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Review Chapter 3: The Middle Ages

The Byzantine Empire

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium, continued to flourish for nearly a millennium. Byzantium thrived for many years as a result of its geographical location adjacent to an important strait, the Bosporus, which connected several seas and placed Byzantium at the center of several key trading routes. Because a massive amount of wealth was regularly exchanged along these trading routes, Byzantium prospered, but it was also a prime target for invaders.

The Rise of Byzantium

Following its emergence as the sole remnant of the Roman Empire in 395 CE, Byzantium began to develop as a major power in the Mediterranean world. In 527 CE, Justinian, one of the most influential emperors in Byzantine history, came to power. During the course of his reign, Justinian achieved several important accomplishments.

Justinian made it his goal to reclaim as much territory as possible of the former Western Roman Empire, which had been lost to Germanic tribes. Over time, Justinian's forces successfully regained control of the majority of Italy and some parts of Spain. By the end of his reign, he had also extended his empire into North Africa, Asia Minor, Syria, and Palestine.

More significant than his territorial conquests, however, were Justinian's attempts to codify Roman law. Byzantium had inherited a wealth of materials related to Roman law. Faced with the prospect of having to interpret the law through a confusing hodgepodge of Roman and Byzantine legal treatises, judicial commentaries, and so on, Justinian decided that the best course of action was to simplify the law using a system of codification. The Justinian Code was the end result of this effort. This code organized and simplified Roman law into a format that would be used for the remainder of Byzantium's existence.

Finally, Justinian rebuilt the capital city of Constantinople, which had been destroyed during a series of riots over taxes. The crown jewel of Justinian's new Constantinople was the famed Hagia Sophia. A high- domed church built in the typical Byzantine style of architecture, the Hagia Sophia would later be converted into a mosque by the Turks.

The Fall of Byzantium

The decline of the Byzantine Empire began with the death of Justinian in 565 CE. In addition, an outbreak of the plague lasted until around 700 CE, which significantly reduced the population. A weakened Byzantium was attacked by several enemies. The most notable invasion came from the Seljuk Turks, who eventually assumed control of much of the east, reducing Byzantium's food supply and its ability to collect taxes from the region.

Byzantium was also weakened by a major split in the Catholic Church. Theological differences, particularly over the use of icons, led to a bitter division among church leaders. In 1054, the church experienced a schism that led to the development of two separate groups of Catholics: the Roman Catholic Church in the West and the Eastern Orthodox Church in the East.

As Byzantium struggled to right itself, the Seljuk Turks began to experience difficulties of their own. When Seljuk leader Malik-Shah died in 1092, the Seljuk Empire began to collapse. Leaders of Western Europe saw this as an opportunity to challenge the Seljuks for control of the “Holy Land” in a series of battles known as the Crusades. Although the Seljuks ultimately emerged victorious in the thirteenth century, they were still weak. Eventually, they were overthrown by another group of Islamic Turks known as the Ottomans. With very little land left under its control and few resources, Byzantium fell to the Ottomans in 1453.

Post-Roman Europe

After the fall of Rome, much of Western Europe came under the control of different Germanic groups, many of which were united by their conversion to Christianity. Eventually, one of these kingdoms, located in what was once the Roman province of Gaul, emerged as the most powerful. The success of the Franks was due in no small part to the support they received from the Roman Catholic Church, which increased both the power of the Franks and the political authority of the church itself.

The Franks reigned in Gaul until the eighth century, at which time the Carolingians came to power. In Carolingian Gaul, governmental power was held by a figure known as the majordomo (mayor of the palace) instead of a king. The first significant majordomo was Charles Martel, who increased the size of the Frankish territory and prevented the Turks from entering Western Europe. Martel was later succeeded by his son, Pippin the Short (also known as Pippin III), whose son Charlemagne would later become the most influential ruler in the entire Carolingian line.

Upon taking the throne, Charlemagne began to construct a vast European empire that extended to Rome and encompassed all of France, parts of Spain, as well as the Saxony region of Germany. His power was so great that in 800 CE, Pope Leo III crowned him Holy Roman Emperor, a move that placed him in control of a large portion of Western and Central Europe and increased the political authority of the pope. As a ruler, Charlemagne chose to travel around his kingdom solidifying control while leaving the governance of local regions to his counts.

