Roman Empire Map Assignment Middle Ages

The history of Europe covers the peoples inhabiting Europe from prehistory to the present.

The period known as classical antiquity began with the emergence of the city-states of ancient Greece. Later, the Roman Empire came to dominate the entire Mediterranean basin. The fall of the Roman Empire in AD 476 traditionally marks the start of the Middle Ages. Beginning in the 14th century a Renaissance of knowledge challenged traditional doctrines in science and theology. Simultaneously, the Protestant Reformation set up Protestant churches primarily in Germany, Scandinavia and England. After 1800, the Industrial Revolution brought prosperity to Britain and Western Europe. The main powers set up colonies in most of the Americas and Africa, and parts of Asia. In the 20th century, World War I, and World War II resulted in massive numbers of deaths. The Cold War dominated European geo-politics from 1947 to 1989. Unification into a European Union moved forward after 1950, with some setbacks. Today, most countries west of Russia belong to the NATO military alliance, along with the United States and Canada.


Some of the best-known civilizations of prehistoric Europe were the Minoan and the Mycenaean, which flourished during the Bronze Age until they collapsed in a short period of time around 1200 BC.

The period known as classical antiquity began with the emergence of the city-states of Ancient Greece. After ultimately checking the Persian advance in Europe through the Greco-Persian Wars in the 5th century BC, Greek influence reached its zenith under the expansive empire of Alexander the Great, spreading throughout Asia, Africa, and other parts of Europe. The Roman Empire came to dominate the entire Mediterranean basin. By 300 AD the Roman Empire was divided into the Western and Eastern empires. During the 4th and 5th centuries, the Germanic peoples of Northern Europe grew in strength, and repeated attacks led to the Fall of the Western Roman Empire. AD 476 traditionally marks the end of the classical period and the start of the Middle Ages.

In Western Europe, Germanic peoples became more powerful in the remnants of the former Western Roman Empire and established kingdoms and empires of their own. Of all of the Germanic peoples, the Franks would rise to a position of hegemony over Western Europe, the Frankish Empire reaching its peak under Charlemagne around 800. This empire was later divided into several parts; West Francia would evolve into the Kingdom of France, while East Francia would evolve into the Holy Roman Empire, a precursor to modern Germany and Italy. The British Isles were the site of several large-scale migrations.

The Viking Age, a period of migrations of Scandinavian peoples, occurred from the late 8th century to the middle 11th century. The Normans, a Viking people who settled in Northern France, had a significant impact on many parts of Europe, from the Norman conquest of England to Southern Italy and Sicily. The Rus' people founded Kievan Rus', which evolved into Russia. After 1000 the Crusades were a series of religiously motivated military expeditions originally intended to bring the Levant back under Christian rule. The Crusaders opened trade routes which enabled the merchant republics of Genoa and Venice to become major economic powers. The Reconquista, a related movement, worked to reconquer Iberia for Christendom.

Eastern Europe in the High Middle Ages was dominated by the rise and fall of the Mongol Empire. Led by Genghis Khan, the Mongols were a group of steppe nomads who established a decentralized empire which, at its height, extended from China in the east to the Black and Baltic Seas in Europe. As Mongol power waned towards the Late Middle Ages, the Grand Duchy of Moscow rose to become the strongest of the numerous Russian principalities and republics and would grow into the Tsardom of Russia in 1547. The Late Middle Ages represented a period of upheaval in Europe. The epidemic known as the Black Death and an associated famine caused demographic catastrophe in Europe as the population plummeted. Dynastic struggles and wars of conquest kept many of the states of Europe at war for much of the period. In Scandinavia, the Kalmar Union dominated the political landscape, while England fought with Scotland in the Wars of Scottish Independence and with France in the Hundred Years' War. In Central Europe, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth became a large territorial empire, while the Holy Roman Empire, which was an elective monarchy, came to be dominated for centuries by the House of Habsburg. Russia continued to expand southward and eastward into former Mongol lands. In the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire overran Byzantine lands, culminating in the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, which historians mark as the end of the Middle Ages.

Beginning in the 14th century in Florence and later spreading through Europe, a Renaissance of knowledge challenged traditional doctrines in science and theology. The rediscovery of classical Greek and Roman knowledge had an enormous liberating effect on intellectuals. Simultaneously, the Protestant Reformation under German Martin Luther questioned Papal authority. Henry VIII seized control of the English Church and its lands. The European religious wars between German and Spanish rulers. The Reconquista ended Muslim rule in Iberia. By the 1490s a series of oceanic explorations marked the Age of Discovery, establishing direct links with Africa, the Americas, and Asia. Religious wars continued to be fought in Europe, until the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. The Spanish crown maintained its hegemony in Europe and was the leading power on the continent until the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees, which ended a conflict between Spain and France that had begun during the Thirty Years' War. An unprecedented series of major wars and political revolutions took place around Europe and the world in the period between 1610 and 1700.[1]

The Industrial Revolution began in England, based on coal, steam, and textile mills. Political change in continental Europe was spurred by the French Revolution under the motto liberté, égalité, fraternité. Napoleon Bonaparte took control, made many reforms inside France, and transformed Western Europe. But his rise stimulated both nationalism and reaction and he was defeated in 1814–15 as the old royal conservatives returned to power.

The period between 1815 and 1871 saw revolutionary attempts in much of Europe (apart from Britain). They all failed however. As industrial work forces grew in Western Europe, socialism and trade union activity developed. The last vestiges of serfdom were abolished in Russia in 1861. Greece and the other Balkan nations began a long slow road to independence from the Ottoman Empire, starting in the 1820s. Italy was unified in its Risorgimento in 1860. After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, Otto von Bismarck unified the German states into an empire that was politically and militarily dominant until 1914. Most of Europe scrambled for imperial colonies in Africa and Asia in the Age of Empire. Britain and France built the largest empires, while diplomats ensured there were no major wars in Europe, apart from the Crimean War of the 1850s.

The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 was precipitated by the rise of nationalism in Southeastern Europe as the Great Powers took sides. The 1917 October Revolution led the Russian Empire to become the world's first communist state, the Soviet Union. The Allies, led by Britain and France, defeated the Central Powers, led by the German Empire and Austria-Hungary, in 1918. During the Paris Peace Conference the Big Four imposed their terms in a series of treaties, especially the Treaty of Versailles. The war's human and material devastation was unprecedented.

Germany lost its overseas empire and several provinces, had to pay large reparations, and was humiliated by the victors. They in turn had large debts to the United States. The 1920s were prosperous until 1929 when the Great Depression broke out, which led to the collapse of democracy in many European states. The Nazi regime under Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, rearmed Germany, and along with Mussolini's Italy sought to assert themselves on the continent by demands and appeasement, leading eventually to the Second World War. Most of the fighting took place on the Eastern Front, and the war ended with the defeat of the Axis powers, leaving the USSR and the United States dominating Eastern and Western Europe respectively. The Iron Curtain now separated the east under Moscow's control from the capitalist West. The United States launched the Marshall Plan from 1948–51 and NATO from 1949, and rebuilt industrial economies that all were thriving by the 1950s. France and West Germany took the lead in forming the European Economic Community, which eventually became the European Union (EU). Secularization saw the weakening of Protestant and Catholic churches across most of Europe, except where they were symbols of anti-government resistance, as in Poland. The Revolutions of 1989 brought an end to both Soviet hegemony and communism in Eastern Europe. Germany was reunited, Europe's integration deepened, and both NATO and the EU expanded to the east. The EU came under increasing pressure because of the worldwide recession after 2008.


