Long Reads

The Long Middle Ages

Wild Reddit Question Appears!

>>> Link to the original reddit post <<<

Is the Long Middle Ages theory seriously considered by historians?

My brother told me about his history teacher when he was at the university telling him that he believed in a theory saying that the Middle Ages should be reconsidered as not ending with the fall of Constantinople or the discovery of America, but rather with the Industrial Revolution/French Revolution. Is this a real thing considered by some historians, or is it some obscure theory from dark places?


My Answer

The Periodization of the Middle Ages

The periodization of the Middle Ages is a historiographical legacy. It should be challenged. It should be revised. However, university chairs and editorial directives are now defined by this legacy and it’d be very hard to change anything about it…

I can’t for the life of me find the historian who first said that the Middle Ages started in 476 and ended in 1453 or 1492. I think I’ll never find him… However, the medieval era is commonly defined between the infamous “fall of Rome” (was it a “fall”, really? was it still “Rome”? who could answer such things?), set in 476, and the less notorious “fall of Constantinople” or “second fall of Rome”, set in 1453. Oddly enough 1453 is also the year that marks the symbolic end of the Hundred Years’ War (it was only put to an end diplomatically in 1475) and some historians would also like to make it a big thing. However, other argued that 1492 served as a better moment to mark the “end of an era” or a “new dawn for mankind” since it’s the year Columbus reaches the America—though he thinks at the time he’s found a new way to China; he’ll actually die without knowing that he actually landed on an uncharted continent. 1492 was also a big year for Spain for another reason: it marks the end of the Reconquista. The last Muslim kingdom of Granada falls to the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile.

What’s funny with those dates is that they prioritize military achievements and political events above everything else. The invention of the printing press doesn’t serve as a landmark in that discussion. Events from outside Europe are totally ignored. The list could go on for several pages. In the end, the periodization of the Middle Ages is a historiographical legacy. It should be challenged. It should be revised. However, university chairs and editorial directives are now defined by this legacy and it’d be very hard to change anything about it… It’s both a blessing and a curse! It helps us to navigate through history easily but it also blinds us from a lot of different realities.

What in a Date? A Year, by any Other Time…

“Do you think people changed their way of life overnight? Of course not! Why then do we say that 1492 ends the Middle Ages? It’s more a landmark than anything else. People’s life didn’t change all of a sudden. If it did it was through a long process. 1492 is the high note of a long symphony, not some point of no return.”

The 9gag army was here

I distinctively remember my history teacher, Mrs B., telling us about the “great” discovery of America by Columbus, in 1492. She said: “Do you think people changed their way of life overnight? Of course not! Why then do we say that 1492 ends the Middle Ages? It’s more a landmark than anything else. People’s life didn’t change all of a sudden. If it did it was through a long process. 1492 is the high note of a long symphony, not some point of no return.”

I recently wrote an answer about the importance given to the 1066 conquest of England by William of Normandy. Back in the 11th century, 1066 was just another year in the span of a lifetime. It is true that the Norman rule brought a lot of change in the political management of the British Isles. However, those change came slowly and not overnight. It took time to William to assert his authority and deal with the last pockets of resistance. Then he had to know his new kingdom better before he could do anything with it. That’s when the Doomsday Book came to fruition.

The year 1066 became a “big thing” only in retrospect. When 14th and 15th century chroniclers tried to justify the over-expensive and never-ending war led by the kings of England against the kings of France. The latter were defined as a threat for the English people and even as a threat to the English language itself! The Norman conquest of 1066 served as a painful reminder. This was more a construct than anything, though.

Historians still do that when they look back into the past. They elevate a few dates to the level symbolic and meaningful constructs. It becomes a part of their reasoning. A way for them to “make sense” out of the past and put everything into a coherent narrative. In and of themselves, however, dates and years basically mean nothing to the great scale of the universe.


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Petrarch’s “Dark Ages”

Petrarch saw the beginning of the Dark Ages as the moment Rome fell under foreign control. It means that the so-called golden age of the Antonin dynasty marks as the downfall of Rome in Petrarch’s mind. It would backtrack the start of the Middle Ages to the year 96!

Sculpture of Petrarch in Florence (Italy)

Many have attributed to Petrarch the notion of “Middle Ages”. Theodore E. Mommsen wrote convincingly about it in his article: “Petrarch’s Conception of the ‘Dark Ages’” (1942)—available on JStor. As Petrarch roamed through Rome and its ruins he was flabbergasted by the little knowledge that its inhabitants had of those great historical landmarks. Mommsen writes (p. 232): “Petrarch complains bitterly that the contemporary Romans know nothing about Rome and things Roman. In his opinion this ignorance is disastrous. For he asks: ‘Who can doubt that Rome would rise up again if she but began to know herself?’”

