The Middle Ages, or Medieval Ages, of Europe began roughly with Charlemagne and ended in the Renaissance in the 16th century. A time of great turmoil throughout Europe, the Middle Ages was a time of religious fervor and brutal wars.
Undeniably the most iconic time period in history, medieval symbols are still seen and recognized throughout the world today. The castle, the knight, the tournaments with jousting, the pageantry: all of these still capture the imagination of people young and old. The caste system is also one of the most recognized in the world. There were clear dividing lines between royalty, nobility, and the peasants. At almost all times the king ruled the country. The nobility owed him allegiance, and paid taxes and gave troops in times of war. The peasants farmed the land or worked in the castles as servants. The clergy also had a huge influence at this time, and every settlement had at least one clergyman to guide the people spiritually.
The Middle Ages were also a time of great change. Power had been consolidated under royalty, and strong kingdoms sprung up. England, Spain, and France were some of the earliest kingdoms to unify, but other kingdoms, such as Poland and Holland, became important power houses. Country-borders were established, and though they changed, the basic outline of the countries were established and maintained. Power was established through divine right, and families often fought for this power, sometimes strengthening their power through political marriages, sometimes fighting each other for favor from one royal member or another.
Through technological advances, the European population literally doubled during this time. With the increased populations came some mass problems. One was famines. The 14th century was dotted with famines. The Black Plague also hit Europe in 1347. It’s estimated that the Black Plague killed about 35 million people.
Warfare was also prevalent. Crusades were started in the 11th century and were developed in an attempt to wrestle Islamic control from the Holy Land. In the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries, Crusades took place in other places as well, including Spain, France, and the Baltic. Famous orders of knights, such as the Knights Templar and the Teutonic Knights, took part in these Crusades alongside knights with sworn oaths to rich noblemen. Wars also broke out between countries and between with wealthy classes. Castles were constantly changing, as different methods of warfare were being introduced. Siege warfare was still a popular method to the very end of the Middle Ages, but it was costly. With the introduction of gunpowder in the 13th century, medieval battles changed forever. The knight in shiny armor was no match for a canon, and castle walls were reduced easily under canon fire.
It wasn’t all warfare, though. With the increase of Christianity and the growing power of the Church, architectural advances and artwork flourished. Great cathedrals sprung up across the land, monuments to the power of the Church and the power of the faith that Christianity brought. Artwork such as tapestries, manuscripts, and metalwork was made in abundance, the delicate designs decorating buildings and people alike.
The later Middle Ages also saw a growth in scholarship. Through the advocate of several leading scholars, science was separated from theology and philosophy, and began to flourish on its own. Advances in medicine, astronomy, and natural sciences were made. Laws were also solidified and written down. Though education was mostly used for the clergy, royalty and nobles were also being educated, mostly through private tutorship.