The Catholic Church
After the fall of Rome, the Catholic Church became the most powerful institution. Kings, queens, and other leaders derived their power from their relations with the Church. The Church was very rich. Ordinary people across Europe had to “tithe” (donate) 10 percent of their earnings each year to the Church, which itself paid few taxes.
The Rise of Islam
The Islamic world was also growing more powerful. After the prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 CE, Muslim armies conquered large parts of the Middle East. Cairo, Baghdad, and Damascus all had a lively intellectual and cultural life. Poets, scientists, and philosophers wrote thousands of books. Inventors created the pinhole camera, soap, surgical instruments, an early flying machine, and our numbering system.
The Catholic Church authorized military expeditions, called Crusades, to expel Muslim “infidels” from the Holy Land. The Crusades began in 1095 and continued until the end of the 15th century. In 1099, Christian armies captured Jerusalem from Muslim control.
Many thousands of people from both sides lost their lives during the Crusades. The Crusades did unite Catholics across Christendom around a common purpose.
Art and Architecture
One way to show devotion to the Church was to build grand cathedrals, which were the largest buildings in medieval Europe. Most European cathedrals were built in the Romanesque style, which was solid with mainly straight lines. Around 1200 A.D., church builders began to use the Gothic style, with huge stained-glass windows, pointed vaults and arches, and spires and flying buttresses.
Before the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, medieval books were works of art.
Economics and Society
In medieval Europe, rural life was governed by a feudal society, where the king granted large pieces of land called fiefs to noblemen and bishops. Landless peasants called serfs did most of the work. They gave most of their crops to the landowner. In exchange for their labor, they were allowed to live on the land.
As the commercial economy developed, port cities thrived. By 1300, there were 15 cities in Europe with a population of 50,000.
Source: Middle Ages
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