Middle Ages, The
MIDDLE AGES, THE
According to the conventions of modern historiography, part of the tripartite division of European (or Western) history into periods labelled ancient, medieval, and modern. The Middle Ages (a plural in English, Dutch, Russian, and Modern Icelandic, but a singular in other European languages; e.g. French, le moyen age ; German, das Mittelalter ; Italian, il medioevo ) are usually considered to be the centuries from c. 500 a.d. to c. 1500 a.d., primarily in western Europe, but occasionally extended by comparativists to other parts of Eurasia as well. The period is often considered as having internal divisions—early and late, or early, high, and late. The term "Middle Ages" and its adjectival form, medieval, also have a common and usually disparaging meaning in colloquial and uninformed usage, sometimes as the Dark Ages, contrasted with the perceived glories of antiquity earlier and those of the Renaissance later. Current scholarship has challenged both the appropriateness of the term "Middle Ages" for the period and the conventional dating of its beginning and end, which had never been precise in any case. Many historians extend a period recently defined as Late Antiquity (c. 250–750) into the tenth century or later and some propose a "long middle ages" from around 1000 to 1800.
Origins and Early Usage of the Term and Concept. From the fourth to the fifteenth centuries writers of history thought within a linear framework of time derived from the Christian understanding of scripture—the sequence of Creation, Incarnation, and Christ's Second Coming and the Last Judgment. In The City of God, XXII, St. Augustine posited six ages of world history that paralleled the six days of creation and the six ages of the human lifespan, of which the sixth age of history was the period between the Incarnation and the Second Coming, and a seventh age, the reign of Christ on earth. All of Augustine's references to a "middle time" must be understood within this framework of salvation-history. Early interpretations of the scriptural Book of Daniel (Dn 2.31,7.1), especially those of St. Jerome and the historian Paulus Orosius (c. 415), added the idea of four successive world empires, those of Babylon, Persia, and Greece, of which the fourth was that of Rome. Later writers in this tradition added the idea of the translatio imperii, the "translation of the Empire" from the Romans to the Franks under charlemagne in 800, and then to the East Frankish emperors from otto i (962) until the Second Coming. The theory of the four monarchies was compatible with the Augustinian sequence. The great single exception to these ideas was the work of the late twelfth-century scriptural exegete joachim of fiore, who posited three ages in human history, that of the Father, that of the Son, and a coming age of the Holy Spirit. But
Joachim's view was also expressed in terms of salvation history.
In the fourteenth century, however, the literary moralist Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374), fascinated with Roman history and contemptuous of the time that followed it, including his own century, divided the past into ancient and new, antiquity and recent times, with the dividing line being the conversion of fourth-century Roman emperors to Christianity. According to Petrarca, what followed was an age of tenebrae, shadows, a "sordid middle time," perhaps with the hope of a better age to follow. Although Petrarca's disapproval of the Christianized Roman and post-Roman world may seem irreligious, he was a devout Christian, and his judgment was based on aesthetic, moral, and philological criteria, not those of Christianity. Petrarca's limitless admiration for Rome and his contempt for his own and recent times heralded a novel conception of the European past and established other criteria for historical periodization besides those of salvation history or the history of the church and empire. Those who followed him focused primarily on the transformation
of the arts and letters, seeing a renewal of earlier dignity and achievement in the age of Petrarca and the painter Giotto, continuing into the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
In the early sixteenth century religious critics and reformers, including both Desiderius erasmus and Martin luther, added another dimension to the new conception and terminology—the idea of a "true" evangelical Christian church that had become corrupt when it was absorbed by the Roman empire and now needed to be reformed, or restored to its earlier apostolic authenticity. Thus, the historical dimension of both the Protestant Reformations and the Catholic Reformations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries added a sharply polemical religious interpretation to Petrarca's original conception, as church history was put to the service of confessional debate.