Main articles: Prehistoric Europe, Palaeolithic Europe, Mesolithic Europe, Neolithic Europe, Stone Age, Bronze Age Europe, and Iron Age Europe

Homo erectus migrated from Africa to Europe before the emergence of modern humans. Lézignan-la-Cèbe in France, Orce[2] in Spain, Monte Poggiolo[3] Italy and Kozarnika in Bulgaria are amongst the oldest Palaeolithic sites in Europe.

The earliest appearance of anatomically modern people in Europe has been dated to 35,000 BC, usually referred to as the Cro-Magnon man. Some locally developed transitional cultures (Uluzzian in Italy and Greece, Altmühlian in Germany, Szeletian in Central Europe and Châtelperronian in the southwest) use clearly Upper Palaeolithic technologies at very early dates.

Nevertheless, the definitive advance of these technologies is made by the Aurignacian culture. The origins of this culture can be located in the Levant (Ahmarian) and Hungary (first full Aurignacian). By 35,000 BC, the Aurignacian culture and its technology had extended through most of Europe. The last Neanderthals seem to have been forced to retreat during this process to the southern half of the Iberian Peninsula.

Around 28,000 BC a new technology/culture appeared in the western region of Europe: the Gravettian. This technology/culture has been theorised to have come with migrations of people from the Balkans.

Around 16,000 BC, Europe witnessed the appearance of a new culture, known as Magdalenian, possibly rooted in the old Gravettian. This culture soon superseded the Solutrean area and the Gravettian of mainly France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal and Ukraine. The Hamburg culture prevailed in Northern Europe in the 14th and the 13th millennium BC as the Creswellian (also termed the British Late Magdalenian) did shortly after in the British Islands. Around 12,500 BC, the Würm glaciation ended. Slowly, through the following millennia, temperatures and sea levels rose, changing the environment of prehistoric people. Nevertheless, Magdalenian culture persisted until c. 10,000 BC, when it quickly evolved into two microlithist cultures: Azilian (Federmesser), in Spain and southern France, and then Sauveterrian, in northern France and Central Europe, while in Northern Europe the Lyngby complex succeeded the Hamburg culture with the influence of the Federmesser group as well. Evidence of permanent settlement dates from the 8th millennium BC in the Balkans. The Neolithic reached Central Europe in the 6th millennium BC and parts of Northern Europe in the 5th and 4th millenniums BC.

Minoans and Mycenae 2700–1100 BC[edit]

The first well-known literate civilization in Europe was that of the Minoans. The Minoan civilization was a Bronze Age civilization that arose on the island of Crete and flourished from approximately the 27th century BC to the 15th century BC.[4] It was rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th century through the work of the British archaeologist Arthur Evans. Will Durant referred to it as "the first link in the European chain".[5]

The Minoans were replaced by the Mycenaean civilization which flourished during the period roughly between 1600 BC, when Helladic culture in mainland Greece was transformed under influences from Minoan Crete, and 1100 BC. The major Mycenaean cities were Mycenae and Tiryns in Argolis, Pylos in Messenia, Athens in Attica, Thebes and Orchomenus in Boeotia, and Iolkos in Thessaly. In Crete, the Mycenaeans occupied Knossos. Mycenaean settlement sites also appeared in Epirus,[6][7]Macedonia,[8][9] on islands in the Aegean Sea, on the coast of Asia Minor, the Levant,[10]Cyprus[11] and Italy.[12][13] Mycenaean artefacts have been found well outside the limits of the Mycenean world.

Quite unlike the Minoans, whose society benefited from trade, the Mycenaeans advanced through conquest. Mycenaean civilization was dominated by a warrior aristocracy. Around 1400 BC, the Mycenaeans extended their control to Crete, center of the Minoan civilization, and adopted a form of the Minoan script (called Linear A) to write their early form of Greek in Linear B.

The Mycenaean civilization perished with the collapse of Bronze-Age civilization on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The collapse is commonly attributed to the Dorian invasion, although other theories describing natural disasters and climate change have been advanced as well.[citation needed] Whatever the causes, the Mycenaean civilization had definitely disappeared after LH III C, when the sites of Mycenae and Tirynth were again destroyed and lost their importance. This end, during the last years of the 12th century BC, occurred after a slow decline of the Mycenaean civilization, which lasted many years before dying out. The beginning of the 11th century BC opened a new context, that of the protogeometric, the beginning of the geometric period, the Greek Dark Ages of traditional historiography.

Classical antiquity[edit]

Main article: Classical antiquity

The Greeks and the Romans left a legacy in Europe which is evident in European languages, thought, visual arts and law. Ancient Greece was a collection of city-states, out of which the original form of democracy developed. Athens was the most powerful and developed city, and a cradle of learning from the time of Pericles. Citizens' forums debated and legislated policy of the state, and from here arose some of the most notable classical philosophers, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the last of whom taught Alexander the Great.

Through his military campaigns, the king of the kingdom of Macedon, Alexander, spread Hellenistic culture and learning to the banks of the River Indus. Meanwhile, the Roman Republic strengthened through victory over Carthage in the Punic Wars. Greek wisdom passed into Roman institutions, as Athens itself was absorbed under the banner of the Senate and People of Rome—SPQR.

The Romans expanded from Arabia to Britannia. In 44 BC as it approached its height, its dictator Julius Caesar was murdered by senators in an attempt to restore the Republic. In the ensuing turmoil, Octavian (ruled as Augustus; and as divi filius, or Son of God, as Julius had adopted him as an heir) usurped the reins of power and fought the Roman Senate. While proclaiming the rebirth of the Republic, he had ushered in the transfer of the Roman state from a republic to an empire, the Roman Empire, which lasted for more than four centuries until the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

Ancient Greece[edit]

Main articles: Ancient Greece and Hellenistic period

The Hellenic civilisation was a collection of city-states or poleis with different governments and cultures that achieved notable developments in government, philosophy, science, mathematics, politics, sports, theatre and music.

The most powerful city-states were Athens, Sparta, Thebes, Corinth, and Syracuse. Athens was a powerful Hellenic city-state and governed itself with an early form of direct democracy invented by Cleisthenes; the citizens of Athens voted on legislation and executive bills themselves. Athens was the home of Socrates,[14]Plato, and the Platonic Academy.

The Hellenic city-states established colonies on the shores of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean (Asian Minor, Sicily and Southern Italy in Magna Graecia). By the late 6th century BC, all the Greek city states in Asia Minor had been incorporated into the Persian Empire, while the latter had made territorial gains in the Balkans (such as Macedon, Thrace, Paeonia, etc.) and Eastern Europe proper as well. In the course of 5th century BC, some of the Greek city states attempted to overthrow Persian rule in the Ionian Revolt, which failed. This sparked the first Persian invasion of mainland Greece. At some point during the ensuing Greco-Persian Wars, namely during the Second Persian invasion of Greece, and precisely after the Battle of Thermopylae and the Battle of Artemisium, almost all of Greece to the north of the Isthmus of Corinth had been overrun by the Persians,[15] but the Greek city states reached a decisive victory at the Battle of Plataea. With the end of the Greco-Persian wars, the Persians were eventually decisively forced to withdraw from their territories in Europe. The Greco-Persian Wars and the victory of the Greek city states directly influenced the entire further course of European history and would set its further tone. Some Greek city-states formed the Delian League to continue fighting Persia, but Athens' position as leader of this league led Sparta to form the rival Peloponnesian League. The Peloponnesian Wars ensued, and the Peloponnesian League was victorious. Subsequently, discontent with Spartan hegemony led to the Corinthian War and the defeat of Sparta at the Battle of Leuctra.