Following Charlemagne's death in 814 CE, his crown passed to his son, Louis the Pious. However, neither Louis nor any Carolingian successor was able to maintain Charlemagne's empire. Eventually, the power of the Carolingians diminished and political solidarity dissolved.

Feudalism in Europe

The fragile situation in Europe was further exacerbated by a new threat: the Scandinavian Vikings. As a result of severe food shortages in their homeland, the Vikings traveled to other lands in search of food and new homes. The violence of their invasions left most Europeans terrified. A desperate need for protection from invasions of this sort led to the rise of the feudal system across Western Europe. In the feudal system, individuals (vassals) pledged their loyalty to a local lord. The lord ensured their safety in return for help with military service or agricultural work. As part of this agreement, vassals would receive benefices, or special privileges, usually in the form of a land grant known as a fief.

The feudal system also gave rise to serfdom, a central component of the economic system that evolved around feudalism. Most European communities were based around individual manors, or self-sufficient estates owned by nobles. The majority of the peasants that lived on the manor were considered serfs, who were permanently bound to the land. Even in cases when a noble sold his manor to another noble, the serfs remained with the manor and were given protection in exchange for agricultural and other duties.

Feudalism in Japan

As this system spread across Europe, a different form of feudalism developed in Japan. By this time, Japan had adopted the Chinese system of centralized government; however, the Japanese favored militarism over the bloated bureaucracy of the Chinese system. The era of centralized government in Japan culminated with the reign of the Heian court (794-1185). The rise of estates in Japan led to the development of a feudal system in which landowners called the daimyo ran the estate with

help of warriors called samurai. The daimyo ensured the safety of the peasants, who were loyal to the lord in return. Like the serfs in Europe, the samurai were tied to the land.

The Mongols in china

The Mongols originated from a region just northwest of China. Starting in 1206, the Mongols launched a period of conquest that would eventually net them a massive empire to include a large portion of Asia, Persia, Russia, and much of Europe to the east of Vienna.

The domination of the Mongols began with early conquests in Asia. Led by Temujin, better known as Genghis Khan, the Mongols used military expertise and siege warfare technology to overpower the natives. The Mongol Empire expanded so rapidly that by Genghis Khan's death in 1227, it was necessary to divide the empire into four separate regions to maintain control. Each region was called a khanate and was ruled by a descendant of Genghis Khan. The four khanates were located in Persia, Russia, Central Asia, and China.

The Persian khanate began in 1231, when the Mongols invaded Persia and massacred a large portion of the population. After nearly thirty years, the Mongols finally overthrew the region. Rather than assuming direct control, however, the Mongols permitted the Persians to run their own government in exchange for regular tributes and peaceful relations.

The Russian khanate, also known as the Khanate of the Golden Horde, began with a Mongol invasion in 1237. During their occupation of Russia, the Mongols kept the Russians isolated from Western influences. The Mongol occupation led to the emergence of Moscow as a prominent Russian city, thanks to Prince Alexander Nevsky, who cooperated with the Mongols and conquered Russian cities that refused to pay tribute. The Mongols remained in Russia until Ivan III forced them out in 1480.

The Mongols also invaded Eastern Europe. In the 1240s, they seized control of various parts of the Polish, Hungarian, and German regions of Europe. Although they attempted to push further eastward, they were eventually stopped at Vienna and forced to retreat.

By far the largest and most important region of Mongol dominance was China. In 1270, the Mongols established a Chinese tribute empire under the command of Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan. Calling their empire the Yuan dynasty, the Mongols adopted the Chinese form of centralized government but instituted a number of changes. For example, the Mongols eliminated the civil service examination, allowed greater religious freedom, and put an end to Confucian education. The Mongols refused to assimilate into Chinese culture, and preferred to live separately. Although the Yuan dynasty later attempted to extend its reach into Japan and part of Southeast Asia, these excursions ultimately proved unsuccessful.

Between the 1250s and the 1350s, the Mongol-dominated Eurasian region enjoyed an era of extended peace called the Mongol Peace. During this period, the Mongol presence ensured that travel along the Silk Roads was safe, which helped to increase trade and prosperity. The Mongols also used diplomacy and established peaceful relationships with peoples from regions they did not control.

