Everyone remembers the line the teachers feed us in elementary school: “There’s no such a thing as a dumb question, so don’t be afraid to ask!” This line usually backfires and makes the whole class think they may have thought of the first “dumb question” in history, or the class feigns laughter upon hearing an inquiry; acting as if they would never be so curious to ask about something, are proud to be so, and scornful of those who aren’t. As such, I’ve decided to introduce a new category to my blog attempting to prove this line is actually true. The theme will cover questions which may be perceived as “dumb”, however, the series will serve to illustrate the difference between ignorance and stupidity: a stupid person may be ignorant, but is either unaware or proud to be so, but rather, an ignorant person is simply unaware of information, we’re all ignorant about something. I will then use these “dumb questions” and demonstrate how many are actually important historical questions, the answers to which cause considerable disagreement among scholars. The first installment of this category will answer the question “When was the Middle Ages?”
The term “Middle Ages” itself implies that it is in the past, presumably between two definitive points, it’s in the “Middle”. No one during the period was walking around saying they were in “The Middle Ages”. This term was retroactively applied by intellectual figures subsequent to the period which they were discussing. This has lead to considerable confusion and misconceptions among most people as to when the Middle Ages actually were within the historical timeline. Often, many people seem to consider much of history as the “Middle Ages”, and then lumping it all into one horrible, wretched, mud covered, plague strewn, violent, dreadful, blight on the otherwise fantastic history of humanity. In this essay I will highlight different viewpoints as to when the Middle Ages were, and in process dispel some common misconceptions about the Middle Ages, both the filthy and and the knightly.
Western and Eastern Roman Empires, 4th c. A.D.
Most scholars agree to the first “point” the Middle Ages is the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The Roman Empire had ruled much of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Stretching from Britain in the North West, Morocco in the South, Iraq in the East, and with a Northern borders at the Rhine and the Danube rivers, in modern southern Germany and through Hungary. The Empire collapsed during a period known, paradoxically, as both the Barbarian Migrations and the Barbarian Invasions, depending on the context. Rome had come to rely upon mercenaries recruited from the non-Roman tribes to police their vast borders, and many of these, mostly Germanic tribesmen, quickly advanced through the Roman military, became Roman citizens, and sometimes entered into prominent positions within the Roman government. However, changes in the Northern European and West and Central Asian climates brought hitherto unknown tribes into the Roman World: among numerous others, these included the Angles, the Teutons, the Franks, the Arabs, the Vandals, and the Huns; many of the nationalist historical accounts of various nations trace themselves back to this period.
These are those mercenaries, called “foederati”, from a a Latin term meaning Federation, as in the Germanic tribal federation
Pope Leo the Great and Attila the Hun
The “Fall of the Roman Empire” is not a single point, and different historians emphasize different dates and events. Rome was sacked in 410 A.D. and 455 A.D., by the Vandals and the Ostrogoths, respectively. This is why “Vandal”, someone who destroys public property, and “Gothic”, something dark and foreboding (“Gothic” architecture was applied as an epithet as people thought it was “barbaric”) have their negative connotations. The last great Roman General, Flavius Aetius, who had defeated Attila the Hun, was assassinated by his fellow Romans in 454 A.D., fearing him as a political opponent: careerism had become more important than the good of the Empire; Edward Gibbon, the famous 18th century historian, emphasized the death of Aetius. The last Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed in 476 by the Romano-German Odoacer, who became King of Italy. Many modern historians have taken this more gradual approach to the decline and fall, pointing to the maintenance of Roman Law in much of the former Empire, and the bureaucratic parallels between the Emperor and the Senate to the Papacy and the College of Cardinals. Furthermore, for much of the Empire unaffected by the Barbarian Invasions, little changed for a long time culturally or materially. In fact, many of the “Barbarians” (this is a Roman term, they thought foreign speech sounded like “Bar bar bar bar”) were mainly Romanized, and maintained much of the former economic structure, merely with themselves as the main authorities. However, while many appreciated the trappings of Roman life, they did little to maintain the bureaucracy necessary to maintain said trappings.
Huns weren’t about all that red tape and stuff.
Roman strength was its bureaucracy. A network of governors, who were rotated so as to not form local power bastions, allowed the Emperor and the Senate to construct interconnected road networks, aqueducts, and had systems of poverty alleviation, the “dole” as it was called, originally a Roman term for a bread ration received by the poor, elderly, and sick. These systems could be found throughout Europe and the Middle East for over a thousand years. They gradually collapsed following the Barbarian Invasions and Migrations. Barbarian chieftains installed themselves in positions of authority in different parts of the former Roman Empire: the Angles in England, the Franks in France, and the Teutons in Germany. Importantly, there were also the Arabs in Arabia and the Berbers in North Africa, who conquered these territories from the Visigoths, and then together eventually crossed into Visigothic Spain in 711 A.D., territories which the Visigoths had previously conquered from the Vandals. This was a period of flux, migration, and change. Once these events had settled in the 700-800’s A.D., the Vikings from the North came and began their raids and conquests, plundering as far south as Moorish Spain, and settling as far east as Kiev. This period is known either the “Dark Ages” or more academically, the “Early Middle Ages”. The Fall of the Western Roman Empire and the Barbarian Invasions and Migrations is the first “point” the Middle Ages is between.
