THE CIVILIZATION OF THE MIDDLE AGES - c. 700 to c. 1500
The Middle Ages is exceedingly interesting with far-reaching social, political, and economic changes. After centuries of acquiescence in a wretched and oppressed life, the peasantry of Europe began to seek an opportunity to improve their conditions. It was a time of unrest, that is shown by the outbreaks which developed all over Europe. The "Jacquerie" in France (1357-58), the rising of the Flemish weavers under Van Artevelde in Flanders (1338), the rising of the Ciompi in Florence (1378), the Peasant Revolt in England (1381) and the gallant struggle of the Swiss mountaineers.
In these times a strange medley, of superstition, and folklore passed for ''science,'' charms or sacred relics were expected to cure all ills and avert all dangers, and it was thought impious to question their efficacy. Matters were precipitated by the terrible calamity which swept across Europe in the year 1348, disregarding all frontiers, respecting no persons. This was the epidemic of bubonic plague known as the Black Death. It may have originated in China; it swept across Russia and the Crimea, and ravaged Armenia and Asia Minor. In Europe victims fell before the pestilence like autumn leaves in a gale, and in every country this terrible plague took a heavy toll of the population.
Art, literature and thought, in the fourteenth century were influenced by a new spirit an artistic flowering that began in Italy, the Renaissance, which culminated in the 16th century, and greatly influenced other parts of Europe.
ARCHITECTURE & SCULPTURE
In none of the arts is the spirit of the Middle Ages shown to better advantage than in Gothic architecture, and the noble buildings scattered over Europe are enduring monuments to all that is best in medievalism.
The first Christian churches were modelled on the ancient basilica or law-court, ( This style is known as Romanesque; the most striking instance is St. Ambrose, Milan. ) and even to-day ecclesiastical architecture bears traces of this origin. Byzantine influences super-imposed on this style the idea of a great central dome, as in the church of San Vitale at Ravenna, and more famous still, "Saint Sophia" at Byzantium . The Byzantines decorated the interior of their churches with the most glowing and richest materials they could find, so that they looked like glittering caves lined with gold and jewels.
Mohammedan architecture, too, relied on ornament for its effect. Meanwhile, Western Europe was evolving a style which had no equal for grandeur, which depended for its effect upon proportion and clean simplicity of line rather than upon exquisite workmanship. This style is distinguished by its round arches and its massive pillars supporting the "barrel"- vaulted roof: it is known to us as "Norman," and is seen to advantage on both sides of the Channel-About the twelfth century the pointed arch was introduced, and this meant a great development for it made possible the elaborate vaulting and tracery which is the distinguishing beauty of "Gothic" work. The chisel began to replace the axe, and with improved tools finer and more delicate carving of stone could be carried out. The exquisite "foliage" capitals of Lincoln and Ely Cathedrals in England, the figures of Chartres and Rheims. and the beautiful west front of Amiens all belong to this period.
In Germany and Italy, Gothic architecture did not flourish to the same extent, and here, as in France, the development of detail led to ornament for ornament's sake. In England the "decorated" style made way for a return to simpler and more constructive lines, but it was only in England that the "perpendicular" style took root; (For example, the wonderful series of "perpendicular " parish churches in Somerset) elsewhere gothic architecture became ornate and un-progressive, waiting for the Classic revival of the next century. As to military architecture, many of the great medieval fortresses remain to-day very much as they were in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, but there are still more which stand as ruins, testifying to the power which wrecked them. It is said that small cannon were first used at the battle of Crécy (1346); it was this invention of artillery and the use of gunpowder which finally destroyed the feudal castle. Nevertheless, there are still to be seen fortifications such as those of Carcassonne (in this case greatly restored), which testily to the amazing strength and solidity of the works.
Of the domestic and civic architecture of this period, little remains that has not been changed out of all recognition. It is by their churches and cathedrals and monasteries that medieval builders must be judged, and who can deny that theirs was a noble inspiration?
MUSIC & PAINTING
Those works of art, in both music and painting, which have survived from the Middle Ages, are nearly all ecclesiastical in character. Some of the folk-songs (Those sung by the German Minnesingers, for instance, in the thirteenth century, were collected and written down in the Codex Manesse) survive in traditional airs, but it is difficult to trace their provenance. From the sixth to the eleventh century, and from then till to-day with slight modification, ecclesiastical chanting followed the "Gregorian" style. Pope Gregory the Great (590 - 604) had collected all that he could find of the ancient Greek melodies, and formed the antiphonary used by the whole of the Western Church.
