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Defining the Middle Ages



One of the most frequently asked questions about medieval history is, "When did the Middle Ages start and end?" The answer to this simple question is more complicated than you might think.

There is currently no true consensus among historians, authors, and educators for the precise dates -- or even the general dates -- that mark the beginning and end of the medieval era. The most common time frame is approximately 500-1500 C.E., but you will often see different dates of significance marking the era's parameters.

The reasons for this imprecision become a little more clear when one considers that the Middle Ages as a period of study has evolved over centuries of scholarship. Once a "Dark Age," then a romantic era and an "Age of Faith," medieval times were approached by historians in the 20th century as a complex, multifaceted era, and many scholars found new and intriguing topics to pursue. Every view of the Middle Ages had its own defining characteristics, which in turn had its own turning points and associated dates.

This state of affairs offers the scholar or enthusiast the opportunity to define the Middle Ages in the manner that best suits his own personal approach to the era. Unfortunately, it also leaves the newcomer to medieval studies with a certain amount of confusion.

In this feature I will discuss some of the ways the medieval era has and can be delineated, and leave it to you to decide how you wish to define the Middle Ages.

Next page: Part 2: Stuck in the Middle


Defining the Middle Ages

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Stuck in the Middle
Part 3: Empires
Part 4: Christendom
Part 5: Europe
Part 6: An Age of Ages
Part 7: Make Your Choice

Guide's Note: This feature was originally posted in July of 2002, and was updated in December of 2006.

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