Europe and the Middle Ages /

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Bibliographic Details
Author / Creator:Peters, Edward, 1936-
Edition:2nd ed.
Imprint:Englewood Cliffs, N.J. : Prentice Hall, c1989.
Description:xiii, 354 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.
Subject:Middle Ages
Civilization, Medieval
Civilization, Medieval.
Middle Ages.
Format: Print Book
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Hidden Bibliographic Details
Notes:Includes index.
Bibliography: p. 331-344.

Marking Time The term "Middle Ages" is an instance of the historian's practice of dividing the past into distinct periods in order to focus more closely on the problem of continuity and change in the study of human experience. When other disciplines use historical periodization, they usually possess reasonably specific and generally undisputed criteria for defining change. Measurable physical changes in the earth's structure, for example, account readily for geological periodization. Significant differences in the record of material culture account for periodization in archaeology. But the past of human societies offers a much broader and more widely debated spectrum of things to describe, measure, analyze, and explain. Our lives are short and our experience limited, but we have always desired a much greater--and greatly changing--access to the human past than our own personal experience and memory can provide. We have invented the discipline of history to provide us with that access. Different methods of historical research and different ideas of historical periods came into existence precisely because of the different questions about the past that people asked, the reasons why they asked them, and the wider range of historical source materials that they used. In the late fourteenth century, as the last chapter of this book will tell, a number of literary moralists asked why the great power of the Roman Empire seemed to have collapsed around 500 C.E., or, as the greatest successor they ever had, Edward Gibbon, put it, why the Roman Empire "declined and fell." They also thought that in their own time they had managed to revive many of the linguistic, literary, artistic, and moral values of ancient Rome. These humanists came to call their own age (from the year 1350 or so) the period of rebirth, the "Renaissance" of Roman and later Greek values. With the glories of ancient Rome at one end, and the imagined glories of revived Roman and Greek culture at the other, the period from around 500 to 1350-1450 came to acquire a negative shape. What seemed to be conspicuous about it was its "un-Romanness," between two periods of "Romanness." And so people took to calling it "Middle"--middle between what seemed to them two more admirable periods of human achievement. In the early sixteenth century, religious reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin, and a number of Protestant historians, added to the humanist historical argument their accusations that at the end of the Roman Empire an authentic, evangelical Christianity had begun to be perverted by the Latin Christian Church and had not been purified until their own time, by themselves. This view reinforced the first definition of "the Middle Ages." It was itself reinforced in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by thinkers who argued that even if their age had not exactly recreated the glories of ancient Greece and Rome, it had done something even better--it had created a greater civilization, "the Modern Age." The new age professed to have discovered an absolute standard of rationality according to which all civilizations in the past and present could be ranked. "Antiquity," "the Middle Ages," and "the Modern Age" thus became standard divisions of the European past. By all of these criteria, the millennium after 500 C.E. indeed seemed hopelessly remote, or, as many others called the period at various times, dark, rusty, monkish, leaden, dull, and barbarous, ruled largely, as the first great American medieval historian, Henry Charles Lea (1825-1909), once observed, by "superstition and force." But during the nineteenth century, some of the very values that had created and characterized the "Middle Ages" themselves began to come under historical and cultural criticism. Romantic critics opposed seventeenth- and eighteenth-century claims to have discovered universal laws of human behavior and a single, narrow standard for judging the past. They argued that such a narrow view of both human nature and history made no allowance for historically derived differences among European peoples and between Europeans and other peoples. Another line of criticism came from nineteenth-century political reformers who urged a broader level of popular participation in politics and identified the people and its past with the nation-state. They attacked the Renaissance and early modern world of aristocrats, absolutist monarchs, state churches, extravagant wars, and rationalist philosophies of history, and turned back nostalgically to what they saw as a more inclusive, appealing, spiritual, virtuous, and less intensely governed medieval world. The industrial revolutions of the nineteenth century appeared to have changed the lives of so many people so drastically and in so many ways, to have increased and redistributed wealth on such an immense scale, and to have changed the very nature of economic, social, and political experience so thoroughly, that the differences between the Middle Ages and the early stages of the modern period seemed to shrink to insignificance. Historians began to speak of preindustrial and industrial societies, of "Old Europe" and "traditional Europe," rather than