The medieval or “middle” ages roughly spanned the years 500 – 1500, between the classic land empires and 2nd-millennium overseas colonization. 1
The largest empires and most advanced civilizations of the Middle Ages were Asian.
Islam is the youngest world religion, originating in 7th-century Arabia. Before that time, Arabia was disunified and isolated from neighboring empires. The Islamic faith, a form of Arab nationalism, changed that part of the world very abruptly within a lifetime.
Moslems believe that God communicated to the prophet Mohammed through an angel. Mohammed recited a quasi-poetic rendition of God’s word, subsequently written in the form of the Koran. This scripture was said to be a “reminder” of God’s original message to Abraham, before Jews and Christians corrupted it with human interpretation. The Koran’s central supernatural position is that there is only one God, who will someday resurrect and judge humanity. Islam rejects Judaism’s oral traditions as well as Christianity’s belief in the divinity of Jesus.
Islam prescribed humble submission to God in all walks of life. 1 It rejected the accumulation of wealth and demanded treating all members fairly. The pillars of Islam included giving alms, fasting to remember the plight of the poor, and bowing to a holy city as a daily reminder of spiritual devotion.
Most non-Moslem historians believe that Mohammed’s personal struggles are woven into the Koran. For instance, his home town of Mecca had become increasingly materialistic during his lifetime, growing rich from trade and banking. 2 His vision of the Moslem community was a thinly veiled anti-Mecca. He made enemies and fled to Medina. There, he was mocked by some Jewish tribes and he memorialized those frustrations as well.
Mohammed became involved in wars between Mecca and Medina, culminating in his leadership over both. In a world where victory was seen as God’s blessing, he quickly won converts. Arabs were hungry for unity and a scripture in their own language. Mohammed died just two years later, in 632. His successors, the caliphs, rapidly unified all the Arab tribes and then began expanding outward. By 750, the Ummayad Caliphate was one of the largest empires in the world, spanning east almost as far as India and west across northern Africa into Spain.
As it grew, Islam changed and fractured like any empire. The major split between Sunni and Shiite Moslems was strictly political, stemming from a question over inheritance to the caliphate. There were civil wars and philosophical clashes – not the least of which was how to reconcile an increasingly powerful, wealthy monarchy with the egalitarian spirit of Islam.
The Abassid Dynasty was the classic medieval caliphate. This family ruled with an iron fist. However, it presided over the height of Arab civilization, the era of 1,001 Nights. Baghdad was the intellectual center of the world. Scholars adopted the Hindu numeral system and translated Greek texts that were forgotten in Europe. The Abassids encouraged conversion to Islam in occupied lands. Moslem law, Shariah, proved a more effective unifier than the caliphate. The empire broke into independent states, but they all remained Islamic.
The Ottoman Empire grew out of a small state in Turkey around 1300. A turning point in European history was the Ottomans’ capture of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1453. This ended the Byzantine Empire and established a permanent Moslem presence in Eastern Europe. The Ottoman Empire survived until WWI.
Asian religious demographics shifted slowly but significantly in the Middle Ages. Buddhism disappeared from India in the millennium after Ashoka’s time; the ancient Hindu customs were too deeply entrenched to replace. Buddhist monks carried the religion outward and found a receptive populace in China. 3 The 6th century Sui Empire was the first Buddhist Chinese state.
As Buddhism faded out of India to the east, Islam entered from the west. After centuries of tense proximity and skirmishes, Turkish invaders made inroads into northern India and established the Delhi Sultanate around 1200. Active traders, Moslems spread their faith as far as China and Southeast Asia, where a few small Islamic states were founded.
Unlike Europe, which never again saw anything like the Roman Empire, Chinese empires kept growing larger and stronger. The great medieval Chinese dynasties were the Sui (581 – 618), Tang (618 – 907), Song (960 – 1279), and Ming (1368 – 1644). The Sui reunited China for the first time in four centuries. Since then, Chinese continuity has been broken only by a few decades of fragmentation and a century of Mongol occupation.
The Sui Dynasty completed the Grand Canal. It runs north-south to connect China’s west-to-east rivers, including the two largest, the Yellow and the Yangtze. The canal provided a vital supply line from the agricultural south to northern cities, courts, and armies. 4
Great inventions of the Tang period included gunpowder, movable-type printing, and the mechanical clock. The Tang Code of law provided a model that survived into the 20th century. 5 Tang China was highly influential on neighboring nations such as Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. 6
The Song government was strongly centralized. Song China enjoyed a great economic boom, and merchants became ever more prominent. Quasi-capitalist instruments such as guilds, stocks, bonds, and savings accounts came into use, 7 as well as paper money itself.
The Ming Dynasty was founded by the Hongwu Emperor, who liberated China from Mongolia but became a murderous tyrant. His successor the Yongle Emperor moved the capital to the Forbidden City in Beijing. The Yongle Emperor built up the world’s largest navy, using it primarily for diplomatic missions. 8 Later Ming emperors, though not strong leaders, 9 are remembered for their Great Wall.
