Spotlight on Medieval Times

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The Middle Ages The Huns Germanic Barbarians Charlemagne Religion Feudalism The Vikings The Norman Conquest Knighthood Housing Women Arts and Entertainment Town Life The Black Death


The Middle Ages In 476 CE, warriors attacked the city of Rome and ended more than 800 years of glory for the “eternal city.” Historians mark the fall of Rome as the end of ancient history. The next one thousand years were called the Middle Ages. The Latin term for Middle Ages is "medieval." The beginning of the Middle Ages is often called the "Dark Ages". Life in Europe during the Middle Ages was very hard. Very few people could read or write and nobody expected conditions to improve. The only hope for most people during the Middle Ages was their strong belief in Christianity, and the hope that life in heaven would be better than life on earth. The Dark Ages were anything but dark in other parts of the world. The Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa studied and improved on the works of the ancient Greeks while civilization flourished in sub-Saharan Africa, China, India, and the Americas.


The Huns The Huns were possibly the most destructive people in history. They originally came from Central Asia. About 200BC, the Huns overran the Chinese Empire. Chinese emperor Shih Huang-ti built the massive Great Wall of China to keep the Huns out. The Huns were pastoralists, which means they tended to animals. Throughout history, pastoralists have generally been more warlike than farmers, and the Huns were no exception. The Huns were skilled horsemen who used their skills to plunder more settled people. They moved into the land west of the Caspian Sea, forcing the Visigoths and other Germanic tribes to move into the Roman Empire. The Huns were illiterate and had no interest in the lands they raided. They simply attacked and plundered. In 445, Attila became the sole leader of the Huns after murdering his brother. The Romans called Attila the “Scourge of God.” He forced Rome to pay tribute, or payment for protection. Attila died suddenly in 453. Attila had taken a beautiful young wife, though he had several other wives. The day of the wedding there was a huge drunken celebration. The next morning, the new bride was found quivering after finding that Attila had choked to death from a nosebleed. The threat of the Huns died with Attila. His sons were weak and quarrelsome. Within two years the Ostrogoths and other Germanic tribes combined to remove the Huns as a threat to more civilized people.


Germanic Barbarians The Romans saw themselves as having a highly advanced civilization, and they looked down on the cultures of the people who lived beyond the borders of their empire. In 122 CE, Emperor Hadrian built a wall separating the Roman part of Britain from the mountainous land now called Scotland. The Romans called the Scottish people “barbarians,” possibly because their native Celtic language sounded like the bleating of sheep. The term was eventually used to describe anyone who lived beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. The people who lived northeast of the Roman Empire spoke languages similar to modern German. These “Germanic tribes” included the Vandals, Lombards, Alamanni, Goths, Franks, and Burgundians. Most of the tribesmen did not know how to read, but unlike the Huns, they tended to farms and were not nomadic. Most of the tribes gave up their pagan beliefs and became Christians.


In 376, the Huns forced the Visigoths (western Goths) to leave their homeland near the Danube River in modern Austria. The Visigoths asked the Romans for permission to settle inside the Roman Empire. The Romans unfair prices for food and other supplies. The Visigoths protested, and formed an army. Alaric was a Visigoth who joined the Roman army and rose to a high rank. He became king of the Visigoths. In 410, Alaric’s soldiers formed a siege around Rome. When the city was close to starvation, the Roman citizens opened the gates and allowed the conquering army to enter. The Visigoths rampaged through the streets for three days, pillaging and burning. Alaric ordered his army not to molest women or destroy churches. Rome was not completely destroyed, but for the first time in nearly 800 years, the “eternal city” had been defeated. Germanic tribes overran what was left of the Roman Empire. The Ostrogoths, or “eastern Goths,” came from land we know call the Ukraine. The Ostrogoths conquered most of Italy, Greece, and the western Balkans. The Vandals took control of the Roman territory in North Africa. The Franks overran France, while the Saxons conquered the southern part of England.


