No one in the Middle Ages had ever heard of the term. It’s a posthumous concept, in many ways. If you’d asked someone in the Middle Ages where they fit into history, or how human history was structured, they would have pointed you to Saint Augustine. So who deserves credit for the invention of the Middle Ages as an idea?
Augustine’s Six Phases of History
According to Augustine, human history consisted of six phases. The dividing lines between these six phases were religious events, such as the birth of Christ, or the second coming of Christ, for example.
If you had asked Augustine and those who followed him which of these six stages was the period in which he lived, he would have answered, “The sixth. We’re at the end. We do not live in the middle of anything.” What held good for Augustine held good for those who came after Augustine—for nearly 1,000 years.
Because the concept of living in the “middle,” the Middle Ages, was alien to those who were living in what we call the Middle Ages, the term “Middle Ages” was not used in the Middle Ages. In the English language, the phrase “the Middle Ages” originated in the 17th century, and although today the term “Middle Ages” is accepted fairly widely, in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was one of a number of phrases that were all rivals to describe the same period.
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(Among the other phrases that were sometimes used to describe this period would be the “Barbarous Ages,” the “Dark Ages,” the “Obscure Ages,” the “Leaden Ages,” or, my personal favorite, the “Muddy Ages.”)
The oldest use of the phrase “Middle Age” in any European language that I know of dates back to 1469. The language in question is Latin. The phrase was medium aevum, or “Middle Age.
The Humanists Create a “Middle Age”
Who came up with the concept of the Middle Ages, and why?
The concept of the Middle Ages was developed by a group of individuals who called themselves “humanists” at the time. They were Italians, and they lived during a period that they themselves named “the Renaissance” during the 14th and 15th centuries.
To show how different the humanists were from anything that had come before, they needed a term to describe and characterize what had come before. The phrase they hit upon, eventually, was “Middle Age.”
If any one individual can be given the credit—or the blame—for inventing the notion of the Middle Ages, that man would be a law school dropout by the name of Francesco Petrarca. He died in 1374, and is known in English as Petrarch. When he wasn’t busy inventing the sonnet, and writing his famous love poems to Laura, Petrarch was devoting himself to the study of the classical past.
In the never-humble opinion of Petrarch, literature had achieved perfection under the Roman Empire. No one could ever write Latin as beautifully as Cicero and his contemporaries had written it. Art, too, had never been better than it had been under the Roman Empire, because art was so realistic and naturalistic.
When Petrarch compared literature and art of the period that came after the Roman Empire to the period before the Roman Empire, he was disgusted. He tended to put the dividing line, as did Renaissance humanists, at 410 A.D. In that year, barbarian Goths had sacked the city of Rome and, according to Petrarch, this began a period of decline in both classical literature and classical art.
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The Latin that was written following 410 A.D. deviated more and more from classical norms. New words were introduced that were not classical words. New grammatical constructions were introduced. The Latin language evolved into the Romance languages: modern French, modern Italian, and modern Spanish. Petrarch did not approve of this process; for him, it was not evolution, but corruption. Art, too, was undergoing, according to Petrarch, a process of corruption. As the Middle Ages progressed, art became increasingly stylized, abstract, and less concerned with naturalism.
This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Petrarch’s Two Periods of History
So was born in Petrarch’s mind, relatively early in life, during the 1330s, to be precise, an idea that the main dividing lines in history were not religious, as Augustine would have it, but cultural, defined by developments in literature and art, and that history up to his own day and age consisted of just two periods.
Period one was a glorious period in which literature and art had flourished. Period two was a period of cultural decay and ruin following the fall of the Roman Empire. Petrarch was convinced, and repeatedly bemoaned the fact, that he was living in period two.
Now, with a two-phased conception of history, there is no room for a middle. Although Petrarch was convinced that he still lived in this era of cultural gloom, he hoped that one day there would be a revival of classical culture, that authors would learn to write Latin again according to classical norms, and that artists would revive classical values and move away from abstraction.
Those who followed Petrarch became convinced during the late 14th and early 15th centuries that this third age was indeed attained, and that they were, in fact, living through it.
Thus, you get the third part of history, which is necessary for a “middle,” and the birth of the Middle Ages.
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From the lecture series The High Middle Ages, taught by Professor Philip Daileader
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by Raphael [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons