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It has been asked if it is fair to consider the Middle Ages as the Dark Ages or was it only a continuation of trends that were long underway by the time the Renaissance occurred. Can we say there was no true political expansion? Would we be accurate in saying there were no new thoughts or ideas? Did our ancestors truly halt all thought and spiritual growth to wait for the Renaissance? should think not! Although there may have been only one great empire with no great shift of political and religious thought, the Middle Ages were far from being devoid of activity and upheaval. This was an incredible age of transition. This period is integral in the growth of western civilization as it goes towards the light. Dark Ages they were not! For several hundred years, from about the first to around the fifth century AD, Rome was the greatest power in Europe, ruling Britain and the countries around the Mediterranean Sea. However, in northern Europe, there were fierce tribes that were only held at bay by the Romans. Around 400 AD, the Roman Empire began to weaken and the northern tribes moved across the continent of Europe and plundered the city of Rome. The Roman Empire collapsed and was gradually replaced by many small kingdoms ruled by a strong King, Prince or Noble.
These kingdoms and principalities often were heavily influenced by the Holy Roman Empire and would rarely go against its wishes. The Roman Catholic Church was the single, largest unifying structure in medieval Europe. It touched everyone’s life, no matter what their rank or class or where they lived. With the exception of a small number of Jews and Muslims in Spain, everyone in Europe was a Christian during the Middle Ages from the richest king down to the lowest serf. It was the important stabilizing and unifying force that Europe needed to move through this period.
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This helped form a rudimentary form of government known as the Feudal system, which set a pecking order for society. This Feudal system gave Europe and specifically the Holy Roman Empire a structure with which it could gain control of the heathen tribes of the north, convert them, and take control of these lands by encouraging expansion of affiliated kingdoms. Feudalism gave people of this time a structure to their society known as the Three Estates-1st Clergy, 2nd Nobility and 3rd Commoners. Commoners worked the lands and in return were protected by the Nobility. The nobility would be protected in their allegiance to one another and their bond with the clergy which was obviously directly associated with the Holy Roman Empire. The Empire was protected by the people as a whole because of the belief of the supremacy of the Pope as the hand of God and the church as the supreme authority in all of lifes matters. The stability provided by these allegiances helped encourage the development of a vast trading network known as the Hanseatic League. Towns and cities began to grow up and develop an infrastructure. The development of the cities drew more people from the surrounding county side. These people often brought varying skills and abilities that contributed to the trade economy. And with more trade came more growth. And it also brought strength of numbers that lead to a better defense of the cities and trade networks.
The Middle Ages also saw several key military events that would alter the course of history. The most important of which is known as the Crusades. The Crusades were actually four separate crusades of which the first was the only successful one. They were brought about because the common belief of all Christians that the unbelievers in the holy land should be expelled. The holy land had recently been taken over by the Turks who were an Islamic based empire. Now, this wasnt wholly the reason for the Crusades as Pope Urban II also saw this as a chance to show Alexius Commonus of the Byzantines that the Holy Roman Empire was the true representative of the Christian faith. But that being said, this was still a way to bring Christian control back to the holy land and the pope would not miss this opportunity. The first crusades main goal was to ride Jerusalem of the Muslims.
This first crusade was successful in that it did liberate Jerusalem and helped establish four Levants (kingdoms) (fig. 1). However, the Christians were not able to hold the territories for very long and the Turks soon took the holy land back. This ended the only successful crusade. The following crusades were pretty much failures as there end goals were to bring wealth to the kingdoms through reestablishing the trade routes and not bringing Christianity back to the holy land. In the end, they even resulted in the Christians attacking Constantinople as they took several of Alexius actions as disloyal to Christianity.
Another area of great interest during the Middle Ages was the struggles within the papacy itself. Although at the beginning of this period they had a very stable and strong pope with supreme authority, towards the end of it, you have kings and nobles getting growingly frustrated with the corruption and power grabs by the papacy. After a series of moves to give absolute and temporal authority to the church by Pope Boniface VIII, Phillip IV (fig. 2) of France had enough and sent an army to Italy to arrest Boniface. After he was arrested, Boniface tried to escape and died of a heart attack. This left a void in the papacy so Phillip, in an effort to assert control over the papacy, moves the headquarters of the church to Avignon and stacks the College of Cardinals with those loyal to himself. This exposed the reality of the time that much of the papacies power was through the will of the kings and not through its own authority. This was a major shift that directly led to the development of the Renaissance period. As we can see, the Middle Ages were far from dark. They were a time of political and spiritual change and a time of growth and expansion. These civilizations were going towards the light of the Renaissance. They were people of great religious conviction and determination that wanted to grow beyond their humble beginnings as barbarians and nomads of the fourth century. The Renaissance awaited them and they were to soon embrace it also.
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