Ever since I was a child, I have loved the Middle Ages. Originally, it was the world of castles, knights, and tournaments, or the romance of Crusade. We had a selection of toy knights — the most prized being from Wm Britain — and castles and blocks to expand castles and fortresses and towns. The Crusaders would fight the Turks. Or Robin Hood would fight Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Or perhaps a dragon would visit.
This was the romantic picture of knights and the Middle Ages that populated my young imagination.
That picture has grown and become more nuanced. My interests in literature, philosophy, and religion have added brushstrokes. I am still interested in the Middle Ages, from the ‘twilight’ of the Roman Empire to the ‘dawn’ of the Renaissance and Reformation, from Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Carolingians to Aquinas, Dante, and the Council of Florence.
I am not, however, a medievalist. I have chosen Classics as my field of specialisation, but I like to play in the Middle Ages. Thus, the mediaeval world is a recurring theme on this blog.
What are the Middle Ages?
The Middle Ages are the period from the ‘fall’ of the Western Roman Empire (or thereabouts) to around 1500. They are those centuries that fall in the middle, between the onset of the period formerly (and wrongly) called ‘the Dark Ages’ and the onset of that other period still (and, if you ask me, wrongly) called ‘the Renaissance’. I like to envision the Middle Ages as starting around 476 with the deposition of the last constitutional ‘Roman Emperor’ of the West, Romulus Augustulus, by a ‘barbarian’ king, and ending with the fall of Constantinople and the last Roman Emperor of the East in 1453.
The Middles Ages are a period of rich cultures populating the Mediterranean, European, and Near Eastern worlds. Exciting things were happening elsewhere in places like India, China, and Japan, but the way trade and communication operated back then, they were not felt so strongly in the Mediterranean world, and the events of the Mediterranean influenced them less. Since this period is bound up with the concept of the Roman Empire and ‘classical’ civilization — and, really, Western Europe — I prefer to leave the designation focussed temporally, geographically, and culturally on these peoples, places, and times.
Why the Middle Ages?
The mediaeval world is, if you ask me, intrinsically interesting. If you like philosophy, try Aquinas or Ockham. Are you into mysticism? Try Bonaventure or the Sufis or Gregory Palamas. For those interested in fictional adventure, there is Beowulf or the Alexander Romance or Le Morte D’Arthur. Dante’s Divine Comedy defies such categorisation but is one of the most sublime achievements of mediaeval poetry. If historical adventures are more your thing, try Icelandic Sagas, such as King Harald’s Saga, or maybe Marco Polo.
But maybe you aren’t into books. Well, do you like Gothic Architecture, like Notre-Dame in Paris? How about Romanesque, like Durham Cathedral? Book illuminations, like the Lindisfarne Gospels or the Utrecht Psalter are worth looking at. Or magnificent carved altarpieces from Late Mediaeval Flanders. Maybe the Lewis Chessmen are more your style.
Perhaps the history of culture and civilisations might grip you — the world of the Vikings or the Carolingian Renaissance or the Crusades and Crusader States. Perhaps the Hundred Years’ War or the world of tournaments and jousting. Maybe the cultural contacts formed through Franciscan missions to North Africa and India will pique your interest.
If these are not reason enough, try the music of Hildegard von Bingen or the letters of Abelard and Heloise or Exeter Cathedral or Caerlaverock Castle or the armour at the Tower of London or — or —
Sure, I could try and craft you a piece about the importance of the Middle Ages, as I did for Classics. But I’m not a medievalist — I just do this for fun.
Mediaeval Posts Here
Besides, of course, the Mediaeval Category, here are some posts about the Middle Ages from this blog worth reading: