The medieval or “middle” ages roughly spanned the years 500 – 1500, between the classic land empires and 2nd-millennium overseas colonization. 1 The largest empires and most advanced civilizations of the Middle Ages were Asian.
Islam is the youngest world religion, originating in 7th-century Arabia. Muslims believe that God communicated to the prophet Mohammed through an angel. Mohammed recited a quasi-poetic rendition of God’s word, subsequently written in the form of the Koran. This scripture was said to be a “reminder” of God’s original message, before Jews and Christians corrupted it with human interpretation. The Koran’s central supernatural position is that there is only one God, who will someday resurrect and judge humanity. Islam rejects Judaism’s oral traditions as well as Christianity’s belief in the divinity of Jesus.
Islam prescribed humble submission to God in all walks of life. 2 It rejected the accumulation of wealth and demanded treating all members fairly. The pillars of Islam included giving alms, fasting to remember the plight of the poor, and bowing to a holy city as a daily reminder of spiritual devotion.
Most non-Muslim historians believe that Mohammed’s personal struggles are woven into the Koran. For instance, his hometown of Mecca had become increasingly materialistic during his lifetime, growing rich from trade and banking. 3 His vision of the Muslim community was a thinly veiled anti-Mecca. He made enemies and fled to Medina. There, he was mocked by some Jewish tribes and he memorialized those frustrations as well.
Mohammed became involved in wars between Mecca and Medina, culminating in his leadership over both. In a world where victory was seen as God’s blessing, he quickly won converts throughout the Arab peninsula. Before his lifetime, Arabs had had no national identity. They were hungry for unity and a scripture in their own language.
Mohammed died just two years later, in 632. Competition to succeed him led immediately to a rift between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. His Sunni successors, the caliphs, had more success on the ground and began expanding outward. By 750, the Umayyad Caliphate was one of the largest empires in the world, spanning east almost as far as India and west across northern Africa into Spain.
The Abbasid Dynasty was the classic medieval caliphate. This was the height of Arab civilization, the era of 1,001 Nights. Baghdad was the intellectual center of the world. Scholars adopted the Hindu numeral system and translated Greek texts that were forgotten in Europe. The Abbasids ruled with an iron fist and encouraged Islamization. Muslim law, Shariah, proved a more enduring unifier than the caliphate. The empire broke into independent states, but they all remained Islamic.
The Ottoman Empire grew out of a small state in Turkey around 1300. A turning point in European history was the Ottomans’ capture of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1453. This ended the Byzantine Empire and established a permanent Muslim presence in Eastern Europe. The Ottoman Empire survived until WWI.
Asian religious demographics shifted slowly but significantly in the Middle Ages. Buddhism disappeared from India in the millennium after Ashoka; the ancient Hindu customs were too deeply entrenched to replace. Buddhist monks carried the religion outward and found a receptive populace in China. 4 The 6th century Sui Empire was the first Buddhist Chinese state.
As Buddhism faded out of India to the east, Islam entered from the west. After centuries of tense proximity and skirmishes, Turkish invaders made inroads into northern India and established the Delhi Sultanate around 1200. Active traders, Muslims spread their faith as far as China and Southeast Asia, where a few small Islamic states were founded.
Since the Sui, Chinese continuity has been broken only by a few intermittent decades of fragmentation or occupation. The Sui Dynasty completed the Grand Canal. It runs north-south to connect China’s west-to-east rivers, the Yellow and the Yangtze. The canal provided a vital supply line from the agricultural south to northern cities, courts, and armies. 5
The next medieval Chinese dynasties were the Tang, Song, and Ming. Great inventions of the Tang period included gunpowder, movable-type printing, and the mechanical clock. The Tang Code of law provided a model that survived into the 20th century. 6 Tang China was highly influential on neighboring nations such as Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. 7 Song China enjoyed a great economic boom, and merchants became ever more prominent. Quasi-capitalist instruments such as stocks, bonds, and savings accounts came into use, 8 as well as paper money itself.
The Ming Dynasty was founded by the Hongwu Emperor, who liberated China from Mongolia but became a murderous tyrant. His successor the Yongle Emperor moved the capital to the Forbidden City in Beijing. The Yongle Emperor built up the world’s largest navy, using it primarily for diplomatic missions. 9 Later Ming emperors, though not strong leaders, 10 are remembered for their Great Wall.
