Defining the Middle Ages

I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do with this blog when I started it.  Honestly, my first thought was steampunk.  I’m sure I will eventually get around to it, but it clearly hasn’t been my focus.

I am a medievalist.  I am greatly enjoying writing about that passion, and, strangely enough, people seem actually interested in reading about it.  I also have become remarkably interested in medieval art, which must have sneaked in during my years teaching the humanities.

So it occurs to me that I might need to lay down the basics of what I mean by medieval.

The Word

The time period in question is the Middle Ages or the medieval period.  Not the medeval period, which I presume is when doctors get evaluated, and definitely not the midevil period, which I imagine sits between the periods of lesser-evil and greater-evil.

Thou Shalt Not Call It The Dark Ages

As explained in the Medieval Astronomical Clock article, Renaissance intellectuals were kind of self-important ass-hats.  They saw their culture as one of renewal and rebirth, which is literally what renaissance means.  They also understood their culture to be significantly influenced by Classical Greek and Roman learning, which is absolutely true.  Thus, the Renaissance was a time where Classical learning was born anew.

But there’s this awkward 1000 year time span in-between the Classical Rome and the Renaissance.  Petrarch, writing in the 14th century, described that middle time period as a period of darkness between two periods of enlightenment.  And lots of people listened to him, which is why today you’ll see people say things like he’s the “father of humanism” (seems a wee bit of an exaggeration) and that he started the Renaissance, as if nothing that happened in the previous centuries, or even previous days, led to the creation of Renaissance culture.

Eventually, this middle period became came to be called the Dark Ages, and for a long time  intellectuals saw very little reason to study it because it was just so full of crude, uneducated barbarians.

…And cathedrals. And illuminated manuscripts.  And clocks.  And Thomas ****ing Aquinas, one of the great Catholic defenders of Classical rationalism.  And screw you, Petrarch.  Ass-hat.

Sainte Chapelle - Gothic Architecture
Gothic architecture, named after the Germanic tribe of Goths that helped overrun the Roman Empire.
Seriously, this was considered too barbaric to be worthy of praise.
Sainte Chapelle, France, 13th century. (Wikipedia)

So now, in deference to the fact that the period is not nearly as dark or unchanging as Petrarch and friends insisted, we call it the Middle Ages.

Time Period

I use the simplest method of determining when the Middle Ages takes place.  It starts at the fall of the Roman Empire, which we generally say happened in 476, although we somewhat arbitrarily picked an event that year as the official end.  I round up to 500 CE.

It ends with the beginning of the Renaissance, which in Italy starts right about 1300, but doesn’t reach England until about 1500.  So if I’m talking the culture of England in 1400, I say it’s medieval, and if I’m talking about the same year in Italy, I call it Renaissance. (Some people call 1300-1500 the Late Middle Ages, just to further complicate things.)

There’s another method which I might well use if it weren’t that I teach freshmen and need to keep things simple.  Many insert a period called Late Antiquity, which starts around 200 and ends around either 600 or 800.  This includes the decline of the Roman empire (from 200 to 500 CE) and the chaos that existed after the fall.

People who want Late Antiquity to extend to 800 mark Charlemagne’s elevation to the new position Holy Roman Emperor as the beginning of the return to political organization, despite the fact that his Empire immediately broke up and got shuffled around for two centuries before being more firmly established.  Among other things, Empire lost France, which is where Charlemagne started.  That’s kind of a big deal.

So I generally call everything from 500 to 1300-1500 the Middle Ages.  We then divide that into two pieces, the Early and High Middle Ages.  Everyone agrees that division is at 1000 CE.

Early vs. High Middle Ages

How does one tell the difference between the Early and High Middle Ages? If you’re looking at a castle, it’s High Middle Ages. Looking at fragments of castle? Still High Middle Ages. Early Medieval structures were generally wood and have long since disintegrated or been torn down. Giant church? Absolutely High Middle Ages.

Written document? Probably High Middle Ages, although the church was writing some stuff down in the Early Middle Ages such as gospel books.  These include the Book of Durrow, which bears the image of St. Matthew of the Sandwich Board, among others, and the Lindesfarne Gospels, a sample of which is used as the header of this article.

Marginalia is High Middle Ages.  Magna Carta (The Big Piece of Paper) is High Middle Ages.

As such, I like to think of the High Middle Ages as When Europeans Start Seriously Making Stuff.

Apologies to the Early Middle Ages

Sutton Hoo Belt Buckle
© Trustees of the British Museum
(As an aside, lots of people look at knotwork like this and presume it’s Celtic. It’s not. It’s Germanic. A lot of stuff people label as “Celtic” isn’t Celtic in the slightest.)

I exaggerate, of course. Early medieval folks did make small, personal pieces of art such as jewelry, and some of it looks as professional as what you would find in any other time period. We just don’t have a lot of it, either because not a lot was made or not a lot has survived. If you’re going to make a five-inch solid gold belt buckle, you’d better put it somewhere very safe.

Which is exactly what happened at Sutton Hoo, a 7th century burial, which we like to call the King Tut’s tomb of early medieval English archeology. Besides the belt buckle, the find included ceremonial armor and weapons and personal items made of gold and enamel.

Granted, the Vampire Monkey Christ belt buckle is also Early Middle Ages, but its crudeness derives from the fact that not nearly everyone is an artist in any time period.


Returning to the question of telling the two periods apart: Are you talking about places like France and England? High Middle Ages. They form right about the year 1000. The Holy Roman Empire, which is not centered in Rome and is not any more holy than other country, also solidifies around this time.

Leave a Reply