What is that period of time we call the ‘Middle Ages’? When was that period of time?
These two deceptively simple questions are challenging, in part because the Middle Ages is a construct. In history, a ‘construct’ is something which is not an event, not a place, not a person, and not a date. A construct is not a specific, concrete, verifiable datum.
Instead, a construct is a vague generalization which attempts to capture a pattern or trend among historical events. In the language of the mathematical sciences, it is a best-fit line.
There is a precise and unambiguous answer to questions like these: When was the Battle of Hastings? Where was the Battle of Hastings?
But a construct, like the Middle Ages, is rather impressionistic and does not admit of such precision or verification. As historian Irma Simonton Black writes,
The Middle Ages, then, was a time of excitement and danger, of isolation and self-reliance, of faith, progress, and much, much more.
Note that the concept is large enough to embrace opposites: medieval thought contained seeds of both free-market capitalism and statist communism. It laid the foundations for the zenith of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but also for atheism. It modeled both political liberty and authoritarian control.
Notably, the Middle Ages took the Germanic structure of early feudalism and created a system which, unlike the previous Roman imperial system, imposed mutual obligations: the vassal was obliged to serve the lord, but the lord was equally obligated to provide for the vassal.
Attempting to give temporal starting and ending points for the Middle Ages is a vain task; author Irma Simonton Black presents her effort:
The term refers to a period of time of about one thousand years following the collapse of the Roman Empire during the fifth century (400 to 500 A.D.). Modern historians divide this era into the Early Middle Ages (until about 1050), the High Middle Ages (from 1050 to 1300), and finally the Late Middle Ages or Renaissance.
Note that she identifies the ‘Late Middle Ages’ with the ‘Renaissance’ in contradiction to numerous other historians. Such a conflict in definition will have no resolution, because of the high degree of ambiguity inherent in the concepts.
Debates about when the Middle Ages ended and when the Renaissance began are fruitless because the question itself is malformed. Unlike that Battle of Hastings, or the Coronation of Charlemagne, or the signing of the Magna Carta, a conceptual construct like the Middle Ages or the Renaissance cannot have a precise date.
If we cannot answer the question about when, perhaps we can explore the question about what.
“Middle” was used because historians used to think of these years as a time of intellectual stagnation which came between the high civilizations of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and modern times. More modern historians looked more closely into the period, however, and recognized it as a time of great and valuable change and growth.
In the Middle Ages, thinkers like Thomas Bradwardine laid the foundations for modern physics. The Magna Carta established legal rights for women.
Women in the Middle Ages still faced challenges, but had gained a social and civil status far greater than women in Greece and Rome. Scholastic philosophers argued that the universe was organized around rational thought, and that therefore it was valid to use mathematics to explore the observational and empirical sciences; they thereby set the stage for modern chemistry.
Although some scholars had used the word ‘Renaissance’ to intimate that the medievals were ignorant, they in fact had access to the large corpus of text which the Romans and Greeks had left for them. John Scottus Eriugena, for example, was carefully analyzing Greek text in the 800’s A.D., centuries before the self-proclaimed ‘Renaissance’ declared that it had ‘discovered’ them.
Questions about the ‘what’ and the ‘when’ of the Middle Ages will never receive fully satisfactory answers.
Importantly, however, it is clear that the centuries after 476 A.D. were filled with formative and influential events. Thinkers and writers established what would become the modern notions of mathematics, chemistry, physics, and philosophy. Artists produced works of lasting value. Engineers and mechanics developed significant machinery.
Writers during the Renaissance era attempted to cast the medievals in a bad light. They argued that the people of the Middle Ages were ignorant and superstitious.
The conventional image, which relied on generalizations, of medievals as oppressed and unimaginative has been shattered by research about the specific people and events who lived during these centuries.