The Medieval Era
• The medieval period stretches between the
fourth and fourteenth centuries
• The term medieval was coined by latter
people looking to connect their own time to
classical antiquity.
Medieval Western Hemisphere
Lords and Ladies,
Knights and Samurai
• The vast majority of the medieval
population were peasants
• Monarchs gathered nobility around them to
enhance the glory of their courts and to
keep a watchful eye on potential rivals.
Lords and Ladies,
Knights and Samurai
Feudal System: In Europe and sometimes elsewhere,
authority and landownership were organized
– An overlord held title to all land in his domain, and
granted it to noble vassals in exchange for the loyalty
and support
– The vassals in turn controlled the lives of the serfs who
worked their lands.
Feudalism in Europe
– After the death of Charlemagne, who had managed to
unite most of Europe, feudalism emerged as a social
and political organization
– Its form varied greatly from place to place
Lords and
Knights and
Women gained new,
important roles in
patronizing and
creating the arts –
including literature
Illustration of a knight in Gothic armor from Concilium zu Constanz
woodcut, (digitized page 34 of 509). Credit: Library of Congress
Medieval knights sought
fame and wealth; tales
of their exploits grew
in popularity
Lords and Ladies,
Knights and Samurai
Medieval writers typically
portray their royal patrons as
vastly wise, powerful, and
generous, yet the reality was
less glorious
– Communication was difficult
– Subsistence level farming led to
shortages and uprisings
– Frequent struggles for
– An exception is feudal China
Originially from: British Library Royal MS 18, dated c. 13851400 Depicting the end of the 1381 peasant's revolt, the image
shows London's mayor, Walworth, killing . There are two
images of Richard II. One looks on the killing while the other
is talking to the peasants.
• Sui, then Tang dynasties
Travel, Trade, and Conquest
• Travel increased throughout the medieval
– Merchants
– Missionaries and pilgrims
• “Silk Road”: East Asia to the shores of the
Travel, Trade, and Conquest
The Growth of World Religions
Every aspect of medieval life was profoundly
marked by religion
– Several faiths gained increasingly global scope
• The intermingling of old and new faiths produced
conflict, but also presented new ideas
– Conference of the Birds
– Divine Comedy
Medieval Spain
Medieval Spain
represents a
fascinating meeting of
the three medieval
cultures of the West
Medieval China
As medieval Europe begins
with the collapse of the
Roman empire, medieval
China begins with the
collapse of the Han
During this period,
Buddhism arrived in China
via the Silk Road.
•New focus on
renunciation of duties
and rewards of this
Medieval China
• The Sui dynasty reunited the empire, but fell within 30
years to the Tang, which ruled for the next 3 centuries.
• The center of government was the northern capital of
Chang’an, located at the end of the Silk road.
– Foreign influences very visible
– Tang military expanded boundaries in all directions
• Civil service exam reached new importance
– Opened doors to those of humble background, fulfilling Confucian
mandate for governance by those with merit
– Unifying force intellectually
– Required a version of a liberal arts education: literature, classics,
current affairs, administrative issues, and poetry composition
Medieval Japan
• In the ancient period,
the Yamato clan
conquered other clans.
– The Kojiki, one of
Japan’s earliest literary
works, was an effort to
legitimize their rul.
– Shinto folk beliefs
• Chinese introduced
Confucianism, and
written language
– All highly influential in
Japanese life (esp.
Medieval Japan
The Heian Period (794-1185)
– 4 centuries of cultural production centered on imperial court and
aristocratic life
– While Japan still absorbed culture from the continent, it began to develop
its own forms.
• Writing by women in the vernacular, while men wrote in Chinese
– Tale of Genji, Pillowbook, Man’yoshu, Diary of Murasaki Shi-kibu
– Much of this literature exists in a Buddhist context that regards excessive
attachment as a cause for suffering. Female writings focus on the difficulty of
attaining detachment, not on didactic lessons.
