The Middle Ages are a time that is extremely popular for making movies or writing books. The tales of noble knights, well-fortified castles, and exciting tournaments are dominant in our world.
But the Middle Ages lasted more than a thousand years! Because of that, there were different periods within the time that we know as the Middle Ages. And these periods differed quite a lot!
The Middle Ages is a term that was established in the 17th. Century to describe the time between the migration period (4./5.th century) and the Reformation in 1517. The Middle Ages can be split into the Early Middle Ages (300-900), High Middle Ages (900-1250), and Late Middle Ages (1250-1517). The division is based on a western-European worldview and is subject to debates over the usefulness of such divisions.
Now that was a lot of compacted data, let`s break it up into the different periods.
- 1 Early Middle Ages
- 2 High Middle Ages
- 3 Late Middle Ages
- 4 Does the classification of the Middle Ages into 3 periods make sense?
- 5 Alternatives to the division into Early-/High-/Late Middle Ages
- 6 Conclusion
- 7 Sources
Early Middle Ages
The early Middle Ages were a time of radical change. The Western Roman Empire had ended and new kingships rose from the ruins of the long-gone Roman might.
The Early Middle Ages are usually set between the years 300 and 900. Important events are the deposition of the last western Roman emperor Romulus Augustulus in 476, the Merovingian Franks taking control over Gaul, the creation of Islam in 632, and the coronation of Charlemagne in 800 by Pope Leo III.
It is important to state that the start and end dates of all medieval periods, not only the Early Middle Ages, are not set in stone. Depending on the historian you asks they can vary quite a bit.
But for better clarity, I will focus on the already mentioned division.
Early Middle Ages – from when to when
The Early Middle Ages are usually seen as the period between the migration period of the 4th and 5th century AD and the end of the Carolingian Empire around the year 900 AD.
More on the end of the Carolingian Empire in my article here.
It is important to emphasize that these dates are one of many possible options!
Other historians set the beginning of the Early Middle Ages around the year 476 when the last western roman emperor was dethroned by Odoacer, a high-ranking Roman officer of Germanic descent. Another possible end date for the Early Middle Ages is for example 976 (emperor Otto I adopting the idea of continuing the western Roman empire in the Holy Roman Empire).
Do you wonder why it was called the Holy Roman Empire? Find out the answer in my article here!
In Great Britain the year 1066, the year when the Normans conquered England, is often seen as the end of the Early middle ages.
Early Middle Ages – important events
The following is a selection of the most important events during the Early Middle Ages.
I will use the already explained period from 300-900 as the Early Middle Ages.
- 313 AD: Edict of Milan: equal rights for Christianity and the other religions; freedom of religion is guaranteed
- 337 AD: Emperor Constantine gets baptized on his deathbed
- 391 AD: pagan cults are banned, Christianity becomes the state religion
- 410 AD: Rome is taken & looted by the Gots
- 438 AD: Codex Theodesianus (a consistent ecclesiastical asylum law is codified)
- 476 AD: the last western Roman emperor Romulus Augustulus is dethroned
- 498 AD: Merovingian king Clovis I is baptized
- 632 AD: Islam is created in Mecca
- 732 AD: the Frankish warlord Charles Martel defeats an Umayyad army at the battle of Tours. More about the Umayyads in my article here.
- 750: the last Ummayyad caliph (in Damascus) is overthrown by the Abbassids
- 750-867: Peak of Muslim rule over the Mediterranean
- 751 AD: Pepin the Short overthrows the Merovingian dynasty and establishes the Carolingian dynasty
- Pepin the Short does not have the royal bloodline of the Merovings, so he – like his successors – turns to the pope to legitimize his rule.
- Around 770: Danish Vikings found Haithabu, an important trading post in northern Germany
- 800 AD: Charlemagne is crowned emperor in Rome, the Western Roman Empire is revived and from now one there are two Emperors (one in the west and one in the byzantine empire).
- 813: Emirate of Cordoba (Spain) & Idrisids (Marocco) make a peace treaty with the Carolingians
- 814 AD: Charlemagne dies, his empire (entire Gaul, northern Italy, and parts of Germany) is split among his 3 sons. More on that in my article here.
