The Middle Ages was the middle period in a schematic division of European history into three 'ages': Classical civilization, the Middle Ages, and Modern Civilization. It is commonly considered as having lasted from the end of the Western Roman Empire (5th century) until the rise of national monarchies and the beginnings of demographic and economic renewal after the Black Death, European overseas exploration and the cultural revival known as the Renaissance around the 15th century as well as the Protestant Reformation starting 1517.
As the authority of the Roman Empire dwindled in Western Europe, its territories were entered and settled by succeeding waves of "barbarian" peoples, who distrusted and rejected the classical culture of Rome. Prominent among these peoples were the Huns, the Magyars and a large number of Germanic and later Slavic peoples.
Although not totally replacing the settled population of the Roman period, the new peoples greatly altered established society, and with it, its law, religion and patterns of property ownership. The pax romana, with its accompanying benefits of safe conditions for trade and manufacture, and a unified cultural and educational milieu, had already been in decline for some time as the 5th century drew to a close. Now it was largely lost, to be replaced by the rule of local potentates, and the gradual break-down of economic and social linkages and infrastructure.
(Until recently it was common to speak of unilateral "barbarian invasions" bringing about the end of the Roman Empire, but many historians now acknowledge that this presents an incomplete portrait of a complex time of migration. In some important cases, such as that of the Franks entering Gaul, settlement of the newcomers took place over many decades, as groups seeking new economic opportunities crossed in and assumed leadership over the remaining Roman-Gallic society, often without resistance by its members).
Between the 5th and 8th centuries a completely new political and social infrastructure developed across the lands of the former empire, based upon powerful regional noble families, and the newly established kingdoms of the Ostrogoths in Italy, Visigoths in Spain, Franks in France and western Germany, and Saxons in England. Outside these lands lay many peoples beyond the influence of Christianity, and with no vestige of contact with classic Roman culture. Warrior peoples such as the Avars and the Vikings were still capable of causing major disruption to the newly emerging societies of Western Europe. The Christian Church, being the only institution to survive the fall of the western Roman Empire intact, was the sole unifying cultural influence, preserving Latin learning, the art of writing, and a centralised administration.
This period is marked in western Europe by the greatly reduced power of central government. Consequently government authority, and responsibility for military organisation, taxation and law and order, was delegated to provincial and local lords who supported themselves directly from the proceeds of the territories over which they held military, political and judicial power. In this lay the beginnings of the Feudal system. The later Middle Ages would see the regrowth of centralized power as countries became more aware of their own national identities, and strong rulers sought to eliminate competition (and potential threat to their rule) from powerful feudal nobles. One well known version of this consolidation is known as the Albigensian Crusade.
This hierarchy of reciprocal obligations, known as feudalism or the feudal system, binding each man to serve his superior in return for the latter's protection, made for a confusion of territorial sovereignty (since allegiances were subject to change over time, and were sometimes mutally contradictory). The benefit of feudalism however, was its resiliency, and the ability of local arrangements to provide stable government in the absence of a strong royal power in a political order distinguished by its lack of uniformity.
In the east, the Eastern Roman Empire (now commonly called the Byzantine Empire), maintained a form of Christianised Roman rule in the lands of Asia Minor, Greece, southern Italy and the slavic territories bordering Greece. The eastern emperors had maintained a nominal claim to rule over the west, but this was strongly disputed from 800, with the creation of the so-called Holy Roman Empire, under Charlemagne, briefly uniting much of modern day France, western Germany and northern Italy. From now on, Europe was to be bi-polar, with east and west competing for power and influence in the largely un-christianised expanses of northern Europe.
A prime example of the force of this cultural identity was the period loosely identified as the Crusades, during which Popes, kings, and emperors drew on the concept of Christian unity to inspire the population of Europe to unite to defend Christendom from the perceived aggression of Islam. From the 7th century onward, Islam had been gaining ground along Europe's southern and eastern borders. Muslim armies conquered Egypt, the rest of North Africa, Jerusalem, Spain, Sicily, and most of Anatolia (in modern Turkey), although they were finlly turned back in western Europe by Christian armies at the Battle of Tours in southern France. Political unanimity in Europe was less secure than it appeared, however, and the military support for most crusades was drawn from limited regions of Europe. Substantial areas of northern Europe also remained outside Christendom until the twelfth century or later; these areas also became crusading venues.
From roughly the year 1000 onward, greater stability came to the lands of western Europe. With the brief exception of the Mongol incursions, major barbarian invasions had ceased. The advance of Christian kingdoms and miltary orders into previously pagan regions in the Baltic and Finnic northeast, brought the forced assimilation of numerous native peoples to the European entity.
In Spain, a slow reconquest of the captured Muslim-ruled territories began. Trade grew throughout Europe as the dangers of travel were reduced, and steady economic growth resumed. This period saw the formation of the Hanseatic league and other trading and banking institutions that operated across western Europe. The first universities were established in major European cities from 1080 onwards, largely to train the clergy. Literacy began to grow, and there were major advances in art, sculpture, music and architecture. Large cathedrals were built across Europe, first in the romanesque, and later in the more decorative gothic style.
Politically, the later Middle Ages were typified by the decline of feudal power, slowly increasing disorder, and the development of strong, royalty-based nation-states, partly as an outcome of these two trends. Wars between kingdoms, such as the Hundred Years' War between England and France, weakened the Christian nations in their confrontations with Islam. The Black Death or Plague of 1348, and the schism of the Christian church, were disastrous for the old medieval order, laying the groundwork for great changes in the 15th and 16th centuries.
It is extremely difficult to decide when the Middle Ages ended, and in fact scholars assign different starting dates for the Renaissance in different parts of Europe. Most scholars who work in 15th centuryItalian history, for instance, consider themselves Renaissance or Early Modern historians, while anyone working on England in the early 15th century is considered a medievalist. Others choose specific events, such as the Turkish capture of Constantinople or the end of the Anglo-French Hundred Years' War (both 1453), or the fall of Muslim Spain or Columbus's voyage to America (both 1492), or the Protestant Reformation starting 1517 to mark the period's end.
Similar differences are now emerging in connection with the start of the period. Traditionally, the Middle Ages is said to begin when the West Roman Empire formally ceased to exist in 476 CE. However, that date is not important in itself, since the West Roman Empire had been very weak for some time, while Roman culture was to survive at least in Italy for yet a few decades or more. Today, some date the beginning of the Middle Ages to the division and Christanisation of the Roman Empire (4th century) while others, like Henri Pirenne see the period to the rise of Islam (7th century) as "late Classical".
The Middle Ages in the West are often subdivided into an early period (sometimes called the "Dark Ages", at least from the fifth to eighth centuries) of shifting polities, a relatively low level of economic activity and successful incursions by non-Christian peoples (Slavs, Arabs, Scandinavians, Magyars); a middle period (the High Middle Ages) of developed institutions of lordship and vassalage, castle-building and mounted warfare, and reviving urban and commercial life; and a later period of growing royal power, the rise of commercial interests and weakening customary ties of dependence, especially after the 14th-century plague.