Day: November 13, 2007

Defining the Middle Ages – 1

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Recently it was brought to my attention an interesting text by Portuguese journalist and researcher António Carlos de Carvalho about the Templars in which his assessment of the Middle Ages period was severely criticized. Antonio, in a passage o his text, said that the end of the Middle Ages could be defined with the persecution of the Templars under Pope Clement V, that saw the great Schism of Avignon (13th century). Critics were saying that the Middle Ages had firm boundaries, widely accepted: from 476 with the disintegration of the Roman Empire, to 1453 with the fall of Contantinople.

Now, I defended that new studies could show otherwise and that history is not a closed book (as any science), and it is a subject of new and illuminating studies that can help us understand different ways to see a certain subject. Ultimately I defended the right to get it wrong and to create new historical models and hypothesis and test those against documents and facts. But that was too much for the detractors of alternative ways to look at our past.

So, I scanned the net and in no more than a few seconds I had found the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s definition: “the period in European history from the collapse of Roman civilization in the 5th century AD to the period of the Renaissance (variously interpreted as beginning in the 13th, 14th, or 15th century, depending on the region of Europe and on other factors).” There! Clearly, there are historians considering the 13th century. And other voices too.

Right after that I found the following, very informative and interesting, article that I now bring to your attention. I think it might interest serious historians and history buffs alike. It’s no surprise that it vindicates my claim to the right to reflect on the past and refrain to draw boundaries without considering the context and scope of a certain study.

I hope you like it and comment on it.

Luis de Matos

The Editor of the Templar Globe


Part 1: Introduction 

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.


Part 2: Stuck in the Middle

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.


Part 3: Empires

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.

(to follow)


By Melissa Snell. She is a historical researcher and writer who holds a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Texas at Austin and has since spent more than two decades in independent study.