Middle Ages: Terminology and periodization

The concept of the Middle Ages appears for the first time in the fifteenth century, with the Latin terms media aetas or media tempestas, with the meaning of “middle age”, reflecting the opinion of contemporaries, for which this period would have represented a departure from classical culture, in opposition to later Humanism and the Renaissance.

This term was used in the sense of historical period for the first time in the work Historiarum ab inclinatione romanorum imperii decades, by the humanist Flavio Biondo, written around 1450 and published in 1483. According to Flavio Biondo, in polemic with the culture of the fourteenth century (which today we consider the crisis of the Middle Ages), the era is like a long historical parenthesis, characterized by a cultural stasis that is placed between the greatness of the classical age and the humanistic-Renaissance rebirth of the civilization that is inspired by it. This completely negative vision of the Middle Ages was subsequently overcome (although to this day, however, various interpretations remain in this sense).

The transition to the Middle Ages is a historical-social process, and as such continuous and with characteristics that cannot always be identified in detail, therefore opinions on the beginning and end of the Middle Ages are discordant. If the most conventionally used date is 476, i.e. the year that saw the deposition of the last Roman emperor (Romulus Augustus) with the consequent end of the Western Roman Empire, other historians indicate other dates: the death of the Theodosius I (395), the sack of Rome by the Visigothic king Alaric (410), the advent of the Arabs (7th century), the descent of the Lombards and the effective end of the imperial dominions in the West (568), the death of the Eastern Emperor Heraclius I (641), the coronation of Charlemagne (800).

Some British scholars fix the beginning of the Middle Ages in the year 1000, given that around that date the European society of Latin expression began to show signs of rebirth in all fields, and they designate the era that goes from the end of the Roman Empire from the West to the year 1000 as “dark ages” or “barbarian age”[4]; however, this date is more often used conventionally to separate the High Middle Ages from the Low Middle Ages.

The conclusion of the medieval age has different dates from country to country, corresponding to the birth of the respective national monarchies and the Renaissance period. The most commonly used are: 1348, coinciding with the maximum expansion of the Black Death, 1453, the year that marks the end of the Hundred Years War between England and France (Battle of Castillon), the taking of Constantinople by the Turks Ottomans and the appearance of the first printed book, i.e. the Gutenberg Bible, in 1492, coinciding with the discovery of the Americas by the Genoese Christopher Columbus and with the conquest of the Sultanate of Granada, the last Islamic bulwark in Spain, in 1517, the year in which Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation, 1543, with the publication of the heliocentric theory of Nicolaus Copernicus, according to the scientific historiographical approach. According to the approach of Marxist historiography (but also shared by some non-Marxist historians), the Middle Ages would end with the end of feudalism and the advent of industrialization in the eighteenth century.

Jacques Le Goff has proposed to replace the idea of the “short” Middle Ages (the one that goes from the 5th to the 15th century) with a “long Middle Ages” (from the 3rd to the 19th century), arguing that the central element of the Middle Ages was feudalism and that this disappeared only with the industrial society.

The commonly used subdivision of the Middle Ages in Romance-speaking countries is between the High Middle Ages, which goes from the 5th to the 10th century and is characterized by poor economic conditions and continuous invasions by Slavs, Arabs, Normans and Magyars, and the Low Middle Ages, which sees the development of forms of government based on lordships and vassalage, with the construction of castles and the rebirth of life in the cities; then a growing royal power and the resurgence of commercial interests, especially after the plague of the fourteenth century.

Between these two periods the Anglo-Saxon historiography and, recently also some Italian texts, has inserted the period of the Full Middle Ages or central centuries of the Middle Ages (11th-12th century). The High Middle Ages includes the period from the 11th to the 13th century. It would be characterized by the full and complete flowering of the system of medieval Communes and by the struggle between the two universal powers, Empire and Papacy[2]. In Germany there is a Frühmittelalter (V-VIII), a Hochmittelalter (IX-XI) and a Spätmittelalter (XII-XV)[7].

A subdivision used in the field of medieval historical studies is also that into four periods, also including the centuries usually inserted in the Ancient Age.

Il Medioevo (o Medio Evo): The Middle Ages

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

The Duchy of Savoy

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