Hellenic infighting left Greek city states vulnerable, and Philip II of Macedon united the Greek city states under his control. The son of Philip II, known as Alexander the Great, invaded neighboring Persia, toppled and incorporated its domains, as well as invading Egypt and going as far off as India, increasing contact with people and cultures in these regions that marked the beginning of the Hellenistic period.

The rise of Rome[edit]

Main articles: Ancient Rome, Roman Republic, and Roman Empire

Much of Greek learning was assimilated by the nascent Roman state as it expanded outward from Italy, taking advantage of its enemies' inability to unite: the only challenge to Roman ascent came from the Phoenician colony of Carthage, and its defeats in the three Punic Wars marked the start of Roman hegemony. First governed by kings, then as a senatorial republic (the Roman Republic), Rome finally became an empire at the end of the 1st century BC, under Augustus and his authoritarian successors.

The Roman Empire had its centre in the Mediterranean, controlling all the countries on its shores; the northern border was marked by the Rhine and Danube rivers. Under emperor Trajan (2nd century AD) the empire reached its maximum expansion, controlling approximately 5,900,000 km2 (2,300,000 sq mi) of land surface, including Britain, Romania and parts of Mesopotamia. Pax Romana, a period of peace, civilisation and an efficient centralised government in the subject territories ended in the 3rd century, when a series of civil wars undermined Rome's economic and social strength.

In the 4th century, the emperors Diocletian and Constantine were able to slow down the process of decline by splitting the empire into a Western part with a capital in Rome and an Eastern part with the capital in Byzantium, or Constantinople (now Istanbul). Whereas Diocletian severely persecuted Christianity, Constantine declared an official end to state-sponsored persecution of Christians in 313 with the Edict of Milan, thus setting the stage for the Church to become the state church of the Roman Empire in about 380.

Decline of the Roman Empire[edit]

Main articles: Decline of the Roman Empire and Crisis of the Third Century

The Roman Empire had been repeatedly attacked by invading armies from Northern Europe and in 476, Rome finally fell. Romulus Augustus, the last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire, surrendered to the Germanic King Odoacer. The British historian Edward Gibbon argued in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) that the Romans had become decadent, they had lost civic virtue.

Gibbon said that the adoption of Christianity, meant belief in a better life after death, and therefore made people lazy and indifferent to the present. "From the eighteenth century onward", Glen W. Bowersock has remarked,[16] "we have been obsessed with the fall: it has been valued as an archetype for every perceived decline, and, hence, as a symbol for our own fears." It remains one of the greatest historical questions, and has a tradition rich in scholarly interest.

Some other notable dates are the Battle of Adrianople in 378, the death of Theodosius I in 395 (the last time the Roman Empire was politically unified), the crossing of the Rhine in 406 by Germanic tribes after the withdrawal of the legions to defend Italy against Alaric I, the death of Stilicho in 408, followed by the disintegration of the western legions, the death of Justinian I, the last Roman Emperor who tried to reconquer the west, in 565, and the coming of Islam after 632. Many scholars maintain that rather than a "fall", the changes can more accurately be described as a complex transformation.[17] Over time many theories have been proposed on why the Empire fell, or whether indeed it fell at all.

Late Antiquity and Migration Period[edit]

Main articles: Late Antiquity and Migration Period

When Emperor Constantine had reconquered Rome under the banner of the cross in 312, he soon afterwards issued the Edict of Milan in 313, declaring the legality of Christianity in the Roman Empire. In addition, Constantine officially shifted the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to the Greek town of Byzantium, which he renamed Nova Roma- it was later named Constantinople ("City of Constantine").

In 395 Theodosius I, who had made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, would be the last emperor to preside over a united Roman Empire. The empire was split into two halves: the Western Roman Empire centred in Ravenna, and the Eastern Roman Empire (later to be referred to as the Byzantine Empire) centred in Constantinople. The Western Roman Empire was repeatedly attacked by Germanic tribes (see: Migration Period), and in 476 finally fell to the Heruli chieftain Odoacer.

Roman authority in the Western part of the Empire collapsed and the western provinces soon were to be dominated by three great powers, the Franks (Merovingian dynasty) in Francia 481–843 AD (covered much of present France and Germany), the Visigothic kingdom 418–711 AD in the Iberian Peninsula and the Ostrogothic kingdom 493–553 AD in Italy and parts of Balkan this kingdom were later replaced by the Kingdom of the Lombards 568–774 AD. These new powers of the west built upon the Roman traditions until they evolved into a synthesis of Roman and Germanic cultures. In Italy, Theodoric the Great began the cultural romanization of the new world he had constructed. He made Ravenna a center of Romano-Greek culture of art and his court fostered a flowering of literature and philosophy in Latin. In Iberia, King Chindasuinth created the Visigothic Code. [18]

In Western Europe, a political structure was emerging: in the power vacuum left in the wake of Rome's collapse, localised hierarchies were based on the bond of common people to the land on which they worked. Tithes were paid to the lord of the land, and the lord owed duties to the regional prince. The tithes were used to pay for the state and wars.

This was the feudal system, in which new princes and kings arose, the greatest of which was the Frank ruler Charlemagne. In 800, Charlemagne, reinforced by his massive territorial conquests, was crowned Emperor of the Romans (Imperator Romanorum) by Pope Leo III, effectively solidifying his power in western Europe.

Charlemagne's reign marked the beginning of a new Germanic Roman Empire in the west, the Holy Roman Empire. Outside his borders, new forces were gathering. The Kievan Rus' were marking out their territory, a Great Moravia was growing, while the Angles and the Saxons were securing their borders.

For the duration of the 6th century, the Eastern Roman Empire was embroiled in a series of deadly conflicts, first with the Persian Sassanid Empire (see Roman–Persian Wars), followed by the onslaught of the arising Islamic Caliphate (Rashidun and Umayyad). By 650, the provinces of Egypt, Palestine and Syria were lost to the Muslim forces, followed by Hispania and southern Italy in the 7th and 8th centuries (see Muslim conquests). The Arab invasion from the east was stopped after the intervention of the Bulgarian Empire (see Tervel of Bulgaria).

