The middle ages

The Middle Ages in Europe

The term Middle Ages is generally understood to be the age before the Renaissance – the rebirth of European civilisation emanating from classical Italy. However the beginning of the Middle Ages is harder to put a finger on and differs according to country and scholarly opinion. In Britain for example the Middle Ages are generally agreed to begin with the Norman Invasion of 1066 while in Scandinavia scholars begin this age to the arrival of Christianity. In France and Germany the Middle Ages begin with the crowning of Charlemagne on Christmas Day 800AD. Some Historians merge the Dark Ages and Middle Ages together.

The decline and fall of the Roman Empire plunged Western Europe into the Dark Ages with many centuries relatively ‘silent’ – devoid of written histories and scant knowledge of the times. Economic and social life went backwards and culture became less sophisticated. Knowledge and power was often preserved by the church, but even paganism won back many regions of Europe. By around 1000AD Bishops were often the most powerful and most educated members of society, a symbol of authority and God’s representative on earth.

Life in the Middle Ages

Feudalism dominated throughout the Dark Ages. The French classified society into three Estates – the First Estate being the clergy, the Second Estate the Aristocracy and the Third Estate being everyone else. Throughout the Middle Ages this was the general division within society. The Church was the bastion of learning and often the local clergyman was the only member of society who was literate. Latin was the language of the church in the West and Greek the language of the Orthodox East. The Peasantry and townsfolk owed allegiance to the Aristocracy who paid homage to the King and the King paid homage to the Bishop which was the representative of the Pope or Patriarch who was the representative of Christ on earth. Democracy was largely unknown and countries where divided up by whim of their ruler, sold, bequeathed in wills or given as wedding gifts. The rule of a territory often didn’t affect the day to day life of peasants whose social life revolved around church festivals, crop seasons and market days. Monasticism was hugely popular during the Middle Ages and many men and women were attracted to a life of seclusion and religious meditation which often came with the perk of relative abundant food, education and community prestige. Many families aspired to send their sons or daughters to the church.

Urbanisation

As ancient Rome’s roads and transport networks fell into disrepair and the use of coinage was replaced by barter, life in cities became more difficult. Farmers and traders found it difficult to bring their goods to market and travelling became dangerous. Cities and towns fell into decline, but in the Middle Ages life began to return, albeit squalid and overcrowded. Cottage industries sprung up serving the weekly market days and the use of coinage once again made commerce easy and possible. Europe’s industrious Jewish communities often prospered exploiting their skills with finance but were regarded with suspicion if not hostility by the Christian communities they lived on the fringes of. Jews were often required to live in ghettos and made to wear distinguishing clothing, such as conical hats. Most Christians especially the Clergy regarded Jews as Christ-killers and Prophet-slayers bound for eternal damnation. However it was far more dangerous being a witch or espousing religious views outside the strictest teachings of the church. This often led to public burning or some cruel punishment.

Art and Architecture

The Middle Age has left us much wonderful architecture, mostly religious or regal. Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral is a fine example and Cologne Cathedral although finished in 1880 was commenced in 1248 and later builders kept faithfully to the original designs. The amazingly constructed edifice withstood 75 Allied bombing raids during WWII. Other great Medieval churches include Avignon’s 12th Century Cathedral, Milan’s Cathedral begun in 1386, Prague’s St. Vitus’s Cathedral consecrated in 1344 and picturesque Durham Cathedral  from 1093. The Czech Republic is home to Europe’s best preserved Medieval architecture thanks to a lack of Allied bombing in WWII, while Wales has the highest concentration of castles. Both the church and Aristocracy were keen patronisers of the arts and a rich collection of paintings, mosaics, tapestries, statues and musical instruments have survived to inspire and amaze later generations. The Belgian city of Bruges was a prosperous market town during the Middle Ages and is a favourite for tourists wanting to experience the past.

Hardships

The Middle Ages was a time of great material hardship. Potatoes, maize (corn),rice, tomatoes, tobacco, coffee, tea and many other crops brought from the America’s and Orient were unknown in Europe at this time while wheat, barley, rye and beetroot were the main crops for most people which failed regularly resulting in widespread famine and malnutrition. Meat was a luxury enjoyed rarely. When crops failed the peasants had no social welfare structure to fall back on, and even the church and aristocracy endured leaner times. Peasant revolts were not unknown and people turned to religion for solace. In 1346 Venetian traders fleeing war in Crimea brought bubonic plague to Sicily spreading the Black Death throughout Europe claiming 30-60% of the population over the next four years. Poor sanitation, medical misinformation and lack of hygiene made bubonic plague an ever present fear for the next 300 years.