Musical instruments of the Middle Ages did not greatly differ from those now in use, though as might be expected, they were cruder in design. Perhaps the flute was the most popular. As far back as the fourth century Jerome (St. d. 420) described an organ, composed of fifteen brazen pipes, two air-reservoirs of elephant's skin, and twelve large sets of bellows, to imitate the voice of thunder Jerome (St.) lived in Palestine; the wind-organ he describes was not seen in France until the eighth century. It soon found imitators, and by the ninth century German organ-makers were already acquiring great renown.
Painting in the Middle Ages (as distinct from miniature painting) generally meant fresco-painting. Most church walls were adorned with frescoes illustrating Bible stories and legends of the Saints. In the days when books were few, and those who could read them fewer still, worshippers were obliged to learn from the painted and sculptured stories they saw around them in their churches, and these frescoes and carvings formed a picture-book for the unlettered.
A favourite subject for decorating the chancel arch was the Last Judgment; on one side souls being aided heaven wards by angels. on the other, being pitch-forked into the jaws of Hell (dripping blood from every tooth), painted in the most lurid colours imaginable. Not all frescoes were of this type; many are quaint and attractive, some painted before 1400 are those by Giotto (d. 1337), the shepherd-boy pupil of Cimabue (d. 1302), particularly those at Assisi, " illustrating the life of Francis." The picture of the saint preaching to the birds is one of the most precious and charming of all medieval relics.
Most of the schools in the Middle Ages were monastic foundations, and it was in the cloister that girls learned the music and needlework thought necessary for women's education, and boys were given religious instruction, and taught Latin and mathematics, and to read and write.
Those who showed promise, and who wished to become clerks and scholars, made their way to the universities to continue their studies. The word "universitas" means a corporation, and originally the university was a guild including both masters and scholars. The universities reached their greatest height in medieval times, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The greatest of them all was Paris, "the hearth where the intellectual bread of the whole world is baked." In the first half of the twelfth century students from all nations were flocking thither to hear the lectures of Peter Abelard .
Second only to Paris was Bologna; this was the home of Roman Law, while Salerno and Padua specialized in medicine. Cordova, Oxford, and Montpellier were all flourishing universities at this time, and as Latin was the language everywhere spoken and understood, it was possible for a student to pass freely from one university to another, beginning his course in one place, continuing in another, and finally taking his M.A., in a third. It would take him eight years to become a Doctor of Theology.
The universities were only casually organized at this time, and the "College" system had hardly begun to take shape. A few hostels were provided for students, generally through the generosity of some benefactor who would give or bequeath an endowment for that purpose, but as a rule the students lodged how and where they could, and attended what lectures they chose, attaching themselves to some Master of Arts who would arrange their studies and give them tuition in return for their fees. Riots often broke out between townsmen and students, and fights between scholars of different races. Someone might repeat the time-honoured jest that all Englishmen had tails, and then blows would fall thick and fast. There were always thieves and other unscrupulous persons ready to prey upon the students, to rob them and lure them into disreputable taverns where they might drink and gamble away the money intended to pay for their studies.
Many of the students were pitiably poor, and they were often given licence or permits to beg. Some broke away from the universities and roamed the countryside, earning a precarious living by their wits and by writing and singing lyrics of their own composition. Life in a medieval university was varied and full of colour, and provided a. grand training for the acute philosophical discussion which was meat and drink to the medieval mind.
A scene from the Lutterll Psalter a 14th century manuscript
As books were
scarce, and few could make use of
them, many of the songs, tales, and romances were handed down by word of mouth. This gave them great flexibility,
and accounts for the great variety and wide-spread occurrence of the most popular themes.
In the twelfth century the troubadours of Provence wove charming lyrics of love and chivalry, and their imitators wandered over Europe, singing their ballads in castle halls, at court, or by humble camp fires. In France their songs were of the "gestes" of Charlemagne and his Paladins in England of the deeds of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, or stirring Border ballads of fighting and the chase; in Iceland and Scandinavia the Heimskringla or Sagas of the Norse kings. By the middle of the twelfth century, the "Nibelungenlied" had taken its final shape in Germany, a cycle of heroic poems of great charm.
Some of these metrical romances were written down; in England we are fortunate enough to possess an example in the story of "Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight," which deserves to be far better known. Many more are irretrievably lost, or linger on only in the folk-tales which still survive in an emasculated form in the remotest corners of Europe. There are, however, certain great epics of medieval literature which are so well known as scarcely to need mention.
Pride of place must be given to the "Divine Comedy" of Dante Aligbieri (d. 1321), written in the bitterness of exile, in which he makes an imaginary journey through Hell, Hades, and Paradise in the company of his mentor, Virgil. He recognizes friends, enemies and heroes of antiquity and has left to posterity an invaluable commentary. A far greater insight into medieval history can be gained by reading the "Divine Comedy" than by perusing a dozen text-books; moreover it is among the most marvellous poems ever written.
