Chris Harman

A people’s history of the world

Part three
The ‘Middle Ages’

Chapter 1. The centuries of chaos

Chapter 2. China: the rebirth of the empire

Chapter 3. Byzantium: the living fossil

Chapter 4. The Islamic revolutions

Chapter 5. The African civilisations

Chapter 6. European feudalism


AD 600 to 900
‘Dark Ages’ in Europe. Collapse of trade. Failure of attempts by Franks to re-establish Roman-type empire (Charlemagne in 800-814). Invasions by Norsemen (800-900).
Feudalism in India. Collapse of trade. Dominance of brahmans and caste system in villages.
Crisis of Byzantine Empire, loss of Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia and Balkans. Technical and economic stagnation.
Mohammed takes Mecca (630). Islamic Arab armies conquer most of Middle East (mid-640s), reach Kabul (664), Spain (711). Abbasid revolution in 750 gives some political influence to merchants. Growth of trade and handicraft industry High point of Islamic culture, translation of Greek texts, advances in science, mathematics, great Islamic philosophers.
Centre of Chinese civilisation moves towards rice growing areas of Yangtze. Revival of industry and trade, flourishing of Buddhism, advances in technology.
Growth of civilisations in west and coastal east Africa.

10th and 11th centuries
Recovery of agriculture and trade in Europe. Use of more advanced techniques. Serfdom replaces slavery.
Muslim Abbasid Empire loses economic momentum and splits up. Rise of mystical and magical forms of Islam. Fatimid Dynasty in Egypt.
Byzantium conquers some of Balkans, but continued technical stagnation.
West African civilisations adopt Islam and Arabic script.
High point of Chinese civilisation under Sung Dynasty (960-1279). Invention of paper, printing, gunpowder, mechanical clocks, compass, growth of influence of merchants.

12th and 13th centuries
Crisis of Islamic Mesopotamia. Chinese Empire splits in two (Sung and Chin).
Mongol pastoralists ravage Eurasia from Poland to Korea. Sack Baghdad (1258). Conquer China (1279).

West European ‘Crusaders’ attack Islamic Empire from west. Capture Jerusalem (1099-1187), sack Byzantium (1204).
Conquest of north Indian heartland by Islamic peoples from central Asia. New growth of trade, use of money.
Growth of agricultural output, population, trade and handicraft industries in Europe. Spread of watermills, building of cathedrals, rediscovery through contact with Islamic Spain of Greek and Latin texts, first European universities. Use of techniques discovered in China. Rise of Italian city states. Dante (born 1265) writes in Italian.
Slave-soldiers (mamlukes) seize power in Egypt.
Rise of Mali kingdom in west Africa. Timbuktu a centre of Islamic scholarship.

14th century
Great crisis of European feudalism. Famine, black death, revolts in Flanders, France, England, Wales, northern Italy. Rival popes. Hundred Years War between England and France.
Hunger and plague in China. Red Turbans rebellion against Mongols in China, founding of (Chinese) Ming Dynasty. Revival of agriculture.
Ottoman Turks begin to conquer Asia Minor.
Building of Great Zimbabwe.
Aztec people found Tenochtitlan.

15th century
Renewed economic growth in China, fleet sails thousands of miles to east coast of Africa.
Aztec Empire in Mexico. Incas conquer whole Andean region after 1438.
Rise of Benin in west Africa.
Slow economic and population recovery in western Europe. Decline in serfdom. Spread of market relations. Printing. Renaissance in northern Italy. Improved shipbuilding and navigation techniques. Portuguese sail down west African coast, reach Cape. Spanish monarchs conquer Moorish Granada (1492). Columbus crosses Atlantic (1493).


Last updated on 26 January 2010