Middle Ages


Middle Ages
the time in European history between classical antiquity and the Italian Renaissance (from about 500 A.D. to about 1350): sometimes restricted to the later part of this period (after 1100) and sometimes extended to 1450 or 1500.
[1715-25; pl. of MIDDLE AGE, trans. of NL Medium Aevum]

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Period in European history traditionally dated from the fall of the Roman Empire to the dawn of the Renaissance.

In the 5th century the Western Roman Empire endured declines in population, economic vitality, and the size and prominence of cities. It also was greatly affected by a dramatic migration of peoples that began in the 3rd century. In the 5th century these peoples, often called barbarians, carved new kingdoms out of the decrepit Western Empire. Over the next several centuries these kingdoms oversaw the gradual amalgamation of barbarian, Christian, and Roman cultural and political traditions. The longest-lasting of these kingdoms, that of the Franks, laid the foundation for later European states. It also produced Charlemagne, the greatest ruler of the Middle Ages, whose reign was a model for centuries to come. The collapse of Charlemagne's empire and a fresh wave of invasions led to a restructuring of medieval society. The 11th–13th centuries mark the high point of medieval civilization. The church underwent reform that strengthened the place of the pope in church and society but led to clashes between the pope and emperor. Population growth, the flourishing of towns and farms, the emergence of merchant classes, and the development of governmental bureaucracies were part of cultural and economic revival during this period. Meanwhile, thousands of knights followed the call of the church to join the Crusades. Medieval civilization reached its apex in the 13th century with the emergence of Gothic architecture, the appearance of new religious orders, and the expansion of learning and the university. The church dominated intellectual life, producing the Scholasticism of St. Thomas Aquinas. The decline of the Middle Ages resulted from the breakdown of medieval national governments, the great papal schism, the critique of medieval theology and philosophy, and economic and population collapse brought on by famine and disease.

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▪ European history
 the period in European history (Europe, history of) from the collapse of Roman civilization in the 5th century AD to the period of the Renaissance (variously interpreted as beginning in the 13th, 14th, or 15th century, depending on the region of Europe and on other factors). The term and its conventional meaning were introduced by Italian humanists with invidious intent; the humanists (humanism) were engaged in a revival of classical learning and culture, and the notion of a thousand-year period of darkness and ignorance separating them from the ancient Greek and Roman world served to highlight the humanists' own work and ideals. In a sense, the humanists invented the Middle Ages in order to distinguish themselves from it. The Middle Ages nonetheless provided the foundation for the transformations of the humanists' own Renaissance.

      A brief treatment of the Middle Ages follows. For full treatment, see Europe, history of: The Middle Ages (Europe, history of).

      The sack of Rome by Alaric the Visigoth in AD 410 had enormous impact on the political structure and social climate of the Western world, for the Roman Empire had provided the basis of social cohesion for most of Europe. Although the Germanic tribes that forcibly migrated into southern and western Europe in the 5th century were ultimately converted to Christianity, they retained many of their customs and ways of life; the changes in forms of social organization they introduced rendered centralized government and cultural unity impossible. Many of the improvements in the quality of life introduced during the Roman Empire, such as a relatively efficient agriculture, extensive road networks, water-supply systems, and shipping routes, decayed substantially, as did artistic and scholarly endeavours. This decline persisted throughout the period of time sometimes called the Dark Ages (also called Late Antiquity, or the Early Middle Ages), from the fall of Rome to about the year 1000, with a brief hiatus during the flowering of the Carolingian court established by Charlemagne. Apart from that interlude, no large kingdom or other political structure arose in Europe to provide stability. The only force capable of providing a basis for social unity was the Roman Catholic church. The Middle Ages therefore present the confusing and often contradictory picture of a society attempting to structure itself politically on a spiritual basis. This attempt came to a definitive end with the rise of artistic, commercial, and other activities anchored firmly in the secular world in the period just preceding the Renaissance.

      After the dissolution of the Roman Empire, the idea arose of Europe as one large church-state (church and state), called Christendom. Christendom was thought to consist of two distinct groups of functionaries, the sacerdotium, or ecclesiastical hierarchy, and the imperium, or secular leaders. In theory these two groups complemented each other, attending to people's spiritual and temporal needs, respectively. Supreme authority was wielded by the pope in the first of these areas and by the emperor in the second. In practice the two institutions were constantly sparring, disagreeing, or openly warring with each other. The emperors often tried to regulate church activities by claiming the right to appoint church officials and to intervene in doctrinal matters. The church, in turn, not only owned cities and armies but often attempted to regulate affairs of state.

      During the 12th century a cultural and economic revival took place; many historians trace the origins of the Renaissance to this time. The balance of economic power slowly began to shift from the region of the eastern Mediterranean to western Europe. The Gothic style developed in art and architecture. Towns began to flourish, travel and communication became faster, safer, and easier, and merchant classes began to develop. Agricultural developments were one reason for these developments; during the 12th century the cultivation of beans made a balanced diet available to all social classes for the first time in history. The population therefore rapidly expanded, a factor that eventually led to the breakup of the old feudal structures.

 The 13th century was the apex of medieval civilization. The classic formulations of Gothic architecture and sculpture were achieved. Many different kinds of social units proliferated, including guilds, associations, civic councils, and monastic chapters, each eager to obtain some measure of autonomy. The crucial legal concept of representation developed, resulting in the political assembly whose members had plena potestas—full power—to make decisions binding upon the communities that had selected them. Intellectual life, dominated by the Roman Catholic church, culminated in the philosophical method of Scholasticism, whose preeminent exponent, St. Thomas Aquinas, achieved in his writings on Aristotle and the Church Fathers one of the greatest syntheses in Western intellectual history.

      The breakup of feudal structures, the strengthening of city-states in Italy, and the emergence of national monarchies in Spain, France, and England, as well as such cultural developments as the rise of secular education, culminated in the birth of a self-consciously new age with a new spirit, one that looked all the way back to classical learning for its inspiration and that came to be known as the Renaissance.

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Universalium. 2010.

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  • Middle Ages —    Historical term used in all Western languages to des ignate the thousand year period from the disintegration of the ancient Roman political and social system in the fourth and fifth centuries to the beginning of the Renaissance. The term was… …   Historical Dictionary of Renaissance

  • Middle Ages — noun /ˌmɪd.l̩ ˈeɪ.dʒɪz/ The period of time in Europe between the decline of the Roman Empire and the revival of letters (the Renaissance) or, according to , the period beginning with the sixth and ending with the fifteenth century. She could see… …   Wiktionary


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