The High Middle Ages

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13523

Power began to centralize again during the High Middle Ages. Marked by massive wars, huge empires, and cultural mixing, this period laid the groundwork for the evolution of European history.


People and Their Environment, World

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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By the 11th century, Spain had been controlled by an Islamic Caliphate for hundreds of years, Sicily was controlled by the Vikings, and the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) still controlled southern Italy.

  • How did this almost alien world become the one that we inhabit today?

Watch a portion of The History of Europe: Every year, from Cottereau, to see just how much Europe was changing during this time.

  • How was Byzantine struggling to maintain its empire?
  • What happened to Spain?
  • What new kingdoms were established by the year 1000 A.D.?

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  • This world looks very foreign, right?

The High Middle Ages is a term that refers to Europe between 1000 and 1300 A.D.

Typically, periodization like this is not particularly helpful. However, the conflicts and power structures that arose during this period went on to shape the world we are in now.

Caliphate of Cordoba

Caliphate of Cordoba

Image by Tyk and Morningstar1814, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

By 1000 A.D., Iberia (the peninsula with modern-day Spain and Portugal) had been controlled by the Islamic Caliphate for nearly 300 years.

Beyond having a strong army, this Caliphate was able to maintain control for so long because of its generous policies toward foreigners.

Because the Islamic leaders recognized their precarious position thousands of miles away from the heart of Arabia, they allowed Christian and Jewish people to live in the state largely free from persecution.

They were also allowed to worship in their churches and synagogues as long as they paid a Jizya, a tax for being of a different faith. This was a common practice around the Muslim world.

However, it became illegal in Islamic Iberia for Christians to wear Muslim clothing because assimilation even in the form of conversion to Islam was forbidden to outsiders of the faith.

By levying the Jizya tax and treating foreigners fairly, the Caliphate was able to use this economically profitable system to exist in hostile territory for hundreds of years.

spanish castle

Viking Raiders

With massive armies and accommodation, Islamic armies were able to move north into Europe; however, this time period also saw another massive expansion of power.

  • What unique tool allowed the Vikings to move south into the Mediterranean?

As you watch What Made the Viking Longship So Terrifyingly Effective, from Smithsonian Channel, pay attention to the river network illustrated:

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The Middle Ages were a time of many localized rulers, each competing for power. Ingenuity was the only real way for one group to gain an advantage over another.

With their longship and a focus on gaining riches rather than land, the Vikings were able to craft an unusually large and fragmented empire.

Look at this map to see the full extent of their presence by the 11th century:

Viking expansion

Image by Max Naylor, via Wikimedia Commons, has been released into the public domain.

Byzantine Empire

In less than 100 years (1000-1100 A.D.), the Byzantine Empire shrunk from controlling parts of southern Europe and the whole of Turkey to very little territory at all.

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The growing strength of the unified Arab state along with invasions from the Vikings in the north proved too powerful for the declining empire. To make matters worse, the Great Schism occurred during the 11th century.

Great Schism map of 1054

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, was released into the public domain.

Christians in Western Europe recognized the bishop in Rome as the head bishop because, according to the Bible, this was the city Peter went to when Jesus told him to, "Feed my sheep." (John 21:17)

During the Early Middle Ages, these Roman bishops also believed they were the proper patriarchs of Christianity making the Pope the spiritual heir to the command given to Peter.

However, the bishop in Constantinople did not see it this way. As a result, the Great Schism formed in 1054 during which Eastern and Western Christian doctrine began to diverge heavily.

This effectively cut off Eastern Europe from the west because they were not seen as following the will of God.

The First Crusade

The Byzantine Empire found itself in conflict with the Islamic Empire of the time, the Seljuks, leading Emperor Alexios I to seek help from Pope Urban II.

The land in Jerusalem that had been lost to this Muslim Empire was considered Holy land by Roman Catholics. The desire to reclaim this land for Christians and to repair the Great Schism led Pope Urban II to call out to England, France, the Holy Roman Empire, and any members of the faith who would be willing to go to Constantinople and begin a reconquest.

Eventually, thousands of people showed up from all over Europe. In addition to the untrained men, who believed in the cause, Vikings, who had up until then been trying to raid Constantinople, also joined the crusade. For this reason, Emperor Alexios I made everyone agree to take nothing from Constantinople and that any lands recaptured would go straight back to the Byzantine Empire.

With full cooperation at this point, a united Christian army reconquered much of the former Byzantine land through a succession of crusades. However, Byzantium never gave up Eastern Orthodoxy.

Roman Empire, 1180

Image by ARTE, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Western Europe

With the invasion of the Normans from France in 1066, the British monarchy began.

During this early period, political relations between France and England were very complicated. To gain some insight, watch a portion of England and France - 1000 Years of Rivalry, from Fire of Learning:

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For centuries, the conflict between these two nations as well as their involvement in the crusades would occupy much of their resources.

The inter-regional conflict in Western Europe at this time is most visible in the map of the Holy Roman Empire shown below. Although it is in German, look at how many small individual principalities there were:

Holy Roman Empire

Image by Alphathon, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

Rarely could power be consolidated enough to directly control a large piece of this area. Conflict persisted in this region for centuries.

  • How do you think the High Middle Ages came to an end around the year 1300?

Keep going in the Got It? section to find out.

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