The increase in trade brought on by the Mongol Peace had unforeseen consequences. Although it was well known that disease traveled easily along the Silk Roads, the world was unprepared for the spread of the bubonic plague (known as the black death). Having been brought into China by the Mongols themselves, the plague spread outward along Eurasian trade routes and into Europe and Africa. In Europe, nearly a third of the population was wiped out by the plague.

In the fourteenth century, the Mongol Empire went into decline as the result of inept government and economic problems. Unable to control their spending, the Mongols printed more and more money, which in turn severely depressed its value. After losing the Persian khanate in 1335, the Mongols faced revolts from the Chinese. Already weakened by the bubonic plague, the Mongol Empire could no longer support itself. It collapsed in the face of Chinese resistance in 1368.

The Rise of cities and Nation-States

During the latter half of the Middle Ages, the increase in trade led to urbanization. Many of the trading hubs of the medieval world grew into major cities that generated significant wealth. In many areas of Europe, urbanization helped lay the foundation for the return of centralized government and the end of feudalism.


Trade was a major factor in the emergence of several prominent African cultures and urban centers during this period. In West Africa, the kingdom of Ghana became an empire thanks to its ability to control the gold and salt trades. In some parts of Africa, salt was extremely scarce, and as a result of the crucial role it played in sustaining human life, its value in the region rivaled that of gold. Ghana continued to thrive until it was conquered by Muslims in 1076.

The gold and salt trades also contributed to the rise of Mali in West Africa. One of the larger Mali cities, Timbuktu, eventually became a major trading hub. The Mali trading empire flourished until 1403, by which time the sub-Saharan gold fields had shifted further east and out of Mali control. As the Mali fell into decline, the Songhai quickly took their place. Seizing control of the new gold fields, the Songhai rose to and remained in power until they were defeated by Moroccan invaders in 1591.

In southeast Africa, Zimbabwe also flourished thanks to the gold trade. Although Zimbabwe did not directly control any gold fields, the city of Great Zimbabwe was located near one of the key trading routes between the central African gold fields and the African coast. This helped the city become prosperous.


The Viking threat began to subside in the tenth century, allowing trade to reemerge. Trade, a growing population, and improved agricultural abilities helped restore economic stability in Western Europe and encourage the growth of cities.

One of the key factors in the return of trade in Europe was the Crusades. Although the Crusades ultimately failed in their primary objective, they did have a direct impact on trade. For the duration of the Crusades, the ships that transported troops to the Holy Land also returned various luxury goods to Italy. These goods traveled along various trade routes across the European mainland. Many of the cities through which these routes passed quickly grew into major urban centers.

In addition to reestablishing trade, the Crusades helped to foster economic growth, the exchange of ideas, and the shift of political power away from nobles and toward more powerful monarchs. They also contributed to the increasing political power of the Catholic Church and the pope.

Urbanization in Western Europe led to advancements in manufacturing and banking. As urban centers expanded, workers were needed. Many serfs left the feudal manors to reside in urban areas. As urban centers grew, the first trade organizations, known as guilds, were founded. Guilds helped establish uniformity in pricing and ensure that trade was conducted honestly. A new middle class arose among the city dwellers who took part in manufacturing, craftsmanship, banking, and other forms of commerce.

The transition away from the feudal system was hastened by the arrival of the bubonic plague in 1346. By 1351, the population of Europe was decimated. The serf population was particularly devastated by the plague, and a severely depleted workforce virtually crippled the feudal system. Technological advances and a second agricultural revolution further weakened feudalism.


The roots of centralized government in Western Europe can be traced back to England and France. In England in the ninth century, Alfred the Great forced out the Viking invaders and united all of England under his rule. This unification was later strengthened following the Norman invasion of 1066. The Normans were led by William, Duke of Normandy.

William successfully invaded England and took the throne. As king, William declared all of England his property and doled out land to the Norman lords that were loyal to him. This unique form of feudalism marked the beginning of centralized government in England.