Petrarca's cultural successors, the literary humanists, also used varieties of the expression: media tempestas (Giovanni Andrea, Bishop of Aleria in a memorial on Nicholas of Cusa in 1469, directly quoted by later writers in 1493 and 1514) and media antiquitas, media aetas, media tempora (all between 1514 and 1530). In 1604 the political theorist and historian Melchior Goldast appears to have coined the variation medium aevum, and shortly after in a Latin work of 1610 the English jurist and legal historian John Selden repeated medium aevum, Englishing the term in 1614 to middle times and in 1618 to middle ages. As early as 1641 the French historian Pierre de Marca coined the French vernacular term moyen âge, which gained authority in the respected lexicographical work of Charles du Fresne, Seigneur du Cange, the Glossarium ad scriptores mediae et infimae latinitatis (1678), in which du Fresne emphasized the inferior quality of Latin linguistic usage after the fourth century. Other historians, including Gisbertus Voetius (Exercitia et bibliotheca studiosi theologiae, 1644) and Georg Horn (De arca Noe, 1666, and Orbis politicus, 1667) used such terms as media aetas in their histories of the church. The term and idea circulated even more widely in other historical works. Du Cange's great dictionary also used the Latin term medium aevum, as did the popular historical textbook by the Halle historian Christoph Keller (1638–1707) in 1688, The Nucleus of Middle History between Ancient and Modern, although Keller claimed that he was simply following the terminology of earlier scholars. By the late seventeenth century, medium aevum was the most commonly used term for the period in Latin and various versions of "the middle ages" in European vernacular languages.
The Enlightenment and Romanticism. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a number of thinkers argued that western Europe after the fifteenth century had surpassed even antiquity in its discoveries and technology and created a distinctively modern world. Their historical views did nothing to change the image of the Middle Ages, however, and those views were sharpened by Enlightenment critics of earlier European political and religious structures. voltaire, in his Essai sur les moeurs of 1756, savaged both the Latin Christian and the reformed churches for their clerical obscurantism and earlier rulers for their ruthless and arbitrary uses of force. Edward Gibbon, whose great work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire ended with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, categorically attributed the beginning of that very long "decline and fall" to "the triumph of barbarism and religion," thus contemptuously characterizing the entire period that followed.
But as Gibbon's own work showed, not only had the term and the often pejorative idea of the Middle Ages been shaped in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but so had the critical, technical standards of modern historical scholarship. Some Enlightenment thinkers came to share the respect for and interest in the period that many conservative rulers, nobles, magistrates, and churchmen continued to express and to apply critical historical techniques to its investigation. The new scholarly interest was intensified by the work of historians imbued with national sentiment and a conception of historically "ethnic" communities in areas that often lacked a past (or had only a provincial or peripheral frontier-past) in the Greco-Roman world, especially in Germany and England. The medieval history and ancestry of nineteenth-century nation-states, their vernacular languages, art, literature, and surviving architectural monuments, indeed most elements of folk culture; and an emotional sympathy for (largely imaginary) features of the distant post-classical past produced in most Romantic historians, as in painters, poets, historical novelists, architects, composers, and their patrons and audiences, an affectionate and sentimentalized portrait of the Middle Ages, although that portrait was usually no more accurate than the polemical characterizations of Enlightenment rationalist sceptics.
Nor were all nineteenth-century historians appreciative of the period. Jules Michelet (1798–1874), the immensely popular and influential French historian, at first praised the Middle Ages as the birth of France, but by 1855 his increasing political liberalism led him to repudiate his earlier admiration in favor of emphasizing the France of the sixteenth century, virtually coining the term Renaissance in the process and appropriating it for France. In 1860 the Basel historian Jacob Burckhardt published his Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, a work as widely read and influential as that of Michelet. In spite of Romantic nostalgia and increasingly disciplined scholarship, in the late work of Michelet and the study of Burckhardt the opposition between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was fixed in most modern usage, generally to the disadvantage of the former. These views were sharpened by nineteenth-century anticlericalism.
The Middle Ages in Modern Historiography. With the extraordinary growth of the academic discipline of history in the nineteenth century, the history of the Middle Ages was absorbed into departments of history in Europe and the United States and established in university curricula in both survey courses and research seminars. Journals of historical research began publication in Germany (1859), France (1876), England (1886), and the United States (1895), regularly including studies of one aspect or another of the Middle Ages. The editing and printing of historical documents and the writing of scholarly monographs brought the history of the Middle Ages into synchronization with other fields of history, as national history in European countries, but as more broadly pan-European, with a focus chiefly on English and French history rather than German after World War I, in the United States. The most influential monument to the new academic and professional history was the eight-volume collaborative Cambridge Medieval History, which appeared between 1911 and 1936. The New Cambridge Medieval History began to appear in 1998.