Map of Barbarian Invasions/Migrations
Emperor Justinian, r. 527-565 A.D. and Patriarch Maximanius
Note, the “Western” Roman Empire, which comprised of modern Britain, France, Italy, part of Germany, Spain, Tunisia, northern Algeria, and Morocco; the Eastern Roman Empire, with its capital in Byzantium, survived. The term “Byzantine Empire” was created by historians to differentiate it from the Eastern Roman Empire, which had a separate Emperor and bureaucracy during the twilight of the Western Empire. The Arabs were able to dislodge the Byzantines from the Arabian peninsula, Sicily, Southern Italy, Sardinia, North Africa, and Egypt, they were never able to push them from Anatolia, Greece, Much of the Middle East and the Caucasus.The Arabs however maintained much of the older Roman infrastructure in certain regions, most notably North Africa and Spain, largely until the time of the Caliphate of Cordoba, which collapsed in 1031. In addition, the Muslims were not a substantial military threat to the Byzantine Empire until the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. Furthermore, there was significant infighting amongst various Islamic sects and political organizations. Meanwhile, in Northern Europe, the Vikings had pillaged much of the European coastal regions, and among the Christian kingdoms and Pagan tribes they raided, a mounted warrior class began to emerge to defend villages from these Viking invaders.
Charlemagne, in a Renaissance painting by Albrecht Durer.
Tariq (Tarik), conqueror of Iberia.
Two major social changes predominated the “Dark Ages”/”Early Middle Ages”, namely, the rise of Christianity and Islam. While Christianity was the official religion of the Western & Eastern Roman Empires, the new migrants were entirely Pagan. Islam was traditionally founded in 622 A.D. (year 0 in the Islamic dating system), and Christianity gradually rose again throughout Europe at around the same period. Poland for instance, was not Christianized until 966 A.D., Lithuania until the 1200’s. On Christmas Day, 800 A.D., Charles, King of the Franks, was crowned “Holy Roman Emperor”, an attempt by the Papacy to revive the Empire in the West. Charles is better known as Charlemagne, or Carolus Magnus, Latin for Charles the Great. Charlemagne is credited for holding Western European culture together during the period of the Vikings, creating a new form of regulating government and the relationships and responsibilities between various classes; it was much more effective than simply hiring bodyguards. This process was known as Feudalism. Charles the Great ruled over an Empire covering France, Eastern Germany, Northern Spain, and much of Italy, converting them, at least officially, to Christianity. His rule marks an important turning point in the history of Europe. However, under the terms of the 843 Treaty of Aachen, Charlemagne’s Empire was divided amongst his three sons: Charles, who received France, Louis, who received Germany, and Lothar, who received a squiggly bit in the middle from the Netherlands through to Italy called Lotharingia.
Western Europe under the Treaty of Aaachen, 843 A.D.
However, the threat of the Pagan Scandinavian tribes remained a problem in Northern Europe. To fend off the Vikings, the grandson of Charles the Great, Charles the Straightforward, granted a Duchy to Rollo, a Viking warlord. The region came to be known as Normandy, the land of the Northmen. Rollo received Normandy in exchange for conversion to Christianity, becoming Robert I, Duke of Normandy, and a vassal of the King of France. Rollo and his followers came to be known as the Normans, who conquered a large swathe of territory, including Sicily (from the Arabs), most of the French coastline, and most importantly, England in 1066, under William the Conqueror following the Battle of Hastings. The coronation of Charlemagne, 800, the Fall of the Caliphate of Cordoba, 1031, the Battle of Hastings, 1066,The Battle of Manzikert, 1071, and various Christianizations and Islamifications, which was largely only among the educated and nobility, are all considered the end of the “Early Middle Ages” and the “Dark Ages”. Terms such as “Dark Ages”, or the “Jahiliyyah” in reference to the Middle East, have extreme religious connotations which are demeaning to the artistic, literary, economic, and military achievements of the periods they refer. What begins subsequent to the Early Middle Ages is the High Middle Ages.
Baptism of Rollo of Normandy
Map of Europe ca. 1000
The map and cultures of the former Roman Empires had changed dramatically over two to three centuries. Now, numerous Kingdoms, Empires, Caliphates, Republics and Emirates doted the former duopoly of the Roman Empires. The Byzantine Empire, who continued to consider themselves the Roman Empire, was but one of many states, and gradually declining in importance. Two new ethnic groups emerged from the East, the Mongols, and a Central Asian and increasingly Slavicized group known as the Turks, who were recent converts to Islam emerged in Europe and the Middle East. The Mongols conquered Russia, the Middle East, and much of Asia from the 1200s onwards. The Turks were able to dislodge the Eastern Roman Empire from Anatolia (modern day Turkey) and modern Greece over the course of the 1200’s-1300’s, except the Morea Peninsula and Thrace, the territory surrounding Constantinople itself. Now a withered city having been sacked by Turks, Mongols, Crusaders, and others during the preceding centuries. Furthermore, much of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East had been decimated by the Bubonic Plague in the 1380’s, killing ~25 million people. The High Middle Ages were characterized by the rise of Feudal states, the decline of the Eastern Roman Empire, and the legal authority of Christianity and Islam throughout the former Roman Empire. The period following the Mongol Invasion, the Rise of the Turks, and the Bubonic Plague is considered the Late Middle Ages.
