In-Depth, Q&A

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.


  • The Long Middle Ages
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    Red devils, they are so popular now that they dictate the features of fictional characters when they’re supposed to be threatening, dangerous and evil. Before the 16th century and prior to the Reformation, however, the color red was the noblest of all, second only to gold—and white, maybe. Red is the color of blood and … Read more

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.


Q&A

Why you should NEVER trust your government when it comes to Medieval History—I’m looking at you, Czech Republic!

What you’ll find in this post

So my good friend Brother_Judas texted me on Reddit about some oddity regarding Czech history. He’d been doing some more reading to draw more of his beautiful maps, when he came upon this information:

In 1002, Duke Vladivoj was enfeoffed with the Duchy of Bohemia from the hands of King Henry II of Germany. With this act, what had been a fully sovereign duchy became part of the Holy Roman Empire. After Vladivoj died the next year, the Polish duke Bolesław I the Brave invaded Bohemia and Moravia. In 1004, after the Poles were expelled from Bohemia with help from Henry II, Duke Jaromir received the duchy in fief from the king.

It puzzled my good friend, you see, because I had showcased a map depicting the Holy Roman Empire in 962 that included Bohemia as part of the Empire. Brother_Judas had seen and studied that map. So he came back straight to me, demanding answers in the most gallant fashion.

The Holy Roman Empire in 962

He wrote the paragraph I quoted then reported that he’d found this information on a website belonging to some department of the Czech Ministry of the Interior. It’s a good thing he translated the thing for me because I sure couldn’t have been able to read it! That’s why, dear children, making friends from foreign countries is a most valuable thing.

Well, I was in a pickle, wasn’t I? I mean, you trust me to upload solid and trustworthy historical information on my blog. Then comes along a government full of officials that contradicts me. This is upsetting. If I had lied brazenly, you’d unfollow right away and I wouldn’t blame you.

Now, wait a minute. Who told you any government was trustworthy when it comes to sharing historical information? Have you not read 1984?

I went back to that book I found the HRE 962 map that I had shared. It was published by Harvard University Press. That only should vouch for its intrinsic value. However, it happened more than once that an academic rushed his writing, didn’t check his sources and oversimplified things. Beyond the map itself, what did the text say?

The emperor was rarely able to help missionaries once they set off into the wild north and east. Those sent to Denmark were expelled in the 820s and Christianization made no headway there until the conversion of Harald Bluetooth in the mid-tenth century. The cooperation of local elites proved indispensable, especially as conversion entailed simultaneous acceptance of imperial suzerainty and payment of tithes. The Bohemian leader (and later saint) Wenceslas had been educated as a Christian and accepted imperial overlordship, only to be murdered on his brother’s orders in 929. Bohemia was forced to acknowledge imperial suzerainty in 950, though resistance to Christianity persisted into the eleventh century. Nonetheless, conversion of much of its elite proved significant in spreading Christianity and imperial influence to the East Elbian Slavs and to the Poles and Magyars. Vojtech (Adalbert), a missionary martyred by the Prussians in 997, came from the Bohemian ruling family.

Then I read a bit further down:

Otto III was subsequently criticized for converting tribute-paying princelings into independent kings. It is more likely that Boleslav and Istvan considered themselves the emperor’s primary allies, while Otto regarded himself as king of kings. The relationship remained fluid because of internal changes in the Empire, Poland and Hungary. Boleslav’s successors were not crowned kings, and his son Mieszko II returned the royal insignia to the Empire in 1031. A royal title could mark temporary ascendency over domestic foes, while submission to the Empire was a favored tactic of weaker rulers seeking external backing. In practice, Poland remained a tributary of the Empire from the 960s until the late twelfth century without this infringing its internal autonomy or requiring its ruler to participate in German politics. In this sense, it remained more distinct than Bohemia, which was clearly an imperial fief by 1002.

The author, Peter H. Wilson, is a history professor at the All Souls College of Oxford. I should take his word but I didn’t. I spotted a reference of his: Nora Berend, Central Europe in the High Middle Ages. Bohemia, Hungary and Poland, c.900-c.1300. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. I decided to check that book out too. On the one hand, Nora Berend herself is a professor at the St Catharine’s College of Cambridge. On the other hand, her book is a marvel. The following stellar review had even been written by Christian Raffensperger in Speculum, a top-notch historical review centered on Medieval History:

The arrival of this book is more than welcome for those of us teaching medieval history beyond Western Europe … The work required to produce this must have been immense and the payoff is tremendous for the reader … Central Europe in the High Middle Ages makes the medieval histories of these three incredibly important medieval polities available to an English-language audience of students and scholars, and it will hopefully facilitate the expansion of the idea of medieval Europe throughout college classrooms.

So, basically, Nora Berend’s book is the shit. No surprise there, it’s a Cambridge history book. Therefore I took upon myself to peruse its third chapter on ‘formation of polities and Christianization’ and here’s another quote I can hit you with:

Boleslav I attempted to counterbalance the growing political power of Germany under Henry I by tightening Bohemia’s traditional relations with Bavaria, leading to a long-standing alliance. Boleslav continued his father’s policy of strategic co-operation with the Polabian Slavs, which lasted for more than two centuries. He also tried to take advantage of German–Hungarian conflicts, and allowed the Magyar plunderers to pass freely as they made their way to Thuringia and further west. Nonetheless, he was forced to accept the suzerainty of Otto I in 950, and resume tribute payments. Bohemian assistance was provided to the German king to defeat the Magyars at Lechfeld in 955. Bohemia fell under the permanent control of the Empire, albeit indirectly.

Let’s conclude. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? What the hell happened? What the story behind all this? Well, you kind of know it by now. Nonetheless, make sure to check out my short history of the early Dukes of Bohemia, from Vratislav to Bretislav, in my next post!