Cultural Expression During The Middle Ages

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.]

Vernacular Literature

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.

Dante Alighieri

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.

Artistic Correlation

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.

Cathedral Architecture

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.

Secular Architecture

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


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