Middle Ages[edit]

Main articles: Middle Ages and Medieval demography

The Middle Ages are commonly dated from the fall of the Western Roman Empire (or by some scholars, before that) in the 5th century to the beginning of the early modern period in the 16th century, marked by the rise of nation states, the division of Western Christianity in the Reformation, the rise of humanism in the Italian Renaissance, and the beginnings of European overseas expansion which allowed for the Columbian Exchange.[19][20]


Main article: Byzantine Empire

Many consider Emperor Constantine I (reigned 306–337) to be the first "Byzantine Emperor". It was he who moved the imperial capital in 324 from Nicomedia to Byzantium, which re-founded as Constantinople, or Nova Roma ("New Rome").[21] The city of Rome itself had not served as the capital since the reign of Diocletian. Some date the beginnings of the Empire to the reign of Theodosius I (379–395) and Christianity's official supplanting of the pagan Roman religion, or following his death in 395, when the empire was split into two parts, with capitals in Rome and Constantinople. Others place it yet later in 476, when Romulus Augustulus, traditionally considered the last western Emperor, was deposed, thus leaving sole imperial authority with the emperor in the Greek East. Others point to the reorganisation of the empire in the time of Heraclius (c. 620) when Latin titles and usages were officially replaced with Greek versions. In any case, the changeover was gradual and by 330, when Constantine inaugurated his new capital, the process of hellenization and increasing Christianisation was already under way. The Empire is generally considered to have ended after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The Plague of Justinian was a pandemic that afflicted the Byzantine Empire, including its capital Constantinople, in the years 541–542. It is estimated that the Plague of Justinian killed as many as 100 million people across the world.[22][23] It caused Europe's population to drop by around 50% between 541 and 700.[24] It also may have contributed to the success of the Muslim conquests.[25][26]

Early Middle Ages[edit]

Main articles: Early Middle Ages and Muslim Conquest

The Early Middle Ages span roughly five centuries from 500 to 1000.[27]

From the 7th century Byzantine history was greatly affected by the rise of Islam and the Caliphates. Muslim Arabs first invaded historically Roman territory under Abū Bakr, first Caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate, who entered Roman Syria and Roman Mesopotamia. As the Byzantines and neighboring Sasanids were severely weakened by the time, amongst the most important reason(s) being the protracted, centuries-lasting and frequent Byzantine–Sasanian wars, which included the climactic Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628, under Umar, the second Caliph, the Muslims entirely toppled the Sasanid Persian Empire, and decisively conquered Syria and Mesopotamia, as well as Roman Palestine, Roman Egypt, and parts of Asia Minor and Roman North Africa. In the mid 7th century AD, following the Muslim conquest of Persia, Islam penetrated into the Caucasus region, of which parts would later permanently become part of Russia.[28] This trend, which included the conquests by the invading Muslim forces and by that the spread of Islam as well continued under Umar's successors and under the Umayyad Caliphate, which conquered the rest of Mediterranean North Africa and most of the Iberian Peninsula. Over the next centuries Muslim forces were able to take further European territory, including Cyprus, Malta, Crete, and Sicily and parts of southern Italy.[29]

The Muslim conquest of Hispania began when the Moors (Berbers and Arabs) invaded the Christian Visigothic kingdom of Hispania in the year 711, under the Berber general Tariq ibn Ziyad. They landed at Gibraltar on 30 April and worked their way northward. Tariq's forces were joined the next year by those of his Arab superior, Musa ibn Nusair. During the eight-year campaign most of the Iberian Peninsula was brought under Muslim rule – save for small areas in the northwest (Asturias) and largely Basque regions in the Pyrenees. In 711, VisigothicHispania was very weakened because it was immersed in a serious internal crisis caused by a war of succession to the throne involving two Visigoth suitors. The Muslims took advantage of the crisis that crossed the Hispano-Visigothic society to carry out their conquests. This territory, under the Arab name Al-Andalus, became part of the expanding Umayyad empire.

The unsuccessful second siege of Constantinople (717) weakened the Umayyad dynasty and reduced their prestige. In 722 Don Pelayo, a nobleman of Visigothic origin, formed an army of 300 Astur soldiers, to confront Munuza's Muslim troops. In the battle of Covadonga, the Astures defeated the Arab-Moors, who decided to retire. The Christian victory marked the beginning of the Reconquista and the establishment of the Kingdom of Asturias, whose first sovereign was Don Pelayo. The conquerors intended to continue their expansion in Europe and move northeast across the Pyrenees, but were defeated by the Frankish leader Charles Martel at the Battle of Poitiers in 732. The Umayyads were overthrown in 750 by the 'Abbāsids,[30] and, in 756, the Umayyads established an independent emirate in the Iberian Peninsula.[31]

Feudal Christendom[edit]

Main articles: Holy Roman Empire, Charlemagne, Christendom, Caliphate of Córdoba, Bulgarian Empire, Medieval England, Medieval Hungary, Medieval Poland, and Kievan Rus'

The Holy Roman Empire emerged around 800, as Charlemagne, king of the Franks, was crowned by the pope as emperor. His empire based in modern France, the Low Countries and Germany expanded into modern Hungary, Italy, Bohemia, Lower Saxony and Spain. He and his father received substantial help from an alliance with the Pope, who wanted help against the Lombards.[32]

To the east, Bulgaria was established in 681 and became the first Slavic country. The powerful Bulgarian Empire was the main rival of Byzantium for control of the Balkans for centuries and from the 9th century became the cultural centre of Slavic Europe. The Empire created the Cyrillic script during the 10th century AD, at the Preslav Literary School. Two states, Great Moravia and Kievan Rus', emerged among the Slavic peoples respectively in the 9th century. In the late 9th and 10th centuries, northern and western Europe felt the burgeoning power and influence of the Vikings who raided, traded, conquered and settled swiftly and efficiently with their advanced seagoing vessels such as the longships. The Hungarians pillaged mainland Europe, the Pechenegs raided Bulgaria, Rus States and the Arab states. In the 10th century independent kingdoms were established in Central Europe including Poland and the newly settled Kingdom of Hungary. The kingdoms of Croatia and Serbia also appeared in the Balkans. The subsequent period, ending around 1000, saw the further growth of feudalism, which weakened the Holy Roman Empire.

In eastern Europe, Volga Bulgaria became an Islamic state in 921, after Almış I converted to Islam under the missionary efforts of Ahmad ibn Fadlan.[33]

Slavery in the early medieval period had mostly died out in western Europe by about the year 1000 AD, replaced by serfdom. It lingered longer in England and in peripheral areas linked to the Muslim world, where slavery continued to flourish. Church rules suppressed slavery of Christians. Most historians argue the transition was quite abrupt around 1000, but some see a gradual transition from about 300 to 1000.[34]

High Middle Ages[edit]

Main article: High Middle Ages

Map showing the Neolithic expansions from the 7th to the 5th millennium BC, including the Cardium Culture in blue.
The Treasury of Atreus, or Tomb of Agamemnon in Mycenae 1250 BC
Map showing Europe in 526 AD with the three dominating powers of the west
Europe in 1000, with most European states already formed



The Feudal System

The Church


The Towns

Everyday Life

Further study


The period of European history which we call “Medieval” is usually regarded as consisting of the thousand years or so between the fall of the Roman empire in the west (around 400 CE), through to the start of the Italian Renaissance (in c. 1400). In fact, the term was coined by later historians, and means “Middle Ages”, which might today be rendered as “in-between times” – that period which came after the high civilizations of the Greeks and Romans, and before the high civilization of the Renaissance: an age of barbarism, ignorance, illiteracy and violence.

We still get an echo of this in the ideas surrounding the term “Gothic” – dark, gloomy, foreboding. In fact, though, modern historians regard these centuries as the cradle of the modern age, a time when many elements of our society which we value – democracy, industrialisation, science and so on, had their roots. It was one of the most fascinating and transformative eras in world history.

Facade of Reims Cathedral France
Reproduced under Creative Commons 3.0. 