The evolution of centralized government in England took another major step forward in 1215 during the reign of King John. The nobility were frustrated by high levels of taxation and forced the king to sign a document guaranteeing basic political rights. Known as the Magna Carta, this document placed limitations on the power of the monarch and strengthened the rights of the nobility. Later, the Magna Carta would be adopted as a representation of the rights of all English people, not just the nobility.

In 1295 the first parliament was formed. Based on an earlier English legislative body called the Great Council, the first parliament, often referred to as the Model Parliament, had two houses: the House of Commons, composed of burgesses and knights, and the House of Lords, composed of bishops and nobles. This basic parliamentary model proved so successful that it continues to thrive today.

Centralized government in France also began with the unification of feudal communities. In 987, a group of feudal lords in a small region of France united under the leadership of Hugh Capet. Although the Capetian kingdom was initially small, it grew significantly over time with a series of successful rulers. The Capetian kingdom eventually encompassed all of modern-day France.


Feudalism in Western Europe was ultimately brought to an end by the Hundred Years' War, which France and England fought for control of the French throne. The war began in 1337 when the last Capetian king died without a legitimate heir, and England's King Edward III declared himself ruler of France. After more than a century of fighting, France emerged victorious. By the war's end in 1453, the French monarchy had been strengthened and the sense of nationalism in both countries had grown significantly.

Mesoamerican Cultures

While medieval Europe was experiencing Viking invasions, feudalism, the plague, and the rise of nation-states, important civilizations were emerging in Mesoamerica. Starting around 250 CE, a number of Native American cultures appeared and came to dominate the regions of Middle and South America. Among these cultures were the Maya, the Toltec, the Aztec, and the Inca.


While the Olmec civilization was still in existence, another civilization, the Maya, emerged and incorporated many aspects of Olmec tradition into their own. Situated on the Yucatan Peninsula and in parts of modern-day Belize and Guatemala, the Maya were an agricultural civilization centered on the cultivation of crops such as maize and beans. They constructed complex urban cities, including the capital Tikal and Chichen Itza. They also constructed truncated pyramids in honor of their gods, such as the deity Quetzalcoatl.

The Maya are noted for their scientific advancements, including intricate solar and lunar calendars; the introduction of the mathematical concept of zero; and an advanced, glyph-based written language. The Maya practiced polytheism and believed the creation story told in the sacred Mayan book called Popol Vuh. They also occasionally made human sacrifices, which was common among many Mesoamerican cultures.

Like many other cultures at the time, the Maya developed a tiered social system with the nobility at the top, merchants and artisans in the middle, and peasants at the bottom. The Mayan government was a monarchy headed by a king who was considered both a political and spiritual leader.

The Maya thrived into the ninth century, at which point their urban centers were mysteriously abandoned. Although the exact reason for their disappearance is unknown, it is believed to have been precipitated by war or soil depletion. Within a century, the entire Mayan civilization was reduced to a few city-states.


Following the collapse of the Mayan culture, their territory came to be occupied by a number of nomadic peoples. Around 900 CE, the Toltec became dominant. Upon establishing permanent settlements, including their capital city of Tula, the Toltec created a culture that borrowed many of the traditions and customs of other peoples in Mesoamerica. Unlike the Maya, the Toltec expanded via violent conquest. Their reign was a short one, however, and lasted only until around 1200 CE.


The Aztec, or Mexica, rose to power after the fall of the Toltec. Originally a nomadic people from northern Mexico, the Aztec appeared as the Toltec civilization was nearing its end. The Aztec continued to move around the region for another hundred years before establishing a permanent settlement on an island in the center of Lake Texcoco. The Aztec believed this location was prophesied by one of their legends, and they called it Tenochtitlan.

As an agricultural society that was primarily dependent on the ability to cultivate maize, the Aztec soon found themselves faced without enough land for farming. To resolve this issue, they produced artificial plots of land called chinampas. These plots of land, which actually floated on the lake, were made by intertwining reeds and vines and covering the structure with soil brought up from the lake bed.

In time, the Aztec became a powerful empire. Using their military might, they forced surrounding peoples to pay tributes. Within just a few hundred years, the Aztec became a major force in the Mesoamerican world. Eventually, they allied with the city-states of Tlacopan and Texcoco to control the majority of the region.