Although the teaching responsibilities of academic historians of the Middle Ages still generally reflect the original tripartite division of European history into ancient, medieval, and modern, most historians specialize in only very small parts of a very long period and are acutely aware of the need to subdivide it. With the emergence of Late Antiquity as a distinct research and teaching field following the stimulus of such early and mid-twentieth-century historians as the French scholar Henri-Irenée Marrou, the Austrian Alfons Dopsch, the Belgian Henri Pirenne, the Italian Arnaldo Momigliano, and the English historians Peter Brown and Robert Markus, the early part of the conventional Middle Ages is now being rethought and rewritten. With the emergence of various definitions of Early Modern History, as a result of the work of the Austrian Otto Brunner and the English Geoffrey Barraclough and others, older periodizations like the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation, and Scientific Revolution are being subsumed into a period extending from the late thirteenth century to the eighteenth—the later end of the "long middle ages." Specialized scholarly conferences, historical journals, and monograph series reflect these changes in the configuration of the period.
Scholars have also rethought the nature of change in different parts of Europe. Not only must they deal with the obvious differences between those lands in later Europe that had been part of the Roman Empire and those which had not, but also with the relations between the older Mediterranean world (large areas of which entered the Byzantine and Arab/Islamic cultural orbits—raising the question of comparison among the three cultures of the Mediterranean basin) and northern Europe. There is also the question of the pattern by which a culture with its heart in southern and western Europe gradually exported itself to the north and east, from Iceland to the Urals, often it seems, by a process closely approximating colonization, but a form of colonization that ended by slowly absorbing the colonies into an expanded mother-culture.
The Middle Ages will not disappear as a term, concept, or curricular subject from either colloquial or academic usage in the foreseeable future, but the history of the term and the current debate about its temporal and spatial application and appropriateness as a component of European history is a reminder that historical periods are cultural and social constructs, that human life changes often rapidly within labeled periods, however designated, and that the dialogue between continuity and change is the historian's primary intellectual activity.
Chronology. Regardless of the loaded aesthetic, linguistic, confessional, and philosophical origins of the term, the label "Middle Ages" is in any case misleading, because however one defines its chronology, its content is the emergence of a distinctive European civilization out of a region originally on the periphery of the Hellenistic-Roman Mediterranean civilization of antiquity. Although European civilization appropriated elements of both Greco-Roman antiquity and Judeo-Christian (especially the Christian interpretation of Jewish) religion and ethics, the emergence of Europe paralleled the division of the ancient Mediterranean ecumenical world into the civilizations of Byzantium, or East Rome, and Islam. Three sibling civilizations, two of them Christian, emerged at around the same time, and the influence of Eurasian history on that of Europe has recently attracted the attention of historians. But such change does not occur in a single year and not even in a single century, and to assign any but an approximate date to the beginning or end of the Middle Ages, as was once the fashion, is pointless. Far more important is the assessment of change in different periods between the third and the sixteenth centuries.
In one respect, that of dating, the Middle Ages introduced the dating of the Common Era, when the eighth-century English computist St. bede adapted the practice first used by dionysius exiguus in the fifth century of dating history Anno Domini, "in the year of the Lord." Bede's practice was taken up by Frankish chroniclers and rulers from the late eighth century on. Within the year, a universal Christian calendar also slowly displaced the older Roman calendar, with the month surviving from Roman usage and the week from Jewish, displacing the older Roman kalends, ides, and nones.
Rome, Latin Christianity, and the European Provinces. The Roman empire that gradually faded in the west during and after the fifth century (although its language, memory, Christianity, and many institutions survived) was no longer the empire of Augustus, nor was it the empire of Marcus Aurelius. Internal and external crises during the third and fourth centuries had resulted in the division of the empire into an eastern and western part after 285, with the east possessing far more material, political, and military resources and a great city as its capital, Constantinople. The entire empire was restructured to finance immense military expenditure, giving the European provinces and frontier areas greater importance.
