BETWEEN the ancient and the medieval worlds there lies a great gulf, bridged perhaps only, so far as the general reader is concerned, by the magnificent architecture of Gibbon Decline and Fall. Despite the intensive researches of recent years it would be idle to deny that the centuries known as the 'Dark Ages' still remain one of the obscurest stages in European history. Yet progress is undoubtedly being made in the elucidation of many of the principal problems. Certain views have definitely been discarded. The Roman Empire, it is now seen, did not end with the capture of the Western capital or with the deposition of Romulus Augustulus. The catastrophic explanation of the passing of the Roman world yields place, on further analysis, to a more reasoned theory of evolution. Justice is beginning to be done to the greatness of the Byzantine achievement, and to the true character of the civilization which continued the Roman tradition on the shores of the Bosphorus. The Islamic onslaught is no longer viewed through the eyes of medieval opponents, for whom its menace to their religion obscured the common origin of Christian and Mahometan culture. Critical study of the art and literature of this time has in many cases led to a more favourable estimate, and has undoubtedly deepened the sense of continuity between the old order and the new. The great figures of the age stand out more vividly than before, and the findings of archaeology, together with the recent interest in economic conditions, have produced for the imagination a more lively picture of the everyday existence of communities and individuals. In the following pages an attempt is made to present a brief outline of four centuries of European history viewed in the light of these results.
The arbitrary nature of historical periods, which are actually, in certain respects, little more than a superior form of memoria technica, is sufficiently obvious to need no emphasis. Organic processes cannot be cleanly bisected with a stroke of the pen, and it is hardly to be expected that all forms of human activity should develop pari passu. Various dates have in consequence been given for the beginning of the Middle Ages, ranging from