This thousand-year long period can be divided into three main phases, of unequal length. The five-plus centuries after the fall of Rome (up to c.1000) have been called the Dark Ages, and witnessed a dramatic decline in the level of material civilization. Long distance trade shrank, the currency collapsed, the economy mostly reverted to barter, and the towns diminished in size. Literacy, and with it learning, all but vanished. European society was reshaped with the rise of self-sufficient estates (or manors), then of horse-soldiers (knights), and finally of feudalism. The Christian Church, already highly influential by the time of the western Roman empire’s fall, strengthened its hold on society.

The period of the High Middle Ages, from about 1000 to 1350, was the high water mark of medieval civilization, leaving a durable legacy in the soaring cathedrals and massive castles which sprang up all over Europe. From about 1350 to 1500 the period of the late Middle Ages was a time of transition, seeing the emergence of modern Europe. It opened with the Black Death, which swept through Europe, killing perhaps a third of its people and having a huge impact on society. It ended with such developments as the Italian Renaissance, the fall of Constantinople, the Age of Discovery, and the spread of printing.

Changing frontiers

By definition the civilization of medieval Europe lay in Europe. However, in terms of those features we associate with medieval society – feudalism, chivalry, Christendom and so on – the location changed over time, and never really covered all of Europe. Northern Italy and much of eastern Europe, for example, never became fully feudal societies; large tracts of Spain did not belong to Christendom for many centuries; the concept of chivalry only came to the fore comparatively late in medieval times, and so on.

The roots of many medieval elements of society had their geographical origins in the provinces of the late Roman empire, mainly Gaul (France), Spain and Italy. When the Roman empire collapsed and these provinces were overrun by barbarian tribes, the synthesis between Roman and German cultures eventually produced a recognisably “feudal” society – which is one of the defining feature of medieval European civilization (though the word “feudalism” needs some careful handling). This distinguishes the areas of the old western Roman empire from that of the eastern Roman empire. Here, Roman power survived for a thousand years longer than in the west, centred on Constantinople. Modern scholars describe this as the Byzantine empire, and it came to influence much of eastern Europe.

Europe in 750 CE (c) TimeMaps

Western Europe, plus those parts of northern and central Europe which became part of the same cultural community, formed a very distinct society in medieval times: a civilization whose roots lay in the Christian, Latin-speaking provinces of the late Roman empire and the Germanic kingdoms which succeeded them. As time went by, the borders of this civilization changed. Peripheral areas were added: England in the 6th century, the Low Countries in the 7th, the German peoples in the 8th and 9th centuries, and the Scandinavians and western Slavic peoples in the 10th and 11th centuries. Meanwhile, much of Spain was lost when the Muslims seized it in the early 8th century, and only gradually regained.

Medieval European society grew out of the ruins of the Roman empire. From the 5th century onwards, barbarian invasions led to the disintegration of Roman power in the western provinces. These territories also experienced a sharp decline in material civilisation. A literate, complex urban society gave way to an almost illiterate, much simpler and more rural one.

Much, however, continued from one era to the next. Most notably, the Christian Church survived the fall of the Roman empire to become the predominant cultural influence in medieval Europe. The Latin language continued in use as the language of the Church; and at a popular level vulgar Latin morphed into the Romance languages of modern Europe, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. Much of the learning of Greece and Rome was preserved by the Church, and Roman law influenced the law codes of the barbarian kingdoms. Late Roman art and architecture continued in use for the few stone church buildings still being erected, and eventually would evolve into the medieval Romanesque and Gothic styles.

The feudal system

The feudal system (as modern scholars call it) first emerged in France in the 10th century, and spread to other lands in the 11th century. The word feudal derives from the word fief, which usually denotes an area of land held on certain conditions. A person who granted a fief to someone was that person’s lord, and the person who received a fief became the lord’s vassal. The vassal usually had to provide the lord with military service, and also give him money from time to time, and advice. But the lord also had duties towards the vassal: he had to protect him and see that he received justice in court.

Kings granted out much of their kingdoms as large fiefs to their nobles, and these in turn granted smaller fiefs for lesser lords, and so on. In this way a pyramid of mutual support was built up, stretching from the king downwards, to the lord of a single village.

The building blocks of fiefs were manors. These usually covered quite small areas of land, for example that attached to a village. The vast majority of peasants who farmed the land in medieval Europe were attached to manors, and had to provide their lords with labour or rent. They were known as serfs – peasants who were practically slaves, in that they were bound for life to the manors in which they were born. They were not allowed to leave this land, nor marry, nor pass on their particular plots to anyone, without their lords’ permission. On the other hand, they had the right to look to their lord for protection and justice.

The Church

The Church exerted a powerful influence on all aspects of life in medieval Europe. Indeed, such was the Church’s place in European society that medieval Europeans defined themselves as living in “Christendom” – the realm of the Christians.

All the key moments of life – birth, marriage, death – were under the Church’s control. Education was dominated by churchmen, and most medieval scholars in Europe were members of the clergy. The vast majority of art and architecture was religious in nature, either commissioned by churches or abbeys themselves or by wealthy lords and merchants to beautify churches. The largest and most beautiful structures in any medieval town or city were religious buildings, and the towers and spires of cathedrals and churches soared above urban skylines. Churches were also to be found in every village.

The Romanesque Church of Maria Lach, Germany
Reproduced under creative commons 3.0

The Church was the wealthiest landowner in western Europe. It was a hugely powerful international organisation, challenging and constraining the authority of emperors and kings. Senior churchmen were ministers and high officials to secular rulers, and the servants of the Church – priests, monks, nuns and other “clerks” – were tried in their own courts and by their own system of law.

The medieval Church in western Europe looked to the Pope, the bishop of Rome, for leadership. For much of the high Middle Ages popes asserted their complete sovereignty over the Church. They also claimed authority over secular rulers. Although the latter eventually succeeded in resisting this claim, the struggle between the Papacy and monarchs had a profound impact on the history of western Europe.


One ubiquitous feature of medieval society was the presence of monks and nuns. Their monasteries came in different shapes and sizes, but typically formed a complex of buildings – cloisters, dormitories, kitchens, store rooms, libraries, workshops, a mill, and so on – all gathered around a church. Monasteries dotted both countryside and towns, and many owned extensive lands and property.

Monastic communities had arisen at the time of the Roman empire, but in the years after its fall monasticism was given a new lease of life by St Benedict of Nursa, in the late 5th and 6th centuries. He developed a code of guidelines to order the community and individual lives of monks and nuns. These were practical and moderate rules which aimed at allowing men and women to live communal lives of worship and study, separate from the rest of society whilst contributing to its welfare. Even today these rules are well regarded for their combination of moderation and spirituality.

Monasteries and nunneries spread throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, and monks and nuns provided much of the education, healthcare and practical charity for the population at large, as well as the preaching of the Christian Gospel. They preserved the learning of classical Greece and Rome from generation to generation by copying ancient writings (a major undertaking before the coming of printing). They also contributed their own study and learning, which helped to shape future Western thought. When universities appeared, the first teachers were monks.


For most of the Middle Ages, European society was almost entirely rural, with a very simple social structure: nobles at the top, peasants at the bottom, and very few people in between. During the later part of the period, however, trade expanded and towns becoming larger and more numerous. More people joined the “middle classes” between peasants and lords: such groups as merchants, craftsmen, shopkeepers and so on.

