The medieval period was a time of notable scholarship and enlightenment (not to mention some excellent music) (oops, I just mentioned the music). So I feel that, in honour of Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, William of Ockham, and Duns Scotus, it is appropriate to conduct a word tasting of medieval with a bit of Q&A.
Q: Is it spelled medieval, mediaeval, or mediæval?
Q: Is medieval said with three or four syllables?
Q: Come on, man.
A: Both versions are in use. In fact, there are quite a few ways to say it, all of them established and accepted on both sides of the Atlantic (no word on the antipodes): the first syllable can be said “med,” “mid,” or “meed,” and the i can be pronounced or not (however, you should not say “med-eye-evil”). A quick Twitter poll got about a two-to-one ratio of three-syllable sayers over four-syllable sayers.
Q: What is the difference between the medieval period and the middle ages?
A: Whether you prefer your terminology to come from Latin or Anglo-Saxon. The word medieval comes from Latin medium (‘middle’, in case it’s not obvious) and ævum (‘age’). (This does not mean that people between the ages of about 40 and 65 are medieval. But they could be if they want.) That -eval is also seen in primeval (from the ‘first age’) and coeval (‘of the same age’).
Q: When was the medieval period?
A: Um. Well, it started after the fall of the Roman Empire, so the Early Middle Ages began around AD 500 (also known as 500 CE). That was before Anglo-Saxons even invaded Britain. But the High Middle Ages, the glory days of the medieval era, started around AD 1000 (which is also about the time Old English shaded into Middle English), and the Late Middle Ages – which had plagues and things like that and sloped into the Renaissance – started around 1300 and ended around 1500 (which is also when Middle English graduated to Early Modern English). But it’s fuzzy, not least of which because the Middle Ages are typically defined as having been before the Renaissance, and the Renaissance started at different times in different parts of Europe and, let’s be honest, kind of overlapped with the medieval period, because the future does not arrive at the same speed everywhere and for all people. Oh, and outside of Europe, which is most of the world, they had their own cultural developments at their own speed and in their own ways. I heartily encourage studying cultures all around the world through history, because they’re absolutely fascinating. You also get insights into your own perspectives.
Q: The medieval era wasn’t a great time to live, was it?
A: If you require central heating, indoor plumbing, and internet, the medieval period may not be for you. But people in nearly all places and times find ways to be happy, and there was certainly a lot of great culture. Intellectual advancements. Splendid art. Excellent music. Here, listen to this.
Q: But weren’t they the “dark ages”?
A: You’re thinking of the Early Middle Ages, which are sometimes called the “dark ages” not because they were dim and nasty but just because we don’t have all that much surviving information from the time – more gets dug up (literally) every year, but, you know, it was a while ago, and not nearly as many things got written down then, either.
Q: So you’re saying the medieval era wasn’t evil.
A: Not medi-evil, not maxi-evil, just people being people. It had its wars and nasty politics and so on, to be sure, but so do we. And yes, we know more and understand more now than they did then, but they knew more and understood more than the people who came before them. Just bad luck that medieval sounds that way.