Defining the Middle Ages II

A few quotes to add to an earlier post on the Middle Ages, which, I think, contrast nicely with one another even if each does not specifically address the medieval.

Brian Stock, Listening for the Text: On the Uses of the Past (1996):

The Renaissance invented the Middle Ages in order to define itself; the Enlightenment perpetuated them in order to admire itself; and the Romantics revived them in order to escape from themselves. In their widest ramifications “the Middle Ages” thus constitute one of the most prevalent cultural myths of the modern world.

Jürgen Habermas, “Modernity: An Unfinished Project” (1980):

…people also considered themselves as ‘modern’ in the age of Charlemagne, in the twelfth century, and in the Enlightenment – in short whenever the consciousness of a new era developed in Europe through a renewed relationship to classical antiquity.

Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System in Crisis (2004):

…historical systems have lives. They come into existence at some point in time and space, for reasons and in ways that we can analyze. If they survive their birth pangs, they pursue their historical life within the framework and constraints of the structures that constitute them, following their cyclical rhythms and trapped in their secular trends. These secular trends inevitably approach asymptotes that aggravate considerably in internal contradictions of the system: that is, the system encounters problems it can no longer resolve, and this causes what we may call systemic crisis…True crises are those difficulties that cannot be resolved within the framework of the system, but instead can be overcome only by going outside of and beyond the historical system of which the difficulties are part.

To what extent are the Middle Ages a myth of modernity used to distinguish the present from an anterior past? Is the medieval world a historical system whose beginnings are understandable and whose end can be seen as the result of internal contradictions? As a historical system, are its framework and constraints limited to (Western) Europe, 500-1500, or can these structures find parallels in other periods and geographies? How did the Middle Ages distinguish itself from the past and to what extent did it incorporate its past into its own identity?

Comments are closed.