It was Renaissance humanists who gave the name Middle Ages to the period in Western history between the end of the Roman Empire
and their own time, which they believed was a rebirth of the civilization of Greece
and Rome. They considered the Middle Ages to be a period of barbarism and intellectual darkness and the term, "The Dark Ages," was sometimes used to refer to the entire Middle Ages.
Since Medieval philosophy was based on faith, spiritual values and miracles, a new environment was needed that would transport the participant to another world [that of the spirit]. This shift from concentration on the natural world to the spiritual world meant that new verbal, visual and auditory means of expression had to be created. The rise of monasticism, feudalism and the emergence of nationalism in the form of distinct monarchies occurred during the Middle Ages. Within the thousand years of the Middle Ages, historians have recognized subperiods; the Early Middle Ages, from about 550 to 900 or 1000; the High Middle Ages, to about 1300; and the Later Middle Ages comprising the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
The Early Middle Ages
The Early Middle Ages saw the collapse of the Roman Empire, successive invasions of barbarian tribes and the triumph of Christianity. The remains of the Roman Empire in western Europe were broken up into barbarian kingdoms, until the Frankish king, Charlemagne, was crowned emperor of the West by the pope on Christmas Day, 800. By 900 the frontiers of western Europe were being shattered from the north by Vikings, from the south by Muslims, and from the east by Magyars. The Carolingian and Ottonian Empires [AD 750 to 1000] are included in this period.
The High Middle Ages
In the tenth century western Europeans, organized according to the rules of Feudalism, were able to drive off the invaders and gradually to take the offensive. The economy and the society rebounded while the church was reformed and revitalized. Romanesque art developed into Gothic and great works of literature like the Song of Roland and the Romance of the Rose were written. Rediscovery of the works of Greek philosophers, especially Aristotle, provided the spark for scholasticism the great philosophic system of the Middle Ages.
The Late Middle Ages
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries Europe suffered great famines, the catastrophic Black Death and the Hundred Years' War. Those who survived, however, often had a better life, especially the peasants of Western Europe, who won both greater freedom and prosperity. The nobles built palaces instead of castles, and the newly rich townspeople aped the nobility. The classic style dominated Italian art while the north of Europe developed Flamboyant Gothic. Among the great writers of the period were Giovanni Boccaccio and Dante Alighieri in Italy; Geoffrey Chaucer and Thomas Malory in England; and Guillaume de Machaut and Francois Villon in France.
Society in the Middle Ages was divided into distinct classes each with rigid customs, obligations and a strict etiquette on how a member would interact with those of higher and lower classes. Costume and speech assisted in maintaining class distinctions.
The courts of princes and the higher nobility (e.g. dukes, earls and barons) were the natural centers for the social life of the noble class. The great feasts of the Christian year: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost were celebrated with great pageantry and ceremony. The gathering for military expeditions, whether it be war, tourney, or Crusade began at the courts and it was to the prince's court that the nobles were summoned for judgment in their own cases or those of their peers and to which they came to give counsel to their lords. Because they fought exclusively on horseback, the nobles became the cavalry, the chivalry of Europe. Prowess, loyalty, generosity and courtesy were the basic values of their social code.
Outside the walls of the towns lay the monasteries. Monasticism came to western Europe in the fourth century, and many people had fled to the cloisters before Saint Benedict of Nursia founded Monte Casino in southern Italy in 529. The rule of Saint Benedict was to spread throughout Latin Christendom, its only real competitor being the monasticism of Ireland where the monks spent their summers in missionary activity far away from their cloisters.
A new monastery founded in 910 at Cluny in French Burgundy became the mother house of a reformed order that spread throughout Europe. In its turn it was succeeded by more radical reformers like the Cistercians or the regular canons under a rule attributed to Saint Augustine. In the thirteenth century the friars (Dominicans and Franciscans) abandoned the cloister entirely and with the healing and teaching orders of brothers and sisters entered into the service of the world, although still committed to the vows of obedience, poverty and chastity.
