It was Renaissance humanists who gave the name Middle Ages to the period in Western history between the end of the Roman Empire and their own time, which they believed was a rebirth of the civilization of Greece and Rome. They considered the Middle Ages to be a period of barbarism and intellectual darkness and the term, "The Dark Ages," was sometimes used to refer to the entire Middle Ages.
For several hundred years, from about the first to around the fifth century AD, Rome was the greatest power on Earth, ruling Britain and the countries around the Mediterranean Sea. However, in northern Europe, there were fierce tribes that were only held at bay by the Romans. Around 400 AD, the Roman Empire began to weaken and the northern tribes swept across the continent of Europe and plundered the city of Rome. The Roman Empire collapsed and was gradually replaced by many small kingdoms ruled by a strong warrior.
For many years, Europe was without the luxuries and riches that had marked the height of Rome. Many centuries later, a new interest in learning would mark the beginning of the Renaissance. The thousand years between is called the Middle Ages or the Medieval period. This period began and ended for different countries at different times across Europe. It also affected different areas of the continent in different ways.
The Early Middle Ages
The Early Middle Ages saw the collapse of the Roman Empire, successive invasions of barbarian tribes and the triumph of Christianity. The remains of the Roman Empire in western Europe were broken up into barbarian kingdoms, until the Frankish king, Charlemagne, was crowned emperor of the West by the pope on Christmas Day, 800. By 900 the frontiers of western Europe were being shattered from the north by Vikings, from the south by Muslims, and from the east by Magyars. The Carolingian and Ottonian Empires [AD 750 to 1000] are included in this period.
The High Middle Ages
In the tenth century western Europeans, organized according to the rules of Feudalism, were able to drive off the invaders and gradually to take the offensive. The economy and the society rebounded while the church was reformed and revitalized. Romanesque art developed into Gothic and great works of literature like the Song of Roland and the Romance of the Rose were written. Rediscovery of the works of Greek philosophers, especially Aristotle, provided the spark for scholasticism the great philosophic system of the Middle Ages.
The Late Middle Ages
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries Europe suffered great famines, the catastrophic Black Death and the Hundred Years' War. Those who survived, however, often had a better life, especially the peasants of Western Europe, who won both greater freedom and prosperity. The nobles built palaces instead of castles, and the newly rich townspeople aped the nobility. The classic style dominated Italian art while the north of Europe developed Flamboyant Gothic. Among the great writers of the period were Giovanni Boccaccio and Dante Alighieri in Italy; Geoffrey Chaucer and Thomas Malory in England; and Guillaume de Machaut and Francois Villon in France.