In it’s tagline, this blog promises to give you “1,000 years of history in blog-sized bites,” but when exactly does this millenium-long period begin, and end, and what distinguishes it from other periods of world history?
The mediaeval period is usually said to begin with the fall of the Roman Empire, the great ancient state that ruled across the Mediterranean. As you might imagine for such momentous events, however, historians disagree over just how the Roman Empire came to an end. Some believe that decline set in quite rapidly, while others portray the process as one spanning decades, even centuries, and every type of evidence, from roof-tiles to cemeteries, has been used to try to prove the point.
Even with these various interpretations, however, a few landmark events stand out as indications of the transition from ancient Rome to early mediaeval Europe.
The legalisation of Christian worship in the Edict of Milan, issued by Constantine in 313 CE, is one such event. The beliefs and institutions of Christianity influenced every aspect of mediaeval life and society, and their legitimation by the emperor was a necessary pre-condition for their later development.
Barely a century later, the sack of Rome in 410 was another powerfully symbolic event. Though it was not the barbarian invasion it is often portrayed to be (the leader of the sack, Alaric, was after payment for his mercenary activities on behalf of the Roman state), the shift in the balance of military power it encapsulates presaged the later rise of successor kingdoms, often allied with Germanic tribal identities.
Finally, in 476, the last Roman ruler in the western half of the Empire was deposed. From this point forward, the western half diverged from the East Roman Empire, which later became Byzantium. This vacuum at the top of the Roman government apparatus opened the way for regional polities to form, as in Italy under Theodoric, in Spain under the Visigoths, or, much later, in France and Germany under the Franks.
By 500 CE, then, Europe was no longer precisely Roman, and developments were pointing towards the main features of mediaeval life–the rise of successor states, the influence of Christianity, and the ‘barbarisation’ of politics. Needless to say, Rome and its ideals would still play a huge role in shaping cultural attitudes in this new period.
The end of the mediaeval period is also marked by a combination of slow-moving changes and dramatic events. The introduction of printing to Europe by Gutenberg in 1455, for example, was very nearly a failure, since there was no market for printed books when he opened his print-works. Over time, however, the printing press began to change the economy of knowledge, moving education out of monastic scriptoria and enabling the much later phenomenon of mass-literacy.
In a similar way, Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the Americas in 1492 was not the first European expedition to reach the New World (that was Leif Ericsson), but it paved the way for colonisation in an unprecedented way. The influence of this and other voyages of exploration upon the European world-view was also incredibly important, as the backwater continent began the process of expansion that would shape the modern world.
Taking these dates in mind, we can conveniently describe the mediaeval period as falling between 500-1500 CE, a period twice as long as our own current period–the modern era. It’s name–‘The Middle Ages’–however, isn’t the product of current scholarship, but a designation given to it by the Italian humanists of the Renaissance.
Inspired by the rediscovery of Classical texts (both from abroad, and from within monastic libraries,) the humanists sought a conscious revival of ancient cultural modes. Sciences like geometry and astronomy, arts like rhetoric,and, of course, visual styles were all part of this movement. To this group, the Middle Ages was a long period of inactivity separating an ancient Golden Age and it’s rebirth. It is at this point that the stereotypes of a European Dark Age, full of superstition and lacking in cultural accomplishment, originate.
As the many pages of this blog show, however, adopting their view of the preceding millennium ignores the many works of art, literature, and architecture created in the Middle Ages which continue to inspire. These allow us to see the period as more than simply an interruption in the formation of Europe, as many foundations of the modern world originated in mediaeval society.