Chapter 12

Those Terrible Middle Ages

In This Chapter

• Europe after the fall of Rome

• Vikings and feudalism

• The power of the Church

• The Crusades

• The Black Death

• The end of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

The time period of the European Middle Ages lasted approximately from the fall of the Roman empire to the beginning of the European Reformation, or from 500 to 1500 C.E. A thousand years is a huge chunk of time for historians to deal with, so it has been divided into three differentperiods: the early Middle Ages (500-1000), the High Middle Ages (1000-1300), and the Late Middle Ages (1300-1500).

However, just to add a little confusion, sometimes historians talk about the “Renaissance,” which happened during the Late Middle Ages in Italy, as a distinct time period from the Middle Ages. And to make it even more confusing, some historians refer to the Middle Ages as the Medieval Period (actually meaning middle period) or the Dark Ages or the Age of Feudalism or the Age of Faith. But regardless of all the ambiguities, most historians would agree that there were some reoccurring events and themes during the period of 500 to 1500 on the continent of Europe.

After Rome

After the fall of Rome in 476, which was hastened by Germanic invading tribes, Europe had a political vacuum that had to be filled. Many Germanic tribes tried, including the Lombards, Goths, Visigoths, Vandals, Saxons, Jutes, Angles, and Franks; but the Franks were the first tribe to get it all together and fill the void left by the fall of Rome.

The Merovingians

In the early 400s, the Franks migrated from central Europe and settled in the region of France. After some time the Franks emerged as the strongest and dominated the region for years. The early rulers of the Franks came from the Merovingian family. King Clovis (481-511) established a monarchy over the Franks and ruled during the late 400s. He also converted the Frankish kingdom to Christianity, supposedly at the urging of his wife and because he believed he received God’s assistance in a particularlyimportant battle. In reality, like the many rulers before him, Clovis saw the cohesive power of religion. Clovis established a strong kingdom during his lifetime, but once he passed away the Merovingian line became weak and the kingdom of the Franks suffered.

As the Merovingian monarchy fell into decline, the office of the mayor of the palace became stronger. Charles Martel was an excellent example of a strong mayor of the palace who defended the kingdom of the Franks while the Merovingian king stayed at home. (Merovingian kings were sometimes called “do-nothing kings.”) In 732 Martel led a Frankish army against an invading Muslim army at the Battle of Tours, a criticalpoint in European and world history. Martel’s victory ensured that Christianity would be the religion of Europe. His son, Pepin the Short, assumed the hereditary and powerful title of mayor of the palace after his death. Tired of the “do-nothing” kings, Pepin, after gaining the blessing of the pope of Rome, deposed of the last Merovingian king and became king himself. This was the start of the Carolingian dynasty.

The Carolingians

The Franks were fortunate that the Carolingians gained the throne. Pepin the Short’s son became one of the greatest leaders of medieval Europe and helped to build the Frankish kingdom into an empire. Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, became king of the Franks in 771 after the death of his father. Within a few years, he doubled the territory of the Frankish kingdom to include modern-day Germany, France, Italy, and northern Spain. Through the charisma of his rule, the Franks experienced a renaissance,or rebirth in culture.

Although he was never able to read himself, Charlemagne encouraged the construction of schools and hired scholars from across Europe to facilitate learning. (The story goes that he slept with a book under his pillow hoping he would learn how to read!) Like any good Christian ruler, he protected the churches and monasteries of the empire, and also forcibly converted the Germanic tribe called the Saxons to Christianity. (He continually had trouble with them from then on.)

In 800 Charlemagne took a Frankish army to the gates of Rome to rescue Pope Leo III from an invading Germanic army. The pope was so grateful and eager for continued protection that he crowned Charlemagne the Holy Roman Emperor, recalling and associating Charlemagne with the great Roman emperors of the past. But things were not to last.

Notable Quotable

"It was at the time he received the title of emperor and Augustus, to which at first he was so averse that he remarked that had he known the intention of the pope, he would not have entered the church on that day.”

Life of Charlemagne, Einhard

Charlemagne did not prepare well for his death. In 814, he died, leaving his throne to his son, Louis the Pious who was, in fact, very pious, and wanted to be at the altar more than on the throne. The Frankish empire weakened with his rule, and even more so when he died in 843.