Like the Mayan society, the Aztec society had a three-tiered class system. The Aztec class system, however, had slightly different class divisions, with nobles at the top, commoners in the middle, and slaves at the bottom. The Aztec also practiced a polytheistic religion. Perhaps the most defining feature of Aztec spirituality was their extreme penchant for human sacrifice, a ritual that was performed with frequency.

In the end, the Aztec's own violent tendencies ultimately brought an end to their civilization. In the early 1500s, internal protest against the Aztec's violent rule weakened their empire and left it vulnerable to conquest. The Spaniards arrived in the region in 1519 and overthrew the Aztec in a short period of time.


Further south, the Inca people were in the process of building what would soon become the largest empire anywhere in the Americas. Based in the highlands of the Andes Mountains, the Inca Empire began when the Quechua (later named Inca by the Spanish) entered the region surrounding Lake Titicaca, around the mid-thirteenth century. The Inca quickly established themselves as the dominant culture.

The early expansion of the Inca Empire was carried out under the leadership of Pachacuti, who conquered vast areas of land and took possession of coastal territory during his reign. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Inca Empire included an area more than 2,500 miles in length and ran along the western coast of South America.

The Inca were able to maintain control over their empire by constructing a network of roads. They used the roads to transport military personnel and transmit messages from one part of the empire to another.

In addition, instead of forcing conquered peoples to pay tributes, the Incas required them to submit to involuntary labor, often as part of various public works projects. Labor played a key role in the survival of the Incan community. Incan family groups were expected to work together on the projects that would make their society self-sufficient. Men and women were considered equally important in society, and both were entitled to inheritance through parallel descent.

Unlike other Mesoamerican cultures, the Inca did not have clear class distinctions. The large majority of Inca were peasants, and aristocrats, rulers, and priests accounted for only a small minority. The Inca were

led by a ruler who was viewed as a deity. The Inca Empire began to decline in 1525 CE. Disputes over succession led to civil war. A weakened empire was unable to defend itself against the Spanish.

Review Questions

1. When the Mongols took control of China and established the Yuan dynasty, they did all of the following EXCEPT

A. build their own communities separate from the Chinese

B. adopt the Chinese form of centralized government

C. attempt to invade Japan and Southeast Asia

D. establish a new version of the civil service exam

E. allow for greater religious freedom

2. The invasion of the Byzantine territory by the Seljuk Turks led to a weakening of the Byzantine Empire, primarily due to

A. the political unrest and civil war that spread throughout the empire

B. a reduction in both food supply and the ability to collect taxes

C. a disruption of trade with other Mediterranean cultures

D. a widespread religious upheaval and Islamic conversion

E. the outbreak of epidemic disease that decimated the population

3. In the ninth century, the Vikings invaded other European communities primarily to

A. decide territorial disputes

B. incite religious fervor

C. resolve food shortages

D. establish trade embargoes

E. cause economic distress

4. The reemergence of trade brought about by the Crusades was mainly facilitated through the shipping ports of which country?

A. France

B. Spain

C. Greece

D. Portugal

E. Italy

5. Which of the following statements about how the Maya and the Aztec were similar is INCORRECT?

A. They both had a three-tiered social class system.

B. They both practiced ritual human sacrifice.

C. They both occupied part of the Yucatan Peninsula.

D. They both were conquered by the Spaniards.

E. They both were made up of a collection of city-states.

Answer Explanations

1. D. Although the Mongols made a number of changes to traditional Chinese society when they took power, they did not establish a new version of the civil service exam. In fact, the Mongols chose to abandon the more bureaucratic aspects of the Chinese government entirely.

2. B. Once the Seljuk Turks took control of a large portion of Byzantine territory, food supplies shrank, as did collected taxes.

3. C. The Vikings invaded Europe in the ninth century primarily because of serious food shortages in their homeland of Scandinavia. The Vikings took to other communities to meet their own needs for survival.

4. E. The important role played by the Crusades in the reestablishment of trade in Europe was made possible by the shipping ports of Italy. Throughout the Crusades, the large ships of the Italian merchant fleet were used to transport troops to battle. They frequently returned to Italy with a large supply of goods that then traveled through Europe. This practice helped reestablish patterns of trade across the continent.

5. D. The Maya were not conquered by the Spaniards. Rather, the Mayan culture ended for other reasons.

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