When I use the term medieval what does that really mean?
Do you envision knights and castles? The Black Death? The Carolingian Empire? The Age of Chivalry? Beowulf? Anything that’s post-Roman Empire but pre-Renaissance? You’re getting warmer.
The problem with using “medieval” or “the Middle Ages” is that the terms cover a huge range of historical events from the fall of the Rome Empire to the start of the Renaissance, essentially the 5th through the 15th centuries.
The Middle Ages is further subdivided into Early, High, and Late periods:
Early Middle Ages — 500-1000 (approx. Fall of Rome through founding of Holy Roman Empire)
High Middle Ages — 1000-1300 (approx. Norman Conquest in 1066 through Black Death)
Late Middle Ages — 1300-1500 (approx. Restructuring following Black Death until Renaissance)
Turns out my story takes place during the High Middle Ages, since most of the events center around the Norman Conquest of England.
But I didn’t know that when I was first starting out. I grabbed every book I could find with the terms “medieval” or “middle ages” in the title—used book stores and college library book sales were the best places to build my collection. However, I was often disappointed to find the books to either be a survey of the entire medieval period (and therefore containing only summaries of events) or focused on a period of history outside of the time period of interest to me.
I also learned that books with a European focus often omitted or glossed over the events in England. That led me to another body of work that was solely focused on the British Isles. Another problem I ran into was studying the Anglo-Saxons (ie, the English people pre-Conquest). I learned to focus on the late Anglo-Saxon period, as anything later than that was typically considered to be England post-Conquest, and anything earlier wasn’t always relevant.
As with any research into a new area, it took me a while to figure out what I needed to look for and how to interpret it when I did eventually find it. I’ll be talking about the resources that provided me with the most help in later posts.
But in the meantime, if you find yourself being overwhelmed by medieval terminology, check out the Guide of Medieval Terms from the Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies.