The High Middle Ages

aka: High Middle Ages

Stretching roughly from about the Norman Conquest (1066 and All That) to the early 1300s, but most often imagined as about the 12th or 13th century, this is Era of The Crusades, Robin Hood, and fat, lecherous, irascible, but good-hearted friars. Also home to knights, beautiful princesses with anachronistic hennins, and tall, spire-tipped Gothic architecture (note that most versions of the story of King Arthur are depicted as if they were set in this era, though strictly speaking he belongs to Late Antiquity). Expect to see a corrupt churchman or two wandering the landscape burning witches, heretics, and pretty much anyone who doesnít agree with him.

In actual history, this is the high spot between the Vikings and The Black Death. The modern nations began to take shape, and with them the foundations of the legal system and government bureaucracy. The first great European universities were founded as a renaissance began flickering into life, and then disaster struck. A combination of internal strife and climatic disaster, capped by the Black Death, brought the brief golden age to an end. Whole villages were swallowed up by the advancing wilds as civilisation retreated.

It is probably because it ended so badly that this period is remembered so well, the halycon days before the Black Death stalked the land, hence the idealised popular image of this time, which hasn't changed much in five centuries.

The setting is likely to be a mythologized Britain or France, though there are examples from farther afield. Jerusalem, which had pretty much been ignored since Biblical Times, will now also be used as the stage for all sorts of spectacular battles involving scimitar-wielding Saracens and sinisterly handsome Knights Templar.

    Rough Timeline 
Our story picks up where it left off, in 1066. The Normans, a group of Frenchmen, conquered modern day England from the ruling Anglo-Saxons. England had erupted into a succession crisis largely divided between the Vikings, who conquered the isles in the 800s, and the Anglo-Saxons, a group of slightly less Viking-ish but still pretty Viking-like peoples from Northern Germany. Although the Anglo-Saxons won at the famous Battle of Stamford Bridge, William of Normady saw the opportunity to further expand his lands. He invaded and swiftly conquered England. The Normans would, for some time, find it hard to hold on to their new conquests, as they suffered internal strife for nearly 100 years before things finally settled down and the modern, still existing kingdom of England we know today started to take shape.

Elsewhere, in continental Europe, the superstates of the Carolingian Empire began to breakdown. Otto I's coronation by the Pope in 962 marked the end of East Francia and the birth of the Holy Roman Empire, which at this time was at the peak of its power. From there, the Empire would enter into a complicated relationship with the church that would culminate in the issue of Investiture. Officially, the Pope was above all monarchs in Western Europe, but since Otto's reign the Emperors had taken it upon themselves to appoint the various religious offices within Germany. Obviously, this made the Pope angry, and for the next few years or so internal turmoil erupted between those members of the Empire who supported the Church and those who supported the Emperor. This dividing factor would later be a drive for Protestantism in Germany, as many of the more secular princes would choose to leave the Catholic church. In 1122, the Concordat of Worms was signed. It essentially admitted that the Pope held authority over the Emperor, and it also sparked the decline of the Emperor's power in favor of the princes. This was complete in the 1250's when Frederick II died and for years the Empire struggled to find an heir. Eventually, local loyalties to the church or to the princes replaced loyalties to the Emperor, and he became little more than a figurehead ruling over a collective confederacy of infighting states. Despite its weakness, the Empire would still remain a major force in Europe, and it would continue to be the largest of the European kingdoms.

Their neighbor, France, was shaping up a bit better. France hit a low point with the election of Hugh Capet, the first King of France from outside the Carolingian dynasty. At this point, France was extremely decentralized, and the King held little power. This began to change with the ascension of Louis IV, who started a trend of growing monarchical power that would continue in France all the way to the French Revolution.

In Scandinavia, the former Vikings settled into more rigid, defined kingdoms and eventually Christianized. The Poles formed their own kingdom after Slavs migrated into lands the Germans had abandoned in the Migration Period. Lithuania also formed as a duchy, and would remain one of the last pagan kingdoms in Europe, famously leading it to war with the Teutonic Order and the Livonian Order. Hungary formed much in the same way, uniting various Slavic tribes (although claiming decent from the Hunnic Empire of Attila, hence the name). The few remaining Christian Iberian kingdoms were starting to carve away slowly at Moorish Spain, but it wouldn't be until the Late Middle Ages that they managed to retake it all. Merchant republics like Venice and Genoa were growing in power. Although they owned very little land compared to their neighbors, they were immensely rich and powerful because they controlled the primary trade routes of Western Europe. The Kievian Rus also rose in prominence, but it dissolved into quarreling minor principalities and was later conquered by the Mongols.

The period also saw the final decline of Roman power from which there would not be a recovery. Although the Eastern Roman Empire had outlasted its counterpart for hundreds of years, the rise of Islam brought a real challenge to its doorstep. Muslim conquests of the Byzantine lands sparked the Crusades, which also marked a period of cooperation between the Eastern and Western churches. This all ended in 1204, when Constantinople was sacked by a group of rogue Crusaders. This became the point of no return for the Byzantine Empire. Although it would survive for 200 years more, they never regained their former glory.

In the Middle East, the Muslims had past their peak, and while they continued to remain the most important scientific and intellectual area of the world, other areas were starting to catch up. China had always been advanced in its own ways, but its isolated and close-minded nature stopped it from achieving some of the advances that the Muslim world did. However, by the 1200s the two regions were nearly equal in technological development, and brutal wars against the European kingdoms were also devastating the Middle East. From this time, the Middle East would change. The political, intellectual, and cosmopolitan center of the Muslim World moved West away from Persia and Mesopotamia and closer to the Levant and Turkey. Eventually, the Ottoman Empire would crawl its way to dominance over the Muslim world.

Speaking of The Crusades, they lasted throughout this entire period, but particularly after the mid-1100's they start to draw a lot of attention away from continental Europe. Although some very important things happened during the Crusades (such as the always common succession wars or the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215) they tend to make up the popular fiction of the era. In truth, the Crusades were big, even involving several monarchs of the time, but there was always something going on back home. The High Middle Ages saw the rise of knights as a martial nobility, and it typically involved stereotypical knightly things such as chivalry and tournaments. The economy was also improving, mostly due to agricultural yields. This brought greater stability to Europe, and increased crop yields also meant more specialization for workers. Things like banks, corporations, and workers unions (guilds at the time) originated in this area, usually evolving from ideas gained from trade with the Muslim empires. It also meant more blacksmiths, carpenters, stonemasons, jewelers, and other non-subsistence based careers. This in turn meant more products to buy and sell, better building techniques and more organized construction efforts (such as proper castles and churches), and advances in agricultural tools. It also meant there was room for an intellectual revival, since people now had time to devote to studies and scholasticism. Secular studies were on the rise, particularly of ancient Greco-Roman works that were later immortalized in the Renaissance. Universities even sprang up during this time, and all in all the world was becoming a more connected, advanced place. Things were on a stable recovery from The Low Middle Ages.

And then the plague came. The virulent disease spread in Europe from 1346 to 1353, and it definitely hit Europe the hardest. Before its spread, the world was engulfed by the Mongol Empire, whose conquest entered the High Middle Ages in the running for "shittiest historical period ever". They added an estimated 70,000,000 dead on top of the 200,000,000 possible dead from the Black Death. The Mongol's conquered an area spreading from the Sea of Japan to the Baltic Sea, sacking the city of Baghdad in one of the most destructive sieges in history and deliberating spreading the plague as a biological weapon. They even came close to conquering Europe, before being stopped for as of yet unknown reasons. It is rumored the Mongol's had to return home to elect a successor, but this idealized view is often discounted in favor of more realistic scenarios. What is known is that the Mongol Empire spread the plague, both on purpose and on accident. Their uniting of Asia allowed easier travel through the whole continent, which meant an easier chance for the disease to spread. Trade galleys from the Middle East carried infected individuals to the Italian cities, and from there the disease disseminated on various trade routes. Europe suffered greater than most to the plague, as their understanding of medicine was far more limited than the rest of the world. This resulted in possibly over half the population dying from the disease. Only isolated areas far from trade routes, such as the Polish heartlands, were spared from the disease. Agnolo di Tura recounts the Black Death:

"The mortality in Siena began in May. It was a cruel and horrible thing. . . . It seemed that almost everyone became stupefied seeing the pain. It is impossible for the human tongue to recount the awful truth. Indeed, one who did not see such horribleness can be called blessed. The victims died almost immediately. They would swell beneath the armpits and in the groin, and fall over while talking. Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another; for this illness seemed to strike through breath and sight. And so they died. None could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship. Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could, without priest, without divine offices. In many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And they died by the hundreds, both day and night, and all were thrown in those ditches and covered with earth. And as soon as those ditches were filled, more were dug. I, Agnolo di Tura . . . buried my five children with my own hands. . . . And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world."

