Medieval historians have been debating for many years on when were the Middle Ages – was there a year that medieval period began, and was there a year that it ended?
This debate will not be ending soon, so there are no easy answers. The idea that a’Middle Ages’ existed goes back to the seventeenth-century, when some writers mention that term (or its Latin equivalent medium aevum). In devising this term, these writers viewed this period as a kind of failed era between the glorious Roman Empire and their present-day, which they saw as a ‘Renaissance’ or new golden age. The Middle Ages was often portrayed as a time when there was no learning, no culture and no progress in civilization.
Today historians usually do not have such a negative view of the Middle Ages, but they still want to give it a set period in history. Here are some of the suggestions on when the medieval era started and ended (at least in Western Europe):
When did the Middle Ages begin?
The conversion of the Emperor Constantine (312) – In or around the year 312, the Roman Emperor Constantine I converted from the traditional Roman pagan religions to Christianity. In the following year, he issued the Edict of Milan, which commanded official toleration of Christianity and other religions. Prior to this Christians were often persecuted in the Roman Empire, but with their official acceptance allowed this new religion to flourish and establish itself.
Fall of the Western Empire (476) – On September 4, 476, the Roman Emperor Romulus Augustus was deposed and no new emperor was named to replace him. Romulus Augustus was just a teenager when he became the Emperor, and was only a figurehead while his father Orestes actually ruled. Still, his deposition has traditionally marked the end of the Western Roman Empire.
Islamic Expansion (700) – the famous medieval scholar Henri Pirenne saw the Middle Ages beginning around the year 700, when Muslim expansion rapidly changed the Mediterranean, with Islamic rule being establish throughout North Africa, Iberia and parts of Italy. Furthermore, the disruption of trade from southern Europe forced Northern Europe into a more agrarian economy.
When did the Middle Ages end?
Coronation of Pertrarch as poet-laureate (1341) – On April 8, 1341 (Easter Sunday), the Italian poet Petrarch was awarded the title of poet-laureate in Rome for his work Africa, which tells the story of the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage. Some have seen this as the unofficial start of the Renaissance.
Fall of Constantinople (1453) – The Ottoman conquest of this city would mark the end of the Byzantine Empire, and also the last vestiges of the Roman Empire.
Discovery of America (1492) – With the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the Caribbean, a new era of exploration, trade and colonisation would start, which would fundamentally change Europe.
Beginning of the Reformation (1517) – On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses to the doors of a German church. His message would lead to the emergence of new Christian sects that would end the domination of the Catholic Church in Europe.
“In the days when historians were simple folk, the Fall of Constantinople, 1453, was held to mark the close of the Middle Ages. Nowadays, we know too well the stream of history flows on relentlessly and there is never a barrier across it.” – Sir Steven Runciman
See also When were the Middle Ages? by Peter Raedts
Top Image: Genève, Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. lat. 33, p. 7r – Book of Hours