Middle Ages

Middle Ages . Also known as Medievo or Medioevo is the historical period of western civilization from the 5th to the 15th century .


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  • 1 Home
  • 2 Early Middle Ages
    • 1 Fragmentation of authority
    • 2 The Church
    • 3 Cultural life
  • 3 The high middle ages
    • 1 The papal power
  • 4 The low middle ages
  • 5 Beginnings of political science
    • 1 The new spirituality
  • 6 The feudal system
  • 7 The vassalage and the fief
  • 8 External links
  • 9 Sources


The beginning is conventionally located in the year 476 with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and its end in 1492 with the Discovery of America , [1] or in 1453 with the fall of the Byzantine Empire , a date that has the advantage of coinciding with the invention of the printing press ( Gutenberg Bible ) and with the end of the Hundred Years War .

However, the above dates are not to be taken as fixed references: there has never been a sudden break in the cultural development of the continent. It seems that the term was first used by the historian Flavius ​​Biondo of Forli, in his Historiarum ab inclinatione romanorun imperii decades, published in 1438 although it was written thirty years earlier.

The term originally implied a paralysis of progress, considering that the Middle Ages was a period of cultural stagnation, located chronologically between the glory of classical antiquity and the Renaissance . Current research, however, tends to recognize this period as one of those that constitute European historical evolution, with its own critical and development processes. It is usually divided the Middle Ages into three periods.

The Middle Ages made a curious combination of diversity and unity. Diversity was the birth of the fledgling nations. The unit, or a certain unit, came from the Christian religion, which was imposed everywhere, this religion recognized the distinction between clergy and laity, so that it can be said that it marked the birth of a secular society. All this means that the Middle Ages was the period when Europe appeared and was built .

Early Middle Ages

No specific event determines the end of antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages: neither the sack of Rome by the Goths led by Alaric I in 410 , nor the overthrow of Romulus Augustulus (last Roman emperor of the West) were events that his contemporaries considered initiators of a new era.

The culmination at the end of the 5th century of a series of long-lasting processes, including the serious economic dislocation and the invasions and settlement of the Germanic peoples in the Roman Empire, changed the face of Europe. For the next 300 years, Western Europe maintained a primitive culture, albeit installed on the complex and elaborate culture of the Roman Empire, which was never completely lost or forgotten.

The Middle Ages are not born, but “done” as a result of a long and slow process that spans five centuries and that causes enormous changes at all levels in a very profound way that will even reverberate to this day. We can consider that this process begins with the crisis of the third century, linked to the reproduction problems inherent in the slave production mode, which needed a continuous imperial expansion that no longer occurred after the fixing of the Roman limes.

Possibly also climatic factors converge for the succession of bad harvests and epidemics; and much more clearly the first Germanic invasions and peasant uprisings (bagaudas), in a period in which many brief and tragic imperial mandates follow one another. From Caracalla Roman citizenship was extended to all free men of the Empire, showing that such a condition, previously so coveted, had ceased to be attractive. The Lower Empire has acquired an increasingly medieval appearance since the beginning of the 4th century.with Diocletian’s reforms: blurring the differences between slaves, increasingly scarce, and settlers, free peasants, but subject to increasing conditions of servitude, who lose the freedom to change their address, always having to work the same land; compulsory inheritance of public offices -before disputed in hard-fought elections- and artisanal trades, submitted to membership -preceding of the unions-, all to avoid tax evasion and depopulation of cities, whose role as a center of consumption and commerce and of articulation of rural areas is becoming less important.

At least, the reforms manage to maintain the Roman institutional building, although not without intensifying ruralization and aristocratization (clear steps towards feudalism), especially in the West, which is disconnected from the East with the partition of the Empire. Another decisive change was the implantation of Christianity as a new official religion by the Edict of Thessalonica of Theodosius I the Great (380) preceded by the Edict of Milan (313) with which Constantine I the Great rewarded the hitherto subversive for their providentialist aid in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (312), along with other presumed more temporary assignments whose fraudulent claim (Constantine’s pseudo-donation) was a constant of the Papal States throughout the Middle Ages, even after the evidence of their refutation by the humanistLorenzo Valla 1440 .

Fragmentation of authority

During this period there was not really a unitary government machinery in the different political entities, although the shaky confederation of tribes allowed the formation of kingdoms. Political and economic development was fundamentally local and regular trade disappeared almost entirely, although the monetary economy never completely ceased to exist. At the culmination of a process begun during the Roman Empire, the peasants began to become linked to the land and to depend on the large landowners for their protection and a rudimentary administration of justice, in what constituted the seed of the seigniorial regime.

