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Former Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon said, "Migration is an expression of the human aspiration for dignity, safety, and a better future. It is part of the social fabric, part of our very make-up as a human family." Migration is a fundamental part of the human experience stretching back 200,000 years to the earliest humans. What is migration, exactly, and why do we do it? What did migration look like in the Middle Ages?

Pilgrims migrating to a holy site, StudySmarterPilgrims migrating to the holy shrine at Canterbury, featured in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Source: Ezra Winter, Canturbury Tales Mural, 1939. Library of Congress, USA. PD-US, Wikimedia Commons.

Migration Definition

Migration is the relocation of people from one location to another, voluntarily or by force, traveling by sea or land. Migration size can be as small as an individual or as large as an entire community of people. People relocate for various reasons, including the search for a better life or resources, or are displaced by factors such as natural disasters, war, unsustainable demographic growth, or discrimination (persecution). Additionally, not all migrations were permanent. Sometimes migrants would go to a particular place to gather resources or information to return to their communities. For example, merchants or religious pilgrims are migrants of this type.

Types of Migration

According to Patrick Manning's Migration in World History, types of migration include:

  • Colonization
  • Whole-community migration
  • Migration within a community
  • Cross-community migration

He defines a community as a group of people who share a language as opposed to the same ethnicity or religion to provide a more inclusive representation of the term.1

  • One should not discount the power of religion or race to form a community in the eyes of human beings. In the Middle Ages, religious differences defined who was a friend and who was a foe.
    • The Crusades erupted as an attempt by Christians to stamp out Muslims.
    • Jews were expelled from realms throughout Europe because of their religion.
    • Race defined who was free and enslaved during the Atlantic Slave Trade period. Enslave communities were formed not by language or cultural heritage but because of the color of their skin–enslaved people represented many languages, cultures, and religions.

Migration within a Community

Migration within a community often occurs to improve the ability to procreate. People, primarily women, migrate from one family to another to marry and produce children, allowing the community to continue to another generation.


Colonization involves a group of people migrating from one community to establish a new one in the image of the community they left in a new land. Colonists chose geographical areas similar to their original communities to replicate them better and retain their language.

However, this new land, of course, was not always uninhabited by other communities. An excellent example of this colonization occurred after the Europeans arrived in America. Spanish colonists created Spanish communities in South America and the Caribbean while subjugating the indigenous people. English and French colonists settled similarly in North America.

Whole-Community Migration

Whole-community migration occurs when an entire community becomes displaced from its original location and finds a new home. Sometimes, whole-community migration is voluntary, and sometimes it is forced. Voluntary migration of this type is seen in nomadic communities where the entire population moves together towards new resources. Forced migration includes the expulsion of the Jews from many European regions during the Middle Ages and the infamous Trail of Tears in American history, which displaced entire Native American tribes and forced them onto reservations.

Cross-Community Migration

Cross-community migration involves one or a small group of people leaving their original community to join another. For example, many expelled Jews found new homes in Poland, adapting to the new language and culture.

Manning limits this term to those who join different language groups and provide a shared community experience and cultural exchange with their new community. However, this could also include those who convert from one religion to another.

Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand conquered the southern Iberian peninsula, a Muslim stronghold. They mandated that its inhabitants either convert to Christianity or leave. As a result, many Muslim and Jewish residents converted, crossing out of one religious community into another.

The migrations described below display a combination of the last three migration types.

  • The Vikings both colonized and integrated into existing communities through cross-community migration.
  • The Crusaders and the religious intolerance that arose from them led to the whole-community migration of the Jews and Muslims from their homes.
  • The Mongols were a community that spread across Asia and parts of Europe, absorbing the territory into their empire as they went.
  • The Spanish exploration of the New World brought colonization, whole-community migration of the native peoples, and cross-community migration through intermarriage with the natives.

Viking Migration

From the eighth to the eleventh centuries, the Vikings dominated European seaways.

Vikings invading England from twelfth century manuscript, StudySmarterVikings invading England from the Miscellany of the Life of St. Edmund, 1130. Source: Morgan Library, USA. PD-Art, Wikimedia Commons.

They were expert sailors, and their innovative longboat design allowed them to navigate both inland rivers and oceans. The Vikings migrated across Europe and even to Constantinople through conquest, commercial trade, and intermarriage. Once there, they assimilated into the larger regional fabric.

In the ninth century, Vikings ruled the northern half of England, which they held until the Norman conquest in 1066. The Normans were also descended from Vikings who settled in France in the tenth century.

Viking migrants were the first group to discover North America. Around 982, Erik Thorvaldsson, better known as Erik the Red, sailed from the Viking settlement in Iceland and discovered Greenland. While there is a dispute about whether he was the first Viking to discover the island, he was the first to colonize it successfully. Erik's son Leif Erikson is credited with being the first European to set foot on continental North America. He named the region Vinland after seeing many grape vines.

Iceland retained much of its Nordic culture throughout the subsequent centuries and celebrates its Viking origins even today. However, the Norse colonies in Greenland died out in the fifteenth century once the Black Death reached its shores. A Danish-Norweigian alliance retook sovereignty of the island in the seventeenth century. Today, Greenland is part of the Kingdom of Denmark.

The Medieval Crusades and Migration

The Crusades arose out of the practice of holy pilgrimage, a type of migration where an individual or group voluntarily travels to a site of religious significance for spiritual guidance, enlightenment, or healing. Pilgrims were not permanent migrants; once they reached the holy place, they returned home to tell the tale. The most important Christian religious site was Jerusalem, part of the Islamic Fatimid Caliphate in the late tenth century.

Battle during the Second Crusade from fourteenth century mansucript, StudySmarterBattle during the Second Crusade from Estoire d'Eracles manuscript, fourteenth century. Source: CC-PD-Mark, Wikimedia Commons.

Pope Innocent III turned a call for aid by the Byzantine Emperor, whose lands were besieged by Turkish forces, into a Holy War to capture Jerusalem for Christianity. The First Crusade succeeded in its mission, colonizing Jerusalem and several nearby cities for nearly one hundred years before Saladin retook the region for Islam in the late twelfth century.

Cultural Exchange in the Crusades

The cultural face of the Crusader States changed dramatically because European settlers and pilgrims flocked to the area during this period. As a result, cultural exchange between European and Islamic cultures flourished. Notably, many classical texts lost in Europe but preserved in Arabic were discovered and translated into Latin, sparking a renaissance of learning that led to the development of the first universities. On the less savory side, the Crusaders looted many treasures from the Arab and Byzantine worlds, bringing them back to Europe.

Cultural Persecution in the Crusades

An unfortunate product of the Crusades is the development of a culture of persecution against those who were not Christian. For example, while the primary mission of the Crusaders was to root out the "infidel" Muslims in the East, they slaughtered whole communities of Jewish people on the way there. The Crusaders thought they were helping the Christian cause to root out evil heretics at home and abroad.

Many realms formally expelled Jews from their lands, forcing them to migrate to regions that would accept them. As a result, Jews ended up in Poland and other areas of Eastern Europe, known for being religiously tolerant. This migration is why these areas had such a large Jewish population at the beginning of World War II.

Other Migrations in Medieval History: Mongols

The Mongol Empire was a considerable force in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Under their leader Genghis Khan, they conquered most of East Asia and half of the Islamic territories in the Middle East. By the end of the thirteenth century, the Empire stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Carpathian mountains, part of Eastern and Central Europe. The Yuan dynasty in Chinese history is part of this Mongol conquest, and the Chinese Emperor descended from Genghis Khan from 1271 to 1368.

portrait of Genghis Khan, StudySmarterGenghis Khan portrait, fourteenth century. Source: National Palace Museum, Taiwan. CC-PD-Mark, Wikimedia Commons

Once the Mongols conquered territory, they imposed their government on it. Genghis Khan unified the Mongol tribes, made himself their universal leader, codified Mongol law, established religious tolerance, and structured the military into highly efficient units of 1,000 men called mingghan. The Mongol migration is often credited with bringing gunpowder from China to Europe. In addition, the conquests opened the East to the West, resulting in cultural exchange and new trade routes.

