The Medieval period distinguishes itself as a transitional age. The name alone, meaning Middle Ages denotes that it came between two great ages: the classical civilization of the Ancient World and the Renaissance which followed. It was a long, slow era which can be divided into two primary periods.
The Early Middle Ages, which are generally defined as having lasted between 500 and 900 CE are sometimes referred to the Dark Ages, since the great civilization of Rome had now collapsed, leaving the nations of Europe isolated and alone again. The relative peace caused by the Roman occupation devolves into a struggle for survival. This was an age of nomadic warrior tribes, such as the culture typified in the great Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf.
The Late Middle Ages, lasting roughly from 900 - 1400 CE, are often called the High Middle Ages. During this time, Christianity becomes the dominate religion of Europe and the nomadic tribes began to settle down and national identities which we would recognize in modern Europe began to emerge. Rather than the warlords of the nomadic tribes, Kings began to rule and Knights became the force of war. Education began to spread again, literacy rose slightly, and books became more prevalent.
The Medieval Mindset
After the collapse of the western Roman Empire, the main unifying force in Europe was the Catholic Church. The church was under the supreme authority of the Bishop of Rome, or Pope, who was seen as the successor of St. Peter. As the head of the church, the Pope wields spiritual authority of all of Europe. The Pope has the spiritual power to excommunicate the Kings of Europe, absolving subjects of their allegiance. Since the church as responsible for all people, including the sovereign, the Pope's religious supremacy extended over the state as well as over the administration of the church.
In the dominant religion of the time, the sacraments are important to the salvation and the path to heaven. The church held the administration of these sacraments in its ceremony and rituals. These sacraments included Baptism (at birth), Confession and Penance, Holy Eucharist, Confirmation, Matrimony, Holy Orders, and Extreme Unction, or Last Rites. These important religious rites permeated every phase of life.
The church and state were viewed as two different aspect of one complete Christian Society called Christendom. In the Dark Ages, much of society was divided into nomadic warrior tribes led by warlords. In the isolation and chaos of the 9th century, European leaders began to develop a system of decentralized government later called Feudalism.
Feudalism was a contractual system of political and military relationship among the members of the nobility. This system was characterized by the granting of fiefs, chiefly as land and labor in return for political loyalty and military service, sealed by oaths of homage and fealty. The grantor was lord of the grantee, who became his vassal, but both were free men and social peers. Feudalism must not be confused with seignorialism, which is the relationship between the lords and the peasants of the same period.
Seignorialism is known in England as Manorialism, a system of political, economic, and social relations between lords and their dependent farm laborers. From each peasant he had the right to expect a set number of days' labour each week and a set number of extra days during ploughing, harvest, and at other special times. In addition, the Lord had other rights over peasants: to approve or disapprove marriages, to take a head tax annually, to tax income at will, to take an inheritance tax at death, to claim lands of those who died without heirs, and the right to take all game and fish in the common woodland and waterways. In return, the peasant had the right to hold their land hereditarily, hold grazing rights in the common pastures, and to gather fuel and building materials in the common woodland and wasteland.
Medieval Social Classes
Medieval society was traditionally divided into three estates, based primarily on what one does as well as into which social class one has been born. The first estate was the Clergy (composed of those who prayed); the second estate was the Nobility (composed of those who fought); and the third estate was the Peasantry (those who fed the other two estates). It was common for aristocrats to enter the clergy and therefore shift from the second to the first estate, but it was much more rare to shift from the third estate to the second.
A woman's social status was determined not by her profession but by with whom she slept. She is defined in relationship to the man with whom she sleeps, used to sleep, or the fact that she sleeps alone. Thus, female society was divided into the three feminine estates of Virgin, Wife, and Widow.
Medieval Science and Education
Medieval education was most often conducted under the auspices of the church in cathedral schools and universities. Those who had the benefit of education were almost exclusively those of the first (Clergy) and second (Nobility) estates. Medieval curriculum consisted primarily of Latin Grammar and Rhetoric, Logic, Philosophy, Mathematics, and Astronomy.
Scientific knowledge was confined to some of the ancient writings of Pliny and other Roman sources. This might include such misconceptions as hyenas being able to change their sex at will or that elephants feared nothing but dragons.
Geographically, little is known outside Europe and the Mediterranean until Marco Polo undertakes his famous journey to the far east. Most maps are highly stylized representations and are inaccurate. Many people believe until toward the end of the age that the Earth is flat.
The Medieval Individual
In short, the common man is totally subservient to his Baron, the King, and the Pope. Emphasis is placed on the preparation for the paradise of the afterlife and the church teaches that the miseries of life on earth would be redeemed after death and that the afterlife would be much better.
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