Medieval Millennium, The: An Introduction

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9780138422462: Medieval Millennium, The: An Introduction

This lively, innovative history of medieval Europe provides a coherent description of the chaotic, but compelling, era. It focuses, but not narrowly, on the history of Europe from the fifth through the fifteenth centuries -- setting the subject in the broader context of world events. It explains complex issues (e.g., philosophy, scholasticism, etc.) clearly and illuminates large issues by showing how they manifested themselves intimately and directly in the lives of memorable individuals. Presents an integrated chronological treatment of topics, rather than separate essays on individual eras. Enables readers to make personal connections with what often seems a remote and exotic culture, and it reminds them that medieval Europeans were vital human beings who transcended the stereotypes which have often been developed to represent them. Provides balanced treatment of subject areas -- e.g., women's issues, Eurocentric historiography, and the Muslim-Christian relationship. Introduces each chapter with a short biographical essay dealing with a striking figure from the period. Features boxed essays dealing with topics from social history (e.g., food, housing, military technologies, etc.) and other areas (music, knowledge of geography, medicine, etc.). Contains twelve chronological tables (coordinating events and persons and illustrating relationships and influences), sixteen maps, and a glossary or terms and their origins. For anyone interested in medieval European history.

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Narrators do not usually like to start their stories in the middle, but historians have little choice. Historical things are, by definition, "in the middle." The are products of pasts that have implications for futures. They are parts of a continuous stream of human experience that has no discoverable beginning or foreseeable end.

Historians try to make the flow of events intelligible by chopping it up into pieces that can be studied separately. By designating certain moments as beginnings and others as ends, they create "periods" in history. These periods are useful, but arbitrary. In reality, off course, there are no sharp dividing lines in history—no clean endings and fresh starts. Something from a past always lingers in a present, and novel developments that will shape a future sprout long before anyone recognizes them for what they are.

This makes it difficult to begin and end a book that purports to describe something called "the Middle Ages." This name has become traditional for the period in the history of the West bounded by the fifth and the fifteenth centuries C.E. But without a context, it does not make much sense. No one can identify the middle of history without knowing what cannot be known—when history began and when it will end. The "middle" that is the Middle Ages must, therefore, be something much less pretentious than the central pivot point of time.

Concept of the "Middle Ages"

When historians of the West speak of the Middle Ages, they refer to an era of major reorientation for the civilizations that were pioneered in the Mediterranean basin. The Middle Ages begins with the dissolution of the unity that the Roman Empire had imposed on the peoples of the West. It encompasses the rise of three new civilizations (Catholic Europe, Orthodox Byzantium, and Islam), and it ends as the Western cultures emerge on the world stage as powerful global influences.

The people who lived through the medieval transformation obviously did not think of themselves as being in "the middle" of history in any but the ordinary sense we all have of living between the past and the future. The concept of the "Middle Ages" was invented by scholars who lived at the end of the medieval period and who believed that their world was changing in a unique way. Like maturing children who become acutely aware of the limitations of their all-too-human parents, they denigrated the work of their elders and expressed great confidence in their ability to build a world far superior to the one they had inherited. The "medieval" label they applied to the immediate past, therefore, expressed both a judgment on that past and a faith in the future. It declared that Europe had entered a phase of dramatic change in which much that their predecessors had done would be rejected. But the future would be guided less by innovation than by a return to the values and institutions of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. The new age was to be a renaissance, a rebirth of what its advocates believed was the West's original way of life. It would reach back beyond the muddle and confusion of the Middle Ages to restore the kind of orderly, rational world pioneered by Western civilization's founders.

Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), an influential Italian poet and scholar, was among the first to articulate these ideas. Petrarch was a humanist, a passionate student of classical literature who was convinced that the ancient Greeks and Romans had been the world's chief civilizing influence. He believed that the civilization they had built had been so damaged when primitive German tribes destroyed the cities of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century C.E. that Europe had languished for a thousand years, struggling to recover from the effects of German barbarism. Finally, however, Petrarch was confident that, in his own day, Europe was prepared to reclaim its inheritance. The medieval millennium had been a period of convalescence, and now Europe was sufficiently recovered to resume its journey along the path that its ancient founders had intended it to take. The "middle" period in its history had been an unfortunate dip or sag in a line of development that might otherwise have stretched in an upward trajectory of progress from ancient Athens and Rome to modern Paris, London, and Florence. For Petrarch the Middle Ages was the "middling" age, a time for marking time until the march of history could again move forward.