China was handily the leading world power in 1500. It then lost that status for centuries when it failed to colonize or industrialize.
Genghis Khan conquered more than twice as much land as any other single man in history. 11 He already earned his title, which means “ruler of the world”, when he united all the Mongol tribes. He then led the Mongols on an unending campaign of expansion. Their numbers were relatively small, but they were efficient and ruthless. Their secret weapon was the horse. As a nomadic people, the Mongols used their land for grazing horses instead of farming.
By the end of Genghis Khan’s lifetime in 1227, his empire spanned all of Central Asia. His sons and grandsons augmented the empire still further; by 1279 it engulfed China and Mesopotamia and reached Eastern Europe. Obviously difficult to administer, it was split among Genghis Khan’s sons, and the political division continued from there. The dynasty gradually lost territory but held some until 1920.
The empire was significant not for its lasting legacy but for the abrupt change it brought to geopolitics. It momentarily disrupted the Islamic and Chinese empires, forming a political bridge between Europe and Asia. Islamic states had controlled the seas and the Silk Road and blocked European access to China. Nor was China particularly interested in Europe. The Mongolian government in China, under Kublai Khan, was much more open to the west and welcomed visiting traders. European missionaries and merchants such as Marco Polo reached eastern Asia in large numbers for the first time. This contact whetted the European appetite for Asian trade, the major impetus behind overseas exploration of the Renaissance.
The historically accepted “fall” of Rome was the abdication of the last western emperor in 476. The decline was much more nuanced than that. The empire had been disintegrating for centuries, yet extensions of it persisted for another full millennium. Its state church, Christianity, has not only survived to the present but is still arguably the world’s largest institution.
The first non-Latin king in Rome was Odoacer. He was part of a mass migration of Germanic 2 tribes into Europe. By the time of Odoacer’s reign in Italy, Western Europe was already divided into a number of Germanic tribes and kingdoms such as the Franks, Vandals, and Visigoths.
Germanic kings saw the advantages of plugging into the last remnant of the imperial bureaucracy, the Roman Catholic Church. Wealthy, organized, and stable, the church was in a strong position to perform traditionally governmental roles such as collecting revenues, providing for the poor, and enacting laws. 14 When kings converted, their people quickly followed. The church needed kings’ support too, for military protection. 15 The Franks, early to convert, were the church’s strongest ally. By 1000, the banner of Christendom flew over all of western Europe, with the pope as its top leader. Popes led the Crusades, a long series of wars against Muslim kingdoms.
The eastern half continued as the Byzantine Empire. 3 East and West were divided by a language barrier. Further political differences led to a permanent schism between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, an estrangement that dated to the 1st millennium and was formalized in the 2nd. The Byzantine Empire remained highly influential in Russia and eastern Europe.
The High Middle Ages (8th – 13th centuries) were characterized by a Germanic system we now call feudalism. 4 Feudal society was a hierarchy of landlords and tenants, or lords and vassals. With a shortage of cash in the economy, 16 lords granted land rights in exchange for the fruits of that land or for personal services.
Each king was a large landowner. His vassals were powerful noblemen, who provided services such as giving counsel at the king’s court and raising armies of knights. The lowest-level vassals were peasants, mostly farmers or craftsmen. 80% of the population was peasantry. 17 Fairy tales like Cinderella depict the daily drudgery and escapist fantasy of ordinary peasants.
Each kingdom saw a power struggle between the king and his nobles. The English king was very powerful, but in France the king had trouble controlling his nobles. Noblemen fought each other regularly. To complicate matters, the church was Europe’s largest feudal lord, 18 and many noblemen were bishops. This is another reason the Church was entangled with politics. Feudalism was also a legal system, with lasting impact. The king’s court was the predecessor to modern parliament. 19 The fundamental basis of law was the personal oath between each lord and his vassal. Oaths were inherently contractual relationships between social unequals. Knights needed their serfs just as much as serfs needed knights, and courts enforced both parties’ rights. 20 In these ways, feudal institutions foresaw the rule of law over the rule of man. 21 The Magna Carta of 1215 was an early example of noblemen negotiating the power structure with their king.
