The Medieval Period: Some Important Points

What does medieval mean?

Medieval comes from the Latin words 'med' (meaning middle) and 'eval' (meaning age).

When was it?

The medieval period, or Middle Ages, arguably lasted from about the time of the fall of the Western half of the Roman Empire in 476 CE until the late 1400s. Some consider the invention of the printing press in 1450 to be one of the markers of the succeeding Renaissance. Although some historians might argue the period lasted for a millennium (rounding off to 500-1500 CE to get the thousand years), the assignment of beginning and ending dates of the period are often in many ways arbitrary. This is because:

  • The exact time of the fall of the Roman Empire (the end of the classical period) cannot be determined. Rome faced a series of "barbaric" German invasions throughout the fifth century, and there were other contributed factors leading to the fall of the empire.
  • The Renaissance began in and spread to different parts of Europe at different times. In Italy, Petrarch began his humanistic writings in the fourteenth century (1300s), whereas many of Shakespeare's plays first appeared in England during the 17th century (1600s).

What defines the period?

Probably one of the most defining characteristics of the period is the pervasiveness of Christianity. People of this era were deeply religious, and religion inserted itself into all aspects of medieval life and society. The medieval Church had a great deal of influence and power. High-ranking clergy members would often have more influence, wealth and power than many secular (non-religious) rulers.

The popes of Rome were able to increase the power of their office and become just as, if not more influential than many kings. Monks resided in secluded and sheltered (and sometimes not so secluded and sheltered) monasteries where they prayed and transcribed, maintaining learning as they recopied volume after volume of old books, keeping them safe for later times.

This was also the time of feudalism and the manorial system. Kings and lords granted their vassals land (called fiefs) in order to secure service and a form of respect called homage. Serfs were tied to the land and worked on it for their lords and were managed from manor houses. It was likely that a serf (or the average medieval person, for that matter) would never travel more than a few miles from his or her birthplace during a lifetime.

Castles and other forms of fortification dotted the medieval landscape, providing defense for the valuable land claimed by the ruling lord. Squires trained to become knights, who would battle other knights and participate in jousting tournaments. Violent sieges took place, during which the inhabitants of a town or castle might be starved out, or perhaps bombarded with various siege weaponry such as catapults and trebuchets. In these ways, the period was marked by a high degree of militarism.

There were also the medieval ideals such of chivalry and honor. A knight would fight for his lady a woman, often married to another man, whom he would love from afar. Knights were supposed to display honesty, loyalty, courageousness, and all sorts of other positive, highly idealized traits.

Why is the period sometimes called the 'Dark Ages'?

For a long time, the medieval period was incorrectly identified as the 'Dark Ages'. The humanists of the Renaissance reflected upon the classical era as a period of great learning and achievement, and saw the medieval period as a time of no advancement whatsoever. In fact, many viewed the loss of classical learning that occurred during the period as a sort of stumbling slip backwards along the path of human progress. The term 'Dark Ages' reflected this viewpoint, but did not take into account advancements during the period, including agricultural, economic, and legal progress.

Even the term 'middle ages' is in some ways a derogatory term for the period. It is considered in the middle of the great classical and Renaissance (meaning rebirth) periods.