[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index][Author Index][Search Archives]

Stupid question.. (fwd)

Poster: clevin@ripco.com (Craig Levin)

> Poster: Ash <phantom@atomic.net>
> What is the general given time for the Middle Ages?
> as in from what to what? :)
> thank you and sorry to ask a stupid question.

Imprimis: There is no such thing a a stupid question, least of
all the one you just asked.

The question of defining the Middle Ages is not a stupid
question, trust me. It's usually one of the required questions
one gets to answer on one's graduate comprehensives for a degree
in history, mediaeval studies <naturally>, and/or literature. I
should know-I've got degrees in 2 of the three subjects, and I
just passed my comps!

First of all, people in the Middle Ages didn't think of
themselves as living in "the Middle Ages," as we would know it.
As far as they were concerned, they were _moderni_-modern folks.
They did use "Middle Age" to define the period between the 1st
and 2nd Coming of Jesus-and in that way, they were mediaeval
people, but <if you're a Christian> then so are we. Incidentally,
"mediaeval" comes from the Latin, _medium_ _aevum_-or middle age.
German, Latin, and the Romance languages all refer to the time
period in the singular. English is odd.

Defining a start for the Middle Ages is like trying to grab
jelly: it slips right through your fingers and leaves them
sticky. The "classical" definition of the start of the Middle
Ages is 475, the deposition of Romulus Augustulus, the last Roman
emperor in the Occident by his Ostrogothic general. As neat as
this may seem to appear, it would be foolish to call this the
fall of Rome (tm). After all, the Eastern Roman Empire was a
going concern based at Constantinople until 1453! Also, it
neglects the fact that in the Occident, Roman emperors had been
little more than puppets of their Teuton generals for decades.
Economically, the trade and industry of Late Antiquity (whose
beginning and end are as confusing as that of the MA; I usually
say that it starts circa 200 AD) went on uninterruptedly until
the Moslems conquered North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula in
the 600's and 700's. Religiously, the Roman Empire had been more
or less Christianized through the 300's and 400's, at least in
the cities and towns. Intellectually, Isidore of Seville, writing
in the 600's, was in the same tradition as the Latin Fathers; for
that matter, so were the clerics of the Merovingian and
Carolingian dynasties.

Th real transition, in my opinion, was political and military,
and it took place gradually. The devolution of power from Rome
out to the Teutonic chieftains, bishops, and other local gentry
was the harbinger of the Europe which we have today, with its
many states where Rome once held unchallenged sway. Many of the
countries which we recognize today (France, for example) weren't
"unified" until the 1200's, if not the 1400's-do we count
Burgundy as a duchy of France or as a country, during the reign
of Henry V of England? 

Militarily, the classical age ended when commanders of forces in
the Roman dominions no longer even kept up the pretense of
leading them in the name of Rome, and established their own
independent commands. Some would say that the Middle Ages really
started once the Franks converted their army from a levee en
masse of infantry to a select host of cavalry, supported by
precaria (fiefs), or by the land which they themselve owned as
military commanders. I recommend Ganshof's Feudalism for more
details. To keep a long story short, while 300 AD is too early,
800 AD is too late. 500 or 600 would be about right; but remember
that this is pretty arbitrary.

Ending the Middle Ages is even harder-Russia, for example, still
practiced serfdom into the 1800's! Petrarch, an Italian poet of
the 1300's, was perhaps the first person to use the older term of
"medium aevum," instead of defining "now," to define it as the
period between the end of the great classical Latin writing
(200's) and his own time, because he and his buddies started
writing Latin in the ancient style (and, in doing so, started to
kill off the only universal scholarly language the Occident ever
had until the 1980's, when English took over even in France and
Germany), notwithstanding the fact that mediaeval Latin can
frequently be as elegant as anything Tully or Quintilian put to
papyrus. Moreover, mediaeval people avidly studied the writings
of the ancients-how else could Petrarch have read them,
otherwise, when there simply are no ancient Latin manuscripts,
but only mediaeval copies?

Religiously, I'd say that the Reformation ended the Middle Ages.
That's a nice clean break with the past. Of course, one then has
to deal with the fact that the Reformation took place in
different places at different times-and I'm including the Council
of Trent as the "Catholic Reformation," here. But, at least, it
started at a definite point, and ended at a definite point...

Politically, Great Britain is still mediaeval-most of the
Renaissance governments tried to put an end to their Parliaments'
power as soon as possible. For the most part, though, these
Parliaments were goners by 1500.

IMO, there is no intellectual break in many disciplines between
now and the Middle Ages-philosophy is still nattering over many
of the issues which vexed it 1000 years ago. The real break isn't
so much Copernicus (Pythagoras and some of his followers were
talking about systems in which the Earth moved long before, and
these were known to mediaeval people) as Galileo and his school.
Even so, that's the early 1600's.

Militarily, the replacement of the cavalryman as the decider of
battle dates to the 1300's, when archers and artillery take the
field. Castles cease to be up to date fortifications in the
1400's; however, cavalry continued to be part of almost every
nation's order of battle until the twentieth century-including

In the arts, it depends from country to country. Perspective's no
stranger in the 1400's. Book illumination and handwriting
basically cease by the 1550's. 

Simply, here, where 1300 is too early, 1600 is too late. I'd
close the Middle Ages off at 1500.

Craig Levin

List Archives, FAQ, FTP:  http://sca.wayfarer.org/merryrose/
            Submissions:  atlantia@atlantia.sca.org
        Admin. requests:  majordomo@atlantia.sca.org