by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the May 2001, A.S. XXXVI issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
While the breaking up of human history is as old as the recording of history, the current demarcations are the product of the Renaissance. With a new found understanding of Greco-Roman material, and dismissive of their predecessor’s efforts, the Renaissance scholars sought to distance themselves from them. Thus they designated the time between them and the ancients a separate period of history, and so was born the Middle Age. A time uniformly viewed as being a Dark Age. Whole books have been written testing the validity of that description. This essay instead, will explore the meaning and usage of this term.
The first recorded use of the term ‘Middle Age’, actually the Latin version ‘medium aevum’, occurs in 1604 in a justly forgotten book on the German language. A similar Latin term ‘media tempestas’ or ‘middle times’, was used in a letter in 1469. The English term was first recorded in 1616.
The period of time these terms encompass has always been fluid. Their initial use was to vaguely indicate the period between now and some distant past. A 1688 history book, in its title, puts it between Constantine and the fall of Constantinople. John Donne used to mean the period of the Church Fathers and the Scholastic philosophers. What quickly emerged at the bookends of this period were Roman sensibilities: when they were new in the Roman Empire at one end and their re-emergent in the Renaissance at the other.
During the 17th century, as the concept of the Middle Ages crystallized, the dominant aspect that the writers focused on were the religious sensibilities of the time. Thus the reason this period became known as the Dark Ages is the result that the writers were Protestant and had an ax to grind against the dominate Catholic Church.
The use of dark as imagery for ignorance and unreasoning is as old as man. The Catholic Church’s refusal to acknowledge the correctness of the Protestant view allowed the Protestants to paint the Church as unreasonable and ignorant. Thus the time when the Catholic Church was dominant was thereby by definition a dark time. This in contrast to the then Age of Enlightenment further defined the Middle Ages. The sense of ignorance and lack of understanding was later broadened to include all areas of intellectual achievement.
The use of the term ‘Dark Ages’ as a synonym for ‘Middle Ages’ did not actually occur until 1769. By 1837 the Dark Ages were dark indeed with nothing to recommend them, a time of barely civilized savagery. However, at the same time, the historian S.R. Maitland wrote a series of essays to refute this overly negative view.
Since then, the period covered by the Dark Ages has continually shrunk. By 1904 it only extended to 1100. More recently it has been pushed back to before the time of Charlemagne. The reasons are twofold. The first is an increased willingness to examine the period from the perspective of those living it rather then looking back with smug hindsight. The savagery of the 20th century helped. The second is the broadening of the scope of study. Initial treatments focused on the literature and politics of the time with sidebars on theology and the legal system. As scholarship expanded to include economics and technology, as well as more writings became available, the originally of the Middle Ages emerged and brighten.
This changing view of the Middle Ages had as more to do with the reaction to the 19th century then to new scholarship. First up were the Romantics who saw in the Middle Ages the freedom, naturalism and spiritualism that they saw being driven out of human society by the Industrial Revolution. But their idealism distorted their view into seeing the Middle Ages better then it was as much as the Reformation writers saw it as worse then it was. They were followed by the Victorians who saw in the Middle Ages the deterministic origins of the world spanning empires they were building.
As the 20th century brought new insights into the human mind, behavior, and society, a new way of looking at the Middle Ages emerged. This led to a better appreciation of the medieval mind and therefore of medieval accomplishments. Perceived parallels between the 20th century and the 14th and 15th centuries also added the period’s allure. The Middle Ages of today is a complex mosaic of ignorance and brilliance, of high ideals and savagery, of intense localism and global spanning movements. Not unlike today.
In the end it should be remembered that to the people of the period there was no distinct break in history. The calamities that befell Rome in the 5th century were tragic, but signaled the end of the Roman Empire only in retrospect long after the fact. Charlemagne saw himself as reviving the Roman Empire, not creating something new. The labels we put on history is for our convenience and are as much a reflection of our ideas as they are of the period they label.
Cantor, Norman F. Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century. New York: Quill, 1991.
Stanley, Eric G. "The Early Middle Ages = The Dark Ages = The Heroic Age of England and in English." The Middle Ages after the Middle Ages in the English-Speaking World. Ed. Marie-Françoise Alamichel, and Derek Brewer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
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