What were the key distinctions among the Early, High and Late Middle Ages?
The Middle Ages refers to the period of time in Europe between the decline of the Roman Empire in the West and the Renaissance- from the fifth to fifteenth centuries. We can further break up this time period into the Early, High, and Late Middle Ages based on cultural particularities in government, religion, education, and economy.
The Early Middle Ages are characterized by the decentralization of government after the fall of the Roman Empire. Where much of Western Europe was previously united under the Roman Empire, now local kings were ruling territories and often invading and warring with each other. Much of the information we have about this time is archaeological, but there are some written sources from the clergy and nobility to fill us in on what happened. This was a time of rampant invasion and immigration, but many of the modern European nations trace their origins to groups who settled during this time. Some of those groups are the Lombards (who conquered much of modern-day Italy,) the Britons (as in Brittany,) and the Franks (as in France.)
Latin scholarship really fell out of fashion during this time, but many people turned to monasticism as a way of life. The church served to fill in some of the gaps where governmental administration fell short. Much of the population were poor, land-working peasants, but the feudal system had not really been formalized yet. Many practiced subsistence farming or worked for a landholder.
The eighth and ninth centuries saw the rise and fall of the Carolingian Dynasty. Charlemagne ruled from 771 CE and was coronated as Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800 CE. His coronation re-unified the church and state in the West, and during his reign he united much of Western Europe under the Carolingian Empire.
This unification was not to last. Raids by Vikings and migration among ethnic groups served to dismantle the Carolingian Empire. Western Europe returned to a localized system of kingdoms and feudalism was prevalent. Under the feudal system, all the land in a kingdom was divided up among the nobility, who further lent it to vassals in exchange for military service, and peasants worked the land for the vassals. There was a great population boom during the High Middle Ages, thanks to agricultural advancement, but much of the population remained poor peasants.
Many kingdoms had hereditary kingship, establishing dynasties of rule like the Capetians in France and the Ottonians in Germany. The Crusades took place during the High Middle Ages, and religion and military service were highly connected. This was also a time of religious reform throughout monasteries of Western Europe.
The Late Middle Ages were ushered in by climate instability, which caused crop failure, famine, economic stress, and encouraged the spread of plague throughout Europe. Many modern European nations trace their nationalist identities to the kingdoms consolidated under the kings of this time. Religious and secular law were revised and codified, and the use of the printing press enabled a slow but significant rise in literacy among the peasantry. Though education was still primarily for clergy and nobility, advancements were being made and laid the way for the Renaissance.