Western Reserve Public Media

Introduction to the Middle Ages Eras

History is the record of past events and times. The three general historic eras include ancient history, the Middle Ages and modern history. What distinguishes the eras? What are the characteristics of each? Let’s take a look.

Ancient History
Ancient history is the study of cultural and political events from the beginning of human history until the Early Middle Ages. Ancient history begins with the earliest writings — the Sumerian cuneiforms — from 5,000 to 5,500 years ago.

This, according to historians, is the beginning of recorded history.
This does not mean that “nothing” happened prior to 3000 B.C., the era called Pre-History. This era is written about by anthropologists, who are scientists who study the origin, behavior and development of humans. Because there are no written records, they accomplish their research through the study of bones and artifacts left by early people.

The ancient period saw the rise of many civilizations whose influence is still perceptible today. The beginnings of nations, empires, most religions practiced today, organized agriculture, trade and organized warfare are but a few of these influences.

To give you a frame of reference, here are some events that occurred in the ancient world:

  • The pyramids were built in Egypt to honor the citizens’ dead pharaohs (leaders).

  • Jesus Christ was born and the Christian religion was founded. The books of the Bible were written.

  • The Tao Te Ching was written in China. It described the promoted the importance of a “modest, balanced life.”

  • Socrates and Plato, great Greek philosophers, wrote about how “all people should be accountable for their actions.”

  • Islam became the religion of many. The Arabic word “Islam” means “submission in peace.” In practice, it is understood to mean submission in peace to the will of God Almighty (Allah).

  • The Roman Empire spread throughout Europe. The strategy that led to the formation of this empire was to conquer other lands and create colonies there. This expansion brought much wealth to the Roman state and positioned Rome as the “Imperial City.” Rome became a very cosmopolitan capital city. High living and wealth measured a person’s importance and success. The Roman Empire had an autocratic form of government; in other words, the emperor had unlimited power.

Although the ending date of ancient history is largely arbitrary, most Western scholars use the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 as the traditional ending. This is when a German named Odoacer removed the last ruling emperor from Rome. There are many different theories as to why the Roman Empire collapsed. Declining morals, public corruption, unemployment, inflation, urban decay and increased military spending are a few of the theories cited.


The Middle Ages — The Medieval Years
The Middle Ages, or medieval time, is generally believed to have started with the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 and to have lasted about 1,000 years until about 1450. The beginning of the Middle Ages is called the Dark Ages because the great civilizations of Rome and Greece had been conquered.

Life was very hard in the Middle Ages. Very few people could read or write. Their lack of knowledge often led to superstitious beliefs. The people thought that fate ruled their existence; therefore, there was little hope for the improvement of their condition. During the years of the Roman Empire, the poor people were protected by the soldiers of the emperor. When the empire fell, there were no laws to protect them, so they turned to the lords to keep the peace and to act on their behalf. This willingness to be ruled by the lords led to the beginnings of feudalism. Some peasants were free, but most became serfs to a lord. This meant they were bound to the lord’s land and paid very high rent to the lord.

The only hope that most people had was their belief that the next life in heaven would be better than life on earth. The Crusades were launched to bring Jerusalem under Christian control because the Muslims had denied pilgrims access to the city. The experiences of the traveling crusaders opened up new worlds and new ideas to the medieval people.

Prior to the Middle Ages, many groups of people led invasions in European lands. They included the Huns from Central Asia, the barbarian tribes from Scotland and the Germanic tribes, which included the Vandals, Lombards, Goths and Franks. During the Middle Ages, there were barbarian invasions, which included the Viking raids and the raids of the Mongols, who controlled most of Russia and eastern Europe.

Almost half of the people in western Europe died from the bubonic plague. This disease, which killed 35 million Asians, was brought to Europe by ships coming back from China. Rats traveled on the ships. Fleas living on the blood of these infected rats transferred the disease to people. Lymph nodes swelled and burst and the skin turned a dark gray color. Medicinal care and cleanliness were lacking. Superstition ruled.

It should be noted that other parts of the world were thriving in this era. North Africa, the Middle East, China, India and other parts of the world were experiencing great changes.

The Renaissance began in about 1450. Renaissance is a French word that means “rebirth.” This rebirth began when European scholars became more aware of and interested in the world around them. The art became more true to life. People began to learn about new lands, customs and beliefs.


Modern History
“About 1450, European scholars became more interested in studying the world around them. Their art became more true to life. They began to explore new lands. The new age in Europe was eventually called “the Renaissance.” Renaissance is a French word that means ‘rebirth.’ Historians consider the Renaissance to be the beginning of modern history.”

Source: www.mrdowling.com/704renaissance.html

So much has happened in the world since 1450. One example is the invention of the printing press — a huge step for it provided education to the masses. We can look at religious reform from dependence upon Catholicism to the rise of Protestantism and also religion in the “Age of Reason.” We can look at politics throughout the world. The American and French revolutions made drastic changes in the way the world was viewed. The scientific revolution, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution all changed the world. The 19th century brought about the concepts of nationalism, the Civil War in America, the feminism movement, the growth of socialism and Marxism and the works of Darwin, Freud and Einstein. Two world wars occurred, as well as many other conflicts throughout the world. Today we’re seeing the great impact of technology.

How was that? Two paragraphs to summarize about 550 years of history! The whole story will have to be told at a different time and in a different place. In this study, we’re going to spend time learning about the Middle Ages — what happened and how people were affected. Enjoy the trip.


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