Middle Ages

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Middle Ages

Middle Ages, period in Western European history that followed the disintegration of the West Roman Empire in the 4th and 5th cent. and lasted into the 15th cent., i.e., into the period of the Renaissance. The ideas and institutions of western civilization derive largely from the turbulent events of the Early Middle Ages and the rebirth of culture in the later years. The importance of the Middle Ages has been increasingly recognized as scholarship based on newly published source material, archaeological findings, and studies of demographics and migration patterns presents more accurate and detailed analyses of events and trends.

Beginnings and Cultural Developments

Although the transitions were gradual, and exact dates for the demarcation of the Middle Ages are misleading, convention often places the beginning of the period between the death of the Roman emperor Theodosius I in 395 and the fall of Rome to the Visigoths in 410. The Dark Ages, formerly a designation for the entire period of the Middle Ages, and later for the period c.450–750, is now usually known as the Early Middle Ages. The term Dark Ages may be more a judgment on the lack of sources for evaluating the period than on the significance of events that transpired.

Medieval Europe was far from unified; it was a large geographical region divided into smaller and culturally diverse political units that were never totally dominated by any one authority. With the collapse of the Roman Empire, Christianity became the standard-bearer of Western civilization. The papacy gradually gained secular authority; monastic communities, generally adhering to the Rule of St. Benedict, had the effect of preserving antique learning; and missionaries, sent to convert the Germans and other tribes, spread Latin civilization.

By the 8th cent. culture centered on Christianity had been established; it incorporated both Latin traditions and German institutions, such as Germanic laws. The far-flung empire created by Charlemagne illustrated this fusion. However, the empire's fragile central authority was shattered by a new wave of invasions, notably those of the Vikings and Magyars.

Feudalism, with the manorial system (see also tenure) as its agricultural base, became the typical social and political organization of Europe. The new framework gained stability from the 11th cent., as the invaders became Christian and settled and as prosperity was created by agricultural innovations, increasing productivity, and population expansion.

The High Middle Ages

As Europe entered the period known as the High Middle Ages, the church became the universal and unifying institution. While some independence from feudal rule was gained by the rising towns (see commune, in medieval history), their system of guilds perpetuated the Christian and medieval spirit of economic life, which stressed the collective entity, disapproved of unregulated competition, and minimized the profit motive. Strong popes, notably Gregory VII, worked for a reinvigorated Europe guided by a centralized church, a goal virtually realized under Innocent III.

Militant religious zeal was expressed in the Crusades, which also stemmed from the growing strength of Europe. Security and prosperity stimulated intellectual life, newly centered in burgeoning universities (see colleges and universities), which developed under the auspices of the church. From the Crusades and other sources came contact with Arab culture, which had preserved works of Greek authors whose writings had not survived in Europe. Philosophy, science, and mathematics from the Classical and Hellenistic periods were assimilated into the tenets of the Christian faith and the prevailing philosophy of scholasticism; Aristotle, long associated with heresy, was adapted by St. Thomas Aquinas to Christian doctrine.

Christian values pervaded scholarship and literature, especially Medieval Latin literature, but Provençal literature also reflected Arab influence, and other flourishing medieval literatures, including German literature, Old Norse literature, and Middle English literature, incorporated the materials of pre-Christian traditions. The complex currents, vitality, and religious fervor of medieval culture are evident in the classics of Dante and Chaucer. Gothic architecture developed most notably in the 12th cent., against a background of the cultural and economic ascendancy of Western Europe.

Transition to the Modern World

The transition from the medieval to the modern world was foreshadowed by economic expansion, political centralization, and secularization. A money economy weakened serfdom, and an inquiring spirit stimulated the age of exploration. Banking, the bourgeois class, and secular ideals flourished in the growing towns and lent support to the expanding monarchies. The church was weakened by internal conflicts as well as by quarrels between church and state. As feudal strength was sapped, notably by the the Hundred Years War and the Wars of the Roses, there emerged in France and England the modern nation state. A forerunner of intellectual modernity was the new humanism of the Renaissance. Finally, the great medieval unity of Christianity was shattered by the religious theories that culminated in the Protestant Reformation.


