Defining the Middle Ages

952 words | 4 page(s)

It is important to understand that historians struggle to properly define the beginning of the “Middle Ages.” After the fall of Rome and the ancient world, world history entered a period called by various names. This time period is called the Middle Ages, the Medieval Era and previously, the Dark Ages. It is important to recognize that multiple issues are actually involved in determining when this period began. It has often been described as the period between classical antiquity and the birth of the Renaissance. However, this concept must be explored in more detail.

The fall of Rome in 476 CE is considered the beginning of the time period. However, while it has been traditional to believe that Rome fell, it was actually in decline for several centuries before the final dissolution. Rome had actually been sacked by Germanic tribes several times before the final sacking. The finally sacking resulted in a Germanic prince taking control over the ancient city. It is important to realize that the final sacking of Rome was not an isolated event, but rather the culmination of changes in European culture. For this reason, one date cannot be considered the exact beginning of the Middle Ages. However, the beginning of the period can be considered to have occurred roughly in the 5th Century CE. This century corresponded with several major changes that help define the Middle Ages. When these are examined in more detail, it becomes apparent that the 5th Century CE was the beginning of the period.

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The Middle Ages are noted for several major events. One of these is the migration of groups of individuals throughout the continent of Europe. The groups of people were Germanic tribes that are often characterized as barbarians by history. Between 300 CE and 700 CE, these tribes of individuals made significant movement across the European continent. They invaded a number of regions and changed the structure of Europe. The tribes were very different from the Romans. While the Romans built cities and practiced agriculture, the Germanic tribes preferred hunting and rural life. The Germanic tribes also achieved much of their financial success from plundering and looting villages and cities. Their economy was based upon bartering, as opposed to the Roman system of money. These were vital differences in cultures. As the Roman Empire fell into dissolution, the rise of the Germanic tribes created a culture that was vastly different from the classical civilizations of Rome and Greece (Hanawalt 21-23).

This movement of tribes across Europe is one of the dominating aspects of the Middle Ages. As Rome struggled, these tribes gained power. When these tribes finally succeeded in conquering Rome, this new form of culture dominated Europe, rather than that of classical antiquity. It clearly changed the landscape of the European culture. For a significant length of time, many historians clearly believed that the culture of the Germanic peoples was subpar to that of classical antiquity. For this reason, the period was previously known as the Dark Ages. However, the period did have its own culture that deserved respect. It was merely different from that of the classical period.

Another significant aspect of the Middle Ages was the rise of monasticism. While the Middle Ages has often been improperly associated with a loss of learning and education, this was incorrect. Learning and education continued as part of this rise in monasteries. Monasticism refers to the movement of men and women to monasteries where they vowed to renounce the worldly pleasures of life. The rise of monasticism can be traced to the 5th Century CE. A young Roman nobleman, Benedict, refused the traditional path of life for him, which was politics. Instead, he decided to spend his life as a monk, living as a hermit. This decision spread throughout Europe until many individuals chose to dedicate their life to spirituality. Benedict had established rules for a monastic way of life; these rules applied to him and his followers. However, as monasteries increasingly appeared around Europe, these rules established by Benedict flourished.

Within the monasteries, the monks continued a tradition of education and learning. The monks are predominantly known for their manuscripts. They copied and illuminated manuscripts to preserve them for future generations. Not all monks engaged in this elaborate and difficult work. Within the monasteries, the monks were assigned duties based upon their skills and talents. However, since some monks took care of farming and cooking, this freed some monks to engage in the laborious task of copying documents, particularly bibles and prayer books. Monks also focused on educating children. In this way, education and knowledge did continue to grow and flourish in the Middle Ages (Hanawalt 29-31).

The beginning of the monastic movement is another way to define the beginnings of the historical period. This began in roughly the 5th Century of the CE. This also corresponds with the beginning of the migration of Germanic tribes. It is impossible to definitively state one year as the beginning of the historical period known as the Middle Ages. However, it is easy to determine that it began roughly the 5th Century CE. Two of the defining attributes of the period began to show significant movement during this century. It is also important to always remember that definitions and timelines are merely tools by which historians can clarify aspects of history. No one timeline can establish how the world moved forward in history. History is a series of fluctuations in culture and movements. These fluctuations differ in years as cultural movements spread across continents. The definition of a “period” should only be used as a guiding reference in history; it is never an absolute or extreme.

  • Hanawalt, Barbara. The Middle Ages. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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