Defining the Middle Ages

Introduction

The Château de Saumur
The Château de Saumur from the September page of Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 15th century. Public Domain

One of the most frequently asked questions about medieval history is, "When did the Middle Ages start and end?" The answer to this simple question is more complicated than you might think.

There is currently no true consensus among historians, authors, and educators for the precise dates -- or even the general dates -- that mark the beginning and end of the medieval era. The most common time frame is approximately 500-1500 C.E., but you will often see different dates of significance marking the era's parameters.

The reasons for this imprecision become a little more clear when one considers that the Middle Ages as a period of study has evolved over centuries of scholarship. Once a "Dark Age," then a romantic era and an "Age of Faith," medieval times were approached by historians in the 20th century as a complex, multifaceted era, and many scholars found new and intriguing topics to pursue. Every view of the Middle Ages had its own defining characteristics, which in turn had its own turning points and associated dates.

This state of affairs offers the scholar or enthusiast the opportunity to define the Middle Ages in the manner that best suits his own personal approach to the era. Unfortunately, it also leaves the newcomer to medieval studies with a certain amount of confusion.

In this feature I will discuss some of the ways the medieval era has and can be delineated, and leave it to you to decide how you wish to define the Middle Ages.



Next page: Part 2: Stuck in the Middle

 

Defining the Middle Ages

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Stuck in the Middle
Part 3: Empires
Part 4: Christendom
Part 5: Europe
Part 6: An Age of Ages
Part 7: Make Your Choice
 

Guide's Note: This feature was originally posted in July of 2002, and was updated in December of 2006.

The phrase "Middle Ages" has its origins in the fifteenth century. Scholars of the time--primarily in Italy--were caught up in an exciting movement of art and philosophy, and they saw themselves embarking on a new age that revived the long-lost culture of "classical" Greece and Rome. The time that intervened between the ancient world and their own was a "middle" age and, sadly, one they disparaged and from which they disassociated themselves.

Eventually the term and its associated adjective, "medieval," caught on. Yet, if the period of time the term covered was ever explicitly defined, the chosen dates were never unassailable. It may seem reasonable to end the era at the point where scholars began to see themselves in a different light; however, this would assume they were justified in their view. From our vantage point of considerable hindsight, we can see that this was not necessarily the case.

The movement that outwardly characterized this period was in reality limited to the artistic elite (as well as to, for the most part, Italy). The political and material culture of the world around them had not radically changed from that of the centuries preceding their own. And despite the attitude of its participants, the Italian Renaissance did not spontaneously burst forth from nowhere, but was instead a product of the preceding 1,000 years of intellectual and artistic history.

From a broad historical perspective, "the Renaissance" cannot be clearly separated from the Middle Ages.

Nevertheless, thanks to the work of historians such as Jacob Burkhardt and Voltaire, the Renaissance was considered a distinct time period for many years. Yet recent scholarship has blurred the distinction between "the Middle Ages" and "the Renaissance." It has now become much more important to comprehend the Italian Renaissance as an artistic and literary movement, and to see the succeeding movements it influenced in northern Europe and Britain for what they were, instead of lumping them all together in an imprecise and misleading "age."

Although the origin of the term "middle ages" may no longer hold the weight it once did, the idea of the medieval era as existing "in the middle" still has validity. It is now quite common to view the Middle Ages as that period of time between the ancient world and the early modern age. Unfortunately, the dates at which that first era ends and the later era begins are by no means clear. It may be more productive to define the medieval era in terms of its most significant and unique characteristics, and then identify the turning points and their associated dates.

This leaves us with a variety of options.

Next page: Part 3: Empires

 

Defining the Middle Ages

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Stuck in the Middle
Part 3: Empires
Part 4: Christendom
Part 5: Europe
Part 6: An Age of Ages
Part 7: Make Your Choice

Once, when political history defined the boundaries of the past, the date span of 476 to 1453 was generally considered the time frame of the medieval era. The reason: each date marked the fall of an empire.

