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What (and when) were the Middle Ages?

The Middle Ages are a popular time period for fantasy writers, but the real events of the era weren’t quite so fantastic. The feudal society created a massive divide between the rich and poor, widespread wars raged, and, of course, there was the Black Death. So, what exactly were the Middle Ages and when did they occur?

In the middle

Aerial view of the Ancient Roman Forum showing ruins and pillars
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The Middle Ages is so named because those years land between the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE and the start of the Renaissance around the 15th century. The year 476 CE is considered the precise starting point because it’s the year that the Roman Empire was officially overthrown and ceased to exist. The end dates are a bit hazy since the Renaissance occurred in stages throughout Europe. In total, the Middle Ages lasted for approximately 1,000 years.

Other names

In addition to being called the Middle Ages, this period of time is also referred to as the Medieval Period and the Dark Ages. "Medieval" is just a fancy way to say Middle Ages; the Latin roots of the word “medieval” literally translates to “middle age.” The more ominous-sounding Dark Ages stems from the lack of civilization caused by the social inequalities, economic disparity, all-around poverty, and famine.

Feudalism

Castle built in the middle ages
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After the fall of the Roman Empire, no single governing body was able to control the empire's former population. With the lack of central leadership, several small kingdoms popped up with their own versions of government.

Under the feudal system, the king would give away tracts of land (called fiefs) along with military protection to lords in exchange for allegiance and payment. Payments were often made in the form of food, money, or, most frequently, military service. The lord would be considered a vassal of the king once an agreement was in place. The pieces of land came along with the many peasants who handled the work. The peasants, or serfs, were essentially slaves who were attached to the land. Occasionally lords were given more land than they could effectively govern, and they would sublet fiefs to another vassal beneath them. Vassals had complete authority over the inhabitants of the land and could pass their rights down to their heirs.

The feudal system made it impossible for people to move from the social class they were born into, which created a permanent divide between the landowning and working classes.

War

War during the Middle Ages was almost constant. Kings had armies, lords had armies, and each vassal under them had an army. If you owned land, you had to have an army. Everyone was always looking for ways to increase their power, so raids were a common occurrence.

The most significant conflicts were a series of eight separate wars known as the Crusades. For 200 years, kingdoms of Europe banded together and marched to the Middle East in hopes of taking control of the Holy Land from the Muslim Empire, which resulted in millions of casualties on both sides.

Black Death

A few boats in port in Sicily, Italy
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As if the feudal system and constant fighting weren’t enough to make life in the Middle Ages exceptionally challenging, along comes the Black Death. In 1347, a dozen ships from Asia docked in Sicily. When the port workers opened the doors, they were greeted with a most unpleasant sight. Most of the crew on board were dead, and the survivors were covered in boils. The workers immediately shut the doors and sent the ship away. Unfortunately, it was too late.

The plague started in Asia and rapidly tore its way through Europe. Symptoms included gnarly boils all over the body, as well as severe flu-like conditions (fever, vomiting, chills, and so on). The disease was so contagious that even touching the clothes of someone contaminated was enough to contract it yourself, and it was so efficient that it could kill a perfectly healthy person overnight. To make matters worse, it could also infect cows, goats, sheep, pigs, and chickens. So many sheep were killed that it created a shortage of wool.

The Black Death was transmitted both by air and by the bite of infected fleas and rats, both of which were plentiful in the Middle Ages. The rats and fleas spread the disease from port to port. Once it made landfall, it spread quickly through the air.

The plague had run its course by the early 1350s and managed to wipe out a staggering one-third of the entire European population in just three years. Some cities were hit even harder. The city of Florence lost about 75% of its population, leaving the area in shambles.

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