There is a vast body of scholarship dealing with the Middle Ages. A general bibliography to provide a helpful introduction to aspects of the period should include works by Henry Adams, Marc Bloch, P. Brown, J. B. Bury, N. F. Cantor, G. Duby, F. L. Ganshof, P. J. Geary, H. Grundmann, C. H. Haskins, Johan Huizinga, E. James, F. Lot, S. Painter, Henri Pirenne, E. Power, F. M. Powicke, R. W. Southern, F. M. Stenton, J. R. Strayer, G. Tellenbach, and Lynn Thorndike. See also bibliographies under such related articles as countries, e.g., France, Germany, and peoples, e.g., Anglo-Saxons, Moors.

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Middle Ages


the accepted historical name of the period following ancient history and preceding modern history. The concept of Middle Ages (Latin medium aevum, literally “the middle era”) first appeared in the 15th and 16th centuries in the writings of Italian humanist historians, such as F. Biondo, and came into general use in the 18th century.

Marxist historians see the Middle Ages as the period of the birth, growth, and decay of feudalism. The fall of the slaveholding Roman Empire (conventionally dated to the year 476) is considered the divide between ancient history and the Middle Ages, and the English bourgeois revolution of the 17th century, the beginning of modern history. The term “Middle Ages,” originally coined in relation to the history of Western Europe, is also used in relation to other areas of the world, although in such areas the medieval era and the period of feudalism do not always coincide. The discipline devoted to the history of the Middle Ages is known as medieval studies.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Middle Ages


The Bible gives dreams a mixed review. While the biblical God sometimes communicates through dreams, they are clearly a less exalted mode of communication, because individuals particularly close to God receive His messages while they are awake. Furthermore, only pagans receive symbolic dreams, which require interpretation. This mixed heritage is reflected at various stages in Christianity’s development.

Of particular importance for the Middle Ages were mistranslations by Saint Jerome of certain key biblical passages warning against witchcraft and augury, which he confused with dreams. These explicit warnings, in combination with the admonitions of writers like Macrobius, who warned about the possibility of demons in one’s sleep, served to effectively condemn dreams as little more than stages for Satan’s minions to tempt the souls of the faithful.

The medieval attitude is expressed in, for example, a sixteenth-century work De magia, by Benedict Peterius, a Jesuit priest: “The devil is most always implicated in dreams, filling the minds of men with poisonous Superstition and not only uselessly deluding but perniciously deceiving them” (Van de Castle, p. 83—see Sources). Nowhere is this suspicion of dreams more clearly demonstrated than in the notion of incubi and succubi, demons who took the form of men and women to seduce mortals in their sleep. These creatures were particularly useful for explaining sexual dreams in a society where any form of illicit sex was viewed as demonic. One can imagine the dismay of celibate clergy, monks, and nuns who awakened with vivid memories of erotic dreams. By attributing such dream images to evil spirits who seduced them in their sleep, they could absolve themselves of responsibility for such dreams.

The Dream Encyclopedia, Second Edition © 2009 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.

Middle Ages

the European history
1. (broadly) the period from the end of classical antiquity (or the deposition of the last W Roman emperor in 476 ad) to the Italian Renaissance (or the fall of Constantinople in 1453)
2. (narrowly) the period from about 1000 ad to the 15th century
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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Critique: An impressive work of original scholarship, "Imagination, Meditation, and Cognition in the Middle Ages" is enhanced for academia with the inclusion of a twenty-two page Bibliography and a five page Index.
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Still, as the body of his book makes clear, at no time or place in the Middle Ages, did Jewish men ever imagine that women were their equals.
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The assumption here is that the real Middle Ages were all those things.
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PRAISE TO THE MERCHANT BECAUSE HE travels to remote lands to bring us pepper, cloves and galangal, proclaims an anonymous French poem from the Middle Ages. In medieval Europe, spices were coveted goods and as a result, commanded a high premium on the market.
On page 32 he even converts John Paul II's appeal to Orthodoxy's allegiance to that period into an implicit rejection of the Catholicism of the Middle Ages: "For John Paul II ...