Louis the Pious left the Frankish empire to his three sons, a division spelled out shortly beforehand in the Treaty of Verdun. Charles the Bald (yes, he was bald) received the western region, which later turned into France. Louis the German (yes, he spoke German) got the eastern portion, which became Germany. Finally, Lothair (no, he didn’t have a nickname) acquired the strip of land between the two other brothers called Lorraine.

The saying goes, “United we stand, divided we fall,” and with the division of the Frankish empire, its political and military power weakened under the strain of other competing kingdoms and a renewed series of invasions of Europe.

Invasions Again?

Beginning in the ninth century, another series of invasions threatened Europe, much like the fifth century invasions threatened the Roman Empire. From the north, Scandinavia, came the Vikings, who traveled across the Baltic Sea in shallow-draft longboats. The Vikings were mainly pirates, interested in quick strikes and easy fights, so they targeted Christian monasteries and small villages and towns.

From across the central steppes of Asia and central Europe came the Magyars. These nomadic tribes terrorized central Europe until they were collectively defeated by the German Holy Roman Emperor Otto I at the Battle of Lechfeld in 955. And finally the last groups of ninth-century invaders were Islamic forces, which periodically raided the southern coastline of Europe.

These invasions or raids had several effects. They isolated communities by discouragingtravel, and trade declined as people grew fearful of traveling. The invasions also weakened the authority of the kings, who appeared unable to protect their people and territory. Finally, the most lasting impact was the development of the system of feudalism, which lasted in various forms across Europe for hundreds of years.

Let’s Go Serfing

Although the origins of the feudalist system have sometimes been debated, many historiansplace its beginning during the rule of Charles Martel. After one of Martel’s many military campaigns, he was unable to pay his soldiers for the services rendered. Rather than hand the armed men IOUs (which probably would not have gone over well), Martel granted the men fiefs or estates populated by peasants.

At the top of the feudal pyramid was the king, followed by the nobles, his lords or vassals. Kings granted or protected the lands of the nobles, who swore an oath and military support to the king, hiring men-at-arms or knights. On the bottom were the peasants, who lived and worked on the land, giving up many freedoms to have the protection of the lords above them. This pyramid was held together by the strength of its alliances, which were hereditary as well as contractual and were secured by a ceremony known as homage. In that ceremony vassals pledged to be loyal and performtheir duties for their lord.

The feudal system really caught on during the ninth-century Viking invasions. It was better equipped to handle these types of incursions because people did not have to depend on a distant king and his armies.

Working with the feudal system was another system called the manorial system. Manorialism described the economic ties that existed between the lord of the manor and the peasants. Generally, peasants remained on the manor because they could not afford their own land or they needed protection. Usually these peasants or serfs were bound to the manor and could not leave without permission.

What in the World

Knights began as weapon-carryinghorsemen. As time progressed, early medieval armor called chain mail (small metal rings riveted closely together) became the common garb of a knight. With the developmentof more deadly weapons such as crossbows, longbows, maces, and strong swords, more protection was needed. This led to the use of plate armor by the 1300s.

The typical manor included the lord’s house, usually a fortified palisade or castle; pastures for livestock; fields for crops; forested areas; and a village or town for the serfs. The stability of manorialism helped to increase crop production during the early Middle Ages. It also helped that a heavier plow was invented that could handle the thick soil of Europe, and the three-field system prevented the erosion of nutrientsin the fields. Europe’s improved agricultural production benefited the whole population.

The Church

During the early Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church was developing at a rapid and powerful rate. When Rome fell, people looked to the Church not only for spiritualguidance but for political and social support, and it became a major power in Europe. At the head of the Church was the bishop of Rome, the pope, who became one of the strongest political leaders in Europe, sometimes more powerful than emperors and kings. In part, this power came because of the spiritual authority that he held over Christians.

The Church’s Religious Role and Organization

In order to take care of the spiritual well-being of the Christian laity of Europe, the Church administered the sacraments, or rituals associated with teachings of Jesus, and conducted church services. The sacraments included baptism, penance, the Eucharist, confirmation, matrimony or marriage, anointing of the sick, and the holy orders. Church services or Mass incorporated the sacrament of the Eucharist and were performed in the traditional language of the church, Latin.

