A Historical Sketch of the Middle Ages

Threshing and pig feeding from a book of hours from the Workshop of the Master of James IV of Scotland (Flemish, c. 1541) / Wikimedia Commons

Medieval people made great contributions to the development of European science and technology without which the future achievements of the moderns would have been impossible.

By Dr. Hans Peter Broedel
Graduate Director, Associate Professor of History
University of North Dakota

We are accustomed to think of the middle ages, that roughly thousand-year span between the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West and the dawning of the modern world around 1500 CE, as a period of ignorance and benighted superstition.   This is largely because the term “middle ages” was invented by very smart, but very conceited, Renaissance scholars who liked to contrast their own considerable achievements with what they saw as the intellectual wasteland that preceded them.  This bit of slander also suited the purposes of reforming Protestants who used the alleged darkness of the medieval centuries as evidence of the stifling influence of the Catholic Church.  Yet, as we shall see, such an attitude is mostly wrong and completely unfair: medieval people made great contributions to the development of European science and technology without which the future achievements of the moderns would have been impossible.

Sometimes medieval contributions are difficult to understand because they do not look like what we expect or are accustomed to.  When we study the middle ages, however, we need to remember that neither science nor technology progresses just because “that’s what it does,” but because change brings benefits to certain sufficiently important members of society.  A warrior aristocracy dominated medieval Europe for whom the capacity for violence provided not only the means to power, but also its very justification.  For this reason, technologies that enhanced force and that maximized the ability of a relatively small number of men to project violence as efficiently, safely, and widely as possible, were embraced and encouraged.  Castles, steel swords and armor, heavy warhorses, Viking ships: these iconic images define the middle ages in our imaginations, but they were also extremely effective and functional expressions of medieval technological goals.

Other medieval technologies responded to the needs of society more broadly.  Agricultural innovations, many imported from Asia, spread rapidly because they were profitable: higher crop yields meant better, longer lives for peasants and more rents for lords.  The use of waterpower for mills and other industrial technologies came rapidly where it was profitable, and slowly or not at all where it was not.  The development of clocks, bookkeeping, and new techniques of manufacture met the quite different needs of growing urban communities.  Finally , an increasing dependence on writing served the needs of a broad constituency, including urban guilds, governments, and, of course, the church.

In a quite similar way, medieval natural philosophy (or we could say “medieval science” since it endeavored to better understand and describe the natural world) reflected the values, goals, and worldview of its most important stakeholder, the Church.  Because the natural world, God’s creation, was a direct expression of his thought and will, to better understand it led to a better understanding of God.  The natural world was perceived as a kind of text, a “book of nature,” which could and should be examined and studied in ways much like scripture.   Naturally, for this reason medieval science was required to conform to basic Christian teachings, yet because the Church was also steeped in classical and Latin traditions, the Greco-Roman inheritance provided a second basis for understanding the natural world.  How these two traditions coexisted, adapted, and merged determined in large part the direction of medieval science.

The middle ages lasted a very long time, during which far too many important things happened to summarize here, but a quick sketch of the period may be useful.  Historians usually divide the middle ages the way they divide almost everything else, into three parts: the early, the high (saying the “middle – middle ages” sounds silly), and the late.

The early middle ages (c. 500 – c. 1000) are usually said to begin when German warlords started carving new kingdoms out of the old Roman Empire.  This is the era often termed the “Dark Ages,” and, truthfully, much of Roman culture was indeed lost.  Population fell sharply, though this was more the result of a horrendous plague than barbarian massacres.[1]  Most cities either disappeared entirely or shrank down to the size of villages.  Schools vanished, and almost no one outside of the clergy was able to read or write.  The authority of kings suffered from a combination of scarce resources, most of which were funneled into their nearly constant wars, too powerful subordinates, and inadequate administrative institutions. This  meant that they did not have sufficient wealth to project their authority. There were exceptions, of course, and the most important was the reign of Charlemagne (768-814), who, through inheritance and conquests, managed to forge an Empire comprising most of what is today France, Italy, Germany, and the Low Countries (the modern Netherlands and Belgium) Charlemagne’s empire did not long endure, however, collapsing under the weight of foreign invasion, constant civil war, endemic local violence, and the tragic incompetence of his successors.  But despite this litany of unfortunate events, in many respects conditions began to improve toward the middle of this period, as population finally began to grow again, and economic activity and crop yields increased.

With the year 1000 the high middle ages begin, and the pace of improvement picked up speed.[2] Increasingly dense local trade networks allowed people to specialize in doing whatever was most profitable, because they could use their surplus to buy those goods that they did not produce themselves.  Local trade encouraged more adventurous merchants to travel farther afield in search of goods in high demand back home.  The weather improved; food was more plentiful; and life expectancy, although still very low by modern standards, went up as a result.  All things considered, if you didn’t mind being a serf—a  sort of semi-free tenant farmer whose labor supported everyone else—it was a good time to be a peasant.  Improved personal security  came hand in hand with better economic conditions, as did the growing power kings and princes.  After years of being invaded by just about everyone, European rulers now decided it was their turn and launched aggressive campaigns to conquer territory in the Iberian peninsula, around the Baltic, and even as far away as the Eastern Mediterranean.  In sum, all those deeds and images that we associate with the word “medieval”—mighty castles, soaring cathedrals, tournaments, crusades—all were made possible by the economic expansion of the high middle ages.

But all good things must come to an end, and the glory days of medieval Europe ended with almost-shocking speed.  By start of the late middle ages, around 1300, the weather was turning colder and failing harvests led to severe, but localized famines. Pope Clement V (r. 1305 -1314) decided to quit Rome for the more genteel environs of Southern France, and sparked a spiritual crisis that lasted over a hundred years (1309 – 1417).  England and France became embroiled in an endlessly protracted and enormously damaging series of conflicts, known collectively as the Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453) and, predictably, other states could not resist joining the fray, all of which had disastrous consequences for any peasants who got caught in the way.  Finally, and most devastatingly of all, in 1347 the Plague arrived back  in Europe. [ as part of the most terrible pandemic that the human race has ever endured.  Europe lost between one third and one half of its population; globally, deaths may have exceeded 100 million people out of a total human population of half a billion.[3] These crises profoundly altered medieval social and economic life, but they also paved the way for the dramatic changes of the fifteenth century that mark the conventional beginnings of the modern era.


  1. See William Rosen, Justinian’s Flea: The First Great Plague and the End of the Roman Empire (New York: Viking Penguin, 2007),  264-265 and passim.
  2. See R.I. Moore, The First European Revolution, c. 970 – 1215 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000) for an accessible summary of this argument;
  3. Anthony N. Penna and Jennifer S. Rivers, Natural Disasters in a Global Environment (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 197.

Originally published by REBUS Community Pressbooks, in History of Applied Science and Technology, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.