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 the 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 doesnt 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, with 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 Bible Times, will now also be used as the stage for all sorts of spectacular battles involving scimitar-wielding Saracens and sinisterly handsome Knights Templar.
Although the Anglo-Saxons won at the famous Battle of Stamford Bridge, William of Normandy saw the opportunity to further expand his lands. He invoked a claim to the throne of England, a country that had only been unified for less than 100 years by that point. He invaded and swiftly conquered England, defeating king Harold Godwinson, whose armies were battered from fighting the Danes.
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. However, the Normans instituted their own famous rule of law that is well renowned throughout history. For example, the Domesday Book was a preparatory census taking stock of the demographics of England to help the new-found Norman rulers understand the kingdom they had just inherited better. The hybrid of Anglo-Saxon and Norman law that obtained during the reign of Henry II became the foundation for one of the world's two great legal traditions, The Common Law.
The Normans, being a duchy of France, also brought the inexorable tie between the Kingdom of France and the Kingdom of England. England would continue to expand under the rule of the Normans and other French dukes, pushing further and further into formerly Celtic territories like Cumbria and Wales. However, one of the most important events in English history occurred in 1215, when the First Baron's War erupted in England.
The wildly unpopular King John saw many of his Barons rise up in revolt. Much of this came over disputes concerning the church, the appointment of bishops, the authority of the King over said bishops, and of course, taxes. King John himself was subject to Historical Villain Upgrade because the Barons ultimately won and, of course, portrayed him incredibly negatively. The end of the war saw King John being forced to sign the Magna Carta, often hailed as the first document cementing modern Britain and reinvigorating democracy in Europe. However, the actual document was quite limited, with the most significant change being the appointment of 25 Barons (later to become the House of Lords) to levy taxes instead of giving the King that power, this forcing the King to go through Parliament to gain any new taxes. It was an incredibly small but crucial step in the formation of modern Britain. As should become evident in both the English and French revolutions half a millennium later, who controls the purse-strings ultimately can wedge their way into enough power to have the king beheaded.
Elsewhere, in continental Europe, the superstates of the Carolingian Empire began to break down. 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 1250s 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 VI, who started a trend of growing monarchical power that would continue in France all the way to the French Revolution. They tended to remain on the good side of the Papacy.
Italy was fractured into numerous tiny states following the destruction of the Lombard Kingdom by Charlamagne. Northern Italy belonged to the Holy Roman Empire, while the rest belonged to small, independent states (some of which were founded/conquered by—of all people—the Normans, who actually started arriving in southern Italy nearly 70 years before the conquest of England). A number of these states were city-states with economies focused on trade. These trading cities would establish vast commercial empires, being Europe's main link to the rest of the world after the split between the Church in Rome and the Church in Constantinople left relations between Catholic and Orthodox rulers less than warm.
In Scandinavia, the former Vikings settled into more rigid, defined kingdoms and eventually Christianized. Norway entered a period of hundred year Civil War, which eventually settled in 1240. The period from this point until 1319 is reckoned the Norwegian "Golden Age", with the mainland overseeing a North Sea empire stretching from Greenland to the Göta River and almost to the White Sea. During this period, premises were laid for the eventual unification of the three Scandinavian kingdoms. Denmark suffered internal strifes as well, and Sweden was the last of the kingdoms to be established under one dynasty. During this period, Sweden also gradually set up base in Finland.
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 the Western half for hundreds of years, the rise of Islam brought a real challenge to its doorstep. Muslim conquests of Eastern Roman 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 Roman Empire. Although it would survive for 200 years more, it was never able to regain its former glory.
The overall themes of the period were the rapid expansion of commerce, urbanization, religious reform, and technological development in Europe. Europe itself expanded its borders from those narrowly defined by Carolingian Europe note to encompassing an area that would surpass even the former Western Roman Empire. In Spain, the rump state of Asturias -the last Christian holdout after the Muslim conquests of the 8th century- began the slow process of conquest and consolidation over Spain known as the Reconquista, starting in the 10th century and ending in 1492, just in time for The Late Middle Ages. In Italy, Norman adventurers conquered the southern half of the peninsula from the Byzantines and Lombards. In Eastern Europe, German nobility frequently engaged in the conquest of West Slavic territories, taking advantage of the still-pagan Poland and Lithuania at the time, and once the former Christianized, the Teutonic Order (formed in the Holy Land during the Crusades) was employed to fight Baltic pagans, allowing them to conquer much of the Baltic region alongside the Livonian Order. The importance of these military campaigns is that they preceded the physical expansion of the Western European "Latin" peoples, who would colonize these lands at the behest of their conquerors, bringing Christianity, Latin language (and their vernacular tongues), and a Frankish culture along with them. Not only did the political borders shift in this era, but significant demographic and cultural changes also occurred due to these colonizations and conversions (some of which were voluntary, and some of which were not).
The period is also immensely important for theological development, as the newfound commercialization of Europe caused major crises within the Catholic faith. Reactions to the increase in wealth usually took the form of asceticism, but the Church as an organization would eventually cave and become a major active participant in this commercial economy. Some monastic orders still rejected this new economy, but most monasteries became important commercial centers in the period as they were centers of production and trade. This period also saw increasing contention between secular leadership and the Church, such as in the case of lay investiture, which is (in a very distilled and generalized explanation) an argument as to whether or not bishops should be appointed by secular rulers or by the Pope. The argument for the former was that Bishops effectively governed their bishophrics as nobility in and of themselves, collecting taxes and administering justice like a secular lord would. Because of this, secular rulers believed that they should have the right to appoint bishops, as the bishops held secular power. The Pope, however, argued that this would effectively put the bishops under the authority of secular leaders while de jure they were supposed to be under the Pope's authority. Thus, it would undermine the fragile balance between secular and religious leadership that had persisted throughout the Low Middle Ages and grant secular leaders power and authority over spiritual leaders, possibly leading to corruption. Lay investiture caused a rift between secular leaders and the Church that created a fertile breeding ground for the adoption of the Reformation in The Late Middle Ages, while the acceptance of commercialization within the Church led to corruption, as it accumulated wealth and opulence at an obscene rate, providing the impetus for critics like Martin Luther and John Calvin to advocate for reform.
In the Middle East, the Muslims had past their peak, and while they continued to remain the most important mathematical, astronomical, medicinal, and alchemical area of the world, other areas were starting to catch up. As the home of between a quarter and a third of the world's population at any one time since the cultivation of wheat, the Chinese region was home to a respectable myriad of thinkers and tinkerers despite the relative isolation caused by the natural barriers of the Himalayas and the Indochinese peninsula note . However, by the 1200s the (Southern) Song Empire and the Middle East were about equal in terms of sophisticated academic knowledge, and brutal wars against the European kingdoms and Mongols were devastating the Middle East and the Song respectively. 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 Mongols 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 Mongols had to return home to elect a successor, but there is still no consensus among historians as contemporary accounts themselves disagree. What is known is that the temporary reprieve granted by the Mongol withdrawal ended up being permanent as the Mongol Empire collapsed due to infighting among the sons of the dead Khan, Ogedei. 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. In some cases it actually benefited European economies, allowing guilds to consolidate more influence and demand higher payments for their work due to the lack of competition. This, in turn, meant that there was more money for artisans to spend, allowing them to participate in the economy more than before. This spending helped spur on tertiary industries like the arts and sciences, and the newfound wealth codified a trend that has been occurring throughout the High Middle Ages: the development of a middle class. This would have dramatic ramifications for Europe as a whole, as the middle class possessed enough money to educate themselves, which improved literacy rates, but also lead to them challenging Papal authority and the feudal status quo of their world. 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
- Black Knight
- Chivalric Romance: The era they were written in — which helps explain the King Arthur stuff above.
- Christianity Is Catholic: Though it was throughout most of Central and Western Europe, in Eastern Europe and the Near East, Orthodoxy was more prevalent; yet is much less common in fictional works (and officially, the final split came as late as 1054).
- Courtly Love
- Feudal Overlord
- Gorgeous Period Dress: Though most people, even the nobility, were dressed in wool except on the most festive occasions, Hollywood noblemen and (especially) noblewomen are resplendent in silks, satins, and velvets (which werent invented until late in the period) all the time.
