Literary Discoveries.

Ramblings in an Eclectic Library.

How Shall We Divide the Middle Ages?

Back when nobody cared about the Middle Ages, the name made sense. There was civilization in classical times, and there was civilization in the Renaissance, and there was a big blank space in the middle.

But as soon as we became interested in that middle period, we discovered that it was not so tidily blank after all. In fact it was a very long time, and things changed quite a bit over that period. There are many medieval authors worth reading, and they are not all alike.

From the point of view of the Eclectic Library, this question is a practical one. How are we to arrange the medieval authors? It would be easier if we had a simple scheme of dividing the Middle Ages chronologically into a few obviously distinct sub-ages.

So we have applied some thought to the question, and the result is a handy division of the Middle Ages into four parts.

First, the Dark Ages, roughly from the death of Justinian to the accession of Charlemagne. In this period there are, relatively speaking, very few writers of any note or worth. A few like Bede do stand out, but in most of western Europe for most of this time it was possible to swing a cat, if you knew any swinging cats, without hitting an author worth reading.

Then came the Carolingian Renaissance, which is such an extraordinary period that it really does need a section of its own. Under the semi-literate but determined Charlemagne, learning revived and looked quite healthy for a while, with a number of Latin writers of whom the classical age would not have been ashamed.

The Post-Carolingian Era could not keep up that momentum, but there were some extraordinary minds, like the Saxon nun Hrotswith, or Hrotsvit, or Hrotswitha, or Hrotsuitha, or Roswitha, or Rosvith, who was not only the best dramatist of the age, but in fact nearly the only dramatist of the age, which nevertheless does not invalidate the first accomplishment.

In about 1100 comes an explosion of culture, and we pass to the High Medieval Era. It is easily possible to know all the best writers of any of the previous periods, but now there is so much literature worth reading that on one can read it all. This is the age we think of when we think of “medieval” things, and it is the age when modern literature was born. Medieval romances gave us our modern novel; medieval poetry gave us the forms our poets still use when they use any form at all. Obviously this era will have many different subcategories in the Library.

Thus we have neatly divided the Middle Ages into manageable chunks, and now we can proceed to fill the shelves we have established with books.

July 9, 2020.

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