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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. The figure of Christ is slightly later. Probably made in Cologne or Essen, the cross demonstrates several medieval techniques: cast figurative sculpture, filigree, enamelling, gem polishing and setting, and the reuse of Classical cameos and engraved gems.

In the history of Europe, the Middle Ages (or Medieval period) lasted from the 5th to the 15th century. It began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and merged 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, invasion, and movement of peoples, which had begun in Late Antiquity, continued in 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—once part of the 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. The empire's law code, the Corpus Juris Civilis or "Code of Justinian", was rediscovered in Northern Italy in 1070 and became widely admired later in the Middle Ages. In the West, most kingdoms incorporated the few extant Roman institutions. Monasteries were founded as campaigns to Christianise pagan Europe continued. The Franks, under the Carolingian dynasty, briefly established the Carolingian Empire during the later 8th and early 9th century. 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. The Crusades, first preached in 1095, were military attempts by Western European Christians to regain control of the Holy Land from Muslims. Kings became the heads of centralised nation-states, reducing crime and violence but making the ideal of a unified Christendom more distant. 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 are among the outstanding achievements toward the end of this period and into the Late Middle Ages.

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.

Selected article

The capture of Jerusalem marked the First Crusade's success.
The First Crusade was launched in 1096 by Pope Urban II with the dual goals of conquering the sacred city of Jerusalem and the Holy Land and freeing the Eastern Christians from Islamic rule. What started as an appeal by Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus for western mercenaries to fight the Seljuk Turks in Anatolia quickly turned into a wholescale Western migration and conquest of territory outside of Europe. Both knights and peasants from many nations of Western Europe travelled over land and by sea towards Jerusalem and captured the city in July 1099, establishing the Kingdom of Jerusalem and other Crusader states. Although these gains lasted for less than two hundred years, the First Crusade was a major turning point in the expansion of Western power, as well as the first major step towards reopening international trade in the West since the fall of the Western Roman Empire.The origins of the Crusades in general, and of the First Crusade in particular, stem from events earlier in the Middle Ages. The breakdown of the Carolingian Empire in previous centuries, combined with the relative stability of European borders after the Christianization of the Vikings and Magyars, gave rise to an entire class of warriors who now had little to do but fight among themselves. By the early 8th century, the Umayyad Caliphate had rapidly captured North Africa, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Spain from a predominantly Christian Byzantine Empire.


Selected biography

William of tyre.jpg

William of Tyre (c. 1130 – 29 September 1186) was a medieval prelate and chronicler. As archbishop of Tyre, he is sometimes known as William II to distinguish him from a predecessor, William of Malines. He grew up in Jerusalem at the height of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which had been established in 1099 after the First Crusade, and he spent twenty years studying the liberal arts and canon law in the universities of Europe.

Following William's return to Jerusalem in 1165, King Amalric I made him an ambassador to the Byzantine Empire. William became tutor to the king's son, the future King Baldwin IV, whom William discovered to be a leper. After Amalric's death, William became chancellor and archbishop of Tyre, two of the highest offices in the kingdom, and in 1179 William led the eastern delegation to the Third Council of the Lateran. As he was involved in the dynastic struggle that developed during Baldwin IV's reign, his importance waned when a rival faction gained control of royal affairs. He was passed over for the prestigious Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and died in obscurity, probably in 1186.

William wrote an account of the Lateran Council and a history of the Islamic states from the time of Muhammad. Neither work survives. He is famous today as the author of a history of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. William composed his chronicle in excellent Latin for his time, with numerous quotations from classical literature. The chronicle is sometimes given the title Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum ("History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea") or Historia Ierosolimitana ("History of Jerusalem"), or the Historia for short. It was translated into French soon after his death, and thereafter into numerous other languages. Because it is the only source for the history of twelfth-century Jerusalem written by a native, historians have often assumed that William's statements could be taken at face value. However, more recent historians have shown that William's involvement in the kingdom's political disputes resulted in detectable biases in his account. Despite this, he is considered the greatest chronicler of the crusades, and one of the best authors of the Middle Ages. (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?

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