It is significant that Dante chose to write his greatest work in the vernacular instead of the conventional Latin. This was a symptom of the increasing development of nationality over spreading Europe at the time. Some years later another Italian, Giovanni Boccaccio (d.1375) wrote also in the vernacular, a delightful collection of tales known as the Decameron. This may have suggested to the Englishman Geoffrey Chaucer (d.1400), sometimes called "the father of English poetry," his entertaining "Canterbury Tales,'' with their delicious touches of dry humour in the description of typical characters of the time. Many great names must be omitted; it must suffice to mention only one more poet, the great Petrarch, who was crowned Poet Laureate in Rome in 1341, and who stands with Boccaccio on the threshold of the Renaissance, and yet carries on the noble tradition of Dante from the Middle Ages.
THE KNOWN WORLD
Throughout the Middle Ages, geographical science was based on Ptolemy's atlas (A.D. 159) Many of his ideas were remarkably sound and he was the earliest map-maker to realize that the Caspian is an inland sea. He mapped the near East correctly, but his ideas of India and China and Africa were wrong, for he made Africa run along the southern edge of his map, and to join China, thus making the Indian Ocean an inland sea.
Medieval cartographers not only repeated Ptolemy's errors, they inserted other and stranger ones of their own. Some of the maps were square, others round, and outlying islands such as Britain had to be squeezed and altered so as to fit the shape of the map. Jerusalem, the centre of the Christian faith as Mecca was to the Moslems, was often taken as the centre of the world, and many of these "round" maps - though charmingly decorative and full of interesting detail, are horribly distorted.
The Arab geographers up to the fourteenth century, were far in advance of the Christians, and it was probably from Arab sailors that Europeans learned the use of a compass card. The use of the compass had been known to scientists in the thirteenth century, Roger Bacon, for one, but only in the guise of a magnetized needle floating on a straw. By the beginning of the next century, however, the mariner's compass was coming into general use, at any rate in Mediterranean shipping. This meant a great advance in the science of navigation, for hitherto sailors had been obliged to keep close in shore when neither sun nor stars were visible to give them direction.
Of much more practical use than the elaborate maps, often drawn by monks who had never travelled beyond their convent Walls, were the "portolani," or coast-maps made, by sailors and merchant-traders for their own guidance. These showed, not where unicorns might he found, but the location of shoals and rocks and sheltered bays, headlands, and mouths of rivers. The portolani, of which the most famous surviving example is the Laurentian Portolano of 1351, now at Florence, it give a remarkably accurate outline of the world as known at that time. They were, however despised by scholars, who preferred their own fantastic guesses. One of these imaginative maps was executed as late 1450; it is known as the Borgian Map, and may he found in the British Museum. The portolani concerned themselves only with the coast-line; they were not meant to be more than mariner's charts, and this purpose they admirably fulfilled
The discoveries of the Northmen have been noticed elsewhere but as it seems their explorations were never followed up, men forgot anything they might have heard about "Wineland the Good," or compared it with the legendary St. Brandan's Isle off the north-western coast of Ireland.
In Asia, the Friars John Carpini (1245) and William of Ruhouck (1252) had made their way across the Persian desert into the dominion of the Great Khan, and the Polo brothers had even reached Peking. Another Friar, Odoric of Pordenone, has left an amusing and valuable account of his travels in Tibet and China, undertaken between 1316 and 1330. Wars and revolutions cut short communication between East and West by this channel; the risks were too great for traders to make there way overland, and new routes would have to be found if regular communication was to be resumed. To clinch the matter the Ottoman Turks had possession of Asia Minor, and in 1453 captured Byzantium, where most merchants had made their eastern-European depots.
The Moslems had named the Atlantic "the Green Sea of Darkness," and had a honor of venturing far out upon its waters, but they had crept round the coast of the Sahara down to the Senegal River, to the country they called "Bilad Ghana" (Land of Wealth).
There were many difficulties to be overcome, beyond the superstitious terror which made men afraid of the horrible monsters they might see, and the dangers they might meet. It was said that a white-man passing Cape Bojador would immediately turn black, and that there was a magnetic mountain in the Indian Ocean which would draw the nails out of passing ships and cause them to fall to pieces and founder. Medieval ships, too, were clumsy and un-seaworthy. They were often un-decked, or protected only by tarpaulins, and were nearly round in shape so that they rolled distressingly in any swell. Most of them were single-masted and carried a large square sail. The sail area could be increased in fair weather by lacing on extra "bonnets" of canvas.
The Genoese, and afterwards the Portuguese, determined that they would push on farther down the coast until they should round the southern point of Africa and then sail due west for the Indies.