Major Events in the Middle Ages

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about some of the major events of the Middle Ages. We will identify the central characteristics of this time period, and we will highlight major developments and trends.

Major Themes of the Middle Ages

For many people, what comes to mind when thinking about the Middle Ages is castles, knights, superstition, and a general ignorance, or what we might call an intellectual 'darkness'. In fact, the Middle Ages have often been called the Dark Ages because of this perceived lack of intellectual vibrancy.

There should be a general understanding, though, what time period we are referring to when we use the term Middle Ages. Most scholars regard the Middle Ages, or the Medieval Period, as lasting from the fall of Rome in 476 A.D. to the birth of the Modern Age beginning around 15th-16th century. However, not all historians agree on the precise dates of the Middle Ages. One common (albeit simplified) designation of the Middle Ages is between 500-1500 A.D. This a very general time-frame, but it helps us get a rough idea of the era.

While the Middle Ages have often been perceived as being an intellectually dark time, recent scholarship has called this notion into question. Currently this view is largely dismissed by historians. Increasingly the scientific and intellectual contributions of this period are being acknowledged.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the influence of the Catholic Church was pronounced. In many ways, the Church held more power than nations. In fact, state authority was largely handed down by the Church. Kings and queens were quite often forced to act in accord with the wishes of the Church. Corruption in the Catholic Church was common. The Church had the power to tax, and at times threatened the pains of hell and other spiritual consequences should taxes not be paid. Through taxation and other means of financial exploitation, the Church amassed tremendous wealth and power.

The Church was the focal point of medieval society, with culture during the Middle Ages revolving around religious life. Gothic architecture thrived during this time, and was designed to point the viewer toward the majesty of God.

Civil authority was often determined by the Pope. In 800 A.D. Pope Leo III crowned Frankish king Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor, a title which hearkened back to the days of Imperial Rome. The region controlled by Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Empire, consisted of a conglomeration of states and kingdoms in what is now Germany, France, and Italy. The state existed throughout the Middle Ages, until it was dissolved in the early 19th century.

This 19th century painting depicts the coronation of Charlemagne.
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The rise of Islam was another major event that took place during the early Middle Ages. Following the death of Muhammad in 632 A.D., Muslim forces quickly occupied large sections of the Middle East. By the 7th and 8th century, Muslim conquests had expanded into what is now Spain and Turkey. Muslim scholars translated various Greek texts, and made important advances in mathematics and science. For example, a game we enjoy today called chess was introduced to the people of Europe by Muslims.

Nevertheless, Muslim expansion throughout the Middle East and into Europe alarmed many European Christians. In 1095 Pope Urban II called upon Christians to go to war against Muslims, in an event that has come to be called the Crusades. The Crusades lasted between 1095 to the 15th century, and came and went in waves. The goal of the First Crusade was to clear the Holy Land of Muslim forces and capture Jerusalem. The First Crusade was largely successful, but subsequent crusades saw varying degrees of success and failure. Today the crusades remain a controversial topic, and there is much disagreement among historians over them.

This medieval images depicts armies of Christian crusaders.
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If you could pick any time period of time to live in, chances are, you probably would not want to pick the Middle Ages. Unless, of course, you had the guarantee of being very wealthy. The average person living during the Middle Ages had a poor quality of life. Under the system of feudalism, landless peasants, called serfs had virtually no choice but to toil for others just to scratch out a living. Under feudalism, the king distributed large pieces of land to noblemen. The nobleman then employed serfs to work their land, with most of the produce going back to the noblemen. In return for their labor, serfs were granted small living spaces and protection from enemies. It was a pretty dismal life.

Peasant serfs toil on land that does not belong to them.
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