In 476 C.E., the Western Roman Empire "officially" came to an end when the Germanic warrior Odoacer deposed and exiled the last emperor, Romulus Augustus. Instead of taking the title of emperor or acknowledging anyone else as such, Odoacer chose the title "King of Italy," and the western empire was no more.

This event is no longer considered the definitive end of the Roman empire. In fact, whether Rome fell, dissolved, or evolved is still a matter for debate. Although at its height the empire spanned territory from Britain to Egypt, even at its most expansive the Roman bureacracy neither encompassed nor controlled most of what was to become Europe. These lands, some of which were virgin territory, would be occupied by peoples that the Romans considered "barbarians," and their genetic and cultural descendants would have just as much impact on the formation of western civilization as the survivors of Rome.

The study of the Roman Empire is important in understanding medieval Europe, but even if the date of its "fall" could be irrefutably determined, its status as a defining factor no longer holds the influence it once had.

In 1453 C.E., the Eastern Roman Empire came to an end when its captial city of Constantinople fell to invading Turks.

Unlike the western terminus, this date is not contested, even though the Byzantine Empire had shrunk through the centuries and, at the time of the fall of Constantinople, had consisted of little more than the great city itself for more than two hundred years.

However, as significant as Byzantium is to medieval studies, to view it as a defining factor is misleading.

At its height the eastern empire encompassed even less of present-day Europe than had the western empire. Furthermore, while Byzantine civilization influenced the course of western culture and politics, the empire remained quite deliberately separate from the tumultuous, unstable, dynamic societies that grew, foundered, merged and warred in the west.

The choice of Empires as a defining characteristic of medieval studies has one other significant flaw: throughout the course of the Middle Ages, no true empire encompassed a significant portion of Europe for any substantial length of time. Charlemagne succeeded in uniting large portions of modern-day France and Germany, but the nation he built broke into factions only two generations after his death. The Holy Roman Empire has been called neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire, and its emperors certainly did not have the kind of control over its lands that Charlemagne achieved.

Yet the fall of empires lingers in our perception of the Middle Ages. One cannot help but notice how close the dates 476 and 1453 are to 500 and 1500.

Next page: Part 4: Christendom

 

Defining the Middle Ages

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Stuck in the Middle
Part 3: Empires
Part 4: Christendom
Part 5: Europe
Part 6: An Age of Ages
Part 7: Make Your Choice

Throughout the medieval era only one institution came close to uniting all of Europe, though it was not so much a political empire as a spiritual one. That union was attempted by the Catholic Church, and the geopolitical entity it influenced was known as "Christendom."

While the exact extent of the Church's political power and influence on the material culture of medieval Europe has been and continues to be debated, there is no denying that it had a significant impact on international events and personal lifestyles throughout the era.

It is for this reason that the Catholic Church has validity as a defining factor of the Middle Ages.

The rise, establishment, and ultimate fracturing of Catholicism as the single most influential religion in western Europe offers several significant dates to use as start- and end-points for the era.

In 306 C.E., Constantine was proclaimed Caesar and became co-ruler of the Roman Empire. In 312 he converted to Christianity, the once-illegal religion now became favored over all others. (After his death, it would become the official religion of the empire.) Virtually overnight, an underground cult became the religion of the "Establishment," forcing the once-radical Christian philosophers to rethink their attitudes toward the Empire.

In 325, Constantine called the Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council of the Catholic Church. This convocation of bishops from all over the known world was an important step in building the organized institution that would have so much influence over the next 1,200 years.

These events make the year 325, or at the very least the early fourth century, a viable starting point for the Christian Middle Ages. However, another event holds equal or greater weight in the minds of some scholars: the accession to the papal throne of Gregory the Great in 590. Gregory was instrumental in establishing the medieval papacy as a strong socio-political force, and many believe that without his efforts the Catholic Church would never have achieved the power and influence it wielded throughout medieval times.

In 1517 C.E. Martin Luther posted 95 theses criticizing the Catholic Church. In 1521 he was excommunicated, and he appeared before the Diet of Worms to defend his actions. The attempts to reform ecclesiastical practices from within the institution were futile; ultimately, the Protestant Reformation split the Western Church irrevocably. The Reformation was not a peaceful one, and religious wars ensued throughout much of Europe. These culminated in the Thirty Years War that ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

When equating "medieval" with the rise and fall of Christendom, the latter date is sometimes viewed as the end of the Middle Ages by those who prefer an all-inclusive view of the era. However, the sixteenth-century events that heralded the beginning of the end of Catholicism's pervasive presence in Europe are more frequenly regarded as the era's terminus.

Next page: Part 5: Europe

 

Defining the Middle Ages

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Stuck in the Middle
Part 3: Empires
Part 4: Christendom
Part 5: Europe
Part 6: An Age of Ages
Part 7: Make Your Choice

The field of medieval studies is by its very nature "eurocentric." This does not mean that medievalists deny or ignore the significance of events that took place outside of what is today Europe during the medieval era. But the entire concept of a "medieval era" is a European one. The term "Middle Ages" was first used by European scholars during the Italian Renaissance to describe their own history, and as the study of the era has evolved, that focus has remained fundamentally the same.

As more research has been conducted in previously unexplored areas, a wider recognition of the importance of the lands outside Europe in shaping the modern world has evolved. While other specialists study the histories of non-European lands from varying perspectives, medievalists generally approach them with regard to how they affected European history. It is an aspect of medieval studies that has always characterized the field.

Because the medieval era is so inextricably linked to the geographical entity we now call "Europe," it is entirely valid to associate a definition of the Middle Ages with a significant stage in the development of that entity. But this presents us with a variety of challenges.

Europe is not a separate geological continent; it is part of a larger land mass properly called Eurasia. Throughout history, its boundaries shifted all too often, and they are still shifting today.

It was not commonly recognized as a distinct geographical entity during the Middle Ages; the lands we now call Europe were more frequently considered "Christendom." Throughout the Middle Ages, there was no single political force that controlled all of the continent. With these limitations, it becomes increasingly difficult to define the parameters of a broad historical age associated with what we now call Europe.

But perhaps this very lack of characteristic features can help us with our definition.

When the Roman Empire was at its height, it consisted primarily of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean. By the time Columbus made his historic voyage to the "New World," the "Old World" stretched from Italy to Scandinavia, and from Britain to the Balkans and beyond. No longer was Europe the wild, untamed frontier, populated by "barbarian," frequently migratory cultures. It was now "civilized" (though still often in turmoil), with generally stable governments, established centers of commerce and learning, and the dominant presence of Christianity.

Thus, the medieval era might be considered the period of time during which Europe became a geopolitical entity.

The "fall of the Roman Empire" (c. 476) can still be considered a turning point in the development of Europe's identity. However, the time when the migrations of Germanic tribes into Roman territory began to effect significant changes in the empire's cohesiveness (the 2nd century C.E.) could be considered the genesis of Europe.

A common terminus is the late 15th century, when westward exploration into the new world initiated a new awareness in Europeans of their "old world." The 15th century also saw significant turning points for regions within Europe: In 1453, the end of the Hundred Years War signalled the unification of France; in 1485, Britain saw the end of the Wars of the Roses and the beginning of an extensive peace; in 1492, the Moors were driven from Spain, the Jews were expelled, and "Catholic unity" prevailed.

Changes were taking place everywhere, and as individual nations established modern identities, so too did Europe appear to take on a cohesive identity of its own.

Next page: Part 6: An Age of Ages

 

Defining the Middle Ages

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Stuck in the Middle
Part 3: Empires
Part 4: Christendom
Part 5: Europe
Part 6: An Age of Ages
Part 7: Make Your Choice