Christian History Chart: Not your parents’ Middle Ages

YOU MAY ONCE HAVE HEARD the Middle Ages referred to as “Dark Ages” that fell between the glories of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, or “rebirth,” of classical learning in 14th-century Italy. But in fact learning, statecraft, church growth, and culture-making flourished throughout the period. Historians have identified no fewer than four Renaissances in this period (each shown in bold), starting with one inspired by Charlemagne.

500: Clovis, founder of the Frankish state, conquers most of France and Belgium, converting his territories to western Catholic Christianity. His heirs begin fighting one another.

610: Heraclius becomes Byzantine emperor in Constantinople.

650: Arab forces conquer most Byzantine territories. In 677 and 717 they attempt to conquer Constantinople but fail.

687: Pepin of Heristal, Mayor of the Palace under Clovis’s descendants, unites the Frankish territories. His son Charles Martel (Charlemagne’s grandfather) forms an alliance with the church which helps extend Christianity (and Frankish rule) into Germany.

735: The Venerable Bede, an Anglo-Saxon scholar, writes History of the English Church and People.

740: Byzantine emperor Leo III initiates the iconoclastic movement. It flourishes under the reign of his son Constantine V (741-775).

751: St. Boniface anoints Pepin the Short, son of Charles Martel, as a divinely sanctioned king.

768: Pepin’s son Charlemagne becomes king. In time, his empire grows to embrace modern France, Germany, central and eastern Europe, and much of Italy. Charlemagne divides his vast realm into different regions ruled by local “counts” overseen by representatives of the king’s own court. To aid administration of the kingdom, he promotes learning in what is later called the “Carolingian Renaissance.” Anglo-Saxon Benedictine monk Alcuin sets up schools, sees to the copying of classical Latin texts, and develops a new handwriting.

800: On Christmas Day, the pope crowns Charlemagne emperor in Rome.

814: Charlemagne dies. His surviving son, Louis the Pious, divides his inheritance between his three sons, who engage in civil war. Vikings, Hungarians, and Arabs invade, and the Carolingian Empire falls apart in 888.

871: King Alfred the Great of England, imitating Charlemagne, codifies English law, reorganizes the army, founds schools, and promotes Anglo-Saxon literacy.

910: The Benedictine monastery of Cluny in Burgundy (modern France) becomes a place of reform, focused on restoring obedience to the 6th-century Rule of St. Benedict and encouraging art, worship, and devotion.

936: Otto the Great is crowned king in Germany; in 962 he becomes emperor in Rome, the first to use the title “Holy Roman Emperor.” Competent successors follow. Later historians call this period the “Ottonian Renaissance.”

1046: Emperor Henry III deposes three rival popes and names a German monastic reformer as Pope Clement II. A series of reforming popes follows. They assert papal authority, causing conflict with both the Eastern Church and the Holy Roman Emperors. This leads to the Great Schism between Rome and Constantinople (1054) as well as the investiture controversy over who is responsible for giving bishops symbols of their offices.

1050: Agricultural revolution ushers in widespread use of new farming devices, some previously discovered by Carolingians and Romans.

1059: Cardinals are given the sole right of appointing new popes, with the intention of allowing papal elections to escape the whims of political leaders.

1095: The First Crusade is initiated to rescue Jerusalem from Islamic control. In 1098 crusaders capture Antioch and most of Syria, and in 1099 Jerusalem, killing many of the inhabitants. The Song of Roland paints Charlemagne as a great hero in battle against Muslims.

c. 1100: Scholasticism emerges, seeking to reconcile classical philosophy with Christianity.

1152: Frederick I Barbarossa of Germany calls his realm the “Holy Roman Empire,” the first use of the term.

1170: The first European windmill is developed, aiding agriculture.

1198: Innocent III is elected pope. He attempts to unify all Christendom under the papal monarchy.

1200: The growth of lay education spurs another renaissance. Students start entering schools for reasons other than becoming priests, and education is offered in languages other than Latin.

c. 1200: English scientist Robert Grosseteste makes technological advances in optics, mathematics, and astronomy. These are continued by his disciple Roger Bacon.

1204: The Fourth Crusade captures and sacks Constantinople.

1215: Innocent III organizes the Fourth Lateran Council to define central dogmas of Christianity.

1225: Thomas Aquinas born. The most influential scholastic theologian, he later teaches at the University of Paris.

1260s: Several important philosophical and scientific texts, including Aristotle, are translated into Latin.

1265: Dante Alighieri, author of the Divine Comedy, is born.

1267: Italian painter Giotto born. He will initiate a new style of painting.

Late 1200s: Eyeglasses and the magnetic compass are invented. The latter aids in trade and navigation.

1305: The papacy moves to Avignon, beginning the church’s “Babylonian Captivity,” with the papacy subordinate to French


1330: English theologian John Wyclif is born. Finding the church extravagant, and supported by English nobles who want independence from Rome, he begins a reform movement.

1304: Italian scholar Petrarch is born. His later rediscovery of some classical Greek and Roman texts will be considered as initiating “the” Renaissance.

1367: The papacy returns to Rome, but displeased French cardinals eventually elect a rival French pope. The split ends in 1417.

1385: The first German university opens in Heidelberg.

1415: The Council of Constance, called by Emperor Sigismund, affirms the authority of councils to govern the church and burns Czech reformer Jan Hus at the stake.

1453: Ottoman Turks take Constantinople and end Byzantine civilization.

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #108 in 2014]

Adapted from
Next articles

For the love of learning

How Charlemagne transformed education.

Garry J. Crites

Alcuin of York

Alcuin reformed education at court and established a palace library

Jennifer Awes Freeman


His life is a mystery, but not his influence

Jennifer Awes Freeman

Broken images

How Charlemagne and the Byzantine Empire misunderstood each other

Jennifer Awes Freeman
Show more

Subscribe to magazine

Subscription to Christian History magazine is on a donation basis


Support us

Christian History Institute (CHI) is a non-profit Pennsylvania corporation founded in 1982. Your donations support the continuation of this ministry


Subscribe to daily emails

Containing today’s events, devotional, quote and stories