Monasteries became the principal repositories of learning, including virtually all the existing classical Latin authors and the Fathers of the Church. Knowledge was increased from the tenth century onward by contact with the Arab scholars in Spain, Sicily and North Africa and with the Greeks in Constantinople. More of the works of Aristotle were discovered along with their Arabic commentators; Greek and Arabic scientific works were translated for western use; and above all, the Arabic mathematics including Hindu notation was imported to Europe.
The new learning was brought into the classical curriculum taught in the schools: the seven liberal arts divided into the trivium of grammar, rhetoric and logic, and the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. Monastic schools primarily taught young monks. Boys aspiring to be secular clergy were taught first in parish and then cathedral schools, some of which became famous and attracted numerous students. Although there was some organized female education in convents, most of the education given to girls was received at home. As more and more students became concentrated in one place, there was demand for more teachers. In time a guild of teachers at Paris, a guild of students at Bologna, and a guild of doctors at Salerno called themselves universities and began to establish statutes and demand liberties from church and state alike, thus sowing the seeds of academic freedom. Soon other universities were founded at which a young man could become a master of arts and receive a license to teach. Or if he was impelled to further learning, he could go on to study theology, law or medicine. In the Later Middle Ages students attended the universities for their intellectual and social life, whether or not they wished to become clergy or to teach or to practice a profession. This emphasis on knowledge for its own sake was a central strand of the Humanism that led to the Renaissance.
Music and Song
The first substantial collections of composed songs in Western music are Gregorian chants, and the troubadour songs of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Plainsong, a flowing, free-rhythmed type of melody, was the principal music of Christian liturgy in the Middle Ages. The minstrels and troubadours of France and Germany were poet-musicians who composed unaccompanied songs in praise of courtly love.
Plainsong or plainchant is the name given to the single melodic line (monodic) vocal liturgical music of the Christian Catholic churches. It is unaccompanied and is usually in rhythm that is free, not divided into a regular measure. The earliest plainsong in notated form dates only from the ninth to tenth century. But many of the antiphons, responds, and ornate melodies of the mass were products of the later Middle Ages, from the eleventh century on.
In the ninth- and tenth-century manuscripts that are the earliest actual sources of plainchant the musical signs are not written notes, but rather depictions of the melodic shapes to be traced in air by the hand of the conductor, whose direction reminded the singers of the correct notes and indicated both rhythm and ornamentation. The notational shapes were called neumes and there were several neumatic systems.
By the ninth century, women's ability to inherit property strengthened their position within the family and influenced society at large. The Carolingian rulers reinforced the church's policy of the indissolubility of marriage, thus protecting women against repudiation for childlessness.
Property and marital security enabled women to play more active roles in the early Middle Ages. From the eleventh century on, however, women's freedoms were steadily restricted, first by the church, and later by lay society. The rise of monarchies strengthened male control of families and increased male opportunities in the public sphere. The rise of courtly love, which simultaneously idealized women as objects of male devotion and drew them from religious devotion to romantic love of men, provided cultural compensation for declining female independence.
The effect of the Crusades on women left behind to fend for themselves was dramatic. The absence of a husband, son or guardian could be as long as 10 years. Then there were the men who never returned. It is reported that in the second and third crusades perhaps 500,000 were lost, a significant drain on the male Christian population.
Raids on property were common throughout this period. Women often were called upon to defend their homes or castles. The words of Lady Alice Knyvet when faced with troops posed to take her castle probably reflect the motivations and actions of many who were forced into this militant role. "I will not leave possession of this castle to die therefore; and if you begin to break the peace or make war to get the place of me, I shall defend me. For rather I in such wise to die than to be slain when my husband cometh home, for he charged me to keep it."
In film and in literature, medieval life seems heroic, entertaining, and romantic. In reality, life in the Middle Ages, a period that extended from approximately the fifth century to the fifteenth century in Western Europe, was sometimes all these things, as well as harsh, uncertain, and often dangerous.
For safety and for defense, people in the Middle Ages formed small communities around a central lord or master. Most people lived on a manor, which consisted of the castle, the church, the village, and the surrounding farm land. These manors were isolated, with occasional visits from peddlers, pilgrims on their way to the Crusades, or soldiers from other fiefdoms.
