. It is most commonly associated with the Byzantine Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Russian Empire and their successor states. Hans Burgkmair the elder was a German painter and woodcut printmaker.

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