- 827: Muslims conquer Sicily
- 900 AD: the Carolingians have lost most of their power & land
- 911: The Normandy is given to Viking warlords
Please note that all these events are based on a western-European view. In a later paragraph I will discuss if regions outside of Europe did also have Middle Ages. And if so, did their Middle Ages have the same periods and dates.
You might have noticed that in 732 AD, only a hundred years after the creation of Islam, an Umayyad (Muslim) army was defeated by Charles Martel in the Battle of Tours.
If you are interested in who the Umayyads were and how they were able to conquer Spain you might want to check out my article here.
Early Middle Ages – important persons
- Clovis I: Merovingian king (King of the Franks from 481-511 AD)
- Muhammad: founded Islam in 622 AD
- Pepin the Short: Overthrew the Merovingian dynasty in 751 AD and established the Carolingian dynasty
- Charlemagne: crowned emperor in 800 AD in the city of Rome, united the majority of France and Germany under his rule
High Middle Ages
The High Middle Ages was the period that most of us think of when we are talking about the Middle Ages with stone castles, knights, Richard Lionheart, and the crusades.
The High Middle Ages are the period from the coronation of Henry the Fowler as King of East Francia in 919 AD to the death of Fredrick II in 1250 AD. The period is shaped by the Holy Roman Empire, the fight for power between pope and emperor, a growing population size, the first universities, and the crusades.
Apart from the crusades as violent interactions between Christians and Muslims, there were also more peaceful interactions.
Especially in the contact zones between the Christian sphere and the Muslim Sphere, Sicily, and the Iberian Peninsula. Do you want to find out more about these peaceful interactions and why some of the Christian rulers of Sicily were even called „baptized caliphs“? You can find the answers here in my article.
By the way, while we usually think of crusades as only aimed against the Muslims in the Levant there were also crusades into the Baltics. But that is a story for another time.
There was a rapid population growth during the High Middle Ages beginning in the middle of the 11th century. That was enabled by a slight increase in temperature and bigger harvests.
Also, many new towns were founded where trade and craftsmanship boomed.
But while the social mobility increased the actual power of the emperor over the Holy Roman empire decreased. That benefited local rulers like kings or bishops within the Holy Roman Empire.
Reasons for the decrease of centralized royal power during the High Middle Ages were the fight for secular power between the emperor and the pope, but also the increasing power of England and France.
High Middle Ages – from when to when
Just like with the Early Middle Ages the dates of when the High Middle Ages began and ended are also debated.
I decided to follow and present one opinion that picks the 10th century, more precisely 919 AD, as the beginning of the High Middle Ages.
In 919 AD Henry the Fowler was elected as king. That ended both the rule of the Carolingians over East Francia and the Early Middle Ages. The High Middle Ages ended in 1250 AD with the death of Frederick II, the grandson of Frederick I (Barbarossa). The fight for power after his death weakened the Holy Roman Empire and ended the High Middle Ages.
Please note that especially the date 919 as the beginning of the High Middle Ages is only one of multiple possible options where historians set the start of the High Middle Ages.
And the date varies not only depending on the historian you ask but also on the land he studied in.
In England for example the start of the High Middle Ages is usually set in the year 1066, the year of the Norman conquest of England. More on the Norman conquest of England and why castles were a major part of the Norman success in my article here.
And even in mainland Europe, some Historians prefer the year 1050 as the start of the High Middle Ages.
As mentioned, I decided to present the opinion that 919 is the start of the High Middle Ages since this was the year when the Carolingian dynasty lost the rule over East Francia to Henry the Fowler, the duke of Saxony, who started the Ottonian dynasty.
By the way, the High Middle Ages was also the time when Christian military orders like the Knights Templars (1118) were founded.
Speaking of Christianity and the Middle Ages. Not only for the church but also for the worldly leader Rome was of high importance.
And while many of us know the founding myth of Rome the actual scientific truth is far less known. Here you can find more information on how Rome was really founded.
