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The surprisingly modern Middle Ages

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In the middle of the 16th century, the historian John Foxe looked back at the great sweep of time since the birth of Christ, and decided that it could be sliced into three chunks. History, he suggested, began with the “primitive time”, when Christians were persecuted and had to hide in catacombs from wicked Romans . More recently came the “latter days”, Foxe’s own times – the age of the Reformation . Sandwiched between these two was an era of about 1,000 years, which were neither fish nor fowl. Foxe called these centuries “the middle age”. Today we call them the Middle Ages, or the medieval period.

That vast slab of history stretched from the fall of the western Roman empire in the fifth century AD to the European voyages to the New World in the 16th. It has a bit of an odd reputation: the Middle Ages are often the butt of a big historical joke.

In the popular imagination, that era is a time when the classical world had vanished, but the modern world had yet to get going; when people (supposedly) believed that the world was flat and that water was poisonous; when God was in charge of […]

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