World History Unit 1, Lesson 1: Fall of Rome to the Middle Ages
We can’t get to the Middle Ages and Feudalism in World History without beginning with the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Also called the fall of the Roman Empire or the fall of Rome, c. 376–476, it was the process of decline in the Western Roman Empire in which the Empire failed to enforce its rule, and its vast territory was divided into several successor polities. The Roman Empire lost the strengths that had allowed it to exercise effective control over its Western provinces; modern historians posit factors including the effectiveness and numbers of the army, the health and numbers of the Roman population, the strength of the economy, the competence of the Emperors, the internal struggles for power, the religious changes of the period, and the efficiency of the civil administration. Increasing pressure from invading barbarians outside Roman culture also contributed greatly to the collapse.
The reasons for the collapse are major subjects of the historiography of the ancient world and they inform much modern discourse on state failure. This is why we begin our study of world history here!
In 376, unmanageable numbers of Goths and other non-Roman people, fleeing from the Huns, entered the Empire. In 395, after winning two destructive civil wars, Theodosius I died, leaving a collapsing field army, and the Empire, still plagued by Goths, divided between the warring ministers of his two incapable sons. Further barbarian groups crossed the Rhine and other frontiers and, like the Goths, were not exterminated, expelled or subjugated. The armed forces of the Western Empire became few and ineffective, and despite brief recoveries under able leaders, central rule was never effectively consolidated.
By 476, the position of Western Roman Emperor wielded negligible military, political, or financial power, and had no effective control over the scattered Western domains that could still be described as Roman. Barbarian kingdoms had established their own power in much of the area of the Western Empire. In 476, the Germanic barbarian king Odoacer deposed the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire in Italy, Romulus Augustulus, and the Senate sent the imperial insignia to the Eastern Roman Emperor Flavius Zeno.
While its legitimacy lasted for centuries longer and its cultural influence remains today, the Western Empire never had the strength to rise again. The Eastern Roman, or Byzantine Empire survived, and though lessened in strength remained for centuries an effective power of the Eastern Mediterranean. While the loss of political unity and military control is universally acknowledged, the Fall is not the only unifying concept for these events; the period described as Late Antiquity emphasizes the cultural continuities throughout and beyond the political collapse.
In the history of Europe, the Middle Ages or medieval period lasted approximately from the 5th to the late 15th centuries. It began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and transitioned into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. The Middle Ages is the middle period of the three traditional divisions of Western history: classical antiquity, the medieval period, and the modern period. The medieval period is itself subdivided into the Early, High, and Late Middle Ages.
Early Middle Ages
Population decline, counterurbanization, the collapse of centralized authority, invasions, and mass migrations of tribes, which had begun in Late Antiquity, continued into the Early Middle Ages. The large-scale movements of the Migration Period, including various Germanic peoples, formed new kingdoms in what remained of the Western Roman Empire.
In the 7th century, North Africa and the Middle East—once part of the Byzantine Empire—came under the rule of the Umayyad Caliphate, an Islamic empire, after conquest by Muhammad’s successors. Although there were substantial changes in society and political structures, the break with classical antiquity was not complete. The still-sizeable Byzantine Empire, Rome’s direct continuation, survived in the Eastern Mediterranean and remained a major power. The empire’s law code, the Corpus Juris Civilis or “Code of Justinian”, was rediscovered in Northern Italy in the 11th century.
In the West, most kingdoms incorporated the few extant Roman institutions. Monasteries were founded as campaigns to Christianize pagan Europe continued. The Franks, under the Carolingian dynasty, briefly established the Carolingian Empire during the later 8th and early 9th centuries. It covered much of Western Europe but later succumbed to the pressures of internal civil wars combined with external invasions: Vikings from the north, Magyars from the east, and Saracens from the south.
High Middle Ages
During the High Middle Ages, which began after 1000, the population of Europe increased greatly as technological and agricultural innovations allowed trade to flourish and the Medieval Warm Period climate change allowed crop yields to increase. Manorialism, the organization of peasants into villages that owed rent and labor services to the nobles, and feudalism, the political structure whereby knights and lower-status nobles owed military service to their overlords in return for the right to rent from lands and manors, were two of the ways society was organized in the High Middle Ages. The Crusades, first preached in 1095, were military attempts by Western European Christians to regain control of the Holy Land from Muslims. Kings became the heads of centralized nation-states, reducing crime and violence but making the ideal of a unified Christendom more distant.
Intellectual life was marked by scholasticism, a philosophy that emphasized joining faith to reason, and by the founding of universities. The theology of Thomas Aquinas, the paintings of Giotto, the poetry of Dante and Chaucer, the travels of Marco Polo, and the Gothic architecture of cathedrals such as Chartres are among the outstanding achievements toward the end of this period and into the Late Middle Ages.
