Roughly, it began around 476 A.D. with the fall of the Roman Empire. But arguably it began earlier, with the great migrations of the Völkerwanderungen, and it began later, inasmuch as the afterglow of Roman society lingered after the political leadership was surrendered.
The Middle Ages might be said to end in 1453 with the emergence of mechanical print, or in 1517 with the Reformation, or in 1215 with the Magna Charta, or in the mid-1300s with Petrarch’s writing, or at any other arbitrary but plausible point in time.
In terms of geography, the Middle Ages are often conceptualized as a European phenomenon. But the northernmost regions of Scandinavia and the Slavic regions on the easternmost edges of Europe seem to have taken a separate cultural path, despite being on the continent of Europe. And some Mediterranean islands, North African cities, and parts of Asia Minor engaged in medieval patterns, despite not being on the continent.
Despite this ambiguity, scholars continually explore and reflect on medieval society. Clearly, this era holds an attraction and a fascination. Victor Davis Hanson writes:
The medieval world was a nearly 1,000-year period of spectacular, if haphazard, human achievement.
The medievals laid the foundations for modern mathematics and physics with their ruminations on the structural roles which geometry and algebra play in the universe. Thomas Bradwardine, e.g., worked as one of the ‘Oxford Calculators’ and formulated rules for using exponents in calculating the velocities and accelerations of moving bodies. He died in 1349.
Bradwardine’s work was representative of medieval scholarship, as Hanson notes:
The great medieval universities - at Bologna, Paris and Oxford - continued to make strides in science. They were not unlike the medical and engineering schools at Harvard and Stanford.
It is easy to overlook the common humanity of the medievals. Like most people they generally prefered peace to war, and like most people, they often had to endure wars which they did not want. As historian Irma Simonton Black writes,
The serfs went to the little village churches and prayed, “Oh Lord, let us have peace.”
The medievals, in fact, worked to stop warfare, introducing notions which foreshadowed the modern concept of a ‘ceasefire.’
Medieval society was built on relations of mutual obligation. The nobles were obliged to provide for their serfs, exactly as the serfs were obliged to work for the nobles. This legal bivalency was intended to have equal and reciprocal force.
This represented a departure from the “top down” rule of the Roman Empire. A serf actually had a legal claim upon his lord, while a Roman slave did not.
Concerning these nobles, Irma Simonton Black writes,
Many were kind and generous. They gave their serfs good homes, and if there was a shortage of food, fed their serfs as much as they dared from their own supplies in the castle granary or storehouse.
The political structure of the Middle Ages - mutual obligation - facilitated a climate of intellectual creativity. Roman absolutism had a ‘chilling effect’ on intellectual activity.
The emergence of the university played a key role in medieval thought. Because debate was considered an essential form of instruction, the universities of the Middle Ages, by their very structure, fostered intellectual freedom.
Students at these institutions were required to debate both side of any subject. A thesis was presented, and students worked to produce argumentation, both in support of, and in opposition to, this thesis.
In this way, the medieval European university was a departure from the narrow dogmatism of schools like the Al-Azhar Madrasa in Egypt, where Saladin and other Muslim leaders burned over 100,000 books in the twelfth century.
Likewise, the earliest universities - Bologna is often cited, having been founded around 1088 A.D. - were a departure from the doctrinaire rigidity of institutions like the Al Quaraouiyine Madrasa in Morocco.
The Middle Ages, then, laid the foundations not only for modern science, but also for modern political liberty.