The Catholic Church was the only church in Europe during the Middle Ages, and it had its own laws and large coffers. Church leaders such as bishops and archbishops sat on the king's council and played leading roles in government. Bishops, who were often wealthy and came from noble families, ruled over groups of parishes called "diocese." Parish priests, on the other hand, came from humbler backgrounds and often had little education. The village priest tended to the sick and indigent and, if he was able, taught Latin and the Bible to the youth of the village.
Following 1000, peace and order grew. As a result, peasants began to expand their farms and villages further into the countryside. The earliest merchants were peddlers who went from village to village selling their goods. As the demand for goods increased--particularly for the gems, silks, and other luxuries from Genoa and Venice, the ports of Italy that traded with the East--the peddlers became more familiar with complex issues of trade, commerce, accounting, and contracts. They became savvy businessmen and learned to deal with Italian moneylenders and bankers. The English, Belgians, Germans, and Dutch took their coal, timber, wood, iron, copper, and lead to the south and came back with luxury items such as wine and olive oil.
With the advent of trade and commerce, feudal life declined. As the tradesmen became wealthier, they resented having to give their profits to their lords. Arrangements were made for the townspeople to pay a fixed annual sum to the lord or king and gain independence for their town as a "borough" with the power to govern itself. The marketplace became the focus of many towns.
As the populations of medieval towns and cities increased, hygienic conditions worsened, leading to a vast array of health problems. Medical knowledge was limited and, despite the efforts of medical practitioners and public and religious institutions to institute regulations, medieval Europe did not have an adequate health care system. Antibiotics weren't invented until the 1800s and it was almost impossible to cure diseases without them.
There were many myths and superstitions about health and hygiene as there still are today. People believed, for example, that disease was spread by bad odors. It was also assumed that diseases of the body resulted from sins of the soul. Many people sought relief from their ills through meditation, prayer, pilgrimages, and other nonmedical methods.
The body was viewed as a part of the universe, a concept derived from the Greeks and Romans. Four humors, or body fliuds, were directly related to the four elements: fire=yellow bile or choler; water=phlegm; earth=black bile; air=blood. These four humors had to be balanced. Too much of one was thought to cause a change in personality--for example, too much black bile could create melancholy.
Fornication is said to be a sin, because it is contrary to right reason. Now man's reason is right, in so far as it is ruled by the Divine Will, the first and supreme rule. Wherefore that which a man does by God's will and in obedience to His command, is not contrary to right reason, though it may seem contrary to the general order of reason: even so, that which is done miraculously by the Divine power is not contrary to nature, though it be contrary to the usual course of nature. Therefore just as Abraham did not sin in being willing to slay his innocent son, because he obeyed God, although considered in itself it was contrary to right human reason in general, so, too, Osee sinned not in committing fornication by God's command. Nor should such a copulation be strictly called fornication, though it be so called in reference to the general course of things. Hence Augustine says (Confess. iii, 8): "When God commands a thing to be done against the customs or agreement of any people, though it were never done by them heretofore, it is to be done"; and afterwards he adds: "For as among the powers of human society, the greater authority is obeyed in preference to the lesser, so must God in preference to all."
Proud knights in the Crusades would march towards forgiveness of their sins, filled with greed. Bloodshed was worth it, dying was worth it. Marching towards Jerusalem with victory in their eyes, they would take anyone who stood in their way of victory. In Jerusalem they never stopped killing the Muslims. That was the Crusades of the Middle Ages.
In the year 1095, people were shocked in Western Europe by the words of Pope Urban II, "The Muslims have conquered Jerusalem". The Muslims forbade Christians and pilgrims to come to Jerusalem to pray. Pope Urban wanted the Christians to retake Jerusalem from the Muslims. People shouted "God wills it". All over France these were the words of the Christians.
The French, German, and Italians were the European Christians that went on Crusades. The word Crusade meant "a war of the cross". During the first Crusade (1095-1097) most of the knights died of hunger, thirst or disease. When they got to Jerusalem they slaughtered anyone they could find. They took vows before going on a crusade. Sometimes during a crusade a knight would forget his vows and ride off or live in the village closest by.
