Middle Ages / medieval

The Middle Ages, or medieval period, runs from roughly 500–1500 C. E., that is more or less from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance and the start of the modern era—a rather Eurocentric periodization.  Of course, the people of the era didn’t call themselves medieval or say they were living in the Middle Ages. Towards the end of the period, they would have called themselves modern, a word that is in use by 1456 in English and a century earlier in French. So when did these two terms come into use? And, while Middle Ages is a pretty obvious term for a period between two others, where did medieval come from? 

The term Middle Ages first appears in John Foxe’s 1570 edition of his Protestant martyrology, Actes and Monumentes:

Thus thou seest (gentle reader) sufficiently declared, what the Moonkes were in the primitiue tyme of the church, and what were the Moonkes of the middle age, and of these our latter dayes of the church.

It appears again in 1605 in William Camden’s “Certaine Poems,” a section of his Remaines of a Greater Worke, in which he gives samples of medieval poetry:

I will onely giue you a taste of some of midle age, which was so ouercast with darke clouds, or rather thicke fogges of ignorance, that euery little sparke of liberall learning seemed wonderfull.

Camden is already describing the period as dark and ignorant, an intellectual and social abyss between the lights of Rome and the Renaissance, an inaccurate description that present-day scholars of the period take great pains to eradicate.

Medieval, however, is a much later term, with its first known appearance in the preface to Thomas Fosbroke’s 1817 edition of his British Monachism: Or, Manners and Customs of the Monks and Nuns of England:

He professes to illustrate mediæval customs upon mediæval principles, from a persuasion, that contemporary ideas are requisite to the accurate elucidation of history.

Medieval is an alteration of the modern Latin phrase medium ævum (middle ages), which dates to 1604. The word may be modeled after the earlier primeval.

Finally, the phrase to get medieval, meaning to torture someone or otherwise become violent or aggressive, dates to Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 movie Pulp Fiction, in which the character Marsellus Wallace, played by Ving Rhames, says:

I ain’t through with you by a damn sight. I’m gonna git Medieval on your ass.


Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, s. v. medieval, adj. and n. (June 2001); middle age, n. and adj. (Sept 2002); modern, adj. and n. (Sept 2002),

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