Part I

Starting Up the Middle Ages


In this part . . .

So when did the Middle Ages happen? The answer is more complicated than you may think. In this part I look at what happened when the Roman Empire came to an end and numerous new states and countries began to emerge. I also look at how the Anglo-Saxons made England their own and how a whole new Holy Roman Empire came into being through a man who modestly called himself Charles the Great. But this part isn’t all empire building - you can also find thrilling epic poetry, a bold appearance by Attila the Hun and a homicidal German queen named Brunhilda!

Chapter 1

Journeying Back to the Middle Ages: When, Where, What, Who?

In This Chapter

Placing the Middle Ages in history’s timeline

● Finding Medieval Europe and beyond on maps

● Speaking the languages and meeting the people

● Making the case for examining the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages - a period of roughly 1,000 years of human life in Europe and beyond - have long been the recipient of bad press. For example:

Simply referring to this era as the Middle Ages implies that the really important bits are what happened before and after, and that the Middle Ages are just filler.

● Using the adjective ‘medieval’ carries the negative connotation that things were underdeveloped or backward.

● Thinking of this entire era as the Dark Ages (as a few people do) implies nothing more than century after century of wars, diseases and savagery.

In fact, the Middle Ages are an incredibly rich swathe of history. Many modern-day European countries formed during the period, and enduring aspects of present-day governments and international relations link back to this time. Advances in science and technology were enormous and far-reaching, and much of the beautiful art and buildings created during this period continue to inspire today. In addition, some truly fascinating figures made their mark on history.

Of course, like all periods of history, the Middle Ages did include bloodthirsty wars, cruel invasions, religious repression and the first great plague - the Black Death. None of these events were very much fun for the people involved at the time, but they do combine to make one hell of a story!

In this chapter I put the Middle Ages in context, zeroing in on the specific times, places and people that make up this incredible era. I also briefly look at some of the reasons why the Middle Ages remain such a fascinating period.

Pinpointing the Middle Ages:

The Middle of What Exactly?

Although now quite negative, the terms ‘medieval’ and ‘Middle Ages’ were initially purely practical ways to describe a specific period of time.

The term ‘Middle Ages’ first came into use during the Renaissance (roughly 1400-1600). Historians and scholars in this period were great fans of antiquity - Ancient Greece and Rome - and were hugely influenced by the writers, philosophers and artists of the period. Antiquity came to an end with the fall of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476 (flip to Chapter 2 for more on this monumental event). Renaissance historians used the term Middle Ages to cover the period between this event and their own time.

Of course, people living in the period didn’t consider themselves to be living during the Middle Ages. The term didn’t exist for them - just as Renaissance writers didn’t realise that they were living in the Renaissance and people currently don’t know how future scholars are going to refer to events happening today.

Having the time of their lives

The Middle Ages encompass a very long period of history. Traditionally, historians have considered the Middle Ages to have taken place between 1100 and 1500, but scholars have long argued about when the period officially starts and finishes. I’ve been forced to make a decision about that, too. Medieval History For Dummies covers the period between two key events:

● The fall of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476.

● The discovery of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492.

Of course, including Columbus takes this book into the fifteenth century (which some people may say isn’t part of the Middle Ages), but the discovery of another continent really is the event that ushers in the next period of history. It also makes for a slice of history just over 1,000 years in length, which is just neat!

To put 1,000 years - a huge period of time - into context, bear in mind that fewer than 1,000 years have passed since William of Normandy won the Battle of Hastings in 1066 (which I describe more in Chapter 10). Think how much has changed since then. The aim of this book is to give you a framework of medieval history: the big issues, important developments, essential events and most significant characters.

Establishing a timeline

Clearly a period of 1,000 years requires some sort of chronology! Although you can always jump to any chapter of this book that interests you, each part focuses on a specific period, usually a chunk that’s several centuries long. Here’s a quick guide:

● 450-800: The Roman Empire falls and the Dark Ages begin. As Europe experiences a series of huge people migrations, some leaders take their chances to gain territory and status. Most successful is Charles Magnus ‘Charlemagne’ who becomes the first Holy Roman Emperor. This period is the focus of Part I.

● 800-1100: The Middle Ages get going, and Europe begins to form. This tumultuous time includes Islamic conquests in Spain, Viking raids everywhere and William the Conqueror waging the Battle of Hastings. Exciting times! Turn to Part II.

● 1100-1200: The Crusades sweep through Europe, the Middle East and beyond. After the Byzantine emperor begs for help, Pope Urban II calls the rulers of Europe to retake Jerusalem. Thousands respond in the form of numerous Crusades, which result in establishing the kingdom of Outremer and a great deal else. Soldier on to Part III.

● 1200-1400: The ‘High Middle Ages’, during which England and France are in conflict. A crisis in the papacy (several people claim to be the pope) occurs at the same time as the Black Death, which many people think of as a punishment from God. Pop to Part IV for more.

● 1400-1492: The Middle Ages draw to a close. With the end of the

Hundred Years’ War between England and France and the destruction of the Byzantine Empire by the Ottoman Turks, the Renaissance is born and Christopher Columbus discovers the New World. I wrap up things in Part V.

Locating the Medieval World

When historians talk about the Middle Ages, they are generally talking about events that took place in and around modern-day Europe and a few adjacent areas, as Figure 1-1 shows.

As you can see, the Medieval World is based around Europe and extends to the areas around the Mediterranean Sea. The northern coast of Africa (modern-day Morocco and Tunisia), the Levantine (modern-day Syria and Palestine) and what used to be called Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) are the virtual boundaries.

The areas included in Figure 1-1 were pretty much the limits of the known world to Western Europeans during the Middle Ages. People were aware that lands existed farther to the east and the south, but they had no real information about them. Even the basic geography of these areas on maps was unfamiliar to many people, which made the journeys of various Crusaders very difficult (Part III contains more about the Crusades). Of course, a great deal was going on in the rest of the world at this time, even though Medieval Europe wasn’t aware of it!

Figure 1-1: The Medieval World

Flat-packed planet?

One of the popular modern beliefs about the Middle Ages is that everybody believed that the Earth was flat; if you sailed far enough, you fell off the edge of the world. The story goes that only after Columbus reached the Americas in 1492 and returned to Europe did people believe that the planet was round.

Knowing the truth here is difficult. For instance, a huge number of writers and mathematicians suggested that the Earth was spherical for many centuries before the Middle Ages and this assertion continued throughout the Middle Ages. Then again, current historians have no idea about wider popular opinion, and so huge numbers of people may well have thought that the Earth was flat.

Getting to Know the People of the Middle Ages

The countries on the map in Figure 1-1 may look pretty familiar, but they aren’t the same as their modern equivalents. Countries such as France, Germany, Spain and many others only really formed during the medieval period.

Consequently the people who lived in these areas didn’t really think of themselves as French, German or Spanish. Instead they considered their identity in a much more localised way, most likely claiming their town, city or possibly principality. For example, a man from Florence may introduce himself as a Florentine not Italian, just as a woman from Burgundy in northern France would consider herself a Burgundian.

Moving around - a lot

Another complicating factor in the idea of nationality is that huge population movements took place several times during the Middle Ages. Whole societies would move geographical location because of war, disease or famine. These massive shifts mean that tracing people’s lineage is extremely complicated.

A great example of the complexities of identity is William the Conqueror. Nowadays most people think of William as French, but he was actually the son of the Duke of Normandy, and thus a Norman from northern France. He was descended from a people who moved to the Loire Valley in France in around

AD 911 from Scandinavia, however, and so his ancestors were essentially Vikings. As you can see, nationality gets very complicated!

Individuals moved around a lot, too. Although many people might spend their whole lives in the same small village, they had lots of reasons for leaving to go on a journey. For example, pilgrimage was very popular and led people to undertake journeys of thousands of miles. Merchants and seamen began to make longer and more substantial journeys as trade increased in volume and reach (see Chapter 18), and some of the biggest journeys were made by clerics and Church officials travelling to religious councils and meetings.

Minding your language

With so many people moving around the continent of Europe, the languages of the medieval period were equally diverse and in constant flux.

Literacy is one of the most fascinating things about the medieval period. The vast majority of people in Europe were illiterate and so most languages were only spoken. Most literate people were within the higher ranks of society, but even then their literacy was only partial. The major written language of the day was Latin - the language of the Roman Empire, the papacy and the medieval Church - but although many people in the Church could read and write, this wasn’t so everywhere. A lot of important people were only able to read. This wasn’t because these people weren’t intelligent enough; it was simply because they didn’t need to bother. Kings, queens, lords and ladies had servants and these included scribes who would make notes and write letters for them - just as secretaries did for modern-day business people until the arrival of dictaphones and speech-recognition software!

As you can see from the map in Figure 1-2, languages varied widely throughout Medieval Europe. Many people spoke localised dialects, which were based around the contemporary indo-European languages, like the Germanic, Celtic and Hellenic languages. Eventually during the later medieval period, some of the main modern languages you know today developed alongside the modern nations themselves. English, French, German and Spanish all first came into common usage during the Middle Ages.

On a local level, however, language wasn’t as simple as Figure 1-2 suggests. Large-scale population movements brought in new dialects and as a result linguistic adaptations developed frequently. This fact was particularly true in Eastern Europe, where the influx of new people from farther east constantly influenced the huge variety of Slav languages.

Figure 1-2: Who spoke what in the Medieval World

Appreciating an Era

Although the Middle Ages are complicated, exploring this period is very much worth the effort; presumably you agree because you’re reading this book!

Calling the Middle Ages ‘the Dark Ages’ (the period between 450-800) just isn’t fair or accurate. This period - and indeed this book - is filled with deeply fascinating stories, ideas and characters.

