Between 1500 and 1800 the image of the Middle Ages was mostly seen in a negative light, attacked separately or simultaneously, by the two powerful forces of humanism, the Reformation and the Enlightenment.
During the Protestant Reformations of the 16th and 17th centuries, Protestants generally agreed with the humanists view but for additional reasons. They saw classical antiquity as a golden time, not only because of the Latin literature, but because it was the early beginnings of Christianity. They saw the intervening 1000 year Middle Age as a time of darkness, not only because of lack of secular Latin literature, but because of corruption within the Church such as Popes who ruled as kings, pagan superstitions with saints relics, celibate priesthood, and institutionalized moral hypocrisy.
An example of how Protestant views shaped views of the past can be seen in the example of King John of England. In the early Victorian era King John was seen as a tyrant whose failed leadership resulted in the forced signing of the Magna Carta and loss of English holdings in Normandy. However, because King John opposed papal authority during the crisis over the appointment of Stephen Langton the Archbishop of Canterbury, Protestants saw him as a hero against the oppressive force of the Pope. In support of the Protestant interpretation of history, playwright John Bale in his 1530s drama King Johan called him "a faithful Moses" who '"withstood proud Pharaoh [the pope] for his poor Israel". This pro-John sentiment continued and eventually found its most popular voice in Shakespeare's play King John.
Voltaire was an Enlightenment writer who was particularly energetic in attacking the religiously dominated Middle Ages as a period of social stagnation and decline. His essay Essay on the Customs and Spirit of Nations (1750s) has over one-hundred chapters on the Middle Ages. He saw it as time of political failure because Europe "was divided among a countless number of petty tyrants". Feudalism was a catalyst for endless civil war. His vision of the period was barbaric. "Picture yourself", he says, "in a wilderness where wolves, tigers and foxes slaughter straggling timid cattle -- that is the portrait of Europe over the course of many centuries." Scholasticism was "systems of absurdity". The Catholic Church "has always come down in favor of crushing reason completely". Of the crusades, the fourth crusade in particular, he said "the only fruit of the Christians in their barbarous crusades was to exterminate other Christians.. led by leaders without experience or skill."
In summary, between 1500 and 1800 the Middle Ages were viewed negatively for three reasons: it failed to meet humanist (and thus classic) standards of literature and learning, it failed to meet Protestant religious judgments, and it failed to meet Enlightenment standards.
The "uncouth times that one calls the Middle Ages" (Voltaire) was followed by a revolutionary change in perspective, a change which still exists in large part to this day, and of which we are still the direct heirs. During the later 18th and 19th century the movement known as Romanticism began. One of its practitioners, poet Heinrich Heine, defined Romanticism as "nothing but the reawakening of the poetry of the Middle Ages, as it manifested itself in songs, pictures and works of art, in art and life." The Romantic image of the Middle Ages was a reaction to a world dominated by Enlightenment rationalism in which reason trumped emotion. The Romantics viewed the Middle Ages nostalgically as an era of emotion and mystery, the simple and natural--a period of social and environmental harmony and spiritual inspiration, in contrast to the excesses of the French Revolution and most of all to the environmental and social upheavals of the emerging industrial revolution.
The Romantics not only longed for the Middle Ages but endeavored to recreate it in art, literature and architecture. Painters such as the German Nazarenes (1809) or English Pre-Raphaelites (1848) advocated a return to a previous era in art. The Romantics also invented the historical novel and its foremost practitioner was Sir Walter Scott who wrote Ivanhoe (1819), a Medieval drama of knights and fair maidens and chivalry. Ivanhoe was a 19th-century best seller, nine operas were based on it, and in 1820 six different versions were playing on stage in London at the same time. In 1839, the Earl of Eglinton actually held a great tournament, the notorious Eglinton Tournament of 1839. 19th-century poetry was also heavily influenced by re-discovered and newly popular literature from the Middle Ages including the famous Brothers Grimm, who inspired Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley to write Frankenstein (1818), a classic Romantic reaction to the potential horrors of scientific discovery.
Perhaps the greatest lasting impact of the Romantics vision of the Middle Ages is in Architecture. Vast amounts of pseudo-medieval architecture were built during the 19th- and 20th-century Gothic revival. The completion of the Cologne Cathedral (1880) in Gothic style marked a new era in bringing the Medieval world into the modern. Some of the leaders of this pseudo-medieval architectural movement included Englishman August Pugin who asserted that Gothic architecture was true Christian architecture, boldly saying "The pointed arch was produced by the Catholic faith". He went on to produce important Gothic buildings such as Cathedrals at Birmingham and Southwark and the British House of Parliament in the 1840s. Viollet-le-Duc was a leading Medieval restorer in France who restored the entire walled city of Carcassonne as well as Notre-Dame and Sainte Chapelle. In America Ralph Adams Cram was a leading force in American Gothic, with his most ambitious project the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York (claimed to be the largest Cathedral in the world), as well as Collegiate Gothic buildings at Princeton Graduate College. Cram said "the style hewn out and perfected by our ancestors [has] become ours by uncontested inheritance."
One of the major themes of the Romantics was Romantic nationalism, and the image of the Middle Ages was closely tied with its rise and dominance. Theorist Johann Gottfried von Herder, an important Romantic leader, defined nationalism in ethnic terms as communities of common language. He said "Language is the principal sign of a nation [it is] the true national history of a people". To that end national epics such as The Song of Roland, Beowulf and Nibelungenlied were published for the first time and were widely read and influential. For example at one point during Germany's so-called "War of Liberation" against Napoleon in 1813-1814, at the "Battle of the Nations", the German army handed out copies of Nibelungenlied to its troops as a morale booster.
By the late 19th century pseudo-medieval symbols were the currency of European monarchal state propaganda. German emperors dressed up in and proudly displayed medieval costumes in public, and they rebuilt the great medieval castle and spiritual home of the Teutonic Order at Marienburg. Mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria built a fairy-tale castle at Neuschwanstein and decorated it with scenes from Wagner's operas, another major Romantic image maker of the Middle Ages. In England, the Middle Ages were trumpeted as the birthplace of Nations because of the Magna Carta of 1215.
In the early part of the 20th century the academic focus was on political and constitutional history as part of a drive to train governmental workers to fill the Great Society programs, which was believed to be the path to a better future for the best and brightest of society. The definition of the "Middle Ages" as opposed to the Renaissance in the early 20th century was strongly influenced by the classic works of Jacob Burckhardt and Johan Huizinga. Charles H. Haskins was a leader in the USA and was called America's first Medievalist.
In the middle part of the 20th century medievalists focused more on social and economic factors, reflecting the issues of that time. Marc Bloch was a leader in this area famously re-defining Feudalism as a social system.
Finally in the later part of the century historians began to focus on more diverse areas, such as peasants, feminism and private lives. The microhistory school pioneered by Carlo Ginzburg with his The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller (1980) is a good example of the diversity of this research, reflecting the general trends toward diversity and choice in the later part of the 20th century.