Medieval Italy

Assisi, Medieval town in Italy
Assisi, Medieval town in Italy, home to St Francis

Medieval History: from the Fall of the Western Roman Empire to the Discovery of America

In Italian this era is called “Medio Evo”, literally meaning “age in the middle” because it is situated between ancient and modern times.

Conventionally the Middle Ages comprise the very long and complex period of history between 476 AD (fall of the Western Roman Empire with the deposition of the last emperor Romulus Augustulus) and 1492 (discovery of America by the Italian – born in the great port city of Genoa – explorer Christopher Columbus).

The Middle Ages are then further subdivided into the High (or Early) Middle Ages (5th-10th centuries, up to the year 1000) and Low (or Late) Middle Ages (11th-15th centuries).

At the beginning of the early Middle Ages, events took place transforming and shaping ancient Italy, the heart of the Roman world, in ways that would remain the same for many future centuries and would form Medieval Europe. Roman Europe and Italy were Germanised by the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire, with the formation of the Roman-barbarian kingdoms.

The meeting between Roman tradition and the new Germanic culture was one aspect of the new era. Another, decisive for the destinies of civilisation, was the meeting between Christianity in irresistible ascent and paganism in the process of disappearing.

What have been erroneously called the Dark Ages would indeed have been dark because of the decline and fall of Roman civilisation were it not for Christianity. The Church continued the Roman education system of schools, created universities as high seats of learning and that new, exquisitely Christian invention, never heard-of before: hospitals.

The convention of dating the Middle Ages from the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century was supported by Edward Gibbon, an influential English 18th-century historian, author of the masterpiece The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, who postulated a Roman decline from a previous classic ideal.

A new theory has been advanced by the great Belgian historian Henri Pirenne who worked in the early part of the 20th century and elaborated what is now called Pirenne Thesis.

Pirenne challenged the idea that barbarian invasions had really caused the fall of the Roman Empire in Europe, as well as the view that the end of the Western Roman Empire coincides with the end of the office of emperor in Europe, which took place in 476. This empire did not end in 476, he says: it continued, maybe not as a political entity, but as a socio-cultural, and especially economic, entity.

The reason lies in the fact that Mediterranean unity was what defined the Roman Empire from its very beginning, and this was not disrupted by the barbarians, as shown by the continuing existence of Mediterranean trade and gold coinage.

This scholar believed that there was a continuity of the Roman structure inside the barbarian states, that the Roman way of life persisted immediately after the fall of Rome, and that the economy of the Roman Mediterranean even after the barbarian invasions was maintained according to the lines established by the Romans themselves.

Barbarian Goths came to Rome not to destroy it, Pirenne said, but to take part in its wealth and benefits; they tried to preserve the Roman way of life because to do so was good for them.

That barbarian leaders and military commanders were often educated in Rome and many were Romanised is undeniably true.

According to this theory, what ended Rome was not the collapse of the Western Empire; it was Islam.

The Middle Ages for Pirenne began in the 8th century when Muslim domination reached vast areas of Mediterranean coasts, including Palestine, Syria, parts of Turkey, North Africa, Spain and southern Italy, and Mediterranean unity was broken by Arab invasions, which separated and fractured the different parts of the Mediterranean Sea and put an end to Mediterranean trade.

Islamic conquests killed the once-flourishing commerce across the Roman Empire through the Mediterranean, from which Europe was now cut off. The end of the Mediterranean as gigantic economic hub gave rise to the birth of new centres, mostly in Northern Europe.

The recent historical periodisation that introduced the “Late Antiquity” era, acknowledging continuity in the transition from ancient to medieval worlds, is due to Pirenne’s insights.

But overall Pirenne was writing before the great archaeological work of the last century, which by and large refuted his Thesis by showing that there was still much trade in the Mediterranean after the Islamic invasions. But it is true that Islam broke Mediterranean unity into three different realms: Europe, North Africa and Asia.

For Italy, a period of Longobard (or Lombard) and Byzantine dominations followed. Part of Italy was occupied by the troops of the Eastern Roman Empire, commonly known as the Byzantine Empire.

The attempt by the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (742-814) to unite Europe did not meet with success, but the system with which he organised his society, feudalism, will take root everywhere in Europe, including, but only for a short time, in Italy, where the cities of Roman origin were capable of recovering economically before the other urban centres.

Thus in the Middle Ages, while Europe saw the emergence of feudal monarchies and national states like France, England and Spain, in Italy municipal civilisation and regional powers developed, which will collide politically and militarily with the Holy Roman Empire of Germany. This period in Italian history is generally known as the age of the city-states and communes, often at war with each other.

There was a large number of them, including Ferrara and Modena, under the lordship of the Este dynasty; Mantua, first the Marquisate and then the Duchy of the Gonzaga family; Milan, ruled by the Viscontis and the Sforzas; Parma, ruled by the Farneses; Florence, whose lords were the Medicis; many republics, among which Siena, Lucca and the commercial port city of Genoa.

Thus, at the end of the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance – despite the high cultural level of both periods – small Italian powers were not be able to face the constant danger of foreign domination.

The splendour of Italian cities during the Renaissance is well known.

This fragmentation into many states was a cause of political and military weakness but also a situation that produced the great richness of Italian cities of importance and cultural achievement, because each of them was a capital.

Italy’s individual states were also haunted by internal divisions. The only exception to this rule was the Republic of Venice, where the Serenissima Republic of Saint Mark was capable of guaranteeing the welfare of its people and the honesty and good organisation of its administration, which, despite an iron-fist governance method, kept the population united and in peace.

An important phenomenon of this time was the birth of the bourgeoisie, the middle classes. In the powerful and rich cities and ports of northern Italy they enjoyed a particular position thanks to their wealth, and this new class that was forming nourished and promoted the rise of independent city state.

Commerce and trade prospered. Wealthy families and merchants such as the Medicis in Florence (who much contributed to the creation of the banking system) and the Viscontis in Milan gained increasing influence and took control of their respective city governments.

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