How many boards could the Mongols hoard if the Mongol Hordes got Bored?
“Dance of Death” from the Nuremberg Chronicle
While the time of Bubonic Plague itself was a wretched period to be alive, the period subsequent saw a marked improvement in everyday people’s lives. The decline in population saw increases in wages which lasted several centuries, and new forms of commerce and trade emerged. Commerce was dominated the Hanseatic League in Northern Europe, a German merchant community who dominated European trade and originated during the High Middle Ages, but reached its zenith in the Late Middle Ages, in 1387. The Hanseatic Merchants united much of Northern Europe in a network of commerce providing much of the food for urban centres from the rural regions; as most urban centre’s immediate hinterlands could often only provide food for ~2 months out of the year, this was a marked improvement in the lives of urban people, and was of great profit for rural farmers, who were the majority of the population at the time. Modern banking emerged in Italy, creating paper bills of exchange to avoid the rigours and dangers of transporting gold over long distances. This was the precursor to modern paper money. In the 1400’s the printing press was invented, leading to substantial increases in literacy across Europe and the Middle East. However, the formerly powerful and advanced Muslim Spain had substantially declined over the previous centuries. The minor Christian states of Northern Spain had united into Portugal, Castile, and Aragon, three powerful kingdoms, while the Muslim territories, which had formerly covered much of the Iberian peninsula, were reduced to the small state of Granada in the South. The late Middle Ages was characterized by the emergence of modern economic techniques, the rise of literacy, and the decline of Moorish Spain. But when did the Late Middle Ages end?
Three years and several events can be contended as the “End of the Middle Ages”, and the beginning of the “Renaissance” or the “Early Modern Period”. 1453, 1492, and 1517 are the major dates pointed to as the final bookend of the Middle Ages. In 1453, Constantinople had fallen to the Turks. These people, who were late converts and rather Europeanized Muslims, had become the most powerful state in the Islamic World and Eastern Europe. In 1492, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, whose marriage had united Aragon and Castile into the Kingdom of Spain, conquered the last Muslim foothold in Iberia. Furthermore, a Genoese navigator in Royal Spanish employ, Christopher Columbus, landed in the Caribbean. This lead to a rapid change in European commerce, as well as diet and cultural habits. Furthermore, this began the great European diaspora to the Western Hemisphere, facilitated by the displacement of the indigenous population. In Europe during this period, the Catholic Church enjoyed uncontested, but not unquestioned, dominance of European Christianity. In 1517, a little known German monk named Martin Luther, using the late Medieval internet, the printing press, published his 95 Theses, creating Protestantism. A theological and printing revolution spread across Europe, which lead to the rise of modern states, as Church authorities lost their monopoly on theology, and literacy. However, thanks to the printing revolution, Europe and the Middle East became more standardly Christian or Islamic, as earlier Pagan traditions had survived throughout much of the Middle Ages among much of the populace due to lack of communications technology. In addition, a new technology had arrived in Europe, and was developed over this period: gunpowder. The development of firearms in Europe lead to the decline of the necessity of the knightly class, as there was no more need for a specific warrior caste. This lead to the development of modern professional armies. With the Fall of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Birth of Spain coupled with the arrival of Columbus in the New World, the development of gunpowder, and the emergence of Protestantism, the Early Modern Era had begun.
Isabella and Ferdinand
Woodcut depicting London Plague outbreak, 1600’s
The “Middle Ages” refers to an extremely long period, ~450 A.D.-~1500 A.D., over a thousand years. The notion of a “Middle Ages” was created by people in the Early Modern Period who dubbed themselves “Humanists”. They considered themselves enlightened and reborn, hence the term “Renaissance”. However, during a period known as the Enlightenment, ~1650-1789, many social phenomena common during the “Renaissance”, such as witch hunts, were considered part of the “Middle Ages”. During the Industrial Revolution, much of history from the Fall of Rome to (their) present was considered Medieval due to economic changes and relative democratization since the Revolutions of 1688 in Britain, 1776 in America, and 1789 in France. The phrase “Nasty, Brutish, and Short” in reference to life was coined by early Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who was referring to his own period; the turmoil brought forth by the English Civil War had unleashed what Hobbes termed the “State of Nature”, whereby when man is unrestrained by laws he acts as he so chooses, rather than for the common good of society. The period from the 1789 French Revolution to the fall of Napoleon in 1815 saw more battles than the previous 500 years combined in European history. The notion of “Middle Ages” essentially means “brutish time we don’t live in anymore and that we’re much better than.” Though it has since come of utility to historians for the sake of periodization.
And that is why “When was the Middle Ages?” is not a dumb question in the slightest.