It's difficult to answer this question because the term "Medieval" or "Middle Ages" was coined by scholars of European history (who had no particular interest in the Jewish experience). It referred to the period in between classical antiquity and the renaissance. Those "in between" years were viewed as a period of darkness. Hence, "Middle Ages" and "Dark Ages" became synonymous.
Jewish Historians adopted the term so that they might be in conversation with their colleagues.
(Here's a conversation that would not work:
European Historian: What era of history do you work on?
Jewish Historian: I work on the period of Geonim.
European Historian: Hmmm....?)
So, Jewish historians try to overlay the periodization schema of European history onto Jewish history. But this raises a number of problems.
First, the Jewish experience during the period that Europeans calls "The Dark Ages" was hardly dark! Of course Jews suffered terrible persecution during this era. But, this was also a period of tremendous cultural and religious flowering.
Second, Jews were not living only in Europe. Scattered across much of the Mediterranean and further east, the story of the Jews in Iraq clearly differed from those in Italy (for example). We cannot, therefore, speak of a single "Middle Ages" with one "start date" and one "end date" for all the dispersed Jewish communities.
Here's where Ivan Marcus' definition of the Jewish Middle Ages becomes useful. Rather then saying when it begins, and when it ends, Marcus identifies the features that characterize Jewish life during this period. During the Middle Ages, he explains:
- Jews lived as a minority within a "dominant host society."
- Their communities were treated as corporate units, and were largely "self-governing"
- The larger societies in which lived were "monotheistic in religious ideology" (from The State of Jewish Studies, ed. Shaye Cohen, 1990).
Taking Marcus' definition as our cue, we will begin our story with the advent of Christianity, and the advent of Islam.
But before we go back to the past, we first pause to consider: How do we learn about the past? Is the goal to "study" the past, or to "remember" it? What is the difference between these two? We will turn our attention to these matters this coming Thursday, September 27. Yosef Yerushalmi's Zakhor will ground our discussion. Be sure to have a look at the reading guide.
Wishing all of you a happy, healthy new year.