Late Middle Ages - Historiography and Periodization

Historiography and Periodization

The term "Late Middle Ages" refers to one of the three periods of the Middle Ages, the others being the Early Middle Ages and the High Middle Ages. Leonardo Bruni was the first historian to use tripartite periodization in his History of the Florentine People (1442). Flavio Biondo used a similar framework in Decades of History from the Deterioration of the Roman Empire (1439–1453). Tripartite periodization became standard after the German historian Christoph Cellarius published Universal History Divided into an Ancient, Medieval, and New Period (1683).

For 18th century historians studying the 14th and 15th centuries, the central theme was the Renaissance, with its rediscovery of ancient learning and the emergence of an individual spirit. The heart of this rediscovery lies in Italy, where, in the words of Jacob Burckhardt: "Man became a spiritual individual and recognized himself as such" (The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, 1860). This proposition was later challenged, and it was argued that the 12th century was a period of greater cultural achievement.

As economic and demographic methods were applied to the study of history, the trend was increasingly to see the late Middle Ages as a period of recession and crisis. Belgian historian Henri Pirenne introduced the now common subdivision of Early, High and Late Middle Ages in the years around World War I. Yet it was his Dutch colleague Johan Huizinga who was primarily responsible for popularising the pessimistic view of the Late Middle Ages, with his book The Autumn of the Middle Ages (1919). To Huizinga, whose research focused on France and the Low Countries rather than Italy, despair and decline were the main themes, not rebirth.

Modern historiography on the period has reached a consensus between the two extremes of innovation and crisis. It is now (generally) acknowledged that conditions were vastly different north and south of the Alps, and "Late Middle Ages" is often avoided entirely within Italian historiography. The term "Renaissance" is still considered useful for describing certain intellectual, cultural or artistic developments, but not as the defining feature of an entire European historical epoch. The period from the early 14th century up until – sometimes including – the 16th century, is rather seen as characterised by other trends: demographic and economic decline followed by recovery, the end of western religious unity and the subsequent emergence of the nation state, and the expansion of European influence onto the rest of the world.

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