Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, was one of the great leaders of the early middle ages. He was a Frankish king who ruled for over 40 years, from 768 until 814. Working together with Pope Leo III, he built a vast European empire. He set the stage for feudalism by rewarding lords and knights with the land and privileges in return for military service and set standards for uniform coinage.
There were three main groups putting pressure on Europe were Muslims from the near East and Spain, Magyars, a Central Asian people, and Vikings from the north. Viking expansion during the early Middle Ages was vast and included settlements in Normandy, England, Scotland, Ireland Iceland Greenland, and even, briefly, North America. Constant pressure from these groups encouraged Western European leaders to develop feudalism through a constant need for military obligation and unity, in exchange for protection and stability.
Feudalism was a military system of government by which kings and lords exchanged titles and land rights for pledges of loyalty and military assistance in times of war. Feudalism was based on a series of obligations in a strict hierarchy. Kings were absolute rulers responsible for the lives and safety of all the people in their control. Below (or beside) them were lords, who controlled large amounts of land, often castles and fortresses, and who commanded large groups of knights. Below the lords were their vassals--lesser nobles and knights who were expected to fight when called. Knights and lords were expected to protect the people in their care, called peasants, and were granted the right to the land they worked, called a fief. The peasants did most of the work, comprised most of the population, and were forced to pay nights and lords in goods and services. The system of feudalism perpetuated three core values. First, military strength was considered a social good because it provided peace and protection. Second, personal loyalty was the most important ingredient in the social order. And third, society was necessarily hierarchical all the way up to heaven.
Most people were peasants. Their lives were hard and brief. Some peasants were free, which meant that they had to pay rent to work their land, but no more. Other peasants, called serfs, were tied to the land and could not leave the estate. In return for their labor, serfs were given a small plot of land which they could use for their own farming in their spare time. Most peasants were farmers, but a few worked as carpenters, shoemakers, metal workers, or in other professions required in the manor. Peasants lived in small one-, or two-room huts made of wood, straw, and mud.
Castles are the best known legacy of medieval architecture. They were built as fortresses, with walls thick enough to withstand artillery attacks as well as long sieges.
There was no separation of church and state in medieval Europe. Most of the population was Christian and the Catholic Church encouraged war against Muslims, and persecution against Jews.
Monasteries were important centers of learning and scholarship and the medieval period. The women and men who lived in convents and monasteries dedicated themselves to austere lifestyles in the name of religion.
Towns emerged along important trade routes, outside of castles, forts, and monasteries. Some specialized in particular industries, such as glass making or textiles. Towns became centers for the spread of technology, ideas, people, and disease. Guilds were organizations that merchants and craftspeople used to protect their trade, and also enhance the quality of their work. Guilds made sure that no one engaged in their particular trade without permission--in fact, without being a member of the guild. Guilds also punished their own members, who tried to cheat customers or whose work was shoddy.
In medieval times, people believed that all matter was made up of four elements, earth, air, water, and fire. Alchemy was what we would today call chemistry, though it lacked the scientific method. The two primary pursuits of alchemy were attempts to discover how to make gold and how to develop a panacea, a potion that would cure all diseases, including aging. Alchemists believed that a fifth element, called the Philosophers Stone, governed the other four elements and could be used to create gold, the panacea, or even life itself.
The Magna Carta was significant because it was the first example of a set of written rules limiting the power of the King and listing their rights of his subjects. By 1295, the council of nobles had developed into what was called the Model Parliament,” which included members of the clergy and the aristocracy, as well as representatives from the various counties and boroughs. This type of constitutional monarchy became the foundation for the government of the United States.
The first major plague swept through Europe in 1347, starting in Asia Minor and spreading north through Europe over the next five to six years. Within five years, almost one third of Europe's population was dead. The bubonic plague, and other plagues, continued to cycle through the European population until modern times. The Black Death profoundly changed medieval society. Towns and cities stopped trading with one another.
Lastly, Feudalism was, at its core, a military system that rested on the need for a highly trained, armored cavalry. Changes in military technology, however, began to undermine the significance of cavalry, and thus of knights, by the end of the High Middle Ages. Between 1337 and 1453, England and France fought a series of wars, known as the Hundred Years’ War. This series of battles was a turning point in medieval warfare. At the Battle of Crecy in 1346, a strongly outnumbered English army defeated a far superior French army with a new technology: the longbow.