To add to this, the food surplus of before was strained due to global cooling, meaning famines erupted across Europe and elsewhere. Any attempts to halt the export of food or keep the economy from run-away inflation failed, and before long Europe's economy had completely collapsed. Many individuals turned to banditry to escape poverty and famine. Order gave way to chaos as the crown could no longer enforce its own laws. However, despite its far reaching effects, the Black Death did not completely reset the progress of the last two centuries. Europe would rise again, while the Mongol invasions had set the world back enough for Europe to catch up and even surpass them. But that is the story for another time.

See The Middle Ages for the more fantasticated version of this trope.

WARNING: Do not confuse with the French "Haut Moyen Age", which is a phrase literally meaning the same thing as "High Middle Ages" but refers to the period before (The Low Middle Ages).

Popular tropes from this time period are


Works set in this time period are

Comic Books
  • The High Middle Ages are probably the most popular era with the creative collective of the German magazin Mosaik:
    • During the Digedags era, the protagonists travelled to the 13th century, where they met Ritter Runkel.
    • The Abrafaxe came to the 1270s during the final third of the Don Ferrando arc. After going through Palestine, Egypt and Mesopotamia the Don disappeared and the Abrafaxe continued their journey via India, Malaya and Japan before reaching Yuan Dynasty China in 1282 (January 1983-December 1991). Following that a leap in time brings them back to 1176, around the time of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa's defeat in the battle of Legnano (No. 193-207). Much later they return for the Templars arc (No. 358-381, set ca. 1118), which involves the beginnings of The Knights Templar and a search for the treasure of Prester John. It is followed by the Johanna arc (No. 382-405, set ca. 1250), in which the Abrafaxe meet Albertus Magnus and encounter Nicolas Flamel (who had appeared under a different name in the Templars arc).

Film

Literature
  • Dante's Divine Comedy, sort of (Hell, Purgatory and Heaven are effectively other dimensions, but most of the characters Dante meets are his close contemporaries).
  • Sir Walter Scottís Ivanhoe (and all its film versions) and The Talisman (and its film version, King Richard and the Crusaders).
  • Kristin Lavransdatter, a Nobel Prize-winning three-volume epic by Sigrid Undset, set in medieval Norway, is one of the most realistic depictions of this time period in fiction, especially interesting for its examination of feminism and religion in medieval life.
  • Murder in the Cathedral
  • The Pillars of the Earth is set during 'The Anarchy', the 12th-century English civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda.
  • The Wild Hunt Trilogy is set during the reign of the sons of William the Conqueror.
  • Eleanor: Crown Jewel of Aquitaine, France from The Royal Diaries series.
  • The Accursed Kings is about France (and England, to a lesser extent) from the last decades of the High Middle Ages to the beginning of the Hundred Years War.
  • Most of Sharon Kay Penman's historical fiction is set in this time period.
  • The Brother Cadfael series.

Live-Action TV
  • Robin of Sherwood, which is cited as being one of the most faithfully accurate depictions of this era in television history.

Tabletop Games

Theatre

Video Games
  • The main campaign in Medieval II: Total War starts shortly after the Norman Conquest of England (in fact, the game tutorial is the Norman Conquest of England) and the bulk of the game takes place in the High Middle Ages.
  • Paradox Interactive's Crusader Kings 4X games. The base games both start at the very beginning of the Norman Conquest and run up through 1453, the historical fall of Constantinople, though expansions to the sequel extend the timeline back into Dark Age Europe.
  • Assassin's Creed I
  • The old Sierra adventure game Conquests of the Longbow.
  • The beginning of the English campaign of Empire Earth is set during the Norman Conquest. It then reenact the Hundred Years War and the Napoleonic Wars.
  • Most campaigns of Age of Empires II (corresponding to the "Feudal Age" and "Castle Age").
  • The Stronghold series (minus Legends and Crusader) is set in an non-historical realistic High Middle Age England. Crusader is an heavily historically-based reenactement of the Crusades.
  • The bulk of Knights of Honor play in the High Middle Ages. There's 3 starting points in time, and confusingly they are named Early, Middle and Late Middle Ages, but the dates don't really match up with Historical convention (the game's Early Middle Ages start at 1000 AD for instance).
  • The Europe1200 and 1257 A.D. Game Mods for Mount & Blade.


Alternative Title(s):

High Middle Ages