Feudalism, also known as the feudal system, was the combination of the legal, economic, military, and cultural customs that flourished in Medieval Europe between the 9th and 15th centuries. Broadly defined, it was a way of structuring society around relationships that were derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labor. Although it is derived from the Latin word feodum or feudum (fief), which was used during the Medieval period, the term feudalism and the system which it describes were not conceived of as a formal political system by the people who lived during the Middle Ages.
The classic definition, by François-Louis Ganshof (1944), describes a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations which existed among the warrior nobility and revolved around the three key concepts of lords, vassals, and fiefs. A broader definition of feudalism, as described by Marc Bloch (1939), includes not only the obligations of the warrior nobility but the obligations of all three estates of the realm: the nobility, the clergy, and the peasantry, all of whom were bound by a system of manorialism; this is sometimes referred to as a “feudal society”. Since the publication of Elizabeth A. R. Brown’s “The Tyranny of a Construct” (1974) and Susan Reynolds’s Fiefs and Vassals (1994), there has been ongoing inconclusive discussion among medieval historians as to whether feudalism is a useful construct for understanding medieval society.
The Crusades were a series of religious wars initiated, supported, and sometimes directed by the Latin Church in the medieval period. The best known of these Crusades are those to the Holy Land in the period between 1095 and 1291 that were intended to liberate Jerusalem and its surrounding area from Islamic rule. Concurrent military activities in the Iberian Peninsula against the Moors (the Reconquista) and in northern Europe against pagan Slavic tribes (the Northern Crusades) also became known as crusades.
Through the 15th century, other church-sanctioned crusades were fought against heretical Christian sects, against the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, to combat paganism and heresy, and for political reasons. Unsanctioned by the church, Popular Crusades of ordinary citizens were also frequent. Beginning with the First Crusade which resulted in the recovery of Jerusalem in 1099, dozens of Crusades were fought, providing a focal point of European history for centuries.
In 1095, Pope Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont. He encouraged military support for Byzantine emperor Alexios I against the Seljuk Turks and called for an armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Across all social strata in western Europe, there was an enthusiastic popular response.
The first Crusaders had a variety of motivations, including religious salvation, satisfying feudal obligations, opportunities for renown, and economic or political advantage. Later crusades were generally conducted by more organized armies, sometimes led by a king. All were granted papal indulgences.
Initial successes established four Crusader states: the County of Edessa; the Principality of Antioch; the Kingdom of Jerusalem; and the County of Tripoli. The Crusader presence remained in the region in some form until the fall of Acre in 1291. After this, there were no further crusades to recover the Holy Land.
Proclaimed a crusade in 1123, the struggle between the Christians and Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula was called the Reconquista by Christians, and only ended in 1492 with the fall of the Muslim Emirate of Granada. From 1147 campaigns in Northern Europe against pagan tribes were considered crusades.
In 1199, Pope Innocent III began the practice of proclaiming political crusades against Christian heretics. In the 13th century, crusading was used against the Cathars in Languedoc and against Bosnia; this practice continued against the Waldensians in Savoy and the Hussites in Bohemia in the 15th century and against Protestants in the 16th. From the mid-14th century, crusading rhetoric was used in response to the rise of the Ottoman Empire, only ending in 1699 with the War of the Holy League.
Late Middle Ages
The Late Middle Ages was marked by difficulties and calamities including famine, plague, and war, which significantly diminished the population of Europe; between 1347 and 1350, the Black Death killed about a third of Europeans. Controversy, heresy, and the Western Schism within the Catholic Church paralleled the interstate conflict, civil strife, and peasant revolts that occurred in the kingdoms. Cultural and technological developments transformed European society, concluding the Late Middle Ages and beginning the early modern period.
The Black Death
The Black Death (also known as the Pestilence, the Great Mortality or the Plague) was a bubonic plague pandemic occurring in Afro-Eurasia from 1346 to 1353. It is the most fatal pandemic recorded in human history, causing the death of 75–200 million people in Eurasia and North Africa, peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351. Bubonic plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, but it may also cause septicaemic or pneumonic plagues.
The Black Death was the beginning of the second plague pandemic. The plague created religious, social and economic upheavals, with profound effects on the course of European history.
The origin of the Black Death is disputed. The pandemic originated either in Central Asia or East Asia but its first definitive appearance was in Crimea in 1347. From Crimea, it was most likely carried by fleas living on the black rats that travelled on Genoese slave ships, spreading through the Mediterranean Basin and reaching Africa, Western Asia and the rest of Europe via Constantinople, Sicily and the Italian Peninsula. There is evidence that once it came ashore, the Black Death was in large part spread by fleas – which cause pneumonic plague – and the person-to-person contact via aerosols which pneumonic plague enables, thus explaining the very fast inland spread of the epidemic, which was faster than would be expected if the primary vector was rat fleas causing bubonic plague.
The Black Death was the second great natural disaster to strike Europe during the Late Middle Ages (the first one being the Great Famine of 1315–1317) and is estimated to have killed 30 percent to 60 percent of the European population. The plague might have reduced the world population from c. 475 million to 350–375 million in the 14th century. There were further outbreaks throughout the Late Middle Ages and, with other contributing factors (the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages), the European population did not regain its level in 1300 until 1500. Outbreaks of the plague recurred around the world until the early 19th century.
Next Lesson: Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire
Lesson 3: The Italian Renaissance
Lesson 4: The Catholic Church
Lesson 5: The Absolute Monarchy
Unit 2: The Age of Exploration
Unit 3: Revolutions Around The World
Unit 4: Political Change
1320: Section 6: The Black Death. (n.d.). Welcome to Utah State University. https://www.usu.edu/markdamen/1320hist&civ/chapters/06plague.htm
About Dante Alighieri. (2007, October 29). poets.org | Academy of American Poets. https://poets.org/poet/dante-alighieri
Age of discovery. (2019, August 20). Ages of Exploration. https://exploration.marinersmuseum.org/age-of-discovery/
Alexios I Komnenos (1081–1118). (n.d.). Dumbarton Oaks. https://www.doaks.org/resources/online-exhibits/gods-regents-on-earth-a-thousand-years-of-byzantine-imperial-seals/rulers-of-byzantium/alexios-i-komnenos-108120131118
(n.d.). Ana Sayfa » DergiPark. https://dergipark.org.tr/en/download/article-file/1117790
Benedictine University. (n.d.). Protestant Christianity. Benedictine | Catholic Universities | Chicago, Arizona. https://www.ben.edu/student-life/faith-communities/protestant-christianity/index.cfm
Black Death. (2001, May 14). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Death
Byzantine Empire chronology. (n.d.). National Gallery of Art. https://www.nga.gov/features/byzantine/byzantine-empire-chronology-.html
Carolingian empire. (n.d.). Holy Roman Empire Association. https://www.holyromanempireassociation.com/carolingian-empire.html
Catholic encyclopedia: Theodosius I. (n.d.). NEW ADVENT. https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14577d.htm
Charlemagne and the carolingian empire. (n.d.). Penfield Central School District. https://www.penfield.edu/webpages/jgiotto/onlinetextbook.cfm?subpage=1504023
Classic age. (n.d.). Info:Main Page – New World Encyclopedia. https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Classic_Age
The climate epochs that weren’t. (2019, July 25). State of the Planet. https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2019/07/24/climate-epochs-that-werent/
The Council of Clermont (1095). (n.d.). The Latin Library. https://www.thelatinlibrary.com/imperialism/notes/clermont.html
The County of Tripoli (1109–1289). (2017, August 9). Bearers of the Cross. https://www.bearersofthecross.org.uk/county-tripoli-1109-1289/
Crisis of the Late Middle Ages. (n.d.). Bienvenue | owlapps. https://www.owlapps.net/owlapps_apps/articles?id=3525088&lang=en
Crusades. (2001, October 28). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved August 20, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crusades#
Defining the Middle Ages. (n.d.). ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/defining-the-middle-ages-part-6-1788883
(n.d.). Duplin County Schools / Overview. https://www.duplinschools.net/cms/lib/NC01001360/Centricity/Domain/2660/The%20Justinian%20Law%20Correct.pdf
Edessa, County of. (n.d.). Brown University. https://www.brown.edu/Departments/Joukowsky_Institute/courses/islamiccivilizations/8287.html
The end of the western schism. (2011, November 7). National Catholic Reporter. https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/essays-theology/end-western-schism
The fall of the Roman Empire [ushistory.org]. (n.d.). US History. https://www.ushistory.org/civ/6f.asp
Fall of the western Roman Empire. (2004, August 23). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved August 20, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fall_of_the_Western_Roman_Empire
Feudalism. (2001, October 8). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved August 20, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feudalism
Feudalism. (2018, November 22). World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/Feudalism/
Feudalism? (n.d.). Redirecting you to University of Hawaii… https://www2.hawaii.edu/~kjolly/feud.htm
First crusade. (n.d.). https://websites.umich.edu/~marcons/Crusades/timeline/summaries/First_Crusade.htm
Geoffrey Chaucer. (n.d.). Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/geoffrey-chaucer
(n.d.). Giotto Di Bondone – The Complete Works – giottodibondone.org. https://www.giottodibondone.org/