All of the spiritual, political, and social work of the church was performed by the clergy, which was divided into two groups. The secular clergy included the pope, cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and priests, who interacted with the secular world. The regular clergy included abbots or monastery heads, abbesses or nunnery heads, monks, and nuns, who worked and lived on monasteries and were generally separated from the world.

Monks and the Business of Monasteries

The work of the monasteries, even though separated and sheltered from the world, was very important to the culture of Europe. The monastic tradition of Christianity developed in the deserts of Egypt and Syria. At a monastery at Monte Cassino, a formerRoman official and monk named Benedict took the desert monastic tradition and transformed it into something quite new, creating the Benedictine Rule.

The rule was much like a constitution for monks and their monasteries to follow. And it wasn’t just a rule; it was a list of rules for monks to follow, including obligations to perform manual labor, to meditate, and to pray. The rule included vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the monastery head. The Benedictine Rule and monastic movement became very popular and soon monasteries spread across Europe during the early Middle Ages.

What in the World

Pretzels originated in the schools of the medieval monasteries.Medieval monks created them for children as rewards for memorizing their prayers. The Latin word pretiola, from which pretzel is derived, means “small reward.” The knot shape of the edible reward was supposed to represent the folded arms of a child in prayer.

The monasteries transmitted learning by creating schools for young people, including schools for peasants to learn trades. They also provided food and shelter for the poor and hospitals and medical treatment for the sick. Culturally the monasteries preserved classical religious and pagan writings. The great writings of antiquity would have been lost if they had not copied the ancient texts, preserving and transmitting them to future generations. Starting with Pope Gregory I in 597, monks spread the messageof Christianity throughout Europe, and by the mid-eleventh century, most Europeans were Catholic Christian.

Power and Reform in the Church

As the Middle Ages progressed, so did the power of the Church. The Church was a part of the feudal system, so it acquired land through the feudal exchange. Many Church officials were nobles, meaning that they actually fought like all the other vassalsin the feudal system. In addition, the Church received many donations of land from Christians concerned about the fate of their soul in the afterlife. By the end of the Middle Ages, the Church was one of the largest landowners in Europe and a very powerful voice in politics. Of course with great power comes great responsibility, and also corruption. Beginning in the 900s, people within the Church began to call for reform.

What in the World

Today the pope is still elected by a college of cardinals called a “conclave.” After the death of the pope, the cardinals meet behind closed and locked doors and are not allowed to leave until a new pope is elected.

The Church reform movement started at one of the major spiritual centers of Europe, the monastery at Cluny, where the clergy called for the Church to be free from the feudal system. That was a long time coming, but other reforms were made. In 1059, cardinals began to choose the pope rather than kings or mobs. Later, in 1073, Pope Gregory VII criticized and fought the German Holy Roman Emperor over the practice of lay investiture. (More on the clash between the pope and the Holy Roman Empire later in the chapter.) In addition, the Church started in earnest to combat heresy, denial of basic church teachings, with the threat of excommunication or expulsion from the Church.


Lay investiture was the medieval practice in which kings and other secular nobles appointed church officials to positions such as cardinalor bishop in their respective kingdoms.

Wandering preachers called friars also inspired reform in the Church. These men moved from town to town preaching the teachings of Jesus found in the Bible and living a simple life. The best known of these holy orders were the Franciscans and the Dominicans, which were started by St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic.

Medieval Art and Architecture

Beyond the sacraments, the power, and the reform, the Church inspired people visually with architecture. Two types of Church architecture developed in the Middle Ages.

First, from around 900 to 1050, was Romanesque architecture, very similar to Roman architecture. Its prevalent features included thick walls and small windows with rounded arches and barrel vaults.

The Gothic style emerged during the mid-eleventh century. Gothic churches were considered to be a representation of prayer in stone and glass. In addition to the large, beautiful stained-glass windows, Gothic architecture featured flying buttresses that held up thin walls, pointed arches, and ribbed vaults.

