The “Middle Ages”

In this piece I hope to convince you that the terms “medieval” and “Middle Ages” should apply to the period of Afro-Eurasian history between the early first millennium CE and the few decades after October 1492, when Christopher Columbus — a genocidal paedophile — inaugurated a new era in human history by sailing to the Caribbean, connecting two hemispheres that had hitherto been separate.

No, I probably won’t end up changing everyone else’s usage — but I can at least explain my own.

First, we’ll look at what people normally mean when they say “medieval” or “Middle Ages”. Then I’ll justify the view — increasingly widely shared — that Europe in the Middle Ages was not an isolated place but instead one part of a much wider world that incorporated nearly all of Africa and Eurasia as far south and east as New Guinea and as far north and west as Iceland and Greenland. I’ll take a little diversion to compare Afro-Eurasia with what it was not: the Americas, the other half of the world. After that I’ll talk about why this “medieval” world actually came to an end in the wake of Columbus’s voyages to the Americas, and that contact between the two hemispheres inaugurated a new era in human history. Finally, I’ll try to establish a beginning to this proposed “Middle Ages” based not on the end of “Antiquity” in Europe but rather on the discovery of the monsoon cycle in the Indian Ocean by unknown people a little after two thousand years ago.

I realise that I cannot convince everybody of my position (which I should stress is not original to me), but this is what I’m talking about when I talk about the Middle Ages.

What People Normally Mean

The “Middle Ages” is nearly always defined parochially, referring to different periods depending on the part of the world you’re talking about. In general I suppose most people would accept c.500–1500 CE as the rough boundaries of the Middle Ages, but there are lots of competing local conceptions and little unity of purpose among them.

You can see it clearly in when the end of the Middle Ages is thought to be. In England, where I grew up, the Middle Ages is often said to have ended when Henry VII took the throne from Richard III in August 1485. Elsewhere the end is said to be the invasion of Italy by Charles VIII of France, an event that apparently led to the propagation of Italian Renaissance learning in northern Europe. Others say that the taking of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 was the end of the Middle Ages because it led to the propagation of Byzantine learning in Italy, where many Greek scholars fled. (Never mind that Italians had been frequent visitors to northern Europe earlier anyway, and that Greeks were frequent visitors to Italy, and that it rather reveals our prejudices to think of the Middle Ages as a period that ended when people started learning things.)

Perhaps printing ended the Middle Ages; perhaps it was the Reformation; perhaps Poggio Bracciolini ended the Middle Ages single-handed by rediscovering Lucretius. The pop consensus, anyway, is that the European Middle Ages ended in the mid-to-late fifteenth century CE, which fits well with the (pre/mis)conception that the “medieval” world developed into a “Renaissance” one in which Latin learning was revived by serious scholars. It was in the late fifteenth century, after all, that motifs inspired by Greco-Roman art and literature started to replace International Gothic and related styles in much of Europe. It makes intuitive sense to a lot of people to put a significant division there: the Middle Ages and the Renaissance look different.

In Asia, and in some parts of eastern Europe, the “Middle Ages” is used rather differently. In Hungary, the Middle Ages apparently ended when the Hungarians took Buda back from the Turks — in 1686 (!). In the historiography of India, “medieval” refers to the period between the large-scale Muslim conquests of the twelfth century all the way through to the eighteenth century, when the British and French took over from the Mughals as the dominant powers.(1) In scholarship on Indonesia the term “medieval” is almost never used and the period before the spread of Islam in the region is normally described as the “Hindu-Buddhist”, “ancient”, or “early” period. (Lydia Kieven, in a recent book on fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Javanese temple reliefs, referred to those two centuries as the “late ancient” period.) In China, meanwhile, the term “medieval” can sometimes apply to the time between the Han and the Sui dynasties, roughly 220–581 CE, when China was divided into multiple competing kingdoms.