The Mongol Empire's legacy is significant. Some regions that Genghis Khan and his descendants unified are still unified today. Mongols, like the Vikings, assimilated into their conquered territories by intermarrying, changing the ethnic landscape of the regions. On the other hand, the Mongols were brutal warriors, and their conquests resulted in a devastating loss of life.

Historian R. J. Rummel estimates that the Mongol Empire killed approximately 30 million people over two centuries.

Early Modern Migrations: European Colonization of America

In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed from Spain and reached the Caribbean. This act sparked a wave of exploration and colonization, resulting in massive migrations from Europe to North and South America.

The migration of Europeans to North and South America drastically changed the social, cultural, and physical landscape both in the new colonies and at home. For example, Spanish mines in Peru shipped vast quantities of silver back to the homeland, which the Spanish used to finance wars with other European powers and architectural projects such as the El Escorial palace in Madrid. Additionally, Spanish conquistadores laid waste to native South American populations, such as the destruction of the Incan Empire by 1572.

Atlantic Slave Trade

In the sixteenth century, the European colonization of the New World led to the establishment of the Atlantic Slave Trade, the largest forced migration in history that brought people from Africa and forced them to work plantations in the New World.

Columbus departing for the New World, StudySmarterColumbus departing for the New World, L.Prang & Co, 1893. Source: PD-US, Wikimedia Commons.

Migration and New Demographic Landscapes

Spanish colonists, primarily male at first, often married native women. This intermarriage resulted in mixed-race individuals that again changed the demographic landscape of New Spain. These individuals were called Mestizos, a descriptive term in official colony documentation. However, there is debate about whether the term was used as part of a caste system of racial discrimination that granted rights based on how much pure Spanish blood a person had.

Migration - Key Takeaways

  • Migration is the voluntary or forced relocation of groups of people.
  • There are four types of migration: colonization, whole-community migration, migration within a community, and cross-community migration.
  • Medieval migration consisted mainly of land displacements.
  • Major migrations in medieval history include the Vikings, the Crusades, the Mongol Empire, and the European Rediscovery of the New World.
  • Migration has shaped the world throughout the centuries.


  1. Patrick Manning, Migration in World History, 2005.

Frequently Asked Questions about Migration

Migration is the relocation of groups of people from one location or another, either voluntarily or by force.

Important migrations in medieval and early modern history include those from rural regions to urban centers with the rise of cities, the expulsion of the Jews from many European realms due to religious intolerance, the discovery and colonization of the New World, and the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Types of migration, according to Patrick Manning's Migration in World History, include colonization, whole-community migration, migration within a community, and cross-community migration.

Many different groups of people migrated during the Middle Ages, including the Vikings, religious pilgrims, warriors in the Crusades, scholars seeking the new cathedral schools in cities, the Mongols during their conquest of Asia, and explorers and colonists to the New World.

People migrated for a variety of reasons during the medieval era. Chief among them were religious pilgrimage, demographic growth and local unsustainability, war and conquest, forced migration because of religious discrimination, and migration to cities for scholarly or business opportunities.

Final Migration Quiz

Migration Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


What is not one of the four types of migration?

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Show question


What is migration?

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Migration is the relocation of groups of people from one location or another, either voluntarily or by force.

Show question


What was not a major migration during the Middle Ages?

Show answer


The Atlantic Slave Trade

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What is an example of forced migration?

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Expulsion of Jews from European realms.

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What is an example of voluntary migration?

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Show question


The Viking Migration is not an example of which migration type?

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Migration within a Community

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What region was not affected by Viking migration?

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What were the mixed-race people from marriages between Spanish colonists and native South Americans called?

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What was one way the Crusades did not help cultural exchange with the East?

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Persecution of Jews and Muslims

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When did the Mongol Empire expand across Asia and parts of Europe?

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Thirteenth and Fourteenth centuries

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