5 Steps to a 5: AP European History 2024 - Bartolini-Salimbeni B., Petersen W., Arata K. 2023

STEP 4 Review the Knowledge You Need to Score High
10 From the Middle Ages to the Renaissance

The Middle Ages used to be called the “Dark Ages,” a term that traditionally (and arbitrarily) encompassed the period from the fall of the Western Roman Empire (476 CE) to either the height of the Black Plague (1347—1349) or until the fall of Christian Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. Then, seemingly full-blown, came the Renaissance. But history is not so neatly divided. Arbitrary, dated divisions ignore cause and effect, frequently stressing chronology at the expense of continuity.

To understand Europe from the fifteenth century onward, it becomes necessary to look at the foundations upon which it was built, and to recognize that the Renaissance, or “rebirth,” implies a former birth. The medieval period in Europe was initially characterized by nothing so much as chaos. The Western Roman Empire was brought to its knees by “barbaric” invasions. The resultant supposed loss of classical Greek and Roman learning and culture ignores the rise of another culture, one that would affect the creation of today’s Europe: Christianity. By 800 CE, with the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire, feudalism became the dominant social structure at the highest levels, binding church and state, often uncomfortably, in their attempts to control the political, economic, social, religious, and cultural evolution of a modernizing society. Christianity, though a unifying force, did not result in political unity. Political unity, based on nation-states, would be a long time coming.

Feudalism, at its most elemental, established a social hierarchy that affected these political, economic, religious, and cultural elements for centuries. Essentially a pyramidal structure, feudal society had at the very top a king. Everyone below pledged allegiance to the king and to God. Nobles or feudal lords acted to enforce the will of the king. The clergy controlled education and, to a large degree, cultural activity. Knights (the first standing armies) maintained order and fought on behalf of their lords as necessary. Merchants worked for the feudal lords. They held trade fairs and paid fees and taxes. That is, they paid to gain access to towns where they could sell their goods, a fee to set up booths, and a “tax” of sorts on everything sold. Serfs (peasants) worked the land to the benefit of everyone higher in the social pyramid and in return received protection, initially from barbarian raiders (including the Vikings), and then from other feudal lords intent on expanding their fiefdoms. Two events, or series of events, in particular would introduce irreparable cracks in this pyramidal structure: the Crusades and the Black Plague.

The Crusades included eight major and several minor wars that began in 1095 and continued until nearly the end of the fifteenth century. They did not simply extend the reach of Christianity. Neither did they enrich solely the Roman Church. The Crusades resulted in an exchange of scientific and cultural ideas, goods, traditions, and even diseases, and they led to the establishment of transportation and trade networks across continents. Manufacture of goods, from weaponry to foodstuffs, and an increase in industry (for example, shipbuilding) were equally noteworthy. As goods made their way between Asia and Europe, the merchant class began to expand. It held expanded trade fairs and promoted the growth of cities.

The Black Plague weakened the pyramidal structure by empowering the serfs. The plague did not discriminate, wiping out as much as 50 percent of Europe’s population at all levels. As a result, some feudal lords lost their labor pool and had to recruit workers from elsewhere. For the first time, serfs could bargain and get paid for their labor. Control was no longer absolutely in the hands of feudal lords. A middle class began to form, led by merchants and artisans and guilds, and sustained by the peasant class.

These changes should sound familiar. They echo what had happened millennia before when the domestication of animals and agriculture led to settlement, which led to differentiated social roles, division and specialization of labor, and to some standardization of produced goods.

One of the great ironies of history is that during the Middle Ages, when the Crusades represented the Christian attempt to reclaim the Holy Land from the “infidel” Muslim, a sort of proto-Renaissance was taking place on the Muslim-dominated Iberian Peninsula. Between 711 and 1492, the Iberian Peninsula was under the control of the Umayyad Dynasty. The Muslim government established hospitals (open to all), public libraries, and schools of translation; these last provided alternate versions of classical science and philosophy, rescued a great deal of classical literature from oblivion, and provoked new directions of scholarship. It established universities. It introduced chess. It introduced irrigation systems; some are still in use today. Literature flourished in the form of the first multicultural poetry, primarily love poetry written in Arabic and Ibero-Romance.

The attempts by Christians to retake the peninsula gave us the chansons de geste, epics that told the history of the Reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula. As had the epics of classical times, they continued the tradition of teaching history to the general public. Literature and artwork often revealed or recreated historical events and frequently stressed the importance of the heroic individual. Emphasis on the individual would in turn lead to a less theocentric, more human-centered vision of the universe, a decidedly Renaissance trait. Architecture, however, perhaps most reflects the changes in attitude between medieval and renaissance thought. The secular Alhambra in Granada and the religious Great Mosque of Córdoba both made use of ancient architectural elements—like the arch—that would enable Europe’s medieval architecture to produce Gothic wonders. Besides physical changes reflected in such architecture, the resurgence of a belief in man’s ability to contemplate the divine through human endeavor characterized the modernizing world. It allowed people to explore potential and possibility instead of resigning themselves to their position in the social hierarchy.

