European Middle Ages
Introduction

   The European Middle Ages is commonly understood as a northward expansion of classical culture, primarily through the means of Christianity. At best, the Middle Ages are regarded as an innovative and energetic recreation of classical culture—a kind of preface to modernity. At worst, the period is regarded as a cultural setback from the high point of classical culture in Greece and Rome, an often poor and superstitious descendant of that culture. In the least friendly assessments of the European Middle Ages, the period is a kind of holding pattern, a temporary bathroom break on the way to the revival of classical culture in the fourteenth century.

   In reality, however, this picture of the European Middle Ages is founded on several, deeply held fallacies. The first and foremost is that the European Middle Ages is a single thing that can clearly be identified by the label. However, when you try to get people to define the start or end of the Middle Ages, there's some problems. Did the Middle Ages start at the final sack of Rome? What about the continuation of the Roman Empire in Constantinople until the conquest of that city by the Ottomans in 1453? Were the Byzantine's not a part of European culture? When does the "Renaissance" start? Do people wake up one day and say, whew!, today the Middle Ages ended? What's the date? 1400? 1350? 1200? 1100?

   Not only is the historical category of the Middle Ages a somewhat shaky fiction, the most enduring fallacy about the Middle Ages, and European history in general until the close of the Middle Ages, is that Europeans throughout this period and before are a single culture which we can safely call "European culture." Of all the fallacies about the Middle Ages and before, this is the hardest one to shake. For there really is no such thing as European culture, at least no such thing as a single entity, until the close of the Middle Ages. European history until the 1300's or 1400's is largely characterized by two main historical tendencies: contant disruption of populations and migration, and multiculturalism. For Europe is throughout most of its history a massively and aggressively multicultural society. People with dramatically different social organizations, languages, and religions are in constant flux all throughout prehistoric and most of historic Europe. Constant migrations continually change the cultural face of Europe bringing new languages, social hierarchies, and religions—these to be displaced by new peoples, new languages, and new religions. This constant flux only settled in the Mediterranean region—hence classical culture and its unique continuity.

   Perhaps the best way to define the Middle Ages, or at least the best way that accounts for European multiculturalism, is to define the Middle Ages as the period in which the tense and often disruptive multiculturalism of Europe standardized into a clearly definable, single cultural entity. At the start of the Middle Ages, there are European cultures. At the conclusion of the Middle Ages, it's possible to use the term, European culture with no plural. The Middle Ages, then, is about that transition.

   At the start of the Middle Ages, Europe was a jigsaw puzzle of ethnic groups. These ethnic groups, with the exception of the classical cultures, did not occupy any fixed territory or constitute individual nations of any kind. They were in constant contact with one another and with the cultures in the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, and even further east. These ethnic groups were also in fairly constant motion, displacing other ethnic groups and, in their turn, being displaced by other ethnic groups—including cultural groups from Asia. The early history of the Middle Ages might be regarded as the period in which this conflictual multiculturalism still largely characterizes the European experience; it differs, however, in the introduction of a shared cultural practice: Christianity. The history, you might say, of early medieval Europe is about the acquiring of a world view that all Europeans would eventuallly hold in common, the Christian world view. For the glue that turned the multilingual, multicultural group of peoples into a single people was this religion: it not only united Europe in a single religious world view, it also gave Europe a single language: Latin. This early period, which saw the same types of migrations and multiculturalism as the classical and prehistoric periods, is the story of the introduction of a standard cultural form and its consequent social structure on the various peoples of Europe.

   The later Middle Ages can be understood as the period in which Europe as a contintental culture was defined. This is the period when the large-scale migrations of individual cultures and ethnic groups comes to a halt; after the early Middle Ages, the constant disruption and displacement of European peoples settles down. In the later Middle Ages, most conquests are not followed by massive migration into the conquered territory. When the Normans invade England in 1066, they don't do so as a migrating population but simply to seize control over the indigenous population. During this period, Europeans begin to consider themselves as a more or less single culture that they can define against other cultures, such as the Byzantines, the Islamic world, and Asia. Social structure and cultural practices are throughout Europe becoming similar if not in some cases identical in this period and Europeans are recognizing this fact. As a consequence, Europe is developing an educated class and the overall material of this education is common throughout most of Europe. Among the educated, the universal language is Latin. In addition, political institutions settle down into a more or less shared structure. From the church in Rome to England, authority largely takes the same forms and is legitimated in largely the same way (there are, of course, significant exceptions such as the Irish, the Byzantines, the Icelanders, and, later, the Russians, all of whom are on the outer edges of European culture). This period is also marked by significant rewriting of European history. In the late medieval histories of Europe concerning the classical period, the various figures and stories of central and northern Europe from the classical period, such as the stories of Arthur or Atilla, are all recast to conform to the European social and religious practices of the time. In other words, the experience of early European history is reimagined by Europeans to look like the European experience in the late medieval period. The history of the classical world is also rewritten to the point where it becomes unrecognizable. The history writing of high Middle Ages can be best understood as a large-scale translation of pre-Christian European, Greek and Roman history into medieval social, religious, and political practices—this means, of course, that early European history starts looking a whole lot like classical history which, in its turn, looks a whole lot like the contemporary experience in late medieval Europe. As with everything else in this period, this rewriting of history was a powerful force in standardizing European culture and identity.

   Finally and most importantly, the high Middle Ages was the period when most ethnic groups defined themselves historically as the cultural and social descendants of the classical world. The technology which began the standardizattion of the disparate European cultures was Christianity; the myth that would cement this standard identity was a myth of common origin in the cultures of Greece and Rome (and mythical classical cultures such as Troy). Seen in this light, of course, the "rebirth" of classical culture in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries is not really a departure from the Middle Ages but a continuation of the late medieval process of standardization that was rooted in the myth that European culture derives from the classical world. This is why, of course, it's impossible to date the so-called Renaissance, for the rebirth of the classical world essentially begins with the start of the High Middle Ages.

   And we share that myth of origin today; so thorough was the absorption of this myth that the European Middle Ages has throughout the modern period been presented as culturally continuous with the classical world. We are the products of the late medieval insistence on the monocultural nature of Europe and the continuity of Europe with the classical Mediterranean cultures. The lived reality, particularly in the early Middle Ages, was far different, and it is this lived reality that will determine the presentation in this learning module.

   The Middle Ages in this module is understood as two different processes that are not divisable in terms of time, since they happened to different degrees and at different times for the various cultural, ethnic and national groups. The standard historical terms for these processes are "Early Middle Ages" and "Late (or High) Middle Ages." The early Middle Ages is characterized by a process in which the European prehistoric and classical multiculturalism and migrations continues to characterize the European experience with two significant changes: the introduction of writing and Christianity. The late Middle Ages is characterized by a process in which individual cultures or ethnic groups begin to define themselves as part of a larger, homogenous European culture. This process is marked by a series of historical trends in social structure, the structure of authority, religious experience and organization, education, and culture. These processes occurred at different times for various ethnic groups and, for some ethnic groups, this process was antithetical to the process going on in the rest of Europe. For instance, the Byzantines were the immediate inheritors of classical culture; in fact, the sack of Rome was culturally a non-event in the eastern Roman empire, which largely continued as it had before. The period in which Europeans began to define themselves as a single culture with its origins in the classical world, led those very same Europeans to regard themselves as culturally alien to the Byzantines—and the Byzantines, whose empire had extended as far west as Venice, began to regard themselves as a fundamentally different culture from that of the Europeans.

   For all these reasons, this module does not reproduce the standard categories, "The Early Middle Ages" and "The High Middle Ages." Since the early Middle Ages is dominated by migration, aggression, and multicultural ethnicity, the first section of the learning module is titled The Peoples to stress the individual character of the ethnic groups that made up Europe before and during the Middle Ages. Since the second historical process of the Middle Ages involves the standardization of European experience and culture along definable historical trends, I don't use the traditional title, "The High Middle Ages," but rather the title Historical Patterns, to present the historical patterns which brought about a shared cultural identity. These patterns begin at the opening of the Middle Ages—the solidification of these patterns occurred at different times, but for the most part can be understood to have occurred after 900 AD. Looked at in this light, we can roughly equate The People with the early Middle Ages and Historical Patterns with the High Middle Ages—this fit, however, is far from perfect.

Richard Hooker

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-1-97