As a matter of fact, Petrarch saw the beginning of the Dark Ages as the moment Rome fell under foreign control. It means that the so-called golden age of the Antonin dynasty marks as the downfall of Rome in Petrarch’s mind. It would backtrack the start of the Middle Ages to the year 96! Again, what was “Rome”? How did it “fall”? Cato the Elder, Cicero, Petrarch and Edward Gibbon would each argue a very different point of view on the matter! I chuckled recently when I read that no one actively sought to destroy the Western Roman Empire. It collapsed on its own. There’s actually nothing inherently wrong in that statement. The Western Roman Empire just… died out.

Jacques Le Goff, Inventor of the Long Middle Ages?

The age of mills was only put to an end by the age of machines. Le Goff lists up most of what argue in favour of a continuity instead of a divide between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: means of transportation, economic structures (both material and intellectual), metallurgy, manners and politeness, landscape features, etc.

Picture of Jacques Le Goff
By the way… “Ceci est bel et bien une pipe.”

Jacques Le Goff is probably the most influential French medievalist of the latter 20th century. He still has students and admirers all over the world. His historical biography of Louis IX of France revolutionized the genre. The deeds of a man were not to be taken out of their context from anymore and that context had to be thoroughly studied. It didn’t suffice to enumerate the facts on a man’s life. You also had to understand his era, the social mind-set of his time and the economical structures he grew up in. That’s why Le Goff’s biography of Louis IX is one very heavy book!

Now, not to point out fingers, but Le Goff actually came up with the idea of the Long Middle Ages! He spent many interviews defending its validity before he eventually wrote a book about it. Recently translated into English, Must We Divide History Into Periods? argues in its final chapter that the Middle Ages lasted until the Industrial Revolution. The age of mills was only put to an end by the age of machines. Le Goff lists up most of what argue in favour of a continuity instead of a divide between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: means of transportation, economic structures (both material and intellectual), metallurgy, manners and politeness, landscape features, etc. Alcohol is pointed out as a proper novelty, yet he writes (p. 85): “As Braudel remarks, if the sixteenth created alcohol, it was the eighteenth that popularized it. Brandy, produced especially in monasteries, was commonly prescribed by physicians and apothecaries as a remedy against plague, gout, and loss of voice. It did not become a festive drink until the eighteenth century.” The eighteenth century represents the real “turning point” in history whereas the Renaissance is mostly seen as the medieval demonstration of a somewhat typical spiritual and political crisis.

Therefore we could conclude that, indeed, the Long Middle Age theory is seriously considered by historians. It’s a theory that was propagated by historians in the first place!

Ernest Gellner and the Two Only Real Revolutions

His book Plough, Sword and Book: The Structure of Human History argues that there were only two real revolutions: the Neolithic Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. It means that he sees a very long continuity between late Prehistoric Times or early Ancient History and the Contemporary Era.

Picture of Ernest Gellner

An idea, however great or bad it is, is never the fact of one single man. Ideas float in the air. Anyone can grab them if you keep your mind open. Ernest Gellner, a philosopher who wrote most of his books on how to make sense of history, also argued that the Industrial Revolution more than any revolution or “Renaissance” before it brought a definitive change to human societies. To be fair, his book Plough, Sword and Book: The Structure of Human History argues that there were only two real revolutions: the Neolithic Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. It means that he sees a very long continuity between late Prehistoric Times or early Ancient History and the Contemporary Era. The overthrowing of governments doesn’t mean a thing from a philosophical standpoint. Political or military history are negligible. What really matters is the structure of human society: how people live day-by-day? How do they organize their time? What do they give importance to? How do they run their society? Every pre-industrialized civilization shares a lot of traits with each other. The patterns follow the same rules though they show a lot of variations. Gellner’s theory is quite long and arduous to read. After all, he criticizes the theories of Hegel and Husserl while building upon it. Make sure to understand it fully before dismissing it as “dumb” or “inaccurate”. Many people tend to react poorly when faced with heavy philosophy for they’re suddenly faced with unfamiliar concepts and ideas that critically challenge their daily preconceptions of the world.

In conclusion, not only is the idea of a Long Middle Ages a pretty serious theory among medievalists. It’s also only the start of a greater concept of history for philosophers.


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