After the cold spell of the Dark Ages and the Justinian plague, evidence suggests the climate in Europe warmed and created what today is known as the Medieval Warm Period (MWP), which some suggest lasted from about 950 to 1250.
This time in history was previously thought to be completely dark and primitive, but modern historians have now confined the label of “Dark Ages” to a shorter period. Now, it’s thought that despite many hardships, Europe made important achievements during the Medieval era.
The idea of the MWP is controversial among scientists and historians, with many arguing about how warm it was and where temperature changes may have occurred – or if they even did. Still, several studies show that Europe enjoyed reliably warm conditions during the period.
The theory is that warm summers and longer growing seasons meant more food from larger crops. The onset of the MWP in Europe, therefore, is thought to have supported significant population growth. The climate was so warm that it was possible to grow wine grapes in Scotland, now known for its cold and somewhat harsh weather.
Norse explorers founded a colony on Greenland where they were able to grow food. Today, it is too cold there for agriculture. One of these explorers was Leif Erikson. He managed to sail with his team to America nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus.
One of the most famous buildings from this age was the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in Spain. While parts of Spain were occupied by the Muslim Moors during this time, this cathedral was built in a Christian region. It was started in 1075 and completed in 1211.
Another famous cathedral built during this period was Notre-Dame de Paris. It was started in 1163 and finished in 1345. Today, millions of people visit these magnificent Medieval buildings every year.
The Christians did not only build cathedrals. They also founded universities – learning centers for the academically gifted. They studied theology and knowledge of the natural world. The first was founded in Bologna, Italy, in 1088.
These institutions were of great importance for the future of the West and the entire world. One scholar who was educated in university was Thomas Aquinas, a leading thinker of the Renaissance, the era that would follow the Medieval period.
The Black Death
Once more, pandemics returned to Europe. In 1346, the Black Death arrived. It was the same type of bacteria that had killed millions during the reign of Justinian, today known as the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which causes plague. While modern scientists realize the bacteria is carried by infected fleas on small rodents, such as rats, Medieval societies had no idea what caused it. It raged for years and killed an estimated 75 million to 200 million people in Eurasia and North Africa during that time, which amounted to about 20% of the world population. In Europe, the Black Death was even deadlier. Between 30% and 60% of the continent’s population died. By comparison, COVID-19 has so far killed 0.05% of the people in the world.
After its initial outbreak, the Black Death regularly returned in reduced strength until its last major episode in London in 1665.
Cool Climate, Hot Philosophy
The end of the Medieval Warm Period marked the beginning of centuries of famine, plagues, and war in Europe. Unlike previous times of hardship, Europe had spent its warm period rediscovering the great thinkers of the ancient world. Therefore, despite all the death and suffering, Europe still advanced in technology and knowledge.