The Middle Ages
The Middle Ages, or medieval (med-EE-vul) period, lasted roughly from A.D. 500 to 1500. It was an era of great changes in civilization, a transition between ancient times and the modern world. With the rise of the Roman Catholic Church and other institutions, Western Europe during this period grew apart from Eastern Europe, which centered around Greece and its Orthodox Church. The Middle East at the same time experienced the explosion of the Muslim, or Islamic, faith, and the region became home to a series of Arab and Turkish empires. Farther east, and in Africa and the Americas, other great empires—among them those of the Chinese, the Mongols, and the Incas—rose and fell.
Most historians link the beginning of the Middle Ages with the fall of the Roman Empire, the long decline of which can be traced to the A.D. 200s. By the 300s, Rome had adopted many practices that would come to characterize medieval life. Whereas ancient Romans had worshiped the old pagan gods such as Jupiter, now the official religion of Rome was Christianity—though a form of Christianity heavily mixed with pagan practices. And whereas the ancient
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The Fall of the Roman Empire
The fall of the Roman Empire is usually considered the starting point for the Middle Ages. In ancient times, Rome—a term that stood not only for the city of Rome, but for the entire world dominated by the Romans—was one of the world's great civilizations. The city itself was founded, according to tradition, in 753 B.C., and over the years that followed, it gradually began to dominate other cities in Italy. In 507 B.C. the Roman Republic, comprising Rome itself and surrounding areas, was established. In 390 B.C. a nomadic group from the north called the Gauls, or Celts, invaded Rome, and this led the Romans to begin building up their military. The next five centuries saw near-constant warfare, during which Rome expanded its territory to include much of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. There was also nearly constant warfare among the Roman leaders themselves in the century leading up to 31 B.C., when the Roman Empire was established. During the next two centuries, the Roman world enjoyed a period of prosperity and contentment known as the Pax Romana, or "Roman peace."
The decline of the Roman Empire (A.D. 180–c. 350)
From A.D. 96 to 180, a series of able emperors ruled Rome, but the quality of emperors in the next half-century would be uneven, and...
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The Merovingian Age
Western Europe includes what is now Germany and Italy, the countries between them such as Switzerland and Austria, and lands to the west, including France, Britain, and Spain. At the beginning of medieval times, however, few of these nations existed; only during the course of the Early Middle Ages (c. 500–c. 1000) would they emerge from the ruins of the Western Roman Empire. The first half of the Early Middle Ages began with great unrest, as barbarian tribes swept over the region. Only the Catholic Church served to provide the area with a unifying culture. The church would in turn lend its support to one of those tribes, whose royal dynasty would give a name to an entire era: the Merovingian Age (481–751).
Dividing up Western Europe (400s–500s)
Europe in the late 400s and early 500s was a confusing mass of tribes, mostly Germanic (i.e., from a group of related tribes in northern Europe) and mostly moving westward and southward. More than a few of these peoples gave their names to regions and entire nations, names that would long outlast
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The Carolingian Age
Whereas the Merovingian Age had begun in turmoil, but had led to the establishment of Europe's first stable dynasty in centuries, the period from 750 to 1000 started with the establishment of a new dynasty and ended in turmoil. The Carolingians' magnificent empire seemed to recall that of Rome, but their power largely centered around one man: Charlemagne. Once he was gone, the empire began disintegrating. Europe faced new terrors as well, not least of which was the last wave of Germanic barbarians: the Vikings. Other invaders came as well, and it seemed that Europe was on the verge of another dark age.
The Carolingian Age (751–987)
A turning point in the history both of Western Europe and of church-state relations occurred in 751, when Charles Martel's son Pepin III (c. 714–768) sent a message to the pope asking if it would be a sin to remove the Merovingian king from power. The pope, who needed Frankish help to defend against the Lombards, sent word that it would not, where-upon Pepin ordered that the last of the Merovingians be thrown into a monastery. Thus once again a pope blessed the establishment of a new dynasty, the Carolingians (kayr-uh-LINJ-ee-unz).