Not all of Petrarch's contemporaries held such a dour view of their immediate past. Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444), a Florentine historian and translator of Greek classics, credited medieval people with making useful and original contributions to civilization. But he and other defenders of the Middle Ages could not prevent the term "medieval" from acquiring a pejorative tone. Some Renaissance critics even dismissed the monumental churches that are the most amazing technical and artistic achievements of medieval civilization as "Gothic"—crude products of German barbarians (Goths) who were ignorant of the superior aesthetic principles that had guided the architects of ancient Greece and Rome.

Many people today, when they think of the Middle Ages, continue to think in this antiquated way. They assume that the medieval era was a time of cultural darkness and intellectual lassitude that achieved little of significance. They associate the period with a nearly insane religious fervor, with rampant superstition, and with repressive social systems.

The medieval era does have modern defenders, but some of them distort the period's image as much as do its detractors. Many enthusiasts (particularly in the entertainment industries) conjure up images of a primary-colored, rambunctious Middle Ages—a time of gallant knights, beautiful maidens, dragons, and wizards. Their medieval world is an escapist fantasy of romantic illusion in which stock characters seek adventure and celebrate festivals in flower-splattered fields beneath the walls of flamboyantly turreted castles. Equally titillating and infantile is the view of the Middle Ages as an epoch of unrelenting drizzle—a gloomy and literally dark age in which filth was a fashion statement and vulgar people spent their time wallowing in muck and competing in crude behavior.

The real Middle Ages was, of course, much less fantastic—and much more interesting. Like us, medieval people struggled to rise to the challenges of daily life. They endured degradation, disappointment, and misery and experienced moments of exaltation, inspiration, and fulfillment. They worked hard, faced crises, suffered pain, and had fun. In reflective moments they tried to make sense out of the struggle between baseness and nobility that is the price human beings pay for self-awareness. Medieval people both resembled us and differed from us. They had our human faculties, but were confronted with challenges unique to their own times and places. They also worked from a body of information and assumptions about the world that were quite different from those that equip us for the business of living. Our best hope of understanding them lies in the cultivation of disciplined imaginations that allow us to make brief trips into their universe, but on their terms.

Parameters of the Middle Ages

A casual reader of history might assume that it is obvious where such trips should begin. Because the Middle Ages followed the ancient period in Western civilization, an era that ended with the fall of the Roman Empire, the study of the Middle Ages logically begins with an account of Rome's collapse. Rome's decline, however, is no easy event to locate and date. At various points in its history, Rome faced the possibility of destruction, and the reasons for its ultimate failure are much in dispute. No one can even be sure which of the several signs of its passing deserves to be chosen as the definitive indicator of its fall. The economic, cultural, political, and military situations of the empire changed at different rates and reached crucial points in their development at different times. Even if we restrict ourselves to the easily dated sphere of politics, lines are hard to draw. In the third century C.E., the empire dealt with increasing threats to its frontiers by setting up separate governments for its western and eastern halves. The last emperor to reign over the west was deposed in 476. This date is sometimes given for Rome's fall, but by then the western emperor was a mere figurehead who was little missed. The extinction of his office simply recognized something that had been a fact for some time in the west, and it had little affect on the eastern half of the empire. In the east, the rulers of the city of Constantinople, which had been founded as the "New Rome," continued to use the Roman imperial title until the last of the rulers wad slaughtered by the Turks in 1453. Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), who wrote the most famous history of Rome's demise (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), chose 1453 as the date for the end of his study. He interpreted the whole of medieval Byzantine (eastern Roman) civilization as part of the decline of the ancient world.

As difficult as it is to find a beginning for the Middle Ages, locating an end is even more problematic. The Middle Ages is often thought of as concluding with Italy's Renaissance. But the Renaissance had roots that stretched back at least as far as the thirteenth century, and its effects were not felt throughout Europe until well into the sixteenth. Furthermore, the Renaissance was not suddenly sparked into existence by a single individual or dateable event such as the discovery of previously unknown ancient documents containing forgotten information. Its characteristic point of view was the outcome of an evolving change of attitude toward the study of books. It encouraged scholars to view familiar texts from a new perspective. A few forgotten pieces of ancient literature were rediscovered in medieval libraries, but they in no way undermined the sturdy Christian foundations that the Middle Ages had laid for European civilization.