Language as well would play no small role in this change. The vernacular(s) replaced Latin as the language of trade and education and paved the way for the Reformation and Counter-Reformation of the High Renaissance.

One last element to consider as laying the foundations for the Renaissance is warfare. Technological advances resulting from medieval Asian—European interactions (the use of gunpowder, cannons, and the longbow) led to the “impersonalization,” almost the “dehumanization,” of war. No longer was combat primarily face-to-face. Cannons and the longbow made it possible to kill “the enemy” more efficiently and from a distance. The word “enemy” is critical here as it represents a nameless, faceless opponent. Changes in weaponry would also lead to changes in political organization and to a militarily based social hierarchy.

As the Renaissance would have southern and northern European manifestations, so did the Middle Ages. Northern Europe, the British Isles, France, Kievan Russia, and Sicily were changed forever by the Vikings and their descendants, the Normans: by their military and trade excursions, expansion and settlement, and conversion to Christianity. It was the Normans, after all, who under the leadership of William the Conqueror conquered England at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, ending Saxon rule and paving the way for the subsequent ruling dynasties (especially the medieval Plantagenets) that would have profound cultural, political, and juridical effects.

In order to understand how the medieval foundations allowed the building of the Renaissance, students should focus on two words: legacies and purpose. Legacies encompass the ideas of continuity, action/reaction, and cause and effect. Purpose is one way to respond to the most basic of questions: why?

A good example of continuity can be seen by looking at the reign of King Henry II of England. Henry’s legacies include groundbreaking work in establishing the jury system, replacing Roman law with common law in England, and gaining some control over powerful feudal lords. He is best known, however, for the following things: first, his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine and his attempts to expand England’s control in France. The latter resulted in almost 400 years of war. He is also known for his friendship with Thomas à Becket. Henry’s friend and drinking companion, Thomas à Becket studied theology at the University of Bologna in Italy, where, among other things, he evidently grew a conscience. Home in England, and elected Archbishop of Canterbury, he defied the king by defending the rights of the Church. In response to Henry’s exasperation over not gaining juridical control of the church, four of Henry’s knights rode to Canterbury and murdered Becket in the cathedral. Two hundred years later, Geoffrey Chaucer would set his fictional pilgrims, who came from all social classes, on their trek to Thomas à Becket’s shrine. Chaucer wrote in the vernacular. He matched style and literary form to characters who came from all walks of life. King Henry’s legacies are obvious and long lasting: elimination of trial by ordeal, the use of judges and juries, and the change from a feudal monarchy to one with a bureaucracy made up of professionals, which would eventually lead to the establishment of a representative parliament.

The Renaissance was not a brand-new creation, but the culmination of changes begun before and during the Middle Ages. History is not contained or defined by isolated eras. It reflects the actions and reactions, the innovations and the adaptations of everything that has come before. As you study Europe’s history, you might consider the following guiding questions:

• What are the roots of something seemingly new? For example, compare the Magna Carta, the United States Bill of Rights, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man.

• What is the “climate of opinion” of a given era? If the Middle Ages were theocentric, as visible in university curricula, literature, art, and architecture, what characterized the Renaissance and made it more “humanistic”?

• What events or ideas made possibility, potential, freedom, individuality, and responsibility important? What did these elements make possible? How, for example, might Renaissance thought have influenced exploration, discovery, and settlement of new worlds?

• What is the role of the arts in reference to either instigating change or reflecting contemporary issues and manners? Were the arts idealistic or realistic? In other words, what is the purpose of the arts at any given moment?

• How did the power or status of the individual change over time? How did merchants become a dominant power during the Renaissance? How did women seek to define themselves within the confines of a changing society? What was the role of demographic shifts in these changes?

History is more than a linear chronology. It is a consideration of causes and effects, of connections, of changes, adaptations, and innovations over time. History is time.

Further Resources


Michael Crichton, Timeline

Ildefonso Falcones, The Cathedral of the Sea

Ken Follett, Pillars of the Earth

Edith Pargeter, A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury

Various mysteries, including Sister Fidelma by Peter Tremayne and The Chronicles of Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters (pen name of Edith Pargeter). A television adaptation titled Cadfael is available on DVD and streaming media.


El Cid (1961)—eleventh-century Spain

Becket (1964)—England and King Henry II

The Lion in Winter (1968)—England and King Henry II

The Name of the Rose (1986)—fourteenth-century Italy

Henry V (with Laurence Olivier, 1944; with Kenneth Branagh, 1989)—Hundred Years’ War