Bucking the trend: Medieval inventions

The word ‘medieval’ has become a term of abuse to describe things that are backward and that ignore progress, but this usage is far from the truth. The Middle Ages saw the invention of numerous fascinating devices and new, innovative ways of doing things, some of which continue to impact your life today. Here are just three:

● Castles: Probably the most obvious invention of the Middle Ages, castles were first introduced in Europe in the tenth century in France. Initially built of wood, the Normans later built them from stone. In addition to influencing building and architecture for centuries to come, castles were vital tools for enforcing authority and maintaining the possession of lands - two things that medieval rulers were particularly keen on (read more about this aspect in Chapter 10). Castles worked as administrative centres too. Local rulers used castles as their bases for a sort of medieval civil service and revenue collection service. The medieval writing implement was just as mighty as the sword!

● The clavicembalum or harpsichord: A manuscript dating from 1397 claims that Hermann Poll invented the first stringed instrument to be played by a keyboard. In doing so he created the first harpsichord, the precursor to the piano.

● The printing press: Presses were used throughout the Ancient World to produce wine and olive oil, but during the medieval period the technology was used to reproduce the printed word - and truly revolutionise the world. In 1439, Johannes Gutenberg invented the first printing press in Strasbourg. You’re reading this book right now as a direct result of that event! Turn to Chapters 28 and 29 for more.

Logically illogical history

One of the most interesting, but equally infuriating, aspects about studying history is the way that things suddenly change. People may spend years establishing a tradition or setting up a system of government, only for one individual or a group to do something crazy and change everything. With the benefit of hindsight, you're likely to be shocked by some of the short-term decisions that historical figures made and the chaos that ensued. The Middle Ages were particularly prone to this tendency. Near-constant regime change means that things shifted all the time and that the stability that people spent years working towards was upset by one (seemingly) stupid decision.

However, what seems illogical to you probably seemed very logical to them. Medieval people regarded life as brief and essentially training for the afterlife. They weren't necessarily making decisions with an eye on how they would play out over the next half-century or even the next ten years; it was all about making decisions for the here and now. A great example is Reynald of Chatillon, a French knight to whom I give a hard time in Chapter 15. He was a bit of an idiot, but he probably thought he was doing the right thing! In a way the decision-making process of medieval leaders isn't that different from that of many contemporary politicians. An alternative point of view would be that medieval people were focused on the very long term, in that they felt their mortal lives were preparation for the afterlife. Perversely, this meant that they made very short-term decisions for what I suppose is the ultimate long-term benefit!

Encountering fascinating people

Along with development of a host of technologies and major societal changes, the Middle Ages also witnessed a host of amazing individuals whose exploits continue to excite, inspire and amuse. Here are just a few examples of the characters that crop up in the period:

● Henry II ‘The Wrangler’, Duke of Bavaria (951-995): The German aristocracy were a fascinating and unusual bunch, and Henry is a particularly good example. Twice the Duke of Bavaria, he earned his nickname due to his difficult and quarrelsome nature, persistently starting conflicts and attempting to usurp the throne. Many of the kings themselves weren’t much better; see also Charles the Fat, Henry the Fowler and Charles the Simple.

● Fulk III ‘The Black’ (972-1040): A notorious villain, robber and plunderer, Fulk was also the Count of Anjou in France. His nickname was due to his dark and savage temper that often erupted in extreme violence. He is mainly famous for two things: being one of the first great castle builders and burning his wife at the stake after discovering that she had committed adultery with a goatherd (to be fair, she was never unfaithful again). Fulk also spent a great deal of his time on pilgrimage and doing penance for his wicked acts, which makes him a great example of how the savagery of some medieval figures is balanced with extreme religious devotion. See Chapter 10.

● Stephen of Blois (c. 1045-1102): Stephen was the Count of Blois and one of the leaders of the first Crusade. He wrote a number of letters to his wife Adela of Normandy describing how the Crusade was going. Unfortunately he became ill when the Crusade got stuck at Antioch and returned home without having reached Jerusalem as he vowed. Unimpressed, Adele forced him to go back. He didn’t make it this time either and was killed in battle on the way. See Chapter 11.

● Peter the Hermit (c. 1050-1115): A penniless, nomadic ex-monk who travelled around relying on the charity of others, Peter the Hermit doesn’t appear to be much at first sight. He was, however, responsible for recruiting thousands and thousands of people to travel to Jerusalem as part of the People’s Crusade (1096). The event was a total disaster and the vast majority were killed, but Peter is a great example of the influence of religion in the Medieval World and the power of oratory. See Chapter 12.

● Hildegard of Bingen (c. 1098-1179): Despite being a male-dominated age, the medieval period produced many fascinating women. Hildegard was a German writer, scholar, mystic and artist who eventually became a saint, so was a woman of many talents! During her remarkable life she founded two monasteries, composed music, wrote plays and stories, and drew beautiful illuminations for manuscripts. Hildegard is a great example of how many medieval thinkers and creative people turned their hands to all forms of art in a way that foreshadowed the intellectuals of the Renaissance. Living until she was 81 years old was something of an achievement too!

● Genghis Khan (c. 1155-1227): The great conqueror and Mongol leader was mostly active in Asia, but his activities had a profound effect on the Western Medieval World. Several of the big population movements I mention in the earlier section ‘Moving around - a lot’ were due to Genghis Khan’s military adventures.

Many more wonderful characters appear in the story of the Middle Ages - monks, knights, kings, queens, writers and others. So turn the page and start meeting them!

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