If it is not to be as long as the volumes it introduces, an introduction to the Middle Ages should simply say that this was the period that started with the dissolution of the Roman Empire, the fusion of Latin culture with that of the peoples who gradually invaded the empire (the bonding agent being Christianity), and eventually gave life to what we now call Europe, its nations, its modern languages, and the institutions that - despite changes and revolutions - are still ours.
Too much, and too little. Since the medieval period is burdened by many stereotypes, first of all it’s worth pointing out that the Middle Ages were not what ordinary readers think, nor what many hastily compiled school textbooks – or films and television - have led them to believe. So the first thing we should say is (i) what the Middle Ages were not. After that, we must ask (ii) what the Middle Ages have left us, things still current today; and finally, (iii) in what sense that period was radically different from our own times.
What the Middle Ages were not
The Middle Ages were not a century. They were not a century, like the sixteenth or seventeenth century, nor a precise epoch with recognizable features, such as the Renaissance, the Baroque or Romantic periods. Medieval times were a series of centuries and were defined as such for the first time by a humanist called Flavio Biondo, who lived in the fifteenth century. Biondo, like all humanists, hoped for a return to the culture of classical antiquity, and – so to speak – put between brackets all the centuries (which he saw as a period of decadence) that had elapsed between the fall of the Roman Empire (476) and his own times - even if fate was to decree that Flavio Biondo himself belonged to the Middle Ages, since he died in 1463, while convention has it that the Middle Ages ended in1492 with the discovery of America and the expulsion of the Moors from Spain.
1492 minus 476 makes 1016. One thousand and 16 years are a lot and it's hard to believe that in such a long period, during which many historical events occurred that are still studied in schools (from the barbarian invasions to the Carolingian Renaissance and feudalism, from Arab expansionism to the birth of the European monarchies, from the struggle between Church and Empire to the Crusades, from Marco Polo (1254-1324) to Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), from Dante (1265-1321) to the Turkish conquest of Constantinople), that the way people live and think always remained more or less the same.
An interesting experiment is to ask a well educated person (not an expert in medieval matters, of course) how many years separate St. Augustine, considered the first medieval thinker even though he died before the fall of the Roman Empire, and Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225. - 1274) - since both are studied even in schools as the principal representatives of Christian thought. Not many would guess the real figure, which is eight centuries, at least as many as those that separate Aquinas from us.
In eight centuries, many things can happen, even though things happened more slowly than they do in our day. The Middle Ages, and we apologize for the tautology, were an age or a time, like Ancient Times and Modern Times. So-called Ancient Times, or classical antiquity, were a series of centuries ranging from the early pre-Homeric bards to the late Roman Empire, from the pre-Socratics to the Stoics, from Plato to Plotinus, from the fall of Troy to the fall of Rome. Similarly, Modern Times range from the Renaissance to the French Revolution, a period that includes Raphael and Tiepolo, Leonardo and the Encyclopaedias, Pico della Mirandola and Vico, Mozart and Palestrina.
Hence you have to approach the history of the Middle Ages armed with the conviction that there were many middle ages, and if nothing else apply another dating system, also too rigid, but at least one that takes into account some important historical changes. So it is customary to talk of the early Middle Ages, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the year one thousand (or at least to Charlemagne); a central period, which is the so-called renaissance after the year one thousand; and finally the late Middle Ages, which was the glorious era in which Dante finished the Divine Comedy, while writers such as Petrarch (1304-1374) and Boccaccio (1313-1375) were active and Florentine humanism was flourishing.
The Middle Ages were not only a period of European civilization. There was the western medieval period and that of the Eastern Empire, which still survived among the splendours of Byzantium for 1000 years after the fall of Rome. During those same centuries a great Arab civilization flourished, while in Europe there was a more or less clandestine, but very lively Jewish culture. The boundaries between these different cultural traditions were not as marked as people think today (the predominant image being the clash between Muslims and Christians during the Crusades). European philosophers knew Aristotle and other Greek authors through the medium of Arab translations, and western medicine made use of Arab science. Christians and Jewish sages, albeit discreetly, were in frequent contact.
However, what characterizes the western Middle Ages was its tendency to interpret every cultural contribution from other eras or civilizations in Christian terms. When discussing today whether to mention Europe's Christian roots in the European Constitution, some rightly object that Europe also has Greco-Roman and Jewish roots (and just think of the importance of the Bible) to say nothing of the ancient pre-Christian civilizations and therefore of Celtic, Germanic or Scandinavian mythology. But with regard to medieval Europe we certainly must speak of Christian roots. In medieval times, everything was translated and reinterpreted in the light of the new religion, right from the days of the Fathers of the Church. The Bible was known only in its Latin translation, the Vulgate of St. Jerome (340/345-420), and there were Latin versions of the Greek philosophers, used to show their convergence with the principles of Christian theology (and the monumental philosophical synthesis of Thomas Aquinas was aimed precisely at this).
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Text by Umberto Eco