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The 50 Most Important People of the Middle Ages

Looking back on the Middle Ages, who are the most important people of this era? Here is a list of men and women that were influential in medieval times and who forged an enduring legacy. They include leaders, scholars, writers and warriors.

To create this list, we have deliberately chosen to have five people from each century between the sixth and fifteenth – this ensures that we are not just choosing people from later periods, but gives a more balanced look at the whole of the Middle Ages. Here are our fifty entries (which actually covers 52 people) for the most important individuals from the medieval world.

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Sixth Century

Clovis I – King of the Franks (c.466 – 511)

The Baptism of Clovis depicted in a 14th-century manuscript – Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Français 2813, fol. 12v

As the Western Roman Empire crumbled in the fifth century, new powers would emerge in Europe. A Frankish leader named Clovis would be one of the most important figures in this era, first uniting his people, then conquering neighbours to create a state that spread over much of France, the Low Countries, and western Germany.

Clovis was not only the founder of the Merovingian Dynasty, which would rule for another 250 years, but he also converted (along with his people) to Roman Catholicism, which helped to establish that form of Christianity in Western Europe. As Katherine Scherman observed, Clovis was “a consummately successful king, the author of Frankish supremacy and a founder of modern France.”

Boethius – Roman official and philosopher (c. 477 – 524)

Boethius depicted in a 15th-century manuscript – Unibibliothek Salzburg, M III 36

A Roman politician and official, Boethius had made a name for himself as a writer. However, it would be his final work that would make him famous – he would be unjustly imprisoned by Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, and while awaiting his execution, Boethius would write The Consolation of Philosophy, a text on the philosophy of faith and reason. It would become the most important work in philosophy during the Middle Ages, and continues to be widely read around the world. Among his words is:

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Balance out the good things and the bad that have happened in your life and you will have to acknowledge that you are still way ahead. You are unhappy because you have lost those things in which you took pleasure? But you can also take comfort in the likelihood that what is now making you miserable will also pass away.

Benedict of Nursia – Italian monk (480 – 548)

11th-century stained glass window depicting Benedict – Photo by Copyleft / Wikimedia Commons

When people think of the Middle Ages, monks and nuns often come to the top of mind. Christian monastic institutions were important and powerful places in both Europe and the Middle East, centres of learning and religion. Benedict of Nursia was a key person in the rise of monasteries, for he wrote the Rule of Saint Benedict in 516. This text offered a guide and rules on how monasteries should be run and how those who took monastic vows should live. Widely used, even today, it would help Benedict be regarded as the Patron Saint of Europe.

Justinian I – Byzantine emperor (482 – 565)

Mosaic of Justinian I Detail of a contemporary portrait mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

The Byzantine emperor from 527 to 565, Justinian’s reign would mark a revival of the Byzantine Empire. Militarily, the Byzantine armies would see conquests in the Middle East, North Africa and Italy, expanding the empire significantly. Just as importantly, his government did a major rewrite of Roman law codes, and much of this has endured in the civil law of many countries today. Meanwhile Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, with the impressive church of Hagia Sophia, would become one of the most important cities of the medieval world.

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Justinian’s rule had its supporters and detractors, including the contemporary writer Procopius, who presented us with two versions of the emperor. In one work he praises the emperor for “taking over the State when it was harassed by disorder, has not only made it greater in extent, but also much more illustrious,” but in another calls Justinian out for being “deceitful, devious, false, hypocritical, two-faced, cruel, skilled in dissembling his thought, never moved to tears by either joy or pain, though he could summon them artfully at will when the occasion demanded, a liar always, not only offhand, but in writing, and when he swore sacred oaths to his subjects in their very hearing.”

Khosrow I – Sassanid emperor (c.512 – 579)

Silver coin of Khosrow I – photo by TruthBeethoven / Wikimedia Commons

The challenge of the growing Byzantine Empire would be met by Khosrow I, the Sasanian King of Kings of Iran from 531 to 579. Under his reign, the Sassanids pushed the Byzantines back, and this empire would grow to dominate the Middle East. Khosrow, considered to be a ‘Philosopher King’, helped to make Iran a cultural and economic power, and even though the Sassanids would fall in the following century, their legacy would carry on into the Islamic world.

Seventh Century

Pope Gregory I (c.540 – 604)

Detail of a miniature of Gregory the Great writing – British Library, Harley MS 3011, fol. 69v.

One of only three popes to be nicknamed ‘The Great’, Gregorius Anicius was selected for the Papacy in 590 and would drastically reform and improve its administration. He is remembered for the missionizing activities carried out in parts of Europe to convert peoples to Christianity, and for refocusing the Church’s charitable efforts. Gregory I is now considered one of the most important figures in Papal history.

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Shōtoku Taishi – Japanese prince (574 – 622)

13th-century painting of Prince Shōtoku with two attendants. Wikimedia Commons

Although he never became emperor, this prince is often considered to be the founder of the Japanese nation. Serving as de facto ruler of the country between 593 and 622, Shōtoku was instrumental in creating a centralized government for Japan, bringing in the religion of Buddhism, and establishing connections with China. It is from him that Japan would be called the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’.

Muhammad – Islamic religious figure (570 – 632)

A 16th-century depiction of Muhammad and other Islamic figures – Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most important person on this list, Muhammad ibn Abdullah was the founder of the religion of Islam. According to this faith, he was a divinely-inspired prophet who received revelations from God that are recorded in the Quran. Muhammad would form a community around the cities of Mecca and Medina in the Arabian Peninsula, and begin converting the Arabic people. The Islamic religion grew throughout the Middle Ages, becoming one of the key cultural and religious institutions of the era.

Taizong – Chinese emperor (599-649)

A Tang Dynasty depiction of Taizong – now part of the National Palace Museum collection in Taipei – Wikimedia Commons

Li Shimin was one of the co-founders of the Tang Dynasty in China and, after the death of his father, would become its emperor from 626 to 649. Taking on the name Taizong, he would build up an empire over much of East Asia and usher in a golden age for Chinese history.

Today he remains an exemplar of a wise ruler and administrator. Reflecting on his own reign, Taizong said:

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I’ve learned the principles of good governance and put them into practice. Our country was going downhill, but it is now in good shape. Foreign barbarians used to invade China, but they are now our vassals. I’m very lucky, for I’ve done better than many rulers in history. I want to make sure that my rule has a good beginning and a good ending.

Ali – Islamic caliph (600 – 661)

ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, the son-in-law and companion to Muhammad, who was an important figure in the religion of Islam, but also the catalyst for a major rift in the Muslim community. After Muhammad’s death in 632, many believed that Ali should have succeeded him, but ultimately he would not become Caliph until the year 656. However, his reign would be marked by power struggles and civil war, and would end with his assassination. The political disagreements over his claim to leadership of the Islamic faith would eventually create the Sunni and Shia factions, the two largest branches of the religion.

Eighth Century

Wu Zetian – Chinese empress (624-705)

For about fifty years, Wu Zetian was the most important person in China, first as the empress consort, then as empress dowager to two of her sons, and finally becoming the only woman in Chinese history to officially rule as Empress from 690 to 705. Her rule was marked by both increasing prosperity within China and military victories abroad, but also by growing corruption and a brutal secret police regime.

In the words of historian Ann Paludan, “Wu Zetian was an extraordinary woman, attractive, exceptionally gifted, politically astute and an excellent judge of men. With single-minded determination, she overcame the opposition of the Confucian establishment through her own efforts, unique among palace women by not using her own family.”

Bede – English monk (672 – 735)

Depiction of the Venerable Bede from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493.

Often called The Venerable Bede, this monk lived in northern England, and developed a reputation as one of the leading scholars of his time. He wrote dozens of works on a range of subjects, including theology, science and music. His use of the Anno Domini system of dating the years would prove influential towards it being adopted throughout Europe and then the wider world. Bede’s most famous work is Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (An Ecclesiastical History of the English People) – it is the most important source of English history in the early Middle Ages, and is widely studied and praised by modern historians.

Xuanzong – Chinese emperor (685 – 762)

Beginning his 44-year reign in 712, this emperor at first put an end to state corruption and brought in better administration. “He founded the Imperial Academy of Letters,” writes Ann Paludan, “and the atmosphere at court – an harmonious blend of Confucian rationalism, Daoist individualism and an openness to new ideas – attracted scholars, painters, poets, and musicians.” There was even a remarkable engineering feat – in 724 the Pu Jin Bridge was built to cross the Yellow River.

However, the reign of the Xuanzong would be viewed as the beginning of the decline of the Tang Dynasty, first with the defeat at the Battle of Talas, and then the An Lushan Rebellion, which lasted from 755 to 763. Xuanzong would retire as emperor in 756.

