Aquinas also wrote about government and natural law, or a set of unwritten moral principles based on fairness and reason. Aquinas believed that government should work for the “common good” that benefits all. He also argued that people are not obliged to obey unjust laws or the rulers who enact them.

The ideas Aquinas developed about natural law, unjust laws, and rebellion influenced European philosophers in the 1600s and 1700s. Their ideas, in turn, influenced the men like Thomas Jefferson who wrote the American Declaration of Independence and others who authored the U.S. Constitution.

Science and Mathematics

Scientific works, translated from Arabic and Greek, also reached Europe from Spain and the Byzantine empire. Christian scholars studied Hippocrates on medicine and Euclid on geometry, along with works by Arab scientists. They saw, too, how Aristotle had used observation and experimentation to study the physical world.

Yet science made little real progress in Europe in the Middle Ages because most scholars still believed that all true knowledge must fit with Church teachings. It would take many centuries before Christian thinkers changed the way they viewed the physical world.

Painting of a soldier on horseback charging into battle outside a fort.

Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, known as El Cid, was an epic hero in Spanish medieval literature. Like Roland, his story features bravery in battle and personal honor.

In mathematics, Europeans adopted Hindu-Arabic numerals, commonly called Arabic numerals. In fact, the Arabs had adapted these numerals from India. Hindu-Arabic numerals were much easier to use than the cumbersome system of Roman numerals that Europeans had used for centuries. In time, but long after the Middle Ages, the use of Hindu-Arabic numerals allowed both scientists and mathematicians to make extraordinary advances in their fields.

Medieval Literature

While Latin remained the written language of scholars and churchmen, new writings began to appear in the vernacular, or the everyday languages of ordinary people, such as French, German, and Italian. These writings captured the spirit of the late Middle Ages. Medieval literature included epics, or long narrative poems, about feudal warriors and chivalry as well as tales of the common people.

Heroic Epics Capture the Imagination

Across Europe, people began writing down oral traditions in the vernacular. French pilgrims traveling to holy sites loved to hear the chansons de geste, or “songs of heroic deeds.” The most popular was the Song of Roland, written around 1100, which praises the courage of one of Charlemagne's knights. A true chivalric hero, Roland loyally sacrifices his life out of a sense of honor.

Spain's great epic, Poem of the Cid, tells the story of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, a bold and fiery Christian lord who fought both with and against Muslim forces. His nickname, El Cid, comes from the Arabic word for “lord.”

Heroic epics that told thrilling tales of heroism appealed to Christians across Europe. Nobles in the late Middle Ages adopted ideas about honor and chivalry in theory, if not in practice. Epic tales found a ready audience among all classes of medieval society. The tales varied from region to region, but people took pride in their great heroes.

Dante's Journey

“In the middle of the journey of life, I found myself in a dark wood, where the straight way was lost.” So begins the Divine Comedy, written in the early 1300s by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (DAHN tay ah leeg YEH ree). The poem takes the reader on an imaginary journey into hell and purgatory, where souls await forgiveness. Finally, Dante describes a vision of heaven.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments