A Forgotten Period No More
The Middle Ages, sometimes called the Medieval Period, is an era of European history that spanned around 1,000 years. It started with the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD and ended with the beginning of the Renaissance which started around 1500 AD.
Taking place sooooo long ago, and being so different from today, why even bother studying this period of history?
Besides the fact that all of history is relevant, there are several key reasons why it remains important to study the Middle Ages. This period helps us explain the world we live in today, and speaks to the progress human civilization has made over the years.
It was a dynamic period of cultural and social transformation that laid the groundwork for the modern age.
What Even Are the “Middle Ages”?
The Middle Ages? What does that even mean? The middle of what?
It’s true. It’s kind of a weird name for a 1,000 year period of history. In another 1,000 years, we probably won’t use it any more.
Over the past few hundred years, historians decided to split European history up into three eras:
- Antiquity (think ancient Rome and Greece)
- Middle Ages (the fall of Rome in 476 AD to around 1500 AD)
- Modern Age, (the Renaissance, the Age of Exploration, the Enlightenment, all the way up until today)
All of these names are constructions. This means they aren’t really “real.” Instead, they are labels historians have made up to understand history better. There is no reason to divide history this way except to make understanding it easier, and to understand it in a specific way.
In fact, their very existence often says a lot about how we view the world.
For Europeans, the fall of Rome in 476 AD was a major moment. After dominating the region for the previous 600 years and establishing roads, laws, and the Latin language across the land, it moved society “forward” in a way unseen before.
Then the Romans left, and the next period of history seems rather confusing and complex to understand. New ethnic groups emerged and formed new kingdoms, and there really wasn’t a strong central power to bring everyone together. The Catholic Church, based in Rome, held a lot of power.
Population declined in the first few centuries after the fall of Rome, and didn’t really pick back up again until the 15th century. And when it did, Europeans began embracing science, art, exploration, as well as new ideas like democracy and human rights.
This period is known as the Renaissance, or the rebirth. It is considered a time when Europe returned to the glory days of Greece and Rome and began progressing once again.
Middle Ages or Dark Ages?
It became very natural to look at the period in between Rome and the Renaissance as the “middle.” It looked like something that was “in between” more important stuff.
This, plus the nature of the Middle Ages, led many people to call this time the “Dark Ages.”
The lack of a central authority, the power of the church, slow scientific and technological progress, and the terrors of the Black Plague and famine came to dominate our understanding of this era.
But in the end, it was neither a dark nor a middle age. It was just an age. The events of this time are woven into the fabric of European history just like any other age. But our obsession with Rome, and with modernity, have left us to separate this 1,000 years into something different.
Plenty of stuff happened, and there are plenty of reasons to study it.
Please, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
We Study the Middle Ages Because…
Besides just general curiosity and interest in the world around us, we study the Middle Ages because:
A LOT Happened
This is 1,000 years of history we’re talking about. To just skip over it because it wasn’t Rome or the Renaissance is simply wrong.
During this time, countless wars were fought, new kingdoms emerged, and people from different parts of the world came into contact with one another. They began trading and cooperating and sharing their cultures and customs, helping humanity evolve.
Most modern European nations trace their roots back to the Middle Ages. The nations of France, England, Spain, Italy, Germany and more all emerged during this time and created a framework for the modern age.
Christianity spread around Europe, and Islam spread all through the Middle East, forming the religious traditions that still very much dominate our lives. Advances in farming and industry helped make people more productive, increased the food supply, and eventually created population growth.
A lot of bad things happened too. Famines were common, and the Black Death ran rampant through Eurpope in the 14th century. This historic pandemic killed almost anyone it touched, including around 50 percent of Europe’s population as a whole.
These events were as defining as any other.
All in all, the history of the Middle Ages is as rich as any other in the story of humanity. To not study it would be a crime.
They Help Explain the Modern World
Why is Vatican City an independent nation inside the boundaries of Italy?
Why is France no longer run by a monarchy?
Why was Portugal one of the first European nations to start exploring the world?
How did foods like pasta and technologies such as gunpowder make their way from China to Europe?
Why do the people of Iceland, Greenland, northern France, and the Isle of Mann all have a shared ancestry?
Why does most of the Middle East practice Islam?
Why do we have universities?
Why do we have human rights?
Why? Why? Why?
The 1,000 years from 500 – 1500 AD were an incredibly formative period of time for European and world society. So much of what we have today can be traced back to the Middle Ages.
In this sense, to understand our world today, we must study this period.
We Want to Avoid Repeating History
History is always in danger of repeating itself. While it might be difficult to imagine, it can happen before we know it.
During the Middle Ages, political power was consolidated into the hands of a very few. Common workers were little better than slaves and had no freedoms whatsoever. The Church was immensely powerful, and people embraced violence as a way of life.
While the Middle Ages brought us much of the modern world, the Renaissance and other modern movements were very much a rejection of that Medieval way of life.
People turned away from the notion that kings and queens should have all the power and began asserting their own independence and right to be heard.
They turned their back from the religious fervor that gripped so many people in the Middle Ages and held them powerless.
They embraced science as the engine of progress and turned away from the idea that poverty was just the way things were.
From these movements we got democracy and many other modern institutions we hold dear. To protect them, we must remain vigilant and recognize the signs they are under attack. A clear understanding of how we got to where we are today is our best defense.
They’re Not the “Dark Ages”
Lastly, we must study the Middle Ages to reject the notion they were “dark.” This idea is arrogant. Were there aspects of life in the Middle Ages that might seem backwards or strange to us today? Absolutely! But as historians, we cannot judge that which we do not fully understand.
People looking back on the societies of today may very well be tempted to call them “dark” or “middle.” But they too would be wrong.
The better way to look at it is through a lens of evolution. Human society is always changing, always improving, always building on what it’s done. The fact we look back at certain eras and frown is simply a sign of how far we’ve come, and that we still have so far to go.
Think, how different is the world today from how it was 1,000 years ago?
Now, how different do you think it will be in another 1,000 years?
Studying the Middle Ages reminds us that human progress is limitless, and we must never stop moving forward.
To consider a past era as “dark” is to say this one is better. That may be true, but we cannot settle. We must always strive to improve and a good first step is to acknowledge that our pasts are our collective building blocks for growth.
Embrace the Middle Ages
Stereotypes and bad history will try to convince you the Middle Ages are not worth studying. But this is just wrong. It was an exciting, dynamic, and evolutionary period of history that is worth studying just as much as any other era.
So, go forth, embrace the Middle Ages. Learn where we come from, and prepare yourself for where we may go next.
Written by Matthew Jones