The Big Three

As the Germanic tribes organized and filled the void that the disintegration of the Roman Empire created in Europe, three kingdoms arose to dominate the political landscape of the continent. These kingdoms became the modern-day countries of England, France, and Germany, and they had a huge political and cultural impact on the Middle Ages.

Jolly Old England

Prior to the fifth-century Germanic invasions, the island of Britain was inhabited by a mixture of Celtic tribes and Romans, referred to as Britons. As the fifth-century migrations progressed, the Germanic tribes of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes settled on the island and came to dominate it culturally, forming several independent kingdoms across Britain, then called “Angleland.”

The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were not immune to the ninth-century Viking invasions and lost power and lands until the mid-ninth century. King Alfred the Great of Wessex finally united the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to drive out the Viking invaders, but after the death of King Edward the Confessor, William the Bastard of Normandy (a region of France) made a claim for the throne. In 1066, William and his Norman army defeated the other rival for the Anglo-Saxon throne, Harold Godwinson, at the Battle of Hastings. After conquering England he was forever referred to as William the Conqueror.

Starting with William the Conqueror, the Norman kings of England centralized the power of the monarchy. In 1068, King William undertook the first census of England detailed in the Doomsday Book. King Henry II (1154-1189) established the traditional use of common law and jury trials, which also helped to centralize power. But this centralization of power brought a backlash from the nobles of England.

In 1215, the Norman nobles forced King John to sign the Magna Carta, or Great Charter, which limited royal power and gave the nobles more of a say in governance. The power of the monarch was limited again in 1295 when King Edward I created the Model Parliament made up of people from the clergy, nobility, and merchant class to advise the king. This Model Parliament gradually developed into the modern English Parliament with two houses: the House of Lords and Commons. For England, the centralization of the monarchy was tempered by the power of the nobility.

What in the World

The Magna Carta, with its limits on the power of the monarchy, is one of the documentsthat influenced the drafters of the U.S. Constitution later in eighteenth-century America.

The French

In France, the centralization of the power of the monarchy took much longer, probablydue to the entrenchment of the feudal system. In 987, the noble Hugh Capet seized the French throne from a weak Carolingian king. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Capetian dynasty consolidated power and strengthened France, but it took King Phillip II (1180-1223) and King Louis IX (1226-1270) to overpower the feudal system, weakening the lords and making the royal courts dominant over the feudal courts.

The triumph of the monarchy was soon tempered by the nobles’ assertion of power. When King Phillip IV (1285-1314) needed to raise taxes, he required the support of the nobility. As a result, he had to create the Estates-General, an assembly of nobles, clergy, and merchants that checked the power of the monarchy.


In the region of Germany, or the Holy Roman Empire, King Otto (936-973) began the centralization process in earnest while trying to restore the empire that Charlemagne ruled. Although not completely successful at restoring the glory of the empire, Otto I did end the harassment of the Magyars at the Battle of Lechfeld and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the pope in 962.

The relationship between the Holy Roman Emperor and the pope wasn’t always so pleasant. Later Holy Roman Emperors came into conflict with papal authority over the policy of lay investiture. Not until 1122 did the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor reach a compromise on the issue at the Concordant of Worms. Thus the centralization of the monarchy in Germany was tempered by the assertion of papal authority.

Let’s Go Crusading

There have been many debates over the reasons and the results of the Crusades of the Middle Ages. In general, the centralization of the monarchy and the power of the church combined to produce a mass migration of people to the Levant. When they finally left the Levant, they connected isolated Europe with the global civilization of Islam, which had a major impact on the history of the world.

The major reason for the European Crusades was that Jerusalem, a holy city not only for Christianity but Judaism and Islam, and the region of Palestine fell from Christian hands to Arab invaders in the 600s. The Arabs tolerated Jews and Christians in the city so there was little problem with this new development, but, later in the early eleventh century, Islamic Seljuk Turks took control of the city and region. In an overzealous act, they closed the city to the religious traditions of Christianity and Judaism. Once news of the closing of Jerusalem reached Christian Europe, the Crusades were underway.

In 1095 the Byzantine emperor wrote Pope Urban II asking for a few armored knights to help open the Holy Land and defend against the Seljuk Turks who had taken the Levant from Byzantium. So Pope Urban II made his official plea to a large crowd at Clermount, France. In his impassioned speech, Urban II called for a crusade, or holy war, against the Islamic forces in the Holy Land, promising penance for the crusaders. As a result, three armies of crusading knights and peasants, numbering close to 100,000, traveled to the Holy Land.

What in the World

In 1212 about 50,000 childrenled by a child decided to go crusading and conquer Jerusalem with love not war. Sadly, they made it only as far as Marseilles, France, where they were tricked by unsavory merchants and sold as slaves in North Africa and the East.

In 1099, the crusading armies besieged and captured the city of Jerusalem to create a crusader kingdom. Other crusades followed (there were 10 crusades, including the Children’s Crusade) after the city of Jerusalem was recaptured by Islamic forces led by Saladin in 1187. Eventually the crusading movement died out as interest waned and it became too expensive,but not before they helped to precipitate the decline of the Byzantine Empire and create a host of bad feelings between Muslims and Christians that in many ways linger to this day.

The Crusades had several other long-term effects on the development of Europe. They helped increase the authority of kings by speeding up the breakdown of feudalism.The Crusades renewed interest in learning and, as knights returned to Europe with goods from the Middle East, spurred demand for more spices, sugar, and silk. Finally, the Crusades helped advance technology, including more accurate maps, magnetic compasses, and improved military techniques.

Economic Improvements

Because of the interest in products from the East generated by the Crusades as well as agricultural advances and a population explosion, Europe’s economy began seeing unprecedented growth.

In agriculture, three advances increased production: a heavier plow, the collar harness,and the three-field system. Increased production led to an increased birth rate as peasants wanted more hands to work the fields. Increased population led to the revival and growth of towns. Some towns gained population and re-emerged on the map, but others simply exploded on the scene, such as Venice in Italy and Flanders in France.

All of the trends in the High Middle Ages led to even more economic growth. The development of trade fairs, guilds, banking, and the rise of the merchant or middle class added even more fuel to the economic fire of Europe. This economic abundance had a significant impact on the culture of medieval Europe.

What in the World

Trade fairs were not only for commerce but also for entertainment such as plays and music. People from all over looked forward to the four major fair seasons: one at Easter, one at midsummer, one in October, and one in the winter. That tradition con tinues today with different festivals and fairs celebrated around the world during those traditional times.

Education and Learning (Not Always Synonymous!)

With the economic boom and the rise of the middle class in towns, education became more in demand and available. The schools moved away from monasteries to universities,which started out as guilds of teachers in a central location. By the thirteenth century, universities had spread throughout Europe. The most notable were the University of Bologna in Italy, known for law; the University of Paris, famous for theology; and the University of Oxford, noted for the liberal arts.

The new universities were infused with old, forgotten sources of knowledge that poured in from the Middle East during the Crusades and Spain during the Reconquista. A majority of the ancient sources were writings of Greek philosophy, especially Aristotle; the Muslims were less shy about preserving ancient pagan writing than the European monks. Many scholars tried to apply and reconcile Aristotle’s philosophyto Christian theological questions. Two scholars from the University of Paris led this movement,known as scholasticism: Peter Abelard, who wrote Sic et Non (Yes and No), and Thomas Aquinas, who wrote the massive theological tome Summa Theologica, or Summary of Religious Thought.

Notable Quotable

"Wonder was the motive that led people to philosophy. Wonder is a kind of desire in knowledge. It is the cause of delight because it carries with it the hope of discovery.”

Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas


Literature also flourished during the economic boom of the High Middle Ages. Troubadours, traveling poet musicians, sang about heroic knights and their deeds. These developed into the literary form called Chansons de geste, French epic songs that celebrated the courage of the knights and the chivalric code.

Literature started to be written in the vernacular, or everyday language, of the people. The most famous of these early works were The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri, and The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer.

With the Highs Come the Lows

The economic and cultural highs of the High Middle Ages were followed by some very low moments during the Late Middle Ages, which shook the foundation of medieval culture and called many of its institutions into question.

The Hundred Years’ War

The Hundred Years’ War between the developing nations of France and England lasted from 1337 to 1453 and devastated continental Europe. The war began over feudal disputes over lands in northwestern France and English claims on the throne of France. For a majority of the war the English dominated the French, defeating them at the major engagements of the Battle of Crecy (1346) and of the Battle of Agincourt (1415).

Not until a simple 17-year-old peasant girl, Joan of Arc, emerged on the political and military scene did the French begin to turn it around. Joan believed that she received messages from God to help return the French king to the throne. By 1429, she had persuaded Charles, the heir to the French throne, to supply her with an army, and she helped to lift the siege of Orleans and oversaw the crowning of Charles VII king of France at the traditional site of Reims. Later she was captured and executed as a witch by the English, but her impact on the war could not be stopped. The French rallied around Charles and the memory of Joan and pushed the English forces from France by 1453.

Some positives came out of the Hundred Years’ War. The French developed of a sense of unity. Feudalism was adversely affected and continued to decline. But in the long run, it caused devastation and chaos for continental Europe. Trade and agriculturewere hampered by the more than 100 years of war, which affected the growth of medieval culture.

Also, England, once defeated, plunged into a civil war called the War of the Roses from 1455 to 1485. This negative symptom of the Hundred Years’ War was a dynasticstruggle over the throne of England between the noble families of the Yorks and the Lancasters. In end, neither noble family won and a Tudor ascended the English throne. Thus the Hundred Years’ War did not start the Late Middle Ages out on the right foot at all.

The Babylonian Captivity and the Great Schism

Two events related to the politics of the Church during the Late Middle Ages also tore at the fabric of medieval culture. The Babylonian Captivity, which lasted from 1305 to 1377, started when Pope Clement V, under the influence of the French king, moved the papal court from its traditional home of Rome to Avignon, France, where it remained until 1377.

Many thus feared that the French monarch had too much influence on the pope, and their fears were correct. The popes elected during the Babylonian Captivity were always French, and represented French interests very well indeed. Finally people became fed up, and when the pope died in 1378 a Roman mob forced the College of Cardinals to elect an Italian pope who would return the papal court to Rome.

This started the Great Schism, which lasted from 1378 to 1414, and deepened when the same College of Cardinals declared their election of the Italian pope invalid and elected a French pope—who then moved the papal court back to Avignon. Both popes then claimed to be the legitimate pope. In 1409, the Council of Pisa tried to eliminate the problemand unite the Church and elected another pope. Now there were three popes, all of them claiming legitimacy.

Notable Quotable

"The ship of Peter is shaken by the waves, the fisherman’s net is broken, and the serenity of peace turns to clouds, the disasterof wars devastates the lands of the Roman church and nearby provinces.”

Sacrorum Conciliorum Nova et Amplissima Collectio

The crisis didn’t end until yet another council convened,forced all three popes to resign, and elected Pope Martin V. He and his court were sent to Rome to rule over the Church, ending the Great Schism. But the damage was done, and the Church’s authorityover political and spiritual matters was severely tarnished.

The Black Death

In this time of political and spiritual turmoil, the Black Death, one of the most virulentepisodes of bubonic plague, descended upon Europe during the Late Middle Ages. Carried by flea-infested rats, the epidemic came in the caravans that traveled the trade routes of Central Asia, where it originated. Tartar armies besieging the Black Sea port of Kaffa contracted the disease, which was brought to Europe when merchant ships that housed infected rats fled Kaffa to Italian ports.

The disease spread fast and by 1348, France, England, and Spain were devastated. A year later, Russia, Scandinavia, and Germany were infected. Although the numbers cannot be known exactly, it is estimated that by 1350, when the Black Death disappeared from the continent, over one-third of the population, approximately 25 million people, succumbed to its horrific affects.

What in the World

The nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosies” is actually reference to the bubonic plague. It describes one of the symptoms of the plague, “ring around the rosies,” or a ring shaped sore. The rhyme also depicts the result of the plague with “we all fall down,” meaning death.

