The Middle Ages, or the medieval period, generally refers to the era 400 to 1500 C.E. in western Europe and the British Isles. These territories formed the Holy Roman Empire, when Christianity emerged as the dominant tradition with cultural roots stemming from ancient Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions. The papacy provided a unifying institutional and political framework. Contact with an expanding Islamic world to the south and east along with unconverted Scandinavian and Germanic cultures to the north are other defining characteristics of medieval culture.
Recent Areas of Scholarly Interest
Scholarship on the Middle Ages has provided an increasingly complex and nuanced picture of medieval culture, particularly of the early Middle Ages. In recent decades, advances in technology have brought the era more vividly into focus with newly digitized collections available in electronic databases. These databases enable scholars to interrogate large textual corpora of source material such as the Patrologia Latina and Corpus Christianorum in new ways.
The heretofore more narrow focus on the educated elite in western Europe under Roman Christendom has expanded to include other geographic regions, laymen and women, and a more diverse span of human experience. Medieval archaeology and sophisticated analyses of documentary and narrative sources have opened up the exploration of previously neglected or disregarded areas: peasants, family, women, and children, along with the rural and urban contexts in which most medieval people lived.
Many medieval studies programs established in the 1970s and ’80s adopt multidisciplinary approaches. More recently, medieval studies, like the humanities overall, have faced declining support. Large amounts of primary source materials remain unfilmed or unscanned, making it necessary for scholars to travel to the archives where they are held. Medievalists are concerned about the perception, found even among academics, that history in general (let alone the Middle Ages) is irrelevant in a technologically oriented society. While answers to new questions and fresh answers to longstanding questions have been made possible through new technologies, substantial areas of historical understanding continue to be affected by scarcity in resources. The lives, experiences, and contributions of unlettered or marginalized individuals and communities continue to pose a vital challenge for recovery.
Chris Africa, History & Social Sciences Bibliographer, University of Iowa Libraries
Jane Marie Pinzino, Humanities Librarian, Florida State University Libraries