chapter  2
The Beginning of the Middle Ages
Pages 17

The Middle Ages did not begin in the year 500, although that date is often used in a shorthand way, a usage to which only the pedantic will take exception. Yet the world and Western Europe, in particular, were little changed between 499 and 501. It makes more historical sense to see a period of time during which the ancient world was ending and the medieval world beginning. This age of transition, in which old and new were intermixed, lasted for several centuries, and the historical reality that emerged was essentially different from that which preceded, as different as the world of Charlemagne was from the world of Theodosius I. Even to put dates to this age of transition is hazardous, but dates placing these two historical figures at either end would fit the historical realities, very roughly from 400 to 750. At the end of the fourth century the historical focus was on the Mediterranean Sea and the lands of the Roman Empire along its entire littoral. Its southern boundary was the Sahara desert and its northern boundary along the lines of the Rhine and Danube Rivers from the North Sea to the Black Sea. In the eighth century that political and cultural world no longer existed. The Roman Empire that existed by that time was but a fragment: the eastern part of the old empire north of the Mediterranean Sea. The western part of the old empire north of the Mediterranean Sea – Iberia excepted – was under the political control of Germanic peoples. And the southern, eastern and even the western shores of the sea were controlled by a new and powerful force, Islam, whose world stretched from the Pyrenees to the Punjab. In the next chapter we shall briefly view the East, the attempts of Justinian to sew together that which was irreparable, and also the extraordinary emergence of Islam. But our main focus must be on Western Europe, for the Middle Ages were a phenomenon of Western Europe, although, to be sure, there were relations with neighbours, Byzantium and the Eastern church to the east and Islam to the south and southwest. The geographical boundaries of medieval Europe had the Mediterranean as its southern boundary and, in time, extended beyond the Arctic Circle to the north. Its western boundary was the great sea and its eastern boundary the easternmost lands of the Germans, yet both of these boundaries were to expand. Any cultural map of medieval Europe from the tenth and eleventh centuries onwards would have to include Iceland and southern Greenland, and the eastern

line moved further eastward – a medieval Drang nach Osten – as Slavic peoples adopted Latin Christianity.