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§ 2. The Middle Age. Limits and General Character.

The Middle Age, as the term implies, is the period which intervenes between ancient and modern times, and connects them, by continuing the one, and preparing for the other. It forms the transition from the Graeco-Roman civilization to the Romano-Germanic, civilization, which gradually arose out of the intervening chaos of barbarism. The connecting link is Christianity, which saved the best elements of the old, and directed and moulded the new order of things.

Politically, the middle age dates from the great migration of nations and the downfall of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century; but for ecclesiastical history it begins with Gregory the Great, the last of the fathers and the first of the popes, at the close of the sixth century. Its termination, both for secular and ecclesiastical history, is the Reformation of the sixteenth century (1517), which introduces the modern age of the Christian era. Some date modern history from the invention of the art of printing, or from the discovery of America, which preceded the Reformation; but these events were only preparatory to a great reform movement and extension of the Christian world.

The theatre of mediaeval Christianity is mainly Europe. In Western Asia and North Africa, the Cross was supplanted by the Crescent; and America, which opened a new field for the ever-expanding energies of history, was not discovered until the close of the fifteenth century.

Europe was peopled by a warlike emigration of heathen barbarians from Asia as America is peopled by a peaceful emigration from civilized and Christian Europe.

The great migration of nations marks a turning point in the history of religion and civilization. It was destructive in its first effects, and appeared like the doom of the judgment-day; but it proved the harbinger of a new creation, the chaos preceding the cosmos. The change was brought about gradually. The forces of the old Greek and Roman world continued to work for centuries alongside of the new elements. The barbarian irruption came not like a single torrent which passes by, but as the tide which advances and retires, returns and at last becomes master of the flooded soil. The savages of the north swept down the valley of the Danube to the borders of the Greek Empire, and southward over the Rhine and the Vosges into Gaul, across the Alps into Italy, and across the Pyrenees into Spain. They were not a single people, but many independent tribes; not an organized army of a conqueror, but irregular hordes of wild warriors ruled by intrepid kings; not directed by the ambition of one controlling genius, like Alexander or Caesar, but prompted by the irresistible impulse of an historical instinct, and unconsciously bearing in their rear the future destinies of Europe and America. They brought with them fire and sword, destruction and desolation, but also life and vigor, respect for woman, sense of honor, love of liberty—noble instincts, which, being purified and developed by Christianity, became the governing principles of a higher civilization than that of Greece and Rome. The Christian monk Salvian, who lived in the midst of the barbarian flood, in the middle of the fifth century, draws a most gloomy and appalling picture of the vices of the orthodox Romans of his time, and does not hesitate to give preference to the heretical (Arian) and heathen barbarians, “whose chastity purifies the deep stained with the Roman debauches.” St. Augustin (d. 430), who took a more sober and comprehensive view, intimates, in his great work on the City of God, the possibility of the rise of a new and better civilization from the ruins of the old Roman empire; and his pupil, Orosius, clearly expresses this hopeful view. “Men assert,” he says, “that the barbarians are enemies of the State. I reply that all the East thought the same of the great Alexander; the Romans also seemed no better than the enemies of all society to the nations afar off, whose repose they troubled. But the Greeks, you say, established empires; the Germans overthrow them. Well, the Macedonians began by subduing the nations which afterwards they civilized. The Germans are now upsetting all this world; but if, which Heaven avert, they, finish by continuing to be its masters, peradventure some day posterity will salute with the title of great princes those in whom we at this day can see nothing but enemies.”

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