The Middle Ages Research Paper

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The Middle Ages are good to think about. Situated by definition between Antiquity and Modernity, they constitute an intermediate period between the grand beginnings of European civilization and its contemporary achievements, endeavoring to attain these standards and even to surpass them. An intermediate status is always ambivalent. If one thinks in strictly dualistic terms, it is no longer the old and not yet the new, or, conversely, it allows the partial survival of the old and prepares the birth of the new. But it can also become an equally dignified participant in a triad, an age with special characteristics of its own. All this offers a paradise for conflicting interpretations, deprecations, and apologies; for an eternal to and fro of disdain, glorification, exoticism, and rediscovery.

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1. The Notion of the Middle Ages

The most enduring characterization of the Middle Ages appeared before the term itself was coined. It was inherited from Italian Humanists who had been accustomed since Petrarch to lament the ‘dark’ and ‘barbarous’ period between the glories of Greek and Latin Antiquity and their rebirth in their own age. This negativity was reinforced by the Enlightenment, which bluntly labeled it an age of ignorance and superstition (Voltaire). On the other hand, no sooner had the Renaissance begun to evolve into the new (post-Columbian, Gutenbergian, Copernican) world of Modernity; no sooner had the Middle Ages come to be regarded as definitely over; than condemnation was sidelined by waves of nostalgia: chivalric dreams resurrected by Ariosto, Cervantes, and Tasso; ideals of sainthood and a unified Christianitas cherished by the Catholic Reformation, the Bollandists, Chateaubriand, and the Romantics. Medieval achievements such as Gothic cathedrals inspired both freemasonry and waves of occultism. The brutish energy of castles and armor haunted the imagination with Gothic Romance, then they became crystallization points for heroic-chivalric romantics and Wagnerian ‘new barbarians,’ to degenerate finally into the comic world of Monty Python. The organic beauty of medieval cities and crafts was rediscovered by the PreRaphaelites, Burckhardt, and Huizinga, art nouveau and art deco.

To these ambivalent judgments a third dimension must be added, that of different identities (local, institutional, national, and European). Medievalists inherited monastic annals, urban or royal chronicles, order histories, and the history of western Christendom presented as world history. Much reasoning on the Middle Ages was motivated, after Machiavelli’s Discorsi (1525), Guicciardini’s Storia d’Italia (1540), or Shakespeare’s king-dramas by an interest in ‘national’ roots. The antiquarian curiosity of Muratori (1672–1750) resulted in his path-breaking Rerum Italicarum Scriptores; the mighty and systematic collection of sources on the German past, the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, was started by Pertz (1826), the Histoire de France by Michelet (1831), the Recits des temps merovingiens by Thierry (1840), and the studies on English common law by Maitland (1895). In the twentieth century, historical attention turned towards the universalistic frameworks—Christianity, Papacy, Empire—which could be analyzed as the ‘progenitors’ of Europe. The Middle Ages meant the formation of modern Europe, which, on the basis of those earlier achievements, was able to prepare itself for global expansion.

After the twentieth century’s world wars and revolutions there was another resurgence of interest in the Middle Ages. Interdisciplinary approaches found a treasure-trove in the ‘total’ history of medieval civilization, and an unexpected series of bestsellers appeared: not only ‘new history’ monographs in the footsteps of Montaillou by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (1975), but also new-style historical romances such as A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman (1978) and The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (1980). From the 1980s onwards, chateaux, monasteries, and city halls, but also modern university campuses became involved in the ongoing reinvention of the Middle Ages. More recently, two other elements were added to this picture. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe reoriented historical consciousness in the direction of medieval origins, sometimes in a nineteenth-century style, as a claim for historical–territorial legitimacy, sometimes as a foundation of the ‘common roots’ of a new European identity. The other novelty was provided by chronology: the year 2000 brought about a new fascination with the apocalypse, with some divergence in Eastern Europe, where, instead of chiliastic calculations, pompous millennial celebrations were held to commemorate the glorious foundation of their Christian states. Which Middle Ages should we address in the new Millennium? Whose concept should we adopt? We shall approach these issues from three angles: (a) periodization, (b) structures, and (c) a brief survey of narratives, personalities, and artifacts.

2. Extension and Limits of the Middle Ages

As already indicated, the concept of the Middle Ages originated in the Renaissance. The term media tempestas made its appearance in 1469, in a eulogy of Cusanus written by Giovanni Andrea dei Bussi, a pontifical librarian. Analogous expressions (media aetas, media antiquitas) appeared frequently and became allied with the already established concept of the ‘dark ages’ familiar from the writings of Petrarch, Leonardo Bruni, Lorenzo Valla, and other Italian humanists.

However, the notion of a transitory period between antiquity and its rebirth was older and this affects the chronological limits of the Middle Ages. Laments upon the lost greatness of ancient Rome and hopes of its imminent revival were voiced by Gregory the Great. From Justinian I and Charlemagne to Otto III and Frederick Barbarossa, the slogan ‘reno atio imperii Romani’ repeatedly allowed the conceptualization of intermediate decadent periods. For the ‘renaissance of the twelfth century,’ Arabic learning could perhaps be regarded as the mediator between the wisdom of the antiqui and the Christian learning of the moderni.

The negative image of the medieval decadence of classical civilization, however, was duly counterbalanced by the positive image of the advent of Christianity, the triumph of which over Roman ‘paganism’ was praised as the demise of ‘superstition,’ ‘tyranny,’ ‘idolatry,’ and ‘magic.’ Judgments upon the period following the fall of the Roman Empire were thus rather positive during the Middle Ages, or at worst ambivalent. This is also reflected in the first elaborate system imposing a ternary division upon world history, that of Joachim of Fiore (d. 1202). Projecting the model of the Holy Trinity upon the history of mankind, Joachim distinguishes between the age of the Father (Old Testament), the age of the Son (New Testament)—which lasts from Jesus to the writer’s own age (which corresponds to the Middle Ages)—and the imminent new period of the Holy Spirit, which will have an ‘Eternal Evangile,’ and in which everybody will follow Christian life-precepts to the letter.

Early-modern historiography inherited from the Renaissance the ambivalent image of the Middle Ages and extended them to embrace universal history. Georg Horn, a Leiden historian, put the medium aevum between 300 and 1500 in his Arca Noe (1666). Christoph Cellarius, a historian from Halle, was the first to realize his world history on the basis of the ternary division into Antiquity (Historia antiqua, 1685), Modernity (Historia no a, 1686), and the Middle Ages between them (Historia medii ae i, 1688). The start of the medium ae um was for him the reign of Constantine and the acceptance of Christianity (313), and the end was marked by the fall of Constantinople (1453).

These limits were challenged by later suggestions. The ‘start’ was increasingly identified with the forced abdication, in 476, of Romulus Augustulus, the Western Roman Emperor, whose vacant throne was never taken. The ‘end’ came to be associated with the discovery of America (1492) or the start of the Reformation (1517). National histories have tended to adjust the dates in accordance with their own temporal divisions: the English tend to count modernity from the advent of the Tudors (1485), while the Hungarians take the fatal defeat at the hands of the Ottomans at Mohacs in 1526 as the end of medieval Hungarian history.

With an eye to Polish discourse on the ‘feudal economy’ in early modern times Jacques Le Goff made the provocative proposal of a ‘long Middle Ages’ lasting until the French Revolution. Extension can go in both directions, however: in the wake of Peter Brown’s work on ‘late antiquity,’ a five-century-long transitional period has come to replace the divide constituted by the ‘fall’ of the Roman Empire, a period embracing the history of the Mediterranean basin from Diocletian to Charlemagne. The extension of the Middle Ages also has a geographical dimension. With the Roman Empire and Christianity as basic points of reference, this notion, born in Italy and nurtured in Western Europe, has always embraced more than Europa Occidens.

The Mediterranean basin as a lively unit of civilization throughout the Middle Ages has always been a truism for historians of commerce, crusades, or navigation, a tradition resumed by Pirenne in his Mohammed and Charlemagne (1937) and by Braudel in his Mediterranee (1949). This rediscovery obliged historians of Latin Christianity to become acquainted with the large and autonomous tradition of Byzantine studies (Ostrogorski, Obolenski, Patlagean) and to engage in systematic comparisons. In parallel with this renewed interest in an integrated panorama of the South, there was also a resurgence of nineteenthcentury visions of the ‘barbaric,’ individualistic vitality and communal freedoms of the Germanic and Slavic North (Markgenossenschaft, zadruga). The medieval Roman and Germanic synthesis also became the object of a new type of structural history for Pirenne (1933) and Bloch (1939). The medieval origins of Eastern, Central, East-Central, and South-Eastern Europe—these ‘borderlands of Western civilization’—have also been examined in impressive syntheses by the Romanian Nicolae Iorga (1908–12), the Czech Francis Dvornik (1949), the Polish Oscar Halecki (1952), and the Hungarian Jeno Szucs (1981).

3. Structures in the Middle Ages

Defining a period within history requires the characterization of the structures that provide its identity and coherence. These might be ‘objective,’ ‘deep’ structures; the product of a momentary combination of various factors; or simply an order observed by those seeking genealogies a posteriori.

The most general structural account imposed upon the medieval period is that of ‘feudalism,’ a notion which embraces social, economic, and cultural relations. Based on medieval legal concepts, ‘feodalite’ served as the most general characterization of the Ancien Regime during the Enlightenment (Montesquieu, Voltaire, Vico); was further developed by economic and sociological theory (Smith, Marx, Weber); and finally, with Bloch, Duby, Boutruche, and Le Goff, provided a comprehensive account of ‘feudal society’ and its economic structures, social stratification, habits, mentalites, rituals, and cultural and religious achievements. Historical analysis found an attractive subject in these personalized powerstructures which supplemented the early medieval weakness or lack of sovereign states. Sealed with the ritual of vassality and with the conditional donation of a feudum (fief), ‘feudalism’ constituted a complex relationship of military, economic, and social (and, within that, parental–familial) dependence and solidarity, one of the most original features of the Middle Ages and seemingly the foundation of Europe’s subsequent achievements.

Departing from the chaotic self-organization of early-medieval times and evolving into the flowering of the ‘second feudal age’ (Bloch) social relations were analyzed in accordance with their ecclesiastical, chivalric, courtly, and urban ramifications. The concept of feudalism also made possible the comparison of medieval Europe with other world civilizations— Marxist historiography relied upon this when coining its universal evolutionary pattern of world history. In recent decades, new approaches have discussed the ‘feudal economy,’ ‘feudal mutation’ around the year 1000 (Poly and Bournazel 1991), and regional European variants of feudal social structures. On the other hand, the exaggerated extension of this notion also led to an outright rejection of the concept (Brown 1974, Reynolds 1994).

Besides this synthetic vision of an all-encompassing pyramid of ‘feudalist’ dependencies, other original medieval types of social structure should be mentioned. ‘Orders,’ appearing around the year 1000 as a horizontal classificatory category, referred to alliances of monasteries such as the Cluny congregation or later the Cistercians; they were also used for a general functional tripartition within society (oratores–bellatores–laboratores). The latter ‘ideology’ (Duby 1980) prepared the late medieval appearance of ‘estates’ as social entities meriting political representation. Chivalric orders, religious confraternities, urban guilds, and medieval universities gave this ‘corporative’ principle a crucial role within medieval society.

Social classes, stratification, and social types are frequently discussed as a combination of contemporary distinctions and posterior classification. Within the principal division of ecclesiastical society and laity may be distinguished the nobility, with its higher and lower strata; courtly and urban society, with the respective microcosms of rank-related, social, institutional, religious, and ethnic distinctions among its permanent and temporary inhabitants; the peasantry, with various phases of unification or diversification of status; and the broad space of roads, forests, and suburbs left for a marginal existence, where the poor, outlaws, pilgrims, merchants, hermits, and wandering knights mingled. Within these social categories one can also observe elementary structures: the family (with its gender and age divisions, and the changing status of women, children, and the old); ‘parenthood’ (understood as extended kinship group); the ‘individual’; ‘community’; ‘gens’; and ‘natio.’

Disruptions and transformations caused by invasions and internal wars should also be considered: attacks by and, eventually, the settlement of migrating tribal warrior societies (Goths, Franks, Lombards, Huns, Turks, Avars, Vikings, Hungarians, Cumans), and conflicts with Arabic peoples from the fall of the Visigothic state to the successful Reconquista. External threats not only disturbed but also unified, however: the consciousness of being ‘europeenses’ emerged among Carolingians confronting the Arabic threat. Medieval Europe entered the phase of expansion with the Crusades and the evolution of long-distance trade, and the concept of European identity reappeared with the timor Tartarorum in the thirteenth century and the progress of the Ottoman occupation in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Europe possessed a general structure of universal bonds which both mingled with a variety of local and regional particularisms and existed in continuous tension and conflict with them. Politically speaking, this universality was embodied in the Empire, or rather in the two inheritors of the Roman Empire, the Carolingian (subsequently the Holy Roman) Empire in the West and Byzantium in the East. These universal powers were confronted by a jungle of local, regional, institutional, communal, and individual counterpowers. Resisting tribal retinues, territorial lordships supported by fortified castles, ecclesiastical immunities, urban liberties, noble privileges, constitutional rights, courtly intrigues, popular revolts, and bloody wars paved the way for the emergence of ‘national’ kingdoms. Finally, the principle of rex imperator in regno suo subjugated both universal structures and local autonomies; the birth of the modern Europe of sovereign nation-states was among the most significant outcomes of the Middle Ages.

From the religious and cultural standpoints, the universal bond within medieval Europe was Christianitas, based upon the ecclesiastical structures (bishoprics, dioceses, parishes) of the Roman Papacy and the Eastern Churches with their three sacred languages, Latin, Greek, and Church Slavonic. The history of medieval Christendom brought a continuous expansion of internal and external conversions, defeating the resistance of the ‘barbaricum,’ integrating local beliefs and cultural diversity, and relying upon the omnipresent cult of saints increasingly controlled and standardized by the Papacy, the universal networks of monastic and mendicant orders, and an emerging intellectual elite issued from medieval universities, imposing a unified pattern of literacy, Roman and Canon Law, scholastic theology, a kind of philosophia perennis. Within such universal frameworks, historical evolution unfolded along the conflict-ridden lines of movements of religious renewal (often repressed as heresies) and a series of renaissances (the Carolingian, Ottonian, and twelfthcentury renaissances and ‘the’ Renaissance) which made possible an increasing absorption of the Antique cultural heritage. Ongoing conflicts between ‘learned’ and ‘popular,’ Oldand New-Testament-based, ‘mystic,’ ‘liturgical,’ ‘rational,’ and ‘secularized’ variants of Christianity should also be mentioned. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, the universal frameworks could no longer contain the internal tensions, and they succumbed, as in the political sphere, to the ascending nationalization of churches, legal systems, and vernacular literatures, and to the plurality of confessions within modern Europe, giving way to an era of religious wars, popular revolts, and witch-hunts. This enumeration of structures could continue with the ‘hard’ realities of geographic, climatic, ecological, demographic, and economic ‘deep structures’ (Braudel 1949); with the ‘soft’ but equally enduring structures of ‘mentalite’ and ‘imaginaire’ (Le Goff); with the ‘thick’ descriptions furnished by the case studies of historical anthropology (Le Roy Ladurie 1975, Ginzburg 1976, Davis 1975); with eternal dualities such as ‘oral’ and ‘written’ (Goody 1987, Stock 1983, Clanchy 1993), ‘body’ and ‘mind’ (Bynum 1995); with basic media such as ‘text’ and ‘image’ (Petrucci 1992, Schmitt , Belting 1990, Camille 1989); or with the intricacies and variabilities of ‘old’ and ‘new’ philology (Cerquiglini 1989). In lieu of this, let me conclude with a short and necessarily arbitrary overview of some of the concrete forms in which the European Middle Ages continue to live.

4. Narratives, Personalities, and Artifacts in a Chronological Order

Let us begin with the grand destroyers of the ‘old’ (Roman, pagan Antiquity) and the grand constructors of the ‘new’ (medieval Christian Europe). Constantine the Great (312–337) had both qualities: renouncing the divinity of the Roman Emperor, he preserved its sacredness in a Christian form; terminating the persecution of Christianity, he found a form of survival for classical culture; and by shifting the center of his empire to the East, he contributed both to the thousand-year-long Byzantine continuation, and to the creation of the fertile dualism of the Papacy and (an ever-renewing) Empire in the Latin West. Among the ‘grand destroyers’, Attila, King of the Huns (434–453) merits pride of place: his archetypal figure and his exploits became a model for all oriental invaders until Genghis Khan. We should perhaps pay a little more attention to the ‘grand constructors.’ A model saint, renouncing the military life for that of catechumen, hermit, monk, and bishop: St. Martin of Tours (d. 397); two church fathers: St. John Chrysostome (437–407), Patriarch of Constantinople, and St. Augustine (354–430), Bishop of Hippo, pathbreakers of personalized religiosity; an abbot, St. Benedict of Nursia, founding in 529 the model of Western monastic communities in Montecassino and writing the most influential Rule; an emperor, Justinian I (527–565), with his last attempt to restore and the first to renovate the Roman Empire, his most enduring success being the codification of Roman Law (Corpus Juris Ci ilis); and finally a pope, Gregory the Great (590–604), organizer of the medieval papacy, church hierarchy, liturgy, and conversion.

In the dim light of early medieval legends, annals, and chronicles, one may perceive influential converters, such as St. Patrick, the apostle of the Irish (390–461); impressive rulers, such as the Frank Clovis (481–511), the Goth Theoderic (493–526), or the Northumbrian St. Oswald (634–642); and powerful Merovingian queens, such as the wicked Fredegund, or the pious St. Radegund (520 5–587). Collective memory also preserves the narratives of the ‘origines gentium,’ barbarian migration, conversion, and dynastic myths of emerging ruling houses (claiming divine origin). Following the Germania of Tacitus, we hear of the Goths, the Franks (with the Merovingian dynasty), the Anglo-Saxons (with their ‘Woden-sprung kings’), and the Lombards (or later legends and stories related to the Scandinavian Yngling, the Slavic Premysl, Piast, and Rurik houses, and the migrating Hungarians with their Arpadian dynasty).

A new chapter started with the Carolingians: the emergence of an influential family from the status of majordomus to that of royal and imperial dignity. Charles Martel stopped the Arab invasion at Poitiers (732), and Pepin the Short (741–768) and Charlemagne (768–814) allied with the Papacy and the latter received the imperial crown from Pope Leo III (800)—a symbolic moment in medieval history (which found its counterpoint in 1077 in Henry IV’s penance at Canossa). The Carolingian renewal of state—church structures and social networks of dependence, the take-off in demographic, agrarian, and urban growth, the ‘renaissance’ of high culture within closed courtly and monastic circles, the successful resistance against invasions (Avars, Arabs, Normans, Hungarians): all this laid the foundations of a new, triumphant evolution which began to unfold in the West around the year 1000. There was a similar new start in the East with the Macedonian dynasty (867–1056), reorganizing the Byzantine Empire; successfully confronting Bulgarians, Hungarians, and Russians; and systematizing the army, the administration, and ceremonial under Leo VI and Constantine VII.

As for artifacts, while the splendor of Byzantium was incontestable, and radiated even in the remote mosaics of Ravenna and Venice, in the West the early Middle Ages, though unspectacular, were of vital importance, involving the widespread diffusion of the horseshoe, the iron plough, the water-mill, and the evolving naval technology of the Vikings and Italian merchants. In the cultural sphere, new technologies of writing, book-illumination, Gregorian chant, goldsmithery, evolving monastic and urban architecture, and fortified castles point to a new stage of evolution. Around the year 1000, one ruler stands out: the ‘marvel of the world,’ the Saxon Otto III, third emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (983–1002), allied to his French teacher Gerbert d’Aurillac, Pope Sylvester II (999–1003), and the Czech St. Adalbert (d. 997). They created a powerful new political vision for Europa Occidens, relating the integration of the Germanic North and the Mediterranean South to the extension of the influence of Latin Christianity towards the Slavic and Hungarian East. In the wake of the earlier conversion of the Croats (Tomislav, 924) and the Czech lands of St. Wenceslas (d. 929), the Poland of Bolesłaus the Brave (992–1025) and the Hungary of St. Stephen (997–1038) became part of this ‘new Europe,’ which was also extended towards the North. The Danes of Harald Blueteeth (940–985) and Sweyn Forkbeard (985–1014), the Norwegians of St. Olaf (1015–1030), and later the Swedes were converted under Anglo-Saxon and Germanic influence. This Christianization was conjugated with parallel activities on the part of Byzantium: along the routes established by ninth-century Cyrillo-Methodian missions in Bulgaria and Moravia, in 996 St. Vladimir’s (980–1015) Kievan Rus’ was converted.

Medieval Europe was profoundly renewed after the turn of the Millennium: new dynasties (Capetians, Salians, Normans in England and Sicily) reshaped religious life under the influence of Cluny, the ‘reform papacy’ of Gregory VII (1073–85), and the Crusades proclaimed by Pope Urban II in 1095. In tandem with agricultural growth, the population nearly doubled in two centuries, medieval towns multiplied and acquired important immunities and liberties, and a new dynamism began to emerge.

The twelfth century brought the explosion of ‘modernity,’ fertile tensions and conflicts, and a wide array of important figures. Abelard (1079–1142), the daring and unfortunate ‘knight’ of dialectics, self-confident in his reliance upon reason, archetype of the medieval intellectual; his opponent, St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), the charismatic leading figure of the Cistercians, founding father of the Templars and organizer of the Second Crusade (1147–49), abbot, politician, healer, and mystic; Manuel I Komnenos (1143–80), Byzantine Emperor who tried to restore the ancient splendor of the East by starting a chivalrous rivalry with the crusading West; Arnold of Brescia (d. 1155), student of Abelard, apostolic preacher, and tribune of a republican Rome that he hoped to resurrect—but hoping in vain for the help of Frederick Barbarossa (1152–90), the great emperor of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, who was inclined towards the reno atio imperii—and ultimately executed for his heresies; the martyr–bishop St. Thomas Becket, who stood up to his strong-willed, youthful friend, Henry II Plantagenet (1154–89) and paid for it with his life in 1170. This was also a century of women: Heloise (c. 1100–63), the seduced student, lover, and wife of Abelard, who persisted in their intellectual and emotional partnership after Abelard was castrated by her angry relatives; Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122–1204), grand-daughter of the first troubadour, Duke William IX of Aquitaine (1087–1127), herself a patron of poetry, wife of Louis VII, King of France (1137–80), whom she divorced in 1152 to marry Henry II Plantagenet, taking one-third of France as a dowry; and Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), the visionary nun of Rupertsberg, the most prolific female writer of the age.

The twelfth century was also notable for urban handicrafts, flowering fairs, schools, and the beginning of the construction of cathedrals. It was also the century of crusades and knighthood under the banner of St. George the ‘dragon-slayer,’ Roland, and King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table; it was the century of orthodox or heretical itinerant preachers, from Peter the Hermit, who called for crusade, and Robert d’Arbrissel, who intervened for the emancipation of women, to Waldes, the rich Lyon merchant who distributed his wealth to the poor in 1173 and decided to live in mendicancy. When confronted with interdiction, with his disciples, the Poor of Lyon, he accepted persecution rather than submission. Another heretical movement, the Cathars, were remote followers of the antique Manichean dualists, more immediately related to the South-East European Bogomils.

At the beginning of the thirteenth century Christianity seemed fraught with conflict. There were ongoing struggles between the Empire—within the framework of which Frederick II (1212–50), the last great Hohenstauf, was preparing for his Ghibelline exploits—and the Papacy, which became a terrible rival backed by the Guelph-dominated cities. The cities influenced international politics, both in the Mediterranean and in the north: the fourth Crusade was diverted by Venice to conquer Byzantium in 1204, and the Hansa alliance, the future master of the Scandinavian–Baltic region, was growing. New problems arose within the cities: confraternities, ‘people’s parties,’ lay preachers, rebellious students at Paris, Oxford, and Bologna universities, and bank crashes in Florence and Siena. The fight against the heretics took the form of the crusade against the ‘Albigensians’ (1209–29), which subjugated southern France to the north. France was also at war with England and the Empire, in the course of which Philip II Augustus (1180–1223) secured an important victory at Bouvines (1214). Nobilities confronted their rulers to gain constitutional rights (Magna Carta, 1215; Hungarian Golden Bull, 1222). This burgeoning situation was mastered with the help of two religious reformers, the founders of the two mendicant orders, St. Dominic (1170–1221) and St. Francis (1181–1226), and two popes, Innocent III (1198–1216) and Gregory IX (1227–41), who were able to restructure old resources and to integrate new forces.

With the assistance of the Dominicans and the Franciscans, the challenge of heresy could be faced and the position of the Church was re-established in the cities, where the pride of the emerging cathedrals and accumulating wealth was balanced by religious control of fashion, luxury, and usury, and by charitable institutions of burghers moved by their ‘alter Christus,’ the Poverello of Assisi. The Dominicans helped to establish the feared Inquisition (1231) against the heretics and popular ‘superstition’; to strike a balance between reason and faith, Aristotle and the Bible (St. Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologiae, ca 1267–73); and in princely courts to Christianize the rulers. The practical morality of their ‘mirrors of princes’ found an echo in the ears of St. Louis IX of France (1226–70), the most pious of rulers, his ambitious brother, Charles of Anjou, King of Naples and Sicily (1266–85), and many others. The religious message of the mendicant orders was also amplified by pious princesses: St. Hedwig of Silesia (1174 8–1243), St. Elizabeth of Thuringia (1207–31), Blanche of Castile (1188–1252), St. Agnes of Bohemia (1205–82), and St. Margaret of Hungary (1242–70), not to mention the daughters of Italian merchants, bankers, and burghers: St. Claire of Assisi (1194–1253), Umiliana dei Cerchi (1219–46), Margaret of Cortona (1247–97), and Angela of Foligno (1248–1309).

By the end of the thirteenth century, medieval Europe was prospering: cloth and textile manufactures (partly dependent upon machinery), mechanical clocks, silk, paper, and a developing steel industry indicate the progress, gold coins came into circulation again. Although the devastating assault by the Mongols (1240–41) in the East (subjugating the Russian principalities) and the rise of the Ottomans in the Near East represented a serious menace, this only served to strengthen the cohesion of an Occidens which now included Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians. There was also a new situation in South-Eastern Europe: the second Bulgarian empire of the Asens, the reborn Byzantium of the Palaeologues (1361–1453), and the emerging Serbian state of the Nemanjic dynasty. New expansion was imminent: ambassadors and travelers reached the Far East (Marco Polo: 1254–95), Aragon was casting its gaze towards North Africa, and Norway was incorporating Iceland and Greenland.

The fourteenth century is traditionally considered a period of crisis: famines, economic decline, the Black Death (1347–52), flagellant movements, pogroms, the extinction of many royal dynasties (Arpadians, 1301; Premysls, 1309; Capetians, 1328; Piasts, 1370), the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453), and ravaging popular revolts (the Jacquerie, 1358; Wat Tyler, 1381). The notion that this constituted some kind of ‘waning’ is misguided, however. It is only partly valid for the West, and is counterbalanced by the prosperity in Polish, Czech, Hungarian, and Serbian Central Europe. The Prague of Charles IV (1346–78) now became the center of Europe. Drawing upon the richness of the Low Countries, the splendid court of Burgundy lived out its ‘epics of temerity and pride.’ Despite the ravages of the plague, Italian cities continued to prosper. Following Dante (1265–1321), Giotto (1266–1337), and Petrarch (1304–74)—who saw himself as already somehow beyond the ‘dark’ Middle Ages—Boccaccio’s Decameron (1350) and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1390s) offer a rich synthesis of medieval narrative tradition. With all its crises and schisms, with Meister Eckhardt (1260–1327), St. Bridget of Sweden (1303–73), St. Catherine of Siena (1347–80), John Wyclif (1330–84), and John Hus (c. 1370–1415), Christianity was preparing for the renewal of personal and secular religiosity.

The formidable new tensions and the grand achievements of the fifteenth century represent the concluding period of this ‘long Middle Ages.’ The power of the emerging prophecies and religious anxieties is demonstrated by the explosion of the Hussite rebellion; Joan of Arc, who in 1429 brought about a decisive turn in the Hundred Years’ War; and the beginnings of witch-hunts in Switzerland, Austria, Italy, and France. The political map of Europe was being reshaped by the emergence of powerful new states. The Ottoman conquest was only temporarily slowed down by John of Hunyad and the crusade organized by St. John Capistran at Belgrade (1456). The formation of a multinational Central European empire, attempted by the Anjous, the Luxemburgs, the Jagiellonians, and Mathias Corvinus (1458–90), was finally realized by the Habsburgs under Maximilian I (1493–1519). A large Eastern Europe re-emerged with the Polish-Lithuanian Confederation and the new Russia of Ivan III (1462–1505). In the West, an impressive new candidate for statehood, Burgundy, finally succumbed, and, besides the France of Louis XI (1461–83) and Tudor England after the Wars of the Roses, a unified Spain under Isabel of Castile (1474–1504) and Ferdinand of Aragon (1479–1516), and a miraculously ascending Portugal were the states which led the worldwide expansion of Europe in early modern times. Germany and Italy, on the other hand, contributed the largest proportion of the inventions, wealth, and culture which made this expansion possible: the invention of printing by Gutenberg (c. 1450), the banks of the Medici and the Fugger, the map of Toscanelli (1474), and the bold expedition of the Genoese sailor Columbus (1492). The narrative must end here as a new story begins in an enlarged new world.


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