By Carol Symes, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
The field of medieval history is changing all around us. New vistas, new types of evidence, and new historical methods are reshaping everything we know, or thought we knew. While the Middle Ages was considered to have been a European phenomenon, scholars in recent past have shown the wider world to which medieval Europeans were closely connected.
Extent of Medieval History
It is intellectually impossible to posit that medieval history ends at the frontiers of Europe, or those of Christendom. Africa, Asia, and Europe were one contiguous landmass, home to many powerful religious and cultural traditions, constantly shaped and reshaped by the movements of peoples, animals, commodities and ideas.
Increasingly, too, scholars of the Americas and the Pacific are uncovering the extent to which the peopling and conquest of these so-called new worlds was a medieval process, and how medieval European projects, such as the Christian Reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula, were extended across the globe.
Medieval: A Tainted Word
However, we are still stuck with the pesky, inadequate modern terms and the negative associations the term ‘medieval’ conjures up. The word ‘medievalist’ is used as a term of abuse, or to refer to some practice that has nothing to do with what actually occurred during the Middle Ages.
For instance, an especially restrictive and misogynistic law is described in the media as ‘very medieval’. It is also said that the people of a certain troubled region will “return to the Middle Ages”: the assumption being that harsh theocratic rule and the brutal oppression of women were medieval norms.
So the term medieval is not only historically unhelpful, it has also become tainted through its popular use as a synonym for anything uncivilized, inhumane, intolerant, and ignorant. It’s a catch-all, not just for things that are assumed to have occurred during the Middle Ages, but for the behavior of our own contemporaries whom we decide to denigrate as not modern—and not therefore fully human, because they seem to be throwbacks to some unevolved era.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Medieval Legacy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
This does some real damage, not just to the past, but in the present. In the present, it allows us to pretend that problems caused by the ongoing forces of modernity are really just medieval. With respect to the past, it sends the message that nothing either good or useful could possibly be learned from studying the Middle Ages.
In that medieval ‘dark age’, as it has become framed in popular culture, our society locates a wide range of trends that are, in fact, not medieval. For example, witch hunts and totalitarianism were not medieval. Popes and kings would have loved to have that much power, but they never did. Even the systematic oppression of women or the prosecution of gender-nonconforming individuals can’t be regarded as medieval. And in many medieval places and times, women had significant powers in both law and reality that exceeded those of modern women before the successes of female suffrage in the 20th century.
In addition to being a kind of waste dump for the darker aspects of modernity, the Middle Ages has temporal goalposts that tend to get moved when some desirable medieval phenomenon can be claimed for a more enlightened modern era. For example, the Black Death of the mid-1300s always happens during the Middle Ages, but the arts of Dante and Giotto happen during the Renaissance—even though both of these men died decades before the Black Death.
So, if these are some of the wrong, or misleading, ways to frame the Middle Ages, how do historians of this era describe it now? Where do we begin and end?
This is a question that responsible scholars can still answer differently, depending on their own areas of specialization, and the characteristics they look for when locating the turning points between ancient and medieval, medieval and modern.
Since the 1970s, in fact, thanks to the work of the historian Peter Brown, many scholars recognize the existence of a transitional era known as ‘late antiquity’: a temporal zone with its own distinguishing features. Roughly, it corresponds to the period between the 3rd century of the Common Era and the beginning of the 8th. This was when the territories of the Roman Empire were being pulled further and further apart by external and internal forces, from factors like civil wars and administrative changes to the movements of barbarian peoples from northern Europe and the Eurasian steppes.
It was also the time when two new world religions were emerging and gaining power. The first, Christianity, became a legal religion in the Roman world after the year 312, with its adoption by the emperor Constantine. The second, Islam, emerged in the beginning of the 7th century and was swiftly promulgated by conquest and conversion from the Arabian Peninsula to the ancient civilizations of western Asia and North Africa, within a matter of decades.
Changes in Lifestyles
What makes this world late but still antique includes the continued existence and reliance on the infrastructures of the Roman and Sassanian (Persian) empires, as well as the dominance of Greek and Latin as languages of governance, education, and culture. In fact, for many of those who lived at this time, there would have been little consciousness of change, and perhaps little discernible difference between the lifestyles of the classical past and those of the present.
For others, though, these changes were experienced as momentous and disruptive. For the patrician elites of Rome itself, for example, the city’s growing obsolescence within the empire was palpable: by the end of the 3rd century, Rome was a mere provincial capital, far less important than the four administrative cities of Trier, Milan, Sirmium, and Nicomedia.
Common Questions about the Medieval Ages
The term medieval is used as a synonym for anything uncivilized, inhumane, intolerant, and ignorant. It’s a catch-all, not just for things that are assumed to have occurred during the Middle Ages, but for the behavior of our own contemporaries whom we decide to denigrate as not modern.
‘Late antiquity’ is a temporal zone with its own distinguishing features. Roughly, it corresponds to the period between the 3rd century of the Common Era and the beginning of the 8th.
Christianity became a legal religion in the Roman world after the year 312, with its adoption by the emperor Constantine.