From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia

(Redirected from Middle Ages in history)
Jump to: navigation, search

Related e



Medievalism is the system of belief and practice characteristic of the Middle Ages, or devotion to elements of that period, which has been expressed in areas such as architecture, literature, music, art, philosophy, scholarship, and various vehicles of popular culture.

The Middle Ages in history is an overview of how previous periods have both romanticised and disparaged the Middle Ages. After the period came to an end with the Renaissance, subsequent cultural movements such as the Enlightenment and Romantics created images of the Middle Ages that say as much about their own time as actual Medieval history. The modern world is the inheritor of the images and ideas in the form of film, architecture, literature, art and the folk history of popular culture.



The term "Middle Ages" comes from Italian Renaissance humanists in the 15th century. Humanists at the time believed that since the fall of Rome in the 5th century, culture had stagnated, owing to the loss of many classical Latin texts, and the nearly thousand year intervening period was a Dark Age, a term first coined by Petrarch in the 1330s. A generation after Petrarch, Leonardo Bruni (the first modern historian) logically defined this Dark Age as part of a three tier outline of history composed of Ancient, Middle and Modern, and based on that Flavio Biondo first coined the term "Middle Age" in 1442. The terms Dark Age and Middle Age are not neutral historical descriptions; rather, it was a humanists' ideological campaign to foster one cultural ideal over another and paint the period in a negative pejorative light. While humanism was the first movement to do so, it would not be the last dark image of the Middle Ages.

Reformation and Enlightenment

Between 1500 and 1800 the image of the Middle Ages was mostly seen in a negative light, attacked separately or simultaneously, by the two powerful forces of humanism, the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

Protestant reformation

During the Protestant Reformations of the 16th and 17th centuries, Protestants generally agreed with the humanists view but for additional reasons. They saw classical antiquity as a golden time, not only because of the Latin literature, but because it was the early beginnings of Christianity. They saw the intervening 1000 year Middle Age as a time of darkness, not only because of lack of secular Latin literature, but because of corruption within the Church such as Popes who ruled as kings, pagan superstitions with saints relics, celibate priesthood, and institutionalized moral hypocrisy.

An example of how Protestant views shaped views of the past can be seen in the example of King John of England. In the early Victorian era King John was seen as a tyrant whose failed leadership resulted in the forced signing of the Magna Carta and loss of English holdings in Normandy. However, because King John opposed papal authority during the crisis over the appointment of Stephen Langton the Archbishop of Canterbury, Protestants saw him as a hero against the oppressive force of the Pope. In support of the Protestant interpretation of history, playwright John Bale in his 1530s drama King Johan called him "a faithful Moses" who '"withstood proud Pharaoh [the pope] for his poor Israel". This pro-John sentiment continued and eventually found its most popular voice in Shakespeare's play King John.


During the 17th and 18th centuries, in the Age of Enlightenment, religion was seen as antithetical to reason. Because the Middle Ages was an "Age of Faith" when religion reigned, it was seen as a period contrary to reason, and thus contrary to the Enlightenment. For them the Middle Ages was barbaric and priest-ridden. They referred to "these dark times", "the centuries of ignorance", and "the uncouth centuries".

Voltaire was an Enlightenment writer who was particularly energetic in attacking the religiously dominated Middle Ages as a period of social stagnation and decline. His Essay on the Customs and Spirit of Nations (1750s) has over one-hundred chapters on the Middle Ages. He saw it as a time of political failure because Europe "was divided among a countless number of petty tyrants". Feudalism was a catalyst for endless civil war. His vision of the period was barbaric. "Picture yourself", he says, "in a wilderness where wolves, tigers and foxes slaughter straggling timid cattle -- that is the portrait of Europe over the course of many centuries." Scholasticism was "systems of absurdity". The Catholic Church "has always come down in favor of crushing reason completely". Of the crusades, the fourth crusade in particular, he said "the only fruit of the Christians in their barbarous crusades was to exterminate other Christians.. led by leaders without experience or skill."

In summary, between 1500 and 1800 the Middle Ages were viewed negatively for three reasons: it failed to meet humanist (and thus classic) standards of literature and learning, it failed to meet Protestant religious judgments, and it failed to meet Enlightenment standards.


The "uncouth times that one calls the Middle Ages" (Voltaire) was followed by a revolutionary change in perspective, a change which still exists in large part to this day, and of which we are still the direct heirs. During the later 18th and 19th century the movement known as Romanticism began. One of its practitioners, poet Heinrich Heine, defined Romanticism as "nothing but the reawakening of the poetry of the Middle Ages, as it manifested itself in songs, pictures and works of art, in art and life." The Romantic image of the Middle Ages was a reaction to a world dominated by Enlightenment rationalism in which reason trumped emotion. The Romantics viewed the Middle Ages nostalgically as an era of emotion and mystery, the simple and natural—a period of social and environmental harmony and spiritual inspiration, in contrast to the excesses of the French Revolution and most of all to the environmental and social upheavals of the emerging industrial revolution.

The Romantics not only longed for the Middle Ages but endeavored to recreate it in art, literature and architecture. Painters such as the German Nazarenes (1809) or English Pre-Raphaelites (1848) advocated a return to a previous era in art. The Romantics also invented the historical novel and its foremost practitioner was Sir Walter Scott who wrote Ivanhoe (1819), a Medieval drama of knights and fair maidens and chivalry. Ivanhoe was a 19th-century best seller, nine operas were based on it, and in 1820 six different versions were playing on stage in London at the same time<ref>Ian Anstruther,The Knight and the Umbrella: An Account of the Eglinton Tournament -- 1839, Geoffrey Bles Ltd, London, 1963, pp. 122-123</ref>. In 1839, the Earl of Eglinton actually held a great tournament, the notorious Eglinton Tournament of 1839. 19th-century poetry was also heavily influenced by re-discovered and newly popular literature from the Middle Ages including the famous Brothers Grimm, who inspired Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley to write Frankenstein (1818), a classic Romantic reaction to the potential horrors of scientific discovery.

Perhaps the greatest lasting impact of the Romantics vision of the Middle Ages is in Architecture. Vast amounts of pseudo-medieval architecture were built during the 19th- and 20th-century Gothic revival. The completion of the Cologne Cathedral (1880) in Gothic style marked a new era in bringing the Medieval world into the modern. Some of the leaders of this pseudo-medieval architectural movement included Englishman August Pugin who asserted that Gothic architecture was true Christian architecture, boldly saying "The pointed arch was produced by the Catholic faith". He went on to produce important Gothic buildings such as Cathedrals at Birmingham and Southwark and the British House of Parliament in the 1840s. Viollet-le-Duc was a leading Medieval restorer in France who restored the entire walled city of Carcassonne as well as Notre-Dame and Sainte Chapelle. In America Ralph Adams Cram was a leading force in American Gothic, with his most ambitious project the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York (claimed to be the largest Cathedral in the world), as well as Collegiate Gothic buildings at Princeton Graduate College. Cram said "the style hewn out and perfected by our ancestors [has] become ours by uncontested inheritance."

Romantic nationalism

One of the major themes of the Romantics was Romantic nationalism, and the image of the Middle Ages was closely tied with its rise and dominance. Theorist Johann Gottfried von Herder, an important Romantic leader, defined nationalism in ethnic terms as communities of common language. He said "Language is the principal sign of a nation [it is] the true national history of a people". To that end national epics such as The Song of Roland, Beowulf and Nibelungenlied were published for the first time and were widely read and influential. For example at one point during Germany's so-called "War of Liberation" against Napoleon in 1813-1814, at the "Battle of the Nations", the German army handed out copies of Nibelungenlied to its troops as a morale booster.

By the late 19th century pseudo-medieval symbols were the currency of European monarchal state propaganda. German emperors dressed up in and proudly displayed medieval costumes in public, and they rebuilt the great medieval castle and spiritual home of the Teutonic Order at Marienburg. King Ludwig II of Bavaria built a fairy-tale castle at Neuschwanstein and decorated it with scenes from Wagner's operas, another major Romantic image maker of the Middle Ages. In England, the Middle Ages were trumpeted as the birthplace of Nations because of the Magna Carta of 1215.

Twentieth century

In the 20th century there were two forces which shaped the image of the Middle Ages: Academia and, most significantly, film.


Universities experienced a steep rise in interest in Medieval studies, both in funding and numbers of students and teachers and programs. There were roughly three generations of Medieval historians in the 20th century, each focusing on different aspects of Medieval history which reflected the interests of their own time.

In the early part of the 20th century the academic focus was on political and constitutional history as part of a drive to train governmental workers to fill the Great Society programs, which was believed to be the path to a better future for the best and brightest of society. The definition of the "Middle Ages" as opposed to the Renaissance in the early 20th century was strongly influenced by the classic works of Jacob Burckhardt and Johan Huizinga. Charles H. Haskins was a leader in the USA and was called America's first Medievalist.

In the middle part of the 20th century medievalists focused more on social and economic factors, reflecting the issues of that time. Marc Bloch was a leader in this area famously re-defining Feudalism as a social system.

Finally in the later part of the century historians began to focus on more diverse areas, such as peasants, feminism and private lives. The microhistory school pioneered by Carlo Ginzburg with his The Cheese and the Worms (1976) is a good example of the diversity of this research, reflecting the general trends toward diversity and choice in the later part of the 20th century.


Film has been the most significant creator of images of the Middle Ages in the 20th century. The first Medieval film was also one of the earliest films ever made, about Joan of Arc in 1899, while the first Robin Hood dates to as early as 1908. Just as most peoples perceptions of the American Wild West were drawn mostly from film, versus source material or academic research, so too most peoples perceptions of the Middle Ages were shaped by film. Influential European films included the German Nibelungenlied (1924), Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), while in France there were many Joan of Arc sequels. Probably most influential of all were Hollywood films. The Romantic historical novels were adapted to the screen such as Ivanhoe (1952) by MGM and El Cid (1961). Like the works of Romantic artists, painters, novelists, and operas, the films were direct historic links to the Romantic movement. The exact same Romantic style exists in the films in music, imagery and themes. The films reached a far wider audience than academic works and were further reinforced by fantasy literature.


Fantasy's medieval debts predated film. While the folklore that fantasy drew on for its magic and monsters was not exclusively medieval, elves, dragons, and unicorns, among many other creatures, were drawn from medieval folklore and romance. Perhaps even more important was setting. Such earlier writers as William Morris (in The Well at the World's End) and Lord Dunsany (in The King of Elfland's Daughter) set their tales in fantasy worlds clearly derived from medieval sources, though often filtered through later views. J.R.R. Tolkien set the type even more clearly for high fantasy, normally based in such a pseudo-medieval setting. Other fantasy writers have emulated him, and role-playing and computer games also took up this tradition, which continued with strength into the 21st century.

Living history

Medieval living history from about the 1970s, and increasingly towards the end of the 20th century (e.g. Battle of Hastings since 1984) began with a focus on battle reenactment but has since diversified to all aspects of medieval life.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Medievalism" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

Personal tools