Following the fall of the Roman Empire, Christianity, Judaism and Islam flourished and competed for control. Christian kings, nobles, soldiers and knights attacked Muslim cities (particularly Jerusalem) in the Holy Land (Palestine) in order to gain control of the lands at the root of Christianity. These ongoing battles, called the Crusades, began in 1096 and lasted nearly 200 years.
Christianity was the main religion throughout Europe's royal houses, nobility and most of the general working population. The religion was brought to England by a monk named Augustine in 597 A.D.
Established in 622 A.D., Islam was the dominant religion in the Middle East and had a sophisticated culture of religion, art, science and urbanization. Islam was not very well represented in Europe except in the south and southwest (Spain and Portugal) where they controlled lands until driven out by battle.
The followers of Judaism, known as Jews, were a displaced people. While some remained in the Holy Land in the Middle East, many settled throughout Europe and established communities. While always a minority, Jews were largely working class tradespeople, merchants and farmers.
Pagans believed that gods lived in natural things like trees, lakes, mountains and the sun. Though, gods varied widely from tribe to tribe. Prior to the medieval era, Paganism was the common religion.
Monks and nuns devoted their lives to the service of God. They lived in female-only or male-only communities called monasteries, and never married. They also vowed to live lives of obedience and poverty.
Monastic life originated in Egypt in the third century. The simple way of life and livelihood attracted many already poverty-stricken peasants, who also desired a safe life and one that was more spiritual.
Monasteries were supported by offering goods and services to the public and the crown. They produced fruits, vegetables, herbs, cheeses, meats and ales (beer) for sale. They also made herbal remedies, tended to the sick, injured and dying. Often they were employed to create documents and record information such as births, deaths and marriages, as they were among the few (aside from the upper and royal classes) to have an education and the ability to read and write. Some of the oldest books in Europe were created, by hand, by monks.
Some monasteries set up schools, in which the noble classes could be educated. If merchant class people could afford some education, it was usually restricted to arithmetic so they could keep accounts of their business transactions.
Throughout The Middle Ages, the Christian churches of Europe advanced both art and architecture by building larger, grander churches called cathedrals.
Cathedrals were massive structures with the finest design and adorned inside and out with the very best in sculpture and art. Inside these architectural marvels, fine woodwork, paintings, murals, tapestries and sculptures were installed. Baptismal fonts, chalices, shrines, reliquaries and other accessories of the Mass were usually made of gold and silver. Fine jewels were often used to accent these pieces.
The early Middle Ages had cathedrals built in the Romanesque style with thick walls and tall, thick pillars to support the roof and ceiling. Improvements in building technology and engineering led to the development of thinner, taller walls supported by arches on the outside called flying buttresses. This made walls much stronger and allowed for more and larger windows. This new style was called Gothic, and appeared around the year 1150.
The walls were made of shaped stone instead of natural stone, which was commonly used for churches and other buildings. Masons were the craftsmen who carved and shaped the stones into simple structural blocks or fancier, decorative blocks, sculptures or gargoyles. Masons marked their stones with a signature graphic that was unique to him - the more stones with his mark, the more he got paid.
Invariably, cathedrals had their administrative areas, which, in turn, were subdivided into smaller parishes with local churches and monasteries. The head of the cathedral was called a bishop.
Knights and kings were attacking the Holy Lands of the Middle East in the name of God and with the blessing of the Christian Church during this volatile period, which is sometimes called the Golden Age of Chivalry. The goal was to drive the Muslim people out of Palestine so that they could control the sacred lands.
The Crusades happened in waves over the centuries as power shifted between the Christians and the Muslims, who fought back and reclaimed their territories. Each crusade generally lasted for a year or more before the area was secured and the king could return home. By comparison, other expeditions into China or India could last two or three years.
By 1291, the Crusades were at an end and the crusading soldiers abandoned the area and returned home.