Origins of the “Middle Ages”

This latter notion is based on the early historiography of the Middle Ages as a time of division and savagery. The idea of a “period in-between” originated with those Greco-Roman-antiquity-fetishists in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italy: Petrarch, Bracciolini, and, most important of all, Leonardo Bruni. Bruni’s idea was that between the Romans and his own day there had been a middle season, a time in which glorious Greco-Roman ideals and literature had been largely forgotten. Bruni (who died in 1444) thought that that period had ended by his day, that modernity had replaced this middle era by doing away with Gothic barbarism. The middle period was a Bad one. Unity and insight were lacking. Its literature was poor and ugly. Latin learning had been cast aside by decadent German barbarians. Superstition reigned. Etc. For most people “medieval” is still a pejorative — it means something similar to “savage” or “barbaric” much of the time, and overlaps in use with that hated phrase, the “Dark Ages”.

I’m not here to tell you that the Renaissance wasn’t real. (It wasn’t, though.) My point is that we’ve been trained by the last six hundred years of concerted historiographical effort to think of the term “Middle Ages” as referring to something backward, savage, unenlightened — and European. It refers to that gap between Antiquity and Modernity in which Europe was cut off and people drank beer instead of water because of the lack of proper sanitation.(2) This is a mistake. Hungary, India, China, Italy, Java, and England were all part of a single interconnected world in the Middle Ages. People didn’t travel through time when they visited different parts of that world, and we need a single term to describe and encompass it without ambiguity.

Europe is Part of Afro-Eurasia

Europe has always been connected to the rest of Eurasia and Africa, and not just in a geographical sense. At no point was it cut off (although long-distance trade does seem to have declined in the sixth century or around then). At no point did people drink beer because the water was too dirty, either, but that’s a different issue.

People from Europe routinely visited North Africa and the Middle East, and vice versa, throughout the so-called Middle Ages (let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the Middle Ages is the period between 500 and 1500 CE/AD). Women were among them: Margery Kempe, for instance, went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the early fifteenth century, and she was a person of rather ordinary means. Europeans also travelled on a fairly regular basis to China, India, and Southeast Asia. Most of these were men, at least those whose accounts have survived: Marco Polo, Odoric of Pordenone, Giovanni de’ Marignolli, Niccolò de’ Conti (who travelled with his Egyptian wife and children), and William of Rubruck are famous examples. (There were earlier ones too, like Cosmas Indicopleustes.) European maps, like Cresques Abraham’s 1375 map of the world (the so-called Catalan Atlas — Paris, BNF, Esp. 30), depicted Sri Lanka, China, and Java (the latter as <ILLA IANA>) as well as parts of tropical Africa. Europeans were well aware of a wider world in which they were but one part. (Think of the earlier T-O maps: Europe is just one corner.)

<ILLA IANA> — the island of Java on the seventh panel of Cresques Abraham’s Catalan Atlas (Mallorca, 1375). The multicoloured blobs to the right represent other Indonesian islands, and the ship to the left is an early image of a junk (known on the map as <inchi>, a copying error for <jũchi>).

Barley was a staple food from Ireland to Mesopotamia to Tibet and Korea. Christians lived in China, Armenia, Ethiopia, Iceland. Jews could be found in fifteenth-century Melaka just as they could in France and Poland in the same century. In the fifteenth century, too, you would have been able to find speakers of Arabic in Oxford, Delhi, Beijing, Kilwa Kisiwani, Gresik, and Ternate, in addition to the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. Cloves and nutmeg were common spices in European kitchens from at least the twelfth century CE on; these spices only grew on a small number of tiny islands in eastern Indonesia, about as far from Europe as it is possible to get and still be on Earth. Lions — big cats restricted in range to Africa and parts of Asia — were employed as symbols in European heraldry, just as they were used as characters in lion dances in East Asia (popular, apparently, in fifteenth-century Japan) and as elements in Southeast Asian place names (as in Singapura ‘city/palace of the lion’). These are all places where no lions live but which nonetheless made use of the lion as a symbol — one of many things shared across the Afro-Eurasia cultural space.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time demonstrating this. It is simply how things were: Europe in the Middle Ages was part of a much wider world of overlapping cultural/economic spheres stretching from Portugal and Mali in the west to Japan and New Guinea in the east. To decide that “medieval” is an adjective applicable only to Europe at this time, between Rome and the Renaissance, is to ignore the simple fact that Europe was not a separate entity all of its own. Fortunately, these days lots of scholars support this view under the banner of the Global Middle Ages (or, less commonly, the Hemispheric Middle Ages), and it’s becoming more common to use “medieval” as an adjective referring to this overlapping Afro-Eurasian world.

