Visual History of the World




From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
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Art of the 20th century
Artists that Changed the World
Design and Posters
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Literature and Philosophy

Visual History of the World
First Empires
The Ancient World
The Middle Ages
The Early Modern Period
The Modern Era
The World Wars and Interwar Period
The Contemporary World

Dictionary of Art and Artists


The Middle Ages

5th - 15th century


The upheaval that accompanied the migration of European peoples of late antiquity shattered the power of the Roman Empire and consequently the entire political order of Europe. Although Germanic kingdoms replaced Rome, the culture of late antiquity, especially Christianity, continued to have an effect and defined the early Middle Ages. Concurrent to the developments in the Christian West, in Arabia the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century founded Islam, a new religion with immense political and military effectiveness. Within a very short time, great Islamic empires developed from the Iberian Peninsula and the Maghreb to India and Central Asia, with centers such as Cordoba, Cairo, Baghdad, and Samarkand.

The Cathedral Notre Dame de Reims, built in the 1 3th14th century in the Gothic style; the cathedral served for many centuries as the location for the ceremonial coronation of the French king.

The Cathedral of Reims, by Domenico Quaglio



Eastern Europe



1 Duke Boleslaw II of Bohemia gives an audience to
St. Adalbert, Bishop of Prague, bronze relief,
twelfth century

Following the Great Migration of Peoples, the Slavs spread into the areas of Eastern Europe abandoned by the German tribes. Around 900, the Magyars began to settle the central Danube region. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, the historical kingdoms of Poland, 1 Bohemia, and Hungary emerged. The last to form a unified nation were the Lithuanians in the 14th century. The political development of all these countries was fundamentally characterized by the dominance of the nobility, while the kings continually sought to establish a dynastic rule of their realms.

The Development of the Polish State in the Middle Ages

The long-ruling Piast dynasty was unable to establish a strong monarchy. Up until the 13th century, therefore, numerous territories were lost to Germany and other neighboring states.


Under the princely House of Piast, the West Slavic Polanie tribe, which settled between the Oder and the Vistula rivers, became the nucleus of the future Poland. Mieszko I came to power and converted to Christianity in the 960s.

Although the Ottomans wanted to prevent too strong a concentration of power in the east, Mieszko I and his son 6 Boleslaw I Chrobry (the Brave) initially maintained a cordial relationship with the German Saxon Ottomans.

6 Boleslaw of Poland receives German missionaries, wood engraving,
19th century

Only after the end of the Ottonian dynasty did Boleslaw assume the title of king in 1024 and thereby secure Poland's independence.

Boleslaw I's grandson Casimir I Odnowiciel had to contend with pagan revolts and repulse invasions from Bohemia and Kievan Rus.

Boleslaw III Krzywousty in 1138 restructured the monarchy such that the eldest member of the dynasty would act as an overlord in the capital 4 Krakow, while other family members would reign as autonomous princes over the provinces.

4 The king's castle Wawel in Krakow, residence of the dukes and kings of Poland until 1596

Instead of the desired stability, however, this resulted in the fragmentation of Poland. The nobility and the Church benefited from the lack of a strong monarchy.

After the catastrophic 5 defeat in 1241 at Legnica (Liegnitz) against the Mongols, Poland was saved only by the death of the khan and the subsequent withdrawal of the Mongol army.

In the meantime, the 2 Germans were steadily encroaching from the west.

By the twelfth century, the Slavic tribes between the Elbe and Oder rivers had lost their independence and, with few exceptions, also their cultural identity through the targeted policies of German conquest and 3 colonization.

In the 13th century the indigenous rulers in Pomerania and Silesia promoted the influx of German settlers, and in 1226 the Piast princes of Mazovia sought the help of the German Teutonic Order against the pagan Prussians. The "Germanized" territories leaned politically toward the German king. The Teutonic Knights became an adversary of Poland in the 14th and 15th centuries.

5 Battle of Legnica, copper engraving, 17th century

2 Henry I, German king,
conquers Brandenburg,
colored lithograph, ca. 1900

3 The Polish town of Gdansk, which was
founded as a German colony in twelfth
century near a Slavic castle



Poland and Lithuania as Major Powers in Eastern Europe

The unified Poland-Lithuania under the Jagiellos became the largest state in Eastern Europe, although the domestic position of its rulers remained weak.


Following a period of Bohemian domination, Poland was reunited by Wladyslaw I Lokielek, who was crowned king in 1320 in Krakow. His son, Casimir III, became king in 1333.

He took care of the extensive development of the country and invited 10 Jews, who had escaped from pogroms in Western Europe, to settle down in Poland.

10 Old synagogue in Krakow,
built in the 15th century

He reached an agreement with the kings of Bohemia to abandon their claim to the Polish Crown in exchange for Silesia.

As the main line of the Piast dynasty ended with his death in 1370. he bequeathed the throne to his nephew, Louis I of Anjou, king of Hungary, known as the Great, in order to provide a counterweight to the empire. But the Polish nobility used this transition to secure advantages for themselves, Louis was forced to make further concessions in the Pact of Koszyce of 1374 in order to secure the throne for his daughter, Jadwiga.

The nobility immediately demonstrated its increased power by forcing Jadwiga to marry 9 Jogaila, the grand duke of Lithuania, who was crowned king of Poland in 1386 as Wladyslaw II Jagiello.

9 Jogaila of Lithuania,
crowned Wladyslaw II

Lithuania was at this time still a young, and for the most part pagan, country. The first grand duke of all Lithuania had been Jogaila's grandfather Gediminas, who
fought against the Teutonic Order and benefited from the decline of Kievan Rus. In 1325, Gediminas captured Kiev and extended Lithuania's borders far inside today's Russia and Ukraine.

After their union under Jadwiga and Wladyslaw, Poland and Lithuania defeated the Teutonic Knights in the 12 Battle of Grunwald (Tannenberg).

12 Battle of Grunwald, painting, 20th century

In the 11 Treaty of Torun in 1466, the orderwas forced to yield large territories to Wladyslaw's son Casimir IV and recognize him as sovereign.

11 Treaty of Torun, document with seals

The Polish-Lithuanian kingdom now reached from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and was the largest territorial state of Europe. Domestically, the Jagiellon dynasty was locked in contention with the great nobles, known as the magnates.

Casimir IV therefore sought support from the lesser nobility, the szlachta, who were given tax privileges and admitted to the Polish 8 sejm, or parliament.

There, however, the magnates and the szlachta banded together, holding tight to the principle of the elective monarchy and demanding ever greater liberties from each new ruler. Casimir's successor in 1505 was forced to accept the nihil novi ("nothing new") law, according to which nothing was to be decided without the approval of the nobility.

Possession of property became a privilege of the nobility, and the 7 peasants were forced into serfdom.

After 1652, any member of the sejm could alone thwart a decision through the "liberum veto." An aristocratic republic with a monarch evolved. However, the Polish kings of the 18th century were no match for the expansionist drives of the absolute rulers reigning in the neighboring countries of Prussia, Austria, and Russia.

8 Quarrels between different factions of the nobility during
a session of the Polish parliament

7 Peasant's wedding, engraving, 19th



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