Life and Society Across the Medieval Globe

A global approach to medieval studies has the potential to expand our understanding of medieval and modern global developments while simultaneously transforming the ways that we approach this particular age. In this exclusive article from the Encyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages Carol Symes outlines how such a study need not encompass the globe in any territorial sense. Rather, it should encourage the investigation of life and society of peoples across continents, their movements, networks, interactions, affinities, borrowings, ways of knowing, forms of agency, systems of belief.

With carefully curated eBook chapters, encyclopedia articles and high-resolution digitised images from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this Topic in Focus is your gateway to explore life and society across the global Middle Ages.

Scandinavia - Life in Scandinavia during the Viking Age

Scandinavia was composed of an amalgam of peoples in the Viking Age, but depictions of the period tend to make the population appear more uniform than it was in reality— part of the process of creating a national history of modern Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. In this engaging survey from The Vikings (2019), Sæbjørg Walaker Nordeide and Kevin J. Edwards analyse religion, economic life and material culture in and beyond the Scandic homelands in the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries. Click here to discover more.

This mid-twelfth century chess piece was carved from walrus ivory in Norway, likely Trondheim. This bishop piece shows a seated prelate with a mitre and a crosier blessing. He is flanked by two attendants, and the back of the throne is decorated with a knot formed of coiling foliage. Gifted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by J. Pierpont Morgan in 1917, this unique object has been made digitally available on the Bloomsbury Medieval Studies platform.

Middle East – Iran after the Mongols

In this chapter from Iran after the Mongols (2019), Sussan Babaie explores the impact of the Mongol invasions of the first half of the thirteenth century. It traces representations of the complex frameworks that articulated, freshly and more powerfully than any moment in the history of Greater Iran since the Arab invasions in the seventh century, the reinterpretation and reinstatement of Iranian cultural identities across a vast region.

Purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1895, this gold earring has been attributed to Iraq, probably from the eleventh to thirteenth century. This earing was worked with filigree with an outside band decorated with swirls. A hexagram, also worked in filigree, is depicted on the centre of the piece, formed by two triangles with a swirl on each vertex. It is thought that the hexagram is an allusion to King Solomon.

Asia – Life in India under Muslim Rule

The Delhi sultanate was established as a corollary of military expeditions by the Ghaznawids (352–582/962–1186) and Ghūurīds (558–602/1163–1206) that extended the eastern Islamic frontiers into Gangetic plains. This chapter from Muslim Rule in Medieval India (2016) by Fouzia Farooq Ahmed offers insight into regime formation, regime perpetuation and regime disintegration of Muslim states within Indian settings. In the process, it describes the political dynamics of medieval Muslim states in non-Muslim societies.

This painting on silk by Chinese artist Xia Gui depicts a Chinese landscape on a rainy day. Dated to the Southern Song Dynasty, c. 1127-1279 CE, it was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1982. The dramatism used to depict nature, particularly the trees behind the hut and the storm surge to the right, portray the rainy weather conditions. The two red seals present on top are the seals of preceding collectors.

North America - Medicants and Mesoamericans

Some of the earliest post-contact writings in indigenous languages by missionaries and those of native elites demonstrate complex theological production in the Americas. Aligning contemporaneous native and mendicant writings in native languages moves religious and cultural translators beyond the traps of binary stereotypes whereby early colonial Mesoamerica may then be studied as premodern and possibly commensurable with premodern Europe in terms of socio-cultural contexts. Click here to read more about 16th-century Mesoamerica from this article from the Encyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages.

This knife handle was carved from walrus ivory during the eleventh or twelfth century by the Punuk in Alaska. One end is rounded, and the other side is concave with a pointed end. Two fine lines are engraved around the edge, and other lines emerge from the border ending in a circle. Dated from the eleventh to twelfth century, this unique item from the Metropolitan Museum of Art is made digitally available on the Bloomsbury Medieval Studies platform.

