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Bible Encyclopedias
The Middle Ages

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

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This name is commonly given to that period of European history which lies between what are known as ancient and modern times, and which has generally been considered as extending from about the middle of the 5th to about the middle of the 15th centuries. The two dates adopted in old textbooks were 476 and 1453, from the setting aside of the last emperor in the West until the fall of Constantinople. In reality it is impossible to assign any exact dates for the opening and close of such a period. The trend of recent historical research leads one even to doubt the validity of the very conception of any definite medieval period. The evolution of modern European society has been continuous. Progress has not been uniform. There was much retrogression with the intrusion of new barbarian races; but from their absorption by the 10th century until the 10th there is not a century in which some notable gain was not made towards the attainments of modern civilization. The correct perspective places between the summits of modern and ancient times, not a long level stretch of a thousand years, with mankind stationary, spell-bound under the authority of the Church, absorbed in war or monastic dreams, but a downward and then a long upward slope, on both of which the forces which make for civilization may be seen at work.

It is clear that a survey of the history of these so-called middle ages - long use makes the term inevitable - must include not only the political phase, but also economics, religion, law, science, literature, &c., since all are involved in the concept. A hurried outline of each of these vital branches of our civilization will at once reveal the falseness of the usual periodizing. It is only after having traced these one by one that we can properly review the process as a whole.

In political history, the epochal fact which marks the close of ancient times is the decline of the Roman Empire. This was a process extending over three or four centuries, in which no one date lends itself to the historian. The deposition of Romulus Augustulus, the last Roman emperor in the West, in 476, was certainly not one of those events upon which the history of the Western world depends. Outwardly it did not mark the end of the Empire, but the restoration of imperial unity. The throne in Italy had been vacant before, and the restoration of unity was realized in fact under Justinian. There is no reason why the date 476 should stand out in European history more strongly than half a dozen other such dates. Yet we may say that the 5th century did witness the actual dismemberment of the Roman Empire. The new nations in Spain, Gaul, parts of Italy and Britain were forming the rude beginnings of what were to become national states in the centuries following. Western Europe was taken out of the imperial mould and broken up. This is a revolution of sufficient magnitude to be regarded as politically the opening of a new era. It had been long preparing in the economic and administrative decline of the Empire, and in the steady influx of Germanic peoples into Roman territory for over two centuries; but the power of the old civilization to absorb the new races was exhausted by the 5th century, and the political history of Europe was turned into a different path. That path, however, was not destined to end blindly in a "middle age." The line of political development marked out in the 5th century - that of the national state - still continues. The revolution in which Alaric, Theodoric and Clovis figured did not set the problem for the middle ages only, as is frequently stated; its full meaning did not appear until the Peninsular War, the Prussia of Stein and Scharnhorst, and even Solferino and Sedan. Thus the 5th century politically introduces not so much the history of the middle ages as that of modern Europe.

The immediate introduction, however, was a long one - so long and so distinct from the later development as to constitute in itself a distinct phase. For five or six centuries - from the 5th until about the 11th - comparatively little permanent progress was made. The Germanic tribes were still adjusting themselves and slowly learning to combine their primitive institutions with the remains of those of Rome; the premature union under Charlemagne gave way before new invasions, and anarchy became crystallized in feudalism. It was not until the 12th and 13th centuries that modern national states really took shape: England with its trial by jury, circuit courts, Magna Charta and parliament; France under the strong hand of the Capetians. A political middle age certainly lay between Theodosius and William the Conqueror, or at least between Justinian and Henry II. It is difficult to grasp its vastness. Few students of history realize that the period from the Saxon to the Norman Conquest of England would take us as far back as from George V. to Edward I.; or that from Theodosius to Philip Augustus there is an interval equal to that between the accession of Hugh Capet and the French Revolution.