Li Bai (701-62) and Du Fu (712-70) – Chinese poets

The writings of Du Fu – photo by or Daderot / Wikimedia Commons

The Tang Dynasty is often considered one of the high points in Chinese civilization, with the country flourishing economically and culturally. It is not surprising that several of the most important people on this list came from this period, including Li Bai and Du Fu.

About a thousand poems Li Bai wrote have survived to the present day, such as “Quiet Night Thoughts”:

Before my bed there’s a pool of light
I wonder if it’s frost on the ground
Looking up, I find the moon bright
Then bowing my head, I drown in homesickness

With Du Fu, nearly 1500 of his poems still exist. He was deeply affected by the An Lushan Rebellion, even being taken prisoner at one point, and his writings reflected this, including “Facing Snow”:

After the battle, many new ghosts cry,
The solitary old man worries and grieves.
Ragged clouds are low amid the dusk,
Snow dances quickly in the whirling wind.
The ladle’s cast aside, the cup not green,
The stove still looks as if a fiery red.
To many places, communications are broken,
I sit, but cannot read my books for grief.

The reason we place these two men together is because of the deep friendship they shared with each other, first meeting in the year 744. They would write to each other for the rest of their lives, including poems such as this “joke” by Li Bai:

I ran into Du Fu by a Rice Grain Mountain,
In a bamboo hat with the sun at high noon.
Hasn’t he got awfully thin since our parting?
It must be the struggle of writing his poems.

Al-Mansur – Abbasid caliph (c.714 – 775)

The founder of Baghdad, and considered at least the co-founder of the Abbasid Dynasty, Abu Ja’far Abdallah ibn Muhammad al-Mansur first played a key role in the toppling of the Ummayads. When his brother Saffah died in 754, al-Mansur became the second Abbasid caliph and would be instrumental in establishing the power of the dynasty.

Ninth Century

Harun al-Rashid, Abbasid caliph (786–809)

A coin of Harun al-Rashid – photo by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com

If the first few Abbasid caliphs established this dynasty, it was Harun al-Rashid who made it famous. Reigning from 786 to 809, this caliph had mixed results militarily but has been credited with making Baghdad a centre of culture and learning. Harun was a major figure in the establishment of Bayt al-Ḥikmah (House of Wisdom) as a library and educational centre that attracted leading scholars. Furthermore, he promoted much music and poetry, and develop a reputation that would even lead to him becoming a key character in the One Thousand and One Nights.

Harun al-Rashid also made diplomatic alliances with the Tang Dynasty in China and the Carolingians in Western Europe. As one chronicler concluded, “so great were the splendour and riches of his reign, such was its prosperity, that this period has been called “the Honeymoon”.

Charlemagne – Carolingian emperor (742-814)

A picture from the 15th century depicting the emperor Charlemagne.

After becoming King of the Franks, Charles would spend the next 46 years building a state that stretched across much of western and central Europe. His power would rise until he would be crowned Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800.

The Carolingian Empire founded by Charlemange would dominate Europe for most of the ninth century, and the institutions they created or revived would endure for centuries afterward. Moreover, this era would see a ‘Renaissance’ in learning and culture, as Charlemange’s court would become a home for scholars and artists.

Charles the Great, or Charlemagne, is remembered as one of the most important people in European history, even being called the “Father of Europe”. Historian Janet L. Nelson describes him as “a man who was by any standards extraordinary: a many-sided character whose sixty-five years of life and doings were driven by unremitting physical energy and intellectual curiosity.”

Kūkai – Japanese monk (774 – 835)

Painting of Kūkai from the Shingon Hassozō, dating to the 13th or 14th century – Wikimedia Commons

Called ‘The Grand Master’, Kūkai is a major figure in the development of Buddhism in Japan. In 804, he would travel to China to study the religion. Returning to Japan two years later, he found the Shingon school of Buddhism, which soon found support among the country’s elite. Several important temples were built by him, including a complex at Mount Kōya, which today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Al-Jahiz – Arabic writer (776 – 869)

A page from al-Jāḥiẓ’s Book of Animals depicting an ostrich – Wikimedia Commons

Nicknamed ‘The Bug-Eyed’, he spent over fifty years in Baghdad working as a writer and scholar, penning at least 140 works. Al-Jahiz’s interests range from animals to eloquence, racial identity to humour, and even whether it was better to be right or left-handed.

