It has become usual to call the first centuries of the Christian tradition the “Patristic Period.” It is indeed the period of the founders of the church, of the “fathers” (patres)who did pioneering work in turning the Christian movement into a self-assured religious, social, and intellectual force. In the course of various feats of self-presentation and self-defense the church leaders—not all were men—gave shape to the essential contours of what became a well-circumscribed entity, Christian life and thought.
The time span covered by the Patristic Period is variously delimited. It is generally agreed that its beginning follows on the life and work of Jesus' immediate followers and thus starts with the so-called postapostolic times, roughly 100 of the common era (C.E.). As for its end and term, there is less agreement. Various dates are proposed. While the Protestant tendency is to have the Patristic Period end, and the Middle Ages begin, with Constantine (306-337), Catholic historians traditionally have preferred a much later date, as late as the eleventh century. Those who wish to count Augustine among the medieval writers have the Patristic Period end around 400; others opt for 476, the death of the last emperor of the West; or for 604 in the West, the year of the death of Gregory the Great; or 749 in the East, the year of the death of John of Damascus; or 787, the year of the seventh general council. Still others choose 632, the year of Muhammad's death, because of the radical change brought about by the Muslim irruption around the Mediterranean. The year 800, in my view, makes room for all those opinions
and underlines the European import of Charlemagne's crowning. With the year 800 a new age is dawning and a new kind of intellectual output begins to emerge, while Christianity's center of gravity decisively shifts away from the Mediterranean to northwestern Europe, marking the end of a world; at the same time, Eastern Christianity begins to turn northward to the Slavic populations.
Periodization is always subjective, especially, as in the present case, when one is faced with a conjunction of historical and literary perspectives. The formative Christian period traditionally called “the age of the fathers” designates a certain segment in time but also a certain kind of literary production. Allowing for flexibility in determining the limits of the period is quite apropos. One encounters the same flexibility, for instance, in setting the parameters to the “medieval” or “modern” periods.