Part 4: Christendom
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.
Part 5: Europe
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.
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.