The Middle Ages in Western Europe was a very long period of history, lasting basically from the collapse of the Roman Empire near the end of the fifth century B.C. to the Renaissance and the beginning of the Reformation at the start of the sixteenth century. It is often viewed as a transitional period between the ancient and the modern world. Scholars disagree on periodization, but the first part of the Middle Ages, lasting from about 500 to about the 11th century is known as the Early Middle Ages. This period, sometimes known as the "Dark Ages," was characterized by the growth and establishment of the Christian Church, based in Rome, the advent of manorial agriculture and politics based on feudalism, the establishment and the division of Charlemagne's empire, a series of destructive Viking attacks, and the Norman Conquest of England.
The High Middle Ages, which lasted from about the 12th century to around 1300, saw enormous population growth, the Crusades, which connected the West to the Islamic Near East, the rise of nation-states, notably England and France, and the development of universities, which occurred hand-in-hand with the growth of a new philosophical system known as Scholasticism. The period also saw the rise of Gothic architecture as well as the outbreak of the destructive but pivotal Hundred Years War between England and France.
This conflict continued into the Late Middle Ages, which lasted from 1300 to about 1500. This was a tumultuous period for Western Europe, beginning with the war and a terrible famine that spanned the first two decades of the century. The Black Death, a horrible plague that wiped out more than a third of Europe's population, struck at the middle of the fourteenth century, and the Catholic Church remained divided under two popes for much of the fourteenth century as well. The fifteenth century saw the development of the printing press as well as the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, which stimulated overseas exploration. The period also saw some of the trends which characterized the Renaissance, including the expansion of kingdom-states, the development of vernacular literature, and the spread of humanism. Socially, the Late Middle Ages saw the decline and fall of manorialism as labor shortages created by the Black Death and the Famine placed strains on the labor force on which the system depended.