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The Middle Ages (adjective, spelt variously AE: medieval, BE & HE: mediaeval
or medižval, ca. 500-1500, see below) was the middle period in a schematic
division of European history into three 'ages': Classical civilization, the
Middle Ages, and Modern Civilization. It is commonly considered as having
lasted from the end of the Western Roman Empire (5th century) until the rise
of national monarchies and the beginnings of demographic and economic
renewal after the Black Death, European overseas exploration and the
cultural revival known as the Renaissance around the 15th century as well as
the Protestant Reformation starting 1517.
As the Roman Empire changed its form and collapsed in the West, several
Germanic and later Slavic peoples and the still-powerful regional noble
families of the later Holy Roman Empire competed for power in different
parts of Europe with one another and with the surviving eastern portion of
the Roman Empire (commonly called the Byzantine Empire by modern Europeans).
The early part of the period is marked in western Europe by the greatly
reduced power of centralised administration and the consequent alienation of
government authority and responsibility for military organisation, taxation
and law and order at successive levels to provincial and local lords
supported directly from the proceeds of a portion of the territories over
which they held military, political and judicial power. The later Middle
Ages would see the regrowth of centralized power as countries came to be
aware of their own national identities and strong rulers sought to expand
the territory they organized under a central government. One well known
version of this consolidation is known as the Albigensian Crusade.
This hierarchy of reciprocal obligations, known as feudalism or the feudal
system, binding each man to serve his superior in return for the latter's
protection made for a confusion of territorial sovereignty (as allegiances
were subject to change over time, and were sometimes mutally contradictory),
but the resulting ability of local arrangements to function in the absence
of a strong royal power provided some resiliency in a political order
distinguished by its lack of uniformity.
The spread of Christianity from the Mediterranean area and from Ireland and
Scotland throughout Europe and the absence of any firm alternative
ideological basis for power meant that ecclesiastics became deeply involved
in government, and provided the basis for a first European "identity" in the
form of a religion common to most of the continent from at least the 9th
century until the separation of Orthodox Churches from the Catholic Church (1054).
An example of this identity at work is the period loosely identified as the
Crusades, during which Popes, kings, and emperors tried to draw on Christian
unity to defend Christendom from the agression of some followers of Islam,
which was spreading along Europe's southern and eastern borders. Muslims
conquered Egypt, other parts of North Africa, Jerusalem, Spain, Sicily, and
most of Anatolia (in modern Turkey), although they were turned back in
western Europe by Christian armies at the Battle of Tours in France.
Political unanimity in Europe was largely illusory, and the military support
for most crusades was drawn from limited regions of Europe. Substantial
areas of northern Europe also remained outside Christendom until the twelfth
century or later.
It is extremely difficult to decide when the Middle Ages ended, and in fact
scholars assign different starting dates for the Renaissance in different
parts of Europe. Most scholars who work in 15th century Italian history, for
instance, consider themselves Renaissance or Early Modern historians, while
anyone working on England in the early 15th century is considered a
medievalist. Others choose specific events, such as the Turkish capture of
Constantinople or the end of the Anglo-French Hundred Years' War (both
1453), or the fall of Muslim Spain or Columbus's voyage to America (both
1492), or the Protestant Reformation starting 1517 to mark the period's end.
Similar differences are now emerging in connection with the start of the
period. Traditionally, the Middle Ages is said to begin when the West Roman
Empire formally ceased to exist in 476 CE. However, that date is not
important in itself, since the West Roman Empire had been very weak for some
time, while Roman culture was to survive at least in Italy for yet a few
decades or more. Today, some date the beginning of the Middle Ages to the
division and Christanisation of the Roman Empire (4th century) while others,
like Henri Pirenne see the period to the rise of Islam (7th century) as
The Middle Ages in the West are often subdivided into an early period
(sometimes called the "Dark Ages", at least from the fifth to eighth
centuries) of shifting polities, a relatively low level of economic activity
and successful incursions by non-Christian peoples (Slavs, Arabs,
Scandinavians, Magyars); a middle period (the High Middle Ages) of developed
institutions of lordship and vassalage, castle-building and mounted warfare,
and reviving urban and commercial life; and a later period of growing royal
power, the rise of commercial interests and weakening customary ties of
dependence, especially after the 14th-century plague.