High Middle Ages
"War of the roses, Chaucer's tales.
The brutal feudal system.
Holy crusades, Bubonic plague.
Can't say that we've really missed 'em.
So dark and barbaric, so dull and mundane.
That was so Middle Ages.
That was so... Charlemagne."
Around the year 1000 the people in Western Europe began to get their shit together and moved out of the Dark Ages, and the 1066 three-way war involving Norwegian and Norman invasions over Britain ending in Norman victory and the coronation of William the Conqueror is generally held as the point where the Dark Age/Early Medieval Period ended. The economy steadily improve and cities began to grow again. Though no single state had risen to unify Europe since the Carolingian Empire, individual kingdoms had risen to replace the old tribal confederations (though feudalism was still the rule of the day), allowing for a degree of political stability, and with it, trade networks grew. Skills were honed, new technologies were acquired. Some of these were brought in from the east such as gunpowder, giant hamster wheel powered cranes and paper but others were developed locally such as stained glass and an increasingly wide use of water power. Gothic architecture emerged as Cathedrals reached to the sky. While Slavery was gradually abandoned in much of Europe, trade in the Mediterranean became more and more profitable, especially to the benefit of the Arab Slave Trade. The Byzantine–Seljuq wars also happened at this time, which influenced a much more famous later event, The Crusades.
Unfortunately the good times did not last as the 14th century was a bit of a doozy. First there was famine, which is never a nice thing. Then in 1346 there was the Black Death which wiped out about a third of the people in Europe with some areas getting hit worse than others. Ironically improvements in trade and the growth of cities with little consideration to public heath made such a die off possible. Small isolated villages hit by plague might be wiped out before it can spread, leaving a ghost town and spooked but healthy neighbors. Cities with tens of thousands of people full of filth (human waste, animal waste, food scraps, blood from slaughtered animals, dead stray dogs, dead rats which feed on this stuff and other such grodiness) in which carts, barges and ships are always coming and going can go on for some time propagating the plague like a Nurgle Machine. However, the tradeoff was that peasants, being in lower supply, were now more valuable and could now earn wages to lift themselves out of serfdom and earn some (very basic) rights. Medicine also advanced as healers were forced to change their means and methods and had plenty of sick people to practice and try new things on and primitive superstition on that count slowly began to give way out of simple necessity.
In Japan the Heian era ended in 1185 with the rise of the Kamakura shogunate. Except for the short lived (3 years) Kenmu Restoration, the Emperor would be a powerless figurehead for almost 700 years until the Meiji revolution of 1868. This is also the era the Samurai class emerged. The Katana would only appear at the very end of this period with the true form only emerging around 1400. Samurai wore the longer tachi instead.
High Middle Age Around Europe
The toll from the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the later fall of the Carolingian Empire, plus the raiding campaigns of Vikings, Magyars, and Muslims, left the continent in a weakened state. However, by the time the 11th century started, the feudal economic system was in full effect, and the "relative" (keyword being "relative") moment of peace allowed the cities and kingdoms to begin a process of recovery. Trade and commerce began picking up steam once again, making cities important financial and political points of interests. Likewise, the different monarchies and ruling nobles began a very slow process of recovering their power. The idea of the primus inter pares (first among equals) was fine and good, but it meant that the kings had little more power (and on many occasions, less effective power) than the nobles they supposedly ruled over. This consolidation of power in the hands of national monarchies was a long, loooong process that only started coming into fruition at the very end of the period. In the meantime, though, there were many processes of cultural renovation with the birth of the Romanesque and Gothic styles, and even more deep changes with the Gregorian reformation, the start of the mendicant orders and the spread of the first universities.
Different areas of Europe evolved in different ways, though. In the Iberian Peninsula, this period included most of the second half of the wars of the Reconquista. The fall of the Caliphate of Cordoba in favour of the Taifas system (basically a fragmentation of power in little independent Muslim kingdoms) was the signal for the Christian kingdoms of the north to kick the reconquest of the south into overdrive. This doesn't mean this was an unified campaign, though. As was usual for medieval kingdoms, backstabbings and general infighting on both sides was abound, but the weakened Muslim kingdoms slowly but surely lost ground, despite briefly unifying themselves under the Almoravids and Almohads. The last Muslim kingdom, the Kingdom of Granada, was conquered in 1492 by the Catholic Kings. Meanwhile, the Christian kingdoms started their unification process, which would culminate in the marriage of Elisabeth of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, setting up the basis for the unification of Spain. Meanwhile, Portugal started a campaign of exploration through the Atlantic, which would later be followed by Castile, birthing a competition for the exploration and discovery for route trades to India (and later the Americas) between the two.
In the region that was once the Carolingian Empire, the Kingdom of France slowly but surely started gaining territories against the other two members of the Treaty of Verdun, and its ruling dynasties managed to slowly build up the power that had been lost centuries ago. Of particular importance was the Normand conquest of England by the Duke of Normandy. William the Bastard (which became the Conqueror after his victory) managed to pull off a successful invasion of England by taking advantage of a dynastic dispute. This generated quite a dilemma for the time: though William was still the Duke of Normandy and nominally a vassal of the French king, in practice he had as much (if not more) power and influence than his lord, which put both of them on a very tense position. The French kings tried to reduce the English monarchs' influence in France by limiting the boundaries of their continental possessions, which kept increasing the tensions between the two kingdoms. This situation finally came to a close with the death of the last Capetian without a clear heir to the throne. With no clear ruler and with the English kings having no little dynastic claims to the French throne, he declared war to reclaim the crown against the House of Valois, the other noble family fighting for the French throne. And thus began the Hundred Years War, which, as it name implies, was fucking long. This clusterfuck of a war (both a massive international conflict, a civil war and a bloody family feud) eventually involved pretty much all active players in Western Europe at one point or another, and, alongside the Black Death and the massive famines that coincided with it, caused a lot of death and destruction. The war kept going on and on until the eventual French victory, managing to drive the English to the other side of the English Channel and starting a rivalry between the two nations that would last for centuries. After this defeat, England immediately became embroiled in another civil war, the War of the Roses.
Speaking of England, they went through a lot of upheaval while bickering with France. The new Norman rule had to deal with the nearby kingdoms and a lot of political instability, and then the last heir of the House of Normandy died, which started a civil war which ended with the Plantagenet as the kings of England. During the rule of the famous Richard the Lionheart, that instability continues, especially when the king goes to the Crusades instead of actually taking care of home affairs. His brother John took control of the country after Richard was kidnapped, a move which not only pissed many people off (John was seen as an usurper already, though many historians nowadays see this bad image as the result of his political enemies' propaganda), it gave his rivals the perfect excuse to the disgruntled nobles to rebel against him. John was forced to sign the Magna Carta, a legal document which guaranteed a lot of rights and freedoms to nobility at the expense of the crown. This document is often considered as one of the most important political reforms in history, since it paved the way for modern parliamentarian systems (even though the original document was never put into practice, only a heavily modified version was eventually applied after many political shenanigans).
On the Italian Peninsula, the fragmentation caused by the fall of the Roman Empire and the infighting between the different factions was the catalyst for the birth of most of the Italian city-states. With the Normand conquest of the Catepanate of Italy (basically a province of the Byzantine Empire in Southern Italy), the biggest political power on Italy became the Papacy by far, since the young city-states simply couldn't compete with the Catholic Church in political, spiritual and financial power at the time. The Church's power was not uncontested, though. On the one hand, pushing for the Crusades had given the Pope quite a lot of authority and prestige all over Christianity, but on the other hand, the concentration of power in the hands of nobility and the national monarchies meant that their earthly powers were questioned by secular authorities. In particular, the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire clashed frequently in this matters, since both papal and imperial powers claimed to represent the will of God in some form, though the dispute centers around their influence on the "dominium mundi", and more specifically, the temporal powers. The Investiture Controversy was but the first of the many clashes between this two authorities which would continue all throughout the rest of the Middle Ages.
Speaking of the Holy Roman Empire (which was neither holy, nor Roman, nor technically an empire), it was the technical successor of the imperial authority. Also, it was big, the biggest Christian kingdom by far during the High Middle Ages (the Byzantine Empire had lost quite a lot of ground, and would continue to do so during the period). However, despite its size, population and political influence all around it, it was mostly a confederation of German kingdoms and principalities, all with their own rules and customs. The only real cohesive element was the figure of the Emperor, and the struggles to get that power were frequent. Thus, it was unable to consolidate its power into a centralized monarchy like France, England or Spain, though it was still the great Christian power of this period, and would continue to be a powerhouse in the following centuries.
In the northern parts of Europe, the Scandinavian kingdoms undertook a heavy process of Christianization. After raiding the southern lands for a couple of centuries, many realized that the feudal organization was actually more beneficial than just straight piracy in the long run (although viking raids took a long while to disappear altogether), so they adopted Christianity. This process was accompanied by the adoption of modern political systems and customs, which would pave the way for the Viking and German chieftains to actually create proper medieval kingdoms. In particular, the new kingdoms focused on sea trade, since they already had a lot of naval know-how, and agriculture in Scandinavia was a difficult proposition anyway. In particular, they clashed with the Hanseatic League, a group of principalities and other minor states allied in a merchant confederation which tried to monopolize the regional trade. To counter this, the kingdoms of Sweden, Norway and Denmark created the Kalmar Union, with the Queen Margaret I of Denmark ruling over all three kingdoms at once. However, this union didn't translate into the creation of an unified state, dissolving at the beginning of the Early Modern Ages.
In the other side of Christendom, the Eastern Roman Empire (or the Byzantine Empire for short) was not in the best shape. It had received a massive mauling during the previous centuries due to the wars against the Persians first and later the sudden apparition of Islam, which took away most of its territories in Northern Africa and the Middle East. It was the fast advance of the Seljuk Turks over Anatolia which forced the Roman Emperor to ask for help to anyone that he could find (and considering they had broken with the Roman Church very recently, it was interpreted as a massive sign of weakness everywhere), which led directly to the Crusades. While the Crusades helped the Byzantines stabilize their eastern borders by funding the Crusader kingdoms, Byzantine territories like Bulgaria managed to gain independence. And then the Fourth Crusade happened, which instead of going to the Holy Land to fight the infidels, it ended up besieging and raiding Constantinople itself to pay off some Venetian loan sharks. By the time the Byzantine emperors could retake the capital, they'd lost most of their territories elsewhere, which left the Eastern Roman Empire as a vestigial state whose only advantage was its geographically advantageous position. Still, by 1453 the Ottomans managed to finally capture the remains of the empire (which was basically just Constantinople by this point), signaling the end of whatever was left of the Roman Empire of old.
In Central and Eastern Europe, the last big processes of Christianization took place, from Bohemia to Lithuania to the Rus Kingdoms. This allowed a lot of expansion and modernization of this new kingdoms. And then the Mongols arrived. The arrival of the Mongols to Eastern and Central Europe signals a massive power shift in the area, since the Mongols managed to defeat and conquer many of the European kingdoms. The European tactics that favoured heavy cavalry were catastrophically outmaneuvered against the light archer cavalry of the Mongols, especially in the great open plains of central and eastern Europe. Bohemia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Lithuania were badly hit by this assault, and the Rus Kingdoms were outright conquered and annexed to the Mongol sphere of influence. The death of the Mongol leaders stopped the invasions from going further. Mongol influence was only shaken off from this area after a long process of fighting by the early Russian czars. After the Mongol khanates were pretty much defeated, the main concern of the kingdoms from Eastern Europe became the Ottoman Empire, since the Turks had managed to advance upon the territories from the former Byzantine Empire, which would mark the history of the region with constant clashes during the Early Modern Age. Also, during all of this, this area was squarely hit by the Black Plague in the 14th Century, just as the rest of Europe was. But unlike the western kingdoms, where peasants manage to wrestle some limited concessions to the nobles due to the fact there were becoming pretty scarce, the exact opposite happened here. Many Russian nobles manage to reinforce their authority over their peasant population, in which some historians know as the "second serfdom", which would strengthen the nobility's grasp over the peasants. This system was so strong that it would survive for over 500 years and would only finally be abolished for good in the Russian Revolution in 1917... only for the Communists and Putin's Russia to continue it in far less obvious ways to the present day.
Islamic Golden Age
The Islamic Golden age is a period that occurred during the Abbasid Caliphate between 750 and 1258. As you can expect the Muslim world was doing very well during this period, the Abbassid Caliphate during the reign of Harun-Al-Rashid was the largest and most powerful polity in the world. Meanwhile, in the realm of the sciences, the Muslims were making use of a lot of the classical knowledge they had seized and expanded on it. During this time the Islamic World saw major advancing in terms of science (Primitive Chemistry from Alchemical traditions in particular), medicine, mathematics
(there's a reason why they call them Arabic Numerals) (the reason is that they were introduced to Europe through Arabs, though the numbers themselves originate from India), technology (optics, ceramics, architecture, windmills), art (a lot of Islamic Art relies on geometric patterns given the religion's taboo about images due to fear of idolatry, so having trigonometry was a big boon here) and trade. At the heart of it was Baghdad being a center of learning and a large thriving urban center. Yet not far behind were cities like Samarkand, Damascus, and Cordoba. Unfortunately, the Crusades and the Mongols put a stop to it and trashed up a lot of the Middle East. However, the spirit of this era, of scientific advancement and glorious conquest, would live on past the fall of Baghdad, in places like Mughal India, and the Emirate/Caliphate of Cordoba in Spain.
