If the Middle Ages didn’t exist, would they have had to be invented? Below, I’m going to talk through the problematics of periodization in general and that of the Middle Ages in particular, suggesting ways to complicate our understanding of what we mean when we talk about medieval cultures. However, that doesn’t mean that periodization is arbitrary or insignificant. The sociopolitical, technological, and demographic coherence of the medieval period dictate that we identify it as an era of world history. So yes, the Middle Ages would have had to be invented, preferably with a different moniker, but alas, we’ll go with what we’ve got.
Table of Contents
- Problems with Periodization
- Why Periodization Matters
- Internal vs. External Periodization
- So When Were the Middle Ages?
- A Few Recommended Reads
Problems with Periodization
Periodization is an artificial construct. No one woke up one morning in 1455 and said to themselves, “Hey, the printing press has just been invented, ushering in the dawn of modernity!”1 Much ink (and no shortage of vitriol)2 has been spilled in the academic debate about periodizing, in particular its tendency to imperialistically foist the paradigms of the West on the Rest.
The “Middle” Ages is especially problematic because it’s deliberately pejorative: the term was invented by early modern humanists who fancied themselves restorers of ancient Greek lucidity. They preferred to gloss over what they saw as the superstitious and politically unsavory period that stood between them and the rational “Classics.” To their eyes, the centuries between the fall of Rome and its “rebirth” (better known to us in its French branding as the Renaissance) are just the bland, sorry centuries “in between.” These assumptions are very much alive and well in popular imagination and political conversation. Two recent books by medievalists attempt to rebrand the benighted Middle Ages, The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science and The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe.3
Given all this, you would be justified in asking why historians bother with controversial and reductionist dating methods. Instead of arguing about whether, say, the Edo period was part of the Japanese Middle Ages, why not just speak of Edo Japan? Well, for one, that requires a person to know what Edo Japan is and when it happened. Okay, how about seventeenth-century Japan? The seventeenth century, which Western academic historians have politely transformed into the “Common Era” (C.E.), is a count from the putative year 1, when, yes, the Christian savior is said to have been born.4 In other words, it is impossible to get away from from cultural constraints.5 And since that is the case, we use periodization for the same reason that we use any heuristic: it’s effective (if reductionist) in communicating, especially in cross-cultural contexts, which in our global knowledge economy is pretty much all of them.
Why Periodization Matters
Apart from convenience and communication, periodization also matters as an interpretive frame. Humans are storytelling creatures. We understand our very lives, and the lives of others, as narratives with beginnings, middles, and ends. We ceaselessly construct and consume stories in copious media: oral, visual, textual. Our word history is connected linguistically and intimately to story, both rooted in the concept of knowing, witnessing, inquiring.
Without inquiry and meaning-making, history really is just “one damn thing after another.” Though we must, in the interest of responsible knowledge production, hold onto the messiness and indeterminacy of telling any real story, I believe we are equally charged with making sense of the evidence before us. We do this, haltingly and with epistemological humility, but for real, when we seek and define a narrative arc through which to tell the story of our facts, or as close as we can come to them.
As such, it’s important to be aware that historical narration is an interpretive activity, which means that it is human, with all the limitations that entails, particularly those of the historian’s culture and time as well as their training and individual mind. Any interpretation implies other possible interpretations. This does not mean that a given interpretation is incorrect; it could mean that it chose to focus on one aspect of the historical subject to the exclusion of another.
In the case of periodization, this means being aware that our retrospective sense of what history means might have been understood differently, at the time, by those who actually lived through it. It asks us to remember that the continuities and discontinuities that we can see were not necessarily apparent at the time. (Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.) It reminds us to probe our own assumptions, which is amazing because it allows us to fly freer than before of the cultural conditions in which we live.
Internal vs. External Periodization
As noted above, the aspirationally neutral, but very much culturally embedded, periodizations of academic history impose upon cultures external paradigms. These will, for given cultures, fit better or less well. It is always significant to take note of how a culture periodizes its own history and try to understand its internal meaning-making processes.
I’ll give an example from my own field of Jewish studies. Internal Jewish historiography (which, having been produced by humans, is naturally not unified in its outlook) generally tends to distinguish eras in accordance with the chain of transmission of revealed (Written and Oral) Torah. Pirkei Avot 1:1 offers a concise rubric: we begin with Moshe (Moses) in the era of prophecy, continue with Anshei Knesset ha-Gedola (Men of the Great Assembly), the Zugot (pairs of leading sages), the Tannaim (sages of the Mishnah era),6 then Amoraim (sages of the Talmud era), Geonim (heads of the academies), Rishonim (former authorities), and Acharonim (latter authorities), which take us up to our own time. This is an internal periodization system.
There is a lot of coherence and cultural value in these internal divisions, and I personally find them more useful than the external ones. However, there is also good reason to refer to external periodization in talking about Jewish history. For example, the period of the Rishonim is equivalent to the central to late medieval period. It can be easy to forget that Rashi and Rambam were medieval people, who lived their lives in very real medieval conditions that could not but have influenced them. If you want to learn more about these great thinkers and the worlds they lived in, then you are in the field of medieval history.
In the case of Jewish history, the alignment between conventional Western (i.e. Western European) periodization and internal periodization is fairly easy to achieve. So we can class everything up to the Tannaim as belonging to antiquity, the Amoraim as late antiquity, Geonim as early medieval, Rishonim as medieval, and Acharonim as early modern to modern.
So When Were the Middle Ages?
The short answer I would give is that the Middle Ages consist of the roughly 1,000-year period from c. 500 to c. 1500. (This is the field of knowledge on which I was tested in order to receive a doctorate in medieval studies.)
The longer answer is, the edges are fuzzy and subject to competing concerns. This means that the Middle Ages, in some places, could be said to start as early as the early fourth century or as late as 1000; and to end anywhere from the early fourteenth century up to 1789 or even later. Each delimiter emphasizes particular core features of antiquity, medieval, or early modern life.
Around the year 500, the Mediterranean world was entering a post-Roman reconfiguration. Within just over a century, Islam would emerge to reshape the entire Middle East and Mediterranean basin. Around the year 1500, European monarchs were consolidating their power into proto-states. The middle class, which had slowly (very slowly) grown over the medieval centuries, became a major economic force. Technological progress included mechanical printing and navigational capabilities leading to European contact with the Americas. All this led to demographic shifts that brought disparate peoples into contact with one another.
On the Jewish Middle Ages
Conveniently, the close of the Talmud, c. 500, happens to occur right around the conventional beginning of the medieval period. This puts the Geonic era, which traditionally ends in 1038, squarely in the early Middle Ages. The Rishonim, as noted above, are medieval.7 The dividing line between Rishonim and Acharonim is traditionally the law code the Shulchan Aruch, which was first published in Venice 1565/6 (and shortly thereafter, in Kraków in 1578-80, with the glosses of the Rema.) This too dovetails neatly with the beginning of early modernity. However, other possible delimiters of the boundary between the medieval and early modern Jewish worlds are, on the lower end, the Iberian expulsions (1492-97), and on the upper end, political emancipation (France, 1791).
A Few Recommended Reads
Norman Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages (Harper, 1993).
This surprisingly engaging book looks at how medieval history was constructed by Western academic historians. You’ll be amazed at how many of our shared cultural assumptions are shaped by particular views of history.
Lester K. Little and Barbara H, Rosenwein, eds., Debating the Middle Ages (Wiley-Blackwell, 1998).
Though a lot of thought has obviously happened since 1998, this is still an excellent guide through core debates of Western medieval studies, including periodization. (Don’t be sacred off by the hardcover price, you can get a used or like-new paperback at a decent price.)
Moshe Rosman, How Jewish is Jewish History? (Littman, 2007).
A scholarly but readable exploration of the questions raised above in the context of internal/ external viewpoints of Jewish history: what does it mean to impose a historiographical frame on Jewish culture?
Image: Actual photo I took at Medieval Times in Orange County, CA. I live-tweeted.
- The printing press was not actually invented in 1455; reality is always more complicated, but the first Gutenberg Bible was completed around this year, which is why I picked it.
- You know my favorite quip about academia? The battles are so fierce because the stakes are so low.
- The adjective “medieval,” though favored by scholars, is no better: it literally just means “of the Middle Ages” in Latin.
- This used to be termed A.D., the acronym for anno domini, a shortened form of anno domini nostri Iesu Christi, “In the year of our lord Jesus the messiah,” which, if this is not your lord or messiah, is problematic. You’ll find many supposedly neutral sources using the old standard, usually out of ignorance rather than ideology. In some fields, such as academic Islamic studies, it’s standard to give the common era (C.E.) date followed or preceded by the Hijra (A.H., Muslim calendar) date. If you’re wondering, there’s no year zero on the Julian/Gregorian calendar that was adopted by the Christian Church; the years go from -1 to 1.
- I like to call this the “It’s the culture, stupid” problem.
- This is as far as Pirkei Avot takes us.
- There are, notably, other uses of the term rishonim in rabbinic literature, including in that of those we usually think of as Rishonim, that refers to earlier authorities and not medieval Jewish thinkers specifically.