Medieval Europeans idealized the Roman Empire and made more than one futile attempt to restore it. In 800, the pope christened Frankish king Charlemagne as “emperor”. The Frankish kingdom was very large at the time, covering half the continent. It soon split in half, giving birth to France in the west. The German half was again optimistically proclaimed the “Holy Roman Empire” in 962. It survived for eight centuries but was actually the spottiest patchwork of small kingdoms that Europe ever saw.
With no central government to standardize communication, languages diverged and multiplied across the continent. Latin branched into French and Spanish, while Germanic offshoots included English and Dutch. After Europe achieved some stability around 1000, feudal hierarchies grew into bureaucracies for modern nation-states within each linguistic zone. 22 England was large enough to rival France by 1200. Modern Portugal is traceable to the 12th century, and Spain to the 15th. Strong centralized governments, money economies, and land reform brought feudalism to an end. Mercantilism and trade increased, and Catholic universities educated the masses. On the dark side, the vision of unity was lost. Games of thrones ravaged Europe for the entire 2nd millennium.
- Crusades image by unknown artist. Public domain. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1099_Siege_of_Jerusalem.jpg ↩
- Patricia Crone, “What do we actually know about Muhammad?” Open Democracy (6/10/2008), https://www.opendemocracy.net/faith-europe_islam/mohammed_3866.jsp (accessed and saved 9/04/16, archived 10/14/19). ↩
- Karen Armstrong, A History of God, Ballantine Books (Kindle eBook edition, 1993), location 2850. ↩
- Damien Keown, Buddhism, A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press (Kindle eBook edition, 2013), locations 1466 – 1476. ↩
- Ian Johnson, “China’s Grand Canal”, National Geographic (May, 2013) https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2013/05/grand-canal/ (accessed and saved 9/22/19, archived 10/14/19). ↩
- Paul S. Ropp, China in World History, Oxford University Press (Kindle eBook edition, 2010), location 1115. ↩
- Ropp, ibid. at location 1268 ↩
- Samuel Adshead, T’ang China: The Rise of the East in World History, Palgrave Macmillan (2004), pp. 85 – 86, saved 9/22/19. ↩
- Paul S. Ropp, China in World History, Oxford University Press (Kindle eBook edition, 2010), location 1684 – 1695 ↩
- Ropp, ibid. at 1707 ↩
- Whether measured in persons, square miles, or nations. Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Broadway Books (2005), p. xviii, https://books.google.com/books?id=A8Y9B5uHQcAC&pg=PR18 (accessed and saved 9/22/19). ↩
- Map by Ali Zifan (CC BY-SA 4.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0), https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mongol_Empire_(greatest_extent).svg ↩
- European map “Odoacer’s Kingdom of Italy in 480 AD” by Thomas Lessman, World History Maps (10/02/2008), (CC BY-SA 3.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/ ), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Odoacer_480ad.jpg (accessed and saved 10/05/16, archived 10/14/19). ↩
- Robert Markus, The End of Ancient Christianity, Cambridge University Press (1991). Markus describes the ascent of the Church as a form of “desecularization”, the opposite of the secularization of Europe that followed the Reformation. ↩
- Kevin Madigan, Medieval Christianity: A New History, Yale University Press (2015), Chapters 2 – 4. ↩
- Lynn Harry Nelson, “The Rise of Feudalism: 850 – 1000 AD”, Lectures in Medieval History, WWW Virtual Library (1990s), http://www.vlib.us/medieval/lectures/feudalism.html (accessed and saved 9/22/19, archived 10/14/19). ↩
- Timothy Biel, The Age of Feudalism, Lucent Books (1994), p. 36. ↩
- Bamber Gascoigne, “History of Feudalism”, History World (since 2001, ongoing), http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?ParagraphID=eoa (accessed and saved 9/22/19). ↩
- Joseph R. Strayer, Feudalism, Krieger Publishing Company (1979). ↩
- See e.g. Philippe de Beaumanoir, Coutomes de Beauvaisis (13th century French law treatise), trans. F.R.P. Akehurst, University of Pennsylvania Press (1992), https://books.google.com/books?id=x_mACgAAQBAJ&pg=PR4 (accessed 9/23/19). ↩
- Paul Vinogradoff, Feudalism, Perennial Press (Kindle eBook edition, 2016), location 74. ↩
- Joseph R. Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State, Princeton University Press (1970). ↩
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