III. The Postclassical Period, 500–1500 > F. Europe, 461–1500
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See 455–472) (See 476, Sept. 4)
F. Europe, 461–1500
In Europe, particularly western Europe, the postclassical period is commonly called the Middle Ages (Lat., Medii Aevi), originally a pejorative term coined by the 14th-century Florentine poet Francesco Petrarch (See 1378) to describe what he considered a period of cultural stagnation (c. 400–1300) between two eras of cultural brilliance, the ancient Roman and his own. Scholars often divide the Middle Ages into three time periods: an early phase, c. 500–1000; the central or High Middle Ages c. 1000–1300; and a later period, c. 1300–1500, when medieval patterns of culture began to decline.  1
1. Western Europe in the Early Middle Ages, 461–1000
The general characteristics that made the early Middle Ages are the collapse of the centralized state (the Roman Empire), which had provided much of western Europe with a government of law and social order, and the assumption of power by local strongmen. The decay of the ancient city-state as a physical and social unit and as a way of life meant that the isolated rural estate became the typical form of social and economic organization; some cities survived as ecclesiastical or political centers, but not as economic or cultural ones. The decline of long-distance trade forced the individual to depend for all of his or her needs on locally produced goods. Disease, especially periodic outbreaks of bubonic plague, chronic domestic violence, and assaults from outside Europe made for drastic population decline. The slow, steady, but very imperfect conversion of peoples to Christianity led to a shift of basic loyalty from the state to religion; Europeans came to define themselves and their world in religious terms, and they gave a spiritual loyalty to Rome that was slowly transformed into a supranational authority independent of any secular power.  2
The ancient Roman world had been a Mediterranean-based civilization whose “center of gravity” lay in the East. The subsequent consolidation of the Byzantine Empire, the expansion of Islam through the Mediterranean, and the rise of Frankish power meant that no single culture would unite the former Roman world. When the term Europa was first used around 1500, it referred to the areas over which the Frankish ruler Charlemagne had nominally held jurisdiction, a territory far smaller than that which the word “Europe” implies today.  3
a. Conditions of Life
In the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries, the Germanic invasions led to the decline of city-states throughout the Mediterranean world; free tenant farmers abandoned their small farms, and the land was acquired by large landowners. Large, economically self-sufficient villas or manors became the dominant form of social organization, and agriculture the major occupation. Political instability and invasions (See Invaders of the West) also reduced long-distance trade. Most commerce was local. Existence for most people was rural, isolated, and limited by the borders of the province.  4
Free farmers, weak and defenseless before barbarian invaders, brigands, and greedy officials, sought protection from powerful local landowners. In return for support and protection, small landholders surrendered their lands to, and became the dependents of, the strong. The weak became bound to the soil, working their patron's lands; they lost their freedom, could not move, and became serfs. This trend toward serfdom continued to the 11th century.  5
Communication was difficult; roads and harbors were unused and in disrepair until about the 8th century. Building was stagnant; the art of brick-laying appears to have been lost; few stone buildings were erected in northern Europe. Metalworking was still important, although stamping was unskilled, and hence coins were crude. Precious metals were worked with enamel decorations, while silver and bronze could be cast. Unlike the light Mediterranean soils, those of northern Europe could not be pulverized for farming purposes; these heavy soils had to be sliced, broken up. This was impossible until the introduction of the iron, wheeled plowshare, with moldboard. The basic farm tools evolved during this period: rake, spade, fork, pick, balanced sickle, scythe. Development of the horse collar was very important, for an efficient draft animal relieved the small workforce. With an effective harness and stirrup (the latter depicted in a drawing c. 900), and tandem rather than fan-hitched teams of horses or oxen, men were freed of even more work. Another important source of power was water: the Roman water mill (in use 536) spread throughout Europe.  6
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.