Most mediaeval historians are resigned to the fact that their subjects will never be quite as well known as the superstars of history from other periods. Figures like Alexander the Great, Homer, and Julius Ceasar (from the ancient world), as well as Henry VIII, Hitler and Martin Luther King Jr. (from the modern) have dominated the way history is presented both in the classroom and on television, and will probably continue to do so.
Even when we are resigned to this, however, it is still hard for a student of mediaeval history to respond to the question “So, did anything happen in the Middle Ages?” (usually posed, I should add, by very intelligent and educated people) without a certain amount of angst. The list below of the top three consequences of the Middle Ages is designed both to release the angst, and to share the little-publicised mediaeval origins of our own world.
- The Rise of Islam: The Prophet Muhammed, who lived from 570-632 CE on the Arabian peninsula, founded a religion that today can boast adherents in every region of the world. Islam, which spread first to the Middle East and North Africa, inspired a range of cultures and contributed greatly to art and architecture. It also shaped some of the most powerful empires of the mediaeval and early modern world, and deserves to be recognised as one of the most important products of the Middle Ages.
- The Discovery of the Americas: Contrary to the well-known rhyme, Columbus was not the first person to discover the New World. That honour properly belongs to Leif Ericson, a Scandinavian explorer who, according to the Saga of Eric the Red, established a settlement in the Americas he named Vinland. Although the facts of the account may not be strictly true, the remains of a Norse settlement in Newfoundland, Canada, confirm that the credit goes to mediaeval sea-farers.
- The Formation of Europe as We Know It: At the end of antiquity, Europe was split between the southern area ruled by the Roman Empire, and a northern zone of ‘barbarian’ tribes. The many cultural regions of Europe today, including France, Italy, Spain, Germany, and England, all have their roots in kingdoms established after the fall of Rome. These kingdoms developed their own linguistic, artistic, and political traits, and created identities that have evolved into the nations of the 21st century.