Portal:Middle Ages

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The Middle Ages portal

The fortified town and abbey of Mont Saint-Michel off the northern coast of France is an iconic image of the Middle Ages that remains little changed since it was painted by the de Limbourg brothers in the 1430s

The Middle Ages is a period of European history that lasted from the 5th until the 15th centuries, it began with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, and was followed by the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. It is the middle period of the traditional division of Western history into Classical, Medieval, and Modern times, the period is subdivided into the Early, High, and Late Middle Ages.

The Early Middle Ages suffered depopulation, deurbanization, and continuing barbarian invasions, which had begun in Late Antiquity, the invaders formed new kingdoms in the remains of the Western Roman Empire. In the 7th century, North Africa and the Middle East, once part of the Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantine Empire), became an Islamic Empire after conquest by Muhammad's successors. Although there were substantial changes in society and political structures, the break with Antiquity was not complete, the still sizeable Byzantine Empire survived and remained a major power. The empire's law code, the Code of Justinian, was widely admired; in the West, most kingdoms continued some Roman institutions, while monasteries were founded as Christianity expanded in western Europe. The Franks, under the Carolingian dynasty, established an empire covering much of western Europe; the Carolingian Empire endured until the 9th century, when it succumbed to the pressures of invasion — the Vikings from the north; the Magyars from the east, and the Saracens from the south.

During the High Middle Ages, which began after AD 1000, the population of Europe increased greatly as technological and agricultural innovations allowed trade to flourish and crop yields to increase, the major social systems of this period were Manorialism, the organization of peasants into villages which owed rent and labor services to the nobles, in return for their protection; and feudalism, whereby knights and lower-status nobles owed military service to their overlords, in return for the possession of lands and manors. The Crusades, first preached in 1095, were military attempts by western European Christians to regain control of the Middle Eastern Holy Land from the Muslims. Kings became the heads of centralized nation states, imposing law and order, but solidifying the political divisions within Christendom. Intellectual life was marked by scholasticism, a philosophy which emphasized the harmony of faith and reason, and by the founding of universities, the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, the paintings of Giotto, the poetry of Dante and Chaucer, the travels of Marco Polo, and the architecture of Gothic cathedrals such as Chartres are among the outstanding achievements of this period.

Selected article

Rus longships as painted by Nicholas Roerich.
The Caspian expeditions of the Rus were military raids undertaken by the Rus between 864 and 1041 on the Caspian Sea shores. Initially, the Rus appeared in Serkland in the 9th century traveling as merchants along the Volga trade route, selling furs, honey, and slaves, the first small-scale raids took place in the late 9th and early 10th century. The Rus undertook the first large-scale expedition in 913; having arrived on 500 ships, they pillaged Gorgan, in the territory of present day Iran, and the adjacent areas, taking slaves and goods. On their return, the northern raiders were attacked and defeated by Khazar Muslims in the Volga Delta, and those who escaped were killed by the local tribes on the middle Volga. During their next expedition in 943, the Rus captured Barda, the capital of Arran, in the modern-day Republic of Azerbaijan, the Rus stayed there for several months, killing many inhabitants of the city and amassing substantial plunder. It was only an outbreak of dysentery among the Rus that forced them to depart with their spoils. Sviatoslav, prince of Kiev, commanded the next attack, which destroyed the Khazar state in 965. Sviatoslav's campaign established the Rus's hold on the north-south trade routes, helping to alter the demographics of the region. Raids continued through the time period with the last Scandinavian attempt to reestablish the route to the Caspian Sea taking place in 1041 by Ingvar the Far-Travelled.


Selected biography

Stepan Blois.jpg

Stephen (c. 1092/6 – 25 October 1154), often referred to as Stephen of Blois (French: Étienne de Blois, Medieval French: Estienne de Blois), was a grandson of William the Conqueror. He was King of England from 1135 to his death, and also the Count of Boulogne in right of his wife. Stephen's reign was marked by the Anarchy, a civil war with his cousin and rival, the Empress Matilda, he was succeeded by Matilda's son, Henry II, the first of the Angevin kings.

