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Adlen Robinson: Looking back on Middle Ages during current pandemic
Adlen Robinson

When I was in college, one of my favorite history classes was one about the Middle Ages in Europe. I realize that might sound boring to some of you, but I had an amazing professor who gave fantastic and riveting lectures.

Most historians consider the Middle Ages to be from the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire (5th Century), to when the Renaissance began. 

The Renaissance began in Italy — Florence to be exact — and spread throughout Europe from 1300 to 1600.

When you lived during the Middle Ages, you didn’t think of yourself living during a time with that name. The name for the period was coined because the Great Thinkers during the Renaissance discovered numerous manuscripts from Ancient Greece and Rome and many new ways of thinking were the result. 

In addition, people living during the Renaissance considered the Middle Ages to be the “Dark Ages.” People looked back at the past — and there were plenty of examples to see why the old ways might seem dark and backwards. Lots of wars, famine and pandemics.

To do a quick recap to refresh your memory, when Rome fell (476 CE), it was the Catholic church that quickly rose to power. It’s difficult for us to imagine or relate to how important the church was — it was really the most important thing, period. The church was completely intertwined with regards to politics and the rule of law. 

As a side note, I never thought in my lifetime I would see our government have the power to shut down our churches and tell us we cannot assemble to worship. But I digress.

As an example for how things worked in the Middle Ages, in 800 CE, Pope Leo III named King Charlemagne the “Emperor of the Romans.” The king’s realm became The Holy Roman Empire and was almost totally aligned with the church. 

Charlemagne ruled much of Western Europe until 814 CE. He wanted everybody to convert to Christianity — and sometimes used the threat of death if they refused.

As you can imagine, most people lived rural lives under a system of “feudalism.” The King gave land to noblemen and bishops, and the peasants (serfs) who lived on the land farmed and took care of the animals. They gave the crops to their “landlord” and in return, were allowed to live on the land.

During the 11th century, the heavy plow was invented, along with more knowledge of how to increase crop production. This prompted, over time, the growth of cities and towns. By 1300, there were 15 cities in Europe.

The Great Famine in Europe began in 1315 and lasted until 1322. Due to drastic weather and flooding, crops were destroyed on massive levels. Animals also suffered from spreading disease and many people starved to death all over Europe. Think about how those who did survive, did so with a weakened immune system.

Enter the Black Death, aka, the bubonic plague in 1348. Caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis common in black rats, the disease kills the rats, but not the fleas on them. The fleas soon need a new host to bite, and they were happy to bite the humans. 

The plague killed some 20 million people in Europe — roughly a third of the population.

It is so interesting to look back on history and think about how different times were. Even with our current strange way of “opening back up the country,” at least we are able to go to well-stocked grocery stores and buy food when we need it. 

And of course, we are so lucky to live in a time of modern medicine. 

Now I’m on to re-learning all things Renaissance — you will probably be hearing more about that soon! 


Adlen Robinson is an award winning columnist and author of “Organic Food and Kitchen Matters.” You can email her at adlen@adlenshomematters.com