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Describe the major economic, social, and political developments that took place in medieval Europe.

Painting of the Middle Ages
Painting of the Middle Ages

Topics on the Page:

A. the growing influence of Christianity and the Catholic Church
B. the differing orders of medieval society, the development of feudalism, and the development of private property as a distinguishing feature of western civilization
C. the initial emergence of a modern economy, including the growth of banking, technological and agricultural improvements, commerce, towns, and a merchant class
D. the economic and social effects of the spread of the Black Death or Bubonic Plague
E. the growth and development of the English and French nations
  • Women in the Middle Ages
    • Joan of Arc
  • Homosexuality in Medieval Europe
    • Same-sex Unions

book.pngInfluential Literature Pages

Timeline Summary

The Middle Ages are a period in European history between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Modern Age, roughly 500 - 1350 AD.

  • During this long stretch of time, Western Europe passed through two distinct phases: the early Middle Ages, or Dark Ages, lasting from about 500 to 1050, and the late Middle Ages, lasting from about 1050 to 1350.

  • When the Roman empire fell, the Christian Church took over much of its role, becoming the central institution of Western civilization for nearly 1,000 years.

  • Feudal society developed with knights, Kings, and Queens, and there was much warfare and death, including the Black Plague from 1346 - 1353 which killed an estimated 75 to 200 million people.

Source: p.178. World History textbook, Pearson Education. Elisabeth Ellis and Anthony Esler. Boston, MA; 2016.

Focus Question A: How did the growing influence of Christianity and the Catholic Church affect medieval society?

external image Francisco_de_Goya_-_Saint_Gregory_the_Great%2C_Pope_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
The Image to the right is Saint Gregory the Great, Pope. Painting by Francisco de Goya (1796/1799)
  • Catholicism was the only Christian religion in Western Europe during the Middle Ages.
    • In Eastern Europe, which included present-day Russia, the Balkans, Turkey, and the Holy Lands, the dominant religion was Eastern Orthodoxy (or Greek Orthodoxy).
  • Whereas Eastern Orthodoxy was securely managed by the secular power of the Byzantium Emperor in a process known as Caesaropapism, the Catholic Church was under the administration of no singular, secular authority.
    • Thus, the Catholic Church dominated much of the political, social, and economic aspects of everyday life throughout Western Europe as the Church attempted to wrestle power from secular authorities.
      • The Catholic Church's influence waxed and waned throughout the thousand-year period known as the Middle Ages. At times bishops were more powerful than members of the royal family and even commonly served on Kings courts.

  • The Catholic Church maintained a hierarchical political system that mimicked secular powers.
    • The Pope acts as the infallible spiritual head of the church as well as its secular regent.
      • Beneath the Pope are Cardinals, beneath whom are Archbishops.
        • Beneath Archbishops are Bishops, and beneath those are priests.
          • Priests who presided over small areas had significant power over the peasants in the town; they required that each family tithed ten percent of their crops to the Church no matter how destitute the giver.

  • Bishops were often able to exert power over secular authorities.
    • The baptism of Clovis I by Saint Remigius of Reims in 496 ensured the conversion of the Franks to Catholicism, setting a precedent of secular leaders seeking legitimacy through recognition by the church.
    • The crowning of Charlemagne by Pope Leo III in further legitimized the power of the pope to grant imperial authority.

  • The Catholic Church maintained a hegemony on religious and mystic philosophy.
    • At any given time there was a certain prescribed thought or philosophy endorsed by the Catholic Church, called an orthodox philosophy.
  • The Catholic Church accumulated a great deal of wealth throughout the Middle Ages due to several factors:
    • First, the Catholic Church's 10% tithe ensured that money would ultimately circulate to the church's hierarchy.
    • Second, the Church maintained dozens of shrines devoted to saints and other canonized figures.
      • These shrines attracted pilgrims, and thus attracted merchants and papal collectors in an effort to capitalize off of this "shrine tourism."
    • Third, the Catholic Church was situated along trade routes that ran through Western Europe to the wealthier Middle East.
    • Fourth, the Church also sold indulgences, a controversial practice that claimed that by making a donation to the church, a Catholic could reduce his time in purgatory and help atone for some of his sins.

Female_Rose.pngIn the high middle ages, women became more active in the church as nuns.
  • Women who were aristocratic and did not wish to marry and women who's families did not find them husbands usually ended up in the church.

For more information, see Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe from the Cleveland Museum, the British Museum, and the Walters Art Museum.

Focus Question B: What were the differing social orders of medieval society?

Organization of feudal society in three groups
Organization of feudal society in three groups
  • Click here for more on the framework in the above diagram .
    • Laboratores (those who work); Oratores (those who pray); Bellatores (those who fight).

  • Feudal societies were founded because most kings were not wealthy enough to provide a standing army for their country. The barons, therefore, became providers of soldiers for the towns people in their district.

    • Bishops were oftentimes as powerful or more powerful than the barons. They received the majority of their wealth from collecting tithes from members of the Church.
      • Lords served under the barons and were actually trained knights who overlooked large estates and had several families of peasants working underneath him.
        • The peasants who worked for the lord were the least powerful of the people in the feudal society and were responsible for farming on the lord's manor. Peasants provided food for all people living on the estate and in return for their work were allowed to use the land to harvest small amounts of agriculture for their own personal use.

B: How did feudalism develop and what is the concept of private property?

See World History I.25 for information about feudalism in Japanrotating gif.gif

Medieval plowing with oxen (from a 14th century manuscript)
Medieval plowing with oxen (from a 14th century manuscript)

  • Feudalism began on a small scale. Poor farmers worked underneath larger landowners in order to ensure their own personal safety.
    • Later, kings began to rely on the feudal system in order to sustain their countries.
      • It became increasingly difficult physically and economically for the kings to control their lands, so they began outsourcing various portions of their land to barons and lords to control.
        • The barons and lords had military responsibilities to the king and had to be available to enter into a war at any particular moment.
        • Feudalism depended on a farming society and declined when trade and the use of money became the norm.

Many contemporary historians now reject the term feudalism in favor of manoralism. For more on this view, see the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.

See also European Agrarian Society: Manoralism.

Peasant Revolts

Due to the unfair and harsh conditions in these societies, there were severable notable Peasant Revolts through out the Middle Ages:

Peasant Revolts in Early Modern Europe from Mapping History Project, University of Oregon

See : The Peasants Revolt Documentary

Focus Question C: How did a modern economy emerge, with the growth of banking, technological and agricultural improvements, commerce, towns, and a merchant class?

Growth of banking

The image to the right shows Sigismund's half guldiners and full guldiners of 1846 that are regarded as the bridge between medieval and modern coinage.
external image Half_Guldiner_Sigismund_1484_691929.jpg

  • Banks that resemble the institutions we use today were initially founded in Italy in the thirteenth century.
    • The Catholic Church (which was a major influence on the economic and social structure of the day) was strongly opposed to the idea of banking because it disagreed with the idea that banks could gain interest on loans, also known as usury. People began to utilize banks nonetheless, especially after the Bubonic Plague, which resulted in a decrease of general faith in the Church.
  • After banks arrived in Europe, currency became centralized and stabilized and loans and credit checks were established in a manner quite similar to today's methods.
    • A short page explaining the monetary system of medieval England can be viewed here.

Screen Shot 2017-11-10 at 2.39.52 PM.pngTechnological/agricultural improvements

external image 800px-Medieval_horse_team.jpg

Technology spurred much change for Europeans in the Middle Ages.
    • The plow's design was improved upon, resulting in increased agricultural success.
    • The horse harness and the Whippletree also greatly increased productivity for medieval farmers.
    • Although clocks were invented in China in the eighth century AD, Europeans (particularly Italians) began installing more modern versions of the clock in town centers to improve time accuracy for people of all economic classes.
    • Textile production and architecture also saw massive improvements during this revolutionary time.
    • Some great examples of medieval Gothic architecture can be found here.


external image Rondel_dagger_merchants.jpg
  • The emergence of towns in medieval Europe were directly related to the changes that the region was going through at the time. Lords began attempting to make their lands more desirable places to live and formed towns in order to attract wealthy merchants who would be able to pay higher taxes.
  • As the taxes rose, illiterate peasants banded together to ensure that they wouldn't be cheated out of their money due to their lack of education.
  • Charters were then established in order to reduce corruption and provide some legal assistance for the peasants.

See also: The 10 Best Preserved Medieval Cities in Europe

Commerce and the merchant class

Medieval Merchant's House
Medieval Merchant's House

  • The arrival of the merchant class in European medieval society disrupted the previous social structure that dominated the region. Prior to the increase in commerce and the importance of trade, Europe had been run as a feudal society.
  • When merchants began accumulating wealth through trade, they were looked at with disdain by the nobility, knights, and clergy that had previously held the majority of the wealth in society.
  • Merchants eventually gained some respect from those groups but were always looked at with contempt for their pursuit of monetary wealth.
  • Merchants became the first class of people besides the clergy to receive an education in order to become experts at handling and recording money, charting maps, and writing detailed accounts of their journeys.

The Triumph of Death, Peter Brueghel the Elder (1562)
The Triumph of Death, Peter Brueghel the Elder (1562)

Focus Question D: What were the economic and social effects of the spread of the Black Death or Bubonic Plague?

Event Summary

The Black Death from J. P. Sommerville, Department of History, University of Wisconsin

See also

Dramatic event page for The 1918 Influenza Pandemic

  • The aftermath of the Black Death left Europe's economy and social structure in an uproar.
  • The plague made its first appearance in Europe in the fourteenth century, but did not disappear until the 1600s.
    • Within the first five years of the outbreak, 25 million people (1/3 of Europe's population) died. By 1352, the death toll was at a hefty 50 million people.
      • Families turned against each other and abandoned their own children in a vain attempt to avoid becoming ill themselves.
  • Europe was left with a severe labor shortage leading to demands for higher pay for peasants from their landlords. When these demands were refused, peasant revolts, such as the English Peasant Revolt, broke out across the region.
  • Faith in the previously all-powerful Catholic Church also dwindled as followers wondered why priests had failed to cure their loved ones from the disease as they had advertised.
    • War, famine, poverty, and disease continued to riddle the majority of Europe (most notably England, Scotland, France, and Italy) for well over a century causing civilians to lose faith in the infrastructure that had governed their lives for centuries.
external image Bubonic_plague-en.svg
timeline2_rus.svg.pngA timeline of the plague's spread can be found here.

For more information, see The Black Plague: The Least You Need to Know

In the article, "Black Death: The Disease", Dr. Mike Ibeji examines the various origins, variations, and protections against the Black Death.

Dr. Tom James analyzes the lasting impact of the Black Death. The effects were devastating and reached into all spheres of life including agriculture, religion, economics, and social class.

Those who survived the death and destruction of the Black Death created a new society with more social mobility and higher wages.


Plague of Florence, 1348 from Boccaccio's Decameron
Plague of Florence, 1348 from Boccaccio's Decameron


external image Red_Apple.jpgCoping with Catastrophe: The Black Death of the Fourteenth Century. National Center for History in the Schools

Focus Question E: How did the English and French nations grow and develop?

King John of England signing the Magna Carta
King John of England signing the Magna Carta

  • England went through a period of great instability throughout the Middle Ages. While some rulers were able to maintain their power effectively, the majority of kings were no match against the feudal system that governed the region. It seemed that just as one king successfully gained power for the monarchy, his successor failed miserably.
  • The Battle of Hastings in 1066 led to William's takeover of what we know now as modern day Great Britain and much of modern-day France. King William surveyed the land and used his findings to make a population count and was then able to collect taxes more accurately.
  • The Bayeux Tapestry is a 70 meter long tapestry telling the story of the Battle of Hastings through pictures. You can see it for yourself here!
  • Our use of the modern-day English language can be attributed to this Norman takeover of Great Britain.
  • The country continued to stabilize for about a century until the reign of King Stephen, under which the feudal system became the most powerful form of government.
  • In 1153, King Henry II became ruler of Britain and attempted to move the country away from feudalism and incorporate some sort of legislation. His attempts at further stabilization were rather futile since several of his successors were extremely unsuccessful at ending feudalism and removing England from wars.
  • King John suffered many losses during the Crusades, including much of England's French territory, such as Normandy. Due to his failures in the Crusades, the Catholic Church pressured the king to sign the Magna Carta in 1215 which limited his powers as a ruler.
  • After another half-century of instability, King Edward reigned from 1272-1307 and restrengthened the English government by gaining more power back for himself and also by creating the English Parliament.
  • The Bubonic Plague initially broke out in 1349, causing millions of European deaths. It also created further economic instability in both France and England as well as most of Europe. The progress these economic powers had made was largely halted by the Black Death and took time to regain.
  • The Hundred Years' War began in 1337 when the line of Capet Kings in France ended without producing a male heir. Therefore, a French noble was selected as Philip VI instead of the English King Edward III, whose mother was the daughter of Philip IV. The succession debate just added onto the already existing dispute regarding lands in France to which English kings had claim. The war ended in 1453, but did not end with any form of peace signing. The fighting had simply stopped but the tension still existed.
  • VII and his son, Louis XI, were able to create more legal stability in France following the Hundred Years' War. They did this through the creation of law courts known as parliaments. This, along with the creation of a standing army, were very important in restoring order to a France that hoped to strengthen itself and pick up the pieces from a long and costly war with England.
  • In 1422, King Henry VI's inability to rule effectively led to the Wars of the Roses , in which several civil wars broke out throughout the region. These were mainly between feuding lords and caused further breakdown of the British monarchy.

Click here to learn more on the making of modern Britain.

Click here to gain more information on the beginnings of the French Nation.

book.pngInfluential Literature Pages
Multimedia.pngWhat Was It Really Like to Live in the Middle Ages?from Annenberg Media Learner.org. When many people think of the Middle Ages, they think of knights, castles, and kings. But life in the Middle Ages was harsh, uncertain, and often times dangerous.

Multimedia.png Two Crash-Course, World History videos provide a good background in the beginnings of the Religious and Secular elements of the Dark Ages:

For key terms, see The Ultimate Medieval Glossary.

The Middle Ages Era website traces the history and provides facts and information about life and times during the Middle Ages Era.

Screen Shot 2016-11-17 at 4.24.09 PM.pngThe Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval Europe: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century. Ian Mortimer, 2011

primary_sources.PNGFulbert of Chartres, On Feudal Obligations of Vassals and Lords, 1020

Learning Centers start to pop up over most of Europe. Their main concern was to educate about Christianity.
"The focus of activity was first and foremost on the preservation of Christian learning; namely, the study of the scriptures, theology, and canon law." For more on the learning centers check out this link.

Female_Rose.pngWomen of The Medieval Ages

  • Women of the Medieval ages were largely confined to household tasks such as cooking, baking bread, sewing, weaving, and spinning. However, they also hunted for food and fought in battles, learning to use weapons to defend their homes and castles.
    • Some medieval women held other occupations. There were women blacksmiths, merchants, and apothecaries, midwives. Others worked in the fields, or were engaged in creative endeavors such as writing, playing musical instruments, dancing, and painting.
      • Some women were known as witches, capable of sorcery and healing. Others became nuns and devoted their lives to God and spiritual matters. Famous women of the middle ages include the writes Christine de Pisan, the abbess and musician Hildegard of Bingen the patron of the arts Elanor of Aquitaine, and a french peasant's daughter, Joan of Arc, or St. Joan

Female_Rose.png13 Notable Women of Medieval Europe

Click here as well to read the names of many more important women during the medieval times in Europe, as well as a brief description of who they were. While Joan of Arc is included here, its very clear that there are many more important women during this time period than are truly known.

  • Marie de France was a famous French poetess of the 12th century. Her poems of courtly chivalry, called lais, can be found here.

primary_sources.PNG Click here for excellent primary sources of women living in medieval Europe.
external image Joan_of_Arc_miniature_graded.jpg

Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc, had only two years in the public eye, but is perhaps the best-known woman of the Middle Ages.
Joan of Arc video biography

  • Joan of Arc heard voices telling her to protect France against the English invasion. She dressed in armor and led her troops to victory in the early fifteenth century.
    • "The Maid of Orleans" as she was known, was captured and burned at the stake at 19 years of age. Joan of Arc would eventually go on to be canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic church.
Screen Shot 2017-02-24 at 12.30.24 PM.pngFor a lesson plan on Joan of Arc, see Witnesses to Joan of Arc and the Hundred Years' War

external image Passion_of_Joan_of_Arc_movie_poster.jpg
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Link to clip from the movie from TCM

A Restored Passion of Joan of Arc Still a Transcendent Masterpiece, New York Times (November 22, 2017)

primary_sources.PNGBeowulf in Hypertext provides Old English and Modern English versions of the famous poem, with notes for readers. Here's a recitation of the poem's opening lines in Old English.

external image Gay_flag.svgHomosexuality in Medieval Europe

Beliefs; A Study of Medieval Rituals in Same-Sex Unions Raises a Question: What were they solemnizing? New York Times, June 11, 1994

When a Medieval Knight Could Marry Another Medieval Knight

Gay Marriage Sanctioned by Christian Church in the Middle Ages, Claimed Late Historian

Works Cited and Further Reading Bibliography:

"France, England, and Scandinavia" Western Civilization: The Continuing Experiment; Volume B 1300-1850 Noble Strauss et. al. Houghton Mifflin Company; Boston, 2005.

"England, France and the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453)" Western Civilization: The Continuing Experiment; Volume B 1300-1850 Noble Strauss et. al. Houghton Mifflin Company; Boston, 2005.

Religion. Retrieved February 15, 2007, from The Middle Ages Web site: http://www.learner.org/exhibits/middleages/religion.html.

Indulgences. Retrieved February 15, 2007, from Middle Ages Web site: http://demo.lutherproductions.com/historytutor/basic/medieval/genknow/indulgences.htm.

Purgatory. Retrieved February 15, 2007, from Middle Ages Web site: http://demo.lutherproductions.com/historytutor/basic/medieval/genknow/purgatory.htm.

Medieval Life: Feudalism. Retrieved February 15, 2007, from History on the Net Web site: http://www.historyonthenet.com/Medieval_Life/feudalism.htm.

Banking in the Middle Ages. Retrieved February 15, 2007, from End of Europe's Middle Ages Web site: http://www.ucalgary.ca/applied_history/tutor/endmiddle/bluedot/banking.html.

Technology in the Middle Ages. Retrieved February 15, 2007, from History of Technology Web site: http://www.engr.sjsu.edu/pabacker/history/middle.htm.

Whippletree. Retrieved February 15, 2007, from Medieval Technology Press Web site: http://scholar.chem.nyu.edu/tekpages/whippletree.html.

Medieval Life: Towns and Villages. Retrieved February 15, 2007, from History on the Net Web site: http://www.historyonthenet.com/Medieval_Life/towns.htm.

Saint Pope Leo III. Retrieved February 8, 2016, from Encyclopedia Britannica Web site: http://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Leo-III

Saint Remigius of Reims. Retrieved February 7, 2016, from Encyclopedia Britannica Web site: http://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Remigius-of-Reims

Schooling. Retrieved February 15, 2007, from Decameron Web Web site: http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Italian_Studies/dweb/society/institutions/schooling.shtml.

The Black Death, 1348. Retrieved February 15, 2007, from Eyewitness to History Web site: http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/plague.htm.

The Black Death: Bubonic Plague. Retrieved February 15, 2007, from The Middle Ages Web site: http://www.themiddleages.net/plague.html.

1000 Years Ago. Retrieved February 15, 2007, from History of England Web site: http://www.historyofengland.net/content/view/31/0/.

Magna Carta. Retrieved February 15, 2007, from Brittania History Web site: http://www.britannia.com/history/docs/magna2.html

Exhinits Collectio--The Middle Ages. Retrieved 9 February 2011, from http://www.learner.org/interactives/middleages/.

Internect Women's History Sourcebook. Retrieved 9 February 2011, from Medieval Sourcebook's website: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/women/womensbook.html.

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales Lesson Plan. Retrieved 9 February 2011, from Edsitement's website: http://edsitement.neh.gov/lesson-plan/chaucers-wife-bath#sect-objectives.

Digital Dante Project. Retrieved 9 February 2011, from the Digital Dante Project's website: http://dante.ilt.columbia.edu/new/.

The World of Dante. Retrieved 9 February 2011, from the World of Dante's website: http://www.worldofdante.org/.

Life in the Middle Ages. Retrieved 10 February 2011, from the Middle Ages Sitemap's website: http://www.middle-ages.org.uk/middle-ages-sitemap.htm.

Black Death: The Disease. Retrieved 10 February 2011, from BBC's website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/middle_ages/blackdisease_01.shtml.

Black Death: The Effect of the Plague. Retrieved 10 February 2011, from BBC's website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/middle_ages/plague_countryside_01.shtml.

Black Death: The Lasting Impact. Retrieved 10 February 2011, from BBC's website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/middle_ages/black_impact_01.shtml.

Black Death: Political and Social Changes. Retrieved 10 February 2011, from BBC's website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/middle_ages/blacksocial_01.shtml.

Paston Family Letters. Retrieved 10 February 2011, from BBC's website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/middle_ages/pastonletters_01.shtml.

The Middle Ages: The Making of Modern Britain. Retrieved 10 February 2011, from History World's website: http://history-world.org/midbritain.htm.

The Middle Ages: The Beginnings of the Frenach Nation. Retrieved 10 February 2011, from History World's website: http://history-world.org/midfrench_nation.htm.

New images from wikimedia commons.