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Should the Middle Ages Be Abolished?

From: Essays in Medieval Studies
Volume 21, 2004
pp. 1-22 | 10.1353/ems.2005.0010

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Essays in Medieval Studies 21 (2005) 1-22

Alexander Murray

University College, Oxford

Medievalists who want to open up questions about "periods and boundaries" can do so with confidence that their material will not run out. The thousand-year-long, continent-wide world which we medievalists claim as ours is so full of awakenings, consolidations, collapses, movements, declines, reawakenings, and all the other buffers and points which articulate the historical model railway, that we can debate forever, without going outside the medieval period at all, just how and when these awakenings (and so on) began and ended. But any questions we put about these must be overshadowed by a greater one, about the "Middle Ages" as such. Was there really such a period? Are the "Middle Ages" what Ockham would have called a mere nomen as distinct from a res? Are they a mere mind-set (as we might put it), as distinct from an entity really there in history wie es eigentlich gewesen? And if so, in the interests of getting at that history, should the concept of "the Middle Ages" go? That is the question I shall address in this paper.

It is more than a question: it is a trial, its defendant a mind-set. And any trial begins by identifying the defendant. So here goes.

The Middle Ages: what

In the fifth and sixth centuries, as every schoolboy knows, the Roman Empire was plagued by illegal immigrants, whom literate people found appallingly violent. In 410 an army of Goths caused mayhem in Rome, some women got raped, and to equip his readers for a change in the times Saint Augustine wrote The City of God. But times changed even more. Six generations later, in 593, Gregory the Great told a congregation in the Lateran basilica how:

All round us we see weeping and hear groans. Cities are destroyed, fortresses are ruined, fields depopulated. The male population is a fraction of what it was. Of that fraction, some become serfs, others are mutilated, others killed. What is left, then, of Rome, which once seemed mistress of the world? Where is the Senate, where its people? All their pride and worldly dignity have gone; the Senate has collapsed, the people have perished, but for a few whose pitiful state gets worse every day, while the city itself stands empty amid the general conflagration. Young and ambitious people used once to flock here from all over the world to make their careers. Not now. Furthermore, whatever we say of Rome and its calamities we know to be true of all other cities in the world. We hear how this one has fallen into decay, that one is invaded and put to the sword, another struck by famine, another destroyed by earthquake.

Late Latin was given to superlatives; and Gregory was a rhetorician. But his pessimism would not have been lost on his audience.

For the world was indeed changing, for further ahead than any of them could see. For the next thousand years certain facts would obtain in western Europe which had not obtained before nor would again afterwards. An area to the west of a line roughly from the Elbe to the Adriatic, and at the other end reaching unsteadily over the Pyrenees, became an entity on its own, its mainland majority saying as much, after 800, by calling itself the western "Empire." Its main peculiarity was that it was Catholic, as had been decided by Clovis the Frank, whether he knew it or not, when in 496 he chose Catholic Christianity rather than Arian as his religion: for the choice made him an ally rather than a persecutor to the resident bishops, allowing his people to intermarry with theirs, so successfully that the other new kingdoms either followed Clovis's example or perished. As a result, for the next thousand years, western Europe would become a collection of nations under a "spiritual" hegemony—eluding precise definition then as it still does—of the bishop of Rome.

Those thousand years were marked off socially and politically, as well as religiously, from all before and after. In both the macro- and microcosm loyalty to a person, rather than an...

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