Nature of Medieval History

The most forthright way to deal with the problem of making beginnings and endings in historical narratives is simply to confess that history is not an exact science and to label the places where one decides to start and to finish "the beginning" and "the end." This is not a bad approach for medieval historians to take, because the confusion that marks the borders of the period is consistent with what lies within its scope. Students who are new to the subject of medieval history need to prepare themselves for its complexity. The story of the Middle Ages cannot be told in terms of a single place or a single people. It is not as simple an undertaking as an account of Hellenic civilization based on the adventures of Athens and Sparta or a narrative of Hellenistic civilization that focuses on the drama of Rome's rise to empire. During the Middle Ages, many cultures interacted and evolved at different rates and in different ways. New peoples wandered into civilization's sphere, and their appropriation of the ancient Greek and Roman legacies nourished the development of a dynamic world characterized by great diversity. To view this scene with any degree of comprehension, we need constantly to glance from side to side while looking both forward and backward.

The microscope and the telescope are useful for making progress in some fields, but the best instrument for taking in the medieval world may be the kaleidoscope. It at least has the virtue of reminding us that our views of the past are complicated, fragile compositions that are subject to frequent rearrangement. History is never written; it is always in the process of being written. The fact that interpretations of the past are doomed to insufficiency makes them no less intriguing, for we are a species that cannot resist pondering where we came from and seeking answers to the simplest and most perplexing of questions: Why?

Changes to the Second Edition

The current text has been extensively revised to incorporate suggestions from reviewers of the first edition, advice from editors, new scholarship, and reflection on the part of its author. Changes include:

  • Reorganization of the outline to make links between political and social developments and the interactions among the three medieval civilizations (European, Islamic, and Byzantine) easier for students to grasp. The larger blocks of text have been broken up to make chapters easier to read. Additional headings have been provided to make the outline of the narrative more obvious to the reader and to help students with note taking. The book is organized chronologically rather than topically to avoid moving back and forth between dates—a procedure that many students claim to find confusing. Chronological organization also lends coherence to a narrative of medieval history by coordinating events as they transpired throughout the medieval world.
  • A complete line-by-line rewrite that improves and expands explanations of significant events (e.g., scholasticism, church-state relations, crusades, rise of the middle class). The text aspires to be readable without employing an overly simplistic vocabulary and style that condescend to its readers.
  • Expanded coverage of social and economic history (more detail on the rise of towns, fluctuations in the medieval economy, chivalry, literature, and popular culture). This aspect of the book is enhanced by the biographical essays that introduce each chapter. These essays humanize the narrative by illustrating the impact of historical developments on the lives of real individuals, and they give students a sense of the contextual nature of historical events. Three of the featured biographies are of women. The text employs inclusive language and highlights contributions of women to medieval society. Supplemental boxed essays (entitled "Society and Culture") are keyed into the main narrative. They provide an opportunity for exploring social and artistic developments that merit special attention.
  • A more thorough treatment of the end of the medieval era. Emphasis is placed on the complexity of the period—on the interaction between the pessimism generated by the social, economic, and political crises of the era and the optimism of the early renaissance. Although the discussion focuses primarily on western Europe, the narrative continues here, as in earlier chapters, to treat the wider medieval context. Current political tensions between "the West" and the Islamic world make it crucial that students understand the earlier phases in the relationship between these distinct, but related cultures. The extended discussion of environmental issues that concludes the chapter further demonstrates the relevance of the study of medieval history to the concerns of the modern era.
  • More than twice the number of maps. The detail of the maps has been increased, and they have been inserted into the text at points where they will be of greatest assistance to the reader. Given that American students may know little about the geography of the regions whose history the book narrates, all the places and peoples mentioned in the text are located on one or more maps.
  • More than twice the number of illustrations. Photos have been chosen and line drawings created to make the reader's task more pleasant, but also to add substance to the text...

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