Late last spring, feeling punchy after way too many hours at the keyboard, I tossed off the following email to my esteemed editor:

Dear Star,

I have a new title idea. How about “There Is No Such Thing as the Renaissance: A History of the World from 1100 to 1500”?


p.s. This is my current favorite quote:

“Ideas like ‘Gothic,’ ‘Renaissance,’ or ‘Baroque’….can be used to characterize and interpret intellectual movements, but they express no actual historical facts that ever existed at any given time. ‘Renaissance’ and ‘Middle Ages’ are, strictly speaking, not names for historical periods at all….We cannot therefore use them as instruments for any strict division of periods; we cannot inquire at what temporal point the Middle Ages ‘stopped’ or the Renaissance ‘began.’ The actual historical facts cut across and extend over each other in the most complicated manner.” (Ernst Cassirer, “Some Remarks on the Question of the Originality of the Renaissance.”)

p.p.s. Completed ms will be with you by June 1. This time, I really mean it.

Starling Lawrence, who pays way too much attention to my occasional fits of irrationality, sent back an email asking whether that was really the title I wanted. (Actually, now that I look back at it, his exact words: “Were it not for those other two books, it isn’t absolutely crazy,” which might well be carrying the subtext, “This time you have really lost your mind.”)

In the end, we went with a title that was a little more compatible with the first two books in the series. But as I work my way through world history, it has become increasingly clear to me just how impossible, inaccurate, and misleading the traditonal Ancient Times/Middle Ages/Renaissance division is. And as I’ve written my way through the History of the World series, the slippage between the periods of history in the titles and the times that they are popularly supposed to cover became more acute.

It was least acute in The History of the Ancient World, for two reasons: first, “ancient” is popularly understood to mean “a long time ago” (a very flexible designation); and second, in terms of recorded history, the ancient world from Spain to the edges of the central Asian lands was folded into the history of the Roman Empire, and the trade routes even further east–so to call the same period in, say, northern India and in Rome “ancient” doesn’t really do violence to either of them.

But don’t forget that while the Roman empire and the Greeks and Egyptians were living through “ancient times,” many parts of the world–the Americas, much of Africa below the Sahara, the continent of Australia–were still in “prehistory,” the time before the written word. And since “ancient times” are traditionally separated from the “Middle Ages” by the collapse of Rome, neither term is all that accurate when applied to the Chinese and Japanese kingdoms–not to mention the dozens of smaller nations carrying on in the east and north and south, not paying the slightest bit of attention to Rome.

Even in Rome, the end of “ancient times” turned out to be less straightforward than I thought when I started writing. I had intended to carry the first volume through 476, the generally accepted “fall of Rome”: the date when the last “Roman emperor” was removed from the throne.

The problem? That’s not where the narrative I was writing ended.

The “last Roman emperor” wasn’t much of an emperor; he was a teenager recognized as ruler by Rome, first and foremost, by his ambitious father. Nor was he ruling in Rome; for some years, the “Roman empire” had been run from the swamp of Ravenna. Nor, for that matter, did he rule the Roman empire; only a very small part of Italy ever recognized him as a monarch. In some way, the end of Rome had come long before young Romulus Augustus abdicated.

As I wrote, it became clear to me that the end of the Roman story as I was telling it ended with Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. This, not the relatively pointless departure of Romulus Augustus from Ravenna, was the point at which the old Roman empire changed into something else.

So that’s where I ended The History of the Ancient World. And I guess I was pretty convincing, because only one reviewer ever commented on my choice of a stopping point, and then only in passing.

But this did not turn out to be the case with The History of the Medieval World, which covered the years between the Battle of the Milvian Bridge and the First Crusade. When I finished that manuscript, I was happy with the scope of the story. And I also thought that it would be perfectly clear to anyone who read it why I decided to choose 1100 as an ending point.

As it turned out…not so much.

In my next post, I’ll explain what I should have done instead. And then, in Part III of this series, I’ll tell you why The History of the Renaissance World begins in 1100 and ends in 1453.

Showing 6 comments
  • Michael Marriott

    Hi Susan,

    I certainly agree no clear lines of temporal demarcation exist to distinguish one “age” from another. However, were I pressed to say when the Middle Ages stopped and the Renaissance began, I would focus on the aftermath of thought after St. Thomas Aquinas. This was the pivot point where Aristotle was taken seriously and neo Platonist influence began to wane. Just a thought.

  • John Heaton

    Well…everybody has an opinion here. I teach my students that the middle ages run from the Counsel of Chalcedon in ad 451 ending *precisely* at midnight new year’s eve of 1451 (or there abouts), but only because da Vinci is born in 1452, the first Renaissance man. That keeps my middle ages exactly 1,000 years in length. I defer to greater minds.

  • Therry

    Very interesting thoughts… I’m looking forward to read the next part.

  • Gloria Hunt

    No honest historian truly believes that the temporal divisions we grew up with are reflective of sudden, sweeping change. Even the seemingly giant conceptual leaps from Gothic to early Renaissance art, for example, owe much to the inquiries and achievements made before 13th century. Still, the return to classical ideals (ideals which were whittled away, at least in the west beginning in the late 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D.) in painting and sculpture is profound. Art history seems to me to give convincing visual confirmation of the validity, in broad strokes, of these divisions.

  • Gloria Hunt

    Oh, and FYI, art historians tie the arrival Renaissance (after Vasari’s urging) to the career of Giotto (1266-1337).

    The death of classicism is usually pinned to Constantine’s arch, with early signs of classical “decay” on the Column of Marcus Aurelius.

    Can you tell I’m jealous of your project? Good luck!

  • D Bundy

    You’ve just answered questions hanging in the back of my mind as I take my children through your SOTW series. (I’m also reading your adult series.) Sometimes I feel like the more I read, I realize how much more there is I don’t understand and I do not want to be an inadequate teacher! More, please…

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