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Cultural Expression During The Middle Ages
During the entire Middle Ages Latin served as an international means of
communication. This common tongue provided much of the cohesion of the Middle
Ages, for virtually all the crucial communications of the church, governments,
and schools were in Latin. But any misconception that the Middle Ages were
simply "other-worldly" is shattered by glancing at the Latin poetry written
during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries by students. Known as Goliardic
verse because its authors claimed to be disciples of Goliath, their euphemism
for the devil, it unhesitatingly proclaimed the pleasures of the good life.
Let us live like gods above!
Worthy is this sentiment,
See, the hunting nets of love
Wait for those on loving bent
To our vows let us attend!
That is what the custom says.
Let us to the streets descend,
To the maidens' choruses.
Time we're wasting speedily
While to books confined,
Tender youth suggests that we
Be to fun inclined. ^3
[Footnote 3: "Adieu to Studies" in Vagabond Verse, trans. Edwin H. Zeydel
(Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1966), p. 157.]
A rising tide of literature in the vernacular, or common, tongues began
to appear by the twelfth century, with the epic as the earliest form. The
greatest of the French epics, or chansons de geste ("songs of great deeds"),
is the late eleventh century Song of Roland, which recounts the heroic deeds
and death of Count Roland in the Pyrenees while defending the rear of
Charlemagne's army. The great Spanish epic, the Poema del Mio Cid is a product
of the twelfth century. These stirring epic poems, with their accounts of
prowess in battle, mirror the warrior virtues of early chivalry.
The vernacular was also used by two of the greatest writers of the period
- Dante and Chaucer. Combining a profound religious sense with a knowledge of
scholastic thought and the Latin classics, the Italian Dante Alighieri
(1265-1321) produced one of the world's greatest and most skillfully written
narrative poems. The Divine Comedy, which Dante said described his "full
experience," is an allegory of medieval man (Dante) moving from bestial
earthiness (hell) through conversion (purgatory) to the sublime spirituality
of union with God (paradise). Dante describes how
Midway this way of life we're bound upon,
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone. ^4
[Footnote 4: L'Inferno, Canto I, lines 1-3, trans. Dorothy L. Sayers, Dante,
The Divine Comedy, I: Hell (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1949), p. 71.]
Dante then accepts the offer of Virgil, symbol of pagan learning to be
his "master, leader, and lord" to guide him through hell and purgatory. But
Beatrice, the lady whom he had once loved from afar and who is now the symbol
of divine love, guides him through paradise. At last Dante stands before God,
and words fail him as he finds peace in the presence of the highest form of
Here my powers rest from their high fantasy,
but already I could feel my being turned -
instinct and intellect balanced equally... ^5
[Footnote 5: Dante Alighieri, The Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, lines 142-144,
trans. John Ciardi (New York: Mentor Books, 1961), p. 365.]
The Wit Of Chaucer
In the Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (1340?-1400), one of the
greatest figures in medieval literature, reveals a cross section of
contemporary English life, customs, and thought. The twenty-nine pilgrims who
assembled in April 1387 at an inn before journeying to the shrine of St.
Thomas a Becket at Canterbury were a motley group. The "truly perfect, gentle
knight," just returned from warring against the "heathen in Turkey," was
accompanied by his son, a young squire who loved so much by night that "he
slept no more than does a nightingale." The clergy was represented by the coy
prioress who "would weep if she but saw a mouse caught in a trap," ^6 the
rotund monk who loved to eat fat swan and ride good horses, the friar who knew
the best taverns and all the barmaids in town, and the poor parish priest who
was a credit to his faith.
[Footnote 6: Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, trans. J. U. Nicolson (New
York: Crown Publishers, 1936), pp. 3-5.]
Chaucer's fame rests securely upon his keen interest in human nature and
his skill as a storyteller. The Midland dialect he used was the linguistic
base for the language of future English literature, just as Dante's use of the
Tuscan dialect fixed the Italian tongue.
The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Divine Comedy of Dante
represent 40.07the best intellectual expressions of the medieval spirit.
