Monday, October 11, 2010

When Were the Middle Ages?

When were the Middle Ages?

I always thought I knew the answer to this question. They were the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the modern era. The first half of this period, up to 1066, were the early Middle Ages (previously called the Dark Ages). The second half were just the Middle Ages. So when my book, God's Philosophers, purports to show how the medieval world laid the foundations of modern science, I meant in the time between the Norman Conquest and the discovery of America. In general, the Middle Ages are held to end in about 1500, although dates between 1453 (the fall of Constantinople) and 1517 (when Luther nailed his theses to the door) have been suggested. The year 1492 always seemed to me the best one because, not only did Columbus set sail, but back home, the final Islamic kingdom in Spain was conquered.

But at least two reviewers have complained that the Middle Ages actually ended rather earlier than I had thought. They said that this meant the fourteenth-century achievements that I had labelled as medieval actually belonged to the Renaissance. I have to admit that this objection did occur to me. I noted in my book that there is a habit of calling something good which happens around 1400 (say, in painting) early Renaissance. Meanwhile something bad that happened at the same time (say, the Hundred Years War) would be called medieval. In fact, anything bad that happened at any time has been called 'medieval', so perhaps we should not be so surprised. Since the scientific advances that I documented were 'good', they had to be products of the Renaissance and not the Middle Ages.

In reply, I would note the following. Firstly, among historians, it is universally accepted that the first half of the fifteenth century forms a part of the Middle Ages. By definition, they end when the modern era begins and you cannot push this date back before 1453. Few would try to push it back to before 1492. Secondly, the Renaissance is not a historical period (and no one can agree on when it begins and when it ends). It is really just a category invented by art historians in the nineteenth century. You can describe architecture as Renaissance (as opposed to Gothic or Romanesque). But you can't really describe a time period this way.

Finally, the Renaissance happened in Italy rather earlier than it happened in Northern Europe. So even if you can push the Renaissance back to before 1400 in the context of Florence, you cannot do this when talking about France or the Netherlands (let alone England). Much of the foueteenth-century science I discuss in my book takes place in Oxford and Paris. There is no way that the period before the Black Death in either of these cities could possibly be called the Renaissance, early or otherwise.

But in the end, none of this matters. I did not write the book to rehabilitate a time period (whatever the shorthand of the title might imply), but the people who lived during it. The achievements of Jean Buridan, Nicole Oresme and the Merton Calculators are not lessened because some reviewers chose to claim that they didn't actually live during the Middle Ages.

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Anonymous said...

Nearly 20 years since I did this stuff, but abolutely agree on your Renaissance conclusion. For me, there is this amorphous period, when things were definitely on the move, roughly between Scholastic movement, Aquinas, founding of first universities, through vernacular biblical translations, proto-Reformation, Plutarch and the invention of print. So it's 1250-1450 for me, that's a huge range I know. Take your pick, as you say, doesn't really matter that much, each has his own idea as long as one is precise when writing about such things in context.

TheOFloinn said...

The Renaissance is a "what," not a "when." It was the rediscovery of Periclean Athens and Augustan Rome in art, sculpture, architecture, poetry. They were into humanism, not science.

Johan Huizinga's masterwork The Autumn of the Middle Ages covers the 15th century, primarily in Burgundy and France. Life was still medieval in its sensibilities.

Pedro Erik said...

I love your book, James. You taught me a lot. In certain way, my blog (write in Portuguese) called, got inspiration from your book and your blog.
I agree about your position on historical periods. You can copy that expression to economics and say: "it is the people, stupid".

Pedro Erik