Although its modern inventors deemed the Middle Ages to be a European phenomenon, scholars over the past two decades have transformed our understanding of the wider world to which medieval Europeans were closely, inextricably, connected. It is now intellectually impossible to posit that medieval history ends at the frontiers of Europe, or those of Christendom.
What Does Medieval Mean?
Senses of humor and codes of honor; everyday tools and familiar pastimes; the identities and outlooks that organize our world; how we tailor our clothes and hold our forks; how we make our money and structure our time; the languages we speak and the festivals we keep; our standards of justice, institutions of government, systems of belief, methods of legal and scientific proof; our ideas of beauty and our favorite stories; some of our deepest convictions, and sometimes our mistakes and prejudices too—these are all aspects of the medieval legacy.
It is an inheritance that surrounds and saturates our society and culture, that shapes our collective consciousness and influences our daily experiences in ways both overt and measurable—and yet often, undetectable, unless one knows how to look and listen for them.
So, what does ‘medieval’ mean? What was, or were, the ‘Middle Ages’? This phrase is the English equivalent of the Latin term medium ævum which gives us the adjective ‘medi-eval’. But when and where was it? This question turns out to be much more complicated, and interesting, than it might appear at first blush.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Medieval Legacy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Period of the Middle Ages
One would think that a long period of time, at least a millennium, would have some straightforward parameters—an obvious beginning, a definite end. One would also be justified in thinking that it could be geographically contained within Europe, and that its characteristics could be mapped onto all the regions of Europe in much the same ways, and at the same times. But locating the medieval past is neither temporally nor geographically straightforward.
So why is that? The answer is that the Middle Ages was not a creation of the medieval past. It was a chronological construct invented in modern Europe to describe the period between the ‘Fall of Rome’ and the beginnings of the self-proclaimed modernity: two historical ideas that were invented at the same time. Another was the idea of the Renaissance, which was considered to be the immediate precursor of modernity because it signaled the rebirth of the classical values that had supposedly been lost during that middle age.
Historical Black Hole
The proper noun Middle Ages and the adjective medieval were not intended to capture a nuanced understanding of facts on the ground—of what really happened between the so-called ‘Fall of Rome’ and the triumphant emergence of modernity. It was meant to be a placeholder, a cipher. And it has continued to function as a kind of historical black hole into which everything that is not considered modern can be relegated.
Some of these things are held to be positive, and are still the objects of deep nostalgia. After all, this was the ‘age of faith’ of the cathedrals; the ‘age of chivalry’ with knights in shining armor. Indeed, for most European nation-states, this era was, and is, considered to be the cradle of their national becoming: the time when their ethnic identities, distinctive customs, and national languages emerged.
However, it is also, and just as indelibly, still characterized as an age of barbarism and ignorance: a time when the Church supposedly controlled every aspect of people’s lives, when feudalism created a brutal class of warlords and a permanent underclass of servile peasants. It was a time when, apparently, no one bathed, disease ran rampant, and all the accumulated knowledge of antiquity was lost or suppressed.
The Middle Ages, then, is a powerful idea and not a discrete historical epoch. It is a malleable container for the things we yearn for and the things we fear.
People of the Medieval Past
However, like the 19th century notion of feudalism, it was not a term or framework that would have held any meaning for the people whose experiences it pretends to describe. No one in this period knew about feudalism—or any other -ism, for that matter.
Instead, while they had never heard of feudalism, they knew the importance of feuda: the gifts of wealth, land, or weapons that bound a lord to his man in a relationship of dominium and homage. They had never heard of medieval, but they had their own immediate present, and their own ways of reckoning and naming historical times: the number of years since the birth of Christ, the regnal years of kings, the time before that natural disaster, or after that war.
Moreover, the peoples of the medieval past did not experience the unfolding events of their long era in the same ways, times, or places. The lives of people living along rivers and coasts were very different from the lives of those who lived inland. The lives of mountaineers were entirely unlike those of field- or forest-dwelling agriculturalists. The societies of the Mediterranean were very different from those of the Baltic and North Sea, which were in turn different from the Rhineland or the British Isles.
Common Questions about the Middle Ages
No, the Middle Ages was not a creation of the medieval past. It was a chronological construct invented in modern Europe to describe the period between the ‘Fall of Rome’ and the beginnings of the self-proclaimed modernity
Renaissance was considered to be the immediate precursor of modernity because it signaled the rebirth of the classical values that had supposedly been lost during the middle age.
For most European nation-states, Middle Ages was, and is, considered to be the cradle of their national becoming: the time when their ethnic identities, distinctive customs, and national languages emerged.