The idea that the Middle Ages were "dark ages" has been exaggerated a lot. In fact the Middle ages are split into three distinct time periods, which were all quite different from each other. There are the Early, High, and Late Middle Ages. Despite the reputation for being a time when there were no moves forward in Europe, there were actually many important achievements.
The Middle Ages lasted from about 500-1500, the time between the end of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. The Early Middle Ages were probably the time that most fits the term Dark Ages, even though even they weren t all bad.
Christianity spread a lot throughout Europe during this time, thanks in part to rulers like Charlemagne and Clovis who converted whole lands. But while many people were Christian by name, and the pagan religions were dying out, most people didn t practice it. One reason for this is that hardly anyone was literate, so they couldn t read the Bible. Most clergy of the time were even illiterate, and led very secular lives. It was a disgraceful time for the Church, because there was a lot of corruption, such as priests who lived with women and bought their positions.
The economic life for most Western Europeans was not much better than the religious and intellectual quality. There weren t really any great cities and most common people worked in agriculture to provide what they could to keep their families alive.
However, in the eighth century Charlemagne succeeded in starting a small renaissance and uniting much of the frankish territory. He preserved some of the Latin literature that might ve otherwise been lost and started a few schools to educate monks. Even though the empire fell apart after the death of Charlemagne and Europe once again regressed to an unstable period, it had given a sense of unity to the people and had managed to spread Christianity and some intellectual achievements that lasted until the High Middle Ages when they were renewed again.
Around the year 1050, Viking invasions stopped and Europe had a chance to flourish in the peace. The High Middle Ages brought an agricultural revolution thanks to technological advancements and a "little optimum" which lengthened the growing season by a few weeks. The invention of the heavy plow, horseshoes and harnesses for work horses, and the use of a three field rotation system all helped make the farmer s job easier and more efficient. In this way, the Middle Ages were more advanced than Rome, because the Romans hadn t had to worry about labor saving since they had so many slaves. Even though some people of the Middle Ages lived in conditions not much better than slaves, such as serfs, they did have some rights and weren t owned by other people.
With the increase in agricultural production, there was also an increase in population and wealth. Cities started to emerge again as well as a revival of trade. There was a new class of merchants developing as well, many of which were as wealthy as nobles.
The Middle Ages also brought religious reform. The papal monarchy was strengthened and some order was restored within the Church. The system of cardinals electing the pope was developed, which took Church power out of the hands of wealthy secular people.
In 1095 Pope Urban II called the first Crusade. The purpose of the Crusade was to take Jerusalem back from the Muslims. The pope had the full support of the people and the Crusade was fully successful. The westerners thought it was their duty to get rid of all non Christians, and took it upon themselves to kill all the Muslims and Jews. Even though the Christians lost the following Crusades, they still gave them a stronger faith and sense of purpose for their lives.
With the resurgence of cities, trade, strong governments, and papal strength came artistic and literary achievements. Many new schools were established, at first just to educate the clergy, but later for laymen as well. Literacy increased, and people became more interested in deeper education and thought.
One very important accomplishment of the High Middle Ages was universities. They were the basis for the modern university, focusing on liberal arts. Greek literature and thought also became popular again, and the people also made creative advancements of their own, with poetry of troubadours and narratives, like Dante s Divine Comedy. The two most successful were the ones in Paris and Bologna, in which all medieval universities were modeled after.
Cathedrals came to be an important part of every city, with each one trying to have the most extravagant. The gothic style of architecture emerged, with high arches, lots of windows and flying buttresses. Many of these great cathedrals are still in use today.
The fourteenth century was a time of crisis for Europe. The thriving agricultural movement was being threatened because the soil was so overused and the population was very high. And there was a slight drop in temperature, causing growing conditions to not be as good as earlier. There was widespread famine, especially among peasants. Then the Black Death struck and killed almost a third of the population. None of this was particularly the fault of the people, but it had devastating effects, at least at first. But the long term effects turned out to be good, resulting in a stronger economy and overall better quality of life.
The Late Middle Ages, even though the were a time of turmoil, had several important technological advancements. One of the most important was the use of gunpowder in war, which helped the French win the Hundred Years War, and helped all Westerners when they were colonizing other lands, like the Americas.
Another important invention was the printing press, which helped to make books more accurate, cheaper, and made it easier to spread ideas to large groups of people.
The magnetic compass and other navigational tools also helped when exploring, so that ships could go farther and stay on a planned route. All of these developments helped western Europe become as powerful as it later did, and led them into the Renaissance. So, the Middle Ages were not dark ages after all, and without all the contributions to thought, technology, and government we wouldn t be so far along today as we are.
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