The misleading myth of the 'Middle Ages'

It's time to find a new name for this fascinating era

"The past isn't dead. It isn't even past." So goes the famous William Faulkner quote. This is very true, but I would add: The past is a PR battle. History is not an exact science, and historians have their biases and agendas. And how we understand history, in turn, influences the choices we make today and tomorrow.

Today, we are told a very simple story about the grand sweep of European history. It goes something like this: There was once the Roman Empire, technologically advanced and sophisticated; after the Roman Empire fell, Europe fell into a millennium of darkness, poverty, and religious superstition; then came the Renaissance, when the West recovered the glories of Greco-Roman thought and science, and the wheel of progress started turning again, leading to the "Enlightenment" when philosophers threw off the fetters of irrational religion to advocate for free inquiry, human rights, and so on.

Historians typically pick 475 AD, the formal end of the Western Roman Empire, as the start date for the "Middle Ages," while acknowledging that it is an arbitrary pick, since the disintegration of the Roman Empire happened gradually over centuries. For the other bookend, they typically either pick 1453, the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire, or 1492, the arrival of Christopher Columbus in America.

But I would like to make a modest proposal: Let's retire the phrase "Middle Ages." It's not just misleading and ideologically biased, it's also, on its own terms, entirely meaningless. We can do better.

The very expression "Middle Ages" speaks of an era "in-between," when essentially nothing interesting happened. But the Middle Ages was actually an enormously momentous and inventive era. Early Medieval innovations in agriculture such as the iron plow, water and wind milling, and the three-field system enabled Europe to break out of the Malthusian trap that Rome had been stuck in for centuries, empowering it to withstand invasions that had felled its supposedly advanced predecessors. Everything we commonly associate with the Renaissance and the early Modern era, such as international trade and its handmaid of capitalist finance, scientific tinkering, classical culture, and philosophical inquiry, was in fact already present in the Middle Ages.

As an alternative, I propose that we say that after Antiquity, begins Christendom, or the Christian period. For more than a thousand years, across what we now call the West, Christianity was recognized and (largely) accepted, if only in theory or in word in many cases, as the dominant organizing principle of metaphysical, political, social, and moral reality. As such, our start date for this era has to be 380, the date of the Edict of Thessalonica, where Emperor Theodosius made Nicene Christianity the State Church and only officially recognized religion of the Roman Empire.

It is not "generic" Christianity that becomes dominant in this era, but the orthodox Christianity of the apostolic Christian Church, an organized entity. This does not change with the 1054 schism between the Western and Eastern churches, since that schism was seen by almost all participants except the most radical as a split within the apostolic, legitimate Christian Church.

Max Weber famously said that the state is the holder of the monopoly on legitimate violence. But what defines Christendom is that, for the first (and thus far last) time in the history of the West, the apostolic Christian Church had, if not a monopoly on violence (which it never sought), but a monopoly on legitimacy itself. That monopoly was always exploited for base purposes, but in the worldview of everyone, it was agreed upon that Christianity was the criterion of legitimacy, no matter how often it may have been abused.

Some may say the start date for Christendom has to be the fall of the Western Roman Empire, since it did indeed profoundly alter the landscape politically and economically in Western Europe. But this is ethnocentric. After all, if you look at the events of those centuries from Constantinople, not from Western Europe, what you see is a gradual loss of territory to the Roman Empire that went on to exist for a millennium after the fall of the last Western Roman emperor. Momentous events, to be sure, but not the end of an era. And with stunning speed, the barbarian kings, and soon new "Roman" emperors who replaced the Western Roman Empire fell into Christendom. Indeed they often accepted the leadership, if only symbolically, of the Eastern emperors, recognizing that the Roman Empire was still a reality, even if only a formal one.

So, when does Christendom end? I would argue for 1555. This is the date of the Peace of Augsburg, which sought to end wars between Protestants and Catholics in Germany by establishing a legal principle known as "Cuius regio, eius religio," which stated that the religion of the ruler of a realm was to dictate the religion of those ruled. This decisively flips the theoretical order of precedence between religion and politics. While political rulers had always manipulated religion for their own ends, it was always proclaimed and accepted that religion was the overarching criterion. But from this point on, religion is determined by the rulers, and not the other way around.

What is more, the decentralized nature of the new Protestant religion meant that no single church could function as an institutional anchor for the West in the way that the apostolic Church had done for over a millennium. All over Europe, rulers flocked to Protestantism, which has no intrinsic doctrinal content since it is based on anyone's personal interpretation of the Bible, as a tool to legitimize their actions, making the sort of Christendom that had existed before impossible. To a lesser extent, this was also the case in Catholic lands, since, to ward off kings doing just that, the pope handed a significant measure of control over the clergy to many kings, turning bishops, and abbots into pliant public servants.

What should we call the era that opens from 1555 and extends into today? "Modernity" is just as meaningless as "Middle Ages." Instead, I propose that we call the era in which we currently live "the Era of the State." The State is what joins together the regimes that appear in the West from the 16th century onwards. Whether absolute monarchies, liberal democracies, or totalitarian dictatorships, all these regimes have a secular government, not the Christian Church, as a locus of legitimacy that is universally accepted as such and brooks no rivals. This is what joins together Marx, Mussolini, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, and Barack Obama. Obviously, from the 16th century onwards, Christianity remains a powerful, shaping force, but it is no longer the apex of legitimacy.

Yes, the "Middle Ages" were, in some sense, a reality, but they were a reality not because they happen to sit between Antiquity and our supposedly Enlightened recent past, but because they were profoundly shaped by a unique worldview, one that was succeeded by an equally momentous, yet markedly different, worldview.

Now, go update those textbooks.


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