Unknown Author, historical artefact.— THE CIVILIZATION OF THE MIDDLE AGES

This text is copied from ‘The New Illustrated Universal Reference Book [Odhams Press]’ or ‘The Book of a Million Facts’, seemingly published in 1933. (Authors/editors unknown).I will give more precise details of the reference book I am copying from in future parts of this series of posts. And I will try to discover who was involved in  compiling this book I am studying:


Architecture and 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 mediævalism.

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 rugged 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(England), 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.


The Cathedral Church of Christ, Canterbury. It was begun by Lanfranc in 1070.


As to military architecture, many of the great mediæval fortresses remain to-day very much as they were in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, but there are still more which stand in 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 testify 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 mediæval builders must be judged, and who can deny that theirs was a noble inspiration?

A glimpse of Carcassonne, the finest example of a mediæval walled city.


Music and 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 example, 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 St. Jerome (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.” (This subject is treated much more fully in later chapters). St. Jerome 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.

*see “The Arts of the Middle Ages, and at the Period of the Renaissance,” P. Lacroix, p. 192. (https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015004819770;view=2up;seq=10)*

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 Judgement; on one side souls being aided heavenwards by angels, on the other, being pitchforked 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 St. Francis.” The picture of the saint preaching to the birds is one of the most precious and charming of all mediæval relics.


Here is an example of one of Giotto’s frescoes showing St. Francis preaching to the birds.


The Scriptorium.

Before the days of printed books, manuscripts were so greatly prized that they were handed down from generation to generation, and often classed as heirlooms as though they were plate or jewels. Many were of great beauty and brilliance, with illuminated borders and miniatures or “vignettes,” tiny pictures exquisitely painted. In most libraries they were chained to their stands for safety, a necessary precaution.

The manuscripts were written on parchment or vellum, for the art of paper-making, known to Egyptians and Chinese, had not yet been discovered in Western Europe. They were written on carefully-ruled sheets, with a quill pen and ink made from blackthorn bark. Initial letters were often of gold leaf, burnished till it shone, and important words were rubricated.

In the early Middle Ages, indeed up to the middle years of the fifteenth century, professional scribes are seldom found. The monasteries were the great centres of book production; one of the most famous was the scriptorium at Bobbio, and many precious MSS were written there. Some, in imitation of Byzantine models, were written in letters of gold upon purple vellum. It is to the monks as copyists and preservers of ancient classical and early Christian texts that we owe our heritage of culture; without their efforts no doubt many works would have been altogether lost to posterity.

Not all copyists, unfortunately, were good enough scholars to avoid making errors in their work; some writer might wrongly expand a contraction, the next would repeat his mistake and perhaps add others of his own, and so on. In this way, many texts became corrupt, and the human element, the physical weariness engendered by copying many pages of closely written Latin, led to the elision of words and even whole lines of the text. Before the days of printing, perfectly accurate copies were scarcely obtainable, although many of the books were things of enduring beauty, and a monument to the industry, patience and skill of their producers.

The Universities.

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 mediæval 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 form all nations were flocking thither to hear the lectures of Peter Abelard (d. 1142, one of the most brilliant of Paris theologians, who applied the test of reason to beliefs taught hitherto as matters of faith. Soon he came into conflict with the Church, represented by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, [d. 1153], and at last Abelard was driven into retirement and his words were publicly burned.)

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 form 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 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 mediæval university was varied and full of colour, and provided a grand training for the acute philosophical discussion which was meat and drink to the mediæval mind.

Medieval ploughing. Border illustration from the 14th-century Luttrell Psalter showing men on a farm ploughing with oxen. Ploughing breaks up the soil prior to planting clops. This plough is being drawn by a team of four yoked oxen. One man is guiding the oxen with a whip, the other is guiding the plough. The Luttrell Psalter is an illuminated manuscript that was produced in East Anglia, England, and dates from around the period 1325-1335. The text is in Latin, while the marginal illustrations show saints, Bible stories and everyday rural life.


     Mediæval Poetry.

As books were scarce, and few could make use of them, many of the songs, tales, and metrical romances were handed down by word of mouth. This gave them great flexibility, and accounts for the great variety and widespread 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. ( See: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14568/14568-h/14568-h.htm)

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 mediæval literature which are so well known as scarcely need to mention.

Pride of place must be given to the “Divine Comedy” of Dante Alighieri (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 mediæval 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 conventional Latin. This was a symptom of the increasing development of nationality overspreading 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.


In many ways the fourteenth century is exceedingly interesting. It holds the seeds of the period of intense mental and physical activity known to posterity as the Renaissance. From one point of view it was the apotheosis of the Middle Ages in art, in literature and in thought, yet it was the prelude to a great new phase.

It was a time of unrest, that is shown by the strange outbreak of republicanism which developed all over Europe. After centuries of acquiescence in a wretched and oppressed life, the peasantry of Europe began to demand a newer and fuller opportunity, and to cast aside bovine acquiescence and to think and act as human beings with immortal souls. The “Jacquerie” in France (1357-8), 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 above all the gallant struggle of the Swiss mountaineers, all these are instances of this new spirit.

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 and led to great social, political, and economic changes, far-reaching in their consequences.

Although the fifteenth century, an age of strange anomalies, of brilliance and squalor, although this century retained many of the most characteristic institutions and ideas of the Middle Ages, from the fourteenth century onwards it is possible to trace the growth of modern opinion, and many of the ideas claimed by the twentieth century have their origin five hundred years before.


Your email address will not be published.