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UNIT 7 - LATER MIDDLE AGESL_Middle_Ages_-_Cover.jpg



In the early Middle Ages, great nobles and their knights held a great deal of power. As time passed, though, this power began to shift. More and more, power came into the hands of two types of leaders, popes and kings. Popes had great spiritual power, and kings had political power. Together, popes and kings controlled most of European society.

The Power of Popes

In the Middle Ages, the pope was the head of the Christian Church in Western Europe. Since nearly everyone in the Middle Ages belonged to this church, the pope had great power. People saw the pope as God’s representative on Earth. They looked to him for guidance about how to live and pray. Because the pope was seen as God’s representative, it was his duty to decide what the church would teach. From time to time, a pope would write a letter called a bull to explain a religious teaching or outline a church policy. In addition, the pope decided when someone was acting against the church.

If the pope felt someone was working against the church, he could punish the person in many ways. For serious offenses, the pope or other bishops could choose to excommunicate, or cast out from the church, the offender. This punishment was deeply feared because Christians believed that a person who died while excommunicated would not get into heaven. In addition to spiritual power, many popes had great political power. After the Roman Empire collapsed, many people in Italy looked to the pope as their leader. As a result, some popes began to live like royalty. They became rich and built huge palaces. At the same time, they came into conflict with Europe’s other political leaders, kings.

The Power of Kings

As you can see on the map below, Europe in 1000 was divided into many small states. Most of these states were ruled by kings, some of whom had little real power. In a few places, though, kings had begun to take firm control of their countries. Look at the map to find England, France, and the Holy Roman Empire. At this time, Europe’s most powerful kings ruled those three countries.

In England and France, kings inherited their thrones from their fathers. At times, nobles rebelled against the kings, but the kings usually reestablished order fairly quickly. They maintained this order through alliances as well as warfare.


The Holy Roman Empire

In the Holy Roman Empire, however, the situation was different. This empire grew out of what had been Charlemagne’s empire. As you read earlier, Charlemagne built his empire in the 700s with the pope’s approval. In the mid-900s, another emperor took the throne with the approval of the pope. Because the empire was approved by the pope and people saw it as a rebirth of the Roman Empire, it became known as the Holy Roman Empire. Holy Roman emperors didn’t inherit their crowns. Instead, they were elected by the empire’s nobles. Sometimes, these elections led to fights between nobles and the emperor. In the worst of these squabbles, emperors had to call on the pope for help.

Popes Fight for Power

Although the people of western Europe considered the pope the head of the church, people in eastern Europe disagreed. There, bishops controlled religious matters with little or no guidance from the pope. Beginning in the mid-1000s, however, a series of clever and able popes sought to increase their authority over eastern bishops. They believed all religious officials should answer to the pope.

Among those who believed this was Pope Leo IX, who became pope in 1049. He argued that because the first pope, Saint Peter,
had been the leader of the whole Christian Church, later popes should be as well. Despite Leo's arguments, many church leaders
in eastern Europe, most notably the Byzantine Patriarch Michael Cerularius, refused to recognize the supremacy of the pope. The pope responded by excommunicating him in 1054. This is known as the Great Schism. It is reflected in the cultural and political divisions between the Orthodox and Catholic parts of Europe today.

Leo’s decision created a permanent split within the church. Christians who agreed with the bishop of Constantinople formed the Orthodox Church. Those who supported Leo’s authority became known as Roman Catholics. With their support, the pope became head of the Roman Catholic Church and one of the most powerful figures in western Europe.

Kings and Popes Clash

As popes worked to increase their power, they often came into conflict with kings. For example, kings thought they should be able to select bishops in their countries. Popes, on the other hand, argued that only they could choose religious officials.

In 1073 a new pope came to power in Rome. His name was Pope Gregory VII. Trouble arose when Gregory disapproved of a bishop chosen by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. Angry because the pope his authority, Henry convinced Germany’s bishops that they should remove Gregory as pope. In response, the pope excommunicated Henry. He called on the empire’s nobles to overthrow Henry.

Desperate to stay in power, Henry went to Italy to ask the pope for forgiveness. Gregory refused to see him. For three days Henry stood barefoot in the snow outside the castle where Pope Gregory was staying. Eventually, Gregory accepted Henry’s apology and allowed the emperor back into the church. Gregory had proven himself more powerful than the emperor, at least for that moment.

The fight over the right to choose bishops continued even after Henry and Gregory died. In 1122 a new pope and emperor reached a compromise. They decided that church officials would choose all bishops and abbots. The bishops and abbots, however, would still have to obey the emperor. This compromise did not end all conflict. Kings and popes continued to fight for power throughout the Middle Ages, changing lives all over Europe.


The Crusades were a long series of wars between Christians Muslims in Southwest Asia. They were fought over control of Palestine, a region of Southwest Asia. Europeans called Palestine the Holy Land because it was the region where Jesus had lived, preached, and died.

Causes of the Crusades

For many years, Palestine had been in the hands of Muslims. In general, the Muslims did not bother Christians who visited the region. In the late 1000s, though, a group of Turkish Muslims entered the area and captured the city of Jerusalem. Pilgrims returning to Europe said that these Turks had attacked them in the Holy Land, which was no longer safe for Christians. Before long, the Turks began to raid the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine emperor, fearing an attack on Constantinople, asked Pope Urban II of the Roman Catholic Church for help. Although the Byzantines were Orthodox Christians and not Catholic, the pope agreed to the request.


The Call to Arms

Pope Urban called on Christians from all over Europe to retake the Holy Land from the Muslim Turks. He challenged Europe’s kings and nobles to quit fighting among themselves and fight together against the Turks. In response, people joined the pope’s army by the thousands. Crusaders from all over Europe flocked to France to prepare for their long journey. They sewed crosses onto their clothing to show that they were fighting for God. In fact, the word crusade comes from the Latin for “marked with a cross.” As they marched off to war, the Crusaders yelled their rallying cry, “God wills it!”

Why would people leave home to fight in a distant land? Some just hoped to save their souls or to do what they thought God wanted. They thought that God would look favorably on them for fighting his enemies, as one French abbot noted:

“What a glory to return in victory from such a battle! …if they are blessed who die in the Lord, how much more are they who die for the Lord!”

Other Crusaders wanted land and treasure. Still others were looking for something to do. Adventure called to them.

The First Crusade

About 5,000 Crusaders left Europe for the Holy Land in 1096. Some of the first ones to set out were peasants, not soldiers. On their way to the Holy Land, these peasant Crusaders attacked Jews in Germany. They blamed the Jews for Jesus’s death. Before they even reached the Holy Land, Turkish troops killed most of these untrained, poorly equipped peasants.

The nobles and knights fared better. When they reached Jerusalem in 1099, they found the Muslim army disorganized and unready to fight. After about a month of fighting, the Crusaders took Jerusalem and massacred the Muslim defenders. They also attacked Jews and Eastern Christians. After the Europeans took Jerusalem, they set up four small kingdoms in the Holy Land. The rulers of these kingdoms created lord and vassal systems like they had known at home. They also began to trade with people back in Europe.


The Second and Third Crusades

The kingdoms the Christians created in the Holy Land didn’t last, though. Within 50 years the Muslims had started taking land back from the Christians. In response, the Europeans launched more Crusades.

French and German kings set off in 1147 to retake land from the Muslims. This Second Crusade was a terrible failure. Poor planning and heavy losses on the journey to the Holy Land led to the Christians’ total defeat. Ashamed, the Crusaders returned to Europe in less than a year.

The Third Crusade began after the Muslims retook Jerusalem in 1189. The rulers of England, France, and the Holy Roman Empire led their armies to the Holy Land to fight for Jerusalem, but problems soon arose. The German king died, and the French king left. Only King Richard I of England stayed in the Holy Land.

King Richard’s main opponent in the Third Crusade was Saladin, the leader of the Muslim forces. Saladin was a brilliant leader. Even Crusaders respected his kindness toward fallen enemies. In turn, the Muslims admired Richard’s bravery.

For months, Richard and Saladin fought and negotiated. Richard captured a few towns and won protection for Christian pilgrims. In the end, however, he returned home with Jerusalem still in Muslim hands.

The Fourth Crusade

In 1201 French knights arrived in Venice ready to sail to the Holy Land to begin a Fourth Crusade. However, the knights didn’t have money to pay for the voyage. For payment the Venetians asked the knights to conquer Zara, a rival trade city. The knights agreed. Later they also attacked Constantinople and carried off many treasures. The city that had been threatened by Muslims before the Crusades had been sacked by Christians!


End of the Crusades

Other Crusades followed, but none were successful. By 1291 the Muslim armies had taken back all of the Holy Land, and the Crusades had ended.

Why did the Crusades fail? There were many reasons.

  • The Crusaders had to travel huge distances just to reach the war. Many died along the way.
  • Crusaders weren’t prepared to fight in Palestine’s desert climate.
  • The Christians were outnumbered by their well-led and organized Muslim foes.
  • Christian leaders fought among themselves and planned poorly.

Whatever the reasons for their failure, the Crusades ended just as they had begun so many years before, with the Holy Land under Muslim control.

Effects of the Crusades

Although the Crusades failed, they changed Europe forever. Trade between Europe and Asia grew. Europeans who went to the Holy Land learned about products such as apricots, rice, and cotton cloth. Crusaders also brought ideas of Muslim thinkers to Europe.

Politics in Europe also changed. Some kings increased their power because many nobles and knights had died in the Holy Land. These kings seized lands that were left without clear owners. During the later Crusades, kings also gained influence at the popes’ expense. The popes had wanted the church to be in charge of all the Crusades. Instead, rulers and nobles took control.

The Crusades had lasting effects on relations among peoples as well. Because some Crusaders had attacked Jews, many Jews distrusted Christians. In addition, tension between the Byzantines and western Christians increased, especially after Crusaders attacked Constantinople. The greatest changes occurred with Christian and Muslim relationships. Each group learned about the other’s religion and culture. Sometimes this led to mutual respect. In general, though, the Crusaders saw Muslims as unbelievers who threatened innocent Christians. Most Muslims viewed the Crusaders as vicious invaders. Some historians think that the distrust that began during the Crusades still affects Christian and Muslim relationships today.


Nearly everyone who lived in Europe during the Middle Ages was Christian. In fact, Christianity was central to every part of life. Church officials, called clergy, and their teachings were very influential in European culture and politics.

The Church and Society

In the Middle Ages, life revolved around the local church. Markets, festivals, and religious ceremonies all took place there. For some people, however, the local church was not enough. They wanted to see important religious sites—the places where Jesus lived, where holy men and women died, and where miracles happened. The church encouraged these people to go on pilgrimages, journeys to religious locations. Among the most popular destinations were Jerusalem, Rome, and Compostela, in northwestern Spain. Each of these cities had churches that Christians wanted to visit.

Another popular pilgrimage destination was Canterbury, near London in England. Hundreds of visitors went to the cathedral in Canterbury each year. One such visit is the basis for one of the greatest books of the Middle Ages, The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (CHAW-suhr). Chaucer’s book tells of a group of pilgrims who feel drawn, like many people, to Canterbury:

“When in April the sweet showers fall And pierce the drought of March to the root… Then people long to go on pilgrimages And palmers long to seek the stranger strands Of far-off saints, hallowed in sundry lands And specially, from every shire’s end Of England, down to Canterbury they wend.”

The Church and Politics

The church also gained political power during the Middle Ages. Many people left land to the church when they died. In fact, the church was one of the largest landholders in Europe. Eventually, the church divided this land into fiefs. In this way, it became a feudal lord. Of all the clergy, bishops and abbots were most involved in political matters. They often advised local rulers. Some clergy got so involved with politics that they spent little time dealing with religious affairs.

Some people were unhappy with the political nature of the church. They thought the clergy should focus only on spiritual matters. These people feared that the church had become obsessed with wealth and power.


Among those unhappy with the church were a group of French monks. In the early 900s they started a monastery in the town of Cluny (KLOO-nee). The monks of Cluny followed a strict schedule of prayers and religious services. They paid little attention to the world, concerning themselves only with religious matters.

The changes at Cluny led to the creation of a religious order, the Cluniac monks. A religious order is a group of people who dedicate their lives to religion and follow common rules. Across Europe, people saw Cluny as an example of how monks should live. They built new monasteries and tried to live like the Cluniacs.

By the 1100s, though, some monks thought that even Cluny’s rules weren’t strict enough. They created new orders with even stricter rules. Some took vows of silence and stopped speaking to each other. Others lived in tiny rooms and left them only to go to church services. Men were not the only ones to create and join religious orders. Women were allowed to join these kinds of orders as well. Communities of nuns called convents appeared across Europe. Like monks, these nuns lived according to a strict set of rules. The nuns of each convent prayed and worked together under the watchful eyes of an abbess, the convent’s leader.

Although monks and nuns lived apart from other people, they did a great deal for society. For example, they collected and stored texts that explained Christian teachings. Monks spent hours copying these documents, and they sent copies to monasteries across Europe.


The Friars


Not everyone who joined a religious order wanted to live apart from society. Some wanted to live in cities and spread Christian teachings. As a result, two new religious orders were begun in the early 1200s.

These orders were the Dominicans and the Franciscans, named for their founders, Dominic de Guzmán and Francis of Assisi. Because they didn’t live in monasteries, members of these orders were not monks. They were friars, people who belonged to religious orders but lived and worked among the general public.

Friars lived simply, wearing plain robes and no shoes. Like monks, they owned no property. They roamed about, preaching and begging for food. For that reason, friars were also called mendicants, from a Latin word for beggars. The main goal of the friars was to teach people how to live good Christian lives. They taught people about generosity and kindness. A prayer credited to Francis illustrates what the friars hoped to do:

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.”

While some people were drawing away from the world in monasteries and convents, others were looking for ways to learn more about it. In time, their search for knowledge led to the creation of Europe’s first universities.

Some of the earliest universities were created by the church. The church’s goal was to teach people about religion. Other universities were created by groups of students who went searching for teachers who could tell them about the world. Most teachers in these universities were members of the clergy. Besides religion, schools taught law, medicine, astronomy, and other courses. All classes were taught in Latin. Although relatively few people in Europe spoke Latin, it was the language of scholars and the church.

As people began to study new subjects, some of them developed new ideas about the world. In particular, they wondered how human reason and Christian faith were related. In the past, people had believed that some things could be proven with reason, but other things had to be taken on faith. Some people in universities, though, began to wonder if the two ideas could work together. One such person was the Dominican philosopher Thomas Aquinas (uh-KWY-nuhs). Thomas was a teacher at the University of Paris. He argued that rational thought could be used to support Christian beliefs. For example, he wrote an argument to prove the existence of God.

Thomas also believed that God had created a law that governed how the world operated. He called it natural law. If people could study and learn more about this law, he argued, they could learn to live the way God wanted.


In addition to politics and education, the church was also a strong influence on art and architecture. Throughout the Middle Ages, religious feeling inspired artists and architects to create beautiful works of art.

Religious Architecture

Many of Europe’s churches were incredible works of art. The grandest of these churches were cathedrals, large churches in which bishops led religious services. Beginning in the 1100s Europeans built their cathedrals using a dramatic new style called Gothic architecture.

Gothic cathedrals were not only places to pray, but also symbols of people’s faith. As a result, they were towering works of great majesty and glory. What made these Gothic churches so unusual? For one thing, they were much taller than older churches. The walls often rose up hundreds of feet, and the ceilings seemed to reach to heaven. Huge windows of stained glass let sunlight pour in, filling the churches with dazzling colors. Many of these amazing churches still exist. People continue to worship in them and admire their beauty.


Religious Art

Medieval churches were also filled with beautiful objects created to show respect for God. Ornate paintings and tapestries covered the walls and ceilings. Even the clothing priests wore during religious services was marvelous. Their robes were often highly decorated, sometimes with threads made out of gold.

Many of the books used during religious ceremonies were beautiful objects. Monks had copied these books carefully. They also decorated them using bright colors to adorn the first letters and the borders of each page. Some monks added thin sheets of silver and gold to the pages. Because the pages seem to glow, we use the word
illuminated to describe them.



Beginning with William the Conqueror, the kings of England fought to increase their power. By the 1200s, the kings felt that they could do as they pleased, whether their nobles agreed with them or not. The kings’ attitudes upset many nobles, especially when kings began to create new taxes or take the nobles’ property. Some nobles began to look for ways to limit kings’ powers and protect their own rights.
In 1215 a group of nobles decided to force the king to respect their rights. In the middle of a field called Runnymede near London, they made King John approve a document they had written. This document listing rights that the king could not ignore was called Magna Carta. Its name is a Latin phrase meaning “Great Charter.”

Magna Carta required the king to honor certain rights. Among these rights was habeas corpus (HAY-bee-uhs KOHR-puhs), a Latin phrase meaning “you have the body.” The right of habeas corpus meant that people could not be kept in jail without a reason. They had to be charged with a crime and convicted at a jury trial before they could be sent to prison. Before, kings could arrest people for no reason at all. More importantly, Magna Carta required that everyone—even the king—had to obey the law. The idea that everyone must follow the law became one of the basic principles of English government.

Magna Carta inspired the English to find more ways to limit the king’s power. A council of nobles was created to advise the king. In time, the council developed into Parliament (PAHR-luh-muhnt), the lawmaking body that governs England today. Over the years, membership in Parliament was opened to knights and town leaders. By the late Middle Ages, kings could do little without Parliament’s support.

The English continued to work to secure and protect their rights. To ensure that everyone was treated fairly, people demanded that judges be free of royal control. Many people believed judges chosen by the king would always side with him. Eventually, in the late 1600s, the king agreed to free the courts of his control. This creation of an independent judicial system was a key step in bringing democracy to England.


Although Magna Carta changed England’s government, it had no effect outside of that country. Kings in other parts of Europe continued to rule as they always had. Eventually, however, these kings also had to face great political changes.
One of the countries in which political change occurred was France. In 1328 the king of France died with no sons, and two men claimed his throne. One was French. The other was the king of England. In the end, the French man became king. This did not sit well with the English king, and a few years later he invaded France. This invasion began a long conflict between England and France that came to be called the Hundred Years’ War. At first the English armies did well, winning most of the battles. After nearly 100 years of fighting, however, a teenage peasant girl, Joan of Arc, rallied the French troops. Although the English eventually captured and killed Joan, it was too late. The Impact Today The French drove the English from their country in 1453.

The Hundred Years’ War changed the governments of both England and France. In England, Parliament’s power grew because the king needed Parliament’s approval to raise money to pay for the costly war. As Parliament gained more influence, the king lost power. In France, on the other hand, the king’s power grew. During the war, the king had become popular with his nobles. Fighting the English had created a bond between them. As a result, the nobles supported the king after the war as well.


While the English and French fought the Hundred Years’ War, an even greater crisis arose. This crisis was the Black Death, a deadly plague that swept through Europe between 1347 and 1351.
The plague originally came from central and eastern Asia. Unknowingly, traders brought rats carrying the disease to Mediterranean ports in 1347. From there it quickly swept throughout much of Europe. Fleas that feasted on the blood of infected rats passed on the plague to people. The Black Death was not caused by one disease but by several different forms of plague. One form called bubonic plague (byoo-BAH-nik PLAYG) could be identified by swellings called buboes that appeared on victims’ bodies. Another even deadlier form could spread through the air and kill people in less than a day.

