What Are “The Middle Ages”?

Battle of Crecy, 1346We’re familiar (or at least we think we are) with aspects of life from the Middle Ages. You know, castles, knights in shining armor, tournaments, kings! If we’re scholarly, we might consider the crusades, the Hundred Years War, the Moors in Spain, the Knights Templar, and the Great Schism.

This month (February 2016) the historical theme of the month on Gazette665 is “Chivalry or Medieval Madness?” And we’ll be explore some of the more famous aspects of the era and deciding if the historical period has been totally romanticized or if it really was a time of unparalleled bravery and beauty.

But first, there’s kind of a problem. Just what is the historical period called “The Middle Ages”? There’s all kinds of ideas and history floating around about this era. When was it?  Let’s explore (and debate)…

I Need A Date

Wait, I’m not talking about going to dinner…thankyouverymuch! I’m a historian, so I’m talking about a day, a year, a time period when something happened. Sometimes it’s easy to find a date – for example, the American Civil War started in 1861, April 12th to be precise. That’s easy…

However, it’s not so easy to assign a time frame to the Middle Ages. Why? Because different historians, professors, and scholars feel that the period started and ended at different times. (Fun, right?)

The Way I Like To Think Of It

Now, I’m not an expert on this subject, but this is how I like to think of the Middle Ages and assign some dates. I have the general period I think of the Middle Ages and then it can be broken down into sub-periods. (Kinda like “Ancient History” can be divided into the Greek and Roman domination, etc. etc.)

Middle Ages = 476 A.D. to 1492 A.D.  (Or to be less specific: 5th Century A.D. to 15th Century A.D.)

An Anglo-Saxon parade helmet, c. 7th Century A.D.

An Anglo-Saxon parade helmet, c. 7th Century A.D.

Early Middle Ages – 476 to 999ish  In 476 the Roman Empire collapsed, throwing western Europe into the Dark Ages as barbarian tribes and kingdoms ruled. The Catholic religion did manage to spread through Europe during this period. On Christmas Day 800, Charlemagne was crowned emperor by the pope. In the east, the Byzantine Empire preserved some vestiges of Romanic culture, and Islam was a rising religion and culture in the Middle East.

 

 

 

 

A Cleric, Knight, and Workman, symbolizing the social classes of the Middle Ages.

A Cleric, Knight, and Workman, symbolizing the social classes of the Middle Ages.

High Middle Ages (or the Middle of the Middle Ages) – 1000ish to 1300  This period in Western Europe was characterized by increasing trade, art, and kingdom building. Feudalism became formalized. The Catholic Church continued to exert great influence in daily life and became a political as well as religious force. The early Crusades also took place during this era.

 

 

 

An image from the Late Middle Ages, showing feudalism and the increasing strength of the nobility and their fortresses

An image from the Late Middle Ages, showing feudalism and the increasing strength of the nobility and their fortresses

Late Middle Ages – 1300ish to 1500ish  The last part of the Middle Ages saw progressing trade, academic learning, and bigger wars. Kings supported by noblemen and knights in the now elaborate feudal system went to war with each other for disputed land; the Hundred Years War between England and France is the most memorable. The Black Plague struck Europe several times during this period. The Italian Renaissance also began and flourished, revolutionizing art, politics, religion, and philosophy.

When Did It End?

Historians pick different dates for the ending of the Middle Ages. Some prefer 1453 because that’s when Constantinople and the Byzantium Empire fell. Others like 1492 since that’s when Columbus sailed the ocean blue (personally, I’m a fan of using 1492 since that joins nicely and starts the Age of Navigation/Exploration/Discovery or whatever else you want to call it.) Still other researchers like to be more specific to the Renaissances of Europe and use those more exclusively.

(Confused yet? Read the previous section for clarification and generally accepted periods.)

How Many Names Can An Era Have?

Too many. Here’s a couple names for the time period between 476 and 1492: Middle Ages, Medieval Era, and Dark Ages. And of course they mean different things to different people.

Middle Ages – this term is pretty safe! It’s rooted in the common fact that the era falls between the Roman Empire/Ancient Times and the Beginning of the Modern Era. It’s in the middle, so make it easy. Call it the Middle Ages.

Medieval Era – well, the word “medieval” actually comes from a Latin word meaning “middle age.” It came into use during the early 1800’s as a word describing the time between the 5th and 15th Centuries. (Fun Fact: when I was a kid, I thought it was called the “Medieval Era” because it was “sort of evil.” Maybe I was right? That’s for you to decide in the next weeks.)

Dark Ages – some historians use this term when referring to the entire period, others like to use it when describing the Barbaric Years immediately after the fall of Rome. Either way, it basically implies that the era didn’t have much social, religious, educational, philosophical, cultural progress. And that’s a matter for debate…

Enough With The Historiography!

(Historiography is the study of how historians have interpreted the past…in the past, and it’s usually interestingly confusing.)

Alright, now that we’ve defined the time frame of the Middle Ages – or at least given you the tools to decide – we will move on and talk about some of the more famous aspects of the period and what it was really like in that time.

So, which category does all this belong in? Chivalry or Medieval Madness? I think it borderlines on madness, but I think its more a modern history interpretation mess…so we can’t exactly fault the folks who lived a thousand years ago. 🙂

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. What do you think about the start and end of the Middle Ages? Or what’s the most interesting historical event of the period to you? Tell us in a comment…

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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4 Responses to What Are “The Middle Ages”?

  1. Shawnna says:

    My favorite character from the Middle Ages is Alfred the Great! Benjamin Merkle wrote a wonderful book about him titled The White Horse King. Then again, I’m intrigued by the Plantagenets since I am (very) distantly related to them 🙂 Josephine Tey wrote a fun book defending Richard III entitled Daughter of Time. Fun Fact: Barbara Spooner, William Wilberforce’s wife, was a (great-great…) niece of Richard III. Recently, the British had to find a descendant from the female line in order to test the DNA of the bones found in 2012 and believed to be the remains of Richard III; Barbara Spooner’s name turned up in that female line. So, for me, maybe the Middle Ages ends in 1485 with the death of Richard III and the beginning of the reign of those rascally Tudors. Ha!

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