ʿArīb al-Ma’mūnīya – Arabic singer and poet (797 – 890)

This is the person who would be the least known to the modern world, yet was probably the most famous person in the world when she lived. You could call ʿArīb the diva of the Middle Ages, as she was a singer, poet, composer, calligrapher, chess player and socialite. Sold into slavery at the age of 10, music would be the career that would bring to the courts of the Abbasid elite. Anecdotes of her life and many relationships – eight rulers were among her lovers – reveal a woman with sharp wit and keen intelligence.

To you treachery is a virtue you have many faces and ten tongues.
I’m surprised my heart still clings to you in spite of what you put me through.

ʿArīb would not only survive the fractious conflicts within the Abbasid court, but became fabulously wealthy and long-lived. In the words of one admirer:

She is the sun and the other women are stars
If she appears, they set and become invisible.

Tenth century

Abu Bakr al-Razi – Iranian physician (c.865 – c.925)

European depiction of the Al-Razi, from a 13th-century manuscript – Wikimedia Commons

Known in the Western world as Rhazes, he is considered a hugely important figure in the history of medicine. Serving as the head of hospitals in Baghdad and Rey, al-Razi would write over two hundred works related to the field, and was known for his work in experimental medicine, the use of pharmacies, pediatrics, obstetrics and ophthalmology. He was also an important writer on medical ethics, and is known for this statement:

The doctor’s aim is to do good, even to our enemies, so much more to our friends, and my profession forbids us to do harm to our kindred, as it is instituted for the benefit and welfare of the human race, and God imposed on physicians the oath not to compose mortiferous remedies.

Al-Razi is also known for works in alchemy, metaphysics and philosophy.

Rollo – Norse warrior (d. between 928-933)

Rollo depicted in a 13th-century manuscript

This Viking leader would make a deal with the King of France in the year 911 – he and his followers would convert to Christianity and protect the kingdom from other Norse raiders. In return, Rollo would be given lands in northern France, in what is today known as Normandy. Rollo and his descendants, the Normans, would become major players in European history for the new couple of centuries, as they would fight and conquer places such as England, southern Italy and other parts of the Mediterranean.

Abd al-Rahman III – Iberian caliph (890-961)

Partway through his nearly 50-year reign, Abd al-Rahman III would create the Caliphate of Córdoba, which ruled over much of Iberia and parts of North Africa. During his reign, the city of Córdoba would become one of the largest cities in the world, with an estimated population of 400,000, and its prosperity led it to become a centre of learning and culture. Meanwhile,

For all of his achievements, al-Rahman has an interesting view of his own life and reign. He wrote:

I have now reigned above fifty years in victory or peace; beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honours, power and pleasure, have waited on my call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity. In this situation, I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot: they amount to Fourteen. O man! place not thy confidence in this present world!

Otto I – Holy Roman Emperor (912 – 973)

Otto depicted in the early twelfth century – Corpus Christi, Cambridge, Ms 373, fol. 42v

Otto the Great gained his nickname for his impressive military achievements as well as his ability to forge the disparate German states into one kingdom. He is noted also for his victory at the Battle of Lechfeld in 955, which stopped the Magyars’ advance into Europe, and for his conquests of parts of Italy. Otto’s dynasty would last until the early eleventh century, and their patronage of the arts and sciences would be deemed a ‘renaissance’.

Taizu – Chinese emperor (937-76)

Medieval scroll depicting Emperor Taizu – Wikimedia Commons

Zhao Kuangyin was a military commander during a period when China had been split into competing dynasties and kingdoms, but he led a coup d’etat against his own ruler and became the first emperor of the Song Dynasty. Taking the imperial name Taizu, his own reign (960-976) would see most of China reunified again as well as rapid improvements in government and academics. The Song Dynasty would last for more than 300 years.

Eleventh century

Ferdowsi – Persian writer (940 – 1019/1025)

A scene from the Shahnameh, depicted in a 16th-century manuscript – Wikimedia Commons

Abul-Qâsem Ferdowsi Tusi is the author of Shahnameh (Book of Kings), the epic poem that tells the mythical and historical past of Iran. The massive poem, about 50,000 couplets in length, took about 33 years to complete and has become one of the important literary works in history, a national epic not just in Iran, but throughout central Asia.

