The Medieval Period

The Medieval period spans from the end of the Roman Empire to the beginning of the Renaissance.

The word ‘Medieval’ means relating to the Middle Ages and the period lasted for around a 1,000 years from the 5th – 15th centuries. It is the middle period that comes after the classical world and before the new wave of thinking that came in the Renaissance.

The Fall of Rome

After a series of military loses in the 4th century there were Barbarian invasions into Roman territory. In 410 the Visigoth King Alaric successfully sacked the city of Rome.

The Empire spent the next several decades under constant threat before the ‘Eternal City’ was raided again in 455, this time by the Vandals. Finally, in 476, the Germanic leader Odoacer staged a revolt and deposed the Emperor Romulus Augustulus. From then on, no Roman emperor would ever again rule from a post in Italy, leading many to cite 476 as the year the Western Empire suffered its deathblow.

The first centuries after the year 400 were a cultural decline. The Roman period had been a high culture with big cities that had libraries, public baths and sewers as well as sophisticated architecture.

Trade and economy inevitably suffered and there was a return to bartering as the financial power of Rome collapsed. In its place, Feudalism sprang up across Europe. This saw land being ruled by a few powerful nobles who employed workers known as serfs to work the soil.

At its height, the population of Rome had been over a million citizens. But by the year 600 the population had fallen to 40,000. From a political viewpoint, Rome had lost all its power.

These first few centuries after the end of the Roman Empire became known as the Dark Ages. This was due to the decline of European civilization during this time as well as a lack of written records. Sometimes the whole of the medieval period is referred to as the Dark Ages, although this is a little unfair. The later Middle Ages did make progress, especially in education and learning.

The Spread of Christianity

The crumbling of Rome dovetailed with the spread of Christianity Рand some have argued that the rise of a new faith helped contribute to the empire’s fall. The Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313, and it later became the state religion in 380.

This legalization of Christianity ended centuries of persecution, but they may have also eroded the system of traditional Roman values . Christianity displaced the polytheistic Roman religion, which viewed the emperor as having a divine status, and also shifted focus away from the glory of the state and onto a sole deity.

Rome would could continue to have great influence on Christianity when the Bishop of Rome became the supreme head of the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore Rome was thus the Christian capital throughout most of the medieval period.

The medieval philosophers took it almost for granted that Christianity was true and it dominated philosophical thought. The central question they asked was was whether they must simply believe the Bible’s account of Christianity based upon scripture alone or whether they could approach Christian truths with the help of philosophical reason.

  • What was the relationship between the Greek philosophers and what the bible said?
  • Was there a contradiction between the Bible and reason, or were belief and reason compatible?

Almost all of Medieval philosophy concerned itself with this theological debate.

Although there was a philosophical drought, the Medieval period can be seen as a thousand year period of slow intellectual growth. For example, the school system was introduced with many convent and Cathedral schools being established. Also, around the year 1200 the first universities were founded.

However, there were no groundbreaking philosophers during the Medieval period and their alternative name, the Dark Ages can seem apt when applied to philosophy. It would take the rebirth in thinking known as the Renaissance to shine a new light on philosophy.


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