In the popular conception, the word ‘medieval’ immediately conjures up romantic images of knights in shining armour, epic battles of sword and bow, and visions of castles, peasants, and plague. But when actually was the medieval period, and how long did it go on for?
The Fall of Rome
Typically, scholars chart the beginnings of the medieval period – the word medieval itself comes from Latin and simply means ‘middle age’ – from the crumbling of the western half of the ancient Roman Empire. In 395 AD, Roman emperor Theodosius had divided the empire between his two sons, one governing from Rome, the other from Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul).
While the Eastern Roman Empire lasted until the Ottoman conquests of the 15th century, by 480 AD the Western Empire had succumbed to repeated invasions from the Goths, sparking the birth of the medieval era.
The Middle Ages
As per its name, the medieval era spans the middle portion of the two millennia since Christ, neatly bisecting the intervening two thousand years and spanning approximately 500 to 1500 AD.
The first period of the era was called the Early Middle Ages and lasted from approximately 500 to 1000 AD. During this period agricultural technology and farming techniques improved, and increased food yields supported rapid population growth.
The early Middle Age kingdoms also lived in a very interconnected world and from this sprung many cultural, religious and economic developments.
The power of the Church
The rise and dominance of the Catholic Church was a hallmark of the medieval epoch, and shaped the next period of the era – the High Middle Ages – in dramatic fashion.
From 1000 to 1250 AD, the church sanctioned the seismic military pilgrimages known as the Crusades, which saw thousands of Europeans flock to the Middle East, ostensibly to win back Christian holy sites from Muslim hands.
Catholicism also came to govern daily life for many of the common people across Europe, as low literacy rates and poor medical provisions saw peasants turn to the church for education, comfort, and salvation.
During the High Middle Ages, universities gradually began to prosper however, and the scholastic movement, spearheaded by figures such as Italian philosopher Thomas Aquinas, grew rapidly.
Both the high period of the medieval era and the subsequent Late Middle Ages were marked by the rise of organised militaries and international conflict. The Hundred Years’ War, fought between England and France from 1337 to 1453, exemplified this phenomena, as royal families grappled for control of Europe’s borders.
At the same time as waging costly wars against the French, England also fought a series of conflicts against the Kingdom of Scotland, including the famous Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297, when Scottish armies led by Sir William Wallace defeated numerically superior English forces.
It was also during this time that plague stalked the continent, with the Black Death taking the lives of an estimated 75 to 200 million people across both Europe and Asia between 1347 and 1351.
Renaissance and the birth of modernity
The closing years of the medieval period were marked by discovery, be it technological, artistic, or territorial. In Italy, the 14th century saw the beginning of the cultural explosion known today as the Renaissance, with painting, sculpture, and architecture seeing marked advancement.
Intellectualism also began to prosper, with the advent of the printing press in 1439 allowing the masses ready access to new ideas and mass communication for the first time.
In the Iberian Peninsula, Christian armies had pushed south through modern Spain and Portugal beginning in the 8th century, graduating expelling the Moorish caliphate that had taken hold in the years following Rome’s withdrawal from the region.
By 1492, this process was finally complete, and the year was also marked by the Spanish ‘discovery’ of the Americas, with Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus landing in the Bahamas in the name of the King of Castile on 12 October.
These developments, twinned with further religious upheaval marked by the Reformation, heralded the close of the medieval period, and the start of the modern age.