1.2 Defining the Medieval


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The medieval period is perhaps when, looking back, things first appear different whilst retaining a sense of what might be called ancestral familiarity – a paradox which is not exclusive to the medieval past but perhaps where its balance seems to bring it into sharpest focus. Its transitional quality is suggested by the name it is given - ‘medieval’. Before that, the chronological schema of which it is part is based on ethnicity  and (largely) technological innovation. The latter runs from Stone, through Bronze to Iron, though perhaps implicit in the labelling of all (a labelling which does not remotely do justice to the complexity of analysis that takes place under those banners), is the innovation of writing. The period label 'Prehistory' is traditionally the period par excellence of archaeological enquiry, where the evidence is unassisted/ unsullied (depending upon one's standpoint) by text. However, it has always seemed ironic that it should continue to be defined with a label that means the absence of written texts, with a connotation of unfulfilment confirmed by the progressive notion that labels the Later and Roman Iron Ages as ‘Protohistoric’, the early medieval as ‘Early Historic’ and the medieval and later as ‘Historic’, and thus somehow complete, somehow finished. In reality there is no single point in time, no strict chronological divide before and after which text appeared. Whether viewed on a European and Mediterranean to global scale, text comes in at vastly different points in time and had a huge array of contexts and uses. Archaeology then, is as much about the study of the written word and its production as it is about any other innovation of material culture. This theme is returned to below after dealing with the question of periodisation and the strong overlap between medieval and the written word.

Medieval is, of course, an historical term borrowed by archaeology. This framework does not set out to overly define with fixed dates what is meant by medieval, preferring instead to emphasise a fluid chronology as a reflection of how the different themes that could be said to make-up the medieval cultural package begin and end (or change) at different times. Periodisation can be seen as an illusion which helps to manageably slice up the past for analysis and understanding. Within the kindred discipline of history the problem of the term medieval was recognised whilst medieval archaeology (at least in the UK) was yet in its infancy. Perhaps most notably (and useful for the current purpose) it was addressed by French historian Marc Bloch. In his archaeology-friendly The Historian’s Craft, mentioned above and published posthumously in 1954, he cogently records the changing etymology of the term medieval. It comes into use by at least the thirteenth-century, having arisen from the (semi-heretical) prophesy that described the time between Christ’s Incarnation (and the New Law it brought) and the kingdom of God still to come with Christ’s Second Coming: a definition which would define the  current time as still medieval. These intervening years up to the second coming, form the medium aevum or Middle Age. Nevertheless, even within that Middle Age, its meaning changed for some. Renaissance scholars adapted the idea, seeing the Middle Age(s) as closed; a label then for the time between Antiquity and the new revelation of the Renaissance. From being a time of supernatural waiting and anticipation it became an Intermediate Age that was entirely historical, complete and humane. It carried this meaning in comparatively limited, learned circles, not gaining common currency until the end of the seventeenth century, when it was used by German historian Christopher Keller to describe the time between the Fall of Rome and the Renaissance. This view has tended to hold for Continental scholars but it is an increasingly questioned and problematical one.


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Elizabeth Brown (1991) in her essay ‘On 1500’, builds on both Bloch’s analysis and that of another French historian Ségal, with whom she agrees that the term Middle Age/s should now be abandoned. An alternate strategy adopted by other scholars is to extend the Middle Ages/medieval to include the Renaissance and the Reformation because of their pre-1500 continuities. The Society for Medieval Archaeology was founded in 1957 and defines its chronological boundaries of study as between c. 400 AD and 1500 AD but latterly has recognised these post 1500 continuities by, for example, hosting a joint conference with the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology: The Archaeology of Reformation (see Gaimster and Gilchrist 2003). Scotland adds further reflexes to the scenario. It is only comparatively recently that the term ‘early medieval’ was applied, by many, to Scotland; the terms medieval and Middle Ages had previously only been applied to the twelfth century and later, the period from Roman occupation to the twelfth century labelled as either the end of the Long Iron Age or as the Early Historic. The different labelling seems to have partly arisen from perceived differences in material culture between Scotland and elsewhere (particularly England) - including the presumed absence of ceramics, the non-minting of coins [see note 2] and architectural innovations such as castles – and also a desire to signal the time when the documentary record becomes more abundant. This different labelling is not unique to Scotland. In Scandinavia the Vikings have been seen more as an Iron Age coda, a prelude to the Middle Ages, whilst at the same time their impact on the rest of Europe is widely perceived as a medieval phenomenon. This framework is not seeking to tidy-up these ambivalences; they are clearly healthier than a straight-jacket of uniform imposition. However, given the approach adopted by ScARF, which is to predominantly adhere to the convenience of period (mitigated by cross-period themes), there is no good reason not to go with the more widely accepted and understood medieval concept, appropriately problematised. Broadly speaking, the chronological horizons used are the fifth century AD (when the post-Roman kingdoms are becoming visible and Christianity is advancing) and the early seventeenth (when, well into the rigours of the Reformation, Scotland dispenses with an independent monarchy).

[note 2:] The C14dating of carbon deposits on ceramics from the Perth High street has now confirmed ceramic use before the twelfth century; there are still no known coins minted before the twelfth century but coins were circulating/in-use (if not as a money economy), as finds of Continental, Islamic and Anglo-Saxon coins testify.