The Great Famine (1315–1317). (2020, August 27). Climate Across Curriculum. https://www.science.smith.edu/climatelit/the-great-famine/
The history of plague – Part 1. The three great pandemics. (n.d.). https://jmvh.org/article/the-history-of-plague-part-1-the-three-great-pandemics/
History of the franks. (n.d.). HistoryWorld – History and Timelines. https://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/plaintexthistories.asp?historyid=ab74
A history of the waldensians. (2020, December 9). Musée protestant. https://museeprotestant.org/en/notice/a-history-of-the-waldensians/
Hungerford, E. (2014, October 9). The intellectual mission of the saracens. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1886/12/the-intellectual-mission-of-the-saracens/376175/
Huns. (2018, April 25). World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/Huns/
Hussites. (n.d.). Welcome to CentOS. https://www2.kenyon.edu/projects/margin/hussites.htm
Innocent III. (2008, August 8). Christian History | Learn the History of Christianity & the Church. https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/rulers/innocent-iii.html
Internet history sourcebooks project. (n.d.). Internet History Sourcebooks Project. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/1291acre.asp
Jarus, O. (2016, March 18). Who were the ancient goths? livescience.com. https://www.livescience.com/45948-ancient-goths.html
Late antiquity. (n.d.). History at Illinois. https://history.illinois.edu/late-antiquity
Magyars. (n.d.). Info:Main Page – New World Encyclopedia. https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/magyars
Marc Bloch. (n.d.). Left in Paris – A socio-political-historical guide to Paris since 1830. It shows the people who have ‘made a difference’ in France and internationally on and for the Left — and where they lived and acted. https://leftinparis.org/people/marc-bloch/
McDonald, J. (2017, February 8). Cathars and Cathar Beliefs in the Languedoc. https://www.cathar.info/
Middle Ages. (2001, August 14). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved August 20, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_Ages
Migration Period. (n.d.). Archeurope: Early Medieval Archaeology – Archeurope: Early Medieval Archaeology. https://earlymedieval.archeurope.info/index.php?page=migration-period
NCpedia | NCpedia. (n.d.). NCpedia NCpedia. https://www.ncpedia.org/anchor/spain-and-america-reconquest
Nees at symposium honoring Elizabeth A.R. Brown. (n.d.). Art History. https://www.arthistory.udel.edu/news/Pages/Nees-Elizabeth-Brown.aspx
Northern crusades. (2018, October 4). World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/Northern_Crusades/
Odoacer. (2014, September 20). World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/Odoacer/
Please wait… (n.d.). Please Wait… | Cloudflare. https://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/map/Iberian-Peninsula-topographic-map.htm
Pope urban II. (n.d.). https://websites.umich.edu/~eng415/timeline/Urban.html
Remembering Granada: The last Muslim Kingdom of Spain. (2017, June 19). EgyptToday. https://www.egypttoday.com/Article/4/8091/Remembering-Granada-The-last-Muslim-Kingdom-of-Spain
Romulus Augustulus ????: The last and the youngest emperor of the Roman Empire. (2019, February 21). Rome.us. https://rome.us/roman-emperors/romulus-augustulus.html
Saint Thomas Aquinas (Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy). (n.d.). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aquinas/
Seljuks. (n.d.). Middle Ages – Medieval Resources. https://www.themiddleages.net/people/seljuks.html
Szalay, J. (2016, June 29). The Renaissance: The ‘Rebirth’ of science & culture. livescience.com. https://www.livescience.com/55230-renaissance.html
The Umayyad caliphate (661-750 CE). (n.d.). Jewish Virtual Library. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-umayyad-caliphate-661-750-ce
(n.d.). Universitat de València. https://www.uv.es/masdoa/docs/Francois%20Louis%20Ganshof.pdf
War of the holy league 1683-1699. (n.d.). World History for the Relaxed Historian. https://www.emersonkent.com/wars_and_battles_in_history/war_of_the_holy_league.htm
(n.d.). Western CEDAR. https://cedar.wwu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1024&context=wwu_honors
What is scholasticism? (n.d.). Bartholomew’s World. https://bartholomew.stanford.edu/scholasticism.html
What is this Holy Land? « see the Holy Land. (n.d.). See The Holy Land. https://www.seetheholyland.net/what-is-this-holy-land/
When were the medieval times? (n.d.). Where the Wonders of Learning Never Cease | Wonderopolis. https://wonderopolis.org/wonder/when-were-the-medieval-times
Who were the moors? (2019, December 12). National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/who-were-moors
Zeno (emperor). (n.d.). OrthodoxWiki. Retrieved August 19, 2021, from https://orthodoxwiki.org/Zeno_(emperor)