South America - Maya Civilisation

The Maya area is divided into the northern Maya lowlands of the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico, the southern Maya lowlands of Belize and the Petén District of Guatemala, and the southern Maya highlands of Guatemala. In this thematic overview from the Encyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages, Heather McKillop explores the social, political, economic and agricultural history of the Maya Civilisation from 600-1500.

Dated from the eleventh to the thirteenth century, this pair of gold earflares, or earplugs, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art was created in Peru. The medallions are decorated with anthropomorphous figures made with different repoussé sheets of gold. This technique was used to capture the features of the faces, and to ornament the headdresses and collars of the figures. The rim of the medallion is finished with soldered beads.

Africa – The Mamluk Sultanate

Due to its geographical location between Africa, Asia and the Mediterranean, the Mamluk Sultanate (1250-1517) occupied a central position from which it derived much of its power, wealth and prestige. At the same time, its position in world history, and Islamic history in particular, following the hiatus of the Mongol invasion, enhanced the role of the Mamluk Sultanate as the embodiment of a Muslim and Arab revival. Click here to read more from Practicing Diplomacy in the Mamluk Sultanate (2014).

Click here to explore this sculpture of a seated figure modelled out of terracotta during the thirteenth century by the Dejenné people of Mali. The figure is represented with its right leg hugged into its chest and its head dropped on its knee. The only ornaments are a series of raised and punched marks along the back of the figure. The posture may suggest the sublime absorption of deep prayer. The prominent facial features are seen in other Dejenné works.

Oceania - Aotearoa-New Zealand in the Middle Ages

By 1000 CE, the Pacific was a place in transition. Most, though not all, islands had been colonized. Those newly colonized islands showed signs of early environmental stress caused by exploitation and population increase. These islands and those to the north in Micronesia were also showing signs of societies on their way to complex hierarchical social stratification, while those in the western Pacific, such as Papua New Guinea, are poorly known due to the lack of archaeological work. This article from the Encyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages looks at each region in more detail.

Click here to discover an ink illustration of a shipwreck tale from the twelfth-century collection of stories from the Maqāmāt (Assemblies) of al-Hariri illustrated by Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti in Iraq. The illustrator of this particular copy, who worked in southern Iraq in the first half of the thirteenth century chose to populate his island with exotic creatures such as parrots and monkeys as well as a harpy and a human-headed and winged feline, two motifs commonly used in metalwork and other decorative arts.

Eastern Europe - City and Trade in Eastern Europe

In this chapter, Henryk Samsonowicz explores long-distance commercial exchange as one of the main thrusts behind the creation of new economic centres in Eastern Europe in the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries. This was quite different from the widespread local commerce – a mode of supplementing the household economy, and which drew in agriculturalists, hunters and nomads, among others. Generally speaking, that latter type of commerce was conducted over relatively modest spaces, encompassed small quantities of goods, and focused upon local markets, which attracted inhabitants of nearby localities.

This Figure 1 image shows the very first miniature illustrating the Hungarian Illuminated Chronicle from the twelfth-century collection of stories from the Maqāmāt, dated around the fourteenth century. It is painstakingly spot-on in its observation, depicting the king of Hungary in the fourteenth century in the presence of Hungarian barons, in occidental dress on his right, and the dignitaries of the auxiliary peoples, in oriental attire on his left. This purposeful variety of costumes presents the diversity of Hungarian society that constituted the medieval Hungarian kingdom.

Western Europe - House and Home in Western Europe

The period around 1150 is an important point of transition in methods of house construction. The study of European houses is therefore often divided into two parts: the early and high Middle Ages (800–1150) and the late Middle Ages (1150–1450). In this chapter from A Cultural History of the Home in the Medieval Age (2021), Mark Gardiner presents the general trends in the structure and form of houses over the six centuries, primarily with vernacular houses.

This thirteenth century copper aquamanile from the Metropolitan Museum of Art was made in medieval Germany in the shape of a crowing rooster. Aquamanile’s were vessels used to pour water over hands, usually during the celebration of Mass or at a dinner table. The details of the feathers are engraved with fine lines, and a twisted feather has been formed as the handle. The vessel would have been filled through the hole on the tail’s feathers and the open beak served as the spout.

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