Those who remained after the Black Death were left looking for reasons and answers. To some degree the economic boom and population increase of the High Middle Ages left Europe open to such a devastating event. Towns grew too large too fast; they were overpopulated and lacked proper sanitation, and the Black Death found good breeding grounds. The increase of trade allowed the disease to spread along all of the land and sea trade routes. Finally, the military conflicts of the Late Middle Ages left the health and constitution of the people in a weakened state. Food and energy had been devoted to war, and when the plague hit, resources were too low to combat the disease.


Regardless of the debatable causes, there were two very tangible effects. First, the Church’s authority came into question. Church authority had already been weakened by the controversies of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and many found the Church unable to respond adequately to those wondering why their religious obediencehad failed to prevent the calamity of the Black Death.

A call for reform was heard across Europe. The first reformer of the Late Middle Ages was John Wycliffe, a fourteenth-century scholar at Oxford University who criticizedthe wealth and corruption of the Church as well as the pope’s claim to absolute authority. Wycliffe wanted the monarchs to remove corrupt church officials and believed that that Bible was the sole authority for religious truth, not the Church. He translated the Bible from Latin to English so all English people could read it. After his death his followers, called Lollards, continued to agitate for reform.

The next reformer was Jan Hus, a Czech from the region of modern-day Bohemia, Germany, who started a more violent call for change. As a professor of the University of Prague he produced copies of the Bible and pamphlets in the Czechoslovakian vernacular. For these actions, in 1415 he was burnt at the stake as a heretic, but his supporters, named Hussites, continued a violent struggle with the crusading knights of Bohemia. Finally in 1436 the German Holy Roman Emperor compromised with the Hussite leaders and their reforms.


After the Black Death, survivors were, of course, sad for the death of loved ones but also grateful to be alive, resulting in a renewal of trade and cultural achievements in Europe, later called the Renaissance (1350-1500).

The movements were centered in the independent city-states of Italy, most notably Florence and Venice, which benefited financially from the trade from the MediterraneanSea basin. With this prosperity and their deep attachment to classical traditions (Roman ruins surrounded them!), scholars delved into Roman and Greek classics


Humanism is a system of thought with humanity at the center, the sum of all things.

gathering dust in monastery libraries. The older traditionsof humanism and classical culture resurfaced on the European landscape and spread via the universitiesto those able to hear this message.

The Prince, had a humanist perspective, focusing on the daily life and true feelings of people and challenginglong-accepted traditions, assumptions, and institutions. Some historians point to this period as key to the development of modern literature.

Renaissance art was less religious and more worldly than the art of the Middle Ages. It also included aspects of pagan classical mythology that medieval artists never dared depict. New artistic techniques were developed in perspective, anatomical correctnessand human emotions. Famous artists like Donatello, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael (they were Renaissance artists before they were Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!) developed these new techniques in paintings and sculptures that continueto influence art today. The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most recognized paintings in the world.

Notable Quotable

"After the darkness has been dispelled, our grandsons will be able to walk back into the pure radiance of the past.”

—Petrarch, Italian poet of the Renaissance

The Renaissance could not long be confined to Italy and spread to northern Europe through war, trade, and the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. The Northern European Renaissance had a more religious tone, represented in the works of Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), who wrote the Praise of Folly, a work very critical of the Catholic Church, and Thomas More (1478-1535), an English philosopher and writer who wrote Utopia. The artwork of the Northern Renaissance retained a distinctiveperspective by remaining more medieval than classical in focus with the oil painting of Jan and Hubert van Eyek and Pieter Brueghel being the most notable.

The European monarchies and the Church were established powers by the High Middle Ages, but political and natural calamities and the subsequent Renaissance emphasis on humanism brought their authority into serious question. The trend proved unstoppable, and Medieval Europe changed into modern Europe as a result.

The Least You Need to Know

• The European powers of England, France, and Germany trace their origins and forms of government to medieval times.

• The medieval Catholic Church became entrenched in Western culture and laid the basis for modern education and learning.

• The Crusades increased trade and scholarship and changed the European perspectivefrom inward to outward.

• The Black Death decimated Europe during the mid-fourteenth century, bringingthe institutions of the Middle Ages, especially the Church, into question.

• The Renaissance renewed interest in the classical traditions of Greece and Rome and a humanistic perspective of the world.

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