Medieval Europe

Background

Out of the ashes of the collapsed western Roman Empire rose an agrarian, decentralized world of small, mostly Christianized kingdoms, which gave birth to universities, workers guilds, a revolution in commerce, and more. The very idea of Europe as a distinct cultural unit emerged during the era (read 101).

The period (roughly 500 to 1500 CE) came to be known as the "middle age" between Greco-Roman antiquity and a later period of recovery of the arts and ideas of those civilizations, a three-part periodization first conceived in the 15th century.

Migrations

As Roman governance weakened in the western Empire, millions of non-Roman peoples are estimated to have migrated from Scandinavia, northern Europe, and the East, settling and reshaping the former Roman provinces (see map).

The movement resulted in new alignments between Roman and non-Roman peoples, like the Franks, who consolidated power in Gaul (modern France) and saw a brief cultural renaissance under Frankish King Charlemagne in the ninth century CE. Elsewhere, the northern Vikings raided much of Europe in the 10th and 11th centuries.

Monasteries and Schools

Amid Rome's decline, Christian monasteries became the lifeblood of cultural transmission. With support from the church and wealthy patrons, monks and nuns living in the community copied texts from antiquity (read a deep dive).

A new shift toward professionalization led to the development of universities for the study of law, medicine, and theology. Originally schools for priests and monks, these studia generalia evolved to include lay people from across Europe.

Economics

The period was marked by decentralized, local control of lands owned by noble lords and worked by mostly free peasants known as vassals, a system modern historians dubbed feudalism. Climate scientists claim the era saw higher agricultural yields amid a global warm period.

Independent, growing towns gave birth to a revolution in commercial activity, where trade increased, money became the primary commodity, innovations in production boosted wealth, and communities of respected artisans developed, called guilds.

Despite its reputation as a dark age, myriad inventions are rooted in the Middle Ages, including mechanical clocks, windmills, the printing press, compasses, and more (see list).

Art and Architecture

Christian values left an indelible mark on medieval culture, from the Romanesque and Gothic churches erected around the continent to the visual arts—like iconography and illuminated manuscripts—which taught theology and history to a generally illiterate populace.

Mixed within this dominant worldview were antecedent tribal cultures, like the Vikings and the Saxons, whose pottery, metalwork, and more contributed to later styles.

Rise of State Power

The late Middle Ages saw the centralization of power in the kingdoms of France, England, and Spain. The idea that independent states were sovereign—or the final arbiter of power in the territory—grew in force, replacing feudal hierarchies. The idea of universal human rights had its roots in the English Magna Carta in 1215 (see interactive).

This centralization led to the growth of a bureaucratic support system for monarchs, where legions of workers assisted in ruling via specialized tasks, precursors to the modern administrative state.

Video Gallery

A collection of videos about Medieval Europe

Dive Deeper

Relevant articles, podcasts, videos, and more from around the internet — curated and summarized by our team

Open link on youtube.com

Before there was central heat, how did folks in the Middle Ages survive the cold? This video explores some of the tactics and inventions medieval folks utilized to keep warm in the winter. Palace chambers were glazed to cut back on wind blowing through walls, windows were covered with foliage and paper, and good ol' layering of the clothes were some of the techniques they used.

Open link on history.com

This article explains why and how "unicorn horns"—now known to be narwhal tusks—came to be considered a cure-all during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Nobility and those with means snatched up these horns to avoid illness and poison, though they didn't know much about the source of this supposed panacea. The horns of these Arctic whales swiftly became gifts fit for royalty; Queen Elizabeth I once received a horn from explorer Martin Frobisher.

Open link on bbc.com

Elite medieval knights often kept their sword-fighting secrets close to their armor while others created illustrated guides to their technique. Due to the passing of time, interested students and scholars of today are left to decode the cryptic and vague fighting manuals they left behind if they want to understand the Middle Ages' martial art. This article explains why so much has been lost when translating these illustrated texts.

Open link on npr.org

The Black Death carved deep paths of death and violence wherever it went, later followed by economic and social upheaval. In Europe, the Black Death slaughtered so many that those who remained were able to demand better wages and treatment. This sudden rise in worker power and social mobility across Europe became known as the “Golden Age of Labor.” This 23-minute podcast episode details the economic impact of the Black Death in Europe.

Open link on thecollector.com

As the first officially recognized Christian military order, the Knights Templar sought to protect Christian pilgrims and expand their religion’s influence through might. The warrior monk organization formed after the First Crusade and were named after the fallen First Temple of King Solomon, out of which they were based—leading to the name “Templars.” This article describes the rise and fall of the monastic order.

Open link on followthevikings.com

Vikings were seafaring Scandinavians between 800 and 1200 CE who flourished in what is now Denmark, Norway, and Iceland. Skilled craftsman and artisans, the groups were known for their brutal raids on coastal villages in Western Europe, which played a large role in spreading their cultural influence from the British Isles to Northern Africa. Explore the rise and fall of the Viking empire with this interactive timeline and map.

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