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Defining the Middle Ages

Part 5: Europe


The field of medieval studies is by its very nature "eurocentric." This does not mean that medievalists deny or ignore the significance of events that took place outside of what is today Europe during the medieval era. But the entire concept of a "medieval era" is a European one. The term "Middle Ages" was first used by European scholars during the Italian Renaissance to describe their own history, and as the study of the era has evolved, that focus has remained fundamentally the same.

As more research has been conducted in previously unexplored areas, a wider recognition of the importance of the lands outside Europe in shaping the modern world has evolved. While other specialists study the histories of non-European lands from varying perspectives, medievalists generally approach them with regard to how they affected European history. It is an aspect of medieval studies that has always characterized the field.

Because the medieval era is so inextricably linked to the geographical entity we now call "Europe," it is entirely valid to associate a definition of the Middle Ages with a significant stage in the development of that entity. But this presents us with a variety of challenges.

Europe is not a separate geological continent; it is part of a larger land mass properly called Eurasia. Throughout history, its boundaries shifted all too often, and they are still shifting today. It was not commonly recognized as a distinct geographical entity during the Middle Ages; the lands we now call Europe were more frequently considered "Christendom." Throughout the Middle Ages, there was no single political force that controlled all of the continent. With these limitations, it becomes increasingly difficult to define the parameters of a broad historical age associated with what we now call Europe.

But perhaps this very lack of characteristic features can help us with our definition.

When the Roman Empire was at its height, it consisted primarily of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean. By the time Columbus made his historic voyage to the "New World," the "Old World" stretched from Italy to Scandinavia, and from Britain to the Balkans and beyond. No longer was Europe the wild, untamed frontier, populated by "barbarian," frequently migratory cultures. It was now "civilized" (though still often in turmoil), with generally stable governments, established centers of commerce and learning, and the dominant presence of Christianity.

Thus, the medieval era might be considered the period of time during which Europe became a geopolitical entity.

The "fall of the Roman Empire" (c. 476) can still be considered a turning point in the development of Europe's identity. However, the time when the migrations of Germanic tribes into Roman territory began to effect significant changes in the empire's cohesiveness (the 2nd century C.E.) could be considered the genesis of Europe.

A common terminus is the late 15th century, when westward exploration into the new world initiated a new awareness in Europeans of their "old world." The 15th century also saw significant turning points for regions within Europe: In 1453, the end of the Hundred Years War signalled the unification of France; in 1485, Britain saw the end of the Wars of the Roses and the beginning of an extensive peace; in 1492, the Moors were driven from Spain, the Jews were expelled, and "Catholic unity" prevailed. Changes were taking place everywhere, and as individual nations established modern identities, so too did Europe appear to take on a cohesive identity of its own.

Next page: Part 6: An Age of Ages


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

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