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Introduction

The period in Europe from c. 700 to c. 1500. The decline of the Roman empire in the West and the period of barbarian invasions in the 5th and 6th centuries (Dark Ages) was followed by the emergence of separate kingdoms and the development of forms of government. The coronation of Charlemagne in AD 800 is held to mark the end of anarchy and the revival of civilization and learning. England, under Alfred, similarly saw the encouragement of learning and the establishment of monastic houses. Territorial expansion by Vikings and Normans throughout Europe in the 9th and 10th centuries, initially violent and disruptive, led to their assimilation into local populations. Trade and urban life revived.

The High Middle Ages (12th and 13th centuries) saw a growth in the power of the papacy, which led to clashes between the pope and secular rulers over their respective spheres of jurisdiction. The creation of new monastic orders encouraged scholarship and architecture. The obsession with pilgrimage to holy shrines was the impetus behind the Crusades, in which thousands of Christian knights went to Palestine to fight the Muslims and convert them to Christianity. Society was organized on a military basis, the feudal system, in which land was held in return for military service. But although war dominated this period, it also saw the growth of trade (notably the English wool trade), the foundation of universities, and the flowering of scholarship, notably in philosophy and theology (scholasticism). Gothic art and architecture had its finest expression in the cathedrals built from the 12th century for the following 300–400 years.

During the 13th and 14th centuries various factors combined to cause social and economic unrest. The Black Death, and the Hundred Years War between France and England, resulted in a falling population and the beginnings of anticlericalism. In the 15th and 16th centuries the Renaissance in Italy marked a new spirit of sceptical enquiry and the end of the medieval period.

[From A Dictionary of World History. Oxford University Press, 2000.]

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