1500s: Da Vinci in Context – European History, or Medieval Period

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by Pat Works

Da Vinci in Context: European History, or Medieval Period

CONTEXT:   In European history, the Middle Ages, or Medieval period, lasted from the 5th to the 15th century. It began with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and merged into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. The Middle Ages is the middle period of the three traditional divisions of Western history: Antiquity, Medieval period, and Modern period. The Medieval period is itself subdivided into the Early, the High, and the Late Middle Ages.

Depopulation, deurbanisation, invasion, and movement of peoples, which had begun in Late Antiquity, continued in the Early Middle Ages. The barbarian invaders, 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 Eastern Roman Empire came under the rule of the Caliphate, an Islamic empire, after conquest by Muhammad's successors. Although there were substantial changes in society and political structures, the break with Antiquity was not complete. The still-sizeable Byzantine Empire survived in the east and remained a major power. The empire's law code, the Code of Justinian, was rediscovered in Northern Italy in 1070 and became widely admired later in the Middle Ages. In the West, most kingdoms incorporated the few extant Roman institutions. Monasteries were founded as campaigns to Christianise pagan Europe continued. The Franks, under the Carolingian dynasty, briefly established an empire covering much of Western Europe; the Carolingian Empire in the later 8th and early 9th century, when it 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.

During the High Middle Ages, which began after AD 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 Middle Eastern Holy Land from the 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 philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, the paintings of Giotto, the poetry of Dante and Chaucer, the travels of Marco Polo, and the architecture of Gothic cathedrals such as Chartres are among the outstanding achievements of this period.

The Late Middle Ages was marked by difficulties and calamities including famine, plague, and war, which much diminished the population of Western Europe; between 1347 and 1350, the Black Death killed about a third of Europeans. Controversy, heresy, and schism within the Church paralleled the warfare between states, civil wars, and peasant revolts occurring in the kingdoms. Cultural and technological developments transformed European society, concluding the Late Middle Ages and beginning the early modern period.

Di Vinci in Context European history, or Medieval period 1Rise of Islam

Main article: Muslim conquests

The Islamic Empire and its expansion. Darkest colour is the extent from 622 to 632, medium colour is expansion during 632 to 661, and the lightest colour shows the expansion that took place in the period 661 to 750.

Religious beliefs in the Eastern Empire and Persia were in flux during the late 6th and early 7th centuries. Judaism was an active proselytizing faith, and at least one Arab political leader converted to it. Christianity had active missions competing with the Persians' Zoroastrianism in seeking converts, especially among residents of the Arabian Peninsula. All these strands came together with the emergence of Islam in Arabia during the lifetime of Muhammad (d. 632). After his death, Islamic forces conquered much of the Eastern Empire and Persia, starting with Syria in 634–635 and reaching Egypt in 640–641, Persia between 637 and 642, North Africa in the later 7th century, and the Iberian Peninsula in 711. By 714, Islamic forces controlled much of the peninsula, a region they called Al-Andalus.

The Islamic conquests reached their peak in the mid-8th century. The defeat of Muslim forces at the Battle of Poitiers in 732 led to the reconquest of southern France by the Franks, but the main reason for the halt of Islamic growth in Europe was the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty and its replacement by the Abbasid dynasty. The Abbasids moved their capital to Baghdad and were more concerned with the Middle East than Europe, losing control of sections of the Muslim lands. Umayyad descendants took over the Iberian Peninsula, the Aghlabids controlled North Africa, and the Tulunids became rulers of Egypt. By the middle of the 8th century, new trading patterns were emerging in the Mediterranean; trade between the Franks and the Arabs replaced the old Roman patterns of trade. Franks traded timber, furs, swords and slaves in return for silks and other fabrics, spices, and precious metals from the Arabs.