What exactly do we mean when we say “Medieval” or “Middle Ages”?

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The word “Medieval” usually refers to a period of European history. However, historical references are sometimes made to Medieval India or Japan. So this makes the term ambiguous and difficult to define.

Debates over dates and different definitional criteria only add the confusion. Are dates for the Medieval period marked by developments in art, economics, technology, religion, warfare, standard of living, morality, social issues, human rights or critical thinking?

Also called the Middle Ages, the Medieval period is generally regarded as running from about 1000 CE to 1500 CE, a time when a relatively few kings, nobles, notables, literati and Church leaders had a firm, exploitative and often ruthless grip on the masses.

For the most part, commoners were of dramatically lower social, economic and educational status than their so-called “betters.” Of course, if their “betters” became too harsh and authoritarian they risked the possibility of revolt or assassination from their elevated peers or from the resentful “rabble.” This is a general dynamic that most politicians would be wise to keep in mind, even today.

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Some maintain that the Middle Ages differ from the Medieval period. For them, the Middle Ages begin about 600 CE. Others use the two terms interchangeably, with the Medieval period also beginning in 600 CE or 1000 CE. And yet some say the Medieval period properly begins somewhere between the Council of Nicea (313 CE) and the Sack of Rome (410 CE); and it ends with the fall of Constantinople in 1453 CE.

The actual term Middle Ages was first used by 16th century Renaissance writers describing the period from 600 CE to about 1400 CE because they viewed their own culture as a reimagining of themes prevalent in ancient Greece and Rome.

Recent views of the Medieval period challenge the notion that it was backward and stagnant.¹ Several innovations were made in different spheres, if not perhaps in technology. For instance, theologians like Duns Scotus, William of Ockham and St. Thomas Aquinas, devised some amazingly subtle arguments. Likewise, Christian polyphonic devotional music exhibited radical innovations during this time.²

¹ Professor Dorsey Armstrong highlights the notion that the Medieval period was not dull as dishwater but rather, quite vibrant and innovative.

² So much so that some traditionalists saw these musical changes as works of the devil. Sound familiar?  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyphony#European_polyphony


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