Correct Terms for the Study of the Medieval

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Middle Ages, Medieval Times – What’s the Difference?

What terms are appropriate in what contexts when discussing all things medieval? In this article, the most commonly used (and misused) terms are explored and explained.

When writing or discussing the Middle Ages, there are a wide variety of terms that come into play, some of which are correct and some of which are not. Below are the most common terms used, with an explanation as to whether they are correct and what term or terms should be substituted if they are not.

The Dark Ages

The historical time period between the 5th and 9th centuries CE in Western Europe is most commonly referred to as the “Dark Ages”. There was really nothing “dark” about the “Dark Ages”. Earlier scholars assumed that since very little material culture survived to the modern period, this meant that societies in that era were less sophisticated than were later groups. It is now understood that in reality there were extremely sophisticated social and political systems in place across Western Europe, and the nomadic and oral nature of these societies, not a lack of culture, led to their leaving little physical evidence. Although “Dark Ages” is widely accepted by non-specialists in the field, it is more appropriate to refer to these centuries more specifically by name (5th – 9th centuries). It is still more appropriate to narrow your focus to one or two specific centuries, since socio-political changes were so rapid in this time that little remained constant across the full time period involved.

The Early Medieval Period

The 10th and early 11th centuries are most appropriately referred to as the “early medieval period” or “early medieval era” collectively. They represent a profound shift in culture from the Dark Ages, but are not quite what modern audiences think of in terms of “medieval”. Again, a more specific narrowing of the years being discussed is preferable – e.g., “In the first half of the tenth century”; “In the final decade of the 11th century”.

The Middle Ages

The 11th through the 13th centuries are what are most commonly referred to as the “Middle Ages” (which should ALWAYS be capitalized). They are also referred to as “the medieval era” (uncapitalized) and, less correctly, “the medieval time period”. Most commonly, they are referred to as the “High Middle Ages” to differentiate them from earlier eras because of the relatively high degree of socio-political sophistication that was achieved at this point in Western culture. These terms, although vague and all-encompassing rather than specific and exacting, are correctly employed in discussing this era. The following terms are often used as well, but are incorrect:

“The medieval ages” – this is an unfortunate amalgamation of the two correct expressions. It is either “medieval era” or “Middle Ages”.

“Middle Ages time” – “ages” here is used to indicate a time period, so writing “Middle Ages time” is redundant and grammatically incorrect.

“Medieval Times” – Medieval Times is a medieval-themed restaurant featuring a 3-course meal served in accompaniment with a show focused around a jousting tournament at a fictitious court. It is incorrect to refer to the historical time period using this term.

As with the “Dark Ages” and the “early medieval period”, it is always appropriate to be as exact as possible when discussing this time period; in many cases, because there is so much written material from this era, including dated letters, records and legal documents, it is possible to be specific within a decade or even a single year, and it is always appropriate to do so when that is a possibility; e.g. instead of saying “In the eleventh century William of Normandy invaded England”, writing “William of Normandy invaded England in 1066”.

There are a few other terms it is useful to be familiar with in discussing all things medieval:

Medieval

“Medieval” broadly refers to anything relating to the Middle Ages, and can encompass anything between the 5th and the 15th centuries, although most commonly it is employed to refer to the 11th-13th centuries.

Medievalism

“Medievalism” is the study or practice of medieval subjects and activities in anything that postdates the era, but most commonly as it relates to 19th and 20th century appropriations of medieval subject matter by writers and artists. Common topics in medievalism include subjects like King Arthur, Robin Hood, and chivalry, which are often employed in more modern fashion for entertainment purposes. Medievalism studies how these sorts of things differ in their modern context from their true medieval origins.

Neomedievalism

“Neomedievalism” – Neomedievalism is a school of thought that considers how things initially medieval in nature are reappropriated for modern audiences in nearly unrecognizable fashion, so that they are medieval in name only; this is often seen in video games such as “Age of Castles”.

Medievalist

“Medievalist” – a medievalist is one who studies medieval subjects in any form. Medievalists exist in nearly every discipline; they are most prominently found in humanities subjects such as Literature, Languages and Cultures, History, Art History, Linguistics, Religion, and Philosophy, but can also be found in subjects areas as diverse as Anthropology, Psychology and Sociology. Medievalists often work in interdisciplinary fashion, which means they research in more than one subject field.

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