This, however, is not the period most frequently termed the middle ages in political histories. It does not include those two institutions which more than any others stand in popular imagination as genuinely medieval - the papal monarchy and the Holy Roman Empire. The papacy received its full monarchial structure under Hildebrand (Gregory VII.) in the middle of the II th century; its political decline set in suddenly after the pontificate of Boniface VIII. at the opening of the 14th. The great age of the Empire began slightly earlier, and continued until the fall of the Hohenstaufen in the middle of the 13th century. One cannot now deny the term middle ages to the period of these two institutions. It has been consecrated to this use too long. Yet when we include under a common name two eras so distinct as this and that preceding, our term becomes so vague as to be almost valueless. Moreover, it is doubtful if this second period is really as "medieval" as it has seemed. Papal monarchy and Holy Roman Empire were not the only political phenomena of their age, and it is possible that their vast pretensions have somewhat blinded historians as to their real importance. While they were struggling to enforce their claims to universal sovereignty, the royal power, less extravagant but more real, was welding together the feudal states of France and moulding the England of to-day. Compared with this obscure process - this spread of the king's peace along the highways and through the distant forest lands of the 12th and 13th centuries - papal interdicts and jubilees, however impressive their spectacle, are but fleeting shows. The chivalry of Germany pouring through Alpine passes for an Italian campaign, or a coronation, left little trace in history except the lesson of their futility. There is much in the imperial and papal histories that is merely spectacular and romantic; much that appeals to the imagination and lends itself to myth; and since the sources are abundant - the papal archives inexhaustible and the German chronicles easily accessible - an undue emphasis has been placed upon them. It is at least evident that the political middle ages were already disintegrating during the period of papal monarchy and Holy Roman Empire.

In economic history there is a more definite line traceable. The one great economic change brought about by the decline of the Roman Empire was the lessening of urban life throughout the greater part of Europe, the closing up of avenues of communication and the predominance of isolated agricultural communities. This phase began to give way in the irth century to a commercial and industrial renaissance, which received a great impetus from the crusading movements - themselves largely economic - and by the 14th century had made the Netherlands the factory of Europe, the Rhine a vast artery of trade, and north Italy a hive of busy cities. The discovery of America and the expansion of commerce merely readjusted conditions already highly developed. The period of isolated economy which we may term medieval lasted only from about the 5th to the 12th centuries. As for manufactures, the antique methods survived until the 18th and 19th centuries.

In religious history - to be distinguished from that of the political organization referred to above as the papal monarchy - the official recognition of the Christian Church by Galerius in 311 serves as a convenient starting-point for what we know as universal Christendom, though the slow disappearance of paganism, as distinct from Christianity, stretches over at least a century more. The Reformation of the 16th century has long been regarded as the close of the period. The real close, however, is the present day - as the result of the .rationalism and science of the 18th and 19th centuries. The heroes of the Reformation, judged by modern standards, were reactionaries. Unconsciously and to its own ultimate damage the Reformation forged the weapons of progress; but it was itself in no sense, except the institutional and political, the end of that religious history inaugurated before the Council of Nicaea. The real change in attitude which marks the dawn of a new era came in the generation of Voltaire. And "medievalism" is only now on the defence against "modernism," both Catholic and Protestant.

In legal history there was a distinct medieval period, when Germanic customs superseded Roman law, that most splendid of Rome's legacies. But the renaissance of law began relatively early; by the 12th century it had created a university, by the 13th it was helping to organize national states and laying the basis for that order which the economic renaissance was already demanding.

In science there was no great product in antiquity to be lost. Compared with art or law, literature or philosophy, ancient science (in our sense) was almost insignificant. The promise in Aristotle of such production remained unfulfilled. The 17th century is not so much a renaissance here as a mere beginning. No one can deny the general unscientific, uncritical nature of "medieval" thought. A single Roger Bacon does not relieve his age of the charge. But the middle age in science must include much of antiquity, including Pliny.

Philosophy was the one subject which had, clearly and definitely, a medieval period. Scholasticism, which absorbed the attention of most thinkers from about the 11th to about the 15th centuries, is so easily marked off and played so considerable a role in the academic history of that time, that historians often refer to it as the only intellectual interest of "medieval" men. Then, selecting some of the later and less virile scholastics as victims, they ask how men could be seriously interested in their trivialities. But these men were not all busy over the problem of how many angels could stand on a needle-point; nor were they all dominated by the religious spirit of faith or intellectual cowardice. They were searching for truth with scientific eagerness. Their very failure made possible the modern era. It, is perhaps unnecessary to point out how small a proportion of the "intellectuals" were scholastics even in the 13th century.

