The designation "medieval" (and spell it right! -- m e d i e v a l -- points off from now on) comes from a term rendered in the corrupt Latin spoken since the Classical period: "medii aevi," meaning "middle ages." It's the Renaissance that decides on this term. The "middle" of what? The "middle" between the Classical period and the Renaissance.
That's rather dismissive, considering that the period spans roughly the years 500 - 1500 A.D. -- what the 19th century saw as "a thousand years without a bath." The medieval period still suffers from a lousy reputation (literally and figuratively), stemming from a persistent need for subsequent eras to feel superior despite their slim justifications. To call something "medieval" these days is equate its sophistication with that of rural Arkansas. And how come, as cultural periods, "Classical" (usually) and "Renaissance" (always) get capitalized, but medieval does not?
Lose your misconceptions. Witch torture was a Reformation phenomenon. The self-titled "Renaissance" did not rediscover culture and art after a millennium of barbarism.
A thousand years is a bit unwieldy, so historians have tended to fine-tune and subdivide the dating:
The Roman Empire grew too big and unwieldy; Germans and other barbarians harassed from the north and the Persians from the east. Constantine legitimized Christianity in 312 and died in 325. After the decline of the Empire, certainly by the year 750, three civilizations eventually dominated the area: Byzantine (Greek-speaking), Islamic (Arabic-writing), and Western European (Latin-writing). Admittedly, this is pretty much a Dark Age.
By about 1050, the invasions had run their course: the Moslems were in retreat; the Vikings and Hungarians had adopted Christianity and so became participants in western civilization.
In the tenth century, the three-field system of crop rotation became popular, horses (more efficient than oxen) and iron plows were used, all resulting in surplus food and a better standard of living (Rosenwein 93). By 1000 we've got metal shoes for the horses and oxen to increase their work-lives, tandem harnesses for pulling with the shoulders instead of the neck. Water mills and, in the twelfth century, windmills appear. Protein-rich peas and beans are for the first time important in the European diet, and there's greater consumption of cheese, eggs, and fish. Soon cities were growing, commerce increasing, literacy speading. This was an age of reform and spiritual renewal. The arts flourished during this period. Gothic architecture came into vogue. It was also the period of the Crusades.
The population was 35-40 million in the eleventh century, twice that by 1300. Universities sprang up, and math, reading, and writing became crucial for the administration of governments and businesses.
1300 saw the inauguration of a mini ice age that lasted until the 16th century. There was winemaking in England until this; then it turned cold and damp, and there was more disease, plague, and suicide.
1309-1378 saw the "Babylonian Captivity," the Papal Schism. From 1337 to 1453 the "Hundred Years War" preoccupied France and England. In 1348 came an outbreak of "Black Death" in Europe, preceded by colder climate, cattle disease, crop failure, and starvation. The "Plague" was a combination of bubonic plague (from rat fleas) and pneumonic plague (respiratory contagion).
In 1453 the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks ended the Byzantine Empire and marked the end of the Middle Ages. One dates the end at 1485 if one is an Anglophile, 1513 if one considers the Reformation as more important.
- The Church: ubiquitousness, hierarchical, doctrinal.
- Courtly love: a cultural invention of intense personal relationships.
- The Middle Class: messing up our categories.
- Guilds: apprenticeship and professional membership; now B.A., M.A., Ph.D.
- Law: fusion and synthesis of some Roman but much Germanic.
- Towns: resulting from the rise of the middle class and commerce.
- Farming: technological innovations and crop rotation!
- Banking: notions of credit.
Internet Medieval Sourcebook -- from Fordham University.
Luminarium -- Site for English Medieval and Renaissance works.