The Invention of the “Middle Ages”

The Invention of the “Middle Ages”

School of Athens, Raphael

I came across this snippet about the invention of the Middle Ages in today’s reading, one of those things that immediately lit up a dozen different connections in my brain:

“Flavio Biondi of Forli (1392-1463), while celebrating Florence and Italy, provided a scheme that would dominate and tyrannize European historical thought for centuries to come. Separating the grandeur of antiquity from the promise of modern Italy, he made the thousand years after the seizure of Rome by Alaric into a single “middle” epoch. Sometimes called the first medieval historian, Flavio Biondi might better be called the first self-consciously modern historian. For he seems to have been the inventor of the tripartite framework: ancient, medieval, and modern. Although he never himself actually used the phrase “Middle Ages” (medium aevum), it was he who gave a new historical coherence to the millenium after the fall of Rome. Western thought would never recover from his way of slicing the whole European past into a period of ancient glory and a period of modern rebirth, with a middle era of disintegration and decline in between. European historians preserved these imprisoning categories, which would even be exported to Asian historian, who recklessly referred to a “medieval period” in India or in China.”

–Daniel J. Boorstin in The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself

This is one of those things I’ve wondered about. Why do we divide history the way we do? Where exactly did this idea of the Middle Ages originate? It’s satisfying to get to the roots of an idea.

Also, I really like Boorstin’s verbs, “dominate” and “tyrannize.” And his “imprisoning categories.” He’s really pretty scathing towards poor Biondi. And I am highly amused at the “recklessly” applied to the Asian historians.

I’ve long since been annoyed by books, especially books for children, that refer to the medieval period as “the Dark Ages.” I love medieval art and literature and history. Now I suppose Boorstin has given me a sort of intellectual permission to extend my annoyance to the very category of “medieval.”

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