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Political Changes in the Late Middle Ages

27 Jul
July 27, 2012

The Late Middle Ages went through major political changes which were marked by the rise of strong and royalty-based nation-states: England, France and the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula. The mentioned states saw the rise of centralized royal government which depended on collaboration or subjugation of the estates of the realm consisting of nobility, clergy and commoners (the Parliament in England, the General Estates in France and the Cortes in the Christian Kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula).

The most notable events of the Late Middle Ages were the Ottoman expansion which resulted in the fall of the Byzantine Empire and the Hundred Years’ War fought between France and England from 1337 to 1453. The Hundred Years’ War delayed the progress and prosperity in both England and France but it strengthened royal authority in both kingdoms and greatly influenced the development of modern nation-states. The war ended favorable for France which afterwards finally established strong central government and completed the unification of France by incorporating the Duchy of Burgundy, Provence with Marseille and the Duchy of Brittany.

The defeat in the Hundred Years’ War ended the English aspirations on the Continental Europe, while the English occupation with war against France enabled Ireland to develop virtual independence under English overlordship. After the victory of Robert the Bruce over the English forces in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 England temporarily lost Scotland which afterwards developed into a strong state under Stuarts, while the Welsh Revolt in 1400 resulted in the semi-independence of Wales. Almost immediately after the end of the Hundred Years’ War broke out a civil war over the English throne between the adherents of the House of Lancaster and the House of York known as the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485). However, the Wars of the Roses which ended with the accession of Henry VII to the English throne resulted in the establishment of a strong, central royal government.

Iberian Peninsula saw the unification of the most powerful Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula – Aragon and Castile which was achieved through marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon with Isabella of Castile in 1469. Unified Aragon and Castile continued the war against the Moors and by capturing Granada in 1492 finally ended the Moorish rule in the Iberian Peninsula and completed the Reconquista.

The three Scandinavian kingdoms – Denmark, Norway (with Iceland and Greenland) and Sweden were united under Queen Margaret I of Denmark in the Kalmar Union in 1397. The Kalmar Union unified the Scandinavian countries theoretically as equal but Denmark as the strongest state was dominating the union. The election of Gustav Vasa as King of Sweden in 1523 resulted in the collapse of the Kalmar Union although it was never formally dissolved.

In contrary to England and France, the political changes in Germany caused further decentralization of the central government. Numerous petty states emerged after the disintegration of the Holy Roman Empire often ruled by nobles who claimed to be independent rulers, while the office of the Holy Roman Emperor was elective. The Holy Roman Emperors during the period of the Late Middle Ages were either elected from the House of Habsburg or the House of Luxembourg. Like Germany, Italy was not a nation-state in any aspect. The Italian peninsula was dominated by the cities-states (Florence, Milan, Venice, Genoa) competing with each other for supremacy.

Major political changes also occurred in Eastern Europe which saw the establishment of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, a predecessor of the Russian national state and the rise of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. However, the greatest changes probably occurred in Southeastern Europe which was invaded by the Ottomans who finally destroyed the Byzantine Empire and made the Slavic kingdoms of the Balkan Peninsula their vassal states.

Social Changes in the High Middle Ages

27 Jul
July 27, 2012

Feudalism became the predominant social system in most parts of Europe and Asia by the end of the 11th century. The land as the source of survival and wealth came in the possession of feudal landowners or lords. They gave their land as a fiefs to the vassals who in return provided military service. At the same time the few remaining free peasants became serfs, lost their land and personal freedom.

The High Middle Ages saw the weakening of the central royal authority and the rise of power of the local feudal lords who could count on their loyal vassal and eventually became absolutely independent rulers on their territory. However, administrative changes in the 11th and 12th centuries forced the monarchs to be more active in control of their territories which increased the royal incomes and military power and eventually strengthened the monarchical authority.

Military power and wealth enabled the monarchs to extent their power but they could enlarge their wealth and power only on the expense of other lords and monarchs. The land was inheritable and for that reason it was a lot easier to extent the territory and power through the “bed” than with “the sword”. Very popular method to gain new properties was also to ensure oneself the inheritance of the heirless lords and of the lords who did not fulfill their legal obligations. Later option was more reliable in long term but often required use of force to implement one’s rights.

Political Changes in the High Middle Ages

27 Jul
July 27, 2012

The period of the High Middle Ages saw the emergence of the states and kingdoms which evolved into the leading European powers over following centuries: Germany, France, England, and the Spanish and Scandinavian kingdoms. The mentioned states managed to achieve the stability required for economic growth and to consolidate their power which resulted in the territorial expansion.

The Spanish kingdoms were established on the ruins of the declining power of the Moors, while the German kings and dukes constantly carried out pressure on territories eastern from the rivers Oder and Elbe. The Scandinavians extended their rule over Iceland and established their settlement in Greenland and North America. England which was invaded by Normans eventually subdued Wales, Ireland and Scotland. However, European expansion in the High Middle Ages was mostly directed to the south – the Mediterranean. Rome was considered the center of Christianity, while the Italian coast cities provided a great opportunity for profit from the trade with luxurious products from the East. For that reason German kings and Holy Roman Emperors launched several military campaigns to gain control over Italy, while the Normans founded their kingdom in Sicily and Southern Italy.

The High Middle Ages also saw the first European expansions out of Europe. One century after the voyage of Leif Ericson in North America, the French and Norman knights founded their kingdoms in Antioch, Syria and Palestine.

Medieval Europe (9th to 13th c.)

27 Jul
July 27, 2012

Medieval Europe saw further changes on the political map of Europe from the 9th to the 13th century. The period was marked by the rise of states which evolved into the leading European powers: England, France, Germany, the Christian Kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula and Scandinavian Kingdoms. Slavic states emerged in Eastern and Southeastern Europe and developed into powerful medieval kingdoms. The period from the 9th to the 13th century was also characterized by the first territorial expansion of European states out of Europe, while Europe itself was invaded by the Hungarians, a Finno-Ugric people from beyond the Ural Mountains who established their kingdom in the Pannonian Plain.

Medieval Europe (5th to 9th c.)

27 Jul
July 27, 2012

Medieval Europe emerged on the ruins of the Western Roman Empire but the transition from the Ancient to the Medieval Times took place gradually. The Western Roman Empire began to decline before the invasions of the barbarian peoples. Thus the deposition of the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus by German chieftain Odoacer did not cause any greater disruption at the time although the event is traditionally viewed as the end of the ancient period and the beginning of the Medieval Times.

The period following the deposition of Romulus Augustulus was marked by the emergence of new political entities competing with each other for the territory. Medieval kings could extent their wealth and power only by territorial expansion which explains virtually incessant warfare that marked the period of the Middle Ages. Medieval kingdoms also had to deal with numerous invasions of non-European peoples which greatly affected the course of history of some parts of Europe particularly the Iberian Peninsula, Russia, Central Europe and the Balkan Peninsula.

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