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Developments in Europe from 1200 to 1450 for AP World History

Cate O'Donnell

16 min read

Apr 1




Holy Roman Empire map

In today’s presentation, we will explore the developments in Europe between 1200 and 1450, an era marked by profound changes and enduring legacies. From the remnants of feudalism, a system that defined the social and political structures after the fall of Rome, to the cultural rebirth of the Renaissance, this period was pivotal in shaping modern Europe. We will explore the societal impacts of the Little Ice Age and the devastating consequences of the Plague, which together challenged the resilience of medieval societies. These developments, characterized by both adversity and innovation, not only reshaped the continent but also laid the foundational stones for the modern world, highlighting the intricate interplay between human endeavor and environmental forces. Read the Google Slides to learn about developments in East Asia from 1200 to 1450 for AP World History.

The Fall of Rome to Feudalism

The transition from the Roman Empire to feudalism in Europe was a complex process that unfolded over several centuries, marked by the gradual decline of Roman authority and the rise of new political, social, and economic structures. Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD, Europe entered a period of significant upheaval and fragmentation. The vacuum of power left by Rome’s collapse led to the invasion and settlement of various Germanic tribes, such as the Goths, Vandals, and Franks, across former Roman territories. These groups established their own kingdoms, blending Roman traditions with their own governance and legal systems.

As central authority weakened, Europe saw a shift towards more localized forms of governance, with the emergence of a landed aristocracy that wielded significant power over their territories. The feudal system, which became prevalent by the 9th and 10th centuries, was characterized by a hierarchy of lords, vassals, and serfs, bound by obligations of protection and service. Land, or “fiefs,” was granted by lords to vassals in exchange for military service and loyalty, while serfs worked the land, tied to the estates of their lords.

The feudal system was not only a political and military arrangement but also an economic one, as it was based on agriculture and the management of land. This period also saw the Church rise to prominence, filling the gap left by the Roman state in providing moral and social order, education, and in some cases, governance.

The transition to feudalism was thus a response to the need for security and stability in a post-Roman world, reflecting a decentralization of power and the adaptation of Roman, Christian, and Germanic elements into a new societal order.

The Roman Catholic Church

From the fall of Rome to 1450, the Roman Catholic Church played an instrumental role in shaping the contours of European civilization, weaving itself into the very fabric of daily life, governance, and culture. In the vacuum left by the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, the Church not only provided continuity but also emerged as a stabilizing force amidst the ensuing socio-political fragmentation. It offered spiritual guidance, moral authority, and, at times, direct political intervention, becoming a central institution in medieval Europe.

In the early Middle Ages, the Church embarked on missionary activities, converting the Germanic tribes and integrating them into a Christianized European culture. This period saw the establishment of monasteries which became centers of learning, preserving classical texts and knowledge through the Dark Ages. Monastic communities also played a crucial role in agricultural innovation and development across Europe.

The Church’s influence expanded further during the High Middle Ages, with the establishment of the Papal States and the assertion of papal supremacy over secular rulers, most notably through the Investiture Controversy. This era also witnessed the Church leading the Crusades, which, despite their primary military and religious objectives, facilitated significant cultural and technological exchanges between Europe and the Middle East.

The Church was instrumental in the intellectual revival of the 12th and 13th centuries, fostering the foundation of universities and the scholastic movement. Theological and philosophical inquiry flourished, significantly impacting European thought and laying the groundwork for the Renaissance.

The Investiture Controversy

The Investiture Controversy was a major conflict between the church and secular European rulers, mainly during the 11th and 12th centuries. It revolved around who had the authority to appoint church officials, such as bishops and abbots. Kings and emperors traditionally claimed this right, aiming to control the church’s influence within their realms. However, reform-minded popes challenged this, asserting that only the church should have the power to invest bishops with their spiritual authority, in order to maintain its independence.

The dispute peaked when Pope Gregory VII excommunicated Emperor Henry IV over this issue, leading to Henry’s symbolic submission at Canossa in 1077. The controversy was eventually resolved by the Concordat of Worms in 1122, which allowed the church to appoint bishops but granted the emperor a role in the process, thereby distinguishing between spiritual and temporal powers.

This episode significantly reshaped the church-state relationship in medieval Europe, diminishing imperial power and paving the way for the rise of more centralized national monarchies. It also reinforced papal authority over spiritual affairs, setting a precedent for future church and state interactions.

Judaism in Europe from 1200 to 1450

Between 1200 and 1450, Jewish communities in Europe experienced a period of significant challenge and change, marked by periods of flourishing cultural and intellectual life as well as episodes of intense persecution. In the early part of this period, Jewish communities thrived in parts of Spain, where the convivencia of Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Muslim rule in places like Andalusia facilitated a golden age of Jewish culture. This era produced notable Jewish philosophers, poets, and scholars, such as Maimonides, whose works on Jewish law and philosophy were influential. However, the situation for Jews in Europe worsened significantly with the rise of Christian reconquest in Spain and the spread of the Crusades, which not only targeted Muslims in the Holy Land but also led to violent attacks against Jewish communities in Europe.

By the mid-13th century, Jews faced increasing persecution and were subjected to expulsions and forced conversions. England expelled its Jewish population in 1290, and France followed suit with multiple expulsions starting in 1306. The Black Death pandemic in the mid-14th century further exacerbated anti-Jewish sentiment, with Jews being scapegoated for the crisis and facing widespread massacres. Despite these challenges, Jewish communities managed to maintain their religious and cultural traditions, establishing new centers of Jewish life in Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

Islam in Europe from 1200 to 1450

Between 1200 and 1450, Islam in Europe underwent profound changes, underscored by pivotal events such as the Reconquista, the Crusades, and the rise of the Ottoman Empire. The Reconquista, a series of campaigns by Christian states to recapture territory from Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula, culminated in 1492 with the fall of Granada, the last Muslim kingdom in Spain. This period, however, also witnessed the flourishing of Islamic culture in Al-Andalus, where scholars from multiple religious backgrounds made significant advances in science, philosophy, and the arts until the late 15th century.

The Crusades, spanning from the late 11th century to the late 13th century, were military campaigns initially aimed at reclaiming the Holy Land from Muslim control. These encounters, particularly the Fourth Crusade (1202–1204) and the later Crusades up until 1291, when the last Crusader stronghold of Acre fell, were marked by both conflict and cultural exchange between Islamic and Christian worlds, facilitating the transfer of knowledge and ideas.

In Southeastern Europe, the emergence of the Ottoman Empire in the late 13th century, officially established in 1299, began its expansion into the Balkans during the 14th and early 15th centuries. This expansion brought significant parts of Southeastern Europe under Islamic rule, laying the groundwork for the Ottoman Empire’s future as a major Islamic power in Europe.


Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, was a medieval ruler who became King of the Franks in 768 and later, Emperor of the Carolingian Empire, a position he held from 800 until his death in 814. His coronation as Emperor by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day, 800 AD, in Rome, marked a significant moment in European history, symbolizing the fusion of Roman, Christian, and Germanic elements that would shape medieval Europe. Charlemagne’s reign was characterized by numerous military campaigns aimed at expanding and consolidating his empire, which stretched across much of Western and Central Europe, including modern-day France, Germany, Italy, and parts of Austria and the Low Countries. He is also celebrated for his efforts in promoting learning and culture through the Carolingian Renaissance—a revival of art, literature, and scholarship that fostered the preservation and transmission of Classical knowledge. Charlemagne implemented significant administrative reforms, including the establishment of a standardized monetary system and the promotion of a common Christian identity through the spread of Christianity. His legacy is profound, as he laid the groundwork for the transition from the classical to the medieval era in the West, earning him the title “Father of Europe” for uniting much of the continent under a single rule for the first time since the Roman Empire.

The Carolingian Empire

The Carolingian Empire, which reached its zenith under Charlemagne in the late 8th and early 9th centuries, was a pivotal force in European history, unifying vast territories across Western and Central Europe. Charlemagne, crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III in 800 AD, embarked on a series of military campaigns, administrative reforms, and cultural revitalization known as the Carolingian Renaissance. This period was characterized by the revival of classical knowledge, the standardization of Latin, and the establishment of educational institutions.

However, following Charlemagne’s death in 814, the empire encountered a gradual decline due to internal conflicts, succession disputes, and external threats. Louis the Pious, Charlemagne’s successor, saw his efforts to divide the empire among his sons lead to rivalry and conflict, culminating in the Treaty of Verdun in 843. This treaty partitioned the empire into three distinct areas, setting the foundation for the modern states of France, Germany, and regions that would encompass Italy, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The division weakened central authority and exacerbated vulnerability to Viking, Magyar, and Muslim invasions, prompting the rise of local feudal lords and the decentralization of power.

The concept of a unified Carolingian Empire ended with its partition, but the imperial title persisted, transitioning into the Holy Roman Empire under Otto I in 962, which claimed descent from the Carolingian legacy but functioned under a different political framework. The dissolution of the Carolingian Empire and the subsequent rise of the feudal system marked a significant transformation in medieval European political and social structures. Despite its eventual fragmentation, the Carolingian Empire’s influence on European law, culture, and governance, particularly through the Carolingian Renaissance, left an indelible mark on the continent’s historical development.


Feudalism was a dominant social and political system in medieval Europe, characterized by a hierarchical structure of land ownership and obligations between lords and vassals. This system emerged in the 9th century as a response to the need for protection and stability during a time of frequent invasions and decentralization of power following the collapse of the Carolingian Empire. At the heart of feudalism was the lord-vassal relationship, in which vassals pledged military service and loyalty to a lord in exchange for a fief, or grant of land. This arrangement not only structured European society into distinct classes, including the nobility, clergy, and peasantry, but also defined economic and political relations across the continent. The peasantry, including serfs bound to the land, formed the backbone of the feudal economy, providing agricultural labor in return for protection and a place to live. Over time, feudalism facilitated the development of powerful local lordships and the fragmentation of authority, laying the groundwork for the emergence of strong centralized monarchies in the later medieval period. Despite its decline by the end of the 15th century, feudalism left a lasting imprint on European institutions, legal systems, and cultural norms, shaping the course of European history.

The Holy Roman Empire

The Holy Roman Empire was a complex political entity that existed in Europe from the early Middle Ages until its dissolution in 1806. Founded in the 10th century, it evolved from the eastern portion of the Carolingian Empire, with Otto I crowned as its first emperor in 962. The empire’s territory fluctuated over the centuries but generally included parts of present-day Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, France, and the Low Countries. Despite its name, the Holy Roman Empire was not a centralized state but a loose confederation of hundreds of semi-autonomous kingdoms, duchies, principalities, and free cities, each with its own rulers and laws. The emperor, elected by a group of prince-electors, held nominal authority over the empire, but his power was often limited by the princes’ autonomy.

The Holy Roman Empire played a crucial role in European politics, serving as a bulwark against external threats like the Magyars and the Ottomans, and as a mediator in internal Christian conflicts. It was also a key player in the Crusades and the Investiture Controversy, reflecting its intertwined religious and political identity. The empire was a center for medieval art, culture, and learning, notably during the 12th-century Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, which began within its borders.

The Magna Carta

The Magna Carta, sealed by King John of England in 1215, stands as a pivotal document in the historical development of constitutional governance and the limitation of monarchal power. Arising from the escalating conflict between King John and his barons, the Magna Carta was essentially a peace treaty that sought to resolve longstanding grievances related to heavy taxation and arbitrary justice. While its immediate impact was limited—King John quickly sought to annul the agreement, leading to the First Barons’ War—the Magna Carta’s enduring significance lies in its principles, which laid the groundwork for legal and political traditions emphasizing the rule of law and the rights of individuals.

One of the Magna Carta’s key contributions was its assertion that the power of the monarchy was not absolute but subject to the law, a revolutionary concept at the time. It stipulated that certain rights, such as due process and fair trial, could not be infringed upon by the king. Additionally, it granted significant powers to a council of barons, essentially allowing them a say in the governance of the kingdom, particularly concerning taxation and legal matters.

The Crusades

The Crusades were a series of religious and military campaigns waged from the late 11th to the late 13th centuries, primarily initiated by the Latin Christian Church and European monarchs. The First Crusade was launched in 1095 by Pope Urban II with the declared goal of recapturing Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Muslim rule. This call to arms resulted in a series of eight major crusades and numerous smaller ones over the next two centuries. The Crusades had profound impacts on both the Christian and Muslim worlds, leading to the establishment of Crusader states in the Levant, significant shifts in power and territorial control, and the fostering of long-lasting religious animosities.

Beyond their military and religious objectives, the Crusades significantly influenced the social, political, and economic landscapes of Europe and the Near East. They facilitated the reopening of the Mediterranean to commerce and travel, contributing to the end of the Early Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance. The movement of peoples and ideas during the Crusades led to increased cultural exchange and the transmission of knowledge, including the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman texts. However, the Crusades also wrought destruction and fostered negative stereotypes and hostility between Christians and Muslims, effects that have echoed into modern times.

Marco Polo

Marco Polo, a Venetian merchant, explorer, and writer, born around 1254, holds a significant place in European history due to his extensive travels in Asia and the detailed account of his experiences in “The Travels of Marco Polo.” His journey began in 1271, when he set off with his father and uncle, reaching the court of Kublai Khan, the Mongol ruler of China, in 1275. Marco Polo’s detailed descriptions of the wealth, customs, and technology of the East, including paper money, coal heating, and the postal system, were among the first detailed accounts available to Europeans. His travels extended beyond China, exploring various parts of Asia over 24 years, including Southeast Asia, India, and possibly even parts of Africa.

Upon his return to Venice, Polo was captured during a conflict with Genoa and dictated his stories to a cellmate, which were later compiled into his famous narrative. Although initially received with skepticism, labeled by some as “Il Milione” (The Million Lies), his book eventually became recognized as an invaluable geographical and cultural guide. It provided Europeans with a new window into the Eastern world, challenging existing perceptions and igniting a curiosity that would fuel the Age of Exploration. Marco Polo’s accounts are credited with influencing explorers such as Christopher Columbus, who carried a copy of Polo’s book on his voyages.

The Emergence of the Bourgeoisie

The emergence of the bourgeoisie, or the urban middle class, in Europe was a transformative development that occurred gradually from the late Middle Ages into the Early Modern period. This social class, comprising merchants, artisans, traders, and later professionals and bureaucrats, began to gain prominence as European economies and societies transitioned from predominantly agrarian and feudal systems to more urban and commercial frameworks. The growth of trade networks, both within Europe and with the wider world, following events such as the Crusades and the exploration of new trade routes to Asia and the Americas, significantly contributed to the wealth and influence of the bourgeoisie.

The rise of the bourgeoisie was closely linked to the growth of towns and cities, where markets and trade fairs became centers of economic activity. The development of banking and financial instruments, such as bills of exchange, and the establishment of merchant guilds, further facilitated their economic rise and provided a means to protect their interests. As the bourgeoisie accumulated wealth, they also began to seek more political power and social prestige, often challenging the traditional dominance of the nobility and the clergy.

By investing in ventures overseas, sponsoring explorations, and engaging in the early phases of capitalist enterprise, the bourgeoisie played a crucial role in the economic transformations that underpinned the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Age of Discovery. Their ascent marked a shift towards more meritocratic values and contributed to the development of capitalist economies.

The Little Ice Age

The Little Ice Age, a period of cooler temperatures lasting from the 14th to the 19th centuries, profoundly influenced societies across the globe, marking a significant phase in both the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. This climatic shift brought about widespread social, economic, and political challenges, most notably in Europe, where it coincided with the Great Famine of 1315-1317 and the Black Death in the mid-14th century. The resulting agricultural failures, due to shortened growing seasons and erratic weather, led to food shortages, exacerbating the hardship faced by populations already strained by disease and economic difficulties. Northern Europe, in particular, experienced severe disruptions in food production, leading to increased poverty and social unrest.

Beyond Europe, the Little Ice Age affected societies around the globe, from the collapse of the Norse colonies in Greenland due to harsher conditions and ice encroachment to disruptions in the agricultural systems of Asia, contributing to the fall of the Yuan Dynasty and the ascendancy of the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century. While the specific impacts on Africa and the Middle East are less documented, these regions likely experienced changes in rainfall patterns and agricultural practices, affecting water availability and societal stability.

This period underscores the vulnerability of human societies to climate variations, highlighting how natural fluctuations can profoundly impact agriculture, economy, disease spread, and social structures. The Little Ice Age serves as an early example of the extensive and enduring impacts of environmental change on human history, affecting demographic trends, the course of empires, and the lives of people across continents, from Europe and Asia to Africa and the Middle East.

The Renaissance

The Renaissance was a profound cultural, artistic, and intellectual rebirth that marked the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern world. Originating in Italy in the 14th century and spreading across Europe until the 17th century, this period was characterized by significant developments in art, literature, science, and philosophy. Rooted in a rediscovery of classical Greek and Roman knowledge, the Renaissance represented a shift towards humanism, emphasizing the potential of human achievement and the study of the humanities.

The Renaissance emerged in Italy for several reasons, including the region’s wealth, its political structure of independent city-states, and its heritage as the heartland of the Roman Empire. Key cities like Florence, Venice, and Rome became centers of innovation, fueled by the patronage of powerful families like the Medici of Florence.

This period saw the creation of groundbreaking art and architecture by masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, known for the “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper”; Michelangelo, famous for the Sistine Chapel ceiling and the statue of David; and Raphael, renowned for his Madonnas and the School of Athens fresco. Additionally, the Renaissance was marked by advancements in science and exploration, with figures like Galileo Galilei challenging the prevailing geocentric model of the universe, and explorers like Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama expanding the known world.

The Renaissance gradually ended as Europe moved into the Age of Enlightenment and the Baroque period, where the focus shifted towards ornate styles and new ideas about science, politics, and philosophy began to dominate. The end of the Renaissance did not come abruptly but rather transitioned as the momentum of its innovations led to new movements and ideas that continued to shape Europe.

The Plague

The Plague, most famously known as the Black Death, was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, peaking in Europe between 1347 and 1351. Originating in Asia, possibly in the steppes of Central Asia, it is believed to have been carried along the Silk Road and via Genoese trading ships from the Crimea to Europe. The disease, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, spread rapidly across Europe, Asia, and North Africa, claiming an estimated 75 to 200 million lives.

The plague had profound impacts on the societies it touched. In Europe, it wiped out about one-third to one-half of the population, leading to severe labor shortages and economic decline. The scarcity of workers resulted in increased wages for the survivors and a shift in the balance of power between landlords and peasants, contributing to the decline of the feudal system. In Asia, the plague contributed to the fall of the Yuan Dynasty in China, as it exacerbated existing economic and political unrest. North Africa, particularly areas around the Mediterranean, also suffered significant population losses, disrupting trade and weakening economic structures.

The Black Death also had profound social and cultural effects, leading to widespread persecution of minorities like Jews, whom many blamed for the disease, and causing a crisis of faith in the church’s ability to provide protection and answers. The pandemic eventually subsided in the late 1350s, though recurrent outbreaks occurred in various parts of the world for centuries.

The end of the Black Death did not come from a singular event but rather from the gradual development of quarantine practices, improvements in public health, and possibly changes in the populations’ immunity. The plague’s legacy is significant, as it reshaped Europe’s social and economic structures and had lasting effects on the continent’s history and development.

The Hundred Years’ War

The Hundred Years’ War, spanning from 1337 to 1453, was a protracted conflict between England and France, fundamentally rooted in disputes over territorial claims and the French throne’s succession. The war began with Edward III of England asserting his claim to the French crown, challenging the Valois line represented by Philip VI of France. This assertion was based on Edward’s position as the nephew of the last direct Capetian king, Charles IV, through his mother. The war was characterized by several phases of intense military campaigns and periods of relative peace, involving battles that showcased the evolution of military tactics and technology, such as the longbow at Crecy and Agincourt. The conflict deeply impacted both nations, leading to significant economic strain, shifts in political power, and the devastation of the French countryside. The war also saw the rise of notable historical figures, including Joan of Arc, whose leadership during the Siege of Orleans marked a turning point for the French. The conflict eventually ended with the French expulsion of the English from all French territories except Calais, solidifying the Valois dynasty’s control over France and marking the decline of feudalism in favor of more centralized monarchical power. The Hundred Years’ War thus significantly shaped the national identities and political landscapes of both England and France, laying foundational elements for the modern states.

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Developments in Europe from 1200 to 1450


Cartwright, Mark. “Feudalism.” World History Encyclopedia, 22 Nov. 2018, Accessed 1 Apr. 2024.

“Crusades.” History, 28 Mar. 2023, Accessed 1 Apr. 2024.

Lanchester, John. “How the Little Ice Age Changed History.” The New Yorker, 25 Mar. 2019, Accessed 1 Apr. 2024.

“Magna Carta.” History, 1 Aug. 2023, Accessed 1 Apr. 2024.

“Marco Polo.” Biography, 28 Mar. 2023, Accessed 1 Apr. 2024.

Mark, Joshua J.. “Religion in the Middle Ages.” World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 28 Jun 2019. Web. 01 Apr 2024.

Sherry, Bennett. “The Renaissance.” Khan Academy, Accessed 1 Apr. 2024.

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Cate O'Donnell

16 min read

Apr 1




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