The High Middle Ages: A Period of Great Growth in Europe

Despite what is routinely shown in modern media, the Medieval period was not as dark and backward as portrayed. While it is true that the Dark Ages were a time of cultural, economic, and scientific stagnation relative to Late Antiquity and the Roman Empire, the High Middle Ages were a time of resurgence and renewal within Europe. The years between 1000 CE and 1300 CE were anything but dark.

Establishment of Feudalism

Painting of a medieval feudal township
Most peasants at this time would live their entire lives within only a few miles of where they were born.

The system of governance that the High Middle Ages is best remembered for is Feudalism. This model existed for centuries prior to this time period but it was not nearly as effective or refined. Almost all of Western Europe utilized Feudalism in one way or another. This system granted a king supreme authority over a kingdom or nation. Beneath the king would be the clergy and aristocracy who were all granted portions of land to rule over.

Peasants farmed and worked the land and their lord expected them to pay taxes in exchange for tenant housing and basic needs. These taxes were usually paid in the form of goods rather than money. Wheat, barley, and bread were some of the items handed over to their master. The lower classes were also levied into their lord's army in times of war. The Feudal system was classist and rigid. Those born into a common family would most likely live and die without any significant economic or societal advancement.

Growth of Cities

Panoramic city view with Belfry tower and famous canal in Bruges, Belgium
A photo of Bruges, Belgium. One of the best-preserved Medieval cities in the world.

Since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE, many of the large cities in Europe experienced a significant population decline. Many people fled to the countryside in search of refuge and work. While the society of the High Middle Ages was certainly dominated by an agricultural lifestyle, the once desolate and empty cities began to grow. As governments became more centralized and consolidated power in their nations, small-scale wars and raids were much less common. This relative stability gave some the opportunity to move to places such as London, Paris, or Cologne to work a trade.

A notable class of skilled craftsmen and merchants formed at this time. By no means rich, they often lived lives that were slightly more comfortable and profitable than their rural brothers and sisters in the countryside. As cities grew and expanded their industries trade became easier and more frequent. Cities that were in key geographical locations soon found themselves at the crossroads of lucrative international trade routes.

Crusades

Depicts Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.
An illustration of a priest on horseback riding into battle alongside the Crusading armies.

Beginning in 1095 AD Pope Urban II called upon all Christian nations to take up arms and join a holy crusade against the Muslim powers that controlled the Holy Land. Many nobles from France, England, and the Holy Roman Empire set out to establish a Christian Kingdom within what today is Isreal, Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon. The First Crusade was a resounding success. Despite the disorganized and chaotic approach of the Crusading armies, they were able to capture both Antioch and Jerusalem from the recently fractured Seljuk Turks.

The Crusades were sold to Medevial Europeans as a way to atone for their sins. "Taking the cross" and embarking on this holy war could absolve even the most wicked and vile person of their wrongdoings according to Papal doctrine. The true motivations of the Crusading armies and Papacy are something that is still debated to this day by historians. Was this a genuine and unified push by Christians to regain lost land from the Arab conquests? Or was this an elaborate political scheme by the Catholic church to redirect the violent nature of Feudal monarchs toward an outside threat?

The Crusader states did not exist for long. Surrounded by hostile Muslim sultanates, the small pockets of Christian authority were slowly pushed out of the region. The Mamluks captured the last Crusader stronghold, Acre, by 1291 AD.

Decline and the Black Death

A masquerade historical scene reconstruction. Plague doctor in medieval old town
Doctors in the years after the Black Death would sometimes wear these bird-like masks in the hopes of not catching the disease they were treating. 

The origins of the Black Death are still not entirely clear. Many historians hypnotize that it came into Europe as the Mongolian conquest moved west from China. During the siege of Caffa in Crimea, a fleet of Genoese merchants fled the city taking this deadly virus with them back to Europe.

The Black Death quickly spread across the continent. The cramped and dirty streets of many European cities were an ideal breeding ground for the virus. The poor hygiene of the average European at the time did not help either. Bathing was a monthly occurrence at best and the basic principles of germ theory were not discovered until the 1860s.

It was largely believed by educated people at the time that the infected person was being infected by their environment. So rather than isolating the infected, they would often move them to large public buildings such as churches in order to improve their surroundings. This, of course, only spread the plague more.

By 1351 AD almost 25 million people had died from the plague. This apocalyptic event changed Europe, and by extension, the world, forever. Not only did this devastate entire nations but it also forced them to reorganize society.

With critical labor shortages, the serfs who managed to survive the pandemic were suddenly much more valuable. The work of the serf had overnight become one of the most important and crucial roles in society. Without their aid in agriculture, their lords would be unable to feed their families and pay taxes to the king. This new and advantageous position that many serfs found themselves in led to better payment and deals with their masters. This newfound wealth granted the lower classes a significantly better lifestyle than before and even allowed the rare few to escape into an early form of a "middle class."

Summary

The destruction caused by the Black Death brought about the abrupt end of the High Middle Ages. The unimaginable loss of human life and the societal shakeup in its aftermath left Europe almost unrecognizable from a few decades before. The economic and cultural growth of the High Middle Ages was not all lost, however. The advancements made in this period laid the ground for the golden ages yet to come. By the early 1400s, the Italian city-states were in the full swing of the Renaissance and paved the way for countless scientific and medical breakthroughs.

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