High Middle Ages – important events
- 919: Henry the Fowler is voted as the first non-Carolingian king of East Francia
- 936-973: Under the rule of Otto I. East Francia becomes the hegemonic power in western Europe
- 10-12 of August 955: Otto I defeats a Hungarian army at the battle of the Lechfeld which stopped their invasions into Western Europe
- 1075-1122: Investiture controversy
- 1091: entire Sicily is conquered by the Normans
- 1095: Pope Urban II proclaimed the first crusade
- 1096-1099: First crusade
- 1100: Corporations (aggregations of craftsmen) become more and more influential until they are widely common after the 13th century
- 1147: The second crusade starts
- 1152: Frederick Barbarossa is crowned king
- 1171: The Fatimid caliphate is overthrown by Saladin
- 1190: Start of the third crusade (Frederick Barbarossa and Richard I Lionheart)
- 1190: Frederick Barbarossa drowns while on crusade
- 1192: Pact between Saladin and Richard Lionheart grants Christian pilgrims access to Jerusalem
- 1193: Saladin dies in Damascus
- 1199: Start of the fourth crusade
- 1203: Constantinople is conquered by crusaders (with the help of Venice)
- 1215 John, the brother of Richard Lionheart, is forced to sign the Magna Charta
- 1227: Frederick II starts the fifth crusade
- 1250: Frederick II dies; End of the High Middle Ages
High Middle Ages – important persons
- Henry the Fowler: the first non-Carolingian king of East Francia
- Otto I: ruled East Francia, his coronation as king of the Romans started the era of the Holy Roman Empire, More on why it was called the Holy Roman Empire in my article here.
- Roger I: A Norman who conquers Sicily and adopts many Arabian customs (the tax system, for example, more on that here in my article
- Pope Urban II: starts the first crusade
- Frederick Barbarossa: usually seen as one of the greatest rulers of the Holy Roman Empire
- Saladin: famous Muslim General, who fought against Richard Lionheart, more on him here in my article
- Richard Lionheart: important Christian commander during the third crusade
- Frederick II: influential ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, his death in 1250 ended the High Middle Ages
Late Middle Ages
The late Middle Ages were a time that, especially in the beginning, was heavily influenced by the High Middle Ages.
During the end of the High Middle Ages, most realms in Europe had transformed into Hereditary Monarchies.
But not the Holy Roman Empire!
The Staufer dynasty (most prominent members were Frederick Barbarossa and Frederick II) had failed to install a Hereditary Monarchy in the Holy Roman Empire. Because of that, the king was still voted by prince-electors who could but did not have to, vote a candidate who was related to the last king.
After the death of Frederick II, the last king from the Staufer dynasty, the so-called Interregnum, a time of weak and/or foreign kings, began.
It wasn`t until 1273 when Rudolf I of Habsburg was voted king and started the rise of the House of Habsburg. His coronation ended the interregnum.
The House of Habsburg would become one of the most influential Houses of the Late Middle Ages and Modernity. Members of the House of Habsburg would rule Spain and its` colonial empire, Bohemia, Hungary, Croatia, and others.
And until 1918 the Austrian-Hungarian empire was ruled by the House of Habsburg.
By the way, like the Holy Roman Empire itself, the House of Habsburg also claimed its origins in the Roman Empire.
Or to be more precise in the Gens Julii. The family that Caius Julius Caesar was a part of. For more information on how and why the House of Habsburg did that I would like to refer you to my article here.
While the House of Habsburg was able to spread their influence the real power of the Holy Roman Emperor dwindled, the real power laid in the hands of local religious and worldly rulers like Bishops and prince-electors.
Because of that, the central power was not really pronounced but the Holy Roman Empire consisted of hundreds of smaller kingdoms, princedoms, and free cities.
Another important factor during the late Middle Ages was a decrease in population. Reasons for that were the famine between the years 1315-1317 that was the result of catastrophically failed harvests.
And the Black Death (1347-1353) would also cost the lives of around 25 million people, that`s around 1/3 of the entire European population of the time!
Due to the decrease in population, the number of laborers also decreased which in the end resulted in growing wages.
When it came to religious matters there were also big changes. The church came more and more under the influence of the French kings. And in the year 1309, the Pope moved from Rome to Avignon in southern France.
The election for a new pope in the year 1378 then led to the Western Schism and the existence of 2 popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon.
Late Middle Ages – from when to when
Just like with the Early and the High Middle Ages the beginning and the end of the Late Middle Ages can also not be strictly set.
