For a long time, possibly over a decade, I have had a disclaimer at the
bottom of the "medieval history" category of my book reviews which says:
"I realise the inclusion of works on areas outside Europe and
West Asia in a 'medieval history' category is problematic."
Recently I read two books which apply the term 'medieval' to Japanese
history, but using quite different periodisations and definitions.
And then I went to a talk on Chinese history that was included in a
medieval history seminar series. So I have taken another look at this.
What happens when we try to extend the term 'medieval' to other regions?
One classic analysis is "Medieval: Another Tyrannous Construct?" (Timothy
Reuter, The Medieval History Journal, April 1998, vol. 1, no. 1, 25-45),
"the term is too conventionalised to be of much use in any
dialogue between medievalists of different parts of the globe:
it does not clearly define either a social formation or a stage
A more recent statement along similar lines can be found in in Christopher
Tyerman's "Expansion and the Crusades" (a chapter in A Companion to
the Medieval World, edited by Carol Lansing and Edward D. English,
"The idea of a 'medieval world' is a peculiarly West European
construct, even if it has been embraced by other historical
traditions, such as the Japanese. The idea of medieval China,
medieval India, let alone medieval America, medieval sub-Saharan
Africa, or medieval Australia makes no sense. In a global context
the term 'medieval' is vague, if not suspect, with no necessary
agreed or unambiguous material or intellectual substance."
And even with Japan there are clearly problems, as the two books I
mentioned above show. François Souyri's The World Turned Upside Down:
Medieval Japanese Society (1998) defines a medieval Japan, running
from 1185 to 1573, in terms of social structures, using 'feudalism'
and associated terminology quite freely, along with many comparisons
with other aspects of European history. William LaFleur in The
Karma of Words: Buddhism and the Literary Arts in Medieval Japan
(1983) suggests a Japanese medieval period starting in the 9th or
even 8th century, defined by the ideological hegemony of Buddhism,
but doesn't make any comparisons with Christianity in medieval Europe.
The 'indigenous' Japanese notion of chūsei didn't appear till
the late 19th century, has a complex relationship to European models, and
has shifted in the last thirty years. Tom Keirstead's "Medieval Japan:
Taking the Middle Ages Outside Europe" (History Compass 2 (2004) AS 110,
1–14), a history of the Japanese idea of a Middle Age, concludes: "the
upshot of [Amino Yoshihiko's] idea that Japan experienced revolutionary
change over the course of the fourteenth century may well be a Japanese
history that has no place for a medieval era". Which all seems to
support Tyerman's "vague, if not suspect, with no necessary agreed or
unambiguous material or intellectual substance".
This view does not, however, reflect either popular or scholarly use.
Here are the counts from some searches on Google and Google scholar
(in thousands of hits, or kGh to use LanguageLog terminology):
'medieval Europe' - 3200 - 85
'medieval England' - 2400 - 39
'medieval Germany' - 680 - 4
'medieval China' - 730 - 5
'medieval France' - 400 - 8
'medieval Japan' - 370 - 4
'medieval India' - 330 - 7
'medieval Africa' - 110 - 0.2
'medieval Java' - 7 - 0.05
'medieval Australia' - 2 - 0.002
Now the absolute numbers here aren't terribly meaningful, but their
relative values suggest that the application of the term 'medieval'
to at least China, Japan and India is as widespread as its application
to parts of Western Europe.
And here is a graph from Google Ngram viewer showing the changing
popularity of four of these terms.
(Interestingly, this seems to show a decline in the application of 'medieval'
to France and Germany, starting around the publication of the 1998 Reuter
article quoted from above.)
Also, there are plenty of eminent Sinologists who happily use the term
"medieval". Can European historians really tell them that "the idea
of medieval China ... makes no sense"?
The reason European medievalists are prepared to do this is that they've
stripped their own use of the term of any generalisable foundation.
My impression is that in European history the most common approach now is
to define 'medieval' by extension — by pointing at a (or, in fact,
the) historical instance — rather than by intension. So the term
can be used quite freely, without explanation or analysis, for Europe in
the period from 500 AD to 1500 AD, for any period roughly corresponding
to that, or when appropriately qualified for any subdivision thereof.
But, whatever the exact period and whatever the topic, the application of
'medieval' does not allow the assumption either of continuity throughout
the period or of discontinuity at its ends. It is a convenient label,
not an explanatory schema.
Perhaps the key event here was the debate over 'feudalism' that followed
Susan Reynold's Fiefs and Vassals (1994) and the acceptance that
this, the leading candidate for an definition of 'medieval' in terms of
social structure, simply couldn't carry that weight.
Such an approach raises obvious problems with generalisation to other
parts of the world.
If the whole of Eurasia had sufficiently strong internal links to give
it a common history, that would support a shared 'medieval' label across
the continent, while disallowing 'medieval Java' and suchlike. This is
the approach taken by e.g. Christopher Beckwith, who uses terms such
as "early medieval history" as part of a Eurasian-wide periodisation. I
think it's fair to say that Beckwith is in a small minority here, however.
One could simply apply the same 500 to 1500 period worldwide. But this
doesn't reflect local traditions — in the sense that 476 and
1517 are important symbolic dates in Europe — and even with
flexibility isn't necessarily compatible with any regional periodisation.
Also,this would allow terms such as 'medieval Australia' which seem
One possibility is that regional specialists could use 'medieval'
in the same way as European historians, but completely independently,
with no generalisation or comparison implied. It would become simply a
convenient way to avoid having to write "period of Buddhist ideological
hegemony" or "in the millennium from 200 to 1200 AD" repeatedly, not an
explanatory scheme required to carry any inferential weight. This seems
more than a little confusing, however: certainly for lay readers, but
probably for historians themselves.
The broad popular use of 'medieval' — based on some or all
of a 'feudal' social structure, particular technologies (especially
military), and a Catholic religious and intellectual hegemony —
is not going to go away. And the term carries such power, and has such
resonance, that its application to other parts of the world will continue.
I remain convinced, however, that historians are better off avoiding it:
the danger of unwanted and unpredictable associations with European
history seems to me to outweigh any convenience.