Reader Mailbag: The Middle Ages in Seven Words (or Less)

A week ago, I gave you, my readers, a challenge to condense the Middle Ages down to seven concepts. I realize that this was a tall order. The medieval period is a thousand or so years of (mostly European) human history, which boils down to less than one concept per century. Looking at what you all had to suggest,* it looks like the most skippable medieval centuries were the sixth, seventh, and tenth, and by far the most popular were the twelfth and thirteenth, with a smaller cluster of entries in the ninth century. Lots of your concepts were transcenturial, of course, and others weren’t datable at all.

So now, according to Got Medieval’s readership, these are the seven things that sum up the Middle Ages:**

  1. The Black Death (and assorted associated plague paraphernalia)
  2. Feudalism
  3. Monasticism
  4. The Crusades (and individual Crusade milestones)
  5. Book Making
  6. Law (and its foundations)
  7. Religious Potpourri

That would be one hell of a Jeopardy round. If I had to pick my own favorite list from the submissions, on the other hand, it would be:

  1. slippers woefully lacking in arch support
  2. monkeys
  3. weird attitudes toward the Classical past
  4. those silly plague doctor bird masks
  5. musical enchiladas***
  6. apple pie
  7. The Turk

And finally (and seriously) after a fair amount of thought on my part, these are the seven topics that I think an academic medievalist in America ought to be prepared to give an account of to a lay audience at a cocktail party:

  1. Feudalism
  2. The Crusades
  3. Witches
  4. King Arthur
  5. Black Death
  6. Chivalry
  7. The Church

Overall, I think my list doesn’t need that much explanation. Witchcraft might raise some eyebrows, as what most people think of as medieval witchcraft is actually Renaissance or early modern witchcraft, nonetheless, most people do think about witchcraft and witch burning when they think about the Middle Ages. King Arthur is accorded the honor of being the only fictional character worthy of inclusion on the list because people are always asking me if he was real or not (in two words: he wasn’t–but most people want more than two words), and because he routinely makes it near the top of those Most Recognizable Characters in Western Civilization lists. I end the list with the church (or, to be pedantic, the Church), because for me, the definition of the Middle Ages boils down to this: the time between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Protestant Reformation, when people in Europe generally conceived of themselves as being united by common citizenship in Christendom.

*As of today. You’re all perfectly welcome to keep adding your own lists to the original post, which has the longest comments section of any post on this site ever, by far, and that includes my BoingBoinged fanfiction thing.
**I had to make a lot of judgment calls to make this list, so don’t send me angry letters. Also, I left off extremely general references that aren’t particularly confined to the Middle Ages, like the very popular “war.”
***That’s what I though I read when I read “musica enchiriadis,” and I’d be lying if I said I knew what it was before looking it up.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Chris

    Sigh. Those seven things are not what appeals to me about the Middle Ages, so much.

    Also, people don’t ask me about King Arthur nearly as much as they do about Dante, but maybe I hang out in the wrong circles.

  • Anonymous Soprano

    Ha, “musical enchilades.” That made me snort my tea in an undignified manner at my day job.

    Also, if there is anyone that is more geeky, and has more esoteric bits of information than a historian/history geeks in general, it would be a musicologist/music geek. 🙂

    Music history in the middle ages is really a weird subject because it was partially very revealing of the culture, but at the same time, extremely static. It basically took nearly a millenium (from about 500 or 600 to about 1400) for music to develope as much as it did from say, 1400 to 1600.

    When a change WAS actually made, it was a really BFD. There were whole treatises and century-long arguments about something as silly as a tritone (“the devil in music”).

    Unfortunately though, because of a lack of standardized notation (and really, written notation at all), we have to guess a lot about what a lot of things sounded like, or how they were meant to be performed. So an item like the musica enchiriadis is incredibly important, because it’s the first, and one of the very few, examples that we have of music actually being written down, and the notation system used explained.

    Ok, I should shut up now, as I’m sure you know all this, and probably there are about 15 people in the world who are actually interested in the topic. 😉

  • Got Medieval

    Chris, you have only yourself and six or so other people to blame for not putting Dante on the list enough to crack the top seven.

  • MrPopularSentiment

    It may delight you to know that “he wasn’t” IS more than two words. In fact, it’s three words (what I assume you are counting as the second word is, in fact, merely a contraction of two separate words, resulting in a total of three). So if anyone tells you that they would like more than just two words, you may inform them in all good conscience that you have already satisfied that demand.

  • GW

    I missed this last week. Too bad, as it appears a fascinating intellectual exercise. I think my only changes to your list would be to drop the witches and King Arthur and insert Chaucer and Gregorian chants. I have no illusions that these are more indicative of the Medieval Period, but they do help define it for me. Give me the Chaucer, some chants on the CD player and a cold glass of mead, and life is good.

  • Rachel

    I can’t work out how to do a trackback, but for amyone who feels the absence of the sixth, seventh or tenth centuries, here they are.

  • Flying Lily

    Rachel, thank you. This completes my happiness.

  • Got Medieval

    Thanks for the thought, Rachel, but now you've gone and ruined the symmetry. Seven centuries –> seven words. It was brilliant!

    But those are nice lists. Now someone else can do seven words for each of the other seven centuries and we'll have the Middle Ages in seventy words, and we'll be halfway to a medieval version of that Billy Joel song.

  • Andy

    I would say that the foundations of law lay in the ancient Near East? Mesopotamia and Sumer?

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