The Middle Ages

Historians disagree about exact dates, but I believe it is generally accepted that the phrase ‘Middle Ages’ denotes the period in Europe from around 700 A.D. to around 1500. Before 700 were ‘The Dark Ages’ – dark in many senses but mainly because professional historians did not exist after the decline of the civilised Roman Empire in the west, and countless barbarian invasions/occupations in the 5th and 6th centuries after Christ.

Making notes in laborious Latin and Greek was left to the monks, and all historians should fall on their knees in thanks to those tonsured scribes scribbling away, giving their impression of everyday life in those mysterious times. There were balladeers and minstrels too, moving around Europe, singing songs of heroism and villainy. Blondel, for example, was supposed to have found the prison where an irreligious and jealous king had locked up King Richard I (Lionheart) on his way back from the Crusades. Blondel was a travelling minstrel, almost certainly French, who had sung for Richard at his Court, and the story, probably apocryphal, goes that Richard, high in his dark tower heard the silvery voice, recognised it, and sang back! Thus Blondel was able to get to England and tell Richard’s Queen where he was to be found.

The Dark Ages were followed by the emergence of separate kingdoms and principalities and eventually dukedoms. The reduction (it never disappeared) of anarchy came with the coronation of Charlemagne in 800. Civilization which had begun with the Greeks and Romans returned, and with it learning – as the first properly organised schools and universities sprang up across Europe in the 10th and 11th centuries.

England had a king called Alfred who could read and write, encouraging education and the establishment of monastic houses called abbeys or convents, where study and learning were deemed important. The building of these centres of distinction required experts, and the art/ science of architecture flourished. Territorial expansion by the Vikings, which had at first been disruptive and violent, led in the 9th century to the assimilation of the Normans (who were indeed Vikings) into local populations. The Normans, led by their Duke, were a fatal blow for the Saxons who inhabited England (Battle of Hastings 1066).

By the time of the High Middle Ages in the 12th and 13th centuries the Papacy had become all-powerful, and Popes tended to clash with secular rulers over their respective areas of jurisdiction. Many kings, including John I and Henry II of England were actually excommunicated.

Obsession with religion led to pilgrimage to holy shrines, but was also the impetus behind the Crusades: thousands of Christian knights rode East to slaughter Muslims or try to convert them. Society in emerging countries such as England and France was based on the feudal system (q.v.) in which land and property were offered by kings in return for military service and the forming of armies loyal to their lord and through him their king. The great and rather terrible power of the aristocratic landowners was beginning to make itself felt by the 12th century.

Trade between countries increased ten-fold; especially the wool trade in England, rapidly providing marginally better living conditions for the poor and immense fortunes for the rich. Immense Gothic cathedrals were being built showing the huge advances in engineering and architecture. Most of them not destroyed during two twentieth century world wars have survived and remain as places of worship, even if sadly empty due to current ungodliness. In England Wells, Worcester, Norwich, Salisbury, Ely, St. Albans and many others first reached for the sky with their spires in the Middle Ages.

In the 13th and 14th centuries various factors combined to cause general unrest in the rapidly growing European populations. Constant wars, disease (especially the Black Death or Plague), injustice by rulers and uncontrolled ambition among the Popes, the hundred year conflict between England and France – all these resulted in falling populations and the commencement of anticlericalism at the end of the fourteenth century. It would be safe to state that the Middle Ages ended in the 15th and 16th centuries with the emergence of the Renaissance in Italy. It was the last of the medieval period and marked a new spirit of sceptical enquiry and less passive acceptance of injustice and ill-treatment.

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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