The Middleness of the Middle Ages: Periodizing European History
Wagner, David L.
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 5 (1988)
Periodization is an essential tool of the historian indispensable, I believe, for the historian concerned with lengthy periods of time. Thus, medievalists, most of whom are required by the exigencies of the academic world to survey the whole of the Middle Ages in their classes, cannot avoid facing the issue of periodization. The issue arises in medieval history in both a broad and a narrow sense: broad, in that the very idea of a “middle” age lying between classical antiquity and the modern world raises questions concerning its beginning and end; and narrow, in that several distinct phases can be distinguished within that span of well over a thousand years. Moreover, there is a quite specific reason medievalists cannot avoid the issue of periodization. The very concept that identifies their field of study arose within a tradition that was grounded in a particular theory of periodization. For, as is well known, the idea of a “middle age” arose in connection with the development of the Renaissance concept, a development that began when the Italian humanists viewed themselves as beginning a new era. Thus, like other terms with which it was originally associated “Gothic” and “Dark Ages” the term “Middle Ages” originally had a pejorative connotation.
Perhaps by now the term has lost its negative connotation and is used in a neutral sense, as is clearly true for “Gothic.” Such an occurrence is not unusual with period terms: “baroque” is another example. Yet some terms such as “Renaissance” will probably never completely lose their original connotation. Even today “middle” does suggest a transitional era, its very identity thus depending on its relation to the periods that precede and follow it which seems to make the Middle Ages somehow inferior to those bracketing epochs. The periodization of medieval history raises especially critical problems and will be the topic of this paper. Nevertheless, I shall begin by examining the periodization of Western civilization in more general terms. My aim is to base this periodization on the broadest possible criteria.