Historical story

Flavio Biondo and the Middle Ages:at the origins of the term

Last updated:2022-07-25

The middle Ages. How many times hearing this term have you thought of something negative.
Think of a dark age, dominated by superstition, by the unstable power created with the fall of the Roman Empire, hordes of barbarians who plundered cities and where religion was there only refuge to make sense of that short and precarious life. But let's focus for a moment on the term Middle Ages.

First of all, who coined it? Under what circumstances? Were his reasons valid?

The term was born towards the second half of the 15th century and therefore in the humanistic - Renaissance context. The name I give you is little known. This is Flavio Biondo, Italian historian and humanist of the Renaissance who lived between 1392 and 1463.

Biondo is famous for being the first to deal with archeology. He devoted himself to the study of the ancient ruins of the city of Rome, where he lived working as a secretary of the Vatican, having been born in Forlì. And he did so both by examining the architecture of the remains of the buildings and by consulting the classical works, at the time the only sources on which to rely. On the basis of his studies he published an encyclopedic work in three volumes between 1444 and 1446, De Roma Instaurata (restored Rome) a reconstruction of the ancient Roman topography.

We find the term Middle Ages for the first time in his most important work Historiarum, a sort of history of Europe from 412 (two years after the Sack of Rome) up to the time of the author.
Biondo uses the term Middle Ages to indicate a period of time (and I say one and not that having been used for the first time) that goes from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to its time, even if it does not specify well the starting year. But it is probably that the conception that the Middle Ages began in 476 refers to the work of Biondo.

Now Biondo realizes that after the fall of the Roman Empire, the historical memory of the classical era had been lost. Suffice it to say that the area around the Roman Forum was reduced to a rough countryside full of hovels and pigs. It is clear that all this in the eyes of a classicist is a sign of barbarism and backwardness. And therefore that Flavio Biondo had a negative conception of the Middle Ages, there is no doubt, and that is why he dedicated himself to the study of Ancient Rome to safeguard the heritage of what was " The Queen of Antiquity ".

Biondo coined this derogatory term for a just cause:safeguarding the classical heritage of Rome, he sought above all to sensitize the Romans to relive their glorious origin, taking pagan Rome as a political and military example (as he writes in his work De Roma Triumphante - The triumphs of Rome) of which papal Rome was heir to its values ​​(a somewhat controversial conception in the humanistic - Renaissance context that placed man at the center of everything).
Therefore, if, at least for the humanists, the Middle Ages it is true that it was a dark age, on the other hand it brought out its most important positive side, the rediscovery of classical works. Would there have been a Renaissance without the Middle Ages?