of "Medieval," "Renaissance," "Reformation," or "Early Modern" Europe. In the light of the new long-range view, the French historian Jacques Le Goff and others have argued for a "long Middle Ages," from around the year 1000 to about 1800. The original historical ideas that created the term and concept of the "Middle Ages" certainly no longer satisfy modern historical criteria of accuracy and appropriate methodology. Yet we still mark time with the term, not because we agree with the humanists, reformers, or eighteenth-century rationalists (and certainly not because we want to use the period as a cultural escape-hatch out of our own nostalgia or alienation from the present) but because even such concepts as "preindustrial" or "traditional" Europe encompass very broad and often unwieldy areas for concentrated study. Periodization also recognizes that there are limits to what a single historian or student of history can accomplish and the kinds of sources a single historian can master. But we also acknowledge that one period cannot be hermetically sealed off from those the precede and follow it. The historian's problem remains that of balancing continuity and change. A series of new scholarly disciplines for the study of human society were devised in the nineteenth century and greatly refined in the twentieth--archaeology, sociology, political science, anthropology, comparative religious studies, art history, and others. These approaches raised fundamental questions about the nature of life in the past that older historical methods, focused nearly exclusively on statebuilding, politics, and diplomatic history, could not readily answer. Historians themselves began to reshape their idea of their culture's past and to face the question of whether the Middle Ages or any early period of history might be a legitimate cultural past for the modern world. Might interest in it not be mere antiquarianism? Or nostalgic and escapist Romanticism? Because the modern (now, sometimes, postmodern) world in which we all live was really born much later, what did the remote past matter? Does the contemporary world have a past at all? Historians and students of history still mark time, but their reasons for marking change. Periodization requires that we identify what changed and what did not, how and where change took place, and how the consequences of that change worked themselves out in human society. We ask sharper and more precise questions partly because we have increased and, we hope, more precisely defined the methods and subjects of historical research and partly because our own cultural experience has compelled us to. Any distant historical period, however defined and labeled, must be seen as both very unfamiliar to us and at the same time accessible to our understanding. The unsettling combination of alienness and intelligibility is often difficult to negotiate, but it is also one of the most rewarding results of historical study. On the one hand, some historians are tempted to make the earliest history of Europe look less alien--largely by focusing on its economic and institutional features and emphasizing continuity rather than discontinuity. On the other, some historians are fascinated by many features of that alienness, arguing that these alone give legitimate voice to those people and groups about whom the sources are silent, those without power, the marginalized peoples of early Europe, or, as one historian identified them, "the people without history." The shift from the domination of narrow and often anachronistic political history to the history of societies more broadly defined has been one of the most important changes in historical inquiry since the middle of the twentieth century. Historians have begun to inquire about cultural history and the mentalities of both rulers and the people they ruled, about devotional life and lived religion instead of purely normative institutional religion, and about gender and the principle of inclusion rather than that of exclusion. By asking these new questions, historians have produced a richer history of medieval Europe, one that can no longer be turned quite so readily to the instrumental service of fashionable ideas, ideologies, confessional wrangling, simplistic reductionism, or the instrumental reinforcement of various kinds of power. In this role, the study of history has become a kind of intellectual martial art, and if we do not insist that it can and must be used legitimately, others will assertively misuse it, usually to our own confusion. Human beings live in time, but, as novelists and physicists continually remind us, we perceive our own passage through time in subjective and distorted ways. Perhaps there is no other way of living in time. The study of history is an intellectual tool that permits us to observe others living through time in the past without the distortion that prevented them, and often prevents us, from perceiving what living in time means. And it makes our lives more interesting. The distinguished English historian Alexander Murray once observed that, "Without any vision at all, history books are waste paper." Vision is not always expected or wanted in survey texts, but there is no reason to write them without some vision. The vision behind this book is simply that the Middle Ages is not the middle of anything, but that the period constitutes the first part of the history of a distinctive European and Atlantic civilization, and that even a survey text, when it bridges the gap between specialized research and popular understanding, may be a useful intellectual exercise. Excerpted from Europe and the Middle Ages by Edward M. Peters All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.