Major Political and Religious Developments of the Early Middle Ages

284-305: Emperor Diocletian  permits the Roman Empire to be divided into a Western and Eastern half

313: Emperor Constantine issues the Edict of Milan, thus recognizing the legality of Christianity within the Roman Empire

325: Council of Nicea (First Ecumenical Council)--Against Arianism, the view that Christ is the first of God the Father's created beings, the council affirms that Christ is of the same substance with the Father.

330: Founding of Constantinople, seat of eastern empire, eventually to become of the imperial seat of the Byzantine Empire

378: Visigoths defeat Romans at Battle of Adrianople; Romans now permit settlements of barbarians within borders of empire.

381: Council of Constantinople (Second Ecumenical Council)--Against Apollinarianism, the belief that the Holy Spirit is a spiritual force emanating from God, the council affirms that the Holy Spirit is equal to the Father and the Son and of one substance with them.

395: Final division of eastern and western portions of the Roman Empire

410: Rome invaded by Visigoths under Alaric, the beginning of the end for the western half of the empire.

413-426: St. Augustine writes The City of God, a foundational work that sums up in many ways the Christian culture as it stood and would stand for the next millennium. An important work of historical, theological, ethical, and political reflection.

429: Vandals invade North Africa, the transition from Roman power in this region

431: Council of Ephesus (Third Ecumenical Council)--Against Nestorius who taught that Christ is two separate persons, one divine and one human, the council affirmed that Christ is one person with two natures--thus, fully God and fully man. The council also affirmed that Mary is Theotokos, the bearer of God.

451: Council of Chalcedon (Fourth Ecumenical Council)--Against Monophysitism, the belief that Christ's divine nature had absorbed his human nature, the council affirmed that the two nature of Christ are perfectly unified but also neither confused nor separable.

451-453: Europe invaded by the Huns under Attila--"the scourge of God." The Hun invasion forces many Germanic tribes to migrate west and south, thus leading to the further disintegration of the western empire.

476: Barbarian Odoacer rules as king of the Romans; The eastern empire recognizes him and allows him to serve as viceroy of the emperor.

488: Theodoric establishes a kingdom of Ostrogoths in Italy .

500: Frankish king, Clovis , converts to Orthodox Christianity; the barbarians had previously been predominately Arian.

529: Saint Benedict founds monastery at Monte Cassino, the beginning of the rise of western monasticism.

533: Justinian codifies Roman law. The Justinian Code would later form the basis of much European law. For the time being it represents an important codification of Roman legal opinion with a Christian adaptation.

533-555: Justinian invades and conquers portions of North Africa and Italy , only to lose them eventually. This expensive campaign severally weakens the Byzantine Empire for several generations afterwards.

553: Second Council of Constantinople (Fifth Ecumenical Council)--Reaffirmed the understanding of the two natures of Christ in hopes of restoring relations with the Monophysite Churches; it failed.

561: The Avars cross the Danuve and subjugate the Slavs and the Bulgars, establishing an Avar kingdom north of the Byzantine Empire .

565-568: Lombards establish presence in Northern Italy

589: Visigoth Reccared of Toledo converts to Orthodox Christianity, leading to a temporary Christian presence in Spain .

597: Ethebart's Kentish kingdom converts to Christianity under Augustine of Canterbury, the beginning of the Christian conversion of the future British Isles .

599-601: Pope Gregory I negotiates peace treaty with invading Lombards, thus establishing a stable political order in Italy for a generation.

622: Muhammad's flight from Mecca (Hijrah)--the beginning of Islam

626: Byzantium , despite its weakened condition, withstands a combined Persian-Avar invasion.

632: Death of Muhammad

636-637: Islamic forces conquer Persia , Syria , Palestine , and Egypt . The Monophysite Churches, alienated from Catholic Christianity by religious, regional, and ethnic differences, are eventually converted to Islam.

661: Umayyads defeat Ali, ending the Muslim Civil War.

680: Third Council of Constantinople (Sixth Ecumenical Council)--Against Monothelisitism, the belief that Christ had only one will, the council affirmed that Christ had two wills, one divine and one human, always working in agreement; thus, reaffirming his complete divinity and humanity.

698: Umayyad dynasty takes Carthage .

711: Umayyads conquer Visigothic kingdom in Spain .

717-718: Muslim siege of Constantinople fails.

720: Muslin forces settle in Sardinia , establishing a Muslim presence for several hundred years.

730: Pope Gregory II excommunicates Iconoclast Byzantine emperor, representative of the growing divisions between the western and eastern church.

732: Charles Martel defeats Arabs at Poitiers , thus ending the Muslim drive into Spain .

735: Death of Bede of Northumbria, an important center of Christian education in England .

750: Umayyad dynasty overthrown by the Abbasid dynasty.

754: Pope Stephen II and Pepin III (Franks) ally against the Lombards , the new political alliance with the future Carolingian dynasty begins.

787: Second Council of Nicea (Seventh Ecumenical Council)--Against Iconoclasts, those who held that any image of Christ or the saints was idolatry, the council affirmed the use of icons as genuine Christian piety, while establishing a distinction between veneration and true worship.

Major Events

  1. Division of the Empire, which both lead to a quicker disintegration of the power base and coherence of the western half, but also allowed the eastern half to continue to exist for another millennium.  The western half, more sparsely populated with fewer urban centers and more porous borders, was therefore, also more vulnerable to invasions. The eastern half cut free from this, was able to consolidate its forces over a more defensible area and to organize its districts in a more administrable radius from the new imperial center.
  2. Christianity Adopted as Religion of Empire, leading to an important series of cultural shifts for both empire and church, including the institutionalization of the Christian faith and the impact of broad Christian beliefs and new social structures upon future European civilization.
  3. The Ecumenical Councils, a clarification of the doctrines of the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, and the appropriate place of images within worship. The Councils also represent some of the first divisions within the Christian religion.
  4. Barbarian Invasions and Establishment of Kingdoms, the shifting political structures that lead to the fall of the western half of the empire, as well as the eventual rise of new power bases and cultural milieus.
  5. Rise and Spread of Monasticism enabled 1) the continuation of some elements of classical education, 2) the development of early corporation economic structures, and 3) the perpetuation of a spiritual-temporal dualism in Christian understandings of vocation and culture.
  6. Rise and Spread of Islam represented a continual source of cultural, religious, and political pressure on medieval Europe. It displaced much of Syrian and North African Christianity, constituted a superior civilizational threat in several periods of European history, and eventually enabled the recovery of several important Greco-Roman insights into European thought.
  7. The Carolingian Renaissance, the first large center of political, pedagogical, and religious renewal following the fall of the western Roman Empire. Its formation would shape the future course of European political and national development, as well as constitute an albeit short-lived cultural flowering of education, writing, and art