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Well, not exactly the terms "high" and "low" but the corresponding translations.

Let's take for example the Middle Ages. The periodisation in English splits the Middle Ages in 3:

  • Early Middle Ages
  • High Middle Ages
  • Late Middle Ages

However, in Spanish it's splitted in 2:

  • Alta Edad Media
  • Baja Edad Media

"Alta" means "high" and "baja" means "low". I also understand that this is the case too in Italian and French.

What strikes me is the somehow counterintuitive use of the term "high" to a early period and "low" to a late one. To me, it makes more sense the other way around.

Here some possible etymological reason are discussed (in Spanish), but with no conclusion. The most likely one is that "high" means that, during the first part, some important features of the period rises and prospers (going high) until reaching its peak, giving place to a decadent second part (going low). I wonder if historians support this idea or can give another explanation.

There is also mentioned that the use seems to be relatively new, since Google Ngram suggests it was first used during the 1890's.

closed as off-topic by user69715, justCal, Steve Bird, John Dallman, axsvl77 Jan 24 '17 at 11:39

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  • 1
    It would help if your English examples actually matched your question. I can't think of a single one where "low" refers to "late" for historical periods (geological eras on the other hand...) – Marakai Jan 23 '17 at 23:17
  • I'm not sure this is a history question... more a question of linguistics. – Mark C. Wallace Jan 23 '17 at 23:57
  • Well @Mark C. Wallace, you are right, since now, after Brasidas answer, I know there is a linguistics explanation... but I didn't know that when asking and, since I couldn't find an answer in the Spanish Stack Exchange site I came here checking whether there was a history related explanation. – matiascelasco Jan 24 '17 at 0:07
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    It may be a question of linguistics, but it's also about historiography, as those are the accepted official terms in Spanish. I concur with @matiascelasco that they're counterintuitive and, imho, worth an explanation. – Brasidas Jan 24 '17 at 1:07
  • @Brasidas The word 'high" denotes "the height of", i.e. "High Middle Ages" is the height of the medieval period. Not in the sense that it's a great time (so not because of this nonsense about "economic/population expansion"), but rather in the sense that it's peak Medieval-ness - i.e., it's the period after Europe fully transitioned out of Late Antiquity, but before the evolution into Early Modernity began. Which is also why it's obviously not because "time flows from high to low" - if that were the case the High Middle Ages wouldn't be preceded by the Early Medieval Ages. – Semaphore Aug 17 '17 at 11:05
4

The Spanish Wikipedia article on the Middle Ages addresses this.

La Baja Edad Media es un término que a veces produce confusión, pues procede de un equívoco etimológico entre alemán y castellano: baja no significa decadente, sino reciente; por oposición al alta de la Alta Edad Media, que significa antigua (en alemán alt: viejo, antiguo).

Translation:

The Baja Edad Media is a term that sometimes leads to confusion, because it comes from an etymological misunderstanding between the German and Spanish: baja doesn't mean decadent, but recent; as opposed to the alta of the Alta Edad Media, that means old (in German alt: old, ancient).

In this case, the German "alt" (old) and the Spanish "alto/alta" (high) are false friends.

Wikipedia cites as a source for this the book Historia del mundo sin los trozos aburridos by Fernando Garcés ("Wold History without the boring parts").

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    I can't believe I missed that paragraph when checking Wikipedia. Thanks! – matiascelasco Jan 24 '17 at 0:09
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The answer is much simpler than the two proposed above. Just common sense. On Earth, because of gravity, things fall from top to bottom. For instance rivers floes from a higher altitude to the lower ones. Think of the two French departments of Haut-Rhin (in the south) and Bas-Rhin (in the north): Rhine flows from South to North. Or upper Egypt (in the South) and lower Egypt (in the North): the Nile also flows from South to North.

By analogy, everything that flows, is deemed to flow from higher to lower places. This applies especially well to time. Since time always move in one direction, from ancient periods to more recent ones, the ancient periods are deemed "high", "higher", "upper", "hautes" in French, the more recent ones "low", "lower", "basses" in French. It is only natural, and applies universally: "le haut moyen-âge" in French, "Alta edad media" in Spanish mean the first part of the middle age. The "high antiquity" means the very ancient one. You may often find sentences like "to find this elaborated artifact at such a high date is surprising", where "high date" means, of course "ancient", etc.

--

To discuss briefly the two answers above, let me say that no, "high" and "low" in history don't mean "expansion, progress, height" and "depression, regression". No more than "upper Egypt" means "a better Egypt" than "lower Egypt". Of course, "low" may still keep slightly the somewhat pejorative connotation it has in ordinary language, which is why historians of various "low periods" prefer using other terms, like "late" (in France, historians of the "basse-antiquité" now talks about "antiquité tardive"). Of course, historians of "high periods" seem to be happy with the name of their field.

As for Brasidas' answer, the explanation, despite its Wikipedia sourcing, doesn't make any sense (a false etymology of "alta" in Spanish meaning high wrongly interpreted as "alt" in German meaning "old"). For as noted by the OP, the same thing applies to several languages, English, French, Spanish and many others.

  • That seems to make sense. However, in science fiction stories about time travel, the words "uptime" and "downtime" are sometimes used in a directional sense, and usually in the opposite way from what your answer would suggest, namely, uptime = futureward and downtime = pastward. – bof Jan 24 '17 at 11:26
  • Very interesting idea. Not sure if it's that obvious or common sense as you said, but yeah, it's possible. It would be great if you could quote some source other than your own reasoning. – matiascelasco Jan 24 '17 at 18:28
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The term "High" in history literally means that - the height of something. The High Middle Ages was a time of population and economic expansion, which ended with events like the Black Death, wars and famine.

Another example is the High Renaissance, a short period contemporaneous with the lives of Da Vinci and Michelangelo, and ended with the sack of Rome in 1527.

Such terms are subjective by nature. A particularly egregious example is the Dark Ages, which makes no sense when you look outside Europe e.g. the Islamic world. Historians use the term Early Middle Ages instead.

The Spanish Alta/Baja pair is explained in the other answer - it has nothing to do with "High" at all.

  • The term "dark ages" makes little sense even if used exclusively for Europe. They were called dark because little information survived, nor because it was some excessively evil period (compared to other historical periods or regions) – vsz Jan 24 '17 at 7:02

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