The Black Death killed so many people that many were buried quickly without priests or ceremonies. In some villages nearly everyone died or fled as neighbors fell ill. In England alone, about 1,000 villages were abandoned. The plague killed millions of people in Europe and millions more around the world. Some historians think Europe lost about a third of its population—perhaps 25 million people. This huge drop in population caused sweeping changes in Europe.

In most places, the manor system fell apart completely. There weren’t enough people left to work in the fields. Those peasants and serfs who had survived the plague found their skills in high demand. Suddenly, they could demand wages for their labor. Once they had money, many fled their manors completely, moving instead to Europe’s growing cities.



By around 1100, some Christians had begun to question church teachings. They felt that the clergy focused more on money and land than on God. Others didn’t agree with the church’s ideas. They began to preach their own ideas about religion.

Religious ideas that oppose accepted church teachings are called heresy (HER-uh-see). People who hold such ideas are called heretics. Church officials sent priests and friars throughout Europe to find possible heretics. Most of these priests and friars tried to be fair. A few tortured people until they confessed to heresy, even if they were innocent. Most people found guilty in these trials were fined or put in prison. Others were killed.

In the early 1200s, Pope Innocent III decided that heresy was too great a threat to ignore. He called a crusade against heretics in southern France. With this call, the pope encouraged the king of France and his knights to rid their country of heretics. The result was a bloody war that lasted about 20 years. The war destroyed towns and cost thousands of people their lives.

Reconquest of Spain

France was not the only place where Christians fought people they saw as the church’s enemies. In Spain and Portugal, armed Christian warriors fought to drive the Muslim Moors out of their lands.
By the late 900s the once powerful Muslim government of Spain had begun to weaken. Political and religious leaders fought each other for power. Various ethnic groups also fought each other. In 1002 the Muslim government fell apart completely. Caught up in fighting among themselves, Muslim leaders were too busy to guard against the Christian kingdoms of northern Spain.

For centuries, the kingdoms of northern Spain had been small and weak. But as the Moors’ power declined, these little Christian kingdoms seized the opportunity to attack. Slowly, they took land away from the Moors. They called their efforts to retake Spain from the Moors the Reconquista (reh-kahn-KEES-tuh), or reconquest.
In 1085 Castile (ka-STEEL), the largest of the Spanish kingdoms, won a great victory against the Moors. The Castilian victory inspired other Christian kingdoms to fight the Moors. The kingdoms of Aragon and Portugal soon joined the fight. The Christian armies won victory after victory. By the 1250s, the victorious Christian armies had nearly pushed the Moors completely out of Europe. The only territory still under Muslim control was a small kingdom called Granada (grah-NAH-dah).

As a result of their victories, both Portugal and Spain grew more powerful than before. Portugal, once a part of Castile, broke free and declared its independence. Meanwhile, Castile and Aragon decided to unite. In 1469 Ferdinand, the prince of Aragon, married Isabella, a Castilian princess. Ten years later, they became king and queen of their countries. Together, they ruled all of Spain as King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Ferdinand and Isabella finally brought an end to the Reconquista. In 1492 their army conquered Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Spain. That same year, they required all Spanish Jews to convert to Christianity or leave the country. A few years later, they banned the practice of Islam as well. Through this policy all of Spain became Christian.

Ferdinand and Isabella wanted only Christians in their kingdom. To ensure that Christianity alone was practiced, they created the Spanish Inquisition, an organization of priests that looked for and punished anyone in Spain suspected of secretly practicing their old religion. Later, the Inquisition spread to Portugal as well. The Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions were ruthless in seeking heretics, Muslims, and Jews. People found guilty of heresy were sentenced in public ceremonies. Many of those found guilty were killed. They were often burned to death. In total, the Spanish sentenced about 2,000 people to die. Almost 1,400 more were put to death by the Portuguese Inquisition.




The Crusades - Terry Jones - BBC

Chartres Cathedral

Saints and Sinners - A History of the Catholic Church