- Middle Ages in history
The Middle Ages in history is an overview of how previous periods have both romanticised and disparaged the
Middle Ages. After the period came to an end with the Renaissance, subsequent cultural movements such as the Enlightenment and Romantics created images of the Middle Ages that say as much about their own time as actual Medieval history. The modern world is the inheritor of the images and ideas in the form of film, architecture, literature, artand the folk history of popular culture.
Dark Ages"The origin of the term "Middle Ages" comes from Italian Renaissancehumanists in the 15th century. Humanists at the time believed that since the fall of Rome in the 5th century, culture had stagnated, owing to the loss of many classical Latin texts, and the nearly thousand year intervening period was a " Dark Age", a term first coined by Petrarchin the 1330s. A generation after Petrarch, Leonardo Bruni(the first modern historian) logically defined this Dark Age as part of a three tier outline of history composed of Ancient, Middle and Modern, and based on that Flavio Biondofirst coined the term "Middle Age" in 1442. The terms "Dark Age" and "Middle Age" are not neutral historical descriptions; rather, it was a humanists' ideologicalcampaign to foster one cultural ideal over another and paint the period in a negative pejorative light. While humanism was the first movement to do so, it would not be the last dark image of the Middle Ages.
Reformation and Enlightenment
Between 1500 and 1800 the image of the Middle Ages was mostly seen in a negative light, attacked separately or simultaneously, by the two powerful forces of humanism, the Reformation and the Enlightenment.
Protestant Reformations of the 16th and 17th centuries, Protestants generally agreed with the humanists view but for additional reasons. They saw classical antiquity as a golden time, not only because of the Latin literature, but because it was the early beginnings of Christianity. They saw the intervening 1000 year Middle Age as a time of darkness, not only because of lack of secular Latin literature, but because of corruption within the Church such as Popes who ruled as kings, pagan superstitions with saints relics, celibate priesthood, and institutionalized moral hypocrisy.
An example of how Protestant views shaped views of the past can be seen in the example of King John of England. In the early
Victorian eraKing John was seen as a tyrant whose failed leadership resulted in the forced signing of the Magna Cartaand loss of English holdings in Normandy. However, because King John opposed papal authority during the crisis over the appointment of Stephen Langtonthe Archbishop of Canterbury, Protestants saw him as a hero against the oppressive force of the Pope. In support of the Protestant interpretation of history, playwright John Balein his 1530s drama "King Johan" called him "a faithful Moses" who '"withstood proud Pharaoh [the pope] for his poor Israel". This pro-John sentiment continued and eventually found its most popular voice in Shakespeare's play " King John".
:"Main article: Enlightenment"During the 17th and 18th centuries, in the
Age of Enlightenment, religion was seen as antithetical to reason. Because the Middle Ages was an "Age of Faith" when religion reigned, it was seen as a period contrary to reason, and thus contrary to the Enlightenment. For them the Middle Ages was barbaric and priest-ridden. They referred to "these dark times", "the centuries of ignorance", and "the uncouth centuries". Voltairewas an Enlightenment writer who was particularly energetic in attacking the religiously dominated Middle Ages as a period of social stagnation and decline. His essay "Essay on the Customs and Spirit of Nations" (1750s) has over one-hundred chapters on the Middle Ages. He saw it as time of political failure because Europe "was divided among a countless number of petty tyrants". Feudalismwas a catalyst for endless civil war. His vision of the period was barbaric. "Picture yourself", he says, "in a wilderness where wolves, tigers and foxes slaughter straggling timid cattle -- that is the portrait of Europe over the course of many centuries." Scholasticismwas "systems of absurdity". The Catholic Church "has always come down in favor of crushing reason completely". Of the crusades, the fourth crusadein particular, he said "the only fruit of the Christians in their barbarous crusades was to exterminate other Christians.. led by leaders without experience or skill."
In summary, between 1500 and 1800 the Middle Ages were viewed negatively for three reasons: it failed to meet humanist (and thus classic) standards of literature and learning, it failed to meet Protestant religious judgments, and it failed to meet Enlightenment standards.
Romanticism"The "uncouth times that one calls the Middle Ages" (Voltaire) was followed by a revolutionary change in perspective, a change which still exists in large part to this day, and of which we are still the direct heirs. During the later 18th and 19th century the movement known as Romanticismbegan. One of its practitioners, poet Heinrich Heine, defined Romanticism as "nothing but the reawakening of the poetry of the Middle Ages, as it manifested itself in songs, pictures and works of art, in art and life." The Romantic image of the Middle Ages was a reaction to a world dominated by Enlightenment rationalism in which reason trumped emotion. The Romantics viewed the Middle Ages nostalgically as an era of emotion and mystery, the simple and natural--a period of social and environmental harmony and spiritual inspiration, in contrast to the excesses of the French Revolution and most of all to the environmental and social upheavals of the emerging industrial revolution.The Romantics not only longed for the Middle Ages but endeavored to recreate it in art, literature and architecture. Painters such as the German Nazarenes (1809) or English Pre-Raphaelites(1848) advocated a return to a previous era in art. The Romantics also invented the historical noveland its foremost practitioner was Sir Walter Scottwho wrote " Ivanhoe" (1819), a Medieval drama of knights and fair maidens and chivalry. "Ivanhoe" was a 19th-century best seller, nine operas were based on it, and in 1820 six different versions were playing on stage in London at the same time [Ian Anstruther,"The Knight and the Umbrella: An Account of the Eglinton Tournament -- 1839", Geoffrey Bles Ltd, London, 1963, pp. 122-123] . In 1839, the Earl of Eglinton actually held a great tournament, the notorious Eglinton Tournament of 1839. 19th-century poetry was also heavily influenced by re-discovered and newly popular literature from the Middle Ages including the famous Brothers Grimm, who inspired Mary Wollstonecraft Shelleyto write " Frankenstein" (1818), a classic Romantic reaction to the potential horrors of scientific discovery.
