As a Catholic growing up in the predominantly WASP world of 1950s American South, I was taught that the era in which my church played a major role in European History was called the "Dark Ages" -- and that it was marked with ignorance, filth, idolatry, and barbarity that was only overcome with the rise of rational thought, commercialism, and neoclassicism. A few years ago, I set out to learn the truth--to study the period now known as the Middle Ages.
Medievalist scholars pretty much agree the Middle Ages include the thousand or so years following the fall of Rome (c.500 A.D.) to the revival of rationalism, Roman law, bureaucracies, and neoclassical art known as the Italian Renaissance. In his book, Norman Cantor distills the work of many leading scholars in Europe and America writing during the latter part of the 19th Century and through the 20th. He organizes their work into various schools of thought including legalists, propagandists, revolutionaries, fantasists, formalists, outriders and others.
He says the task these scholars undertook was to conceptually and operationally define or "invent" the Middle Ages by addressing several questions: What sources lead to the rise and dominance of Western society; How did a legal system that still exists today emerge (i.e. in the Commonwealth of Virginia and other U.S. states as well as England); How did kings govern without bureaucracies; How did the labor and aspirations of peasants and the ambitions and bellicosity of aristocrats lead to the respect for the authenticity of comman man; How did the various structures of the Roman Empire precondition Medieval philosophy; How did the shift from God the Father to God the Loving Son lead to humanism; How did the church function with hierarchical authority on one side and evangelical groups and individual piety on the other?
The scholarly study of the Middle Ages acquired it's impetus from the Romantic Movement of the 19th Century, which manifested itself as Gothic Revival architecture, Art Deco, PreRaphalite painting, the writing of authors from Bronte to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien, the enfranchisement of the comman man, and the emancipation of slaves and women. The Romantics reacted to the atrocities of industrialization, the exploitation of labor, the corruption of the environment and the spread of disease, malnourishment and poverty by a utilitarian and unthinking society.
Cantor provides a good overview of the thinking of the past 120 years or so. He covers many well known historians, such as Maitland, Kantorowitz, Panofsky, C.S. Lewis, and his own mentor the Professor R. W. Southern. He includes the followers of Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim in the section the "French Jews" which includes essays on Braudel and Bloch. Cantor says the book "Feudal Society" by Mark Bloch is one of the best ever written about the Middle Ages. He has many negative comments about "The Waning of the Middle Ages" by the Dutch writer Huizinga, but Cantor undoubtedly read the older less accurate translation. A new translation of Huizinga's work is titled "Autumn in the Middle Ages" and it's thesis is somewhat different from that found in the older translation.
Cantor's book provides a good overview of the subject of the Middle Ages, and I recommend it for anyone starting out on this subject. (You have to start somewhere!!) And, it contains a wonderful bibliography for further reading.