The name came from that of Pepin's son Charles, sometimes known as Carolus Magnus, meaning "Charles the...
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In ancient times, Greece had built one of the world's greatest civilizations, a center of culture and science that reached its peak in the period 490–404 B.C. Even as Greece declined, its influence spread from Italy to Egypt to India, so that by the time the Roman Empire conquered Greece in 146 B.C., Rome had been thoroughly influenced by Greek civilization. Beginning in A.D. 330, the Roman Empire began to split into Greek, or Eastern, and Roman, or Western, halves. Divisions between the two lands widened after the West fell and the East became the Byzantine Empire. Ethnic differences further widened the gap: while Germans overran the western half of the continent, much of Eastern Europe came under the dominance of a people called the Slavs.
The Byzantine Empire
The Byzantine (BIZ-un-teen) Empire had its beginnings with Constantine, who in 330 founded a second Roman capital at a city overlooking the strait that separates Europe from Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). The city became Constantinople (kahn-stan-ti-NOH-pul), but later scholars used its old name of Byzantium (bi-ZAN-tee-um) to identify the entire Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine people, however, called themselves Romans, and their land the Roman Empire, which thus continued to exist in the East for another thousand years after the fall of the...
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The Islamic World
In ancient times, the Middle East produced some of the most outstanding civilizations in the world. First there was Egypt, along with the Mesopotamian civilizations of Sumer, Babylonia, and Assyria; then there were Phoenicia, Israel, Syria, and—far to the east—Persia. During all this time, the least distinguished portion of the Middle East was the hot, dry Arabian Peninsula. The medieval era, however, would see a complete reversal of roles, as the deserts of Arabia produced a mighty faith that swept up the region in a surge of religious passion that remains strong in modern times.
Preparing the way for Islam (300s–632)
In the centuries preceding the birth of Islam (IZ-lahm; "submission to God"), two ancient powers dominated the Middle East. At one end was the Byzantine Empire, which controlled Egypt and, for many centuries, the strip of Mediterranean coastline between Egypt and Turkey. The other great power in the region was Persia, or more specifically the Sassanid (SAS-uh-nid) Empire, which first emerged in A.D. 226.
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The name of Turkey, a country that forms a land bridge between Europe and Asia, reflects the Turkish heritage of its majority population. Yet the region was inhabited for thousands of years before the Turks arrived, during which time it was known variously as Asia Minor or Anatolia. Its ancient civilization and culture were much more closely tied to Greece than they were to the Turks, a Central Asian people who arrived only in the Middle Ages. Once they arrived, however, they soon made their influence known, establishing a distinctive culture and several mighty empires.
Early Turkish empires (500s–900s)
As with most ethnic groups, the Turks can be defined not so much on the basis of race or appearance, but according to language. Because of their nomadic (wandering) lifestyle and lack of written records, it is difficult to know much about their movements; nonetheless, it appears that in the 500s a group who spoke a Turkic language were enslaved by a nation known as the Juan-Juan in what is now Mongolia. In about 550, these Turks overthrew the Juan-Juan, who moved westward and became known as the Avars.
Avars, Khazars, Bulgars, and Oghuz
The Avars would remain a threat to the Byzantine Empire for two centuries beginning...
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The Jewish World
Because it is written in the most famous of all books, the Bible, the story of the Jews is more well known than that of almost any other nation. The Old Testament tells that they were "God's chosen people," for whom he had selected a special land in Palestine. The Jewish nation of Israel, with its capital in Jerusalem, maintained control of that land for centuries; after 586 B.C., however, a succession of empires ruled. In A.D. 70, about forty years after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, and in 135, banished all Jews from the city. Over the years that followed, the Jews tried unsuccessfully several times to reestablish at least partial control over the area; by the beginning of the Middle Ages, however, many had moved on to find what they hoped would be a better life.
