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Essay

  The Medieval era was a complex period of history. The transition from a stabilized Roman Empire into a fragmented "Barbarian" Europe practically left the Classical civilization long forgotten. The new world emerging out of Rome's ashes often tried to be the Rome it replaced, but fell far short of it. The closest entity resembling the Roman Empire was, interestingly, the Catholic Church. The Church learned many administrative techniques from the Empire and employed them in the organization of the Church, resulting in a uniform, highly educated international body that held the power most kings were seeking.

  Christianity gained its footing when the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in c.312 and restored the Church's property and rights to exist which had been taken away by the emperor Diocletian before him. The Church suddenly became the place to be after Constantine granted it certain privileges such as tax exemption. Though the Church was growing powerful, even it could not stop the massive Barbarian migrations from attacking the Empire and eventually weakening it to the point of no return.

  The late fourth and all of the fifth century was a time of great migrations of Germanic people into territories of the Roman Empire. The Visigothic tribe invaded southwestern Gaul and then on into Spain, establishing a kingdom there in 507, lasting until the Muslims conquered them in 711. The Vandals invaded Northern Africa and conquered that Roman province, but were conquered themselves by the Eastern Roman emperor Justinian in 530, becoming part of the new Byzantine Empire based in Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). In 507, the Franks consolidated in Gaul, uniting under one Merovingian king named Clovis I which later gave way to the Carolingians in 751, the family of Charlemagne. In Britain, after the Romans left in 410 to defend the main body of the Empire from Germanic invaders, the remaining Celtic-Romano people began facing attacks by the Pictish and Scottish people from the north and south of Britain. The Celtic-Romano people went to the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes (from northern Germany) to hire as mercenary soldiers for protection who eventually turned on their paymasters and conquered Britain for themselves. The Ostrogoths entered Italy and in 410, sacked the city of Rome. In 476, the last Roman emperor of Roman blood was deposed and replaced by an Ostrogothic king, effectively ending the Roman and Classical civilization and entering into the Medieval era.

  What separates the Middle Ages from the period before it is the intense fragmentation of power and lack of stability which was enjoyed by the Roman Empire. Often as soon as a new ruler emerged, there was another ready to take their place. The most able source of unity was the Church and it wielded tremendous power. The Church could decree a person in North Africa as heretical and have followers in Gaul renounce that person's teachings. The Church was like a monolithic octopus with its body in Rome and its tentacles reaching all over Europe. This monolithic image is best expressed as "Christendom", a supranational "kingdom" of Christians who were led by the Pope, Christ's vicar on Earth, to whom all should owe obedience.

  Warfare was a constant companion of the Middle Ages. The Viking raids of the ninth and tenth centuries into Gaul and the British Isles brought new meaning to the term devastation. The Vikings were of Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish origin. They were fierce warriors who attacked quickly and could be gone just as fast. They had the reputation of being fearless, plundering warriors capable of the most severe kinds of warfare known at the time. Through their supreme fighting skills, they were able to subdue and settle into parts of Gaul, Britain, and much of Ireland. Their first substantial raid was at the monastery of Lindisfarne in northeastern Britain in 793. The Vikings quickly became fond of raiding monasteries because they held so much portable wealth in the form of reliquaries, books, and precious metals and gems. They continued to sack monasteries all along the coast of Britain and eventually conquered all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms except for Wessex. The Vikings also inflicted severe punishment on Gaul and Charlemagne's forces there.

  The Normans (North-Men) had a significant impact on the Middle Ages, primarily in England. The Normans were from a small strip of land in northwestern Gaul which was given to the Viking chief Rollo by the king of France, Charles the Simple, in 911. Rollo became the Duke of that land which was named for its inhabitants as Normandy. In 1066, the Normans followed their William, Duke of Normandy, into England and conquered it, becoming the ruler all English monarchs since have claimed as their ancestor. The Normans brought with them improved castle building techniques, administrative techniques, and a whole new nobility to replace the Anglo-Saxon one. They are also credited with improving the land system of feudalism, enabling a greater use of it. Besides England, the Normans also conquered parts of southern Italy and Sicily as well.

  The Crusades, begun by Pope Urban II in 1095, brought a rush of change and diversity into Europe. The Crusading armies, made up of knights, nobles, and peasants, learned much from their Byzantine counterparts and Muslim enemies. The Crusaders brought back a new source of knowledge from the Middle East into Europe. Castle design, armor, warfare, and education are but a few areas to receive tremendous advances because of the contact with the "infidels" in the Holy Land. Their stated purpose was to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslims and in doing so, gain forgiveness of all their former sins. These Crusaders often acted contrary to their Christian beliefs, plundering and pillaging towns all along the routes to the Holy Land.

  The Middle Ages were a transition from the Classical world of Greece and Rome and our modern world. Without them, we would not be where we are now (for better or worse). When scholars and theologians began to seek knowledge about man and his place in the world, they looked not to the era they were a part of, but to the distant past of ancient Greece and Rome. They sought a different way of life than what they were accustomed to and felt the ancient world held the keys to that new life. With scholars and authors such as Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Dante all looking back to the ancients, they ushered in a new way of thinking that put the perfection of man as its main goal. This movement is known as humanism and it is the backbone of our modern way of life and is what primarily distinguishes the Middle Ages from what came before them and what followed. With the onset of the Renaissance, the Medieval worldview began to fade away. The Middle Ages can safely said to be waning greatly during the early decades of the fifteenth century, when a modest European stability began to emerge and separate national identities could be seen in places like France and England. The dawning of the modern world was soon to approach.

 


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©1998-2001 Jason J. Nugent
Created: May 4th, 1998
Last modified: January 27, 2001