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When were the Middle Ages?

The Five-Minute Medievalist answers the question, “When were the Middle Ages?”

For most historians, the Middle Ages is about a thousand years from around 500 AD – or CE as historians say now – to about 1500. So, before about 500 the Roman Empire was the major power in Europe. They had taken over pretty much everything from the Middle East to the north of Africa, to all the way into Britain up to Hadrian’s Wall. The Roman administrative structure was very strong, powerful, centralized, and it was the key to a lot of their success.

Things had started to change in the Roman Empire. In 330, the emperor, Constantine, had moved actually the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to the city of Byzantium, which he then named after himself. He named it Constantinople, which is now modern-day Istanbul. And if you need to remember that, there’s a really catchy song by They Might be Giants which can help you out. So, the Roman Empire was already having some struggles. They had reached the limits of their power, they couldn’t really conquer any more territory, and they were getting a little bit more confined.

And in the fourth century, things started to really change. Across from the east – the steppes of Asia – nomadic tribes started to move. Of these tribes, the biggest game-changer was the Huns. You’ve probably heard about Attila the Hun, who was their most famous leader. The Huns started to move from their territory on the Asian steppes to find more resources for their people, and they started to push across westward towards Europe. Other tribes, such as the Goths and the Vandals, moved across Europe to escape from the Huns, and as they did that, they caused huge amounts of destruction.

For a lot of people, the fall of the Roman Empire was signalled by the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths in 410. It was a major blow for a lot of the writers at that time because Rome was thought of as the Eternal City, and a beacon of civilization. All of a sudden, everything had changed. When I think of the influence of this movement of tribal peoples of Asia across Europe, it makes me think of a sandcastle. So, picture a sandcastle. It has all sorts of intricate parts to it, it’s built in kind of a centralized structure, and then a wave comes along and washes it away. And if you look at your sandcastle afterwards, you can see there are still lumps and bumps that are sort of recognizable, but they’re no longer whole; they’re no longer what they once were. And that’s kind of what Europe was like after the Asian tribes washed across it: there were some sort-of recognizable bits of the Roman Empire left, but it was no longer whole; it was no longer what it once was.

This time is what people typically call “The Dark Ages”, and it was definitely a time in which literacy declined, there wasn’t the same sort of centralized government, and even technology took a bit of a hit as people reconfigured their lives around the disappearance of what they had known for generations. Instead of the Roman hierarchy, which Europeans had been used to for quite a long time, it was independent warlords that started to group strong bands of people around them. And so, Europe began to recreate itself around these strong bands of warriors and warlords, and they started to consolidate their power with fortresses, which eventually became stone castles.

That is really a good way to think of the beginning of the Middle Ages: was these political structures had changed. Completely. Medieval Europe, then, was the time of castles. And thanks to Constantine, and his restructuring of Roman religion during his time as Emperor, it was also a time where Christianity was the dominant religion. And those two things really characterized the Middle Ages from about 500 to about 1500.

When we talk about Christianity across the Middle Ages, what we’re talking about is, basically, Catholicism. Shortly after 1500, Martin Luther came up with his Ninety-Five Theses. These were ideas that talked about how the Church should be reformed; about how the practice of religion should be different than it had been before. This was the birth of Protestantism, and Protestantism changed everything. When you look at that big of a change in people’s belief structure, that influenced everything from their politics, to the way they studied things, to their – just their general view of the world, that is a really major point of change.

So, if we look at the signalling of the beginning of the Middle Ages, it was political change. The signalling of the end of the Middle Ages – for me, at least – was religious change. And for the people of the Middle Ages, politics and religion were pretty closely interwoven, so these were big, significant changes that pretty much signaled the end of the period as we had known it. A lot of things can happen in a thousand years, and a lot of things did happen. There were all sorts of breakthroughs in innovation, and technology, and all those wonderful things which we can talk about in other episodes. But that’s just a quick, five-minute look at “When Were the Middle Ages?” Thanks for watching, everybody. See you next time.

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