Charlemagne or Charles the Great, was the greatest of the Frankish kings. In an era when most men were little more than five feet tall, Charlemagne stood six feet, four inches. He expanded the kingdom of the Franks into Spain and Central Europe. Charlemagne’s goal was to unite all of the Germanic tribes into a single Christian kingdom. On Christmas Day, 800, Pope Leo III placed a crown on his head and proclaimed him “Augustus,” emperor of the “Holy Roman Empire.” The coronation united Christendom under Charlemagne’s rule. Charlemagne never learned how to read or write, but he wanted to recapture the glory of the Roman Empire. He set up schools throughout his empire and provided funds that allowed monks to copy the works of Greek and Roman authors. Charlemagne’s empire crumbled soon after his death, and the promise of returning the glory of Rome to Western Europe soon faded. The term Holy Roman Empire was used to describe different Frankish and German lands for another ten centuries, but it could be argued that after Charlemagne, it wasn’t holy, it wasn’t Roman, and it certainly was not an empire. Charlemagne


Religion The Catholic Church was the only church in Europe during the Middle Ages, and it had its own laws and large coffers. Church leaders such as bishops and archbishops sat on the king's council and played leading roles in government. Bishops, who were often wealthy and came from noble families, ruled over groups of parishes called "diocese." Parish priests, on the other hand, came from humbler backgrounds and often had little education. The village priest tended to the sick and indigent and, if he was able, taught Latin and the Bible to the youth of the village. As the population of Europe expanded in the twelfth century, the churches that had been built in the Roman style with round-arched roofs became too small. Some of the grand cathedrals, strained to their structural limits by their creators' drive to build higher and larger, collapsed within a century or less of their construction.


Christendom By the later Middle Ages, Christianity became the universal faith of almost all of the people of Europe. People did not think of Europe as a distinct place until the Middle Ages had passed. Instead they spoke of “Christendom,” or the community of Christians. Christianity was the most important influence of the Middle Ages. Religious life attracted many people during the Middle Ages. The Church was often the only way to get an education. It also allowed poor people to escape a dreary life and possibly rise to power. Religious workers are called clergy. In the Middle Ages, the Pope ruled the Christian Church. Other clergy included bishops, priests, nuns, and monks. Monks were men who lived in monasteries, or small communities of religious workers. Monks devoted their lives to prayer, and their behavior influenced the entire church. Monasteries produced many well-educated men prepared to serve as administrators for uneducated kings and lords. Monks were responsible for keeping the Greek and Latin “classical” cultures alive. Monks copied books by hand in an era before the printing press. Though few in number, monks played a significant role in the Middle Ages.


                                     In 330 CE, the Roman emperor, Constantine, moved his capital from Rome to the Greek city of Byzantium. He wanted the capital of his empire to be safe from barbarian invasion. Constantine renamed the city Constantinople, but we refer to the civilization centered in Constantinople as the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire began to look less like the Roman Empire as the years passed. The empire covered Greece, the Balkans, Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt. By the seventh century, Greek had completely replaced Latin as the language of the empire. The Byzantine emperors still thought of themselves as the successors of Caesar Augustus, but over the years Roman influence gradually disappeared. Seljuk Turks began moving into the Byzantine Empire from Central Asia in the eleventh century. The Turks had recently become Muslims, and the Byzantine emperor feared they would soon overpower his Christian empire. He asked the leader of the Christian church—the Pope—to assist in a holy war against the Turks. In 1095, Pope Urban II launched the first of many Crusades, or “wars of the cross.” Urban hoped that in addition to expelling the Turks from the Byzantine Empire, he would also be able to reclaim the holy city of Jerusalem from Muslim control. Soldiers from western Europe left their homes to free the Byzantine Empire of the “unbelievers.” This was the first time many Europeans left their homes. Their exposure to new and different cultures was a factor that led to the Renaissance The Byzantine Empire


In 622 CE, an Arab named Muhammad preached that an angel had visited him. The angel told Muhammad that he was the last of a long line of prophets that included Moses and Jesus. Muhammad called on people to renounce all other faiths and to submit to the will of Allah. Allah is an Arabic word that means God. He called the new faith Islam, which means “submission to Allah”; the people who practice Islam are called Muslims (sometimes spelled Moslems). The faith spread quickly through the Middle East and across North Africa, eventually reaching people in northwest Africa that the Romans called Moors. The Visigoths had ruled Spain until 711, when the Moors crossed into Spain from North Africa. For the next three centuries, the Moors controlled most of Spain. Spain enjoyed a “golden age.” The Moors built Spain into a thriving center of culture and scholarship. The Moors were Muslims, but they were generally tolerant of the Christians and Jews who lived in Spain. Spanish Jews benefited from the tolerant policies of the Moors. This enabled them to have one of the most prosperous periods in their history. Muslims in Europe


Feudalism was the system of loyalties and protections during the Middle Ages. As the Roman Empire crumbled, emperors granted land to nobles in exchange for their loyalty. These lands eventually developed into manors. A manor is the land owned by a noble and everything on it. A typical manor consisted of a castle, small village, and farmland. During the Middle Ages, peasants could no longer count on the Roman army to protect them. Germanic and Viking tribes overran homes and farms throughout Europe. The peasants turned to the landowners, often called lords, to protect them. Many peasants remained free, but most became serfs. A serf was bound to the land. He could not leave without buying his freedom, an unlikely occurrence in the Middle Ages. Life for a serf was not much better than the life of a slave. The only difference was that a serf could not be sold to another manor. Serfs would often have to work three or four days a week for the lord as rent. They would spend the rest of their week growing crops to feed their families. Other serfs worked as sharecroppers. A sharecropper would be required to turn over most of what he grew in order to be able to live on the land. Feudalism


The Vikings were fierce warriors that threatened the security of Charlemagne's empire. The Vikings came from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, lands we now call Scandinavia. The Vikings were skilled sailors whose advanced methods of shipbuilding gave them an advantage over other Europeans. The largest Viking ships could hold as many as 100 sailors and travel at high speed. Viking ships required a depth of only three feet, so they could be used on rivers to travel inland. The Viking ships were strong enough to withstand the fury of the sea, but light enough to be carried around waterfalls. The Vikings used their sailing skills to attack without warning and quickly escape. At first they attacked and left with as much as they could carry. Later, they settled down and colonized areas they conquered. By the tenth century, the Vikings controlled parts of Britain, France, and Russia, and raided lands as far away as Egypt. Other Vikings sailed west and discovered Iceland. About 980, Erik the Red sailed further west and began a settlement on ice-covered land he called Greenland. Viking legends indicate that Erik’s son, Leif Eriksson, reached North America. The Vikings


One group of Vikings settled in Normandy, a section of northwest France. They adopted the French language and Christian faith, but they retained their ancestors’ taste for adventure. William the Conqueror was a powerful Norman ruler who invaded England in 1066. For the next three hundred years, England would be ruled by kings who did not speak English. The Normans imported French-speaking craftsmen, cooks, and scholars. The modern English language reflects the high status of the French Normans and the low status of the English field hands. We refer to animals in the field by their English names (cow, ox, sheep), while food that has been prepared and brought to the table generally has French names (beef, veal, mutton). The Norman Conquest destroyed English rule and created a French military state. The Normans seized English lands and destroyed any English opposition. William paid for his projects by imposing taxes. He completed a thorough census, or survey of the land, wealth, population, resources, and taxable capacity of England. The result was what the English people called the “Domesday Book”. The English hated the harsh Norman rule, but the taxation records survive to this day. The Norman conquest was the beginning of centuries of hostilities between England and France. The nations fought the “Hundred Years’ War” between 1336 and 1453. The Norman Conquest


Knighthood Knights in the Middle Ages fought for their lords in battle. They even had to protect the castle before the year 900 AD. Before you become a knight, you must go through these stages: page, squire, then armiger. The sons of the nobles were sent to a lord's house at the age of seven to serve him as a page. As a page he is taught manners, skills in serving food, and he also learns how to read and write. When the page turns thirteen he will be named a squire. At the stage of squire prepared himself by learning how to handle a sword and lance while wearing forty pounds of armor and riding a horse. Once the lord thought that you were skilled enough to go with him into battle, he turned you into an armiger. After the armiger stage, the youth could become a real knight. At the granting ceremony, the lord who trained him will dub him with the flat surface of his sword and he is now officially a knight. A young man could also become a knight for valor in combat after a battle or sometimes before a battle to help him gain courage.