I decided to follow the opinion after which the start of the Late Middle Ages is set in the year 1250, the year the last king of the Staufer dynasty, Frederick II, died. The end of the Late Middle Ages can be either set in the year 1492 when Christopher Columbus discovered the New World or the year 1517 when Martin Luther published his ninety-five theses.
Some historians also set the year 1453, the year Constantinople is conquered by the Turks, as the end of the Late Middle Ages.
Just like we discovered in the Early Middle Ages, the start and end highly depend on the location we are looking at. But more on that in one of the following paragraphs.
Late Middle Ages – important events
- 1246-1272: Interregnum, 4 foreign kings rule over the Holy Roman Empire
- 1259: Treaty of Paris; England has to waive many of its lands on the main continent
- Around 1300: the Christianisation of Europe is mostly finished
- 1327: The English start using gunpowder and primitive canons against the Scots
- Mercenaries replace the armies of the Early and High Middle Ages that are mostly made up of men who owed alliance to the leader of the army
- 1337-1453: Hundred years war between England and France
- 1347-1352: the Black Death (the Plague) kills 25 Million Europeans
- 1356: Golden Bull; a document that would regulate the election of the Holy Roman emperor by the prince-electors until 1806
- 1378-1417: Western Schism; the catholic church is split because two bishops, one in Rome and one in Avignon, claim to be the true (and only) pope
- 1429 Joan of Arc and the french army lift the English siege of Orleans
- 14th. Century: the Holy Roman Empire loses Burgundy piece by piece
- Around 1450: small Iceage, temperature fall between 33-35° F
- 1495: „Ewiger Landfriede“, Feuds are officially outlawed
- 1492/1501: First road maps
- 1492: Christopher Columbus discovered the American continent & opens the way for the colonization of the Americas
- 1492: Martin Behaim, a merchant from Nuernberg, designs the first Globe
- 1492: Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Spain, is captured by Christian conquerors; more on the Muslim rule over Spain here in my article
- 1498: the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama discovers a sea route to India
- 1517: German monk Martin Luther publishes his Ninety-five Theses
Late Middle Ages – important persons
- Joan of Arc: 1412-1431
- Martin Luther: German monk who published the Ninety-five Theses & translated the bible into German
- Charles IV: Holy Roman Emperor from 1355-1378
- Christopher Columbus: 1451-1506; discovered the American continents in 1492
- Vasco da Gama: 1469-1524, Portuguese explorer, first European to reach India by sea
- Johannes Gutenberg: invented the mechanical printing press around the year 1445
- Leonardo da Vinci: 1452-1519, Italian polymath
- Maximilian I: Holy Roman Emperor from 1508-1519, known as „the last knight“
Does the classification of the Middle Ages into 3 periods make sense?
So we have just made our way through over 1.000 years and 3 periods of history. We have seen how the Middle Ages are divided into 3 separate periods.
The question that remains is if dividing the Middle Ages into 3 periods does make sense.
The main reason why it might not be useful to divide the Middle Ages into 3 separate periods is simply that we are talking about the Middle Ages as if they were one homogenous geographical area.
But they weren`t!
The separation of the Middle Ages into 3 periods is highly focused on central Europe, especially the area of modern-day Germany.
The same dates might not be useful for other European regions.
Let`s just take England as an example. In the first paragraph, I mentioned that the date that separated the Early Middle Ages and the High Middle Ages is often put around the year 900 and the end of the Carolingian rulers.
But the Carolingian dynasty was only really influential in mainland Europe. The end of the Carolingian rule didn`t really cause any upheavals in England.
The invasion of the Normans into England and their victory at the battle of Hastings did! Because of that English historians usually set the beginning of the High Middle Ages in the year 1066.
But for mainland Europe the year 1066 didn`t have that kind of events that one could define as the end of a period.
What I want to say is that depending on what region of Europe you look at the dates after which the Middle Ages are split up into subcategories might vary quite drastically.
And when we leave Europe it becomes even more drastic. I mean did it really affect the Arabian peninsula when the Carolingian rule ended?
That by the way also leads to the fascinating question of if the Islamic world even had the „Middle Ages“. But that is a story for another time. Please check out my article here to find out more.