The main links between the warrior aristocracy were the ties of kinship, although feudal relations also began to emerge. These links (which related the land with military benefits and other services) have been considered to have their origin in the ancient Roman relationship between patron and client or in the Germanic institution called comitatus (group of fellow warriors). All these relationship systems prevented an effective political consolidation from taking place.


The only European institution with a universal character was the Church , but even within it there had been a fragmentation of authority. All power within the ecclesiastical hierarchy was in the hands of the bishops of each region. The pope had a certain preeminence based on the fact that he was the successor of Saint Peter, the first bishop of Rome , to whom Christ had given the highest ecclesiastical authority. However, the elaborate machinery of ecclesiastical government and the idea of ​​a Church headed by the pope would not develop until after 500 years.

The Church saw itself as a spiritual community of Christian believers, exiled from the kingdom of God, awaiting the day of salvation in a hostile world. The most outstanding members of this community were in the monasteries, scattered throughout Europe and far from the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Within the Church there were trends that aspired to unify rituals, calendar and monastic rules, opposed to disintegration and local development. Alongside these administrative measures, the cultural tradition of the Roman Empire was preserved.

In the 9th century , the coming to power of the Carolingian dynasty marked the beginning of a new European unit based on the Roman legacy, since the political power of the emperor Charles the Great depended on administrative reforms in which he used materials, methods and objectives of the extinct roman world.

Cultural life

Cultural activity during the early Middle Ages consisted mainly of preserving and systematizing knowledge from the past, and the works of classical authors were copied and commented on. Encyclopedic works were written, such as the Etymologies of San Isidoro of Seville , in which its author intended to compile all the knowledge of humanity. At the center of any learned activity was the Bible: all secular learning came to be regarded as mere preparation for understanding the Holy Book.

This first stage of the Middle Ages closed in the 10th century with the second Germanic migrations and invasions led by the Vikings from the north and by the Magyars of the Asian steppes, and the weakness of all the integrating and expanding European forces as they disintegrated the Carolingian Empire . The violence and dislocation that Europe suffered motivated the lands to remain uncultivated, the population to decrease and the monasteries to become the only bastions of civilization.

The high middle ages

Towards the middle of the 11th century, Europe was in a period of evolution unknown until then. The time of the great invasions had come to an end and the European continent was experiencing the dynamic growth of an already settled population. Urban life and large-scale regular commerce were reborn and a society and culture developed that were complex, dynamic and innovative. This period has become the focus of modern research and has been called the twelfth- century revival .

Papal power

During the high Middle Ages the Catholic Church , organized around a structured hierarchy with the pope as the undisputed top, was the most sophisticated institution of government in Western Europe. The Papacy not only exercised direct control over the dominion of the lands of central and northern Italy but also had it over all of Europe thanks to diplomacy and the administration of justice (in this case through the extensive system of ecclesiastical courts). Furthermore, the monastic orders grew and prospered, participating fully in secular life. The ancient Benedictine monasteries were embedded in the network of feudal alliances.

Members of the new monastic orders, like the Cistercians, drained swampy areas and cleared forests; Others, like the Franciscans, voluntarily given over to poverty, soon began to participate in the reborn urban life. The Church would no longer be seen as a spiritual city in earthly exile, but as the center of existence.

Early medieval spirituality adopted an individual character, ritually centered on the sacrament of the Eucharist and on the believer’s subjective and emotional identification with the human suffering of Christ. The growing importance of the cult of the Virgin Mary, an attitude unknown in the Church until now, had the same emotional character.

The low middle ages

If the high middle ages was characterized by the achievement of the institutional unit and an intellectual synthesis, the low middle ages was marked by conflicts and the dissolution of that unit. It was then that the modern State began to emerge – even though it was sometimes only an incipient national sentiment – and the fight for hegemony between Church and State became a permanent feature of the history of Europe for some centuries. later.

Towns and cities continued to grow in size and prosperity and began the fight for political autonomy. This urban conflict also became an internal struggle in which the various social groups wanted to impose their respective interests.

Beginnings of political science

One of the consequences of this struggle, particularly in the lordly corporations of the Italian cities, was the intensification of political and social thought that focused on the secular state as such, independent of the Church.

The independence of political analysis is only one of the aspects of a great current of medieval low thought and arose as a consequence of the failure of the great project of late medieval philosophy that sought to achieve a synthesis of all knowledge and experience, both human and divine.

