A summary to learn to distinguish between the high Middle Ages and the late Middle Ages
The Middle Ages is one of the longest periods in Western history, going from the 5th century AD. C. until the middle of the XV and, therefore, having a duration of almost 1000 years.
It is for this reason that, given how extensive this historical period is, historians have divided it into two sub-periods with different economic, social and cultural characteristics: the High Middle Ages and the Low Middle Ages.
Next we will see in more depth what are the differences between the high and low Middle Ages.
High and Low Middle Ages: what are they?
The Middle Ages is a very long period in the history of Western civilization. It is during this stage of history that Europe is forming several cultures that, several centuries later, will determine the form and type of society of the states that can be found today in the Old Continent.
Historians consider that the Middle Ages began with the fall of the Roman Empire in 467 AD. C., putting an end once and for all to Classical Antiquity, starring Rome, Greece and Egypt along with other civilizations such as the Carthaginian. With the end of the classical world, the Middle Ages began, which can be differentiated into two sub-periods: the high and the low Middle Ages.
The High Middle Ages begins in the 5th century AD. C. and will last until the 11th century AD, while its successor, the Late Middle Ages, will begin in the 11th century AD and end in the XV AD. C. These two historical periods have quite different characteristics ; then we will see a little more in depth the contexts in which they occurred.
High Middle Ages
The High Middle Ages is the sub-period of European history that spans from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to approximately 1000, at which time there is a major economic and cultural revival in the Old World.
The main protagonist states during the High Middle Ages are three empires that will “share” the European territories, facing wars to take their lands from the other: the Byzantine Empire, the Umayyad Caliphate and the Carolingian Empire.
The Roman Empire disintegrated due to multiple factors, although the main ones were the siege of the Germanic peoples, the weakening and barbarization of the Roman army and multiple social revolts within the empire motivated by famines and the devaluation of the currency. Faced with this situation, the almighty Rome fell like a house of cards, fragmenting into various kingdoms, mostly Catholic with a Romanesque-Germanic base.
In this way, the High Middle Ages began, characterized by being a period of considerable instability. Piracy was practiced, the looting perpetrated by Slavs, Normans, Hungarians and Saracens were something daily and people did not feel safe in the cities, with which they were leaving them to take refuge in the countryside.
The differences between rich and poor are accentuated and feudalism appears. The wealthiest lords could afford to own land, making others work for them in exchange for protection. These landowners were very powerful in their lands, acting almost like tyrants, and they carried out the decentralization of the power of the newly created Christian kingdoms, something that contrasted with how they ruled in Ancient Rome.
The nobles gave land to their vassals through a synalagmatic contract, with which both parties were obliged to contribute some service, such as giving protection to the vassal or economically and politically benefiting the landlord.
The Catholic Church begins to acquire a very great power, which will increase over the years. The high clergy are a strongly privileged social group, sometimes more than the nobility themselves. It is also a very cultured group, with which they will be the ones who contribute and monopolize cultural creation in the early Middle Ages, building monasteries, abbeys, churches and cathedrals and transforming them into centers of cultural production.
The Low Middle Ages succeeds the High Middle Ages. This period ranges from the beginning of the 11th century AD to the Renaissance, already in the 15th century, with the discovery of America by Columbus in 1492, although the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453. Feudalism continues to have an important organizing function in society, and the Catholic Church exercises supreme power over Western Christianity.
During this period, new social classes emerged, especially the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie are not nobles, but people without privileges within medieval society but who, thanks to their professions as craftsmen, blacksmiths and others, work for themselves, without serving any feudal lord and having a certain purchasing power.
Although there was no freedom of thought, little by little great scientific discoveries are being made. Many disciplines, such as mathematics, history, astronomy and philosophy, are developing their bodies of knowledge, laying the foundations for the Renaissance to occur at the end of the late Middle Ages. In addition, the first universities were founded, with about 50 being built throughout Europe between the 13th and 16th centuries.
Differences between the high and late Middle Ages
Seeing a bit what these two sub-periods of the Middle Ages were like, let’s go on to see what the main differences between them are.
1. Political differences
During the High Middle Ages the figure of the king or emperor was that of a head of state with limited powers. The power of the monarchy was in the hands not only of the monarch, but also of the high nobility and the clergy who owned lands in which they exercised an almost tyrannical power.
However, after the 11th century and entering the late Middle Ages, little by little the figure of the king was reinforced, positioning himself as the maximum ruler over all its territories and showing his power above the nobility and the clergy. With the passage of time, great monarchies were formed throughout Europe, with the emergence of parliaments and several nobles, clergymen and bourgeois demanding a greater right to self-government, obtaining privileges by way of acquisition of vassal rights.