Weapons and Armor Protecting oneself in battle has always been a concern for any soldier, and medieval knights were no exception. At first the armor was made of small metal rings called chain mail. A knight wore a linen shirt and a pair of pants as well as heavy woolen pads underneath the metal-ringed tunic. A suit of chain mail could have more than 200,000 rings. However, chain mail was heavy, uncomfortable, and difficult to move in. As time passed, knights covered their bodies with plates of metal. Plates covered their chests, back, arms, and legs. A bucket like helmet protected the knight’s head and had a hinged metal visor to cover his face. Suits of armor were hot, uncomfortable, and heavy to wear. A suit of armor weighed between forty and sixty pounds. Some knights even protected their horses in armor. A knight also needed a shield to hold in front of himself during battle. Shields were made of either wood or metal. Knights decorated their shields with their family emblem or crest and the family motto. A knight's weapon was his sword, which was about thirty-two pounds. It was worn on his left side in a case fastened around his waist. A knife was worn on the knight’s right side. Knights used other weapons in combat as well. A lance was a long spear used in jousts. Metal axes, battle hammers, and maces were also used to defeat the enemy.


Tournaments provided a means for knights to practice warfare and build their strength in times of peace. Tournaments were essentially mock battles with audiences. They were an essential part of military and social life. Lances and swords were blunted, but tournaments were a place where reputations were made, so the fighting was hard and dangerous. Challengers erected tents at one end of the ground and hung a shield outside. A knight accepting the challenge rode up and touched his lance to the shield. If two people fought a tournament, it was usually by jousting. The two knights would gallop across the list at each other. They carried long, blunt lances and shields. The objective was to knock the other person out of his saddle. Many people did get hurt or die by accident. These "war games" consisted of individual contests (jousts), and group combat. Prizes were given to the winners, and some knights made their fortunes on the tournament circuit. The armor worn in tourneys was different from regular battle gear. It was very heavy and padded inside. It was also extremely cumbersome. The winner of the jousts was awarded a prize by the Queen of Beauty, elected for the occasion from amongst the women present. By the 14th century tournaments became rousing fairs complete with singing, dancing, and feasting which might last for several days. Tournaments


Heraldry - Coat of Arms Heraldry (symbols identifiable with individuals or families) or coats of arms originated as a way to identify knights in battle or in tournaments. With the advent of the "great" or "barrel" helmet, an individual's face became concealed. It therefore became necessary to create a method to distinguish ally from enemy. Heraldic symbols ranged from simple geometric shapes such as chevrons, to more elaborate drawings of real or mythological animals. As with the honor of becoming a knight, heraldic insignia became hereditary, being passed on from father to son, or with the family name. Eventually heraldic symbols also came to signify kingdoms, duchies, or provinces as a medieval forerunner to our modern national flags. Heraldic symbols were often worn on the knight's surcoat (thus the term "coat of arms"), shield, helmet, or on a banner (standard) that could serve as a rallying point for knights and others scattered in the chaos of battle. The standard was always to be elevated as long as the battle continued, and therefore was guarded well. A standard taken down would signal the allied combatants that the cause was lost and it was time to flee the field of combat.


Most medieval homes were cold, damp, and dark. Sometimes it was warmer and lighter outside the home than within its walls. For security purposes, windows, when they were present, were very small openings with wooden shutters that were closed at night or in bad weather. The small size of the windows allowed those inside to see out, but kept outsiders from looking in. Many peasant families ate, slept, and spent time together in very small quarters, rarely more than one or two rooms. The houses had thatched roofs and were easily destroyed. The homes of the rich were more elaborate than the peasants' homes. Their floors were paved, as opposed to being strewn with rushes and herbs, and sometimes decorated with tiles. Tapestries were hung on the walls, providing not only decoration but also an extra layer of warmth. Fenestral windows, with lattice frames that were covered in a fabric soaked in resin and tallow, allowed in light, kept out drafts, and could be removed in good weather. Only the wealthy could afford panes of glass; sometimes only churches and royal residences had glass windows Housing


Stone castles first existed in the ninth century. The castle was held together with mortar. Walls could be as thick as thirty feet. The structure was often built on high mountains surrounded by a moat, a ditch filled with water and crossed by a drawbridge which could be raised to deny access. The outer walls enclosed the outer bailey, and then the inner walls enclosed the inner bailey. Enemies who breached the outer walls still had to face the inner walls, and inside them the keep or central tower. Murder holes in the ceiling and floor of the portcullis made it possible to see if the visitor was friendly. Defenders dropped stone blocks, unslaked lime, boiling pitch, boiling water or hot sand onto attackers The castle itself needed to be built to withstand siege, the armies inside had to be adept at defense and the general citizens of the castle community, too, had to do their part. After all, during a siege, the overall medieval castle defense, which included battle plans and food storage ideas, could make or break the castle’s chance of success. Castles