The Medieval Period
– The Heike and the Genji engaged in a prolonged war for control of Japan at
end of 12th century – resulting in the birth of Samurai culture
• Tales of the Heike
– In the later medieval period, samurai patronage and court culture fused
• Noh drama
• Kyogen: focus on commoner life in the provinces
The Medieval Arabic World
Classical Arabic and Islamic
• North and South: Two geographic areas/climates and two cultures,
with different Semetic languages.
Arid desert, with scattered oases
Semi-topical climate
Bedouin – nomadic, depended
on camel and dates
Phoenicians – successful traders
Strong tribal ethos
Frequent warfare
Spoke Sabaic
Noted calligraphy, but little other
artistic or architectural
Classical Arabic and Islamic
• By 3rd century, Bedouins were a trading
force to be reckoned with
– Southern Arabians were under pressure by
Ptolomies of Alexandria and Abyssinians
– With less competition in South, Mecca became
a trading capital
• Muhammad born in 570 to a distinguished Meccan
• Orphaned as young child, raised by uncle a caravan
trader who brought him on some journeys
• Married around 25 to an influential woman
Classical Arabic and Islamic
• Around the age of 40 (c. 610) began to have his
– Archangel Gabriel appeared to him with prophetic call
– Began public ministry 3 years later because didn’t
recognize these early message
– Early messages focused on devotional aspects of
• Early ministry was tolerated because it was not
threatening to Meccan society as it was
Classical Arabic and Islamic
• When Muhammad openly attacked polytheism, he
encountered severe opposition and persecution
– Migrated to Medina in 622 (hijra)
– Various battles to establish Islam
• Passages against the Jew appeared in Quran when it became clear to
Muhammad that they would not accept him
• Conquest of Mecca in 630
– After Muhammad’s death, claimants fought over the
leadership role
• Eventually, Bakr was accepted as Caliph
Classical Arabic and Islamic
• Caliphate
– Islamic Empire continued to grow
– By the time of the 3rd Caliphate, turbulent problems
erupted at home, eventually leading to the division of
Muslims into two groups
• The followers of Umayyads: Sunni (orthodox)
• The supporters of ‘Ali: Shi’ites
• The division exists to the present day
– The majority followed Umayyads, who encouraged
the development of Arabic language and literature
Medieval Africa
During this period,
native West African
traditions interweaved
with Islamic theology
and history
•Epic of Son Jara
Medieval Europe
Difficult time to live
– Waves of raids,
invasions, and tribal
– Black Death killed off
1/3 of the population
Nevertheless, Middle
Ages left us with
much of their identity
and heritage
– Architecture,
Governmental and
religious structure,
languages, borders,
Medieval Europe
• The medieval period begins
symbolically when a Germanic
tribe conquers Rome in 410
• Language
– Latin remained the language of high
• Monks laboriously copied
• After the Great Schism, Greek
became a lost language in W.
Europe. Islamic empire was source
of great Greek scholars, eventually
working its way back to Europe
through that means
The Book of the Kells
– Local vernaculars existed alongside
Medieval Europe
• Religion
– The worldly power of the
papacy grew throughout the
period, seemingly at odds
with its mission
• Great Schism
– The monastery system also
grew in influence
• St. Benedict
• Also invested in expanding
Christianity in frontiers
– Efforts to understand religion
filtered into architecture and
arts of the day
Notre Dame
Credit: Arnaud Gaillard This file is licensed under Creative Commons
Attribution ShareAlike 1.0 License
Medieval Europe
The people had little access to official dogma, so
heresies erupted and were violently repressed by
the Church.
Crusading united Christians of Europe and
channeled their military energy outward
– First Crusade called by Pope Urban II in 1095
• Urban proclaimed peace in Europe and prohibited local
• The force took a heavy toll on non-Christians it met along the
way – especially the Jews
• Crusaders also saw booty captured along the way as their
reward for piety
• Seven named Crusades and many other related expeditions
Medieval Europe
– Lyric: sung by jongleur, written by troubadour
• Topics were usually of court culture (esp. love)
– Song: hymns, chants, workman’s songs,
Goliard’s drinking songs
– Romances
– Medieval mind preferred analogy to symbolism
• Multiple meanings, complex relationships