Middle of What? Defining the Mediaeval Period

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.

Gold medal of Constantine, employing iconography that appealed both to Christians and non-Christians alike, (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

The east-west division of Roman lands. When Romulus Agustulus was deposed in the West, the field was open for new political leaders to gain territory and influence. (Wikimedia Commons)

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 Gutenberg Bible in the collection of the New York Public Library, an institution dependent upon the mass production of books for a wide audience. (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawing of the perfect man was based upon Classical ideas of aesthetics and proportion. (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

11 thoughts on “Middle of What? Defining the Mediaeval Period

  1. I could not disagree more with your final dates for the Roman empire. A periodisation that excludes Justinian from the list of Roman emperors needs to be re-examined. I submit the most useful end date for the Roman empire is the Muslim conquests when the Eastern Roman empire ceased to be a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual state. If I were really an extremist I’d mutter 1453 but I’m not)

    None of my pettifogging challenges your definition of the medieval period.

    • I think there is a very important distinction to be maintained about the fates of the eastern and western halves of the empire. Justinian very certainly was a Roman, and not a Byzantine emperor, but the world in his lifetime had already begun to change. For example, Theodoric the Great ruled in Italy, claiming to do so on behalf of Rome, but in fact having substantial autonomy. Justinian’s attempted reconquest in the West also had to confront the new power of the Visigoths. The growing multi-polarity of the late-antique/early-mediaeval period ushered in after 476 doesn’t mean that the Eastern Roman Empire stops, but it does mean that it’s environment underwent substantial qualitative changes, at least in my view.

      Of course, setting the year 500 as the beginning of the mediaeval period is essentially arbitrary–the transition from ancient to modern took centuries, and the rise of the Caliphate was a key part of this. We have to draw the line somewhere, though, and this one feels about right to me, in terms of shifting balances of power, etc. In any particular, more localised respect, however, things are always going to be more complicated.

  2. This is an interesting topic. There is often a lot of talk about what and when a certain term applies to which era. After a while, it gets confusing. Do we use the term Middle Ages to other continents? Do we go by a cultural shift from one stance to another? I have seen too many arguments on this, but I think you have made a good case for it.

    I tend to also agree with the date for the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire you have given.

    • Thanks for the comment. I tend to feel that ‘mediaeval’ and ‘Middle Ages’ are largely European phenomena, defined with reference to European developments. In the regions most interconnected with Europe, however, like North Africa and West Asia, the term also seems to fit decently well. I would hesitate to apply it to places with entirely distinct historical rhythms, though, like Japan or the New World. Too often, I feel like mediaeval becomes just another synonym for ‘pre-modern’ for scholars who specialise in areas after 1500 CE, which I feel is over-generalised, and also insulting to the cultural diversity of humankind before this rather recent date. Would you agree?

      • That was somewhat the point I was trying to make, and wondered if you thought that way. For example, the Chinese history is clearly demarcated by the various dynasties. The Middle Ages simply would not apply there. I have often come across people on FB preferring to term some eras according to English dynasties, which also I have found insulting to the other nations’ history.

      • in Chinese history the modern period is often defined as starting with the Northern Song dynasty in 960 AD. The ancient/medieval/modern scheme just does not work much outside Western Europe.

        Just to clarify what I was saying about Rome, nothing very important happened in 476 and certainly no-one living at that time would identify that date as the ‘end of Rome’. The popes, for instance, continued dealing with Constantinople and affirming imperial unity.

        Since the death of Aetius the western empire had become almost a shogunate where a general of Germanic origin exercised actual power under an emperor drawn from the Italian aristocracy. In one sense the actual event, Odoacer sending the western regalia to Constantinople and saying there was no need for a western emperor actually affirms imperial continuity because he was clear, at least in public, that he recognised the emperors at Constantinople as supreme.

        You could talk about the loss of provinces and taxes in the west, but Justinian re-established central power in North Africa, Italy and Spain. Those provinces were to remain within the empire until the reign of Heraclius, indeed one emperor briefly moved the capital from Constantinople to Palermo.

        PS If Justinian’s re-unification program actually bankrupted the empire it is very strange that there is no sign of bankruptcy from the end of his reign in 565 until the end of Heraclius’ reign in 645 and Heraclius had the resources to spend almost all his time on the throne at war with the Sassanids (successfully) and then with the caliphate (much less successfully). That is an incredibly slow bankruptcy proceeding.

  3. Pingback: So…What Really Happened in the Middle Ages? | mediaevalmusings

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