The Middle Ages is a name given to a period of European history that dates from approximately 476 AD to the 1400s. Historians often use different dates to describe the Middle Ages. In most cases, they say the period began with the fall of the Roman Empire and ended with the start of the Renaissance. This was a time of great advancements in art and science in Europe.
The term Middle Ages was used mainly by writers in the 1400s or 1500s. These writers thought the period was a “dark” age but very little happened during this time. However, the period was an important time in history. At this time, society was divided into classes. Religion shaped the lives of average people and powerful rulers. Monks created brightly colored books that became works of art. Architects built great churches and mosques. The Middle Ages was also a time of terrible warfare and deadly diseases that killed millions of people.
The Fall of Rome
The Roman Empire was very powerful. It formed in 27 BC and ruled much of the ancient world for almost 500 years. The empire had a very strong military. It conquered many lands in modern-day Europe and the Middle East. However, by the 400s AD, the empire had started to weaken. It eventually broke into two halves. The city of Rome was the capital of the western half, while Constantinople in modern-day Turkey was the capital of the eastern half. Invaders attacked and looted Rome in 410. In 476, the last western Roman emperor was defeated.
The Roman military was no longer strong. Invading armies began to move into areas that used to be western Roman territories. The Roman Empire was once united. Now, however, it broke into smaller kingdoms that often fought with one another. The knowledge and accomplishments of western Roman civilization were lost or destroyed. The knowledge that did survive was usually preserved by monks living in monasteries.
The Church and Society
The eastern Roman Empire stayed strong for several more centuries. Then the city of Constantinople was captured in 1453. In Europe, the people were fighting. No large kingdom stepped forward to unite them. As a result, the Roman Catholic Church became the most powerful force in Europe. It began converting many people to Christianity. Kings and queens often needed the approval of the pope before they could be accepted as rulers. The pope was the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
In Europe, religion was the most important part of society. Average people were expected to donate some of their earnings to the church each year. They were also expected to make a religious journey to visit holy sites. Monks were some of the few people who could read and write. Monasteries became important places for learning. Many families sent their young children to monasteries to become monks or nuns and to get an education.
The society of the Middle Ages was divided into several parts. Royalty was at the top. Kings and queens were royalty. Wealthy nobles and high-ranking church officials came next. Just below them were knights. Knights were soldiers who served royalty or wealthy noblemen. Peasants were the lowest members of society. Some peasants were freemen who may have owned some land. Serfs worked on land owned by a noble in exchange for a place to live. Slaves had no rights. They were treated as property to be bought and sold.
Art in the Middle Ages
Religion in the Middle Ages influenced art. In monasteries, monks created colorful religious books known as illuminated manuscripts. The monks used gold or silver and bright paint to decorate the books. This made the letters appear to “light up” the pages. The pictures and letters were drawn with great detail. The books are considered one of the finest works of art from the period.
In many places in Europe, Christian churches were often built to be the largest buildings in the area. They had tall pointed spires, wide stone arches, and brightly colored glass. They were beautiful places of worship. The religion of Islam was popular in the Middle East. Architects created great domed mosques decorated with intricate patterns and featuring tall towers.
Crusades, Plague, and Renaissance
Islam was founded in the early 600s in the area of modern-day Saudi Arabia. By the 1000s, Islamic empires had grown in power. They controlled much of the Middle East. In Europe, Christian leaders were angry that Muslims had conquered the Holy Land. This was the region where Jesus Christ and other biblical figures were believed to have lived. In 1096, Christian leaders began a series of wars against the Muslims. They wanted to remove them from the Holy Land. These wars were known as the Crusades. They lasted almost 200 years. In the end, the Christian armies were defeated.
In the 1340s, Europe was devastated by a deadly plague. It was known as the Black Death. The disease was believed to have been carried to Europe by trading ships. Then it spread by fleas living on rats. In just a few years, the Black Death killed about twenty to fifty million people across Europe. Some historians believe that was about a third to half the population at the time.
In the 1400s, many places in Europe had rediscovered the art, culture, and science of the ancient Greeks and Romans. They saw this period as the beginning of an era of cultural “rebirth.” The period is known as the Renaissance. At the time, scholars considered the centuries from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance as a time when little progress was made in science and culture. They referred to it as the Middle Ages. They did not want it to be confused with the Renaissance.