The Middle Ages were a period of about 1000 years in European history that started around the year 476 CE, when the Western Roman Empire ended, and continued until around the time that Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World in 1492. Sometimes, 1453 is used instead for the end since the Byzantine Empire fell that year. The period of time is called the "Middle Ages" because it took place between the fall of Rome and early modern Europe, and it is often separated into the Early Middle Ages, the High Middle Ages, and the Late Middle Ages.
People also use other names like the "Medieval Age” to describe the Middle Ages. Another term is “the Age of Faith” because Christianity and Islam then became much more popular. The early Middle Ages have also been called the “Dark Ages” because past scholars wrongly believed that there was very little culture, good literature, art or progress during the period.
Very few people in the Middle Ages could read and so there are not many records from the period. Historians, therefore, do not know as much about the Middle Ages as about other times.
During the Middle Ages, many people’s lives were short, difficult and poor. The fall of the Western Roman Empire and the invasions of barbarian tribes devastated Europe. The Romans had made progress in science, technology, engineering, medicine and literature, but during the Middle Ages, much of their knowledge was lost. There were mass migrations, wars and plagues. For around 300 years, there was continuous violence. Then, the development of feudalism decreased some of the violence.
In 800, Charlemagne became Emperor of the Romans. He promoted order, education, and civilization. Slowly, Europe began to regain what it had lost. Still, the Late Middle Ages were a difficult time. Wars and the bubonic plague killed millions of people in Europe and Asia.
Europe changed a lot during the Middle Ages. Independent unified nation-states formed across the old Western Roman Empire. The new nations included England, Scotland, Hungary, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Lithuania, Denmark, Norway and France (the last which evolved from the realm of the Franks).
Eastern Roman Empire change
In 330 AD, Roman Emperor Constantine created the Eastern Roman Empire (later called the Byzantine Empire). He made its capital city Constantinople (now Istanbul). The Byzantine Empire controlled Asia Minor and Northern Africa and briefly southern Spain and southern Italy. However, its lands were slowly eaten away by enemies like the Ottomans and the Franks.
The Byzantine Empire survived the fall of the Western Roman Empire and lasted until 1453. Constantinople was a walled city on a peninsula, which made it difficult for invaders to take over. Finally, that year, the Ottoman Empire captured Constantinople and called it Istanbul. That was the end of the Byzantine Empire.
The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks is sometimes called the end of the Middle Ages.
Islamic Golden Age change
The Islamic prophet Muhammad founded Islam in the early 7th century. Soon after his death in 632, Islam split into two main branches: the Sunni Muslims and the Shi'a. Most Muslims (about 85%) are now Sunni. Shi'a live mostly in Iran and Iraq. The Sunni-Shi'a split has been compared to the later East-West Schism of 1054 or the Protestant Reformation within the Western Christianity starting in 1517.
After Muhammad’s death, Arab Muslims began to take over many Christian territories and convert them to Islam. Over time, they took control of what is now Iraq, Syria, Egypt, North Africa and Spain. (France and other European countries stayed under Christian rule.) Eventually, the Muslim Ottomans Empire conquered parts of Eastern Europe too. Many Muslim states held of vast areas of land, which made them superpowers of the Middle Ages. Islam spread along the major trade routes of the Old World. Many traders and travelers became Muslim.
The Middle Ages were a golden age of knowledge in Muslim territories. Europe was struggling greatly, but the Islamic world was making great progress in the arts, agriculture, economics, industry, law, literature, navigation, philosophy, sciences and technology. Many Muslim caliphs and Sultans gathered the ancient texts of great classical empires. (For example, the caliphs of Andalusia, based in Cordoba, gathered ancient Roman texts, and the Anatolian Seljuk Sultans gathered ancient Greek texts.). During the Islamic Golden Age, Al-Khwarizmi, a Persian Muslim mathematician, helped to develop algebra.
Asian Trade and the Bubonic Plague change
During the Middle Ages, trade between countries became much more common. Most trade ran along the Silk Road, a trade route that connected Europe to the Middle East and East Asia. Arab traders brought things back and forth between Europe and East Asia along the Silk Road.
Items that were light, easy to carry and valuable traveled the furthest distances. During the High Middle Ages, wealth began to return, and consumers began to demand luxuries again. Traders brought silk, porcelain, spices, incense, gold and gems thousands of miles across deserts, mountains and plains to reach Europe. They also brought glass from Europe to Asia.
Not all items traveled along the entire Silk Road. Traders carrying heavier or less valuable items would travel shorter distances. Food, for example, would usually travel only within a few villages.
Trade was greatly interrupted several times during the Crusades (1095-1291), Mongol invasions, wars between Muslims and Christians and the Black Plague. Histories think the Mongols brought the plague with them from Asia. The disease devastated the world population from 1347 to 1351 and killed almost a third of the world's population although the Americas were not affected.
Buddhism is a non-theistic religion; its followers do not believe in a god. It is based on philosophy and began in India. However, Muslim invaders drove Buddhism out of India, which forced it to flee east. There are very few Buddhists in India today, but Buddhism eventually took up strong roots in China.
The Mongolian Empire and Chinese Exploration change
During the Middle Ages, the Mongols created the world's largest-ever contiguous empire. Under the leadership of Genghis Khan, the Mongols took over territories in much of Asia, the Middle East, and far Eastern Europe. Because the Mongol Empire was so large and powerful, there was little war within the empire. This is now called the Pax Mongolica (Latin for “Mongolian peace”). Like the earlier Pax Romana ("Roman Peace"), the Pax Mongolica was a time of relative peace and stability. That made it possible for trade, technologies and ideas to travel safely throughout Eurasia. International trade and diplomacy along the Silk Road expanded greatly.
Around the time of his death in 1227, Genghis Khan’s empire had gotten too large to survive. It collapsed under its own size like Alexander the Great's had in Ancient Greece. The former Mongol Empire was split four ways, which allowed the Chinese to become the dominant power in the Far East once again. Later, under the Yuan dynasty, the Chinese also retook control of northern China.
Around 1405, a Chinese admiral, Zheng He, went to explore the world. His fleet of 300 treasure ships explored great areas of the Eastern world. The ships were many times larger than anything the Europeans had built. A Zheng He treasure ship was wider than Columbus' ship Santa Maria was long.
Late Middle Ages change
The Late Middle Ages were the last two centuries of the Middle Ages, from around 1291, when the Crusades ended, to 1492, when Columbus traveled to the New World. The gun was invented, and changed the way that wars were fought. Aristocracy and feudalism became less important.
Before the Late Middle Ages, armies were formed only when there was a war, but states began to found standing armies, which are permanent. Technology, economy and science developed. New cities were founded, and existing cities grew larger and richer.
During the late Middle Ages, France and England fought the Hundred Years' War. China regained its independence from the Mongol Empire. The Grand Duchy of Moscow, which became the most important state in Eastern Europe, also became independent from the Mongols and later became called “Russia.”
In 1453, the Ottoman Empire conquered the Byzantine Empire. That cut off the Silk Road and so Europeans had to find new trade routes. That triggered the Age of Discovery during the Renaissance. In turn, the Christian states drove the Muslims out of Spain.