The phrase “Middle Ages” tells us more about the Renaissance
that followed it than it does about the era itself. Starting
around the 14th century, European thinkers, writers and artists
began to look back and celebrate the art and culture of ancient
Greece and Rome. Accordingly, they dismissed the period after
the fall of Rome as a “Middle” or even “Dark” age in which no
scientific accomplishments had been made, no great art produced,
no great leaders born. The people of the Middle Ages living in
what had been the western part of the once great Roman Empire had
squandered the advancements of their predecessors, this argument
went, and mired themselves instead in what 18th-century English
historian Edward Gibbon called “barbarism and religion.”
THE MIDDLE AGES:
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
After the fall of Rome, no single state or government united the
people who lived on the European continent. Instead, the
Catholic Church became the most powerful institution of the
medieval period. Kings, queens and other leaders derived much of
their power from their alliances with and protection of the
(In 800 CE, for example, Pope Leo III named the Frankish king Charlemagne the
“Emperor of the Romans”–the first since that empire’s fall more
than 300 years before. Over time, Charlemagne’s realm became the
Holy Roman Empire, one of several political entities in Europe
whose interests tended to align with those of the Church.)
Ordinary people across Europe had to “tithe” 10 percent of their
earnings each year to the Church; at the same time, the Church
was mostly exempt from taxation. These policies helped it to
amass a great deal of money and power.
THE MIDDLE AGES: THE RISE OF ISLAM
Meanwhile, the Islamic world was growing larger and more
powerful. After the prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 CE, Muslim
armies conquered large parts of the Middle East, uniting them
under the rule of a single caliph. At its height, the medieval
Islamic world was more than three times bigger than all of
Under the caliphs, great cities such as Cairo, Baghdad and
Damascus fostered a vibrant intellectual and cultural life.
Poets, scientists and philosophers wrote thousands of books (on
paper, a Chinese invention that had made its way into the
Islamic world by the 8th century).
Scholars translated Greek,
Iranian and Indian texts into Arabic. Inventors devised
technologies like the pinhole camera, soap, windmills, surgical
instruments, an early flying machine and the system of numerals
that we use today. And religious scholars and mystics
translated, interpreted and taught the Quran and other
scriptural texts to people across the Middle East.
THE MIDDLE AGES: THE CRUSADES
Toward the end of the 11th century, the Catholic Church began to
authorize military expeditions, or
to expel Muslim “infidels” from the Holy Land. Crusaders, who
wore red crosses on their coats to advertise their status,
believed that their service would guarantee the remission of
their sins and ensure that they could spend all eternity in
Heaven. (They also received more worldly rewards, such as papal
protection of their property and forgiveness of some kinds of
The Crusades began in 1095, when Pope Urban summoned a Christian
army to fight its way to Jerusalem, and continued on and off
until the end of the 15th century. No one “won” the Crusades; in
fact, many thousands of people from both sides lost their lives.
They did make ordinary Catholics across Christendom feel like
they had a common purpose, and they inspired waves of religious
enthusiasm among people who might otherwise have felt alienated
from the official Church.
They also exposed Crusaders to Islamic
literature, science and technology–exposure that would have a
lasting effect on European intellectual life.
THE MIDDLE AGES: ART AND ARCHITECTURE
Another way to show devotion to the Church was to build grand
cathedrals and other ecclesiastical structures such as
monasteries. Cathedrals were the largest buildings in medieval
Europe, and they could be found at the center of towns and
cities across the continent.
Between the 10th and 13th centuries, most European cathedrals
were built in the Romanesque style. Romanesque cathedrals are
solid and substantial: They have rounded masonry arches and
barrel vaults supporting the roof, thick stone walls and few
windows. (Examples of Romanesque architecture include the Porto
Cathedral in Portugal and the Speyer Cathedral in present-day
Around 1200, church builders began to embrace a new
architectural style, known as the Gothic. Gothic structures,
such as the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis in France and the
rebuilt Canterbury Cathedral in England, have huge stained-glass
windows, pointed vaults and arches (a technology developed in
the Islamic world), and spires and flying buttresses. In
contrast to heavy Romanesque buildings, Gothic architecture
seems to be almost weightless.Medieval religious art took other
forms as well. Frescoes and mosaics decorated church interiors,
and artists painted devotional images of the Virgin Mary, Jesus
and the saints.
Also, before the invention of the printing press in the 15th
century, even books were works of art. Craftsmen in monasteries
(and later in universities) created illuminated manuscripts:
handmade sacred and secular books with colored illustrations,
gold and silver lettering and other adornments. In the 12th
century, urban booksellers began to market smaller illuminated
manuscripts, like books of hours, psalters and other prayer
books, to wealthy individuals.
THE MIDDLE AGES: ECONOMICS AND SOCIETY
In medieval Europe, rural life was governed by a system scholars
call “feudalism.” In a feudal society, the king granted large
pieces of land called fiefs to noblemen and bishops. Landless
peasants known as serfs did most of the work on the fiefs: They
planted and harvested crops and gave most of the produce to the
landowner. In exchange for their labor, they were allowed to
live on the land. They were also promised protection in case of
During the 11th century, however, feudal life began to change.
Agricultural innovations such as the heavy plow and three-field
crop rotation made farming more efficient and productive, so
fewer farm workers were needed–but thanks to the expanded and
improved food supply, the population grew. As a result, more and
more people were drawn to towns and cities. Meanwhile, the
Crusades had expanded trade routes to the East and given
Europeans a taste for imported goods such as wine, olive oil and
luxurious textiles. As the commercial economy developed, port
cities in particular thrived.
By 1300, there were some 15 cities
in Europe with a population of more than 50,000.
In these cities, a new era was born: the Renaissance. The
Renaissance was a time of great intellectual and economic
change, but it was not a complete “rebirth”: It had its roots in
the world of the Middle Ages.
Did you know?
Between 1347 and 1350, a mysterious disease known as the "Black
Death" (the bubonic plague) killed some 20 million people in
Europe—30 percent of the continent’s population. It was
especially deadly in cities, where it was impossible to prevent
the transmission of the disease from one person to another.
This way of thinking about the era in the “middle” of the fall
of Rome and the rise of the Renaissance prevailed until
relatively recently. However, today’s scholars note that the era
was as complex and vibrant as any other.