History of Later Medieval Europe

Introduction

Timeline

Timeline of Medieval Europe
500-1000 1000-1500
1 2 3
# age span political overview primary powers
1 Early Middle Ages ca. 500-1000 Western Europe governed by patchwork of non-urban kingdoms Frankish kingdom
2 High Middle Ages ca. 1000-1300 urban kingdoms flourish across Western Europe France, England, Holy Roman Empire
3 Late Middle Ages ca. 1300-1500 urban kingdoms decline
Summary of Medieval Europe
Early Middle Ages
ca. 500-1000
High Middle Ages
ca. 1000-1300
Late Middle Ages
ca. 1300-1500
France Frankish kingdom > France/Germany rise of France Hundred Years' War > French unification
Germany Holy Roman Empire
England Anglo-Saxon kingdoms Anglo-Norman age Hundred Years' War > War of the Roses
Iberia Visigothic rule > Islamic rule Reconquista rise of Portugal and Spain
Eastern Europe Byzantine Empire

General Features

The second half of the medieval period, which may be termed the later Middle Ages, consists of the High Middle Ages (ca. 1000-1300) and Late Middle Ages (ca. 1300-1500). The primary powers of the later Middle Ages were the Holy Roman Empire, France, and England. Paris was the cultural and scholarly heart of the period.

The High Middle Ages (ca. 1000-1300) are distinguished by a vibrant economic and cultural recovery throughout Western Europe. Urbanism, agriculture, trade, and technological progress were all revived. The busiest medieval shipping routes lay in the Mediterranean (where trade links with eastern civilizations yielded luxury goods) and Baltic (where links with northern and eastern Europe yielded raw materials). The growing power of the West did not go unnoticed by the Byzantines, who called for aid against the Islamic Turkic powers to the east (see Crusades).1

High Medieval Europe

The Late Middle Ages (ca. 1300-1500), on the other hand, were stricken with famine, recession, and heightened conflict. These miseries were vastly compounded by the Black Death, which remains the deadliest disease outbreak in history. Arriving from Central Asia, the Black Death swept across the European continent, killing up to half its population in a matter of years.K186-87,1,54,106

Late Medieval Europe

Society

The later Middle Ages witnessed the revival of urban life in the West. The cities of medieval Western Europe were relatively small, however; most featured less than a hundred thousand people, and even Paris (the largest) would not exceed a few hundred thousand. Many European cities, including Paris and London, were originally Roman settlements.1,119

One pillar of medieval society was the guild: an organization of artisans (who often lived together in the same part of town) that tightly controlled their profession, including production standards, prices, and trade flows. Though guilds (in one form or another) have existed in many societies (including ancient Rome), they peaked in size and influence in the later medieval West.1,85

Scholarship

Throughout the Dark Ages, education was provided mainly by clergy, and thus took place mainly in cathedral schools and monasteries. During the High Middle Ages, these places of learning were joined by urban schools (operated by clergy) and universities (operated by professional scholars, and independent of the Church; essentially, a university was a guild of teachers). Universities were relatively free of religious interference.89,90,91

Though secular subjects (non-religious subjects, such as classical literature or mathematics) did not truly thrive in Western education until the Renaissance (see Humanism), they made a slow recovery throughout the medieval period. This recovery was much accelerated by the universities.H417,89,90

While scientific inquiry was hindered by the religious focus of medieval scholarship (including direct Church interference), the later Middle Ages nonetheless witnessed a range of critical technological advances. Though some were merely revivals of Roman technology (e.g. agricultural techniques, iron tools), others were entirely new breakthroughs, including the horse collar (which allowed horses, rather than less efficient oxen, to draw ploughs), clocks, printing, and mills (both wind- and water-powered). Indeed, up until the Industrial Revolution, water-powered mills provided the majority of humanity's mechanical power.A246,1

Religious Persecution

Medieval Europe witnessed a rising tide of antisemitism (discrimination against Jewish people). Land ownership and guild membership, for instance, were widely denied to Jews; and on more than one occasion, the entire Jewish population of a kingdom was expelled by a zealous ruler. As persecution mounted in the West, large communities of Jewish emigrants formed in Eastern Europe, especially Poland and Russia.A285,1

Nor were Christians safe from religious violence. The Church preoccupation with heretics (people whose beliefs violate official doctrine) exploded during the High Middle Ages, spurring the apprehension of many suspects and their subjection to inquisition (a legal trial for heresy). An organized branch of inquisitors was established by the pope, and torture became commonplace in extracting confessions. Following a guilty verdict (which was, astonishingly, nearly always found), many heretics were executed, though imprisonment and fines were more common.56,57

The Renaissance

The Late Middle Ages, in spite of its countless horrors, also gave rise to the Renaissance (ca. 1400-1600), during which humanism was finally revived (see Humanism). Meanwhile, the fifteenth century witnessed the invention of the printing press, the most important invention of all time, by Johannes Gutenberg. This device, which allowed great volumes of information to spread across the West in a matter of weeks, was crucial to the success of the Renaissance and all subsequent Western scholarship.

Main Article

Later Medieval Germany

ca. 1000-1500
Summary of Medieval Germany
Early Middle Ages
ca. 500-1000
High Middle Ages
ca. 1000-1300
Late Middle Ages
ca. 1300-1500
France Frankish kingdom > France/Germany rise of France Hundred Years' War > French unification
Germany Holy Roman Empire
Summary of the Holy Roman Empire > Austrian Empire
ca. 950-1300 Holy Roman Empire initial flourishing
ca. 1300-1500 decline
ca. 1500-WWI Austrian Empire Habsburg rule

For the period ca. 950-1300, the Holy Roman Empire flourished as a strong, relatively unified state. The Late Medieval period was an age of decline, however, as unity was fractured by strife between rival dynasties. In particular, imperial control over Germany steadily weakened, as the region splintered into small, semi-independent states.1,21

Ca. 1500, the Austria-based Habsburg dynasty achieved permanent control of the Holy Roman Empire. Consequently, while the Holy Roman Empire officially lasted until ca. 1800, from ca. 1500 onward it may as well be termed the Austrian Empire.1,21 (Note that while the Austrian Empire lasted until WWI, it only held the title of "Holy Roman Empire" until ca. 1800.)

The core territory of the Holy Roman Empire was Germany/Austria/Bohemia. The core territory of the Austrian Empire was Austria/Bohemia (and eventually Hungary).

Throughout the High Middle Ages, the Holy Roman Empire and the papacy warred constantly for control of Italy. Italians were polarized in their support for the two powers, spurring extensive conflict between and within the Italian kingdoms and city-states.21 The struggle was ultimately a stalemate; Italy remained a fractured region (largely independent of both the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire), and from the Late Middle Ages onward, the Holy Roman Empire focused its imperial efforts elsewhere.95

Italian cities were (along with the cities of the Low Countries) medieval Europe's most prosperous centres of manufacturing (especially textiles) and trade. Another major economic activity was banking, which emerged in its modern form among the medieval Italian city-states (along with other financial innovations, such as accounting and insurance). The wealthiest medieval city-state was Venice, which dominated Mediterranean trade and even governed territories in the eastern Mediterranean. Also prosperous was Florence, which came to dominate the region of Tuscany.A176,K208-09

Meanwhile, the later Middle Ages witnessed the conquest of a region known as Prussia (centred on present-day northeast Poland) by the Teutonic Knights. The Teutonic Knights were a German monastic military order that formed during the Crusades; upon returning to Europe, they conquered and governed Prussia. Following this conquest, Prussia was heavily settled by Germans.A238,47

Teutonic Prussia
Duchy of Prussia (Brandenburg in red)
Enlightenment Prussia
Nineteenth-century Prussia

Prussia was then conquered by Poland, though the Knights were allowed to retain much of the region as a Polish duchy. During the Reformation, this duchy was inherited by the prince of Brandenburg (one of the semi-independent German states under the Holy Roman Empire).

In time, Prussia grew to be much stronger than Brandenburg (or any other German state). It broke free during the Enlightenment as an independent kingdom, then expanded westward to join up with Brandenburg, thereby forming one vast state. The unification of Germany in the nineteenth century was achieved under the leadership of Prussia.83

Low Countries

ca. 1000-1500

The region known as the Low Countries spans roughly present-day Belgium and the Netherlands. Following the splintering of the Frankish kingdom, this region remained largely independent throughout the later medieval period, despite being officially added to the territory of external powers on several occasions (most famously Burgundy, toward the end of the Middle Ages).

The Later Medieval Low Countries

The medieval Low Countries featured several small, prosperous states, with economies based on manufacturing (chiefly textiles) and trade. The greatest was Flanders; others included Brabant and Luxembourg. Low Countries independence finally ended ca. 1500, when the region was firmly acquired by the Holy Roman Empire.127,133

Later Medieval France and England

ca. 1000-1500
Summary of Medieval France and England
Early Middle Ages
ca. 500-1000
High Middle Ages
ca. 1000-1300
Late Middle Ages
ca. 1300-1500
France Frankish kingdom > France/Germany rise of France Hundred Years' War > French unification
Germany Holy Roman Empire
England Anglo-Saxon kingdoms Anglo-Norman age Hundred Years' War > War of the Roses

The characteristic economic system of the Middle Ages was feudalism, in which nobles grant tracts of land to lesser nobles in exchange for political and/or military service (see Feudalism and Serfdom). Toward the end of the Middle Ages, feudalism (in which a king's power is largely delegated to local lords) began to decline in favour of centralized kingdoms (in which a king's power is largely retained in himself, allowing him to directly rule the entire kingdom). France and England were the first two kingdoms to make this transition.A241

The High Middle Ages witnessed the gradual strengthening of the French king's rule over France, which had been weak since the beginning of the nation's history (ca. 900). Like other medieval kingdoms, France was a patchwork of territories corresponding with various levels of the feudal system, such as duchies (ruled by dukes) and counties (ruled by counts). Though these territories (e.g. Normandy, Burgundy, Aquitaine, Anjou) were nominally subject to the French king, many exercised significant de facto independence. The later medieval period witnessed the steady accumulation of genuine royal authority over these lands.94

Meanwhile, following incorporation into the brief Viking empire assembled by Canute (see map), England was conquered in 1066 by the Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror. Under William, a more efficient, centralized English government was established. The English ruling class adopted much French culture, including the Norman language (Old French), which developed into a unique dialect in England termed "Anglo-Norman".A226,1,108

Anglo-Norman language and culture persisted throughout the High Middle Ages, after which the English language and culture were reasserted (though many elements of French culture were retained, including French-derived words in the English language). The High Middle Ages in England may therefore be termed the Anglo-Norman age. Two important English innovations of this age were common law and Parliament (see History of Democracy).A226,96,108

The Norman conquest united Normandy and England as a single power (even though the Duchy of Normandy officially belonged to the French king).120 The remainder of France loomed as a tempting target for invasion, which the French monarchy was ill-equipped to face, having not yet achieved the strong, centralized rule of England. The defining struggle of Late Medieval French and English history is the Hundred Years War, in which England attempted to conquer France. The most blatant instance of French disunity during this conflict was the alliance of Burgundy (a duchy in eastern France) with the English.1

England and Burgundy were largely successful for most of the war; toward the end, they controlled the northern half of France.94 But thanks to the spiritual leadership of Joan of Arc, combined with growing resentment throughout French lands toward English brutality and taxes, a vibrant French national unity finally emerged (which eventually included even Burgundy); England was at last driven from the Continent, leaving both nations exhausted.94 The medieval period concluded in England with the War of the Roses, a civil war of succession that brought the Tudor dynasty to power.2

Later Medieval Iberia

ca. 1000-1500
Summary of Medieval Iberia
Early Middle Ages
ca. 500-1000
High Middle Ages
ca. 1000-1300
Late Middle Ages
ca. 1300-1500
Iberia Visigothic rule > Islamic rule Reconquista rise of Portugal and Spain

The High Middle Ages witnessed the Christian Reconquista (re-conquest) of the Iberian peninsula. Three main Christian kingdoms formed: Portugal, Castile-Leon (western Spain) and Aragon (northeast Spain). Between their efforts, most of Iberia was recovered by the end of the High Middle Ages. In the Late Middle Ages, Castile-León and Aragon were united via the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, thus founding Spain.1,23,84

Kingdoms of Later Medieval Iberia

The Late Middle Ages also featured the Age of Discovery (ca. 1420-1520), the opening phase of the colonial era (see European Colonialism). Portugal and Spain were its two participants; only after the Age of Discovery (with the exception of John Cabot's voyage to Newfoundland) did England, France, and the Netherlands embark on voyages of global trade and conquest.130

In the Early Modern age, Portugal and Spain ascended together as the world's first global empires. Only Spain, however, would become a primary power in Europe.

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