Portal:Middle Ages

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The Cross of Mathilde, a crux gemmata made for Mathilde, Abbess of Essen (973–1011), who is shown kneeling before the Virgin and Child in the enamel plaque. The figure of Christ is slightly later. Probably made in Cologne or Essen, the cross demonstrates several medieval techniques: cast figurative sculpture, filigree, enamelling, gem polishing and setting, and the reuse of Classical cameos and engraved gems.

In the history of Europe, the Middle Ages (or Medieval period) lasted from the 5th to the 15th century. It began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and merged into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. The Middle Ages is the middle period of the three traditional divisions of Western history: classical antiquity, the medieval period, and the modern period. The medieval period is itself subdivided into the Early, High, and Late Middle Ages.

Population decline, counterurbanisation, invasion, and movement of peoples, which had begun in Late Antiquity, continued in the Early Middle Ages. The large-scale movements of the Migration Period, including various Germanic peoples, formed new kingdoms in what remained of the Western Roman Empire. In the 7th century, North Africa and the Middle East—once part of the Byzantine Empire—came under the rule of the Umayyad Caliphate, an Islamic empire, after conquest by Muhammad's successors. Although there were substantial changes in society and political structures, the break with classical antiquity was not complete. The still-sizeable Byzantine Empire, Rome's direct continuation, survived in the Eastern Mediterranean and remained a major power. The empire's law code, the Corpus Juris Civilis or "Code of Justinian", was rediscovered in Northern Italy in 1070 and became widely admired later in the Middle Ages. In the West, most kingdoms incorporated the few extant Roman institutions. Monasteries were founded as campaigns to Christianise pagan Europe continued. The Franks, under the Carolingian dynasty, briefly established the Carolingian Empire during the later 8th and early 9th century. It covered much of Western Europe but later succumbed to the pressures of internal civil wars combined with external invasions: Vikings from the north, Magyars from the east, and Saracens from the south.

During the High Middle Ages, which began after 1000, the population of Europe increased greatly as technological and agricultural innovations allowed trade to flourish and the Medieval Warm Period climate change allowed crop yields to increase. Manorialism, the organisation of peasants into villages that owed rent and labour 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 organised in the High Middle Ages. The Crusades, first preached in 1095, were military attempts by Western European Christians to regain control of the Holy Land from Muslims. Kings became the heads of centralised nation-states, reducing crime and violence but making the ideal of a unified Christendom more distant. Intellectual life was marked by scholasticism, a philosophy that emphasised joining faith to reason, and by the founding of universities. The theology of Thomas Aquinas, the paintings of Giotto, the poetry of Dante and Chaucer, the travels of Marco Polo, and the Gothic architecture of cathedrals such as Chartres are among the outstanding achievements toward the end of this period and into the Late Middle Ages.

The Late Middle Ages was marked by difficulties and calamities including famine, plague, and war, which significantly diminished the population of Europe; between 1347 and 1350, the Black Death killed about a third of Europeans. Controversy, heresy, and the Western Schism within the Catholic Church paralleled the interstate conflict, civil strife, and peasant revolts that occurred in the kingdoms. Cultural and technological developments transformed European society, concluding the Late Middle Ages and beginning the early modern period.

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The capture of Jerusalem marked the First Crusade's success.
The First Crusade was launched in 1096 by Pope Urban II with the dual goals of conquering the sacred city of Jerusalem and the Holy Land and freeing the Eastern Christians from Islamic rule. What started as an appeal by Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus for western mercenaries to fight the Seljuk Turks in Anatolia quickly turned into a wholescale Western migration and conquest of territory outside of Europe. Both knights and peasants from many nations of Western Europe travelled over land and by sea towards Jerusalem and captured the city in July 1099, establishing the Kingdom of Jerusalem and other Crusader states. Although these gains lasted for less than two hundred years, the First Crusade was a major turning point in the expansion of Western power, as well as the first major step towards reopening international trade in the West since the fall of the Western Roman Empire.The origins of the Crusades in general, and of the First Crusade in particular, stem from events earlier in the Middle Ages. The breakdown of the Carolingian Empire in previous centuries, combined with the relative stability of European borders after the Christianization of the Vikings and Magyars, gave rise to an entire class of warriors who now had little to do but fight among themselves. By the early 8th century, the Umayyad Caliphate had rapidly captured North Africa, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Spain from a predominantly Christian Byzantine Empire.


Selected biography

King James I of Scotland.jpg

James I, King of Scots (July 1394 – 21 February 1437), was the youngest of three sons of King Robert III and Annabella Drummond and was probably born in late July 1394 in Dunfermline. By the time he was eight years of age both of his elder brothers were dead—Robert had died in infancy, but David Stewart, Duke of Rothesay, died under suspicious circumstances in Falkland Castle while being detained by his uncle, Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany. Although parliament exonerated Albany, fears for James's safety grew during the winter of 1405–6 and plans were made to send him to France. In February 1406, James, in the company of nobles loyal to King Robert III, clashed with those of the Earl of Douglas, forcing the prince to take temporary refuge on the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth. He remained there until mid-March, when he boarded a vessel bound for France, but English pirates captured the ship on 22 March and delivered James to Henry IV of England. A few days later, on 4 April Robert III died, and the 12 year-old uncrowned King of Scots began his 18-year detention.

James was given a good education at the English court, where he developed respect for English methods of governance and for Henry V to the extent that he served in the English army against the French during 1420–1. The Duke of Albany's son, Murdoch, held a prisoner in England following his capture in 1402, was traded for Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, in 1416. By the time James was ransomed in 1424, Murdoch had succeeded his father to the dukedom and the governorship of Scotland. In April 1424 James, accompanied by his wife Joan Beaufort, daughter of the Earl of Somerset, returned to Scotland. It was not altogether a popular re-entry to Scottish affairs, since James had fought on behalf of Henry V and at times against Scottish forces in France. Additionally, his £40,000 ransom meant increased taxes to cover the repayments and the detention of Scottish nobles as collateral. Despite this, James also held qualities that were admired. The contemporary Scotichronicon by Walter Bower described James as excelling at sport and appreciative of literature and music. Unlike his father and grandfather he did not take mistresses, but had many children by his consort, Queen Joan. The king had a strong desire to impose law and order on his subjects, but applied it selectively at times.

To bolster his authority and secure the position of the crown, James launched pre-emptive attacks on some of his nobles beginning in 1425 with his close relatives the Albany Stewarts. This resulted in the execution of Duke Murdoch. In 1428 James detained Alexander, Lord of the Isles, while attending a parliament in Inverness. Archibald, Earl of Douglas, was arrested in 1431, followed by George, Earl of March, in 1434. The plight of the ransom hostages held in England was ignored and the repayment money was diverted into the construction of Linlithgow Palace and other grandiose schemes.

In August 1436, James failed humiliatingly in his siege of Roxburgh Castle and then faced an ineffective attempt by Sir Robert Graham to arrest him at a general council. James was murdered at Perth on the night of 20–1 February 1437 in a failed coup by his uncle and former ally Walter Stewart, Earl of Atholl. Queen Joan, although wounded, escaped to the safety of Edinburgh Castle, where she was reunited with her son James II. (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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