The Early Middle Ages

  • © Photothèque Atout-France

The Early Middle Ages

Late 5th century – 13th century


After the fall of the Roman Empire, 476 was the start of the long period we call the Middle Ages. The Early Middle Ages cover the period from the late 5th to the 13th century.  At that time society was divided into three groups: lords, clergy and peasants.

The Frankish period, up to the 10th century, saw the Merovingians and Carolingians extend their empire over the evangelized territories. The all-powerful Church, was the driving force behind the creation of particularly precious works of art. Thus came about the first basilicas and the great pilgrimages like those to Rome and Compostelle. Gold and silverware vied with illuminated manuscripts. Romanesque churches housed venerated relics. The Emperor Charlemagne (742-814) is the emblematic figure of the re-conquest of the West with the Germanic Holy Roman Empire.

The age of Feudalism, from the 10th to 13th century, was marked by invasion, by Normans, Saracens and Hungarians. Under the Capetian kings, the lords fought for power, the number of fiefdoms greatly increased, vassals gave up their freedom in exchange for protection in castles and the serfs lived in miserable poverty. The Church played an important role, with monastic movements centred on Cluny and Cîteaux. Gothic cathedrals and churches confirmed ecclesiastical power. Knights, troubadours and scholars formed an élite. The middle classes became rich from newly emerging trade. Louis IX (1226-1270) led the 8th crusade, during which he died from plague. Beatified as Saint Louis, he will be remembered in France for ever more, as can be seen from a visit to Sainte-Chapelle in Paris