You all are aware of the problems with the term “dark ages.” Scholars prefer the term “Middle Ages,” but is that really much better? It seems to imply that the medieval period is an insignificant one between others of importance. If we were to come up with another name for the Middle Ages, what name would we use?
The Catholic Period
This one comes to mind first for several reasons. For many studies, a people’s conversion to Christianity marks the beginning of the Middle Ages; the Protestant Reformation, likewise, marks the end. During the Middle Ages, the vast majority of Western Europe was Catholic. When studies refer to cultures which are not Catholic, they often use a term relevant to that culture’s time reckoning rather than “medieval.” Whenever we give an age a name, we tend to give it something suited to the largest groups or ideas.
The problems: The exceptions to the above. I’m not learned enough to know whether or not the exceptions are few enough to justify this term, nor do I want to show disrespect for any group that would not be appropriately defined by this term.
The Age of the Cathedrals
This term comes from Régine Pernoud’s works. This could be a good term because the Middle Ages were the heyday of cathedral-building, and cathedrals are among the most recognizable architecture of the Middle Ages. This could be an appropriate term despite the fact that cathedrals were still built after the Middle Ages. After all, we have no problems when speaking of “the Romans” or a “Roman period” despite the fact that the city of Rome has never stopped existing.
The problems: Same as for The Catholic Period.
The Feudal Age
Perhaps a form of legal custom or societal structure would be a good way to define the Middle Ages. Feudalism dominated; absolute monarchy did not exist until after the Middle Ages. This term would give us a clear starting point—the fall of Rome with its government—and an ending point that is flexible for various circumstances.
The problems: I’m really only familiar with England and France, so I don’t know how much of Europe this definition applies to. The word “feud” also makes this seem like a particularly violent age, which is part of the image that we’re still battling. I gather from various sources that feudalism was the norm through all of Western Europe, but scholars are still debating as to whether or not feudalism is an appropriate way to look at the Middle Ages.
It will be impossible to find a term that is equally applicable to all of Europe. Few definitions of any age are. Of all the above terms, my favorite is “The Age of the Cathedrals” since it brings with it a sense of dignity and knowledge that has been squashed by popular imagination. Even if we found a perfectly suited name, I doubt it would ever catch on save among scholarly circles. The term “Middle Ages” has been with us for too long. Then again, if we were able to move from BC/AD to BCE/CE, I suppose other changes of terminology are possible.