It should come as no surprise that women, whether they were nobles or peasants, held a difficult position in society. They were largely confined to household tasks such as cooking, baking bread, sewing, weaving, and spinning. However, they also hunted for food and fought in battles, learning to use weapons to defend their homes and castles. Some medieval women held other occupations. There were women blacksmiths, merchants, and apothecaries. Others were midwives, worked in the fields, or were engaged in creative endeavors such as writing, playing musical instruments, dancing, and painting. Some women were known as witches, capable of sorcery and healing. Others became nuns and devoted their lives to God and spiritual matters. Famous women of the Middle Ages include the writer, Christine de Pisan; the abbess and musician, Hildegard of Bingen; and the patron of the arts, Eleanor of Aquitaine. A French peasant's daughter, Joan of Arc, or St. Joan, heard voices telling her to protect France against the English invasion. She dressed in armor and led her troops to victory in the early fifteenth century. "The Maid of Orleans" as she was known, was later burned as a witch. Women in the Middle Ages


    Art and music were critical aspects of medieval religious life and, towards the end of the Middle Ages, secular life as well. Singing without instrumental accompaniment was an essential part of church services. Monks and priests chanted the divine offices and the mass daily. Some churches had instruments such as organs and bells. The organistrum or symphony (later known as a hurdy gurdy) was also found in churches. Two people were required to play this stringed instrument--one to turn the crank and the other to play the keys. Medieval drama grew out of the liturgy, beginning in about the eleventh century. Some of the topics were from the Old Testament (Noah and the flood, Jonah and the whale, Daniel in the lion's den) and others were stories about the birth and death of Christ. These dramas were performed with costumes and musical instruments and at first took place directly outside the church. Later they were staged in marketplaces, where they were produced by local guilds. Arts and Entertainment


    Following 1000, peace and order grew. As a result, peasants began to expand their farms and villages further into the countryside. The earliest merchants were peddlers who went from village to village selling their goods. As the demand for goods increased--particularly for the gems, silks, and other luxuries from Genoa and Venice, the ports of Italy that traded with the East--the peddlers became more familiar with complex issues of trade, commerce, accounting, and contracts. They became businessmen and learned to deal with Italian moneylenders and bankers. Merchants took their coal, timber, wood, iron, copper, and lead to the south and came back with luxury items such as wine and olive oil. With the advent of trade and commerce, feudal life declined. As the tradesmen became wealthier, they resented having to give their profits to their lords. Arrangements were made for the townspeople to pay a fixed annual sum to the lord or king and gain independence for their town as a "borough" with the power to govern itself. The marketplace became the focus of many towns. Town Life


Almost half of the people of Western Europe died in a great sickness known as the Bubonic Plague. The plague was also referred to as "the Black Death” because the skin of diseased people turned a dark gray color. It apparently began in China. When sailors traveled to Asia, rats returned with them to Europe. Fleas living on the blood of infected rats then transferred the disease to the European people. In 1347, Italian merchant ships returned from the Black Sea, one of the links along the trade route between Europe and China. Many of the sailors were already dying of the plague, and within days the disease had spread from the port cities to the surrounding countryside. The disease spread as far as England within a year. The Europeans were susceptible to disease because they lived in crowded surroundings with very poor sanitary conditions. The Europeans often ate stale or diseased meat because refrigeration had not yet been invented. Also, medicine was primitive and unable to remedy an illness that modern technology might have cured. Bad medical advice also advanced the plague. People were often advised to not bathe because open skin pores might let in the disease. Death from the plague was horrible, but swift. The first signs were generally aching limbs, and vomiting of blood. Then the lymph nodes found in the neck, armpits, and groin would begin to swell. The swelling continued for three or four days until the lymph nodes burst. The swiftness of the disease, the enormous pain, the grotesque appearance of the victims, all served to make the plague especially horrifying. The Black Death: Bubonic Plague

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