Many scholars recognize the existence of a transitional era known as ‘Late Antiquity’. This was a world either marked by continuities with the past or so different that it was a new world altogether: a medieval world. Somewhere within the chronological and geographical frontiers of Late Antiquity, we can begin to discern changes so marked, or consequential, that they call for a different label: the Early Middle Ages.
People in Early Medieval World
If the old-guard pagan patricians of Rome regarded the new barbarian kingdoms as illegitimate, the barbarian kings saw themselves, and styled themselves, as the Roman rulers of Roman successor states. The Christian bishops who governed the Roman cities of these regions were usually descendants of regional senatorial elites whose ancestors had been Roman citizens for generations.
In reality, the peoples of this early medieval world were having to learn to live very differently than their predecessors—especially in regions beyond the Mediterranean. The enormous Roman cities of transalpine Europe, and indeed Rome itself, would become increasingly unsustainable. Without a strong imperial administration, urban infrastructures could not be maintained; roads and aqueducts went unrepaired, transportation networks ceased to function efficiently, manufacturing and trade were interrupted.
But in the eastern Roman Empire, for the most part, the cosmopolitan lifestyle that had been characteristic of the Greco-Roman world for centuries continued unchecked, and was only significantly impacted by the later upheavals of the 7th century, when much of their territory was absorbed into the (mutually hostile) Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates.
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Lines between Ancient and Medieval
And yet, from the perspective of the peoples affected by it, the seemingly rather abrupt change of rule from Romano-Christian to Muslim would not have been a significant disruption. For many, indeed, it would have been an improvement: Muslim rulers took care to maintain or build on Roman infrastructure and they did not demand the conversion of their Christian, Jewish, and pagan subjects. Muslim scholars joined their counterparts in the eastern Roman Empire in preserving and translating the literary heritage of ancient Greece.
In fact, had it not been for Arabic bibliophiles and translators, Greek philosophical and scientific works might not have survived at all, since their study had been banned by the Emperor Justinian in the early 6th century, when he closed the venerable academies of Athens and Alexandria.
So, depending on what one values, on what aspects of antiquity one holds most dear or important, one can draw the lines between ancient and medieval in different places. There was no fall of Rome, no one moment of definitive decline or rupture.
Emerging Medieval Civilizations
There were, instead, three emerging medieval civilizations that preserved different aspects of the Greco-Roman past to which they added their own new and unique ingredients.
One was the entity that 19th century historians called Byzantium, from the name of the settlement on which Constantine built his new capital. But the people who lived in this Greek-speaking eastern half of the Roman Empire called it Rome, and they were Romans.
Another was the western half of the empire, which laid claim to the city of Rome itself and which continued to speak, write, read, and develop the language of Rome, Latin, and its many romance (Roman-like) vernaculars.
And the third was the Islamicate world, which comprised the oldest civilizations of the West and which included much of the Iberian Peninsula until the 15th century, when it also came to include Constantinople.
For the sake of clarity, then, we can locate the beginnings of the Middle Ages during this time of transition that shares a border with Late Antiquity: the 4th century.
Thereafter, historians have divided the ensuing period into a number of shorter, and overlapping, eras. Most broadly, we sometimes speak of the central or High Middle Ages as an epoch beginning around the year 1000, when Latin Christendom gradually becomes more populous, urbanized, and reconnected to the wider world.
For better understanding though, we can describe the centuries before the year 1000 as early medieval, the centuries from about 1000 to 1300 as central, and the centuries following as the later Middle Ages.
Within this broad chronology, depending on which part of the medieval world we’re discussing, historians also use periodizing terms like the Merovingian, Carolingian, or Anglo-Saxon eras, referring to significant political and cultural developments in various regions; or the Viking Age, referring to the swift and far-reaching diaspora of Norse conquest and settlement between the 9th to the 11th centuries; or the period of Byzantine Iconoclasm, which unfolded in phases during the 8th and 9th centuries—and so on.
End of Middle Ages
So where should we place the end of our Middle Ages? As one can probably anticipate, this, too, is a pretty porous boundary.
If one were an environmental historian, they might well argue that we can treat the 500-hundred-year period between 750 and 1250 as its own discrete epoch, since this is what climate scientists call the Medieval Warm Period, the Medieval Climate Optimum, or the Medieval Climactic Anomaly: a half-millennium when the global climate in the northern hemisphere, especially the North Atlantic world, warmed in ways that were favorable to agriculture—and which thus enabled, at least in part, the simultaneous growth of successful and relatively stable empires and states in both North America and northern Eurasia.
The centuries thereafter, beginning in the later 13th century, saw a comparable cooling of the climate in ways that were devastating, leading to widespread famine, creating the conditions for the Black Death, and culminating in the Little Ice Age of the mid-16th to 17th centuries.
Common Questions about a Broad Chronology of the Middle Ages
Muslim rulers took care to maintain or build on Roman infrastructure and they did not demand the conversion of their Christian, Jewish, and pagan subjects. Muslim scholars joined their counterparts in the eastern Roman Empire in preserving and translating the literary heritage of ancient Greece.
Most broadly, people sometimes speak of the central or High Middle Ages as an epoch beginning around the year 1000, when Latin Christendom gradually becomes more populous, urbanized, and reconnected to the wider world.
The centuries before the year 1000 are described as early medieval, the centuries from about 1000 to 1300 as central, and the centuries following as the later Middle Ages.