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The Middle Ages of the Social Sciences

At the turn of the nineteenth century, the Middle Ages, both as a concept and as a period, became a point of reference for the historical sciences. The process of periodization through which European societies conceived themselves as “modern” produced an historical representation of alterity: the “middle” age that Renaissance thinkers conceived as the millennium separating them from Antiquity. In a temporal framework that was oriented towards the Revolution and industrialization, the Middles Ages were conceived of negatively. However, Romanticism and the Anti-Enlightenment singled them out as an emblem of a lost paradise, that is, a united, Christian society. These imagined Middles Ages, fleshed out by arts and literature, played a significant role in the reorganization of the sciences that took place over the nineteenth century, giving rise to the modern system of disciplines.

In history, literary studies, linguistics and philosophy, medieval studies were deeply renewed. Scientific endeavors in medieval studies gave rise to the gradual integration of medieval disciplines into the university, the creation of journals and the establishment of societies dedicated to the study of the Middle Ages, as well as the organization of international congresses. These undertakings played out on two fronts. First, the Catholic Church promoted the Middle Ages both as a moral and a scientific age. On August 4, 1879, in the encyclical Aeterni patris, Leo XIII defended the value of “Christian philosophy” for modern societies. He thereby expressed a broad intellectual and social trend towards the rehabilitation of medieval thought. In his lessons at the

On a second front, the medieval studies that had been institutionalized in the nineteenth century were challenged by the growing interest in the Middle Ages showed by practitioners of new university disciplines, notably sociology, historical anthropology and political science—intellectual endeavors that were not deprived of conservative agendas. To the eyes of Marcel Mauss, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, Ferdinand Tönnies, and Georg Simmel, the Middle Ages, seen as the flipside of modernity, provided a field for experimentation.1 The interest in religion defined as an interpretation system and a “total social fact”, on the one hand, and, on the other, the foundational distinction between modern society (Gesellschaft) and primitive or medieval community (Gemeinschaft) made the Middle Ages, seen as religious, communitarian and corporatist, a core issue in anthropology and sociology.

The Middle Ages have nourished the social sciences and humanities (SSH), from history to psychoanalysis, both … READ MORE

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