China was handily the leading world power in 1500. It then lost that status for centuries when it failed to colonize or industrialize.
Genghis Khan conquered more than twice as much land as any other single man in history. 10 His story is all the more remarkable because neither he nor his homeland, Mongolia (north of China) had any head starts. He already earned his title, which means “ruler of the world”, when he united all the Mongol tribes. He then led the Mongols on an unending campaign of expansion. Their numbers were relatively small, but they were efficient and ruthless. Their secret weapon was the horse. As a nomadic people, the Mongols used their land for grazing horses instead of farming.By the end of Genghis Khan’s lifetime in 1227, his empire spanned all of Central Asia. His sons and grandsons augmented the empire still further; by 1279 it engulfed China and Mesopotamia and reached Eastern Europe. It was the largest landlocked empire of all time. Obviously difficult to administer, it was split among Genghis Khan’s sons, and the political division and disunity continued from there. The dynasty gradually lost territory but held some until 1920.
The empire was significant not for its lasting legacy but for the abrupt change it brought to geopolitics. It momentarily weakened the Islamic and Chinese empires. It also formed a political bridge between Europe and Asia. Prior to this time, Islamic states controlled the seas and the Silk Road and blocked European access to China. Nor was China particularly interested in Europe. The Mongolian government in China, under Kublai Khan, was much more open to the west and welcomed visiting traders. European missionaries and merchants such as Marco Polo reached eastern Asia in large numbers for the first time. This contact whetted the European appetite for Asian trade, the major impetus behind overseas exploration of the Renaissance.
The historically accepted “fall” of Rome was the abdication of the last western emperor in 476. The decline was much more nuanced than that. The empire had been disintegrating for centuries, yet extensions of it persisted for another full millennium. Its state church, Christianity, has not only survived to the present but is arguably the world’s largest institution.
The first non-Latin king in Rome was the Germanic 2 Odoacer. He was part of a mass migration of Germanic tribes into Europe. By the time of Odoacer’s reign in Italy, Western Europe was already divided into a number of tribes and kingdoms such as the Franks, Vandals, and Visigoths. Medieval Europe was culturally a combination of Germanic politics and Roman religion.
The Church was politicized very early. Wealthy, organized, and stable, it was in a strong position to fill the power vacuum and perform traditionally governmental roles such as collecting revenues, providing for the poor, and enacting laws. 11 Germanic kings saw the advantages of plugging into this imperial bureaucracy. When kings converted, their people followed quickly. The Church needed kings’ support too, for military protection. 12 The Franks, early to convert, were the Church’s strongest ally. By 1000, the banner of Christendom flew over all of Western Europe, with the pope as its top leader. The Church continued to strengthen. Pope Gregory VII reformed the Church to become independent of kings. Pope Urban II urged Christians to join the Crusades to reclaim Jerusalem from Moslem control. The Crusades were a failure by all accounts, but they reinforced the identity of Christendom.
The eastern half continued as the Byzantine Empire. 3 East and West were divided by a language barrier. Further political differences led to a permanent schism between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, an estrangement that dated to the 1st millennium and was formalized in the 2nd. The Byzantine Empire was largely forgotten to the west, but was highly influential in Russia and Eastern Europe.
The High Middle Ages (8th – 13th centuries) were characterized by a Germanic system we now call feudalism. Feudal society was a hierarchy of landlords and tenants, or lords and vassals. One important factor was a weak money economy. With a shortage of circulating coinage, 13 value was measured in terms of land and services. In a feudal relationship, the lord granted land rights in exchange for the fruits of that land or for personal services.
Each king was a large landowner. His vassals were powerful noblemen, who provided services such as giving counsel at the king’s court and raising armies of knights. The lowest-level vassals were peasants, mostly farmers or craftsmen. 80% of the population was peasantry. 14 Fairy tales like Cinderella depict the daily drudgery and escapist fantasy of ordinary peasants.
Each kingdom saw a power struggle between the king and his nobles. The fundamental basis of law was the personal oath between each lord and his vassal, and the characters of those oaths varied from place to place. The English king was very powerful, but in France the king had trouble controlling his nobles. Noblemen fought each other regularly. To complicate matters, the Church was Europe’s largest feudal lord, 15 and many noblemen were bishops. This is another reason the Church was entangled with politics.
Feudalism was also a legal system, with lasting impact. The king’s court was the predecessor to modern parliament. 16 Feudal agreements were inherently contractual relationships between social unequals. Knights needed their serfs just as much as serfs needed knights, and courts enforced both parties’ rights. 17 In these ways, feudal institutions foresaw the rule of law over the rule of man. 18 The Magna Carta of 1215 was an early example of noblemen negotiating the power structure with their king.
Interestingly, Japan, Russia, and India went through feudal phases at roughly the same time as Europe.