The numerically tiny fief-holding aristocracy of nobles and knights lived in castles, manor houses and, when in town, mansions. They were supported economically by the labour of the peasants, who formed the great majority of the population. The peasants lived in small scattered villages and hamlets, working the land and doing a host of other jobs to provide for their everyday needs.

Medieval French manuscript illustration of the three classes of medieval society

A small but growing minority of the population (between 5 and 10%) lived in the few towns, which were tiny by modern standards. These townsmen worked as merchants, craftsmen and labourers.

Other groups in society were churchmen, and also some communities of people, such as Jews, who were not really fully accepted members of the wider society.

The Great Lords

The aristocracy consisted mostly of a graded hierarchy of fief-holders. At the very top were the magnates. These were titled nobles such as dukes, counts (or their equivalent, earls, in the British Isles) and barons. They stood just below kings and emperors in social rank, in wealth and in power; indeed, in many parts of Europe they were rulers in their own right, governing duchies and counties as semi-autonomous princes, owing only loose obedience to a distant monarch. Their families intermarried freely with the royal families of France, England, Germany and other kingdoms.

In the lower ranks of the aristocracy were knights and gentry who held only a small fief (a single manor of one knight’s fee). Indeed, many held no land at all, but belonged to a great lord’s retinue, fighting his battles and living as members of his household. They hoped for a small fief as a reward for faithful service, or perhaps as a result of marriage to the heiress of a fief-holder.

The great lords were surrounded by huge retinues. These were literally small (and not-so-small) armies of knights, domestic servants, retainers, and men-at-arms. Their numerous manors were supervised by trusted servants called bailiffs or stewards, and their complex affairs were supervised by a staff of household officials and clerks.

These lords, along with their households and retinues, lived in strongly fortified castles. These first appeared in 9th century France to provide protection for lord and local people from the prevailing anarchy of the period. They were originally small fortified structures made of wood, sometimes standing on an artificial earth mound. They soon grew into large complexes centred on a massive fortified building made of stone (the keep).

The really great lords held several castles, and traveled frequently between them, along with their retinues. This was an economic necessity, as their retinues were so large that they would soon have exhausted the resources of any one locality. Moreover, in an age of slow communication it enabled these magnates to keep in touch with their scattered territories, and to give their dependents justice in person by presiding at the local courts under their control (see above: privatized power).

Knights and Gentlemen

Below them, different ranks of aristocrats lived in lesser splendour, down to the gentleman or knight holding just one manor. His concerns were mainly to do with the affairs of the local community in which he lived. Although far less powerful than the great lord of whom he was a vassal, he had great authority over the lives of the people of his manor. He administered justice to them in his manorial court, and supervised the work of his demesne, perhaps assisted by one or two clerks. Along with his family and a small staff of domestic servants he lived in a manor house, which was often fortified (some looked like small castles), especially in less ordered parts of Europe.

A Military Class

The medieval aristocracy were steeped in a military culture – they were, in fact, a warrior class, trained from childhood in warfare. Even their leisure activities involved mock-battles called tournaments.

Knights were originally the illiterate, thuggish retainers of kings and lords, forming their military retinues and living in their halls. As time went by, and military equipment became more expensive (larger horses, more sophisticated armour), the lords found it useful to provide many of them with their own small fiefs so that they could buy and maintain their own equipment.

From the 12th century, both lords and knights were Christianized by the church, their warlike instincts channelled into a code of chivalry which emphasised protection of the weak and the poor, respect for women and courteous behaviour to one another. A whole new idea of what it was to be a gentleman began to take shape. Aristocrats became literate and educated, better able to deal with matters of law and administration. This fitted them to serve their lords better as society became more ordered and complex. It also enabled them to look after their own estates more effectively, as written documents became more important in their management.

The Peasants

Peasants formed the vast majority of the population of medieval Europe. They lived in small villages, where they farmed the land and did a host of related activities.

The serfs – those unfree peasants tied to a particular fief on an hereditary basis – had to provide the lord of the manor with various kinds of service. The most onerous of these involved working on the lord’s own land – his demesne – for a set number of days per week. Other obligations included giving gifts to the lord at certain times of the year, or at key moments in the peasant’s life – for example when his daughters were getting married (for which they had to ask the permission of the lord), or when a father died and the parcels of land he had farmed were being taken over by his son(s).

Many manors, especially in England and northern Europe, practiced the open-field system of farming, in which two or three huge fields were divided into strips, with each peasant family farming several strips scattered around the fields. These were distributed so that each would get a fair share of the good and bad land. Major activities such as sowing, ploughing and harvesting were carried out jointly by the entire community.

Villages were small by modern standards, usually numbering fewer than a couple of hundred people. Each village would have had its own church, which by the 12th century would usually have been built of stone. Nearby would have been the priest’s house, and near that the “tithe barn”. This was where the villagers stored one tenth of all the grain they grew, as their tax to the church. In many villages a manor house would also have stood nearby.

A minority of peasants were not serfs, but free. Free peasants did not have the heavy feudal burdens of their unfree neighbours. They paid a rent in money or kind for the right to farm a piece of land, but otherwise they were at liberty to live their lives as and where they wished. They could move to another village if they wanted, or to a town; they could even buy and sell land.  If they owned some fields outright (perhaps having bought them from the lord) they did not even have to pay rent for them.

Reconstruction of an early medieval peasant village
Reproduced under Creative Commons 3.0

The Towns

Compared to today, towns were scarce in medieval Europe, and those that did exist were tiny. Medieval towns were usually smaller than those in classical antiquity. In 1100 or 1200 a town with 2000 inhabitants was considered large. Only a few towns and cities in Europe had more than 10,000, and those with more than 50,000 were very rare: even the city of Rome, the most important city on western Europe, only had around 30,000. London, by far the largest city in England, is estimated to have had 10,000 inhabitants in 1066, though four hundred years later it was probably nearer 75,000.

The biggest concentrations of large towns in medieval Europe were in Flanders (modern-day Belgium and Holland), and (much more so) in north Italy. In these regions, and particularly in the latter, cities such as Milan, Florence, Genoa and Venice, or in the Low Countries Bruges and Ghent, dominated the territory around them in a way which was unknown in the rest of Europe.

As time went by, and the population of Europe increased, trade and industry expanded and new towns appeared. These often grew up where a powerful lord gave a village permission to have a market: the market attracted trade, trade attracted merchants, craftsmen and workers arrived, and soon a small town was emerging. Alternatively, the presence of a castle, and the demands its inhabitants had for food, cloth and many other goods, caused the nearby village to grow into a town. As these villages were often granted permission by the lord to hold markets, so that the goods he and his household required were more readily available, this would have acted as a boost to town growth.

To modern eyes, many medieval towns would not just have been small, they would also have seemed almost rural. Although many towns were surrounded by walls, much of the area within the walls was given over to grazing land and fields. Farm animals could be seen roaming here and there. Nevertheless, the inhabitants of towns regarded themselves as quite different from (and superior to) country folk. They had a much greater level of freedom than most peasants, and lived under the authority of their own leaders – magistrates and members of the town councils – rather than of feudal lords.


Institutions of great importance in medieval towns were the guild. This was an association of merchants or craftsmen in the same trade. They regulated admission to the guild by supervising apprenticeships and awarding licences to practice the trade; they set standards for quality of work, and enforced these standards on their members; they acted as social clubs, organising feasts and celebrations through the year; they fulfilled particular functions within the wider life of the town, for example taking responsibility for certain aspects of the town’s religious life; and many set up schools for the education of children of their members (and for a fee, other children). In many towns, membership of a guild conferred citizenship of the town upon a person.

Growing class divisions

As trade expanded in the middle and high medieval periods, the merchant classes grew in number, wealth and influence. From being humble traders in tiny towns in about 1000 CE, in status roughly on a par with craftsmen, they evolved into merchants living in grand town houses with many servants. Their business interests could span many countries, even beyond Europe. They took over the running of the towns’ affairs through their control of the guilds. Many were able to pass on their wealth to their sons, and came to form an hereditary patrician elite, able to deal with dukes and counts on equal terms.

Meanwhile, humbler craftsmen were unable to keep pace; they were still able to maintain themselves in economic independence, and had a respected place in urban society, but they were falling behind the merchants.

As for the lower orders in the towns, they found themselves increasingly frozen out of opportunities to better themselves. As merchants and even master craftsmen grew in wealth, more money was needed to join their ranks; and whereas in earlier times a poor townsmen could hope to rise to be a master of a workshop or trading enterprise, this became more and more difficult as the guilds came under the sway of small groups of wealthy masters. An urban proletariat began to appear in many towns, made up of poor labourers, as hereditary in their lowly status as the patricians were in their high estate. These divisions inevitably bore fruit in class tensions, often violent. These became more marked in towns and cities throughout Europe in the later Middle Ages.


Whatever one’s status, life in medieval towns was fraught with dangers. As towns grew in population, they became more and more crowded. Streets were very narrow, as well as being noisy and dirty. People threw their waste (including human waste) out of their windows to the street below. In many streets an open sewer flowed down the middle. Conditions were thus appallingly unhealthy. Disease was a constant threat. Houses were made of flimsy, flammable materials and danger of fire was never far away. Crime in medieval towns was far higher than in modern inner cities. All told, the death rate was frighteningly high.

Other elements in society

The Clergy

The clergy were a distinct and important element within medieval society.

There were two kinds of clergy: secular and regular. Broadly speaking, the secular clergy were the priests who served in the churches and cathedrals in towns and villages; the regular clergy were the monks, nuns and lay brothers and sisters who lived in monasteries or belonged to religious orders of wandering friars.

The clergy were the most educated members of society – in the early Middle Ages, well-nigh the only educated members. They could be found in a wide range of roles: parish priests in towns and villages, wandering preachers, school teachers and university lecturers, doctors and nurses, government officials, politicians and courtiers, household chaplains to great men, and so on. Their status varied enormously, from the village priest, barely able to read and write and hardly better-off than his parishioners, to men who lived in palaces, were surrounded by large retinues, and enjoyed the wealth and status on a par with the greatest in the land. Indeed, one of their number, the pope, held an office at least as respected as that kings and emperors.

The Jews

Another group of people who could be seen in many towns (but seldom in the countryside) across Europe were Jews, who had spread around Europe since Roman times.

The reason why they were mostly confined to towns and cities was that in most places they were not allowed to own or rent land. In the urban economy, however, the Jews played a key role. Lending money for profit was forbidden to Christians by the Church; however, Jews were allowed by their own religion to lend on interest to non-Jews. In the early part of the Middle Ages, therefore, moneylending became a near-monopoly for them.

Some Jews became very rich – and as such, of course, attracted widespread envy. In fact, Jews came to be seen as extortionate moneylenders, and this, added to the fact that they were a group of outsiders who had not integrated with the rest of society, led to their being the object of widespread fear and distrust. They were easy targets when things went wrong – in time of plague, for example, Jews were often accused of poisoning wells and other crimes, and anti-Jewish pogroms could all too easily occur. Also, when rulers found themselves in dire need of money (as medieval kings did frequently) one of their common expedients was to squeeze the Jewish community. The rest of society could mostly be relied on to stand by when this happened. On several occasions all Jews were expelled from various kingdoms – England in 1290, France in 1306 and Spain in 1492. Many of these Jews emigrated to Poland, Hungary, Holland, Italy and Turkey.

The Poor

Every medieval community had its paupers and beggars. These were often people unable to work through physical or mental disability, or widows and orphans left without any means of support. In villages, they were cared for by the other villagers, by the parish priest and the lord of the manor.  In towns this responsibility fell to the monasteries, which not only functioned as places of prayer and worship but as sources of welfare and healthcare.

Everyday life

Family life

For all people, there was nothing like the same privacy that we have come to expect in our own lives. Poorer families would live and eat together in single-room cottages, at night all sleeping in the one bed. In wealthier families, the owners of a house would share their house with servants and workers. Even in aristocratic households, the family itself might only have a few rooms to itself, with the main sections of the house shared with a host of retainers and servants.

For the majority of people, including young children, hours were long – all the hours of daylight were barely enough to get though the tasks needing doing to ensure survival. They did not have the labour-saving devices that we have today; almost everything had to be done by muscle power (human or animal).

Women were legally subject to men (though one would not necessarily have believed that from the work of medieval writers such as Boccaccio and Chaucer, who give pen portraits of assertive and powerful women). Women’s main role in society was to be as wives and mothers. In poorer families, they worked alongside their menfolk in field and workshop, as well as doing household chores – cooking, washing, cleaning, making clothes, grinding corn, making beer and so on. In fact, economic and household work was not demarcated as it is today, as all tasks were to do with ensuring they and their families were properly fed, watered and clothed.

In aristocratic circles the women wove, spun, and managed the domestic side of the household. In circumstances where the men were away or otherwise unable to manage affairs, the lady of the household took charge of everything – including, on more than one occasion, leading the defence of a castle against attack. Widows in particular could have a large measure of economic independence, and in many cases took over the ownership and management of their deceased husband’s business. Nuns of course lived lived lives largely free from male domination, and could rise to be Abbesses of their communities, holding positions of wide respect and great responsibility.

Children, education and literacy

Children took on adult roles at a young age. Children from poorer families were put to work in the family’s plot of land or workshop at the age of seven or so. If the family could afford to send them to school this too began at seven. Sons of craftsmen and merchants were sent to another household to be apprenticed to another master for seven years, learning how to follow in their trade. In aristocratic households, boys were sent to another household to be trained in military skills. They earned their keep by acting as servants in this household. Girls of all classes were trained in weaving, needlework, and all the household chores they would need when they had their own households to manage.

Until towards the end of the Middle Ages, the only people who had what we would call an “education” were those destined for a career in the church. The majority of the population were completely illiterate. Even aristocrats were mostly unable to read and write until the later Middle Ages. Literacy was not regarded as a particularly valuable accomplishment for a gentleman, as he could delegate tasks involving reading and writing to clerks.

In English, the word “clerk” is closely linked to the word “cleric”, or churchman. This reflects the fact that, in medieval England and other northern European countries, the only people who were expected to be able to read and write were men and women of the church. Literacy was seen as a purely practical skill which clerics needed to have in order to do their work. Boys intended for a career in the church would be taught the rudiments of reading and writing by a local priest, before being sent to a monastery to progress their education. Here they would follow a curriculum known as the trivium, which consisted of grammar, rhetoric and logic.

Education was always more widespread in southern Europe, where urban life continued, albeit in a shrunken form, from Roman times and where education was never the exclusive preserve of the clergy. In later medieval times, education became more widespread in northern countries as well. Schools began to appear in towns, at first attached to cathedrals and large churches, later maintained by guilds or town councils (but still taught mostly by clergy and with a curriculum still focussed on grammar – hence the label grammar schools).

As society became more complex, more people had to learn to read and write. Administration and law increasingly involved written documents, so that anyone who managed manors or was involved in courts or administration needed to be able to read. The growth of long-distance business networks made letter-writing and account-keeping a necessity for merchants and their agents. Right at the end of the Middle Ages, the coming of printing allowed books to become much cheaper. Upper class people, both men and women, took to reading for pleasure. Education became the mark of a gentleman or gentlewomen.


From the late 11th century, a new kind of educational institution appeared, the university. The first of these was at Bologna, in northern Italy, but other universities soon appeared in Paris, Oxford, Cambridge and other places. In origin, they were communities of teachers (all clergymen) who banded together in a loose association to study and teach. By the 14th century some of these universities had acquired such an outstanding reputation that scholars came from all over Europe to study and to teach in them.  These great centres of learning spread an international academic culture which has endured in Europe, the West up to the present day, and has now spread around the world. At first, the students who attended these universities were all intended for the church; however, others soon followed, especially the sons of noblemen and wealthy merchants who wished to study law.

Buildings and homes

Building styles and materials varied around Europe, but most poorer people, both in village and town, would have lived in small, single-storey cottages, usually with a single room and often with stalls next to them for the family’s animals (animals roamed freely round many towns). The walls would usually be made of wattle and daub, and the roof of thatch.

Larger town houses had two or more stories. In merchant’s houses the lower storey would be given over to the family business. But here too the walls would mostly be made of wattle and daub plastered on to a timber frame, with the roof thatched, slated or tiled. Only the wealthiest merchants would live in stone- or brick-built mansions.

In many towns, the largest secular building was the guildhall, where the merchants met together for business and pleasure, and where much of the towns’ public affairs were dealt with.

For the aristocracy, massive stone castles housed powerful nobles, along with their families, retainers and domestic servants. These building complexes would be structured around a great hall in which the noblemen met with other nobles or with royal officials; and where great feasts were held on regular occasions. Manor houses were smaller versions of castles, also built around a large hall. in mid-medieval times these would have been fortified, true small castles; later, they were built more with comfort and display in mind, with many decorative features.

Churches were to be found in most villages, and the smallest town would have several churches. These were by far the most common public edifices. Most towns would also have had at least one monastery within it or nearby.

Medieval cities were noted for the marvellous cathedrals that they boasted – the crowning architectural glories of the age. A cathedral spire soared above a skyline of most medieval cities, able to be seen for miles around. This was a powerful testimony to the importance of the Church in the life of a place, and in fact, the community surrounding the cathedral, with its bishop and his household, senior church officials, attendant monastery and nunnery with their monks and nuns, cloisters, dormitories and so on, and all the other hangers-on who served their needs, formed the prime economic element in all but the most dynamic commercial centres.


Villagers’ clothes were simple, consisting of woollen tunics for men and woollen dresses for women. Shoes were made from the leather of slaughtered animals.

Poor townsfolk dressed in much the same way, but wealthier townsmen would have brightly dyed cloaks and gowns to wear, with linen (or, for the wealthiest, silk) undergarments next to their skin. Their womenfolk, likewise, would have various layers of garments, and also brightly coloured cloaks.

King Lothair I is shown in a cloak fastened on one shoulder
worn over a long-sleeved tunic and cross-gartered hose

Monks wore habits – plain, woollen garments, often with a hood. The habit reached to their feet. The top of their heads was shaven. Nun’s also wore habits. Their head and hair was almost covered by a headpiece (or “coif”).


The year was punctuated by many religious festivals, which were times for communal fun and games. Villages and towns (or their guilds) organised their own games, such as an early version of football, which were often rough and could be violent. Towns and villages had many inns, and drink flowed freely. spectator sports included cock fights and bear bating. In southern Europe, bull fighting

There were also plays, put on in the market place by local people, or by troops of travelling actors. Jugglers and acrobats also performed in the streets

The aristocratic also enjoyed feasting, which took place in the great halls of their castles and manor houses. They also enjoyed a form of entertainment called the tournament. Originally, this was more or less a mock battle between two sides of knights, and could be almost as dangerous as the real thing. Later they became much more formalised, with jousts between two knights. With the body armour of the contestants covering the face, their identity had to be proclaimed by unique patterns of symbols on their shields and banners. This practice gave rise to heraldry, by which family descent was represented symbolically by these patterns. This in term led to aristocratic families being demarcated from the rest of the population by heraldic coats of arms though which their families could be traced for generations.

Law and order

In medieval Europe, law was a hotch-potch of local custom, feudal practice, Roman law and Church law. These, together with laws issues by kings and parliaments, gradually became more important as time went by.

Most people’s experience of law would have been in their local manor court, which settled disputes between neighbours and tried petty crimes. These courts were presided over by the lord of the manor, or by his official (usually a villager who had the respect of his peers). The towns had their own courts, presided over by magistrates.

More serious crimes were tried in the courts of magnates or in royal courts. These latter tended to become more used as time went by. A professional body of royal judges grew up who had the expertise to try cases more professionally than in the feudal courts. In most of western Europe they drew more and more on Roman law, while in England they were based on a growing body of common law.

The professionalisation of law was also apparent in the emergence of lawyers as a distinct profession. In western Europe, this took place first in Italy, as early as the 11th century; over the following three centuries the legal profession put down roots in the rest of Europe. This was largely the result of the rise of a more complex and commercial society – and also a more stable one, in which disputes between powerful men were increasingly settled in court rather than on the battlefield.

Throughout the Middle Ages, however, much law remained horrifyingly rough and ready by modern standards. If a thief was caught red-handed in the street, a mob would chase him and beat him up (or, not infrequently, kill him) – this was an accepted way of administering justice (it was called “hue and try”). Even when law was administered in a more orderly way, it could take a grisly form. Capital punishment was common – and carried out by barbarous methods – burning at the stake, or hanging, drawing and quartering, for example. Torture was administered on a routine basis for obtaining information – the wrack was a common procedure. Determining guilt or innocence was often undertaken through “ordeal” – a suspect made to hold a red-hot iron to see whether his hands blistered (guilty!), or being thrown into water to see whether he floated (guilty! – clearly a lose-lose situation).

This kind of justice was part and parcel of a violent society, which medieval Europe undoubtedly was. By modern standards, crime was horrifically high. The murder rate in most small towns was several time what it is in a modern inner city like New York ot Chicago. Whole stretches of countryside were inhabited by outlaw bands and off limits to law-abiding folk. Fraud was rife in trade, wholesale corruption was embedded in government – so common as to be seldom commented upon. Unwanted babies were habitually left in the open to die (hence the idea of children being found under mulberry bushes). It was a rough, tough, violent world, not for the faint-hearted.

Further study

Feudalism in Medieval Europe

The Medieval Church

Medieval European Government and Warfare

The Medieval European Economy


Look at a sequence of maps showing an outline of Medieval European history


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *