When were the Middle Ages?
By Peter Raedts
Paper given at the 19th International Congress on Historical Sciences (Oslo, 2000)
Introduction: Deeply buried in the structure of the human mind lies the habit to divide everything into three. In ancient Indo-European societies it was the custom to describe the whole of society by distinguishing three functions, those of warrior, orator and labourer. Immanuel Kant thought that all of philosophy could be summarized in three questions: What can we know? What must we do? What may we hope? Christians believe that God manifests Himself in thre persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. By dividing things into three component parts it seems as if we can classify reality and analyse it, without losing sight of the whole. Division into three offers an instrument of analysis and of synthesis at the same time.
In the same way time and history can be divided into three composite parts that, taken together, contain the whole: past, present, and future, or else: the beginning, the middle and the end. Because this division of time into three is so deeply ingrained in our habits of thought, it seems to me that the classical periodisation of European history into Antiquity, Middle Ages and Modern History is a fact which we had better accept instead of bickering about it. It will never go away. That does not mean, however, that we must not take a closer look at that periodisation. For one thing, the scheme seems neutral, but it certainly is not. It is a standard rule of classical rhetoric that an orator who wants to put a message across, must always use three arguments, not more, not less. He should put them forth in the order: fortior-fortisfortissimus. The second argument can be weak, as long as the speaker starts off with a good argument and ends with a hit. A similar rhetorical construction underlies our classical division of European history. Classical Antiquity counts as the age of gold, in which the foundations of human civilisation were laid, the Midle Ages as the deplorable interim in which eople became estranged from their origins, and Modern History as the rediscovery of of civilisation’s roots and of restoration in an even more glorious and perfect form.