With regard to conflicts, in the High Middle Ages the main reason for war was the invasions of peoples such as the Slavs, Normans, Muslims and Germans, putting the power of the new Christian monarchies at risk or changing their ethnic composition.
On the other hand, during the late Middle Ages the main conflicts that can be observed are the Reconquest, carried out by several Iberian kingdoms to “recover” the southern territories ruled by the Umayyad Caliphate and its successors, in addition to the Hundred Years War.
Among the most notable conflicts during the late Middle Ages we can highlight the Reconquest carried out in the Iberian Peninsula in order to make the Christians recover the lands seized by the Muslims several centuries ago and the Hundred Years War.
2. Economic differences
In the High Middle Ages the economic base was found in the rural world, based on agriculture and subsistence livestock. To a lesser extent, some manufactures were manufactured. One could not speak of trade itself, but rather of barter since coins were very rarely used.
The situation changes in the late Middle Ages. Although the economy continued to be mainly rural, little by little, cities began to develop further, becoming new economic centers. In turn, there was an increase in agricultural and livestock production, thanks to the introduction of new farming techniques.
The improvements in the field implied an increase in production, which benefited the creation of a trade that was no longer only at the local level and carried out through bartering, but over a long distance. Now trade was a very lively activity, holding fairs to sell far-off products and promoting the creation of banks. Due to this, the currency was gaining prominence as an element to manage transactions.
3. Social differences
During the High Middle Ages, feudalism was of great importance as an organizing system of society. During this period, society was divided into various estates, among which two held privileges, the nobility and the clergy, while the rest were not so lucky, being the group of peasants, artisans and serfs of the gleba.
The nobles and clerics have the most outstanding right, in addition to many others, to be able to own large tracts of land and profit from it. They made the underprivileged estates work from dawn to dusk, mainly the servants of the gleba. The nobles and clerics could be subject to vassal relations with other nobles and clerics, having to respect treaties by which their lord offered them protection in exchange for economic, political and military benefits.
Although feudalism continues to be the organizing system of late medieval society, it began to collapse after the 11th century. This is due to the irruption of the bourgeoisie as a not privileged but wealthy class. By possessing significant economic resources they could exercise certain power within society, without the need to hold noble titles, although they were still below the nobles and clergy.
Due to improvements in agriculture and livestock there was a demographic increase. This implied a change in the vassal relations and in the treatment of the servants of the gleba, since the nobles could not have so many people in their lands. The serfs of the gleba were so because an ancestor of theirs had agreed with a landowner to work on his land in exchange for protection, an obligation from which he could never be released unless the landowner renounced it, which happened at this time due to to the lack of space.
4. Cultural differences
In the High Middle Ages the Greco-Roman culture was still slightly in force, although little by little it deteriorated and gave rise to various cultures, all of them sharing the Romanesque artistic style. Latin began to evolve, especially among the lower classes, who could neither read nor write, creating transitional languages between classical Latin and Romance languages: medieval Latin.
The European continent is not culturally homogeneous during the high medieval period. In addition to having Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox, there are Muslims who live in the lands conquered by the Umayyad Caliphate. In the Iberian Peninsula, the Muslims conquer most of their territory, creating Al-Andalus, which reached the Cantabrian coast, being the kingdom of Asturias the last Christian stronghold on the peninsula.
The culture was monopolized by the clergy, who in their cathedrals, churches, abbeys and monasteries worked writing books in Latin, the liturgical language. Although the population continued to speak medieval Latin, it was highly mixed with words from the languages of the Basques, Slavs, Celts, Muslims and other peoples that had been invading the Christian kingdoms. Although the Romance languages did not yet exist properly speaking, they were forming.
During the late Middle Ages the Christian kingdoms were gradually occupying the Muslim territories, “recovering” their lands and expanding not only the Christian faith, but also their languages. Latin evolves so much that, from the X-XI centuries, its speakers no longer understand each other between kingdoms. It is at this time that Romance languages such as Spanish, Galician-Portuguese, Catalan, Navarrese-Aragonese, Asturleonian, Occitan, French or Italian are considered to be born.
Although clergymen played an important role in the creation and transmission of culture, among the more secular classes, especially among the bourgeois, there is a greater interest in education. It is here when the first universities began to be founded as new training centers and, although Latin continued to be the language of culture, there began to be a greater interest in vernacular languages, both Romance and Germanic. Regarding the artistic, the predominant style was Gothic.
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