Europe in the Middle Ages

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Europe in the Middle Ages

From as early as 100 b.c.e., administrators of the Roman Empire (27 b.c.e.476 c.e.) had brought parts of Europe under the control and governance of Rome. By the second century c.e., Rome's influence spread throughout most of western Europe, from Spain north to Britain, and Germany south to Italy. When the Roman Empire collapsed in 476 c.e. after years of attacks by hordes of raiding barbarians from the north, including Goths, Huns, Franks, Angles, Saxons, and Vandals, much of the civilization that the Romans had developed collapsed as well. Well-built cities were destroyed, centers of learning were ruined, and trade routes were disrupted. The tribes who took power kept their control local and were constantly at war with each other. The disorder they brought ushered in an era in European history that some historians call the Dark Ages, part of the larger historical period called the Middle Ages (c. 500c. 1500 c.e.)

For several hundred years following the collapse of the Roman Empire people in Europe lived meagerly. Some of the glory of the empire was restored under the reign of a Germanic king named Charlemagne (742814). Charlemagne ruled over a revived Roman Empire from 800 to 814, and his rule was characterized by some renewed trade among the emerging states of France, Italy, and Spain. But upon Charlemagne's death the empire fell apart again. The only things uniting the various peoples of Europe were the Catholic religion, the Latin language, and the emerging feudal system of social organization.

The feudal system develops

Under the feudal system a local king sat at the top of the social order. He was supported by nobles, who swore their loyalty to the king and provided him with soldiers, called knights, for protection. Knights developed customs all their own, with complex rules about how to treat women and intricate and sophisticated systems of armor. The nobles controlled the land, which was worked by peasants and other members of the lower classes. Life was not easy under the feudal system. People had to work very hard just to get by, and there were few diversions for those outside the king's immediate court. Living conditions were dirty and difficult, and people lived very short lives. According to Michael and Ariane Batterberry in their book Fashion: The Mirror of History, "monotony was the cornerstone of feudal life."

As the feudal system developed, life became better for some people. Kingdoms grew larger, and the king's castle soon became the center of a vigorous town life. Kings made alliances with, or conquered, their neighbors, and larger kingdoms developed, complete with extended royal families and systems of nobility. These new societies included the monarchies, or kingdoms, of France, England, and Spain, as well as various small states in Germany. The development of these societies was a slow process but was quite recognizable by the eleventh century. These monarchies provided the basis for present-day European nations.

A religious society

The center of life throughout Europe in the Middle Ages was the Roman Catholic Church. For the better part of the period the church was the most powerful institution in all of Europe and the only one to span the separate kingdoms. The church was the keeper of knowledge and learning, maintaining books and literacy at a time when most people could not read. The church was also a powerful economic institution. It collected taxes from all citizens, and it built enormous churches, monasteries, and cathedrals throughout Europe. It is from church statuary, records, and tapestries that most of our knowledge about the Middle Ages comes.

The church was also important for the role it played in the Crusades, a campaign of religious wars that lasted from about 1090 to 1300. Heeding the call of the church, kings sent their knights and soldiers on long journeys to the Middle East to attempt to reclaim the Holy Lands from Muslim nations. (The Holy Lands were special to the Catholics because they were the birthplace of Jesus Christ, and remain a source of conflict into the twenty-first century.) These crusaders crossed vast distances and learned a great deal about foreign lands, including the Byzantine Empire (4761453), which was at its peak of development. They brought back with them new ideas, access to new trading partners, and new styles in clothing.

The Black Death

Just as Europe was beginning to develop more rapidly, a terrible disease known as the plague struck the continent. Called theBlack Death, the plague wiped out nearly one-third of western Europe's population between 1348 and 1350. The plague had a huge impact on all areas of society. It made many people question the authority of the Catholic Church, which had been unable to protect victims from the plague. It also brought some real changes in the clothing people wore. During and after the plague people sought out fancier, more highly ornamented clothing. Historians believe that they did so because they realized that, with life seeming so short and easily lost, they may as well enjoy the little things and spent what they had rather than saved.

On the eve of the Renaissance

By the fourteenth century life in the larger towns had become highly developed. Workers began to organize themselves in guilds, or organizations of people with similar trades, to practice certain trades and a small middle class of shopkeepers opened up stores. The royal family and their courts were still at the top of social life, but many more people had access to money than ever before. These developing societies began to rediscover learning, and they established the first universities to support education. These changes ushered in a new era in history called the Renaissance, so named because of the rebirth of learning and civil society.

The costume traditions of Europe followed the broad trends of history. Clothing started out crude and became ever more highly developed throughout the period. By the fourteenth century skilled tailors were proving capable of making very finely cut and fitted garments. Their ability to make custom clothing and to change clothing styles to fit the ever-changing tastes of wealthy royals and nobles ushered in the beginnings of modern fashion, where tastes in clothes change constantly. France emerged as the fashion capital of Europe and the West, a status that it retains into the twenty-first century.


Batterberry, Michael, and Ariane Batterberry. Fashion: The Mirror of History. New York: Greenwich House, 1977.

Cantor, Norman F. The Civilization of the Middle Ages. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.

Hanawalt, Barbara. The Middle Ages: An Illustrated History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Knight, Judson. Middle Ages Reference Library. Detroit, MI: UXL, 2001.

Ruby, Jennifer. Medieval Times. London, England: B. T. Batsford, 1989.

Clothing of the Middle Ages
Headwear of the Middle Ages
Body Decorations of the Middle Ages
Footwear of the Middle Ages