Not long ago, I received the following email from a loyal reader:

You noted in your blog that the “History of the Renaissance World…will cover from the end of the First Crusade to the end of the Renaissance–which, in my view, is when Vasco da Gama rounds the Cape. That’s four hundred years, 1100-1500.”

  Now, a gorgeous new art book entitled Gothic: Visual Art of the Middle Ages, 1140-1500 (Bruno Klein) is a recent example of what inspires my inquiry. Your Renaissance & Klein’s Middle Ages almost exactly coincide.

  Furthermore, if you go to Wikipedia, you find, “The Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned the period roughly from the 14th to the 17th century, beginning in Italy in the Late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe.”

  In grade school, I learned that the Middle Ages was the feudal period, which seems to be roughly the years you chose for your Renaissance volume. We never even addressed Constantine, Attila, or Charlemagne (clearly Medieval players).

  Is there rhyme or reason to these apparent contradictions? Perhaps, the sociopolitical history and the (Gothic) art epoch are necessarily out of sync? Or, the difficulties you have expressed with encapsulating your historical volumes require a best-fit approach? Not being an expert in either world or art history, I turn to you to shed some light.

That was a very thoughtful, kind way to ask the question which has, on occasion, been asked with less finesse…for example:

Why did you pick the wrong years for the Middle Ages? Everyone knows that the Middle Ages go from 500 to 1500. I liked your first book but if you don’t know enough to get the Middle Ages right, I won’t read any more of them.

“Everyone knows” what the Middle Ages are, eh? Let’s take a closer look at that assumption.

Start with the word middle. In order to have a middle, you need to have something on either side. There’s no middle to a sandwich unless it’s got two slices of bread; without the top crust, the middle is the top and you’ve got toast, not sandwich. There’s no middle to a sonata or symphony unless there’s both a first and last movement, no middle of the night without both sunset and morning.

So what do the Middle Ages come between?

Traditionally, the classical age and the Renaissance. But now things get tricky. You can’t, after all, identify a “middle” until something exists on both sides of it. And so the “Middle” Ages didn’t exist until someone decided that a new age had begun after it. There is no Middle Ages without a Renaissance; the two eras came into existence simultaneously.

And who created this new reality?

Most of the responsibility lies with Petrarch, the Italian man of letters. Here’s an excerpt from my upcoming History of the Renaissance World, explaining how it happened…

Rome, pope-less and emperor-less, was in its usual chaotic and simmering state when the Italian poet Petrarch was crowned in Rome as Poet Laureate: the first time this honor had been carried out since ancient times.

Petrarch had been lobbying for the title, in a genteel and polished way, for some time. His father had been driven from Florence at about the same time as Dante; Petrarch, born afterwards, had been working in Avignon for years, writing a massive epic about the Roman general Scipio Africanus, travelling as the impulse struck him, and occasionally carrying out discreet diplomatic missions for the Avignon popes.

The Roman Senate, correctly interpreting Petrarch’s various oblique remarks as a request for the crown, invited the poet to Rome for his coronation. He chose Easter Sunday, April 18, 1341, as the day for the ceremony, and treated the assembled Romans and senators to an oration promising that the revival of the Poet Laureate position would help to bring about a new age in Rome. “I am moved also by the hope that, if God wills,” he told them, “I may renew in the now aged Republic a beauteous custom of its flourishing youth….Boldly, therefore, perhaps but–to the best of my belief–with no unworthy intention, since others are holding back, I am venturing to offer myself as guide for this toilsome and dangerous path; and I trust that there may be many followers.” The path was the path of learning; the rediscovery of the truths of the past, the history and literature of Rome’s glory days. Poets and scholars, Petrarch explained, would save Italy; poets and scholars would lead the Italian cities back into peace and prosperity.

The choice of Easter Sunday was not random. Petrarch had in mind a resurrection for his beloved Rome, a return to the days when the Roman Empire had been whole and powerful, not split between squabbling rulers and priests. Italy could recover her greatness by returning to the world of Rome before Christianity, Rome in the golden age of Cicero and Virgil, Rome between the coronation of Romulus and the rule of the emperor Titus. This, he later wrote, was “a more fortunate age,” and it was time to return to its ideals. Between that golden time and the present lay “the middle,” an era of “wretches and ignominy,” centuries of tenebrae: of darkness.

A classical age of light and learning, followed by a Dark Ages, culminating in a rebirth: a renaissance. Three epochs in history: antiquity, a Middle Age, and the present. Petrarch had laid out, for the first time, a scheme that would shape the next six hundred years of historical inquiry.

So there it is. Simultaneously, Petrarch created the Renaissance and the Middle, or Dark, Ages–and since his proposal struck a responsive chord with a number of his contemporaries, the labels gained in popularity.

But with all due respect to Petrarch (we’re all better off knowing that “Books have led some to learning and others to madness,” right?), his useful scheme has four limitations.

First, as Petrarch sees it, the Middle Ages has an entirely negative quality. It is defined by what it is not. It is not the classical age; it is not the rebirth; it is the bare space in between. It is a time without light, without fortune, without learning. It has no positive existence. Things without positive existence are darned hard to define. Or defend.

Second (a related point), the Middle Ages doesn’t end at a clear political, social, or cultural point. It ends when the Renaissance begins…and the Renaissance is a very, very slippery thing. Hold on to that point until the third and final post in this series.

Third, Petrarch’s Middle Ages only happens in Europe. It applies to absolutely no other place…and to make it work, we even have to redefine Europe as France/Spain/Germany/Italy/England/surrounding areas. The Middle Ages doesn’t work all that well for Poland, or for the Rus’ up there around the Baltic Sea, or even for the Hungarians. It doesn’t work at all for three-quarters of the African continent or for the Americas. It has very little to do with China, Japan, Korea, the southeastern Asian countries, or India. Which is (news flash) a very huge part of the world.

Fourth, as the email from my kind and loyal reader points out, “medieval” means very different things in different contexts. The “Middle Ages,” which Petrarch defined only as an absence, has come to stand for not only a period of time but a set of qualities. Medieval art is characterized by one set of qualities, medieval music by another, medieval Christianity by a third…and so on. Remember the quote from Ernst Cassirer that I used in my first post on this topic? It’s worth repeating:

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.

As I worked my way through the history of the world, I realized that the actual historical facts were leading me to the First Crusade as the end of my particular story. Constantine’s decision to march against Rome under the cross was the start of the story; his use of religion in warfare culminated with the First Crusade, which itself began a new tale.

I wouldn’t change anything about the book itself. But if I could do it again, I would have written a very clear preface, explaining exactly why I chose the starting and ending dates that I did. (In fact, I’ve asked Norton if I can insert a preface into future reprintings.)

And if I could go all the way back to the publication of the first book, I’d change the way the series is titled. I think I’d avoid using Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance altogether. The words are evocative–but for a world history, their limitations are greater than their benefits.

In the final post of this series, I’ll tell you why the Renaissance began in the twelfth century. And thanks to Victoria Kirkham and Armando Maggi, eds., Petrarch: A Critical Guide to the Complete Works for the Petrarch quotes.

Showing 7 comments
  • Carter Stepper

    Thanks for this post. One of the most useful concepts I have ever been taught is that history is not nearly as well-ordered and cleanly defined as the standard textbooks make it out to be. Sharp divisions of historical “periods” need to be understood as descriptors that are useful, but only conditionally so.

    I would be interested in hearing what your thoughts are regarding Will Durant’s divisions in his Story of Civilization. His approach seems to at least somewhat acknowledge the organic nature of history, even if it is somewhat critical at points (Age of Faith always struck me as a bit of a condescending title).

    Thanks for your work, both in print and on the blog!

  • Victoria

    Thanks for the explanation Susan. I had good professors in college who were in agreement with your method of thinking. We are huge homeschooling fans of your books. My 3rd grader thinks your history books are fun reading and he retains about 95% of it, so thanks for sharing your gifts and talents with us.

  • Sarah B.

    I find that many of the books I read often use the terms Middle Ages and/or Renaissance and then go on to explain how and why they chose the dates they did. History is simply too big to fit into one book. Which is a shame, because it is one long history!

  • Chad

    This is something I hadn’t thought of before, and it’s very interesting. So if you could go all the way back and rename the books, what would you call them?

  • D Bundy

    Thank you. As usual, I stop by your blog and leave having learned something new. I appreciate that!

  • Ulla Lauridsen

    I would very much like to buy your history of the world. Will there be a box set shortly or some kind of rebate, if I buy all of them together?

  • Suzanne @ Princapecos

    I’ve been following your explanation and it’s been very helpful. Then, tonight, I saw this and thought it might (I hope) give you a chuckle:

    Thanks for your work!

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