In the realm of art the "middle ages" had already set in before Constantine robbed the arch of Titus to decorate his own, and before those museums of antiquity, the temples, were plundered by Christian mobs. The victory of Christianity - iconoclastic in its primitive spirit - was but a single chapter in the story of decline. The process was completed by the misery of the decaying empire, and by the Germanic invasions. The barbarians, however, destroyed less than has been commonly supposed. Destruction was more the product of necessity than of wantonness. Thus public monuments became fortresses, and antique sculpture was built into city walls. Such art as continued was almost wholly religious; for in the wilderness of the times the churches formed oases of comparative prosperity and peace, and, even in the darkest times, wherever such oases existed there the seeds of art took root. The Church architecture of the "middle ages," then developed naturally and without a break, through the Byzantine and Romanesque styles, out of the secular and religious architecture of Greece and Rome. And, with the return of comparatively settled and prosperous conditions, not only architecture but the other arts also blossomed under the influence of what was later stigmatized as the "Gothic" spirit into new and original forms. Down to the Reformation the churches continued to be, as the temples of the ancient world had been, the main centres of the arts; yet the arts were not confined to them, but flourished wherever, as in castles or walled cities, the conditions essential to their development existed. With the revival of civilized conditions in secular life, secular ideals in art also revived; the ecclesiastical traditions in painting and sculpture, which always tend to become stereotyped, began in the West to be encroached upon long before the period of the "Renaissance." The 12th and r3th centuries, which witnessed the great struggle between the secular and spiritual powers in the state, witnessed also the rise of a literature inspired by the lay spirit, and of an art which was already escaping from the thraldom of the stereotyped ecclesiastical forms. Gothic sculpture was not incidentally decorative, it was an essential element in the harmony of the architectural design. The elongated kings that guard the door of Chartres Cathedral, or the portals with the Last Judgment, are a necessary element in the façade. Thus fettered, even the realism of the Gothic sculptors failed, except in rare instances, of its full expression. The plastic arts were left for Italy, where antique models were at hand, and the glory of its achievement in the 15th and 16th centuries was so great as to obscure in men's eyes what had been done before.

But this Italian renaissance was not the only one. It was but one of many; and it was concerned with the two subjects which perhaps least deeply influence the lives of the mass of men - literary humanism and art. It is obviously absurd, in the face of the foregoing facts, to regard it as the end of a middle age in anything but in its own field.

When one studies the history of Europe subject by subject, as indicated above, and not merely in a monastic chronicle of things in general, chosen according to the author's point of view, one sees the old-time framework passing away. The traditional idea of a barren middle r age and a single glorious renaissance proves false. An organic study of the past reveals a more rational picture of the process which produced the Europe of to-day. Cataclysm and special creation here as, elsewhere give way to evolution. The new synthesis reveals a universal decline from the 5th to the 10th centuries, while the Germanic races were learning the rudiments of culture, a decline that was deepened by each succeeding wave of migration, each tribal war of Franks or Saxons, and reached its climax in the disorders of the 9th and 10th centuries when the half-formed civilization of Christendom was forced to face the migration of the Northmen by sea, the raids of the Saracen upon the south and the onslaught of Hungarians and Sla y s upon the east. That was the dark age. It left Europe bristling with feudal castles, and already alert for the march of progress. At once the march begins. Henry the Fowler beats back the Sla y s and places the outposts of Christendom along the Elbe and the Oder. Otto I., his son, drives the Magyars from southern Germany and establishes the East Mark (Austria) to guard the upper Danube. The restoration of the Empire in 962 marks the first milestone on the pathway of recovery. Already scholarship had found a home in monasteries planted in the heart of the German forests. The succeeding century Brought the Empire to the acme of its power, until Henry III. in the Synod of Sutri, sat in judgment on the impotent and demoralized papacy. Meanwhile France had been learning something even in its feudal anarchy. The monks of Cluny were at work. The Capetians had begun. The great monastery of Bec was drawing the sons of northern sea-robbers to the service of that greatest civilizing force, the Church. The progress made through even this darkest age may be measured by the difference between the army of Rollo and that which William the Conqueror gathered for the invasion of England.

There is a legend, current among historians from the days of Robertson and Hallam, that as the year 1000 approached mankind prepared for the Last Judgment; that the earth "clothed itself with the white mantle of churches," and like a penitent watched in terror and in prayer for the fatal dawn. Contemporary sources fail to bear out this beautiful conception. Apart from the fact that reckoning from the birth of Christ was by no means universal, and consequently the mass of men were ignorant that there was such a thing as the year 1000, one wonders how that most enduring type of architecture, the Romanesque, reached its maturity among men who thought that the earth itself was so soon to "shrivel like a parched scroll." Recent scholarship has absolutely disproved this legend, founded on a few trite phrases in monastic chronicles, and still to be heard in similar contexts. The year 1000 marks no epoch in medieval history.

The latter half of the 11th century witnessed the most remarkable political creation in Europe since the days of Caesar, the papal monarchy of Hildebrand. The great scholastic controversies had already begun in the schools of France; the revival of Roman law had called forth the university of Bologna, and the canonists had begun the codification of the law of the Church. The way was already cleared for the busy 12th century - the age of Louis VI. and Henry II., of Glanvill and Suger, of Abelard and Maimonides, of Frederick Barbarossa and Alexander III., of the emancipation of French communes and cities and the independence of those of Lombardy, of the growth of gilds and the extension of commerce, of trouvere and troubadour and the beginnings of vernacular literature, of the creation of Gothic art, of trial by jury and the supremacy of royal justice. Such are but a fraction of its achievements. The 12th century stands beside the 18th as one of the greatest creative centuries in human history. The 13th like the 19th applied these creations in the transformation of society. The century of Dante was also that of the first English parliament; its vast economic expansion enabled the national state to triumph in both England and France, and furnished the grounds for the overthrow of Boniface VIII. Into the complex history of this momentous age it is impossible to go in any detail. Sufficient to say that in the opening quarter of the r4th century England and France at least stood on the brink of "modern times." Then these two nations entered upon that long tragedy of the Hundred Years' War, a calamity absolutely immeasurable to both. But during its massacres, jacqueries, plagues and famines, the cities of Italy, growing rich with trade and manufactures, were in their turn the centres of progress, this time in a new direction, toward the recovery of the antique past and the development of art.

This is the so-called Renaissance (q.v.). The humanists which it produced, interested only in its splendid revelations, forgot or ignored the achievements of the period which intervened between Cicero and Petrarch. Then by the genius of their work they fastened their mistaken perspective upon historians and the cultured world at large. They struck upon the unfortunate and opprobrious term "middle ages" for that which stood between them and their classic ideals. The term was first used in this sense by Flavio Biondo, whose "decades" was an attempt to block out the annals of history from 410 to 1410. His treatment fell in admirably with the ideas of his age and of that following. To Protestants the age of the papal monarchy was like the reign of Anti-Christ. Then, after the indifference of humanists and Protestant polemic, came the disgust of men of science at the scholastic philosophy - an attitude best exhibited in Bacon's Advancement of Learning.

The 18th century was thus trebly barred from a knowledge of genuine medieval history. Romanticism, that reaction in which Sir Walter Scott, the Schlegels and Victor Hugo so largely figured, was as far from understanding what it admired as classicism had been from what it hated. Its extravagant praise of all that savoured of the middle ages was still blind to their real progress and work. They were, for it, the ages of romance and chivalry. The view of the romanticists was as one-sided as any that had gone before. It is only with the introduction of a wider outlook in the scientific study of history that it has been possible to straighten the perspective and modify the traditional scheme.

In the purely intellectual sphere it is certainly true that the recovery of the antique world was of great importance; that it made possible genuine criticism by presenting new points of contrast and opening up fields that led away from theological quibbles. But it did not mean the "double discovery of the outer and inner world." Mankind did not, as Burckhardt and J. A. Symonds lead one to imagine, suddenly throw off a cowl that has blinded the eyes for a thousand years to the beauty of the world around, and awaken all at once to the mere joy of living. If any one was ever awake to the joys of living it was the minnesinger, troubadour or goliard, and the world had to wait until Rousseau and Burns before its external beauty was discovered, or at least deeply appreciated, by any but a few Dutch artists. Even Goethe crossed the Alps with his carriage shutters closed. Mont Blanc is not mentioned by travellers until after the middle of the 18th century. The discovery of the outer world is a recent thing in art as well as in science. As for the claim that the "Renaissance" delivered men from that blind reliance upon authority which was typical of "medieval" thought, that is a fallacy cherished by those who themselves rely upon the authority of historians, blind to the most ordinary processes of thought. In this regard, indeed, in spite of the advance of scientific method and the wealth of material upon which to base criticism, we are still for the most part in the middle ages. The respect for anything in books, the dogma of journalistic inerrancy which still numbers its devotees by millions, the common acceptance of even scientific conceptions upon the dicta of a small group of investigators, these are but a few of the signs of the persistence of what is surely not a medieval but a universal trait. The so-called Renaissance did much; but it did not do the things attributed to it by those who see the "middle ages" through humanist glasses.

Upon the whole, therefore, it would seem that not only was there no one middle age common to all branches of human evolution, except the period more definitely marked as the dark age, but that those characteristics which are generally regarded as "medieval" were by no means limited to a single epoch of European history. In short, the dark age was a reality; but the traditional "middle ages" are a myth. (J. T. S.*)

Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'The Middle Ages'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​bri/​t/the-middle-ages.html. 1910.
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