The integrated overlapping-ness of medieval Afro-Eurasia can be seen most clearly by comparing that hemisphere with what it was not — with the Americas, the other half of Earth.

Not-Afro-Eurasia

On the other side of the planet from this interconnected medieval hemisphere lay the Americas. During the Middle Ages — and for thousands of years prior — there was little to no contact of any kind between the peoples of Afro-Eurasia and those of North, South, and Central America. People from Scandinavia had briefly inhabited tiny portions of Greenland and Newfoundland, but this had not led to sustained contact between the two hemispheres, which were distinct from one another at a fundamental level.

People in the Americas ate different foods to people in Afro-Eurasia — no staples were the same. Afro-Eurasians had millet, rice, wheat, peas, cabbage, aubergine, beef, chickens, and pork; Americans had maize, beans, squash, tomatoes, turkey, and blackberries. They had different religions: there were no Muslims or Christians in the Americas and no worshippers of Tezcatlipōca in Afro-Eurasia. They had different languages: nobody in the Americas knew Arabic or had even heard of it. Each hemisphere had different animals, different symbols, different metaphors, different stories, different games, and different ways of getting around. They also had different diseases. (The last one here is particularly significant.)

In Afro-Eurasia people ate rice, travelled on horses and carts, and thought about lions and prophets; in the Americas they ate maize, walked everywhere, and thought about pumas and three-tiered cosmoses. These were two different worlds. The Americas — for a number of reasons I won’t go into here — were less integrated than Afro-Eurasia, but it’s important to note that maize was a staple from as far south as Paraguay to as far north as Ontario, and a few other things of that nature could be found over similarly large areas.

The Columbian Exchange

Everything changed when these two hemispheres collided. In October 1492 Christopher Columbus’s small fleet sighted land in the Caribbean. This led to sustained contact between the populations of Afro-Eurasia and the Americas for the first time in over 13,000 years. Settlements were soon built by the Europeans in the Caribbean islands, including one by Columbus in what is now the Dominican Republic; the first sugar mills were put up, using Taíno labour, within a couple of decades; and in 1521 the Aztec Triple Alliance was conquered by Cortés. Three decades before this nobody in Spain had heard of Mexico or the Caribbean.

A large part of the European impact on the Americas was down to disease. The great majority of Afro-Eurasian diseases — plague, smallpox, measles, the common cold, malaria — were unknown in the Americas and there was little immunity to them. The demographic change was almost immediate, and literally millions of indigenous Americans have died so far as a result of European-introduced Afro-Eurasian epidemic diseases. The smallpox epidemic in Mexico in 1520, for example, played a significant role in Cortés’s conquest of the Aztecs. This problem hasn’t gone away, either; there are indigenous American people, nearly all of them in Amazonia, who are still vulnerable to introduced diseases.

The relative lack of immunity to these diseases meant that indigenous people were replaced on European-owned plantations by enslaved Africans, whose contact with the wider Afro-Eurasian world meant that they were immune to such sicknesses. This was the incipient globalisation of human cruelty — something we’re now used to conceptually, even fatigued by, but which was once something new.

There were other impacts too, aside from these horrible demographic ones. The list of such impacts is in fact practically endless, many of them to do with foodstuffs and technologies being introduced to people who had been unaware of them before the end of the fifteenth century. Potatoes drove massive population growth when adopted by Europeans; sweet potatoes did the same when introduced to New Guinea. Silver from the Americas flooded China, brought over by Spanish Acapulco-Manila galleons after the conquest of Mexico, severely weakening the Chinese economy. Settler colonies spread virulently throughout the Americas, the vast majority speaking European languages like English, Portuguese, and Spanish. Most Portuguese, English, and Spanish speakers now live in the Americas (10 million Portuguese speakers in Portugal vs. nearly 200 million in Brazil, for instance). Nearly all indigenous American languages are on their knees.(3) Lawn grass was introduced to North America, changing the look and feel of much of the landscape. The massive ploughed fields of the Americas drastically reduced the cost of wheat and cotton. Tobacco was domesticated in South America and was completely unknown in medieval Southeast Asia, but the biggest killer in modern Indonesia is smoking-related disease.

