Portal:Middle Ages

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The Middle Ages portal

The fortified town and abbey of Mont Saint-Michel off the northern coast of France is an iconic image of the Middle Ages that remains little changed since it was painted by the de Limbourg brothers in the 1430s

The Middle Ages is a period of European history that lasted from the 5th until the 15th centuries. It began with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, and was followed by the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. The Middle Ages is the middle period of the traditional division of Western history into Classical, Medieval, and Modern periods. The period is subdivided into the Early Middle Ages, the High Middle Ages, and the Late Middle Ages.

In the Early Middle Ages, depopulation, deurbanization, and barbarian invasions, which began in Late Antiquity, continued. The barbarian invaders formed new kingdoms in the remains of the Western Roman Empire. In the 7th century North Africa and the Middle East, once part of the Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantine Empire), became an Islamic Empire after conquest by Muhammad's successors. Although there were substantial changes in society and political structures, the break with Antiquity was not complete. The still sizeable Byzantine Empire survived and remained a major power. The empire's law code, the Code of Justinian, was widely admired. In the West, most kingdoms incorporated extant Roman institutions, while monasteries were founded as Christianity expanded in western Europe. The Franks, under the Carolingian dynasty, established an empire covering much of western Europe; the Carolingian Empire endured until the 9th century, when it succumbed to the pressures of invasion — the Vikings from the north; the Magyars from the east, and the Saracens from the south.

During the High Middle Ages, which began after AD 1000, the population of Europe increased greatly as technological and agricultural innovations allowed trade to flourish and crop yields to increase. Manorialism — the organization of peasants into villages that owed rent and labor services to the nobles; and feudalism — the political structure whereby knights and lower-status nobles owed military service to their overlords, in return for the right to rent from lands and manors - were two of the ways society was organized in the High Middle Ages. The Crusades, first preached in 1095, were military attempts, by western European Christians, to regain control of the Middle Eastern Holy Land from the Muslims. Kings became the heads of centralized nation states, reducing crime and violence but making the ideal of a unified Christendom more distant. Intellectual life was marked by scholasticism, a philosophy which emphasized joining faith to reason, and by the founding of universities. The philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, the paintings of Giotto, the poetry of Dante and Chaucer, the travels of Marco Polo, and the architecture of Gothic cathedrals such as Chartres are among the outstanding achievements of this period.

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Selected article

Norman-conquest-1066.svg
The Norman conquest of England was the invasion and occupation of England by an army of Normans and French led by Duke William II of Normandy in the 11th century. William, who defeated King Harold II of England on 14 October 1066, at the Battle of Hastings, was crowned king at London on Christmas Day, 1066. He then consolidated his control and settled many of his followers in England, introducing a number of governmental and societal changes.

William's claim to the English throne derived from his familial relationship with the childless King Edward the Confessor, who may have encouraged William's hopes for the throne. But when Edward died in January 1066, he was succeeded by his brother-in-law Harold, who not only faced challenges from William but also another claim by the Norwegian king, Harald Hardrada. Hardrada invaded northern England in September 1066 and was victorious at the Battle of Fulford before being defeated and killed by King Harold at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066. William, however, had landed in southern England, and Harold quickly marched south to confront William, leaving many of his forces behind in the north. On 14 October Harold's army confronted William's invaders near Hastings and after an all-day battle, was defeated and Harold was killed.

Although William's main rivals were gone, he still faced a number of rebellions over the following years, and it was not until after 1072 that he was secure on his throne. Native resistance led to a number of the English elite having their lands confiscated, and some of them went into exile. In order to control his new kingdom, William gave lands to his followers and built castles throughout the land to command military strongpoints. Other changes included the introduction of Norman French as the language of the noble elite, the court and government, and changes in the composition of the upper classes, as William enfeoffed lands to be held directly of the king. More slowly the conquest eventually changed the agricultural classes and village life: the main immediate change appears to have been the formal elimination of slavery, which may or may not have been linked to the invasion. There was little change in the structure of government, with the new Norman administrators taking over many of the forms of Anglo-Saxon government.


Selected biography

Kong Haakon Haakonsson PI III 1.jpg

Haakon Haakonsson (c. March/April 1204 – 16 December 1263) (Old Norse: Hákon Hákonarson; Norwegian: Håkon Håkonsson), sometimes called Haakon the Old in contrast to his son with the same name, and known in modern regnal lists as Haakon IV, was the King of Norway from 1217 to 1263. His reign lasted for 46 years, longer than any Norwegian king before him. Haakon was born into the troubled civil war era in Norway, but his reign eventually managed to put an end to the internal conflicts. At the start of his reign, during his minority, his later rival Earl Skule Bårdsson served as regent. As a king of the birkebeiner faction, Haakon defeated the uprising of the final bagler royal pretender, Sigurd Ribbung, in 1227. He put a definitive end to the civil war era when he had Skule Bårdsson killed in 1240, a year after he had himself proclaimed king in opposition to Haakon. Haakon thereafter formally appointed his own son as his co-regent.

Under Haakon's rule, medieval Norway is considered to have reached its zenith or golden age. His reputation and formidable naval fleet allowed him to maintain friendships with both the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, despite their conflict. He was at different points offered the Imperial Crown by the Pope, the Irish High Kingship by a delegation of Irish kings, and the command of the French crusader fleet by the French king. He amplified the influence of European culture in Norway by importing and translating contemporary European literature into Old Norse, and by constructing monumental European-style stone buildings. In conjunction with this he employed an active and aggressive foreign policy, and at the end of his rule added Iceland and the Norse Greenland community to his kingdom, leaving Norway at its territorial height. Although he for the moment managed to secure Norwegian control of the islands off the northern and western shores of Great Britain, he fell ill and died when wintering in Orkney following some military engagements with the expanding Scottish kingdom. (read more . . . )

Did you know...

  • ...that a paillasse is a thin mattress filled with hay or sawdust and was commonly used in the middle ages?
  • ...that a barbican is a tower or other fortification defending the drawbridge, usually the gateway?
  • ...that a coif is a type of armored head-covering made out of chain-mail and worn under the helmet for extra protection?
  • ...that a heriot is a payment owed to the lord of the manor by a serf’s family upon the serf’s death; usually the family’s best animal, such as a cow, horse or most commonly ox?
  • ...that before 1066, it was noted in the Domesday Book, if one Welshman killed another, the dead man’s relatives could exact retribution on the killer and his family (even burning their houses) until burial of the victim the next day?
  • ...that buboes are pus-filled egg-sized swellings of the lymph glands of the neck, armpits, and groin; typically found in cases of bubonic plague?
  • ...that laws passed in the late 1300s aimed at maintaining class distinctions by prohibiting lower classes from dressing as if they belonged to higher classes?
  • ...that Pier Gerlofs Donia, a 15th century Frisian freedom fighter of 7 feet tall was alleged to be so strong that he could lift a 1000 pound horse?
  • ...that Edgar Ætheling was the last of the Anglo-Saxon Kings of England, but was only proclaimed, never crowned?

Selected picture

LindisfarneFol27rIncipitMatt.jpg
Credit: Eadfrith of Lindisfarne

The Lindisfarne Gospels is an illuminated Latin manuscript of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The manuscript was produced on Lindisfarne in Northumbria in the late 7th century or early 8th century, and is generally regarded as the finest example of the kingdom's unique style of religious art, a style that combined Anglo-Saxon and Celtic themes, what is now called Hiberno-Saxon art, or Insular art.

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