The new spirituality

Although this philosophical development was important, the spirituality of the late Middle Ages was the true indicator of the social and cultural turmoil of the time. This spirituality was characterized by an intense search for direct experience with God, either through personal ecstasy of mystical enlightenment, or through personal examination of God’s word in the Bible. In both cases, the organic Church – both in its traditional role as interpreter of doctrine and in its institutional role as guardian of the sacraments – was not in a position to combat or dispense with this phenomenon.

The entire population, lay or clergy, male or female, literate or illiterate, could potentially enjoy a mystical experience. Conceived as a divine gift of a personal nature, it was totally independent of social rank or level of education as it was indescribable, irrational and private. On the other hand, the devotional reading of the Bible produced a perception of the Church as an institution markedly different from that of previous times when it was considered as something omnipresent and linked to earthly affairs.

Christ and the apostles represented an image of radical simplicity and when taking the life of Christ as a model of imitation, there were people who began to organize themselves in apostolic communities. At times they strove to reform the Church from within to lead it to apostolic purity and simplicity, while at other times they simply disregarded all existing institutions.

In many cases these movements adopted an apocalyptic or messianic stance, particularly among the most unprotected sectors of the late medieval cities, which lived in a very difficult situation. After the catastrophic appearance of the black plague in the 1340s , which ended the life of a quarter of the European population, bands of penitents, flagellants and followers of new messiahs toured all of Europe, preparing for the arrival of the new apostolic age.

This situation of spiritual turmoil and innovation would lead to the Protestant Reformation; new political identities would lead to the triumph of the modern national state and the continued economic and commercial expansion laid the foundations for the revolutionary transformation of the European economy. In this way, the roots of the modern age can be located in the midst of the dissolution of the medieval world, in the midst of its social and cultural crisis.

The feudal system

Charles the Great

The failure of Carlos Magno’s centralizing political project led, in the absence of that counterweight, to the formation of a political, economic, and social system that historians have agreed to call feudalism, although in reality the name was born as a pejorative to designate the Ancient Regime by its enlightened critics.

The French Revolution solemnly abolished “all feudal rights” on the night of August 4 , 1789 and “definitively the feudal regime,” with the decree of August 11 .
The generalization of the term allows many historians to apply it to the social formations of the entire western European territory, whether or not they belonged to the Carolingian Empire. Supporters of restricted use, arguing the need not to confuse concepts such as fief, villae, tenure, or lordship limit it both in space ( France , West Germany and North Italy) as in time: a “first feudalism” or “Carolingian feudalism” from the 8th century to the year 1000 and a “classical feudalism” from the year 1000 to 1240, in turn divided into two epochs, the first, until 1160 (the most decentralized, in which each lord of the castle could be considered independent, and the process called incastellamento takes place); and the second, that of the “feudal monarchy”). There would even be “import feudalisms”: Norman England since 1066 and the eastern Latin states created during the Crusades (12th and 13th centuries). [37]

Others prefer to speak of “regime” or “feudal system”, to subtly differentiate it from strict feudalism, or of feudal synthesis, to mark the fact that traits of classical antiquity survived mixed with Germanic contributions, involving both institutions and productive elements, and meant the specificity of western European feudalism as a social economic formation compared to other feudal ones, with far-reaching consequences in the future historical development. [38] There are more difficulties in using the term when we move further away: Eastern Europe experiences a process of “feudalisation” since the end of the Middle Ages, just when in many areas of Western Europe peasants are freed from the legal forms of servitude, so there is often talk of Polish or Russian feudalism.

The Old Regime in Europe , medieval Islam or the Byzantine Empire were urban and commercial societies, and with a variable degree of political centralization, although the exploitation of the countryside was carried out with social production relations very similar to medieval feudalism. Historians who apply the methodology of historical materialism ( Marxdefined the feudal mode of production as the intermediate stage between the slave and the capitalist) do not hesitate to speak of “feudal economy” to refer to it, although they also recognize the need not to apply the term to any non-slave pre-industrial social formation, since that throughout history and geography there have been other modes of production also foreseen in Marxist modeling, such as the primitive mode of production of little-evolved, homogeneous societies with little social division -like those of the Germanic peoples themselves prior to the invasions- and the Asian mode of production or hydraulic despotism -Pharaonic Egypt, kingdoms of India or Chinese Empire- characterized by the taxation of peasant villages to a highly centralized state.[39] In even more distant places the term feudalism has been used to describe an era.