You name it: contact between the two hemispheres transformed it.

The historian Alfred Crosby called this process the Columbian Exchange. It’s still going on: Quinoa, an Andean domesticate, has only started to become popular in Europe in my lifetime. Indigenous American languages and peoples are still dying off. In many areas, including Indo-Malaysia, the Columbian Exchange was mediated by European colonial powers, but its impact was no less great for that, and, while we tend to use the terms “pre-Columbian” and “post-Columbian” in an American context, in truth the entire world has been transformed by these processes.

Why Use “Medieval”?

My argument here is this: The Columbian Exchange represents a decisive break between the world before it and the one after, and both hemispheres were as profoundly affected as each other (albeit in rather different ways). The joining of the two hemispheres is modernity: that’s what the modern world is. Before Columbus the world was something else. It was different. And in the context of hemispheric Afro-Eurasia, I would say that it was “medieval”. I use the term mostly because it’s familiar, but also because I want to get Euro-medievalists to look at their material in light of the wider hemispheric context.

“Medieval” undoubtedly carries with it a certain amount of undesirable baggage, but I put it to you that there is currently no better term to describe this time and place. (If you can think of a replacement, do let me know.) I use it to mean “pertaining to pre-Columbian Afro-Eurasia”. “Medieval art” is “art from somewhere in Afro-Eurasia before around 1492”. “Medieval Indonesia” is “island Southeast Asia in the context of the wider Afro-Eurasian world before the impact of the Columbian Exchange”.

This is a use of the term that does not depend on local circumstance. It is not parochial. It may derive from European historiography but I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing and, used properly, is not a colonial thing either. The opposite, if you ask me: it says that Europe was integrated into a wider world of which it was only one small part. If we manage to normalise the use of “medieval” for this purpose in non-European contexts, it may even help to decolonise medieval studies.(4)

Here’s a little table simplifying the terminology I propose. I’m much less interested here in the period after 1492 CE.

My view is that the Middle Ages ended after 1492 with the Columbian Exchange. I haven’t mentioned, though, when I think the Middle Ages actually began. In the traditional approach the Middle Ages commenced when Rome fell (and the dates then depend on what exactly that means). This is also a rather parochial boundary: the fall of Rome to the Goths (or whomever) didn’t mean much in China even if its impact was felt in some way. Everyone seems to broadly agree, though, on a date in the middle of the first millennium CE: 500–1500, which seems to be the “medieval” of university syllabuses. It’s a neat thousand-year block.

I’m much less interested in the beginning of the Middle Ages than the end, in large part because little could be as important globally as the Columbian Exchange. I’m generally happy to use the term “medieval” rather loosely and pragmatically to refer to Afro-Eurasia as a whole during the period normally circumscribed that way in Europe. The rise of Islam and the expansion of Arabic as a hemispheric lingua franca seems like as good a beginning as any. But I do think something important happened early in the first millennium CE that radically changed life for people across Europe, Asia, and Africa, and that was the discovery of the monsoon cycle on the Indian Ocean. I’ll say something about that here for completeness’ sake.

The Indian Ocean and the Monsoons

The heart of the interconnected medieval Afro-Eurasian world was the Indian Ocean. Some people — like Peter Frankopan, whose recent books on the Silk Roads is a great Global-Middle-Ages read — will tell you that the heart, the centre, was on the “Silk Roads”, the multicultural trade routes across Central Asia from China to the Mediterranean. But in terms of volume of trade and numbers of people involved the Indian Ocean surely beats the overland routes. It was always faster to shift goods by ship, and ships can carry more and larger objects more safely than caravans can. And this is indeed what we find in the historical record: more people travelling greater distances by sea than by land.