Stephen was born in the County of Blois in middle France; his father, Count Stephen-Henry, died while Stephen was still young, and he was brought up by his mother, Adela. Placed into the court of his uncle, Henry I, Stephen rose in prominence and was granted extensive lands. Stephen married Matilda of Boulogne, inheriting additional estates in Kent and Boulogne that made the couple one of the wealthiest in England. Stephen narrowly escaped drowning with Henry I's son, William Adelin, in the sinking of the White Ship in 1120; William's death left the succession of the English throne open to challenge. When Henry I died in 1135, Stephen quickly crossed the English Channel and with the help of his brother Henry of Blois, a powerful ecclesiastic, took the throne, arguing that the preservation of order across the kingdom took priority over his earlier oaths to support the claim of Henry I's daughter, the Empress Matilda.

The early years of Stephen's reign were largely successful, despite a series of attacks on his possessions in England and Normandy from David I of Scotland, Welsh rebels and the Empress Matilda's husband, Geoffrey of Anjou; in 1138 the Empress's half-brother Robert of Gloucester rebelled against Stephen, threatening civil war. Together with his close advisor, Waleron de Beaumont, Stephen took firm steps to defend England, including arresting a powerful family of bishops. When the Empress and Robert invaded in 1139, however, Stephen was unable to rapidly crush the revolt, which took hold in the south-west of England. Captured at the battle of Lincoln in 1141, Stephen was abandoned by many of his followers and lost control of Normandy. Stephen was only freed after his wife and William of Ypres, one of his military commanders, captured Robert at the Rout of Winchester, but the war dragged on for many years with neither side able to win an advantage.

Stephen became increasingly concerned with ensuring that his son, Eustace, would inherit his throne after him, the king attempted to convince the church to agree to crown Eustace to reinforce his claim: Pope Eugene III refused and Stephen found himself in a sequence of increasingly bitter arguments with his senior clergy. In 1153 the Empress's son, Henry FitzEmpress, invaded England and built an alliance of powerful regional barons to support his claim for the throne, the two armies met at Wallingford but neither side's barons were keen to fight another pitched battle. Stephen began to examine a negotiated peace, a process hastened by the sudden death of Eustace. Stephen and Henry agreed the Treaty of Winchester later in the year, in which Stephen recognised Henry as his heir in exchange for peace, passing over William, Stephen's second son. Stephen died the following year. Modern historians have extensively debated the extent to which Stephen's personality, external events or the weaknesses in the Norman state contributed to this prolonged period of civil war. (Read more. . .)

Did you know...

  • ...that a paillasse is a thin mattress filled with hay or sawdust and was commonly used in the middle ages?
  • ...that a barbican is a tower or other fortification defending the drawbridge, usually the gateway?
  • ...that a coif is a type of armored head-covering made out of chain-mail and worn under the helmet for extra protection?
  • ...that a heriot is a payment owed to the lord of the manor by a serf’s family upon the serf’s death; usually the family’s best animal, such as a cow, horse or most commonly ox?
  • ...that before 1066, it was noted in the Domesday Book, if one Welshman killed another, the dead man’s relatives could exact retribution on the killer and his family (even burning their houses) until burial of the victim the next day?
  • ...that buboes are pus-filled egg-sized swellings of the lymph glands of the neck, armpits, and groin; typically found in cases of bubonic plague?
  • ...that laws passed in the late 1300s aimed at maintaining class distinctions by prohibiting lower classes from dressing as if they belonged to higher classes?
  • ...that Pier Gerlofs Donia, a 15th century Frisian freedom fighter of 7 feet tall was alleged to be so strong that he could lift a 1000 pound horse?
  • ...that Edgar Ætheling was the last of the Anglo-Saxon Kings of England, but was only proclaimed, never crowned?

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