Ibn Sina – Persian scholar (980-1037)

Also known as Avicenna, he worked as a physician in parts of Central Asia and Iran, eventually becoming a court physician to the powerful Buyid Dynasty. He would write over 450 works, of which about 240 have survived, that cover a wide range of topics including philosophy, physics and psychology. Ibn Sina is most famous for The Canon of Medicine, completed in 1025, which would be the most influential work on the subject for at least 500 years.

Rajendra Chola I – Indian emperor (c.971 – 1044)

Seal of the Chola King Rajendra I – Wikimedia Commons

Even before he succeeded his father as the ruler of the Chola Empire in 1014, Rajendra had an impressive military career, helping to expand the state across southern India. More major victories followed during his reign, including an impressive naval campaign that crossed the Bay of Bengal to target states in present-day Malaysia and Indonesia.

The reigns of Rajendra and his father Rajaraja are considered the high point of the Chola Dynasty, which lasted until the year 1279. Merchants from this empire came to dominate trade over the Indian Ocean, while Rajendra established a new capital at Gangaikonda Cholapuram.

Gregory VII – Pope (1073-1085)

Hildebrand of Sovana, the son of a blacksmith, entered church service and by the late 1040s was working as an official within the Papacy. He would rise to the top of the Catholic Church, serving as Pope from 1073 to his death in 1085.

As Pope Gregory VII, he is remembered for his efforts to reform the Papacy and the Church, including promoting the idea of papal authority over secular rulers. This would lead to the Investiture Controversy between him and the Holy Roman Emperor, leading to the famous Walk to Canossa incident. Gregory’s efforts at promoting the Papacy would be the start of an era where Popes had great influence over European politics for the rest of the Middle Ages.

William I – King of England and Duke of Normandy (c. 1027-1087)

William as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry during the Battle of Hastings, lifting his helm to show that he is still alive

Becoming the Duke of Normandy as a young boy in 1035, it seemed that he would not have a long reign. However, William endured and asserted control of his territory. However, he is even better known for his invasion of England in 1066, where he defeated King Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings, and took the English throne. Now known as William the Conqueror, he established a powerful state that controlled both sides of the English Channel.

Twelfth century

Peter Abelard – French scholar (1079-1142) and Héloïse d’Argenteuil – French abbess (c.1100 – 1163)

Abelard and Heloise by Edmund Blair Leighton

Peter Abelard was already a well-known scholar in France when he became the tutor to a Parisian woman named Héloïse in 1116. These two intellectuals soon developed a passionate romance, which included a secret marriage and the birth of a child. However, their affair ended in tragedy with Abelard being castrated, the couple separated and having to live the rest of their lives in monasteries. Peter and Héloïse continued to write to each other, and their relationship is the most remembered love story from the Middle Ages.

Li Qingzhao – Chinese poet (1084-1156)

Portrait of Li Qingzhao kept at the Palace Museum, Beijing – Wikimedia Commons

Although only about a hundred of her poems have survived, Li Qingzhao is considered one of the greatest poets in Chinese history. She wrote about topics including loneliness, having to become a refugee, losing her husband, and happier topics, like the poem ‘Joy of Wine’:

I remember in Hsi T’ing
All the many times
We got lost in the sunset,
Happy with wine,
And could not find our way back.
When the evening came,
Exhausted with pleasure,
We turned our boat.
By mistake we found ourselves even deeper
In the clusters of lotus blossoms,
And startled the gulls and egrets
From the sand bars.
They crowded into the air
And hastily flapped away
To the opposite shore.

Hildegard of Bingen – German abbess (c.1098 – 1179)

Illumination from the Liber Scivias showing Hildegard receiving a vision and dictating to her scribe and secretary

Mystic, writer, abbess – Hildegard was a powerful personality within the Catholic Church during the twelfth century. Through her letter writing and correspondence with many church and political figures, she became very influential. Hildegard was a prolific writer, penning books on medicine, philosophy, music and even plays. Today, she remains a widely-read spiritual figure.

Minamoto no Yoshitsune – Japanese warrior (c.1159 – 1189)

A 19th-century depiction of Minamoto no Yoshitsune – Wikimedia Commons

One of the most famous samurai warriors in the history of Japan, Yoshitsune was a successful military commander in the 1180s. With The Tale of the Heike and other works, his legend and popularity grew, to the point where Yoshitsune has become a leading example of Japanese martial culture.

Saladin – Ayyubid sultan (c.1137-1193)

Imaginary encounter between Richard I and Saladin, 13th century manuscript
Imaginary encounter between Richard I and Saladin, 13th century manuscript

Yusuf ibn Ayyub ibn Shadi, better known as Saladin, was the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty that ruled over Egypt and Syria. His victories against the Crusader States have earned him much fame in both Western and Middle Eastern history as one of the most persons of the Crusades era.

Thirteenth century

Maimonides – Jewish scholar (1138–1204)

Depiction of Maimonides teaching students about the ‘measure of man’ in an illuminated manuscript. Wikimedia Commons

Moses ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides, is the leading Jewish figure of the Middle Ages. Living in Morocco and then Egypt, his most important job was as the personal physician to Saladin. While he wrote on a wide range of topics, his most famous dealing with Jewish theology and law, as well as philosophy – including The Guide for the Perplexed.

Jayavarman VII (c.1122–1218)

Bust of Jayavarman VII, at the Guimet Museum – photo by Suzan Black / Wikimedia Commons

The most powerful king of the Khmer Empire, which dominated southeast Asia, Jayavarman is credited with many construction projects including temples, roads, hospitals and a new capital city known as Angkor Thom. The entire city of Angkor would have had as many as a million inhabitants during this time, and the Khmer Empire itself would last until the fifteenth century.

Chinggis Khan – Mongol ruler (1162 – 1227)

Chinggis in a 14th-century Yuan era album; now located in the National Palace Museum, Taipei

Temüjin was the Mongol warrior able to unite his people and then establish a powerful empire in Asia. Taking on the title Chinggis Khan (“The Fierce Ruler”), he led Mongol conquests in China and central Asia. His successors would even expand the Mongol Empire, making it the largest contiguous land empire in history, allowing new connections between Asia and Europe.

Rumi – poet and Islamic religious figure (1207 – 1273)

Bowl of Reflections with Rumi’s poetry, early 13th century. Brooklyn Museum. – Wikimedia Commons

Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī was born in present-day Afghanistan, but moved westwards and eventually settled in the Seljuk Sultanate of Anatolia. He was a Sufi mystic and teacher who gained many followers in his lifetime. His writings about faith and love, especially his poetry, have found audiences worldwide. Here is one example of his poems, translated by @sharghzadeh:

Today we’re broken, broken, like every other day,
open not the door of worry, grab the lute and play!
There are one hundred kinds of prayers and prostrations
when one faces their beloved’s beauty as they pray.

According to Shahram Shiva, “Rumi is able to verbalise the highly personal and often confusing world of personal growth and development in a very clear and direct fashion… Today Rumi’s poems can be heard in churches, synagogues, Zen monasteries, as well as in the downtown New York art/performance/music scene.”

Thomas Aquinas – Italian theologian (c. 1225-1274)

Thomas Aquinas depicted on an altarpiece in Ascoli Piceno, Italy,
by Carlo Crivelli

This Dominican friar worked as a scholar in both Italy and France, focusing his efforts on theology and philosophy. Aquinas’ many works, especially his Summa theologiae, are considered masterpieces and among the most important writings of the Catholic faith. Even today, his writings related to ethics remain very influential.

Fourteenth century

Dante Alighieri – Italian writer (c.1265-1321)

Dante Alighieri, attributed to Giotto, in the chapel of the Bargello palace in Florence.

This Florentine wrote the Divine Comedy, which is considered one of the most important works in Italian literature. Completed in 1320, it tells the story of the author visiting Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. Dante proved to be an influential figure in literature, both in Italy and beyond.

Marco Polo – Italian explorer (1254–1324)

Marco Polo with elephants and camels arriving at Hormuz from India – BNF Ms Fr 2810 f.14v

This Venetian merchant spent over 20 years travelling around Asia, and after returning to Italy he had his experiences written down in a work called Book of the Marvels of the World. This was the first detailed account of Asia written in medieval Europe, and is credited with spurring European interest in the wider world.

Ibn Taymiyya – Islamic theologian (1263-1328)

A controversial figure in his own time, this Islamic scholar often found himself attacking the political and religious elite of the Mamluk Empire in Egypt and Syria. Based in Damascus, Ibn Taymiyyah’s work as an Islamic scholar was often criticized and ridiculed – one contemporary said that he had a “screw loose.” However, since the nineteenth century, his views have found new audiences within the Islamic world, and he has become a very influential thinker for conservative Muslim beliefs.