Odoric of Pordenone, who crossed bits of the Indian Ocean in the early fourteenth century, mentions that he travelled on a junk with 700 others. Portuguese conquistadores in Southeast Asia in the early sixteenth century mention similarly massive vessels trading from Bengal to Java and beyond. Nearly all the celebrated medieval travellers — people like Marco Polo, stereotyped as a Silk Road wanderer — sailed across the Indian Ocean. Spices, Zimbabwean gold, giraffes, Italian gunsmiths, enslaved Borneans, Chinese armies, Hindu proselytisers, Sufi mystics: they were all present on the Ocean in the Middle Ages at one time or another.

The reason we tend to think of the so-called Silk Roads in preference to the great Ocean is probably that a wind-blasted caravanserai is a more romantic image than a ship’s cabin (and also because the drier conditions in Central Asia are more conducive to the survival of large numbers of manuscripts than the hot humid weather of Java or Mombasa). But let’s be clear: the Indian Ocean was the beating heart of the medieval Afro-Eurasian economy. (Do not under any circumstances describe it to me as the “maritime Silk Road” or the “Silk Road of the Sea”.)

Winds on the Indian Ocean go in cycles. The equator passes through the middle of the Ocean and there are large landmasses either side of it. This means that when the land’s getting hot in Australia and southern Africa during summer in the southern hemisphere, it’s cooling down on the Eurasian mainland — and vice versa. Land heats up more quickly than water. The air over the hot land expands, leading to an area of low pressure above the landmasses. The continents thus draw in air from over the cooler ocean. Powerful one-directional sea breezes are the result, reversing direction every summer and winter. This happens on both the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea (and elsewhere — monsoons are a global tropical phenomenon) but they are particularly powerful and important on the Ocean.

The significance of the monsoons is this: If you try to sail from Java to Cairo by hugging the coast, it’ll take forever. You’ll be coming close to lots of population centres, which sounds good but in practice means you could be attacked by pirates at any point. If you ride the monsoons, if you’re aware of the cycle, then you can take one monsoon out to another point on the Ocean’s rim to trade and the next monsoon back where you came from. You can avoid the coast and its rocks and brigands and travel quickly and easily. The cycle is regular and predictable. It takes a lot of the risk out of venturing out onto the Indian Ocean with a valuable cargo and speeds you to your destination with less fuss.

I date the beginning of the “medieval” period to the discovery of the cycle of northeast/southwest monsoon winds on the Indian Ocean. This discovery allowed for the ever-closer knitting together of pre-Columbian Africa and Eurasia. It meant that Persian glass could be re-used by people in East Java to make beads that were then traded as far away as Korea and Africa in the middle of the first millennium CE (the so-called ‘Jatim’ beads [Ja = Jawa ‘Java’; Tim = timur ‘east’]). It allowed large volumes of eastern Indonesian products like nutmeg and cloves to be eaten by Europeans, and for Indian pepper to become a common condiment in Ethiopia and China and, well, nearly everywhere. It gave Islam the means to spread from Arabia to the Swahili coast and island Southeast Asia.

It also meant that Madagascar, off the coast of Africa, was initially settled by people from Borneo in the early first millennium CE. This wouldn’t have been possible before the discovery of the monsoon cycle. (I should add that a direct trip from Indonesia to Madagascar would involve different winds — the southern trades, or something like that — but Madagascar isn’t believed to have been settled directly; apparently there are good reasons to believe the Malayo-Polynesian-speaking settlers actually stayed on the African coast for a bit before moving to the island permanently.)

The closest relatives of Malagasy, the language (really several closely related dialects) of Madagascar, are to be found in Borneo, about 7,000 kilometres away.

I don’t think anyone’s sure who first found out you could use the regular cycle of winds to traverse the Ocean quickly and easily. It may have been Southeast Asians; the fact that Borneo was settled by speakers of Malayo-Polynesian languages (and not, say, Greek or Sanskrit speakers) may be significant. But it could equally as likely have been Greeks/Copts in Egypt or Tamils or any number of other groups of people. In any case, nobody had a monopoly on the use of the winds and it is better to think of the Indian Ocean as a multicultural place rather than a realm in which one group had priority.

The cycle was probably discovered early in the first millennium, almost certainly when the Roman Empire was still a large and powerful entity, which doesn’t fit so well with the traditional historiography of the Middle Ages. But no matter: it seems to me that the discovery of this cycle was the key feature separating the medieval period in Afro-Eurasia off from earlier times, as it led to interactions between different societies on a hemispheric scale, something that had never happened before. Access to this trade — beyond that available in Europe — was, after all, what Columbus (& co.) were after when they set sail in 1492.

Anyway: the formation of the medieval world is hallmarked by the monsoons, and I see the discovery of the cycle as in some sense the beginning of what I refer to here as the Middle Ages.(5)

Concluding Remarks

Before I round off my thoughts on this topic, I should say something about Christopher Columbus, because whenever I talk about this publicly it annoys indigenous Americans and their advocates that history — their history and everyone else’s — is centred on this one rather foul human.

Columbus was an evil man. I don’t approve of his deeds and his entire worldview seems shockingly immoral. His voyages were undertaken, as the Portuguese conquests were, for essentially Islamophobic reasons: far from voyages of science and discovery, these were attempts to wrest control of the hemispheric trade in luxuries on the Indian Ocean from the Muslims. Columbus and Albuquerque were both explicit in their hope of giving Christianity a leg up in the fight against the Moors, of placing their feet on the throats of Venice and Cairo. Columbus ended up enslaving children for sex in the Caribbean and he began the genocide of indigenous American peoples that continues in some ways to this day. For these and other reasons, indigenous Americans and people with, well, ethics might find it problematic to orient modernity around his voyages.

I don’t really have a solution for this except to be clear whenever he is mentioned that Columbus was a monster. His impact on the world was enormous however you look at it. If he hadn’t filled his head with incorrect ideas about the size of the Earth then he wouldn’t have sailed west from the Canaries in 1492 confident he’d bump into the coast of Asia. It was his actions, and not those of some other person, that led directly to the collision of the two hemispheres, bringing an end to the Middle Ages and inaugurating a new era in the human history of our planet. If the phrase “pre-Columbian” makes you spit, you’re not alone, I don’t think — but it’s also important to acknowledge that no other person in human history had the impact that his misguided voyages (and evil doings) ultimately did.

In any case, I see the Middle Ages as beginning with the first voyages across the Indian Ocean on the monsoon winds and ending as the impact of the Columbian Exchange was felt in different parts of the Afro-Eurasian supercontinent. When I say “medieval” I am really saying “pre-Columbian, but in Africa and Eurasia”. When I say “Middle Ages”, I’m not pointing to a savage period in between the grandeur that was Rome and the revival of Latin learning in the Renaissance: I’m talking about an entire interconnected hemisphere of human interaction over a period of more than a thousand years.

The medieval world geographically circumscribed.

This is what I am talking about when I talk about the Middle Ages (c.100 — 1492+ CE).

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Notes:

(1) I should also say that I once saw an ad for a British TV show presented by Lucy Worsley about the Restoration of the Monarchy in England in which Worsley claimed that the Restoration — which happened in 1660 — represented the end of the Middle Ages. That would make the English Civil War a medieval conflict — a bit of a baffling notion. I can’t find the clip but I’m certain I didn’t make that up.

(2) This isn’t true at all but people believe it because it fits with this six-hundred-year-old intuition about pre-modern life.

(3) Guarani is a possible exception — it’s an official language of Paraguay and perhaps the only American languages to have a significant number of Euro-American speakers. By global standards it is still a relatively small language, however.

(4) This may be overly optimistic. Racists love medieval studies (meaning: extremely old-school traditional Europe-only interpretations of medieval history). But my intent is at least in part to get Euro-medievalists to look at their material in a slightly different way, and using the term “medieval” is part of that strategy.

(5) In a recent tweet I proposed renaming the “Middle Ages” the “Monsoon Age”. I’m not sure if that’s the right thing to do but I suppose it could work. At the moment it’s a poorly formed idea, however.