Khmer Golden Age
While Europe wallowed in the grimdark middle ages, half a world away in what is now Cambodia the city of Angkor was busily becoming a (short lived) paradise on Earth. The Khmer were Hindu at the time and Angkor was constructed as a massive temple and urban area encompassing over a thousand square kilometers, complete with canals and two hand-dug reservoirs that are easily visible from space and capable of holding a hundred million cubic meters of water. The entire complex is larger than New York City and at its height may have had over a million residents. The good times ended when they went full Buddhism.
- This is the high points of chivalry, when an Armored Knight on Horseback had been refined into a truly devastating force. Battles were generally won or lost by the strength of the Heavy Cavalry that one side could bring to bear.
- This is the golden age of castles. Any lord of any significance would put together a stone castle to consolidate his position and the design of castles advanced from simple mottes and Bailies to what most people would think of when they heard the word castle. They were also very resilient, not only to bombardment by siege engines or attempts to storm them, but had graneries and water supplies to weather sieges of at least Months and often Years.
- Warfare in this age was mostly a matter of fairly small parties of knights (in the ballpark of 100) raiding villages and merchants in the other guys territory and armies besieging castles. Large armies with thousands of men clashing with each other out on the open did happen, but was the exception rather than the rule. That said, Warfare was fairly constant during this period. There were always some squabbling city states, obstinate lordlings making a fuss, armed trade dispute, succession interregnums with rival heirs, blood feuds or clash between a couple of the bigger kingdoms happening somewhere in Europe, as well as a lot of banditry.
- Cannons and Firearms begin to show up in Europe around the late 13th century, though both were crude affairs largely of marginal use compared with more traditional muscle powered weaponry.
- While hardly a unique feature to this period or Europe people at this point thought in terms of Knowing Their Place. In medieval society what role you had was largely determined by birth. Some people did the telling and the rest did what they were told. Medieval peasants by in large did not care much about government policy unless it directly and overtly effected them. It was not their business, there were other people out there which knew better than them which should know what to do and that their judgement had god's backing. This is not an absolute mentality, they did have an idea that there were obligations that nobles needed to fulfill to their subjects and if they were pushed or abused too much they would riot, but it is a major distinction that people should consider when trying to get into the mind of a medieval peasant or lord.
- The portrayal of this time period as having dour, muted colors is completely inaccurate. Dying was a rich industry and while natural dyes had a relatively limited color range (red, blue, yellow, brown, indigo, green, pink, and orange were all common) it was abundant and middle class or higher non-clothing items were generally decorated (clothes were restricted to, at most, simple patterns as the methods of washing clothes weren't delicates friendly). A large portion of this perception comes from period art, where colors have faded and centuries of grime (which can't be removed without harming the work) has accumulated. This actually applies to many periods of history, but the middle ages are most the frequently victimized of it.
The appeal of the High Middle Ages
How do you like your medieval fantasy? Do you like it more refined and heroic? With beautiful Gothic cathedrals with stained glass windows and mighty castles of stone with fluttering banners full of fat friars and proud knights. Or scholarly Sultans and zealous Hashashin more your type of deal? Well this period is for you. Not that it was all lolipops and sunshine. The nobles were still playing their Games of Thrones in dynastic squabbles plus there were the Crusades, Islamic marauders, and endless Feudal wars. The fact that its the point where gunpowder just barely coming also helps it as the standard point of development where Medieval Stasis work takes place. Being a serf or a Jew in the path of these armies at this time sucked. The mix of Medieval Splendor and Brutality makes for a nice contrast. The classical civilizations fell, the dark age of turmoil that resulted is over, beauty and refinement are on the rise, but the sword is still the rule of the world, if not every day as it used to be.
This period also gave us some heroes such as Robin Hood. And though King Arthur has his roots in the Dark Age when the native British were fighting against the invading Saxons, his popularity massively took off thanks to Norman literature and adapted by countless countries across Europe.
High Middle Age inspired Games, Factions and Settings
|Historical Time Periods|
|Premodern:||Stone Age - Bronze Age - Classical Period - Dark Age - High Middle Ages - Renaissance|
|Modern:||Age of Enlightenment - Industrial Revolution - The World Wars - The Cold War - Post-Cold War|