MIDDLE AGES, THE. The term is of course a modern term, coined consciously to define the contrast which its authors felt between the centuries which succeeded the downfall of the ancient world and their own time. To them the world of old Greece and Rome was in some ways nearer to them, more intelli gible than the Europe held together by a common religious system. It would seem unnecessary to observe that the men and women who lived during the thousand years or so preceding the Ref or mation were not conscious of living in the middle ages ; and yet, so strong are the associations and implications of the phrase, we often unthinkingly speak of the mediaeval world as though it was a world consciously mediaeval, inhabited by beings who thought of themselves as mediaeval. This absurdity has been ac centuated by obeisance to specialism. Conveniently enough, schol ars are described as mediaevalists and modernists, or they are said to profess modern or mediaeval history.
A more far reaching reason for using the term "the middle ages," in a more conventional sense is that, as time goes on, it will necessarily become more and more meaningless. The persons who first used it were making a gesture of their sense of freedom, and yet at the same time they were implicitly accepting the mediaeval conception of history as a series of well defined ages within a limited framework of time. They did not speak of the six ages or believe in the chronology of Joachimite prophesy, but none the less they inherited a scheme of history which began with the Garden of Eden and would end with the Second Coming of Christ. In such a scheme the thousand years from the fifth to the I5th centuries after Christ might well be regarded as a distinct, respectable period of history, which would stand out clearly in the providential pattern. Nowadays, we have discarded the Eusebian chronology; we look back to an almost infinite past and forward to an almost infinite future. In the eyes of a scientist a period of a thousand years is neither here nor there. Moreover, the content of history, both before the middle ages and contemporary with them, has been immensely enlarged. The significance of many aspects of mediaeval life has been changed by our knowledge of previous civilizations—of the civilizations with which mediaeval Europe was in contact.
If we set our preconceptions on one side, the middle ages are the period in the history of European people, and especially of the western peoples, since the downfall of the Roman empire. The breach between ancient and later his tory was not so clearly defined as we are wont to say—some dis tinguished scholars, for example, led by Pirenne, would deny that there was any real breach until the Mohammedans occupied the Mediterranean,—but the settlement on a large scale of the Ger manic peoples within the borders of the Roman empire and the failure of the central imperial government to maintain itself, were developments so striking as to justify the use of the terms "an cient" and "mediaeval" to describe the state of society before and after them. It is impossible to fix any date, for tastes differ, and the date 25o or 410 or 476 has only a dogmatic significance in the minds of various historians. It is a convenience like the limits of legal memory or the legal doctrine that the House of Lords and its personnel dates from the year 1295.
It is still more impossible to fix any date as marking the end of the middle ages. The view that the fate of Constantinople in 1453 was a catastrophic event, unexpected and devastating, which had violent effects upon the whole temper of western society, is quite discredited. The view that the breach between the papacy and various European countries—an event which we describe as the Reformation—diverted the stream of history or introduced new life into history, has more truth in it, but is grossly exaggerated. If we give a sufficiently wide inter pretation to the movement known as the Renaissance, and remem ber that, although it was most consciously intense during the 15th and 16th centuries, it had no obvious beginning and has had no end, we may define the end of the middle ages as the point. reached in different ways and at different times, at which the spirit of the Renaissance was victorious in political, social and artistic life. There has never been anywhere a complete breach with mediaeval institutions or modes of thoughts.