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Chapter 1. The End of the World as We Know It

In This Chapter

Why the Middle Ages are called the Middle Ages

• The worst disease ever

• The Hundred Years’ War

• Big problems in the Church

• Peasant revolts

The term Middle Ages comes from the Latin medium aevum, from which we derive the word medieval. The terms Middle Ages and medieval are virtually synonymous, historically speaking. Europeans who lived in the fifteenth century and after looked back at the years between the fall of the Roman Empire and the dawn of the Renaissance as the middle, hence the name Middle Ages.

For medieval Europeans, the times probably seemed more like the end of time than anything else. Between 476 C.E. when Rome fell to the barbarians and the 1400s when signs of the Renaissance began to appear in Italy, Europe experienced difficult times. For roughly 400 years after the fall of Rome, with no Romans and no stable governments to maintain order, barbarian tribes had their way with Europe. Conditions weren’t exactly ideal for human advancement in areas like technology, science, education—or anything else for that matter. In fact, things were so dismal that many modern historians have labeled those first centuries after the fall of Rome as the Dark Ages.

Introducing the Middle Ages

So when did Europe emerge from the dark? Some credit must go to Charlemagne, who forged a stable central government for the Franks and made them the greatest of the barbarian kingdoms. Charlemagne wasn’t finished, though. In 800 C.E., he became Holy Roman Emperor and solidified a relationship between church and state that would last for a very long time. The position of Holy Roman Emperor went hand in hand with that of the pope. The pope was the final authority on all spiritual matters in the Catholic world, and the Holy Roman Emperor had supreme political authority in the Catholic world.

Some credit must also be given to William, Duke of Normandy, better known as William the Conqueror. In 1066 C.E., William successfully invaded England, taking control after a decisive victory at the Battle of Hastings. Once in control of England, William established the system of feudalism. He divided his kingdom among a number of nobles. These were his vassals, and the pieces of land he gave each of them were called fiefs. Each noble was then responsible for supplying soldiers for the royal army. To do this, the nobles divided their land among vassals of their own in exchange for military service and loyalty. This process continued until all tracts of land in the kingdom were of a manageable size and until the royal army was of a sufficient size. The feudal system would dominate most of Europe for centuries—as long as 900 years in some regions.

For those uncomfortable with the judgment implied in the term “Dark Ages,” the Middle Ages can be divided into the Lower Middle Ages, the centuries after the fall of Rome, and the High Middle Ages, the centuries just prior to the Renaissance. While life in the Lower Middle Ages held plenty of uncertainty for most of Europe, life during the High Middle Ages couldn’t have been much better, despite the presence of some stable governments. The High Middle Ages were never as they appear in romantic tales or Hollywood movies, with happy peasants, beautiful castles, brave knights, and lovely ladies—in fact, they were fraught with political and religious turmoil, disease, and war.

Define Your Terms

Feudalism was a political, economic, and social system in which landowners (lords) granted land (fief) to another person of lower status (vassal) in exchange for loyalty, military service, and rents.


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