In a Crusade there were pilgrims who were going to pray in Jerusalem, groomers that cleaned the horses, wives and children of the knights, and two kinds of knights: a mounted knight who rode on a horse and a foot soldier who walked on foot. Some of the knights went on Crusades to get rich or to steal a new home from the people they were fighting, but most of the knights went to get healed of their sins. Richard the Lion Heart (or Richard the I of England) was a famous general in the Crusades. The fourth Crusade (1199-1204) started off with a tournament against the Turks in France but the Crusade ended in tragedy. Pope Innocent III wanted the Christians to go and kill the Muslims. Most of the armies that went were already half destroyed by the Turks. They didn't reach Jerusalem. After the first Crusade (1095-1097) Godfrey, a general, ruled Jerusalem till he died in 1099. His brother Baldwin ruled starting Christmas day. All together there were six Crusades in a period of 176 years. The Crusades lasted from 1095 until 1271.
When the knights were attacked in a Crusade they used huge siege weapons. The ballista was the simplest weapon. It was like a giant crossbow that could shoot arrows a distance of 350-450 yards in length. The mangonel was called a wild donkey by the Romans. It was a medium range catapult. The trebuchet was the most powerful siege weapon. It was a catapult that could fling rocks long range. A battering ram was a log cut from a heavy tree. The battering ram got its name because the Romans said it looked like a ram. It was then tied onto a penthouse to protect the knight from arrows and it took twelve men to swing it. All these siege weapons were used to get into Jerusalem by the knights of the Crusades. Other knights would try to dig under ground and then set fire to the wall supports underground in hopes that the wall would collapse. Another way knights tried to get into Jerusalem was to put long ladders against the wall and trying to climb them without being pushed over or having boiling liquids poured onto them, or being killed by a knight on the wall. The knights also built huge staircases called ]siege towers that were pushed against the wall and the knights walked up the staircases. When they actually reached Jerusalem however, they waited awhile before attacking to starve their enemy, but it didn't work so they just attacked the Muslims. The knights captured towers built on the walls. When the knights got inside the walls of Jerusalem they killed any Muslim on the street, inside buildings, walking on the sidewalk, or just anywhere at all. Muslims rode ponies during war and they were in groups lead by an emir. Sometimes a feud or fight between the group members about who should attack first caused the groups to break up.
Religion was important to the knights in the Middle Ages. One of the results of the Crusades was the founding of new religious orders. Most of the monks were former knights who fought against each other in the Crusades. There were many castles built during the Crusades. The knights did capture Jersulsalem for a short period of time, but the Muslims kept on re-taking Jerusalem. The knights gained power and confidence in themselves, but lost many people during the deadly Crusades. Out of the Crusades the idea of chivalry was created. Chivalry means that a knight had to be courteous to all people including enemies.
Knight's armor went through many changes. In the 12th century, the knights used an armor called mail. Mail was very little chains linked together to make one big suit of armor. These suits took on average about five years to make. These suits also took a lot of money to make. When all this work was done it weighed about twenty to thirty pounds and that was only the chest, arms, and back. When they were in battle the mall guarded arrows but not good strong blows with a mace. The armorers took that in consideration and made plate armor. But they only put plate armor in the sensitive parts that could not take as many hard blows.
Those suits lasted until the 15th century and then they started to make full body suites out of plate armor. Helmets varied some covered the face and some did not. Some had decorations on them such as eagles beaks. Horses had to wear armor too. They wore it around their neck and head. Knights had to wear padded doublet and tied with satin and strips around their knees to keep it from rubbing. It took a squire an hour to put on a suit of armor.
A knight had to follow special laws and this was called chivalry. These laws were difficult to follow because there was a lot of them. they had to be well behaved near women. A knight had to keep his word no matter what the case. Even in battle, they had rules to follow. One was if they got captured, they could not try to escape. Another rule they had to follow is that they had to be generous to his defeated enemies. That means they could not leave the other knight to die in the field. As you can see, it was very hard to be a knight because of the laws and the heavy armor.