Medieval Europeans idealized the Roman Empire and made more than one attempt to restore it. In 800, the pope christened Frankish king Charlemagne as “emperor”. The Frankish kingdom was very large at the time, covering half the continent. It soon split in half, giving birth to France in the west. The German half was again optimistically proclaimed the “Holy Roman Empire” in 962. It survived for eight centuries, but was the spottiest patchwork of small kingdoms that Europe ever saw. After the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, the only remnant of the Roman Empire was the papacy.
Today’s European boundaries are a complex result of treaties and military victories as well as the medieval evolution of languages. With no central government to standardize communication, languages diverged everywhere, making unification all the more difficult. Latin diverged into French and Spanish, while Germanic offshoots included English and Dutch. After Europe achieved some stability around 1000, feudal hierarchies grew into bureaucracies for modern nation-states within each linguisphere. 19 England was large enough to rival France by 1200. Modern Portugal is traceable to the 12th century, and Spain to the 15th. Strong centralized governments, money economies, and land reform brought feudalism to an end. Mercantilism and trade increased, and Catholic universities educated the masses. On the dark side, the vision of unity was lost. Games of thrones ravaged Europe for the entire 2nd millennium.
- Patricia Crone, “What do we actually know about Muhammad?” Open Democracy, 6/10/08, https://www.opendemocracy.net/faith-europe_islam/mohammed_3866.jsp (accessed and saved 9/04/16) ↩
- Karen Armstrong, A History of God, Ballantine Books (1993), eBook edition, ISBN 978-0-307-79858-9, location 2850. ↩
- Damien Keown, Buddhism, A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press (2013), ISBN 978-0-19-966383-5, eBook edition, locations 1466 – 1476. ↩
- Ian Johnson, “China’s Grand Canal”, National Geographic (May, 2013) http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/05/chinas-grand-canal/johnson-text (accessed and saved 9/18/16) ↩
- Ropp, Paul S., China in World History, Oxford University Press (2010), ISBN 978-0-19-517073-3, ebook location 1115 ↩
- Ropp, Paul S., China in World History, Oxford University Press (2010), ISBN 978-0-19-517073-3, ebook location 1268 ↩
- Adshead, S., T’ang China: The Rise of the East in World History (2004), pp. 85 – 86. ↩
- Ropp, Paul S., China in World History, Oxford University Press (2010), ISBN 978-0-19-517073-3, ebook location 1684 – 1695 ↩
- Ropp, Paul S., China in World History, Oxford University Press (2010), ISBN 978-0-19-517073-3, ebook location 1707 ↩
- Whether measured in persons, square miles, or nations. Weatherford, Jack, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Broadway Books (2005), ISBN 978-0609809648, p. xviii, https://books.google.com/books?id=A8Y9B5uHQcAC&pg=PR18 (accessed 9/29/16) ↩
- See e.g. Markus, Robert, The End of Ancient Christianity, Cambridge University Press (1991), ISBN 978-0521339490, https://www.amazon.com/End-Ancient-Christianity-Robert-Markus/dp/0521339499 (accessed 9/25/16). Markus describes the ascent of the Church as a form of “desecularization”, the opposite of the secularization of Europe that followed the Reformation. ↩
- Madigan, Kevin, Medieval Christianity: A New History, Yale University Press (2015), ISBN 978-0-300-15872-4, Chapters 2 – 4. ↩
- Nelson, Lynn Harry, “The Rise of Feudalism: 850 – 1000AD”, WWW Virtual Library, http://www.vlib.us/medieval/lectures/feudalism.html and Carr, Karen Eva, “Medieval Economy – Europe in the Middle Age”, Quatr (May 2016), http://quatr.us/medieval/economy/ (both accessed 9/30/16) ↩
- Biel, Timothy, The Age of Feudalism, Lucent Books (1994), ISBN 1-56006-232-0, p. 36. ↩
- “History of Feudalism”, History World, http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?ParagraphID=eoa (accessed 10/05/16) ↩
- Strayer, Joseph R., Feudalism, Krieger Publishing Company (1979), ISBN 978-0882758101, https://www.amazon.com/Feudalism-Anvil-Joseph-Reese-Strayer/dp/0882758101 (accessed 9/30/16) ↩
- de Beaumanoir, Philippe, Coutomes de Beauvaisis (French 13th century), trans. Akehurst, F.R.P, University of Pennsylvania Press (1992), ISBN 0-8122-3105-8, p. 58. https://www.amazon.com/Coutumes-Beauvaisis-Philippe-Beaumanoir-Middle/dp/0812231058 (accessed 9/30/16) ↩
- Vinogradoff, Paul, Feudalism, Perennial Press (2016), ebook edition, location 74, https://www.amazon.com/Feudalism-Paul-Vinogradoff-ebook/dp/B01CLU773E (accessed 9/30/16) ↩
- Strayer, Joseph R., On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State, Princeton University Press (1970), ISBN 978-0-691-12185-7 ↩
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