The Middle Ages in Europe – An overview

Das Mittelalter - eine der spannendsten Epochen der Menschheitsgeschichte. Bild: (c) Timo Skorzik

The Middle Ages are an important period in the course of European history. It can be classified in time between antiquity and modern times. In more specific terms, its historical course is recorded between the 6th and 15th centuries. Within the thousand-year-old Middle Ages, an further internal periodization was classified as the early Middle Ages, the High Middle Ages and the Late Middle Ages.

The Early Middle Ages from the 6th century to the middle of the 11th century

In the early Middle Ages, Christian missionaries, such as St. Nicholas, passed through the many countries, either starting from Rome or Ireland. In this way, the pagan faith in the Germanic gods first clashed with the Christian faith.

Over the centuries, the traditional faith of the Germanic tribes began to die out more and more. Entire kingdoms and their populations converted to Christianity. The former Roman Empire was now divided into Christian and Islamic areas. In addition, there was another subdivision in the Christian area, which appeared in a Latin area in the west of Europe and an Orthodox area in the east of Europe.

The newly founded Frankish Empire also established itself as an important power in the early Middle Ages under the rule of King Chlodwig the First. As his later successor, Charlemagne was able to strengthen this position of power even further. However, after his death, the medieval Frankish Empire disintegrated into various areas. In the west, West Francia (later to be the forerunner of modern France) was formed, while in the eastern half East Francia emerged, and between them both lay middle Francia.

The lives of people in early medieval Europe

Although there were free people in the early Middle Ages, they were very much in the minority. This included above all the rich nobility, who owned most of the land or received it on loan from the royal ruler. By contrast, the vast majority of people were in bondage to the rich and powerful, they were subordinates living as serfs to a territory. And most of the serfs worked as peasants, servants and maids while living on the lands of the nobility. Also, without the Lord’s permission, no one was allowed to leave or marry their chosen partner.

Although there was already money in the form of coins in this period, the exchange of goods was still widespread. At the end of the early Middle Ages, Vikings from the Scandinavian countries undertook many raids, especially on the west coast of Europe. In the Middle Ages, the various Viking tribes terrified the entire continent of Europe. The warriors were armed to the teeth and appeared on the coasts in a flash with their long ships. They conquered the villages, plundered nearby monasteries and enslaved the inhabitants. Afterwards, the Vikings sometimes burned down everything they couldn’t take with them.

On the other hand, the Magyars who later founded the Hungarian Empire invaded from the east,. However, this tribe would be pushed back again and again in various wars.

The early medieval garments was still rather practical – wide tunics and dresses held together with a belt. The clothing consisting of different layers are still not so different now. Wealth was much more likely to be reflected in jewelry and armour at this time.

The High Middle Ages from the mid-11th to the mid-13th century

During the High Middle Ages, almost the whole of Europe was Catholic, with the Pope as the powerful head of the church in Rome. Thanks to an economic boom, the medieval population grew wealthier. Trade and crafts were primarily responsible for this. As a commodity, money took on an increasingly important position. And as a result of this, the first banks were created in medieval Italy, which greatly simplified the handling of monetary assets.

With the expansion, the desire for education intensified, which led to the foundation of the first cathedral and monastery schools (as well as the first universities). Among the most important topics for medieval studies were theology, medicine and law, which related to faith, healing and legal studies. In the Middle Ages, the painters painted paintings with a biblical and natural background. As a common architectural style, medieval Romanesque with its characteristic round arches had prevailed at that time over others.

The medieval dress changes to more flattering body hugging designs. The men’s tunics become shorter, with tight trousers or leggings worn. Women wore lavish dresses. The lower classes still preferred practical, simple clothing, while wealthier people adorned themselves in heavily decorated, colorful robes. Individuals began to stand out from each other more and more, and with that the first laws on dress code were also proclaimed.

Crusades and important inventions in the High Middle Ages

The High Middle Ages marked the beginning of the Crusades, in which the various Christian armies campaigned to Jerusalem to liberate the Holy City from the Muslims. Knights served as leaders of the armies, and the few knights were accompanied by soldiers who were on foot.

Among the most important achievements in the High Middle Ages are the many different inventions with which a breakthrough and change in everyday life was achieved. These include the high-performance wind mills and water mills for grinding grains as well as pressing oil and sawing wood. The spinning wheel, improvements to looms and the practical wheelbarrow also date from this medieval period. In addition, there was the development of clocks with gears and the discovery of the explosive power of black powder.

The compass came from China to Europe via the Silk Road, which led to an important evolution in seafaring and all other voyages of discovery. And a revolutionary idea, that it was not the earth, but rather the sun, that was at the center of our planetary system.

The Late Middle Ages from the middle of the 13th century to about 1500

In the late Middle Ages, the prevailing climate cooled noticeably, so that the harvests were leaner. As a result, there have were major famines and serious illnesses among the population. Due to the outbreak of bubonic plague, over half of all European inhabitants died in the 14th century. In the late Middle Ages, the Hundred Years’ War broke out between England and France, which also claimed many lives. During this period, Islam spread to large areas of present-day Spain and Portugal.

In the late Middle Ages, human beings also made important inventions. One of the pioneers in this field is the brilliant Leonardo da Vinci, who even invented the parachute. Thanks to the newly introduced glasses, many people with visual impairments could even see small things again and read written texts. The paper mill made paper from rags, this method was significantly cheaper than parchment from animal skins.

In the late Middle Ages, other fashion trends developed, which were mainly oriented towards the fashion of the nobility. Much to the annoyance of the Church, the cuts of medieval women’s clothing became more generous in the late Middle Ages. In addition to this, the first two part outfits, consisting of a blouse and skirt, were created for women. Due to the lively trade and progress in the textile industry, many fabrics and colours were available from now on, not only for the nobility, but also for the emerging bourgeoisie.

Important events in the Late Middle Ages

Johannes Gutenberg invented the first letterpress with movable letters in 1450 and printed a Bible for the first time. In this way began the medieval Reformation and later separation of the Christian faith.

At the end of the late Middle Ages, the navigator Vasco da Gama sailed around the continent of Africa. He was reaching India by sea instead of by land. As a result, trade expanded, and the banks also benefited and increased their influence. Gothic was developed from The Romanesque period, which led to the Renaissance in modern times.

Cover image: (c) Timo Skorzik, sent in for the photo battle 2015