The Early, High and Late Middle Ages

The Early, High and Late Middle Ages

            The Middle Ages is characterized as the second of the three schematic divisions of the European history - The Early, High and Late Middle Ages introduction. The first of these schematic divisions is the classical civilization of Antiquity and the last being the Modern Times. The Middle Ages dates back from the Western Roman Empire’s downfall during the 5th century, lasting up to the start of the Renaissance period in the 15th century. With this long span of time, the Middle Ages can be further divided into three different segments: The Early Middle Ages, the High Middle Ages, and the Late Middle Ages. These times are characterized by various changes in the social, cultural, and religious aspects in the European Region.

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The Early Middle Ages

            The collapse of the Western Roman Empire signaled the start of the Early Middle Ages. The Western Roman Empire lost its position as the center of great power, leaving it to become a very rural and decentralized region in Europe. This has opened the opportunity for various groups of people to fill in the gaps left by the Roman Empire. The boundaries of the empire were occupied by various groups of people from either the Roman aristocracy or Barbarian nobility, settling and establishing their own kingdoms. This further increased the disunity between the people and has led to other problems like loss of trade, as well as reducing safe conditions for the people. This has worsened the intellectual development of the people, drastically affecting their culture (Spielvogel).

            The trade and manufacture of goods for export greatly fell, as it was unsafe for anyone to travel over great distances. Most of the  major industries at that time were dependent on long distance trade relations; large scale pottery and textile manufacture were dependent on trade caravans in order to sell the goods. With the unsafe routes, these large-scale businesses vanished instantly.

            Other problems that came into the scene were the Muslim conquests. This has greatly increased the localization of areas by putting an end to the sea-based trade. Trading with neighboring regions came to an end, limiting the people to what was left of their lands. The conquered lands by the Muslims include the Persian Empire, Roman Syria, Roman Egypt and some other parts of the Mediterranean. Without the sea-based trade of goods, the products of one place will not be able to reach another place, thus leaving them to consume their own produce, affecting their income generation (Spielvogel).

            The Catholic Church was able to survive and it was recognized as the primary unifying cultural influence: it was able to preserve Latin learning, sustained the art of writing, and has centralized administration by means of its network of bishops. The Catholic Church was able to survive because many barbarian rulers chose Catholic orthodoxy over other belief. The Bishops became important figures in the Middle Ages, primarily because they are the literate ones. Because of this, they played important roles in the government, thus slowly shaping a good way to rule the people. Despite all these, there were still some people in Europe who has very low or no contact at all with Christianity. These are usually the groups of people causing problems and major disruptions to the growing societies of the region.

            The Early Middle Ages witnessed the rise to power by a very important leader. This is no other than Charles the Great, also known as Charlemagne. He was known for his program of systematic expansion that made it possible to unite a large proportion of the European region. The propelled a cultural revival known as the Carolingian Renaissance, which has opened doors for an increase in literacy, as well as further developments in aspects like arts, architecture, jurisprudence and many more. The fall of the Carolingian Empire ensued after Charlemagne’s death, where the sons of his sons fought over the division of the lands they rule. Civil wars became a common sight, and this is accompanied by invasions, migrations and raids of other groups of people like the Vikings, Magyars and the Saracens (Spielvogel).

The High Middle Ages

            The High Middle Ages was characterized by the rapidly increasing population of Europe, greatly changing the social and political aspects left by the Early Middle Ages. The High Middle Ages ensued when Western Europe saw the last of the barbarian invasions, leading to a peaceful, more politically organized period of time. Barbarian invasions ceased when these various groups of people finally settled in other places. People settled in new lands which returned to wilderness after the fall of the Roman Empire. Vast expanses of forests and marshes of the European region were cleared and cultivated for the people’s utility. Various settlements moved away from the traditional boundaries, towards new frontiers in Europe’s eastern regions.

            The High Middle Ages paved the way for various forms of intellectual, spiritual and artistic works from brilliant European people. The Church has experienced a major change when there was a formal separation of the Christian church, known as the East-West Schism. This is when the Christian church split into two parts: the Western Catholicism of the west, and the Eastern Orthodoxy of eastern region. This is the result of the dispute between two religious heads, Pope Leo IX and Patriarch Michael I. They were fighting over the papal authority, thus resulting to the great division (Spielvogel).

            Trade and commerce flourished in the High Middle Ages. One manifestation of this is the establishing of the Hanseatic League: the alliance of trading guilds which maintains a trade monopoly over the Baltic Sea, and some parts of the North Sea, as well as the Majority of the Northern Europe. Most northern cities belonging to the Holy Roman Empire were assimilated and became hanseatic cities. Explorations towards the east were made, traveling the Silk Road towards China.

            In the Renaissance of the 12th century, Europe experiences intellectual revitalization when medieval universities were created. This has paved way to increased contact with the Islamic world, sharing their knowledge with Western Europeans.  Europeans gained access to various Greek and Arabic works, like texts from Aristotle, Alhazen, and many others. They then translated and reproduced these works for it to be propagated in various scientific communities all over Europe. Scientific ideas were transferred through universities and monasteries, spreading the information from ancient authors. Notable scholastics at that time include Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus, Duns Scotus and more (Spielvogel).

            Technology also flourished during the High Middle Ages, wherein Europe saw a radical change in the rate of new inventions. These inventions improved the traditional means of production, increasing the yield and propelling the growth of Europe’s economy. These technological advancements include the invention of windmills and watermills, discovery of printing, gunpowder, and more. Improvements were also made in clocks, as well as the creation of greatly improved ships. These two advancements paved the way for the Age of Exploration.

            The aspect of arts has also flourished here in the High Middle Ages. Visual arts were characterized by major periods or movements, including Romanesque art, Gothic art, Byzantine art, and Christian art. In Architecture, Gothic structures have superseded the Romanesque style. Various Gothic cathedrals were made during this time, including the most famous sacral building at that time which is the Notre Dame de Paris. Literature during this time also reached it heights, where the strongest influence coming from Christianity. Music was also greatly influenced by Christianity, where most of the surviving music of the High Middle Ages can be classified as mostly religious.

The Late Middle Ages

            After the flourishing of the High Middle Ages, comes the period characterized by calamities and upheavals, which is the Late Middle Ages. This is the time when agriculture greatly suffered from major climate changes documented by historians. This is also the time when majority of Europe suffered from periodic famines, not to mention the Great Famine of 1315-1317 (Spielvogel). With the overpopulation caused by the prosperous High Middle Ages, the number of people was greatly reduced by the Black Death. This plague spread is a bacterial disease that spread through the people killing more than a third of the population. It has spread so easily because the towns were crowded, and the people were mostly malnourished. Problems arise between landlords and workers when workers demanded greater earnings. Popular uprisings spread through Europe, causing periods of stress, which has also led to great divisions in the Catholic Church itself.

            One major flaw during the Late Middle Ages was the divisiveness of the Catholic Church during that time. There came a time during the divide in the Western Church that there were three popes leading the people. This has aroused the interest of some, which decided to break free from this and form their own national churches. Papal authority was undermined and the church further divided into more branches. Reform movements surfaced, giving rise to brilliant philosophers like John Wyclif, Jan Hus, and Martin Luther. Martin Luther for one has led the Protestant Reformation which ended the unity of the Western Church.

            Late Middle Ages was also characterized by the rise of strong nation states of Europe, whose powers are based on its royalties. These include England, France and some of the Christian kingdoms located in the Iberian Peninsula. The war between England and France further strengthened their hold on the lands in their kingdoms. When wars are fought, Kings gain land, thus increasing the royal power of the rulers.

            According to Italian Renaissance intellectuals, nothing good ever happened in the Middle Ages. They may have a point in saying this because the Middle Ages was like a see-saw of advancements and problems, like how the High Middle Ages led in the flourishing of arts and sciences, but was then countered with catastrophes and problems of the Late Middle Ages. But saying that nothing good ever happened was a bit too hasty, since the Middle Ages happened in a long span of time and has given birth to inventions and innovations that has proved useful to the periods of time that followed. Without the middle ages, the following periods would still be plagued by constant wars against various tribes and groups of people, and the unity of people in Europe would still be a big problem. All in all, the Middle Ages has its up-sides and also its down-sides.

Work Cited:

Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western Civilization, Comprehensive Volume. 5th Edition ed: Wadsworth Publishing, 2003.


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