Perhaps the greatest lasting impact of the Romantics vision of the Middle Ages is in Architecture. Vast amounts of pseudo-medieval architecture were built during the 19th- and 20th-century
Gothic revival. The completion of the Cologne Cathedral(1880) in Gothic style marked a new era in bringing the Medieval world into the modern. Some of the leaders of this pseudo-medieval architectural movement included Englishman August Puginwho asserted that Gothic architecturewas true Christian architecture, boldly saying "The pointed arch was produced by the Catholic faith". He went on to produce important Gothic buildings such as Cathedrals at Birmingham and Southwark and the British House of Parliament in the 1840s. Viollet-le-Ducwas a leading Medieval restorer in France who restored the entire walled city of Carcassonneas well as Notre-Dame and Sainte Chapelle. In America Ralph Adams Cramwas a leading force in American Gothic, with his most ambitious project the Cathedral of Saint John the Divinein New York (claimed to be the largest Cathedral in the world), as well as Collegiate Gothicbuildings at Princeton Graduate College. Cram said "the style hewn out and perfected by our ancestors [has] become ours by uncontested inheritance."
One of the major themes of the Romantics was
Romantic nationalism, and the image of the Middle Ages was closely tied with its rise and dominance. Theorist Johann Gottfried von Herder, an important Romantic leader, defined nationalism in ethnic terms as communities of common language. He said "Language is the principal sign of a nation [it is] the true national history of a people". To that end national epics such as " The Song of Roland", " Beowulf" and " Nibelungenlied" were published for the first time and were widely read and influential. For example at one point during Germany's so-called "War of Liberation" against Napoleonin 1813-1814, at the " Battle of the Nations", the German army handed out copies of "Nibelungenlied" to its troops as a morale booster.
By the late 19th century pseudo-medieval symbols were the currency of European monarchal state propaganda. German emperors dressed up in and proudly displayed medieval costumes in public, and they rebuilt the great medieval castle and spiritual home of the Teutonic Order at Marienburg. Mad King
Ludwig IIof Bavaria built a fairy-tale castle at Neuschwansteinand decorated it with scenes from Wagner's operas, another major Romantic image maker of the Middle Ages. In England, the Middle Ages were trumpeted as the birthplace of Nations because of the Magna Cartaof 1215.
In the 20th century there were two forces which shaped the image of the Middle Ages: Academia and, most significantly, Film.
Universities experienced a steep rise in interest in Medieval studies, both in funding and numbers of students and teachers and programs. There were roughly three generations of Medieval historians in the 20th century, each focusing on different aspects of Medieval history which reflected the interests of their own time.
In the early part of the 20th century the academic focus was on political and constitutional history as part of a drive to train governmental workers to fill the Great Society programs, which was believed to be the path to a better future for the best and brightest of society. The definition of the "Middle Ages" as opposed to the
Renaissancein the early 20th century was strongly influenced by the classic works of Jacob Burckhardtand Johan Huizinga. Charles H. Haskinswas a leader in the USA and was called America's first Medievalist.
In the middle part of the 20th century medievalists focused more on social and economic factors, reflecting the issues of that time.
Marc Blochwas a leader in this area famously re-defining Feudalismas a social system.
Finally in the later part of the century historians began to focus on more diverse areas, such as peasants,
feminismand private lives.The microhistoryschool pioneered by Carlo Ginzburgwith his "The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller" (1980) is a good example of the diversity of this research, reflecting the general trends toward diversity and choice in the later part of the 20th century.
Film has been the most significant creator of images of the Middle Ages in the 20th century. The first
Medieval filmwas also one of the earliest films ever made, about Joan of Arcin 1899, while the first Robin Hooddates to as early as 1908. Just as most peoples perceptions of the American Wild Westwere drawn mostly from film, versus source material or academic research, so too most peoples perceptions of the Middle Ages were shaped by film. Influential European films included the German " Nibelungenlied" (1924), Eisenstein's "Alexander Nevsky" (1938) and Bergman's " The Seventh Seal" (1957), while in France there were many Joan of Arc sequels. Probably most influential of all were Hollywoodfilms. The Romantic historical novels were adapted to the screen such as " Ivanhoe" (1952) by MGM and "El Cid" (1961). Like the works of Romantic artists, painters, novelists, and operas, the films were direct historic links to the Romantic movement. The exact same Romantic style exists in the films in music, imagery and themes. The films reached a far wider audience than academic works and were further reinforced by fantasy literature.
Fantasy's medieval debts predated film. While the folklore that fantasy drew on for its magic and monsters was not exclusively medieval, elves, dragons, and unicorns, among many other creatures, were drawn from medieval folklore and romance. Perhaps even more important was setting. Such earlier writers as William Morris(in " The Well at the World's End") and Lord Dunsany(in " The King of Elfland's Daughter") set their tales in fantasy worlds clearly derived from medieval sources, though often filtered through later views. J.R.R. Tolkienset the type even more clearly for high fantasy, normally based in such a pseudo-medieval setting. Other fantasy writers have emulated him, and role-playingand computer gamesalso took up this tradition, which continued with strength into the 21st century.
living historyfrom about the 1970s, and increasingly towards the end of the 20th century (e.g. Battle of Hastings since 1984) began with a focus on battle reenactmentbut has since diversified to all aspects of medieval life.
* [http://www2.tltc.ttu.edu/howe/historio.htm "Medieval Historiography: Selected Readings"]
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