Jews, Judaism, and anti-Semitism
The term "Jew," strictly speaking, refers simply to someone who practices Judaism, the Jewish religion. A faith rich in symbolism and ritual, Judaism provided the foundation on which both Christianity and Islam developed. The Old Testament, the principal Jewish scripture, contains a number of themes familiar to believers in all three religions: sin and redemption, faith, sacrifice, obedience, and charity. At the center of all these concepts is the idea of...
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The Eleventh Century
Acentral theme of the eleventh century (the 1000s) in Europe was the struggle between church and state, or between popes and kings. From the mid-800s to the early eleventh century, a series of corrupt popes succeeded in nearly destroying the reputation of the papacy, just as emperors such as Otto the Great were enhancing their own power. In the 1000s, however, church reformers would bring Rome greater authority than it had ever enjoyed and would eventually launch Europe on an ambitious campaign of military and religious conquest called the Crusades.
Europe on the eve of the Crusades
Just as Charles Martel had established the Carolingian throne on the ruins of the Merovingian dynasty (see Chapter 3: The Merovingian Age), so medieval France grew from the ruins of Charlemagne's empire. In 987, the Carolingian ruler of the West Frankish Empire died without an heir; therefore French nobles and church leaders gathered to choose a successor. They elected a member of France's most powerful family, Hugh Capet (kuh-PAY; ruled 987–96), whose Capetian (kuh-PEE-shun) dynasty would rule the country until 1328. As his capital, Hugh Capet chose a city along the River Seine (SEHN), a town that had existed long before the Romans captured it in 52 B.C.: Paris.
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The Twelfth Century
Though the Crusades would continue in some form until 1464, the crusading movement reached its peak during the twelfth century, as Europeans fought to maintain what they had gained in the First Crusade. The Crusades were the heart of the Middle Ages, source of the ideas and images most closely associated with the medieval period; but they were also the turning point, the beginning of the end. Conceived in ignorance, greed, and superstition, these so-called "holy wars" would have the unexpected effect of exposing Europeans to new ideas; as a result, the Europeans and their world were forever changed. From 1100, the reawakening of Europe began to pick up speed, and soon there was no turning back.
A changing world
Early in the twelfth century, England had its own Investiture Controversy. William the Conqueror's son William II (ruled 1087–1106), though he proved greedy and foolish as a king, was smart enough to appoint an outstanding man as archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of England's church. This was Anselm (c. 1034–1109), who quarreled first with William and later with his younger brother Henry I (ruled 1100–1135)—a much more competent ruler—over the powers of the church versus those of the king. Finally Henry and Anselm reached a compromise in 1105.
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The Thirteenth Century
If the twelfth century was the peak of the Middle Ages in Western Europe, the thirteenth century (or the 1200s) offered clear signs that the medieval period was drawing to a close. The Crusades continued, but the crusading spirit lost force; and though the church reached the pinnacle of its powers in the mid-1200s, other elements were gaining influence. Among these competing forces were kings and emerging nation-states such as France and England. But kings and popes were far from the only influential figures in thirteenth-century life: merchants and scholars, though they had little in common, threatened to tear down the power of both church and state.
The end of the Crusades
By the time of the Fourth Crusade (1202–04), Europeans had begun to lose faith in the whole crusading enterprise. Only a figure as strong as Innocent III (ruled 1198–1216), who controlled the papacy at the time of its greatest power, could even have mobilized the people for another crusade; even so, his initial call for troops in 1198 raised little interest. It took four years to pull together a big enough army.
Other than Innocent, this Crusade lacked the strong figures who had driven the first three ventures; this time the guiding force was Venice, which provided five hundred ships and expected to make a profit....
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The Middle Ages in Europe and the Middle East were marked by three invasions of nomads from Central Asia: first the Huns, then the Turks, and finally the Mongols. The Mongols would conquer the largest empire of all, a vast realm that stretched from the Korean Peninsula to the outskirts of Vienna; but the Mongols' empire would fall apart almost as quickly as it came together. For a brief time, however, the Mongols—a people with no written language, and thus no real past history—would dominate much of the known world and hold many nations in terror.
Genghis Khan (c. 1162–1227)
For centuries, the Mongols had lived on the steppes (pronounced "steps") or plains of Central Asia, herding sheep and occasionally raiding other tribes. There was little to distinguish them from any number of other nomads—that is, until the appearance of an extraordinary young chieftain. His name was Temujin (TIM-yuh-jin); but in 1187, a group of clans declared him their "rightful ruler," and it was by this title— Genghis Khan (JING-us)—that his name would resound through history.
After a series of battles, Genghis united the Mongols for the first time in 1206. Soon after he took power, the government of the Sung Dynasty in China sent an ambassador to him, demanding an oath of...
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The religions of India are as vital a part of that country's history as Catholicism was in the story of medieval Europe. First among those religions was Hinduism, which grew out of the beliefs brought by Indo-European invaders. Later, India became home to a second great faith, Buddhism, which became the religion of the Mauryan Empire (324–184 B.C.). However, the other great Indian dynasty of ancient times, the Gupta Empire (c. A.D. 320–c. 540), embraced Hinduism. In the Middle Ages, India became the battleground of a third religion as invaders poured in from the Muslim world.
A land of divisions
India is a vast land, with a variety of climatic zones, but its enormous population has long been concentrated in a fertile strip of land created by the Indus River in the west and the Ganges (GAN-geez) in the east. This was the center of both Mauryan and Gupta power, and mountain ranges to the north—the world's highest—had long protected the land. Only once had India been successfully invaded, when the Indo-Europeans, a group with roots in what is now southern Russia, entered in about 1500 B.C.
The Indo-Europeans had completely transformed Indian society, but no more invaders came for a full two thousand years. Then in about A.D. 500, the Gupta Empire—which had brought about a golden...
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The mainland of Southeast Asia is tucked between India in the west and China to the north; hence the name "Indochina," applied to much of the region. India and China were also Southeast Asia's primary cultural influences. But with the spread of Islam to the region during the Middle Ages, a third influence made itself known, primarily in the adjoining Malay Archipelago.
China's first imperial dynasty in the 200s B.C. claimed three loosely defined provinces along the South China Sea coast in what is now Vietnam. As powerful as the Chinese emperor was, however, he could hardly control such distant lands. Thus it was easy enough for one of his generals to break away and establish his own kingdom, which came to be known as Van Lang (VAHN LAHNG), an early version of Vietnam.
China later reclaimed the province, then lost it again until finally another powerful Chinese general subdued the area in about A.D. 40. To the south of the conquered lands he set up two bronze pillars, marking the edge of the civilized world: below that line, he declared, lived ghosts and demons.
Funan and Champa
In fact there were two kingdoms to the south: Funan, which straddled an area that is now part of both Vietnam and Cambodia; and Champa along the coast....
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China has had an organized political system since the founding of the Shang dynasty in 1766 B.C. The nation was first unified, and the empire established, under the Ch'in dynasty in 221 B.C. Over the course of the centuries, China developed one of the world's most brilliant civilizations, even as nomadic peoples—ancestors of the Huns, Turks, and Mongols—threatened its borders. Not surprisingly, the Chinese came to think of themselves as the only civilized people in a world of barbarians. They also viewed history as a series of three- or four-century cycles marked by upheaval, renewal, and eventual decline. Medieval dynasties such as the T'ang (618–907) and Sung (960–1279) would bear out this expectation with eery precision.
New religions, new ideas
In A.D. 220, around the time the Western Roman Empire first began declining, China entered a three-century period of turmoil. This happened largely because the country lacked a strong government, but as time went on, many became concerned about the destructive effect a new religion was having. Just as Romans feared Christianity's challenge to their ancient religion, the Chinese believed that Buddhism was undermining the old-fashioned Confucian belief system.
Based on the teachings of the philosopher Confucius...
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Though Japan had been inhabited for thousands of years, its history did not truly begin until the adoption of writing in the A.D. 400s. Yet the origins of the Japanese remain a mystery. Linguists are divided as to whether their language is related to those of Central Asia or to no other tongues on Earth. Certainly the Japanese language is not related to Chinese, though China would be Japan's greatest cultural influence in its early years.
From the Kofun to the Nara period (250–794)
Japan first emerged as a nation in the Kofun period (250–552), named for the impressive burial mounds built by the Yamato (yuh-MAH-toh; "imperial") clan, which united the nation. Given the suddenness with which the Japanese state appeared, it is possible that Japan may have been influenced by visitors from China, whose historical writings of the time refer to it as the "Land of Wa," a realm of over a hundred separate "countries."
During the 300s, the Japanese welcomed a steady influx of Chinese and Korean immigrants, whose skills helped them rise quickly to positions of power. In 405, the Japanese adopted the Chinese written language, which they would use for half a millennium, until they developed a version more suited to Japanese.
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The most notable civilizations in the New World during ancient times were the Olmec and other groups in Mesoamerica, or Central America, as well as the Chavín culture of the Andes Mountains in South America. Both began developing in about 3500 B.C., and in time a number of other civilizations developed around them. In Mesoamerica, these included the Maya and the people of the Teotihuacán city-state. The Maya would continue to flourish through medieval times, and the Mesoamerican and Andean cultural centers provided a foundation for the brilliant Aztec and Inca civilizations that appeared later.
The Maya first emerged in the jungle lowlands of what is now northern Guatemala in about 2500 B.C. By 800 B.C., they had settled the area around them, and in the years that followed, Mayan cities sprang up in what is now southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. No doubt they came under the influence of southern Mexico's Olmec, who flourished between 1200 and 100 B.C. The Olmec were noted for their sophisticated 365-day calendar, their system of mathematical notation, and the creation of some sixteen giant stone heads, weighing as much as 30,000 pounds, which archaeologists in the 1800s began finding throughout the jungles of Central America.
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The African continent is divided by one of the most impenetrable natural boundaries in the world: the Sahara Desert. Covering an area larger than the continental United States, this greatest of all deserts ensured that northern Africa—Egypt and the Mediterranean coast—would develop along dramatically different lines than the southern part. Aside from Egypt itself, the two principal African civilizations of ancient times formed on the Red Sea coast, below Egypt and east of the Sahara. Southward lay various lands controlled by the Bantu peoples, tribal groups who would later develop a number of civilizations.
The name "Ethiopia" comes from a Greek expression meaning "burned skin" and suggesting a dark complexion. Ancient peoples used the term to describe the entire region south of Egypt, but in fact these were two distinct civilizations there: Kush, or Nubia, and Aksum. Founded along the southern Nile River, where the nation of Sudan is today, Kush controlled Egypt for a time (712–667 B.C.) and developed its own form of writing. To the east was Aksum, based in the Red Sea port of Adulis (ah-DOO-lis), in modern-day Eritrea.
Aksum began evolving into a larger Ethiopian state when its King Ezana (AY-zah-nah; ruled A.D. 325–360) subdued Kush in 325. Around this time, a young Syrian...
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The Late Middle Ages
The period known as the Late Middle Ages (1300–1500) can also be considered the beginning of the Renaissance, which had its roots in the changes that began to gather speed during those two centuries. Yet there was plenty about this time that was truly medieval, and whereas some events pointed to the future, other occurrences signaled the end of an era. Among these were the upheaval created by the Black Death and Hundred Years' War, and the decline of the two institutions that had long dominated European life: feudalism and the papacy.
Pestilence and war
In 1300, Europe had about 100 million people; then a series of calamities struck. First Germany and other northern countries experienced crop failures from 1315 to 1317, and these resulted in widespread starvation and death. Then, in 1347, Europe was hit by one of the worst disasters in human history, an epidemic called the Black Death. Sometimes called simply "the Plague," the Black Death killed between twenty-five and forty-five percent of the European population.
The Black Death (1347–51)
The outbreak began in Asia. Thanks to the Mongols' conquests, which had made travel between East and West safer and easier than ever before, it quickly made its way to the Black Sea shore, where it erupted in...
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