- Historical Domain Character: Henry II of England, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Richard the Lionheart appear in a number of works set in this period.
- Historical Fiction: Due to the influence of Sir Walter Scott, this is one of the most common settings for this type of fiction.
- Improbable Weapon User: The rise of plate armor saw increased attempts to create weird weapons to counter it. Some weapons like the flail, the billhook, and the halberd became quite fearsome.
- Knight in Shining Armor: This was about the time that plate armor has started to become numerous enough to actually be employed en masse on the battlefield, before then most people just wore mail.
- Lady and Knight
- Land of One City / Merchant City: This was when the merchants were arising to form a third class to compete with the warriors and priesthood for power, often founding states of their own independent or semi-independent of the aristocracy, and even beating them on the battlefield.
- Swashbuckler: Only slightly less common as a setting for these than The Cavalier Years.
- Warrior Monk: Not only were there many militant churchmen like Bishop Turpin in The Song of Roland, but this was the era of the military religious orders such as The Knights Hospitallers, The Knights Templar, and The Teutonic Knights.
Works set in this time period:
- The Bayeux Tapestry is one of the best known pieces of medieval iconography in Europe, depicting the conquest of England by William the Conqueror, duke of Normandy. It was made only a couple of years after the conquest.
- The High Middle Ages are probably the most popular era with the creative collective of the German magazine Mosaik:
- During the Digedags era, the protagonists travelled to the 13th century, where they met Ritter Runkel. The arc (vol. 1 No. 90-151) is still the longest in the history of the title. Covering the years 1284 to 1286 it takes the Digedags and their friend Runkel to Italy, the Byzantine Empire, the Middle East and back to Germany.
- 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 the Yuan Empire 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).
- The War Lord is set after the 1066 Norman conquest of England.
- El Cid takes place in 1099.
- Becket takes place a hundred years after the Norman conquest of England.
- Les Visiteurs is a Time Travel story that starts in 1123, in the reign of French king Louis VI the Fat.
- Kingdom of Heaven: The battle of Hattin in 1185 and the siege of Jerusalem in 1187.
- Most TV and movie incarnations of Robin Hood (usually in the reign of Richard I, though most scholars now place him in the reigns of either Edward I or Edward II).
- Any version of the story of Francis of Assisi (e.g., Brother Sun, Sister Moon; Francesco; or St. Francis of Assisi) in the early 13th century.
- Alexander Nevsky: The Battle of lake Peipus in 1242.
- Braveheart is set in the late 13th century and early 14th century.
- Outlaw King is set in the early 14th century.
- Marketa Lazarová is set in 13th century Bohemia.
- Sleeping Beauty: As quoted by Prince Philip: "After all, this is the fourteenth century."
- Dante's The 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 Scotts 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.
- Some of the historical novels by Molly Costain Haycraft fall into this time period, including My Lord Brother the Lion-Heart (about Richard the Lionheart and his sister Joan, Queen of Sicily) and The King's Daughters (about the five daughters of Edward I).
- Robin of Sherwood is cited as being one of the most faithfully accurate depictions of this era in television history.
- Galavant is set in the 13th century, specifically the year 1256, but it commits many anachronisms for comic effect.
- White Wolf's Dark Ages games, set in the 12th-13th centuries of the Old World of Darkness.
- The standard start date for Ars Magica is 1220, and the supernatural side of the setting (apart from the Hermetic magi themselves) is largely based on the folklore of the time.
- William Shakespeares King John, Richard II, Henry IV (Parts I and II), and Henry V (strictly speaking, Romeo and Juliet should be, too, but it is very often performed in a quasi-Elizabethan setting).
- The Lion in Winter
- Henrik Ibsen:
- The Medieval Times Dinner Theatre chain is based off of 11th century Spain.
- 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 is set around the Third Crusade. It's also an unusual example since the game focuses on the historical Hashshashin (or more specifically the modern incarnation of the Assassin Brotherhood) as opposed to European knights like the Knights Templar (who are the main antagonists of the franchise).
- 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 reenacts 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 a heavily historically-based reenactment 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 Europe 1200 and Anno Domini 1257 Game Mods for Mount & Blade.