The western part, the capital of which moved north from Rome to a number of cities, including Trier, Arles, and Milan, and ultimately to Ravenna, became less urbanized, more ruralized, and gradually dominated by an aristocracy of landowners and military officials. After 375, a series of composite peoples, many of them only recently assembled, ruled by their own political and military elites, assumed control of a number of western provinces, often in the name of the Roman emperor and with the cooperation of Roman provincials. Many of these Romans were Christian higher clergy. The term catholic ("universal") Christianity was originally used as a term to authenticate a normative Christian cult on the grounds of its universality and to characterize different beliefs and practices as heterodox on the grounds that they were merely local and reflected neither duration, unanimity nor universality. The normative Christianity of the empire gradually became the Christianity of Europe's new local rulers. Within that coherence, however, many of the new kings and peoples based their claims to legitimacy on their own local versions of Latin Christianity, expressed in law, ritual, saints' cults, and sacred spaces. If the older empire and the new, non-imperial lands in Europe into which a new culture expanded came to call itself Chris-tianitas, "Christendom," it was in practice divided into what a recent historian has called many self-contained "micro-Christendoms."
The new kings ruled as much in Roman style as they could, issuing laws written in Latin, coins that imitated imperial coinage, and sponsoring "ethnic" and genealogical histories that attributed to themselves and their peoples, however recently assembled, an identity and antiquity rivaling that of Rome. Although Romans had long despised the term rex, "king," they considered it suitable for the rulers of gentes, "tribes," who had not reached the level of the Romans, who called their own society a populus, a "people." Some of these kingdoms, especially that of the visigoths in Iberia, also modelled themselves on the Hebrew kingdom as described in scripture, borrowing and adapting some ancient Jewish ritual—such as anointing the ruler with oil and liturgically reminding him that he was God's servant, with responsibilities as well as powers. The kings and aristocracies of landowners ruled subjects both slave and free, most of them ruralized, as cities shrank and the need for them except as royal residences or capitals or as seats of bishops, decreased. As these cultures spread throughout western Europe during the fifth to eighth centuries, they reached areas that the empire had never ruled, initially Ireland, then northern Britain, the lower Rhineland, and trans-Rhenish Europe, influencing political and religious change in these areas as well.
The Mandate for Conversion. The process of expansion was also driven by a missionary mandate: the conversion of all peoples, no longer only those of the Empire, to Christianity, carried out independently by bishops, monks, and holy men (the bishop and the monk were two of the most remarkable religious and social inventions of late antiquity—the barbarian kingdoms were a third), and by Greek Christians from Constantinople as well as by missionaries from the new kingdoms and the bishops of Rome. The model of conversion of both religious belief and practice was collective—that of a ruler and his followers together as a new Christian people, integrating rulership with clerical teaching and the development of liturgy, with the definition of sacred space, control of sanctity, and the rituals surrounding key moments in human life, extending to death and burial. As Roman and non-Roman peoples assimilated during the sixth and seventh centuries, non-Romans gradually became Christian clergy themselves, and frequently saints. The conversion of Ireland in the late fifth century brought the particularly Irish ascetic practice of self-exile to bear on missionary work
Although the bishops of Rome enjoyed great respect and veneration because of the antiquity of their see, its historical orthodoxy, the relics of its martyrs (including both Peter and Paul), and the imperial and Christian history of the city of Rome, the material conditions of the sixth and seventh centuries greatly limited any papal exercise of universal authority or influence and developed relatively little theory about them. The Christian clergy preserved a literate Latin culture based on the text and understanding of scripture in several Latin versions, the writings of the Church Fathers, the legislation of Church councils, and the idea of tradition, which states that the authority of the Apostles had been passed down (Latin, traditio ) to the Christian higher clergy, particularly to the bishops.