In the next paragraph I will present a few alternatives to the usual division into Early Middle Ages, High Middle Ages, and Late Middle Ages.
Alternatives to the division into Early-/High-/Late Middle Ages
So we just spent the last paragraphs learning about the 3 different periods of the Middle Ages and why the usual division into Early Middle Ages, High Middle Ages, and Late Middle Ages might not be as useful as one might think.
So are there alternatives?
As you probably guessed by the title of the paragraph: Yes, there are alternatives.
And I would like to present 3 of these alternatives. Please note that these alternatives are not direct replacements of the usually used periods (Early-/High-/Late Middle Ages).
These alternative theories are ideas that use different measurements to define the end/the beginning of the Middle Ages.
Because, as we have seen, the dates for when for example the Early Middle Ages begin and end can be quite different depending on the location we are looking at.
It is important to know that historians are tending to leave the usual division into Early-/High-/Late Middle Ages for other, more flexible, differentiations of the Middle Ages like Late Antiquity, First Millenium, and the Euro-Afrasian Age.
Let`s find out what these alternatives are about.
As already mentioned in the first paragraph. The Early Middle Ages are usually seen as the time between the Migration period (4th & 5th century) and the end of the Carolingian rule over central Europe around the year 900.
But we have also seen that for Great Britain the Early Middle Ages are usually ended with the Norman conquest of England in 1066.
The Theory of Late Antiquity, developed by Peter Brown, proposes that the period of Antiquity should be extended to the years 1000-1050 instead of ending with the Migration period in the 4th & 5th centuries.
Peter Brown argues that Late Antiquity has to be seen as a transformation phase that slowly fades into the Middle Ages.
So according to Brown, it is impossible to set one year after which the Middle Ages began.
For him, the concept of Late Antiquity focuses on the Merovingian dynasty, the Carolingian dynasty, and to Ottonian dynasty.
The focus that the concept of Late Antiquity lays on central-western Europe is once again a point of debate since it neglects the Islamic & Byzantine worlds.
By the way, Peter Brown is not only critical of the Early Middle Ages, he also sees the Late Middle Ages as a transformation period between the Middle Ages and the Early modern period.
First Millenium, a theory by Garth Fowden, puts the border between Early Middle Ages and High Middle Ages around the year 1000 and includes all lands surrounding the Mediterranean, including the Islamic & Byzantine world.
According to Fowden, the First Millenium has to be seen as a process with 3 steps, the prophetic phrase, the scriptural phase, and the exegetical phase.
Let`s take an individual look at the 3 phases by using religion as an example.
The Prophetic phase
During the Prophetic phase the religion is founded.
The scriptural phase
During the scriptural phase, the prophetic revelations are transformed into written texts.
The exegetic phase
During the exegetic phase, the written texts are interpreted. If we take Christianity as an example then the exegetic phase would be also the phase where the institutionalization of the church occurs.
The theory of the Euro-Afrasian Age was formulated by Michael Borgolte and offers the idea of seeing the Middle Ages from a global perspective.
So not only Europe but also Africa and Asia are considered when talking about the Middle Ages.
The Middle Ages is a term that was established in the 17th. Century to describe the time between the migration period of the 4./5.th century and the Reformation in 1517. It can be split into the Early Middle Ages (300-900), High Middle Ages (900-1250), and Late Middle Ages (1250-1517). The classification is based on a western-European worldview and is subject to debates over the usefulness of such divisions.
While the Middle Ages are often only seen as a period of violence (especially between Christians and Muslims) the Middle Ages were also a time of peaceful contact between Christians and Muslims.
Major contact zones like Sicily and Al-Andalus (=Iberian Peninsula) offered the opportunity for fruitful cultural interactions. But these peaceful interactions between Christians and Muslims are a story for another time.
If you are interested in what the Muslim conquests brought (back) to medieval Europe you might want to check out my article here.
I hope you enjoyed our trip to the Middle Ages.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
J. Fried: Das Mittelalter, Geschichte und Kultur (München 2008).
M. Borholte: Christen, Juden, Muselmanen. Die Erben der Antike und der Aufstieg des Abendlandes 300 bis 1400 n. Chr (München 2006).