The Myth of the Middle Ages

Article excerpt

The Columbian Quincentenary is a good time to reflect on the origins and consequences of one of the most persistent myths in Western historiography: the Middle or Dark Ages. The popular view of the history of the West is that it is a drama in three acts: an age of Greco-Roman classical brilliance that collapsed by A.D. 500; a dark, millennial-long middle period of chaos, ignorance, and slow, unremarkable recovery; and the modern era that, beginning around 1492, built a new society on the recovered remnants of classical antiquity and Europe's discovery and conquest of a new world. According to this common vision of the Western past, Columbus was a Renaissance pioneer who, by his tenacity and courage, helped to break the strangle hold that superstition and unquestioned priestly authority had on the European mind for a thousand years or more. As attractive as this view of Europe's history may be for filmmakers, moralists, and authors of grade school textbooks, it is totally wrong.

Medieval derives from the Latin media aeva - "the Middle Ages." Unlike the more colorful and fanciful "midevil," a spelling often favored by undergraduate students of history, the adjective "medieval" does not directly imply that the era was exceptional in its brutality, backwardness, and general sterility. Notwithstanding the inherent neutrality of the term, "medieval" as a word and as a historiographical concept was created in an environment that perceived the era as an epoch of unrelenting barbarism or, at best, unchanging drabness, which is how most people today understand and use the word. Politicians, pundits, and activists especially favor using it as a means of excoriating whatever institutions and modes of behavior or thought they deem particularly reprehensible. No one today would wish to be termed "medieval," even those who proudly are middle-aged, middle class, and Middle American.

Needless to say, Europeans who lived and died during the period ca. 500-1500 also did not refer to or think of themselves as medieval. The concept of a Middle Ages was a trick played on these "medieval" Europeans by their descendants. The humanist scholars and writers of the late fourteenth century and following laid the foundation for the notion of a European Middle Ages.

In his admiration for the literature and presumed civic virtues of republican Rome, the scholar-poet Petrarch (1304-1374) characterized "modern history," which he saw as beginning in the fourth century with the imperial adoption of Christianity and extending down to his own day, as an age of darkness. Although he divided Western history into only two segments, a classical Golden Age and degenerate modernity, Petrarch presented historians with two important new premises: antiquity ended sometime in the early centuries of the Christian Age, and the era that followed was one of intellectual darkness and civic disorder. There was, in other words, a sharp break between the glory of Rome and the gloom of Christian Europe. In the several generations that immediately followed, humanists both in Italy and north of the Alps picked up Petrarch's basic historiographical vision of post-classical degeneracy and married it to another notion that was current in their circle, namely that their own day was experiencing a rinascita, or revival, of the literary, artistic, and civic standards of classical Rome. The idea of the Renaissance was taking shape, but for there to be a renaissance, there had to be a preceding period of death, or at least coma. As early as 1469, the churchman and humanist Giovanni Andrea (1417-1475) used the term media tempestas to refer to the post-Roman period of European history. The choice of the word tempestas, which means both "time" and "storm," is significant.

The self-styled Renaissance humanists, however, were largely a small, elitist group, whose books and ideas initially failed to reach the mainstream of European society. If the thousand or so years that followed the putative collapse of Roman civilization in the West were to be held up to general contempt, a movement of greater mass popularity than Renaissance humanism would have to be the agent. …