During the seventh and eighth centuries, new invasions in the east and the emergence of Islam, first in the Arab world and then west into Egypt and Numidia and east into Persia, divided the old Mediterranean ecumenical world into three distinct culture-zones, the sibling worlds of East Rome, or Byzantium, that of Islam, and that of Latin Europe. Byzantium and western Europe remained long on the defensive against Islamic pressures, which extended to the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in 711, Sicily in 902, and Anatolia in the eleventh century.
The Frankish Adventure. In western Europe, the franks established a strong monarchy under clovis in the early sixth century. Although the Frankish kingdom was divided under Clovis's successors, it was reunited under the lordship, then monarchy (after 751) under pepin ii and his successors, Charles martel, pepin iii, and Charlemagne (768–814), bringing much of the continent under Frankish control and establishing diplomatic relations with Britain, Iberia, Rome, Constantinople, and even with Harun al-Rashid, the great caliph of Baghdad. As each of these three cultures constructed a distinctive character based on different uses of and attitudes toward the older Roman-Mediterranean ecumenical past, they maintained diplomatic and commercial contact, sometimes on a much-reduced scale, and continued to influence each other culturally even as they became more distinctively individualized.
The world of Charlemagne and his successors also patronized a vast project of what it called correctio —restoring a fragmented western European world to an earlier idealized condition—by patronizing monastic studies, attempting to standardize monastic practice and rules of life, insisting on high clerical standards, adopting and disseminating standard versions of canon law and the liturgy, and maintaining a regular network of communications throughout. In 800, Pope leo iii crowned Charlemagne emperor of the Romans, a title that his successors also adopted. Historians still debate whether these developments indicated a backward-looking, last gasp of the older world of late antiquity or a new organization of then elements of what later became Europe.
In the ninth and tenth centuries a series of new invasions from Scandinavia, the lower Danube Valley, and North Africa greatly weakened the late Carolingian world. Its military needs were met by both kings and powerful lords with armies of private followers. Although two kinds of invaders—the Scandinavians and Hungarians—became assimilated and Christianized over the next several centuries, the Islamic world remained apart, extending from Iberia and Morocco eastwards to the western edges of China and southeast Asia. But in the case of western Europe, these were the last outside invasions until the allied landings in 1944—making western Europe the only part of the world that remained free of outside invasions for nearly one thousand years. Europe could increase demographically, improve materially, and engage in cultural and commercial reciprocity and technology transfer with its parallel civilizations, but after the tenth century it no longer needed to defend itself against them.
The Demographic, Agricultural, and Urban Takeoff. Historians disagree about the extent of the social and material damage caused by the ninthand tenth-century invasions, but there is little disagreement that shortly after the end of the tenth century, perhaps earlier, signs of demographic growth are clearly visible, as are signs of a reorganization of both lordship and labor in which an order of experienced and determined warriors concentrated the control of land in its own and its dynasty's hands and coerced a largely free peasantry into subjection to it. Thus did the idea of the three orders of society—those who pray, those who fight, and those who labor—come into use to describe the results of the ascendance of the landholding aristocracy and its clerical partners. In co-operation with ecclesiastical establishments, particularly great monastic foundations like cluny, and with bishops, the nobility of the late eleventh and twelfth centuries established the agrarian basis of the urbanizing process, also well underway in the eleventh century.
Reform and Renewal. At the same time movements for ecclesiastical reform focused on a redefinition of clerical and lay identities, emphasizing clerical celibacy, clerical freedom from dependence on the laity, and the libertas of the Church to accomplish its divinelyordained mission. By the middle of the eleventh century, these movements reached Rome itself, where a line of reform-minded popes, beginning with leo ix (1049–1054) and continuing with gregory vii (1073–1085) and urban ii (1088–1099) placed the papal office at the head of reform, while articulating a systematic claim to papal authority over both clergy and, in many matters, laity as well.
The emotional intensity of ecclesiastical reform led to outbursts of religious enthusiasm both in favor and against, and one of the most significant results was the military expedition that captured Jerusalem in 1099 and established for a century the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, an expedition much later called the First Crusade (see crusades).
The reform movement of the eleventh and twelfth centuries produced an independent clerical order, hierarchically organized under the popes, which claimed both a teaching authority (magisterium ) and a disciplinary authority based on theology and canon law that regulated much of lay and all of clerical life, defined orthodoxy and heterodoxy, expressed itself through a series of energetic church councils from 1123 to the Fourth lateran council in 1215, and greatly enhanced both the ritual and legal authority of the popes. At the same time, new devotional movements led to both outbursts of dissent (with new forms of ecclesiastical discipline devised to control them) and equally passionate expressions of orthodox devotion. In particular, the Order of Friars Minor, founded by the layman francis of assisi to administer to the spiritual needs of the cities, spread widely and rapidly, as did the Order of Preachers, founded by the canon of Osma, Domingo de Guzman (1170–1221). These and other devotional movements were supported by Pope innocent iii (1189–1216) and his successors. The movement of reform and renewal also witnessed the expression of devotion in new, large churches, pilgrimage and crusade, the increase in Marian devotion and that of the crucified, rather than the regal Jesus. Commenting on scripture grew from the early contemplative monastic style to the investigative techniques and speculative theology of the new schools.
During the twelfth century clerical teaching authority was articulated in the new universities, distinctive corporate institutions that had begun with the teaching of law at Bologna and the teaching of the arts and theology at Paris, later spreading the model to Oxford and other centers of learning. With the foundation of the University of Prague in 1348, the model crossed the Rhine river for the first time.
The Territorial Monarchies. During the conflicts over reform in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, the office of emperor lost much of its religious character, although several twelfth-and thirteenth-century emperors reasserted their authority by means of Roman law and energetically applied lordship. But the most successful rulers of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were, first, individual lords who created compact and thoroughly governed principalities, and second and most important, kings who asserted their authority over that of the princes, although often with princely cooperation. The monarchies of England, France, León-Castila, Aragon, Portugal, and elsewhere all acquired their fundamental shape and character in the twelfth century. Although the Mongol invasions wreaked havoc on eastern Europe in the thirteenth century, the west was spared them, and not until the expansion of the Ottoman Turkish empire in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries did the eastern borders of Christian Europe undergo a greater threat, one that lasted until the Treaty of Carlowitz in 1699.
In the twelfth century too, literary vernacular languages emerged from under the protective umbrella of Latin, and history-writing took particular kings and peoples as its subjects rather than universal salvation-history, or else it relocated these in salvation-history in lively and novel ways. The territorial monarchies were supported by a larger and larger bureaucracy, new techniques of public finance, increasingly expensive warfare, and the political identity of kings and peoples. Following the papal model in both their formal documentation and their establishment of diplomatic relations with each other, these states represented something quite new in world history, incorporating both clergy and laity under vigorous royal dynasties. The later states of Europe, as well as their political theory and constitutional structure, grew out of the Italian city-republics and territorial monarchies of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
Crisis and Recovery. The process of rural and urban expansion and development paused in the fourteenth century as famine, epidemic disease, intensified and prolonged warfare, and financial collapse brought growth to a halt and reduced the population for a time to around a half of the 70 million people who inhabited Europe in 1300. But the resources that had created the Europe of the twelfth and thirteenth century survived these crises. It is the resiliency of Europe, not its weakness, that explains the patterns of recovery in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. That recovery continued through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The missionary mandate reached out across Mongoldominated Asia as far east as China, where a Christian bishop took up his seat at Beijing in 1309. The Mongol opening of Eurasia relocated Europe in the minds of its inhabitants. Improved maritime techniques in both navigation and marine engineering led Europeans from the thirteenth century on to cross and map first, the local seas, and then the Atlantic and Pacific. From the late fifteenth century Europe began to export itself once more, as it once had to the north and east from the tenth to the fifteenth centuries, this time over vast oceans and to other continents than Eurasia.
Neither the crises of the fourteenth century nor the voyages and discoveries of the fifteenth suggest a fatigued and exhausted Europe. On the contrary, the resiliency and capacity for innovation of fourteenth and fifteenth-century Europe, the determined and often confident search for salvation among ordinary people leading ordinary lives, even the inability of governments to weigh down their subjects without fierce displays of resistance, all indicate the strength of that European society and culture that men and women had shaped from the eighth century on.
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