The Middle Ages is a nebulously-defined period in European history, following the fall of Rome and preceding the Renaissance. They were called "middle" because they were between Antiquity and Modernity, or something like that.
Historians used to call the early part of the period the "Dark Ages," partly because of the lack of written records from Western Europe in the early post-Roman years left the era relatively obscure and mysterious to historians, and partly because it was perceived as an age of ignorance, brutality and paganism. The phrase "Dark Ages" is now frowned upon in academic circles because 1. we actually know quite a bit about the time period and 2. people were actually doing creative and interesting things then--as they always do--and we want to avoid the "othering" that goes along with portraying centuries of human history as dark and mysterious.
 Those who ruled
|This section requires expansion.|
In the early days, Monarchy was not strictly by primogeniture: when a king died, the strongest son or brother or uncle would be recognised as king (though quite possibly after the unfortunate deaths of all the most promising rivals). The kingdom might even be divided between siblings. Later, the oldest son would be seen as the only legitimate heir, even if he was so young that his kind Uncle had to act as regent for a while ("I'll look after England for you, young Edward. Why don't you and your brother go and play in that nice Tower?"). In some countries, a woman could take the throne if she had no brothers; in others, she could not rule but she could pass the right to her son. Even as late as Queen Elisabeth I of England, the monarch could name their successor. ("She whispered something about Dorothy's friend - does that ring any bells? Oh, and I think she mentioned a tartan skirt.")
Under the system known as Feudalism (the term has fallen out of use in academic circles), Kings parceled out land to great lords in exchange for personal oaths of allegiance and promises of military service - and then so on down the hierarchy. A key question of the time was whether a man owed ALL his loyalty to his immediate lord (and so must support him even when the lord rebelled against the king) or whether everyone owed ultimate allegiance to the king. The second idea gained ground as the period progressed. The king was seen to have the same feudal relation to God, i.e. his right to rule came from above. To reinforce this, kings were anointed by Archbishops (and Emperors by the Pope) and were thus given a priestly role in governing, making it sacrilege to attempt to depose them. The Popes were semi-successful in inserting themselves into the "chain of command" in that they were sometimes able to assert their right as Vicar (i.e., Deputy) of Christ to depose a king (well, *declare* him deposed so a powerful rival could legitimately take over).
By the end of the Middle Ages formal feudalism was weakening and a more legalistic system of land tenure was coming in, but the idea that loyalty could be due to the state rather than to the current ruler was hardly yet forming. When a rebellion was successful, the new King had to legitimise himself by quickly explaining why the previous incumbent wasn't really the proper king at all. This was usually either by demonstrating that the ex-king (or an ancestor from x generations back) had been illegitimate; or by some kind of No True Scotsman argument. A useful circular argument went "I was right to depose him because my rebellion was successful thus proving he wasn't the rightful king because God didn't protect him which proves I am the rightful king which proves God protects the rightful king". Anyone who spotted the logical flaws here would probably have been unwise to say (to the new owner of the Tower of London torture chamber) "Haven't you just proved that Divine Right of Kings just means Might is Right?"
It is difficult now to realise how shocking it was even as late as the 17th Century for the English Parliament to claim the right to depose (and then condemn to death) an acknowledged legitimate King.
Other forms of government (such as republicanism in Florence or a sort of republic in Venice) existed also.
One of the most romanticized aspects of the Middle Ages was the knight. Fiction has often made these warriors out to be paragons of virtue. In reality, knights were typically aggressive and well-armed young men. It is likely tales of chivalry were meant to influence knights, and curb their excesses.
 The Church
The Roman Catholic Church was effectively a theocratic super-state in western Europe. Kings curried the Pope's favour to legitimize their rule. Coronations were often conducted by Bishops, so a king ruled his kingdom as God ruled mankind. This deference to religion persists in some less-developed countries today. In the United States, for example, politicians often invoke the almighty in their speeches, and Presidents, in a show of piety, invite clergy to pray at their inauguration.
 The Crusades
The Crusades were a dramatic example of the Pope's temporal power. These wars did not go well for the Christians, though they did help reduce the number of aforementioned aggressive knights. In the aftermath of the Crusades came the Renaissance, so things got (marginally) better for Europe.
 Suppression of dissent
Monks hand-copied the Bible, which was written in Latin, and consequently no layman could gainsay the Church's interpretation. People who questioned the Church's party line tended to die rather messily. The Church's dominance would not be challenged until the invention of the printing press, which became the instrument of the Reformation.
|This section requires expansion.|
After the sack of Rome, many academic texts were lost. This ignorance was exacerbated by the anti-intellectual teachings of the Church, which was more concerned with glorifying God in preparation for the next world than living in this one.
 Physical sciences
The germ theory of disease was not understood, and dissection was forbidden by the Church, so physicians were in the dark about the nature of the human body. Perversely, efforts to ease suffering often caused greater suffering.
Physicians associated certain emotions (Humours) with diseases and bodily fluids. It was believed illnesses were the result of said fluids being out of balance. Treatment meant draining "overabundant" fluids. The practice of Blood-letting -meant to correct blood-related afflictions in the "sanguine"- is still shorthand for quackery and medical woo.
 The Black Death
In the 14th Century, bubonic plague came to Europe, making a benighted people more desperate. Many blamed Jews for outbreaks of the disease. The reasoning was that Jews were not suffering in similar numbers as Christians, and therefore Jews were behind the outbreak.
Others believed the plague was a curse from God, and that only by getting right with the Lord could they end the nightmare. Flagellants resorted to whipping themselves as a show of piety and repentance.
Literacy levels were low in the Middle Ages, but many stories were preserved through oral tradition. Most written works in this period were in Latin. Some writers bucked this trend, such as Geoffrey Chaucer[wp] and Dante Alighieri[wp], who wrote in vernacular.
The enduring architectural legacy of the Middle Ages includes the many castles, churches and cathedrals of Europe. Of course, the grandeur of the cathedrals are to this day thrown in the collective face of the Roman Catholic Church, as the riches that paid for said grandeur could have been better used to serve the poor.
 See also
- Hypatia of Alexandria, whose death is often pointed to as the start of the Dark Ages.
- European witch-hunts (though the most notorious ones were post-medieval)
- Inquisition (again, some of the most notorious stuff was post-medieval)
- Arms and Armor in Medieval Europe -Metropolitan Museum of Art -Every schoolboy that goes to the MMoA has to go here.
- Terry Jones' Medieval Lives -Yes, a documentary series starring one of the guys from Monty Python. It's good.
- ↑ That's why we also no longer call Africa the "Dark Continent."
- ↑ http://wuhstry.wordpress.com/2012/06/24/william-the-conquerors-england-and-its-relations-with-the-papacy/, William the Conqueror's army carried a Papal flag to Hastings.
- ↑ Medieval Chivalry, Dr. Richard Abels, US Naval Academy.
- ↑ The Divine Right of Kings, JP Sommerville.
- ↑ http://www2.kenyon.edu/projects/margin/cathy11.htm Cathars], Kenyon College.
- ↑ The Printing Press, www.historyguide.org.
- ↑ http://masi.cscs.lsa.umich.edu/~crshalizi/White/medicine/anatomy.html, Dissection was viewed as desecration of the corpse.
- ↑ Sex, Society, and Women, University of Rochester.
- ↑ Jewish History Sourcebook, Fordham University.
- ↑ The Flagellants Attempt to Repel the Black Death, 1349, An account of their activities.
- ↑ The End of Europe's Middle Ages -Languages and Literature, The University of Calgary.