Medieval: From the Latin for “middle age,” an adjective now used broadly to refer to a period of European history ranging from about the fifth to fifteenth centuries A.D. and alternatively called the Middle Ages or, more specifically, to aspects and products of the period. Thus one may refer not only to the Medieval Period but also to medieval art, architecture, attitudes, history, literature, philosophy, and theology. The term Middle Ages — or its equivalent in languages other than English — was first used during the Renaissance by writers who felt more artistic, intellectual, and spiritual affinity with the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome than with Europe as it had evolved, after the fall of the Roman Empire, under the control of what we now call the Catholic Church. The term medieval (originally spelled mediaeval) was not introduced into English until the nineteenth century, a period of heightened interest in the art, history, and thought of the Middle Ages. This interest, exhibited in the work of certain romantic poets and furthered by the Victorian poets and painters associated with Pre-Raphaelitism, came to be called medievalism.
There is some disagreement about whether the Medieval Period, or Middle Ages, began in the third, fourth, or fifth century A.D. Most scholars, however, associate its onset with the Roman Empire’s collapse, which began in A.D. 410 as tribes of Germanic “Visigoths” advanced southward through Italy and into Rome, and was complete by A.D. 476, when the Emperor Romulus was swept out of power by a German tribal chief named Odoacer. Scholars also debate when the Medieval Period ended. Some pinpoint the year 1453, when Turkish forces conquered Constantinople, triggering the migration of Greek scholars into Western Europe. Others take the more general view that the Middle Ages ended with the rise of the Renaissance, which spread beyond Italy throughout Europe during the fifteenth century. Scholars generally agree, however, that the persistent popular assumption that centuries associated with the Medieval Period can be accurately represented by the phrase Dark Ages is misleading at best and grossly inaccurate at worst.
The tribes of Visigoths, or Goths (the source of the word Gothic), that defeated the armies of Rome also penetrated westward into Gaul (now France) and Spain. Later, the Goths were themselves defeated by Moorish Africans who invaded Spain in 711 and subsequently introduced sophisticated elements of Arabic civilization throughout Spain and other parts of southern Europe. In the meantime, from Italy northward to Germany — under the influence of a Church that, though centered in Rome, had survived and then thrived following the empire’s collapse — medieval societies developed that were anything but barbaric and chaotic, artless and ignorant. The Church successfully conveyed to a diverse group of peoples (many of whom had lived in wandering tribes) the value of a stable moral and civil order.
Notably, the foundations of several modern European nations were laid during medieval times. Charlemagne (“Charles the Great”) not only conquered vast areas of what is now France but also set out to organize, educate, and unify the people living in the areas he ruled as King of the Franks beginning in 768 and as Emperor of the West from 800 until his death in 814. In England, a group of noblemen united in 1215 to dilute the power of King John, forcing the autocratic monarch to sign a list of rights and provisions guaranteeing, among other things, that taxes could only be “levied with the consent of a council of prelates and greater barons” and that “no freeman shall be arrested, imprisoned, or deprived of property except by judgment of his equals or the law of the land.” This list, known as the Magna Carta, or “Great Charter,” limited the power of King John and subsequent English monarchs over their subjects and pointed the way toward more democratic government.
Certain historical developments identified with medieval history were unquestionably uncivilized; bloody Inquisitions designed to root heretics out of the Church are among the reasons the Middle Ages have been labeled “dark.” However, chivalric ideals (such as courtesy) and highly “civilized” courtly love traditions and conventions were also developed during the Middle Ages. Furthermore, some of the imperialistic military initiatives, such as the Crusades, led to new markets and some degree of cultural cross-fertilization between Western Europe on the one hand and Arabic, Jewish, and Byzantine civilizations on the other. Perhaps as a result, medieval romances paint a portrait of Western Europe delicately marked by Eastern influences, such as those of the Persian tale.
Medieval literature encompassed a variety of religious and secular works, with verse predominating over prose. Common manifestations of religious literature included exempla, hagiography, hymns, medieval dramas such as miracle plays and mystery plays, and theological treatises. Common secular forms included chronicle plays, courtly love lyrics, epics, fabliaux, lais, medieval romances, and travel literature. Noted medieval works include Roman philosopher Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy (524), written while he was in prison; the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf (c. 700); the Middle High German epic poem Niebelungenlied (c. 1200); Icelandic sagas including the Völsunga saga (c. 1270) and Grettis saga (c. 1320); the dream vision Le roman de la rose (The Romance of the Rose), initially composed by Guillaume de Lorris around 1230 and expanded by Jean de Meung around 1270; Dante Alighieri’s Divina commedia (The Divine Comedy) (1321); Petrarch’s (Francesco Petrarca) sonnets (c. 1350); and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (c. 1387). When referring specifically to medieval literature in English, scholars typically divide the Medieval Period into the Old English Period, covering the first half of the fifth century to the Norman conquest of England in 1066, and the Middle English Period, usually said to span the years 1100—1500.
Medieval art showed similar variety, encompassing media ranging from architecture, painting, sculpture, and stained glass to jewelry, metalwork, manuscripts, and tapestries. Noted works include lavishly colored “illuminated” manuscripts produced from the seventh through the fifteenth centuries throughout Europe, including in the British Isles, France, Spain, and the Low Countries; cathedrals such as those at Chartres (France) and Cologne (Germany), begun in the 1100s and 1200s, respectively; the paintings of Giotto, including a fresco cycle in the Arena Chapel at Padua (Italy) portraying scenes from the lives of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ (completed c. 1305); and the sculptures of Claus Sluter, such as the Well of Moses (1395—1403), a fountain commissioned for a monastery near Dijon (France).