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The “Middle” of what?

This is the first part of a lecture delivered to members of the public at the Twelfth Tournament at the Abbey Museum of Art and Archaeology, Caboolture, Queensland, Australia on June 23rd 2001.


Ladies and gentlemen, this talk is in two parts, both a bit theoretical, and possibly challenging to your current ideas, but I hope you will bear with me and get something out of it. The first concerns the concept of “medieval”, and the second some questions about how it is represented on occasions like this.

I am sure everyone has wondered at some time about the term the “middle ages”, for which the Latin is medii aeva, and hence “medieval” as an adjective. What is it the middle of? There are two answers: the original one and the one often found today, especially at an event like this.

Originally the idea of the “Middle Ages” arose in the fourteenth century in Italy. The closely related expression “Dark Ages” was first used in literature by Petrarch in a book dated 1376. This era was deemed to begin with the fall of the western Roman Empire to migrating tribes around the beginning of the sixth century. This was seen as having destroyed a great culture, institutions and learning. The time this idea was invented was itself regarded as the end of this “middle” or “dark” era, with the rebirth, that is “Renaissance”, of Classical learning and aesthetics. Surprisingly, this so-called Rebirth was presided over by the very people who created the concept of the “Middle” or “Dark Ages”.

The reality was somewhat different. Although we speak of “vandalism” today meaning senseless destruction, it can just as well be said that the Vandals, along with the Goths and Lombards, moved into the Roman Empire because they liked what they saw and wanted a piece of the action. Their arrival might have been a boon to the Empire had it been better handled, but the administration of the western Empire had been characterised by decline and incompetence for much of the preceding two centuries. In the event, the immigrant tribes certainly did less damage to the cultural heritage of the Roman Empire than had been done by Christian zealots, who regarded Classical learning as tainted by Paganism and inimical to their doctrines.

Even so, while there were losses, the Dark Ages were never so gloomy as Petrarch and his cohorts would have us believe. Charlemagne of France presided over a period of revival of classical learning around the beginning of the ninth century which preserved many texts in European use. France and England saw another such “Renaissance” in the twelfth century which gave rise to the university as we now know it. Still, it suited the proponents of the idea of the “middle” or “Dark” Ages to diminish the achievements of those who went before in order to inflate their own. The idea did catch on and spread across Europe over the next century, giving European culture as a whole the idea of a “Middle Ages” which gave way to a “Renaissance”. So originally, the Middle Ages in Europe went from about 500 CE to about 1400 CE followed by a Renaissance which lasted for a couple centuries.

The modern notion of medieval takes the same starting point as the older one: the fall of the western Roman empire, but claims a very different end for it: the beginning of what is called the Modern Era. This is regarded as starting in the seventeenth century and is often associated with the Protestant Reformation movements of northern European who broke away from the Roman Catholic church. Hence, you can see that there is not a huge difference in the two concepts of what is medieval, but w can be sure that those people who originally invented the concept of the “Middle” or “Dark” Ages, and who created the capital R Renaissance would be quite offended at being lumped in with people and times they liked to regard as primitive and uneducated.

Another thing you may recognise is that whichever concept of the middle ages you look at, it really only applies to western Europe. In the Middle East things were quite different. For one thing, the eastern part of the Roman Empire did not fall for another thousand years. It went through some very difficult times, especially in the first half of the seventh century when it was attacked by another wave of nomads from the north and the armies of the new religion of Islam from the south. But it recovered from that and from some internal troubles and went on to regain a great deal of strength, especially in the century preceding a minor event you may have heard of, which known as the Norman Conquest of England.

In addition, despite the military upheavals of the region, there was no such collapse in learning and culture as was seen in the West. Both the eastern Romans and the newly Islamicised societies of the Middle east valued their heritage of Classical knowledge and worked to preserve and advance it. In fact, the Renaissance of culture in Europe could hardly have happened if not for the return of lost knowledge and literature which had been preserved in the Near East.

In the Far East, and the Americas there is, of course, even less of a connection, for Classical civilisation had never extended to them and so there can never have been a “Dark Age” at all.

Thus medieval is an idea which should properly be confined to discussion of society in western Europe. It has become a convenient short hand for a sequence of dates, but should bear in mind that as a brief label it has very little actual meaning.

End of Part One!

Timothy Dawson

Go to Part Two.