Ancient vs Medieval Makes no Sense

The concept of an “ancient” era and a “medieval” era followed by the modern era evolved in Europe during the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods. The scholars at that time looked highly upon the Roman empire and bemoaned its collapse and what followed was termed the “dark ages”. The time between the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD and the Renaissance around 1500 AD was termed the middle ages. While the collapse of civilisation across Europe is indeed sad and the categorisation of middle ages and ancient age may be good for Europe the same cannot be said for the rest of the world. What about the distinction between the bronze age and the beginning of the iron age in late 2nd millennium BC? The best distinction is the point of time when a culture develops into what we call a 'civilisation'. 

The biggest shifts in the organisation and complexity of human society are:

  1.  The shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture, accompanied by the Neolithic age of explosion in tools and technologies. This age also marked the first time humans transformed substances not just in their shape but in their form like make pots from clay, making ceramics, tiles, metalworking, etc. 
  2. The shift from agricultural tribal societies to 'civilization', also accompanied by the development of writing systems, astronomy, mathematics, cities, complex administrative states and so on.
  3. The shift from an agricultural civilization with kingdoms and empires to an industrial civilization with modern nation-states, which as we all know involved massive developments in technologies, philosophy, legal and political systems. 
  4. AI, internet and similar technologies may soon lead to another age.
All these massive shifts in social and political organisation were accompanied by massive advances in technologies, knowledge of the natural world and the resulting worldviews and philosophies. The ancient age and the medieval age both lie in the third phase of agricultural civilization. There are no fundamental changes in the organisation of society, massive differences in technology and so on. 

Coming to India, here too scholars have classified the time until the collapse of the Gupta empire in 6th century AD as “ancient” and the time after that as “medieval”. But does this make any sense? The categorisation was done only so that it can match that of Europe. There was not any population decline or decline of civilisation in India. Trade and urban centers declined for some time. But Europe suffered the black death in the 14th century AD when half the population was wiped out. Even such a catastrophe does not warrant any different categorisation of the time period after that. Then why do we categorise the time up-to-the Guptas as ancient and what follows as medieval? We have the same culture, same civilisation. There were still empires and kingdoms. The rural economy and agriculture kept flourishing. Important religious and cultural movements continued to exist.

Why not put the demarcation at the time of Ashoka? After all much of the village structure and the structure of the state and even, the linguistic and ethnic borders came to be standardised or fixed by this time. If we observe Indian history, around 1000 BC civilisation started emerging in the Gangetic plain and by the time of Ashoka's death in late 3rd century BC it spread across the subcontinent and also advanced considerably. Thereafter we see a continuous and flourishing civilisation with occasional declines and increases in population and trade but the overall pattern was of continuous increase and development albeit slowly. There is no reason to categorise Indian history as ancient and medieval.

The same applies to the middle-east. There is no need for any arbitrary “ancient” and “medieval” distinction before the rise of Islam or the time after that. The less said of China the better. Civilisation continuously existed there for more than 4000 years starting at bronze age with little sophistication and low agricultural surplus up until the very large and very populous Qing dynasty which ended in 1912. We can categorise the age after the Qin dynasty when Qin Shi Huang unified China as Chinese middle ages or the imperial age or feudal age. But in no way can we shift the start of Chinese middle ages to the Tang empire just to match it with that of Europe.

In fact, coming back to Europe we have a very important observation. While in China and India the civilisation that started in the northern river valleys (Ganga in India and Yangtze in China) spread across those subcontinents and even though empires collapsed such as the Mauryan or the Han the culture and civilisation and religion continued and flourished. But in the case of Europe the Roman empire failed not only to spread itself politically across Europe it could not even culturally unify the rest of Europe. While Indian culture which emerged in the Gangetic valley spread across the subcontinent including the peninsula and then spread beyond across South East Asia and even East Asia, the remnants of which can be seen even now, The Roman culture only spread in regions which they conquered. The geography of Europe is the most important reason, but maybe it was also because of the sheer brutality with which the Romans destroyed others like they did to the Celtic culture or Carthage. They did not absorb much culture from the Celts did they? They couldn't repeat the same with the Germanic or Slavic peoples who ultimately replaced Roman culture.

All in all the Roman state ruled over a large area for hardly 6 centuries. During the time of Alexander's death and when Ashoka ascended to the throne ruling most of the Indian subcontinent Rome was but a small city-state in the Italian peninsula. Over the next three centuries, it conquered many territories and reached its final size. Over the next four centuries of the common era, the Roman empire not only failed to expand physically but also culturally. They could not influence the Germanic or Slavic peoples with their advanced culture which was a big failure. We have to accept that the Roman empire, advanced though it was for its time stagnated after Augustus' time. No major improvements in anything. Until it finally decayed and got destroyed in Europe, although the Eastern Roman Empire survived in the Middle East.

If not destroyed by the Romans, the Celts may have developed a complex literate civilisation soon after. The Germanic and Slavic peoples certainly did. Compared to the 6 or 7 centuries of Rome we see that Iron age cultures existed in Europe since at least 1000 BCE and bronze age cultures much before that. We only bemoan the collapse of Rome in Europe. But we fail to observe how the rest of Europe, in what is called the dark ages, actually advanced to the stage of literate civilisation. Be it modern Germany, Poland, Eastern Europe, Scotland or Ireland. Civilisation did not disappear from Europe but in fact expanded, albeit in a more degenerated state.

From all these observations, we can conclude that the distinction between ancient and medieval is pretty small in the grand scheme of things and not at all applicable outside of Europe, and even within Europe, it is not such a drastic change compared to the advent of agriculture or the advent of city-states and civilization. This focus reduces the importance of other complex Iron age cultures, like the Celtic cultures that existed across Europe, that were also incredibly complex and had many towns, urban and religious centers, ability to raise large armies and so on, although there were not still at the stage we would call civilisation. Only focusing on the Greek and Roman cultures and bemoaning the collapse of the Roman empire, maybe it is time we focus on the other fascinating cultures that existed in Europe. 

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