Problems with Continuity: Defining the Middle Ages for Medievalism Studies
By Karl Fugelso
Introduction: As can be seen in almost any field of academia, continuity and its antitheses are deceptively difficult to define. Mathematicians have long struggled to pin down a real-number continuum that can do the work required by limit theory. Literary critics continue to grapple with the relationship between narrative flow and the changes that lend it momentum. And scholars from many areas of the humanities and social sciences have attempted to clarify the blurred distinctions between historical continuity and discontinuity.
This elusiveness is particularly problematic for medievalism studies, whose subjects are often described as post-medieval responses to the Middle Ages. Periods are rarely recognized by those living through them and are almost never, if ever, characterized twice in precisely the same way. This seems to be especially true of the Middle Ages, as is indicated by the plethora of later, mostly derogatory labels for them, including “Middle Ages,” “Dark Ages,” and “A World Lit Only by Fire.” Indeed, defining the Middle Ages gave rise to and continues to fuel much of the broader debate over whether and how to divide the past into periods.
Since at least the fourteenth century, many scholars have agreed that the Middle Ages began after Antiquity, but these same writers have often disagreed on the precise caesura between the two periods. Petrarch, who in 1341 became the first writer to date the origins of the “tenebras,” is no more specific than the fall of Rome, as he locates the Middle Ages after “storia antica” and into the “storia nova” of his own time. Leonardo Bruni, who began his Historiarum Florentini Populi in 1415 and finished it just two years before his death in 1444, began a long tradition of dating the end of Antiquity and the start of the Middle Ages to 476, when Odoacer drove the last of the western emperors, Romulus Augustus, from power. And others have dated the divide to the death of Majorian in 461, the sack of Rome in 455, the death of Aetius in 454, the death of Constantius III in 421, the sack of Rome in 410, the execution of Stilicho in 408, the Germanic tribes crossing the Rhine in 406, the death of Theodosius I in 395, the Battle of Adrianople in 378, and even the accession of Diocletian in 284.