In 476CE, warriors attacked the city of Rome and ended more than 800 years of glory for the “Eternal City.” Historians mark this event as the end of ancient history in Western Europe. About one thousand years later, Europe experienced a “rebirth” we now call the Renaissance. The era between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance is a thousand-year period we call the Middle Ages. Many historians use a Latin term—“medieval" to describe the era.
The people of Western Europe who lived during the Middle Ages didn’t view themselves as in the middle of anything. They were more likely to regard themselves as living at the end of time because the great civilizations of Greece and Rome had fallen.
The beginning of the Middle Ages is often called the "Dark Age." Life during this time was often difficult and short. It was an era of war, as barbarian warriors overran land once controlled by Roman armies.
Terrible periods of famine, or great hunger, were common during the Middle Ages. Farmers knew that just one or two years of bad harvests could mean starvation for an entire family.
People had little understanding of hygiene, so the people often faced widespread disease. Children often died in infancy; a woman might give birth to ten children only to see two or three live past infancy. In the middle of the fourteenth century, a terrible disease called the Black Death killed nearly one-third of the people of Europe.
Life in Western Europe during the Middle Ages was very hard, and few people thought conditions could ever get better. Feudalism replaced the protection of the Roman army. Poor farmers often lived on land owned by noble families who were loyal to the ruler. Society was divided into strict social classes, and it was nearly impossible for a landless person to escape poverty.
The only hope for most people in Western Europe during the Middle Ages was their faithful belief in Christianity, and the hope that life in heaven would be better than life on earth. During the Middle Ages, builders demonstrated their faith through the construction of massive cathedrals. Soaring high above the simple dwellings of ordinary people, many cathedrals took more than a lifetime to complete.
Despite the significant challenges of the era, many of the seeds of our modern life were first planted in the Middle Ages. Legal rights stem from a document called the Magna Carta in 1215, when English nobles forced their king to accept limits on his powers. Formal education began as the first universities were organized in the eleventh century.