A History of World Societies,
Europe in the Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages Europe developed a unique civilization that synthesized
Germanic custom, Greco-Roman thought, and Christian belief. Through cycles of
crisis and recovery, Europe met the challenge of barbarian invasion; saw the rise
of the Latin Church as a unifying institution and the emergence of the nation
state; developed and new urban culture and vibrant international economy; saw
the rise of a new and important commercial class that challenged that traditional
class hierarchy; created new forms of philosophical inquiry and artistic expression;
and faced devastating plagues, wars, and civil wars. The activities below will
help you reinforce what you have already read and learn more about the culture
of medieval Europe. Helpful Hints:
- You may want to begin by printing this page. As you explore different sites,
use the printout to refer back to the instructions and questions detailed
in each activity.
- On many web sites you can increase the size of the images by clicking on
them. Whenever possible, use the larger images to examine fine details in
- One of the most important developments in this period was the emergence
of a large Frankish kingdom. Go to
1 and locate the Frankish kingdom in 768. Compare and contrast this map
2, a contemporary depiction of Europe. What current nations occupy the
land that the Franks controlled?
- The Frankish kingdom reached its height during the Carolingian Empire in
the ninth century. Map
3 shows the extent of Carolingian rule. (You can also study Map 13.1 on
page 367 in McKay, A History of World Societies [Sixth Edition].) Although
the extent of this rule is impressive, the Carolingian Empire was not a tightly
organized state like its contemporaries in Byzantium and China. Go to The
Frankish Empire. How did the Carolingians promote order and stability
in their realm? How successful were they? Compare their attempts to those
of The Later Empire: The Song,
which ruled China between 960 and 1279. Why were the Song more successful
than the Carolingians in creating a strong central government? What long–range
impact did this difference have on Europe and China? Record your responses
in a few paragraphs.
- The Carolingian Empire, despite its inability to restore order and stability
to western Europe, had a huge impact on the history of Europe. For example,
go to Charlemagne.
Make a list of Charlemagne's reforms that helped create a common culture and
identity among Europeans. Now go to Alcuin
of York. After examining this site, review pages 367-368 in McKay, A
History of World Societies (Sixth Edition). How would you define the Carolingian
intellectual revival? What inspired this period of creativity? What intellectual
traditions did it reflect? How innovative was it? Compare and contrast Alcuin
and other Carolingian scholars to Abu
Ja'far Muhammad ibn Musa Al–Khwarizmi. As you can see, the Carolingian
scholars were not nearly as innovative as their Muslim contemporaries, even
though they both drew inspiration from the Greco–Roman intellectual tradition.
- The failure of the Carolingians to establish a strong central authority
led to the emergence of a decentralized and hierarchical political and social
structure. As pages 368-369 in McKay, A History of World Societies
(Sixth Edition), points out, more recent scholars have referred to these arrangements
as feudalism. For an overview of this term, see The
End of Europe's Middle Ages: Feudal Institutions. Note that feudalism
refers to political relationships between landowners (nobility) in western
- Around the first millennium, the instability of the past two hundred years
began to subside. One of the major forces of stability was the Catholic church,
which asserted its independence from feudal lords and kings as a result of
the investiture controversy. For an explanation of this development, go to
Contest or Controversy. After 1000, the church developed many new institutions
to assert its power. For example, go to INQUISITION:
INTRODUCTION. What was the Inquisition? How did it reflect the growing
power of the church? Now review "Monastic Revival" on page 372 of
McKay, A History of World Societies (Sixth Edition). How did the church
contribute to common culture among western Europeans after 1000?
- The church tried to promote order and stability (not unlike a central government)
in western Europe before and after the year 1000. For example, read about
the Truce of God
and its related concept, the Peace of God. For a primary source on the Peace
of God movement, see Medieval Sourcebook:
Peace of God — Synod of Charroux, 989. What was the goal of this church
initiative? What methods did church officials use to bring about these plans?
Did they have an army, or did they rely on other means of enforcement? How
successful do you think this effort and others like it were?
- Later in the Middle Ages the Church suffered severe blows to its authority
and prestige. To learn more about these read The
End of Europe's Middle Ages: The Church. Focus on the sections covering
the Babylonian Captivity and the Great Schism. According to this site, what
major trend in the fourteenth century undermined the foundations of western
European civilization? What were the specific consequences of this development?
Paralleling, and in some ways fostered by, the rise of the Church was the recovery
of commerce, urban life, and intellectual culture.
- To see the extent of trade by high-point of the Middle Ages, examine Map 4, which depicts
trade routes in northern Europe. What peoples were involved? What goods were
they trading? (Review pages 384-389 in McKay, A History of World Societies
[Sixth Edition].) How does this map reflect the impact of the Vikings in earlier
centuries? Longer–distance trade meant that Europeans had more contact with
other civilizations. For example, go to Map 5, which
shows trade routes in the Mongol Empire. How did this benefit European merchants?
How did Latin Christendom benefit from this trade? For clues, go to Silk Road Chronology.
Look for examples of the spread of new technologies from Asia into western
Europe. How would these technologies change western Europe in the future?
(Don't be afraid to speculate.)
- Cities emerged as hubs of commerce. Cities had different social and political
arrangements than the old feudal and manorial order. Go to Medieval Sourcebook:
Leges Edwardis Confessoris: The Liberties of London, c. 1120 and Medieval Sourcebook:
William Clito, Count of Flanders: Charter for Town of St. Omer, 1127.
According to these sites, what obligations did citizens of towns have to feudal
lords and kings? What led to this change?
- The growth of cities and commerce brought western Europe into contact with
the wider world. One outgrowth of this trend was the spread of new technologies
into western Europe. Go to Medieval Technology
Timeline. Click on the years 1000–1200. As you study the technological
developments in western Europe between 1000 and 1200, keep a list of those
you can identify as having originated elsewhere. For example, paper was first
developed in China and did not appear in western Europe until the central
Middle Ages. What role do you think commerce played in the technological development
of western Europe during this time?
- One of the greatest symbols of medieval creativity is the development of
intellectual life in the university. Read more about medieval universities
and the medieval
university curriculum. Be sure to click on the links under The Trivium
and The Quadrivium and read about each of the subjects. Why and when did medieval
universities emerge? How similar are they to universities today? How different
are they? What was the role of the church in medieval intellectual life? What
intellectual traditions did these universities draw on? How original was the
scholarship they produced? In other words, did new schools of thought emerge?
(For further insight here, see Medieval mathematics.)
Who went to the universities? What did they do with their education? How did
universities affect the lives of ordinary Europeans?
- A more aggressive symbol of European resurgence was the Crusades between
Latin Christendom and the Islamic world (umma) between 1096 and 1204.
A complex set of circumstances led to this development. One factor was greater
stability and unity in western Europe. Another was more division in the Islamic
world. Read A History of Medieval
Islam: The Turkish Irruption. What developments in Islamic civilization
led to the Crusaders' success in creating several kingdoms in the Levant?
For a map of the Crusader kingdoms, see Map 13.2 on page 375 in McKay, A
History of World Societies (Sixth Edition).
- The Crusades were a turning point in the history of western Europe, the
Islamic world, Byzantium, and world history. To place the Crusades in the
proper context, read The Crusades.
Pay particular attention to the concluding section, "Effects of the Crusades."
According to this author, how did the Crusades alter western European, Byzantine,
and world history?
- In addition to its other effects, the Crusades shaped the development of
European art. examine the following objects of Crusade-era art: Saint
Louis window, enamel
of Jean d'Alluye, and water
vessel. What do these objects tell you about how the crusaders saw themselves
and wished others to see them? What do they tell you about how the crusaders'
contact with the east helped shape the art and culture of Europe?
During the Later Middle Ages plague, famine, and war rocked the civilization of
- Plague took the form of the Black Death. To understand this plague and
its role in history, it is essential to understand its global scope in the
fourteenth century. Go to The Pestilence Tyme Home
Page and read Chapters 1 and 2. Also examine Map 6.
Where did the plague begin? How did it spread? What impact did it have on
other areas of the world? (Note that he uses a different
calendar; the Western dates are in parentheses.) According to Khaldun, was
the plague as disruptive to society in the Middle East as it was in western
Europe? Now consider the effects of the plague. Read In the Wake of
the Black Death: how did changes in population, prices, wages, and rents
affect the social and economic structure? Who might have benefited from these
changes in the long run? Who might have suffered?
- Overlapping with the Black Death in Western Europe was the Hundred Years'
War. For a brief overview of this conflict, go to THE
HUNDRED YEARS' WAR. Who were the winners and losers in this conflict?
According to this site, what were the major effects of this long conflict?
What impact did technology have on the outcome of this struggle? (For example,
go to Gunpowder Weapons
of the Late Fifteenth Century.) How did this new military technology transform
traditional political institutions in western Europe?
Architecture played a vital, visible role in strengthening the shared culture
of the Middle Ages. Wherever anyone went in Latin Christendom, one could easily
find the church or cathedral, buildings that employed a common, familiar symbolism
in their layout, sculptural programs, and other decorations.
- To learn more about how the Church used art and architecture to promote
a common culture, see IMAGES OF MEDIEVAL ART AND ARCHITECTURE.
What do these images reveal about a shared culture in Western Europe? How
did the church foster it?
- Medieval architecture reached its highest development in the Gothic. Go
to a The
End of Europe's Middle Ages: Visual Arts; read this essay and study the
images. What is the difference between Romanesque and Gothic architecture?
How does the development of Gothic architecture symbolize the role of the
church in western Europe during the central Middle Ages? What role did Gothic
cathedrals play in the lives of ordinary Europeans? What led to the end of
the construction of Gothic cathedrals?