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. It is the middle period of the traditional division of Western history into Classical, Medieval, and Modern times. The period is subdivided into the Early, High, and Late Middle Ages.

The Early Middle Ages suffered depopulation, deurbanization, and continuing barbarian invasions, which had begun in Late Antiquity. The 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 continued some 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. The major social systems of this period were Manorialism, the organization of peasants into villages which owed rent and labor services to the nobles, in return for their protection; and feudalism, whereby knights and lower-status nobles owed military service to their overlords, in return for the possession of lands and manors. 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, imposing law and order, but solidifying the political divisions within Christendom. Intellectual life was marked by scholasticism, a philosophy which emphasized the harmony of faith and 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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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

Giovanni villani 1.JPG

Giovanni Villani (c. 1276 or 1280–1348, Italian pronunciation: [dʒoˈvanni vilˈlaːni]) was an Italian banker, official, diplomat and chronicler from Florence who wrote the Nuova Cronica (New Chronicles) on the history of Florence. He was a leading statesman of Florence but later gained an unsavory reputation and served time in prison as a result of the bankruptcy of a trading and banking company he worked for. His interest in and elaboration of economic details, statistical information, and political and psychological insight mark him as a more modern chronicler of late medieval Europe. His Cronica is viewed as the first introduction of statistics as a positive element in history. However, historian Kenneth R. Bartlett notes that, in contrast to his Renaissance-era successors, "his reliance on such elements as Divine Providence links Villani closely with the medieval vernacular chronicle tradition. In recurring themes made implicit through significant events described in his Cronica, Villani also emphasized three assumptions about the relationship of sin and morality to historical events, these being that excess brings disaster, that forces of right and wrong are in constant struggle, and that events are directly influenced by the will of God.

Villani was inspired to write his Cronica after attending the jubilee celebration in Rome in 1300 and noting the venerable history of that city. He outlined the events in his Cronica year for year, following a strictly linear narrative format. He provided intricate details on many important historical events of the city of Florence and the wider region of Tuscany, such as construction projects, floods, fires, famines, and plagues.

While continuing work on the Cronica and detailing the enormous loss of life during the Black Death in 1348, Villani died of the same illness. His work on the Cronica was continued by his brother and nephew. Villani's work has received both praise and criticism from modern historians. The criticism is mostly aimed at his emphasis on supernatural guidance of events, his organizational style, and his glorification of the papacy and Florence. (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?

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