Mansa Musa – Mali emperor (reigned c.1312 – c.1337)

Musa depicted holding an Imperial Golden Globe in the 1375 Catalan Atlas – Wikimedia Commons

The ruler of a prosperous African kingdom, Mansa Musa was one of the wealthiest persons in history. Expanding the Mali Empire into other parts of western Africa, it also became a centre for the trade in gold. Mansa Musa’s incredible wealth and power were highlighted during his journey to Mecca in the years 1325-26, in which he travelled with an entourage of 60,000 people, and would change the economy of Egypt for more than a decade.

Geoffrey Chaucer – English writer (c.1340 – 1400)

15th century depiction of Chaucer – BL MS Royal 17 D. VI, f.93v

As the author of The Canterbury Tales and several other works, he is the foremost writer in the Middle English language, and perhaps the most widely read medieval writer in the modern world. Born in London and often working as a civil servant in the English government, Chaucer also gained a reputation as a talented writer who found patrons in the royal court. His influence on the development of the English language includes being the earliest known author of two thousand words, such as desk, galaxy and princess.

Fifteenth century

Christine de Pizan – French writer (1364 – c.1430)

Christine de Pizan in her study – by Master of the Cite Des Dames

 

The first professional female writer of the Middle Ages, Christine took up this career after the death of her husband in 1389. Using connections to the French royal court, she went on to pen works such as The Book of the City of Ladies. Christine was both an influential writer in the fifteenth century as well as in modern times, and is often considered an important feminist thinker.

Joan of Arc – French warrior (1412–1431)

Joan of Arc in the protocol of the Parliament of Paris (1429). Drawing by Clément de Fauquembergue. French National Archives

One of the most famous persons from the Middle Ages, and a national hero in France, Joan was a teenager when she led French armies against the English in the Hundred Years’ War. Captured in battle, she was tried and executed by the English, but her legend continued to grow and she is now viewed as a saint, martyr and symbol.

Zheng He – Chinese official (1371-1433/5)

The pet giraffe of the Sultan of Bengal, brought from the Somali Ajuran Empire, and later taken to China in the year 1415. Wikimedia Commons

A court official in the Ming government of China, Zheng He was put in command of seven maritime expeditions, which involved massive fleets of hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of sailors, that sailed into the South China Sea, Indian Ocean, and as far as the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa. Zheng He and his fleets are now remembered as an example of Chinese power and connections within the medieval world.

Filippo Brunelleschi – Italian artist (1377-1446)

Filippo Brunelleschi in an anonymous portrait of the 2nd half of the 15th century

With his design and construction of the dome at Florence’s Cathedral, Brunelleschi solidified his reputation as a leading architect and engineer in medieval history. Also an inventor, mathematician and sculptor, he is credited as the first person to describe linear perspective and as the reviver of architectural designs that had not been seen in hundreds of years.

Johannes Gutenberg – German printer (1398-1468)

Gutenberg Bible, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photo by Raul654 / Wikimedia Commons

In the 1440s he was the first European to invent and develop a new way of printing – the movable-type printing press – and transformed book production. His technology spread quickly throughout Europe and revolutionized the communication of ideas and information – it is now considered one of the most important inventions of the Middle Ages.

Further Thoughts

There were many people that could have made this list, including Eleanor of Aquitaine, Saint Francis of Assisi, and Emperor Lalibela of Ethiopia. We also did not include legendary figures such as King Arthur, Robin Hood, Rani Padmini, or Hua Mulan.

By covering the entire medieval world, this list will include figures that many people are not familiar with but were very important in particular nations or regions. Readers will also notice that military figures are not as prominent as people who focused on the arts and sciences – we think the latter have had a more enduring impact on the world.

See also The 50 Most Important Events of the Middle Ages

Further Reading:

Chinese Lives: The People Who Made a Civilization, by Victor H. Mair, Sanning Chen and Frances Wood (Thames and Hudson, 2013)

Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors: The Reign-by-reign Record Of The Rulers Of Imperial China, by Ann Paludan (Penguin, 2009)

Islamic Civilization in Thirty Lives: The First 1,000 Years, by Chase F. Robinson (Univerisity of California Press, 2016)

Top Image: Amiens, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 108, fol. 254r

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