AskDefine | Define medieval

Dictionary Definition

medieval adj
1 relating to or belonging to the Middle Ages; "Medieval scholars"; "Medieval times" [syn: mediaeval]
2 as if belonging to the Middle Ages; old-fashioned and unenlightened; "a medieval attitude toward dating" [syn: mediaeval, gothic]
3 characteristic of the time of chivalry and knighthood in the Middle Ages; "chivalric rites"; "the knightly years" [syn: chivalric, knightly]

User Contributed Dictionary



, medium aevum (“middle age”).

Alternative spellings


  1. Of or relating to the Middle Ages, perhaps AD 650 to 1550.

Derived terms


of or relating to the Middle Ages



  1. medieval

Extensive Definition

The Middle Ages form the middle period in a traditional schematic division of European history into three "ages": the classical civilization of Antiquity, the Middle Ages and Modern Times. The idea of such a periodisation is attributed to Flavio Biondo, an Italian Renaissance humanist historian.
The Middle Ages are commonly dated from the fall of the Western Roman Empire (or by some scholars, before that) in the 5th century to the beginning of the Early Modern Period in the 16th century, marked by the rise of nation-states, the division of Christianity in the Reformation, the rise of humanism in the Italian Renaissance, and the beginnings of European overseas expansion which allowed for the Columbian Exchange. There is some variation in the dating of the edges of these periods which is due mainly to differences in specialization and focus of individual scholars. Commonly seen periodization ranges span the years ca. 400–476 AD (the sackings of Rome by the Visigoths to the deposing of Romulus Augustus) The Middle Ages are often referred to as the "medieval period" (sometimes spelled "mediaeval" or "mediæval"), also from the Latin.


Middle Ages in history

After the Middle Ages ended, subsequent generations imagined, portrayed and interpreted the Middle Ages in very different ways. Every century has created its own vision of the Middle Ages; the 16th century view of the Middle Ages was entirely different from the 19th century which was different from the 20th century view. The different perceptions of the Middle Ages remain with us today in the form of literature, art, revival styles of architecture, film and popular conception.


Until the Renaissance (and for some time after) the standard scheme of history was to divide history into six ages, inspired by the biblical six days of creation, or four monarchies based on Daniel 2:40. The early Renaissance historians, in their glorification of all things classical, declared two periods in history, that of Ancient times and that of the period referred to as the "Dark Age". In the early 15th century it was believed history had evolved from the Dark Age to a new period with its revival of things classical so some scholars, such as Flavio Biondo, began to write about a middle period between the Ancient and Modern, which became known as the Middle Age. It was not until the late 17th century when German scholar Christoph Cellarius' published Universal History Divided into an Ancient, Medieval, and New Period that the tripartite periodization scheme began to be used more systemically.
The plural form of the term, Middle Ages, is used in English, Dutch, Russian, Bulgarian and Icelandic while other European languages use the singular form (Italian medioevo, French le moyen âge, German das Mittelalter Spanish edad media). This difference originates in different Neo-Latin terms used for the Middle Ages before media aetas became the standard term. Some were singular (media aetas, media antiquitas, medium saeculum and media tempestas), others plural (media saecula and media tempora). There seem to be no simple reason why a particular language ended up with the singular or the plural form. The term "mediaeval" (American: medieval) was first contracted from the Latin medium ævum, or more precisely "middle epoch", by Enlightenment thinkers as a pejorative descriptor of the Middle Ages.
The common subdivision into Early, High and Late Middle Ages came into use after World War I. It was caused by the works of Henri Pirenne (in particular the article "Les periodes de l'historie du capitalism" in Academie Royale de Belgique. Bulletin de la Classe des Lettres, 1914) and Johan Huizinga (The Autumn of the Middle Ages, 1919).
Dorothy Sayers, a noted scholar in medieval literature as well as a famous writer of detective books, strongly objected to the term. In the foreword to her translation of The Song of Roland, she writes "That new-washed world of clear sun and glittering colour, which we call the Middle Age (as though it were middle-aged), has perhaps a better right than the blown summer of the Renaissance to be called the Age of Re-Birth."

Periodisation issues

see also Periodisation It is difficult to decide when the Middle Ages ended; in fact, scholars assign different dates in different parts of Europe. Most scholars who work in 15th century Italian history, for instance, consider themselves Renaissance, while anyone working elsewhere in Europe during the early 15th century is considered a mediaevalist. Others choose specific events, such as the Turkish capture of Constantinople or the end of the Anglo-French Hundred Years' War (both 1453), the invention of printing by Johann Gutenberg (around 1455), the fall of Muslim Spain or Christopher Columbus's voyage to America (both 1492), the Protestant Reformation starting 1517, or the Battle of Lepanto (1571) to mark the period's end. In England the change of monarchs which occurred on 22 August 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth is often considered to mark the end of the period, Richard III representing the old mediaeval world and the Tudors, a new royal house and a new historical period.
Similar differences are now emerging in connection with the start of the period. Traditionally, the Middle Ages is said to have begun when the West Roman Empire formally ceased to exist in 476. 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 Christianisation of the Roman Empire (4th century); others, like Henri Pirenne, see the period to the rise of Islam (7th century) as "late Classical". Another argument for a late beginning to the Middle Ages was presented by Peter Brown. Brown championed the idea of Late Antiquity, a period that was culturally distinct from both the preceding Empire and from the rest of the Middle Ages. Brown’s argument rests less on the economic changes within the Mediterranean than on social and religious change within the Empire between 300 and 750. To Brown, the slow collapse of the Empire allowed a period of great creativity and expressiveness in which Christianity flourished and became institutionalized.
The Middle Ages in Western Europe are often subdivided into three intervals. This includes 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). The middle period (the High Middle Ages) follows, a time of developed institutions of lordship and vassalage, castle-building and mounted warfare, and reviving urban and commercial life. The last span is a later period of growing royal power, the rise of commercial interests, and weakening customary ties of dependence, especially after the 14th century plague. They developed feudalsim.

Geographic issues

While the term "medieval period", often used synonymously with "Middle Ages", is usually used to describe a period of European history, some 20th century historians have described non-European countries as "medieval" when those countries show characteristics of "feudal" organization. The pre-Westernisation period in the history of Japan, and the pre-colonial period in developed parts of sub-Saharan Africa, are also sometimes termed "medieval." These terms have fallen out of favour, as modern historians are reluctant to try to fit the history of other regions to the European model.

Origins: The later Roman Empire

The Roman empire reached its greatest territorial extent during the 2nd century. The following two centuries witnessed the slow decline of Roman control over its outlying territories. The Emperor Diocletian split the empire into separately administered eastern and western halves in 285. The division between east and west was encouraged by Constantine, who refounded the city of Byzantium as the new capital, Constantinople, in 330.
Military expenses increased steadily during the 4th century, even as Rome’s neighbours became restless and increasingly powerful. Tribes who previously had contact with the Romans as trading partners, rivals, or mercenaries had sought entrance to the empire and access to its wealth throughout the 4th century. Diocletian’s reforms had created a strong governmental bureaucracy, reformed taxation, and strengthened the army. These changes bought the Empire time, but these reforms demanded money. Rome’s declining revenue left it dangerously dependent on tax revenue. Future setbacks forced Rome to pour ever more wealth into its armies, spreading the empire’s wealth thinly into its border regions. In periods of expansion, this would not be a critical problem. The defeat in 378 at the Battle of Adrianople, however, destroyed much of the Roman army, leaving the western empire undefended. Recent research and archaeology have also revealed complex cultures persisting throughout the period. Some of these "barbarian" tribes rejected the classical culture of Rome, while others admired and aspired to it. Theodoric the Great of the Ostrogoths, as only one example, had been raised in Constantinople and considered himself an heir to its culture, employing erudite Roman ministers like Cassiodorus. Other prominent tribal groups that migrated into Roman territory were the Huns, Bulgars, Avars and Magyars, along with a large number of Germanic, and later Slavic peoples. Some tribes settled in the empire’s territory with the approval of the Roman senate or emperor. In return for land to farm and, in some regions, the right to collect tax revenues for the state, federated tribes provided military support to the empire. Other incursions were small-scale military invasions of tribal groups assembled to gather plunder. The most famous invasion culminated in the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410.
By the end of the 5th century, Roman institutions were crumbling. The last emperor of the west, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by the barbarian king Odoacer in 476. The style of monasticism that focuses on community experience of the spiritual life, called cenobitism, was pioneered by the saint Pachomius in the 4th century. Monastic ideals spread from Egypt to western Europe in the 5th and 6th centuries through hagiographical literature such as the Life of Saint Anthony. However, the Merovingians also buried the dead of their elite families in grave mounds and traced their lineage to a mythical sea beast called the Quinotaur. Pippin's successful coup was reinforced with propaganda that portrayed the Merovingians as inept or cruel rulers and exalted the accomplishments of Charles Martel and circulated stories of the family's great piety. At the time of his death in 783, Pippin left his kingdoms in the hands of his two sons, Charles and Carloman. When Carloman died of natural causes, Charles blocked the succession of Carloman's minor son and installed himself as the king of the united Austrasia and Neustria. This Charles, known to his contemporaries as Charles the Great or Charlemagne, embarked in 774 upon a program of systematic expansion that would unify a large portion of Europe. In the wars that lasted just beyond 800, he rewarded loyal allies with war booty and command over parcels of land. Much of the nobility of the High Middle Ages was to claim its roots in the Carolingian nobility that was generated during this period of expansion. He also sought to reform the Church in his domains, pushing for uniformity in liturgy and material culture.

Carolingian Renaissance

Charlemagne's court in Aachen was the centre of a cultural revival that is sometimes referred to as the "Carolingian Renaissance". This period witnessed an increase of literacy, developments in the arts, architecture, jurisprudence, as well as liturgical and scriptural studies. The English monk Alcuin was invited to Aachen, and brought with him the precise classical Latin education that was available in the monasteries of Northumbria. The return of this Latin proficiency to the kingdom of the Franks is regarded as an important step in the development of mediaeval Latin. Charlemagne's chancery made use of a type of script currently known as Carolingian minuscule, providing a common writing style that allowed for communication across most of Europe. After the decline of the Carolingian dynasty, the rise of the Saxon Dynasty in Germany was accompanied by the Ottonian Renaissance.

Breakup of the Carolingian empire

While Charlemagne continued the Frankish tradition of dividing the regnum (kingdom) between all his heirs (at least those of age), the assumption of the imperium (imperial title) supplied a unifying force not available previously. Charlemagne was succeeded by his only legitimate son of adult age at his death, Louis the Pious.
Louis's long reign of 26 years was marked by numerous divisions of the empire among his sons and, after 829, numerous civil wars between various alliances of father and sons against other sons in an effort to determine a just division by battle. The final division was made at Crémieux in 838. The Emperor Louis recognised his eldest son Lothair I as emperor and confirmed him in the Regnum Italicum (Italy). He divided the rest of the empire between Lothair and Charles the Bald, his youngest son, giving Lothair the opportunity to choose his half. He chose East Francia, which comprised the empire on both banks of the Rhine and eastwards, leaving Charles West Francia, which comprised the empire to the west of the Rhineland and the Alps. Louis the German, the middle child, who had been rebellious to the last, was allowed to keep his subregnum of Bavaria under the suzerainty of his elder brother. The division was not undisputed. Pepin II of Aquitaine, the emperor's grandson, rebelled in a contest for Aquitaine while Louis the German tried to annex all of East Francia. In two final campaigns, the emperor defeated both his rebellious descendants and vindicated the division of Crémieux before dying in 840.
A three-year civil war followed his death. At the end of the conflict, Louis the German was in control of East Francia and Lothair was confined to Italy. By the Treaty of Verdun (843), a kingdom of Middle Francia was created for Lothair in the Low Countries and Burgundy and his imperial title was recognised. East Francia would eventually morph into the Kingdom of Germany and West Francia into the Kingdom of France, around both of which the history of Western Europe can largely be described as a contest for control of the middle kingdom. Charlemagne's grandsons and great-grandsons divided their kingdoms between their sons until all of the various regna and the imperial title fell into the hands of Charles the Fat by 884. He was deposed in 887 and died in 888, to be replaced in all his kingdoms but two (Lotharingia and East Francia) by non-Carolingian "petty kings." The Carolingian Empire was destroyed, though the imperial tradition would eventually give rise to the Holy Roman Empire in 962.
The breakup of the Carolingian Empire was accompanied by the invasions, migrations, and raids of external foes as not seen since the Migration Period. The Atlantic and northern shores were harassed by the Vikings, who forced Charles the Bald to issue the Edict of Pistres against them and who besieged Paris in 885–886. The eastern frontiers, especially Germany and Italy, were under constant Magyar assault until their great defeat at the Battle of the Lechfeld in 955. The Saracens also managed to establish bases at Garigliano and Fraxinetum and to conquer the islands of Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily, and their pirates raided the Mediterranean coasts, as did the Vikings. The Christianisation of the pagan Vikings provided an end to that threat.

Art and architecture

The Crusades were armed pilgrimages intended to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim control. Jerusalem was part of the Muslim possessions won during a rapid military expansion in the 7th century through the Near East, Northern Africa, and Anatolia (in modern Turkey). The first Crusade was preached by Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont in 1095 in response to a request from the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos for aid against further advancement. Urban promised indulgence to any Christian who took the Crusader vow and set off for Jerusalem. The resulting fervour that swept through Europe mobilized tens of thousands of people from all levels of society, and resulted in the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 as well as other regions. The movement found its primary support in the Franks; it is by no coincidence that the Arabs referred to Crusaders generically as "Franj". Although they were minorities within this region, the Crusaders tried to consolidate their conquests, as a number of Crusader states – the Kingdom of Jerusalem, as well as the County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, and the County of Tripoli (collectively Outremer). During the 12th century and 13th century there were a series of conflicts between these states and surrounding Islamic ones. Crusades were essentially resupply missions for these embattled kingdoms. Military orders such as the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller were formed to play an integral role in this support.
By the end of the Middle Ages the Christian Crusaders had captured all the Islamic territories in modern Spain, Portugal and Southern Italy. Meanwhile, Islamic counter attacks had retaken all the Crusader possessions on the Asian mainland, leaving a de facto boundary between Islam and western Christianity that continued until modern times.
Substantial areas of northern Europe also remained outside Christian influence until the 12th century or later; these areas also became crusading venues during the expansionist High Middle Ages. Throughout this period the Byzantine Empire was in decline, having peaked in influence during the High Middle Ages. Beginning with the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, the empire underwent a cycle of decline and renewal, including the sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Despite another short upswing following the recapture of Constantinople in 1261, the empire continued to deteriorate.

Science and technology

During the early Middle Ages and the Islamic Golden Age, Islamic philosophy, science, and technology were more advanced than in Western Europe. Islamic scholars both preserved and built upon earlier Ancient Greek and Roman traditions and also added their own inventions and innovations. Islamic al-Andalus passed much of this on to Europe (see Islamic contributions to Medieval Europe). The replacement of Roman numerals with the decimal positional number system and the invention of algebra allowed more advanced mathematics. Another consequence was that the Latin-speaking world regained access to lost classical literature and philosophy. Latin translations of the 12th century fed a passion for Aristotelian philosophy and Islamic science that is frequently referred to as the Renaissance of the 12th century. Meanwhile, trade grew throughout Europe as the dangers of travel were reduced, and steady economic growth resumed. Cathedral schools and monasteries ceased to be the sole sources of education in the 11th century when universities were established in major European cities. Literacy became available to a wider class of people, and there were major advances in art, sculpture, music and architecture. Large cathedrals were built across Europe, first in the Romanesque, and later in the more decorative Gothic style.
During the 12th and 13th century in Europe there was a radical change in the rate of new inventions, innovations in the ways of managing traditional means of production, and economic growth. The period saw major technological advances, including the invention of cannon, spectacles, and artesian wells; and the cross-cultural introduction of gunpowder, silk, the compass, and the astrolabe from the east. There were also great improvements to ships and the clock. The latter advances made possible the dawn of the Age of Exploration. At the same time huge numbers of Greek and Arabic works on medicine and the sciences were translated and distributed throughout Europe. Aristotle especially became very important, his rational and logical approach to knowledge influencing the scholars at the newly forming universities which were absorbing and disseminating the new knowledge during the 12th Century Renaissance.

Religious and social change

Monastic reform became an important issue during the 11th century, when elites began to worry that monks were not adhering to their Rules with the discipline that was required for a good religious life. During this time, it was believed that monks were performing a very practical task by sending their prayers to God and inducing Him to make the world a better place for the virtuous. The time invested in this activity would be wasted, however, if the monks were not virtuous. The monastery of Cluny, founded in the Mâcon in 909, was founded as part of a larger movement of monastic reform in response to this fear. It was a reformed monastery that quickly established a reputation for austerity and rigour. Cluny sought to maintain the high quality of spiritual life by electing its own abbot from within the cloister, and maintained an economic and political independence from local lords by placing itself under the protection of the Pope. Kings encouraged cohesion in their administration by appointing ministers with broad ambitions and a loyalty to the state. By the last half of the 15th century, kings like Henry VII of England and Louis XI of France were able to rule without much baronial interference.

Hundred Years' War

The Hundred Years' War was a conflict between France and England, lasting 116 years from 1337 to 1453. It was fought primarily over claims by the English kings to the French throne and was punctuated by several brief and two lengthy periods of peace before it finally ended in the expulsion of the English from France, with the exception of the Calais Pale. Thus, the war was in fact a series of conflicts and is commonly divided into three or four phases: the Edwardian War (1337-1360), the Caroline War (1369-1389), the Lancastrian War (1415-1429), and the slow decline of English fortunes after the appearance of Joan of Arc, (1429-1453). Though primarily a dynastic conflict, the war gave impetus to ideas of both French and English nationality. Militarily, it saw the introduction of new weapons and tactics, which eroded the older system of feudal armies dominated by heavy cavalry. The first standing armies in Western Europe since the time of the Western Roman Empire were introduced for the war, thus changing the role of the peasantry. For all this, as well as for its long duration, it is often viewed as one of the most significant conflicts in the history of mediaeval warfare.

Controversy within the Church

The troubled 14th century saw both the Avignon Papacy of 1305–1378, also called the Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy (a reference to the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews), and the so-called Western Schism that lasted from 1378–1418. The practice of granting papal indulgences, fairly commonplace since the 11th century, was reformulated and explicitly monetized in the 14th century. Indulgences came to be an important source of revenue for the Church, revenue that filtered through parish churches to bishoprics and then to the pope himself. This was viewed by many as a corruption of the Church. In the early years of the 15th century, after a century of turmoil, ecclesiastical officials convened in Constance in 1417 to discuss a resolution to the Schism. Traditionally, councils needed to be called by the Pope, and none of the contenders were willing to call a council and risk being unseated. The act of convening a council without papal approval was justified by the argument that the Church was represented by the whole population of the faithful. The council deposed the warring popes and elected Martin V. The turmoil of the Church, and the perception that it was a corrupted institution, sapped the legitimacy of the papacy within Europe and fostered greater loyalty to regional or national churches. Martin Luther published objections to the Church. Although his disenchantment had long been forming, the denunciation of the Church was precipitated by the arrival of preachers raising money to rebuild the Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome. Luther might have been silenced by the Church, but the death of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I brought the imperial succession to the forefront of concern. Lutherans' split with the Church in 1517, and the subsequent division of Catholicism into Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Anabaptism put a definitive end to the unified Church built during the Middle Ages.


External links

medieval in Afrikaans: Middeleeue
medieval in Tosk Albanian: Mittelalter
medieval in Arabic: عصور وسطى
medieval in Aragonese: Edat Meya
medieval in Asturian: Edá Media
medieval in Belarusian: Сярэднявечча
medieval in Bavarian: Mittelalter
medieval in Bosnian: Srednji vijek
medieval in Breton: Krennamzer
medieval in Bulgarian: Средновековие
medieval in Catalan: Edat mitjana
medieval in Chuvash: Вăтам ĕмĕрсем
medieval in Czech: Středověk
medieval in Welsh: Yr Oesoedd Canol
medieval in Danish: Middelalderen
medieval in German: Mittelalter
medieval in Modern Greek (1453-): Μεσαίωνας
medieval in Spanish: Edad Media
medieval in Esperanto: Mezepoko
medieval in Estonian: Keskaeg
medieval in Basque: Erdi Aroa
medieval in Persian: قرون وسطی
medieval in French: Moyen Âge
medieval in Western Frisian: Midsieuwen
medieval in Friulian: Etât di mieç
medieval in Scottish Gaelic: Meadhan-Aoisean
medieval in Galician: Idade Media
medieval in Korean: 중세
medieval in Croatian: Srednji vijek
medieval in Ido: Mez-epoko
medieval in Indonesian: Abad Pertengahan
medieval in Icelandic: Miðaldir
medieval in Italian: Medioevo
medieval in Hebrew: ימי הביניים
medieval in Georgian: შუა საუკუნეები
medieval in Cornish: Oesow Kres
medieval in Swahili (macrolanguage): Zama za Kati
medieval in Kurdish: Çaxa navîn
medieval in Latin: Medium Aevum
medieval in Latvian: Viduslaiki
medieval in Luxembourgish: Mëttelalter
medieval in Lithuanian: Viduramžiai
medieval in Limburgan: Middeliewe
medieval in Hungarian: Középkor
medieval in Macedonian: Среден век
medieval in Dutch: Middeleeuwen
medieval in Dutch Low Saxon: Middeleewn
medieval in Japanese: 中世
medieval in Norwegian: Middelalderen
medieval in Norwegian Nynorsk: Mellomalderen
medieval in Narom: Mouoyen Âge
medieval in Occitan (post 1500): Edat Mejana
medieval in Low German: Middelöller
medieval in Polish: Średniowiecze
medieval in Portuguese: Idade Média
medieval in Kölsch: Meddelallder
medieval in Romanian: Evul Mediu
medieval in Russian: Средние века
medieval in Albanian: Mesjeta
medieval in Sicilian: Mediuevu
medieval in Simple English: Middle Ages
medieval in Slovak: Stredovek
medieval in Slovenian: Srednji vek
medieval in Serbian: Средњи вијек
medieval in Finnish: Keskiaika
medieval in Swedish: Medeltiden
medieval in Tagalog: Gitnang Panahon
medieval in Thai: สมัยกลาง
medieval in Vietnamese: Trung Cổ
medieval in Turkish: Orta Çağ
medieval in Ukrainian: Середньовіччя
medieval in Venetian: Medioevo
medieval in Walloon: Moyinådje
medieval in Vlaams: Middelêeuwn
medieval in Yiddish: מיטל אלטער
medieval in Chinese: 中世纪
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