Similarly, the Gothic cathedral is the ultimate artistic expression of the
age. Each of these masterpieces represents a different aspect of the attempt
to organize everything into an overall pattern that would glorify God.
The order and form of scholastic thought find their counterparts in the
structure and style of the Gothic edifices. A scholastic treatise was
systematically arranged in logical parts; the cathedral was similarly
articulated in space. The main sections, the nave, transept, and apse, were
individually distinctive yet integrated into a coherent structure.
In the eleventh century a tremendous architectural revival occurred,
marked by the recovery of the art of building in stone rather than in wood, as
was common during the early Middle Ages. At a much later date the name
Romanesque came to be applied to this new style, because, like early Christian
architecture, it was based largely on Roman models. Although details of
structure and ornamentation differed with locality, the round arch was a
standard Romanesque feature. Both barrel and cross vaults were used,
particularly in northern Europe, where the need to build fireproof churches
made it impractical to follow the common Italian practice of using flat wooden
roofs. While there was often one long barrel vault over the nave (the part of
a church between the aisles, where the congregation assembles), the aisles
were divided into square areas or bays with a cross vault over each bay. Thick
outside walls and huge interior piers were necessary to support the heavy
stone barrel and cross vaults. Because the walls would be weakened by large
window apertures, the clerestory (the uppermost portion of the nave walls)
windows were small or nonexistent. Thus the northern Romanesque interior was
dark and gloomy, the exterior massive and monumental.
No clear distinction exists between Romanesque and Gothic architecture.
There was a gradual evolutionary process, which reached its culmination in the
thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The architects of the Gothic cathedral
developed ribbed-groin vaults with pointed rather than round arches. This
invention enabled them to solve the technical problem of cross-vaulting the
nave, which, being wider than the aisles, could not easily be divided into
square bays covered by Romanesque cross vaults. The light ribbed-groin vaults,
whose sides were of different length to fit the rectangular bays of the nave,
replaced the heavy barrel vault, and the roof of the nave could be raised to
permit the use of large clerestory windows. The thrust of the vaults over both
the nave and the aisles was concentrated on a few strong structural supports.
Part of the weight was carried down to the ground by columns within the
building, and part by flying buttresses at points along the walls. With such
vaulting and flying buttresses, the weight of the roof was largely shifted off
the walls. Large stained-glass windows were set into the walls between the
buttresses. The dark, somber interior of the Romanesque churches gave way to
the jeweled light of the Gothic interiors.
Sculpture And Painting
Most Romanesque and Gothic sculpture served an architectural function by
being carved into the total composition of a church. To use sculpture to the
best architectural advantage, the artist often distorted the subject to
achieve a particular effect. Like sculpture, medieval 45.7painting in the form
of stained-glass windows was integral part of architecture. Composed of small
pieces of colored glass held together in a pattern by metal strips, which both
braced the glass and emphasized the design, stained glass was an art whose
excellence has not been duplicated in modern times. By adding various minerals
to Molten glass, thirteenth-century craftsmen achieved brilliant hues. Details
such as hair were painted on the glass. The object, however, was not realism
but the evoking of a mood to - shine with the radiance of heaven itself.
What the cathedral was to religious life, the castle was to everyday
living. Both were havens and both were built to endure. The new weapons and
techniques of siege warfare, which the Crusaders brought back with them,
necessitated more massive castles. By the thirteenth century castle building
in Europe reached a high point of development. The towers were rounded, and
bastions stood at strategic points along the walls. The castle as a whole was
planned in such a skillful manner that if one section was taken by attackers,
it could be sealed off from the remaining fortifications. Whole towns were
fortified in the same way, with walls, watchtowers, moats, and drawbridges.
Toward the end of the Middle Ages there was less of a need for fortified
towns and castles. At the same time the wealth accruing from the revived trade
and increased industry encouraged the development of secular Gothic
architecture. Town and guild halls, the residences of the rich, and the
chateaux of the nobility all borrowed the delicate Gothic style from the