Middle Ages: Summary, Facts, and Timeline

Middle Ages – Definition, Summary and Timeline | Image: Medieval French manuscript showing the three classes of medieval society – the clergy, the knights, and the peasants (or serfs) | Li Livres dou Sante, 13th century

Here is a quick summary of what the Middle Ages were all about in Europe.  The article also includes a complete timeline of all the major events that characterized the Middle Ages, which is also known as the Medieval Era.

Summary

The Middle Ages refer to a period in history that spanned from the time Rome fell to the time the Ottoman Empire rose. What this means is that it lasted for about a millennium, from the late 5th century CE to the beginning of the Renaissance in the 15th century CE.

The Middle Ages was responsible for producing great empires and societies such as the Byzantine Empire, the Anglo-Saxons, The Franks and the Vikings. Some notable personalities of this time period include William the Conqueror, Emperor Justinian I, Genghis Khan, Charlemagne, and Alfred the Great.

The Middle Ages also introduced the world to some pretty horrific events such as the Black Death which killed several millions of people; the Hundred Years War; the Crusades; and the Wars of the Roses. The period was also a time rife with the feudal system of government and economics that saw peasants (or serfs) toil and break their backs in exchange for the protection given by their lords. Therefore unless one was a knight, a nobleman or even the king himself, life was pretty much difficult compared to the centuries that came after the Middle Ages.

However, it was not all dark and gloomy, as the Middle Ages gave the world beneficial things such as the Magna Carta, spectacular monasteries, music, and art and literature. The period also produced renowned authors like Sir Thomas Malory, the author of Le Morte d’Arthur; Giovanni Boccaccio, the author of the Decameron; Margery Kempe; Dante Alighieri, the author of Inferno; Giovanni Boccaccio, author of the Decameron; and William Langland, author of Piers Plowman.

Some of the most famous artists of the Middle Ages were the Italians Donatello, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, and Giotto.

Timeline

The timeline below primarily outlines specific events that transpired in Europe during the Middle Ages.

476: After two centuries of relative peace and prosperity the mighty Roman Empire under “Pax Romana” crumbles ushering in centuries of no central government across Europe.

481: The Franks crown Clovis as their ruler who sets about to unite warring tribes formerly part of Gaul.

570: Islam’s last prophet, Muhammad, is born.

732: At the Battle of Tours, Europe comes together to halt the spread of Islam across the continent.

800: Charlemagne, the great leader of the Franks, is elevated to the honor of Holy Roman Emperor; also known as Charles the Great (Charles I) embarks on an ambitious exercise of bringing Western Europe together under his rule. By so doing, Charlemagne becomes the father of French and English monarchies.

835: Northern Europeans are blighted by the constant invasion of the Vikings (Scandinavian warriors that inhabited large parts of present day Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

896: A rising English king by the name of Alfred the Great etches his name in history by repelling the Viking invaders.

1066: William of Normandy crosses the English Channel and brings England to its knees in the Battle of Hastings; William is subsequently crowned king, becoming the first Norman king of England.

1096: With dwindling resources, rulers of Europe and the Church in Rome sanction the First Crusade, which opens the door for about two centuries of conflict between the Holy Roman Empire and the Muslims.

1189: England gets a new king in the person of Richard the Lionheart, also known as Richard the First.

1204: The beginning of the end of the Byzantine Empire as crusaders, who originally went to East to take Jerusalem, sack Constantinople.

1206: A new force rises in Asia, as the Mongol Empire is created by the mighty conqueror Genghis Khan.

1215: One of the most influential documents in history – the Magna Carta – is born in England.

1271: Famous explorer and trader embarks on his historical journey to Asia.

1300: Global average temperatures begin to plummet by about 1.5 degrees Celsius (or 2-3 Fahrenheit) in what historians like to call the Little Ice Age; the poor weather conditions brings enormous food supply challenges.

1337: France and England lock horns in a bitter conflict called the Hundred Years War, which lasts for 116 years.

1347: The Black Death sweeps through Europe, leaving almost half of the continent’s population dead.

1378: The Great Schism intensifies as Europe has two popes – one in France and the other in Rome.

1412: Joan of Arc – the French peasant who would inspire a distraught and leaderless France to fight against England – is born.

1431: Charged with heresy, Joan of Arc, 19, is burnt at the stake by England; her capture was facilitated by the Burgundians, rivals to Charles VII of France.

1444: The Middle Age receives a huge boost with the invention of the printing press by German inventor Johannes Gutenberg.

1453: One of the longest-running empires in history – the Byzantine Empire – falls to the Ottoman Empire.

1482: Europe gets its act together, bringing an end to the Middle Ages.

1492: Christopher Columbus “discovers” America; and the Renaissance, critical thinking and the age of exploration continues to gather steam.

Other notable facts about the Middle Ages

  • Almost 90% of the population of the Middle Ages in Europe were in the peasant/serf class. These peasants experienced the harshest of conditions of anyone in Europe. Some of them were even enslaved for the rest the lives. A typical serf in the Middle Ages toiled on the land for not less than 6 days a week. All their sweat and labor went to services of the local lords and knights that run the manors. Those lords in turn reported to the barons and nobles, who in turn reported to the very wealthy and powerful bishops. At the top of the food chain was the king.
  • Some peasants died from sheer exhaustion. And quite certainly, many of them were treated like chattels of the local lords.
  • As time passed, guilds began to form all across Europe. Those guilds were associations of craftsmen like carpenters, merchants, masons, bakers, and blacksmiths, among others. They were formed with the sole purpose of protecting the interests of their members. It also gave them a united front against powerful lords or nobles. With regard to merchant guilds, it’s been said those guilds dictated a bulk part of the local economy. In typical fashion of the Middle Ages, women were not allowed to become members of the guilds.
  • The Middle Ages was characterized by many chivalry codes, a set of codes that knights of the kings vowed to live their lives by. Common chivalry themes include being courageous, honor, integrity, and service to the weak and vulnerable.
  • The Viking Age – 800 AD to 1066 AD – occurred in the late Dark Ages of Europe. Predominantly from Scandinavia, The raids embarked upon by the Vikings caused unimaginable suffering across Northern European countries.
  • For clothes, peasants in the Middle Ages wore very simple clothes sewn from woolly materials. On the other hand, the rich folks and powerful elites donned very fine and well-tailored clothes made from the best textiles in Europe. The rich lords and noblemen put on tunic, breaches and cloak.  The women on the other hand, wore unusually long skirts (kirtle) as a sign of modesty. Other important clothes for them were the apron and a cloak.
  • Life in major European cities during the Middle Age was quite different from what it is now. The cities aside from being crowded were filthy and full of many squalid structures. However, the elites and royal families lived in obscene levels of luxury, which were funded by the exorbitant taxes imposed on the peasants. In the country and villages, life was a bit less hectic than in the cities. The living conditions of the peasants weren’t anything to write home about. Many peasant folks lived in horse stable-like conditions, sharing their living rooms with the animals that they raised. At the center of the homes was fire to keep the home warm, especially during winter.

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