This is the case of Japan and the so-called Japanese feudalism, given the undeniable similarities and parallels that the European feudal nobility and its world have with samurai and theirs. It has also been applied to the historical situation of the intermediate periods of the history of Egypt , in which, following a millennial cyclical rhythm, central power and life in the cities decline, military anarchy breaks the unity of the lands of the Nile , and the local temples and lords who manage to control a space of power rule in it independently over the peasants forced to work.

The vassalage and the fief

A kneeling vassal performs the inmixtio manum during the homage to his seated lord. A clerk takes note. Everyone is smiling.Two institutions were key to feudalism: on the one hand, vassalage as a legal-political relationship between lord and vassal, a synalagmatic contract (that is, between equals, with requirements on both sides) between lords and vassals (both men free, both warriors, both noble), consisting of the exchange of support and mutual fidelity (endowment of positions, honors and lands -the fief- by the lord of the vassal and commitment of Auxium et Consilium -auxiliary or military support and advice or support political-), that if it was not fulfilled or was broken by any of the two parts it gave rise to the felony, and whose hierarchy was complicated in a pyramidal way (the vassal was in turn lord of vassals);

Therefore, the reality that is enunciated as feudal-vassal relations is really a term that includes two types of social relation of a completely different nature, although the terms that designate them were used at the time (and continue to be used) in a misleading and with great terminological confusion between them:

The vassalage was a pact between two members of the nobility of different rank. The lesser knight became vassal (vassus) of the most powerful nobleman, who became his lord (dominus) through the Homage and Investiture, in a ritualized ceremony that took place in the keep of the lord’s castle. The homage (from the vassal to the lord) consisted of prostration or humiliation -usually on his knees-, the osculum (kiss), the inmixtio manum -the vassal’s hands, united in a prayerful position, were welcomed among those of the lord-, and some phrase that recognized having become her man. After the tribute was the investiture -from the lord to the vassal-, which represented the delivery of a fief (depending on the category of vassal and lord, it could be a county, a duchy, a brand, a castle, a population, or a simple salary; or even a monastery if the vassal was ecclesiastical) through a symbol of the territory or of the food that the lord owes to the vassal – a little land, grass or grain – and the accolade, in which the vassal receives a sword (and a few blows to it on the shoulders), or a staff if it was religious.

The encomienda, encomienda or sponsorship (sponsorship, commendatio, although it was common to use the term commendatio for the act of homage or even for the entire institution of vassalage) were theoretical pacts between the peasants and the feudal lord, which could also be ritualized in a ceremony or – more rarely – lead to a document. The lord welcomed the peasants in his fief, which was organized in a stately reserve that the servants had to work obligatorily (sernas or corveas) and in the set of small family farms (tame) that were attributed to the peasants so that they could subsist .

The lord’s obligation was to protect them if they were attacked, and to maintain order and justice in the manor. In exchange, the peasant became his servant and passed to the double jurisdiction of the feudal lord: in the terms used in the Iberian peninsula in the late Middle Ages, territorial lordship, which forced the peasant to pay rents to the noble for the use from the earth; and the jurisdictional lordship, which made the feudal lord the ruler and judge of the territory in which the peasant lived, for which he obtained feudal income from a very different origin (taxes, fines, monopolies, etc.).

The distinction between property and jurisdiction was not clear in feudalism, since in fact the very concept of property was confusing, and the jurisdiction, granted by the king as a mercy, made the lord in a position to obtain his income. There were no jurisdictional lordships in which all the plots belonged to the property of the lord, with different forms of allodium being very widespread among the peasants. In later moments of depopulation and refeudalization, such as the crisis of the seventeenth century, some nobles tried to make a lordship consider itself completely depopulated of peasants to free themselves from all kinds of barriers and convert it into a reconvertible round preserve for another use, such as cattle ranching. [40 ]

Along with the fief, the vassal receives the servants that are in it, not as slave property, but neither under freedom; since their servile condition prevents them from leaving it and forces them to work. The lord of the fief’s obligations include maintaining order, that is, civil and criminal jurisdiction (mere and mixed empire in legal terminology reintroduced with Roman Law in the late Middle Ages), which gave even greater opportunities to obtain the productive surplus that the peasants could obtain after the obligations of work – corveas or sernas in the manorial reserve – or of the rent payment – in kind or in money, of very little circulation in the High Middle Ages, but more generalized in the last medieval centuries, as the economy became more dynamic.

All this was more opportunities to obtain more feudal income, including traditional rights, such as the ius prime noctis or law of pernada, which became a marriage tax, good proof that it is in the surplus from which the feudal income of extraeconomically (in this case, by demonstrating that a peasant community grows and thrives).


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