Middle Ages – Concept, art, philosophy, religion and feudalism

We explain what the Middle Ages was, its stages, art, literature and other characteristics. Also, what was feudalism?

middle Ages
The Middle Ages was a period of wars, plagues, and new political forms.

What was the Middle Ages?

The period of Western history that begins with the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476, and ends with the discovery of America in 1492 or the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, the date on which the Hundred Years War also culminated.

Its thousand-year duration was characterized by a relative stagnation in the development of culture and science, under the rule of the religious mentality of Christianity, which is why it was often called the “Dark Ages.”

The Middle Ages receives its name from being the transition between the Ancient Age and the Modern Age. During this period, society embraced a feudal order, essentially rural or peasant, and Christian dogmatism ruled the culture.

However, medieval life was far from being immovable or serene, but it was the scene of numerous human displacements, abundant wars and new political forms, mainly in the border cultures to the European one, like Muslim Arab or Eastern Christianity (Byzantium).

Especially important was the clash between Christian and Islamic civilizations, with reciprocal attempts at conquest such as the Muslim expansion from the 7th to the 15th century or the numerous Christian Crusades.

Finally, it should be noted that the Middle Ages, as a historical period, cannot be fully applied to civilizations other than the Western one, such as China, India or Japan, flourishing during that same period. The consideration that the history of Europe is the history of the world is a biased, Eurocentric and discriminatory historical criterion.

Characteristics of the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages It is the time of the knights errant, of the Catholic kings and kingdoms, and of the long wars rural for religious reasons. Although much of it is shown romantically in contemporary fiction, there never was magic, no species other than human (elves, orcs, goblins, etc.), or dragons.

However, these supernatural beings were part of the current imaginary at the time, in which local traditions and beliefs clashed with the dominant Christian religion. Usually, faith prevailed over reason or understanding.

It was a long period of deep but slow transformations. For instance, the ancient slave mode of production was replaced by the feudal mode of production.

The diversity of what happened over a thousand years does not allow a too homogeneous reading. However, in the Middle Ages massive epidemics, military invasions and superstition aboundedAlthough in the latter it is possible that Christianity classified as ignorance or superstition any vestige of previous pagan religions.

Stages of the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages is commonly divided into two stages:

  • Early or High Middle Ages (5th to 10th centuries). It began with the fall of the Roman Empire. Christianity was consolidated in Europe and spread to new territories, while Jerusalem passed into Muslim hands. It ended with the proper beginning of feudal institutions, the rise in the East of the Macedonian dynasty, and the decline of the Abbasid Caliphate.
  • Low Middle Ages (11th to 15th centuries). The properly feudal stage of the Middle Ages, marked by the appearance of the Black Death (1348) that claimed millions of lives in Europe and reduced its population by half. At this stage the early bourgeoisie emerged as a new social class, which promoted the changes necessary for the emergence of capitalism and the end of the Middle Ages.
    The late Middle Ages in turn comprise two stages:

    • Full Middle Ages. It spans from the 11th to the 13th centuries, when the city was born and the expulsion of Islam from various parts of Europe began to occur, such as the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily or the Near East. It is considered a peak moment of medieval culture, with the optimal climatic period providing the necessary heat for more tolerable winters and more abundant harvests.
    • Crisis of the fourteenth century. Also called The Secular Crisis, it spans the last two centuries of the Middle Ages and witnessed the destabilization of medieval society as a result of prolonged war conflicts, as well as the emergence of future modern values, such as the crisis of scholasticism. This is the final stretch of the Middle Ages.

Literature of the Middle Ages

Medieval literature is well known, especially with regard to chivalric cycles, in which the adventures of Christian warriors were told in a vast world, full of magic and mysteries. They were generally narrated through Christian or religious symbols and metaphors.

These cycles, such as the Arthurian or the Breton, were later accompanied by bestiaries, books often supplemented with images in which an account was kept of the animals known to man, many of them imaginary, and interpreted from a Christian moral point of view.

Later hagiography and religious poetry predominated as main genres of Christian Europe, whose cultural and scientific manifestations were controlled by the Church. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, courtly love became important as the protagonist of stories, always in a bucolic imaginary, as well as epic songs and fables.

Some representative titles of the medieval tradition are: The Amadís de Gaula (anonymous, 1508), Beowulf (anonymous, date unknown), Sing of mine Cid (anonymous, 1200) and the Divine Comedy (Dante Alighieri, 1304-1321) and The Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer, 1387-1400).

Art of the Middle Ages

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Medieval art illustrated biblical stories, such as the betrayal of Judas.

When thinking about medieval art, we must consider that it arose at a time in history in which there was no notion of art as an end in itself, not even that of Fine Arts, but of mechanical arts, linked to the trade.

Thus, medieval art had a clear function, which could be:

  • Serve from offering to God.
  • Serve from pedagogical accompaniment of Christian rites and knowledge.
  • Being a assertion of power political (portraits of kings, nobles, etc.) or religious (religious scenes).

In many cases, medieval art was influenced by other invading or bordering cultures, such as Byzantine art, Mozarabic Iberian art, among others. Great works of painting, architecture and music were composed during this period.

Philosophy of the Middle Ages

Medieval philosophy tried, throughout its thousand years of duration, to find a synthesis between the various traditions of thought that he inherited, such as the Christian, the Jewish, the Islamic (by contagion) and the one from Classical Antiquity.

Due to the Christian predominance in medieval culture, most of the fundamental authors of Antiquity, such as Plato, Socrates or Aristotle, were inaccessible due to the censorship and prohibition of “pagan” influences. Paradoxically, many of them came through Muslim translations, since the Arab culture was more open to influences from the past.

These translations allowed the re-entry of Aristotle, who was a name abundantly referred to after the twelfth century, influencing the work of authors such as Ramón Llull, Tomás de Aquino, Guillermo de Ockham and Juan Duns Scoto, while other previous authors such as Agustín de Hipona, Juan Escoto Erígena or Anselmo de Canterbury were of Platonic affiliation.

The central themes of medieval philosophy had to do with faith, reason, divine nature and existence, the problem of evil, human free will and other issues that They reflected on the way in which the divine and the earthly worlds interpenetrated. The modern ideas of science, of empirical knowledge and of experiment did not exist as such in the mentality of the time.

Feudalism of the Middle Ages

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Feudal society consisted of the military aristocracy and the peasantry.

Medieval feudal society it was fundamentally rural. In it, two great social classes were distinguished, which constituted the feudal mode of production:

  • The military aristocracy. Composed of landowners who administered their territories socially, politically and legally.
  • The serfs of the impoverished peasantry. Those who worked the land for the benefit of the feudal lord, and secondly, their own, receiving security and order in return.

Secondly, the clergy joined them, that is, the Catholic Church, which crowned the kings and administered the moral, spiritual and legal authority of the different Christian kingdoms, as representatives of the law of God on Earth.

Often the adherence to the clergy (the entrance to their institutions) was the only way of social advancement of the poor classes, together with the war, since membership of the nobility or commoners was determined from birth.

Feudalism found its end with the rise of the bourgeoisie. It was a new social class that administered business and merchandise, emerging as a political and economic power unrelated to the nobility of origin.

Eventually that new middle class fueled the Renaissance and the Modern Age. Through the Bourgeois Revolutions, they established capitalism and the Republic as the new values ​​of the West.

Church of the Middle Ages

One of the best known features of the Middle Ages was the omnipresence of the Catholic Church, whose interventions in politics were constant and fundamental. This era is often characterized by its theocratic governments, in which the Church crowned kings and endorsed them as emissaries of God on earth.

The Church controlled the written letter, the official knowledge and exercised judicial functions, since the laws by which society was governed were religious, beyond those imposed by the feudal lords in their respective local governments. The ecclesiastical authorities could even prosecute kings and nobles, since the law of God was above that of men.

In that sense, the role of the Holy Inquisition of the Catholic Church it was infamous. Their representatives acted as emissaries of ecclesiastical power that challenged the faith of people accused of witchcraft, demonic pacts or paganism.

Any person accused by their enemies, scientists dedicated to research, or women accused of being witches could be involved in these processes. The accusation alone served for the Inquisition to take matters into its own brutal hands, and subject people to torture, humiliation and persecution.