The Medieval Period
The Middle Ages represent one of the unique periods in the history of Western civilization. Numerous social and cultural transformations that took place during that period had defined European societies and by the extension the whole Western culture for centuries to come. During this period new schools of art and architecture have often been developed under the influence of the Christian ideology that played a dominant role. Progressive political and social changes have also taken hold following the stagnation of Dark Ages. This paper will describe the most notable social, cultural and economic characteristics of the Middle Ages.
Charlemagne or Charles I was can be without a could consider as the forebears of the Middle Ages. As King of Franks Charlemagne continued the policy of his predecessors on expanding the territory of the kingdom (Sekules, 2001). While still using military force as his primary diplomacy took Charlemagne greatly emphasized on education and political unity (Chambers, 1995). Having united under his rule almost all mainland Europe Charlemagne began to spread universal rules of trade introducing the universal monetary system.
The introduction of the Latin language as the standard language of educators and state officials is among the most important contributions of the Charlemagne’s rule. The scholars of that time have innovated Latin allowing travellers and traders from all corners of the Carolingian Empire to communicate freely (Chambers, 1995). Thus, European states were once united by the same language which greatly contributed to the spread of scientific ideas (Chambers, 1995). Moreover, Charlemagne also ordered the establishment of schools realising the importance of educated people for his vast empire. In addition to spreading administration unity throughout his territories, Charlemagne also helped to establish cultural and religious unity as monks and nuns followed his military advances founding new monasteries.
The Middle Ages was also a time when new architectural schools developed. Two main classes of architecture can be distinguished during that period military and religious. New churches modelled after the Byzantine architectural style were built through the empire. Romanesque architecture style named for the obvious inspiration by Roman architecture represented a new and more progressive building technique (Janson, Janson, & Janson, 2004). Roman arch remained as the main architectural element though the structures build between 800-1100 A.D. were more elaborated and innovative.
Gothic architecture also known as the French style was a significant departure from previous styles. This style of architecture is also known as perpendicular for a larger number of straight lines used in buildings. Structures built in Gothic style were lightweight and had wider window opening with Gothic rose window becoming the signature element of the style (Janson, Janson, & Janson, 2004). A higher number of towers and pillars were also made possible due to the use of flying buttress. Gothic style was primarily used between 1200 to 1500 A.D.
One of the characteristic aspects of the Middle Ages is the dominance of Christianity and especially Catholicism in what Western Europe. The art of early medieval period originated from the heritage of the artistic schools of the Roman Empire but was greatly influenced by the iconographic style of the Christian church (Janson, Janson, & Janson, 2004). After the fall of the Western Roman Empire church remained the only institutions that preserved artistic and cultural heritage (Janson, Janson, & Janson, 2004). Gothic style described above bears evidence of significant Christian influence as it was primarily used in religious architecture. The most notable examples of the Christian influence on art could be seen in the monumental religious architecture of that period, for example, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
In music, Christina church had presented the codification of chants of the Mass that would later become the foundational basis for numerous secular songs. Music was valued greatly and patronised by the Catholic Church leading to canonic plainsong becoming one of the dominant genres of the time. Christian tradition had also left its mark in a literature of the Middle Ages with allegory that was a combination of classical and biblical writing traditions becoming the recognised trend in culture. Allegory was also used in religious literature that dominated at the time as a mean to settle discrepancies between the New and the Old Testaments. Thus, it is possible to say the Christianity through its dominant position in the society of the Middle Ages had a great impact on arts. One of the innovations in literature made under the Christian influence was known as illuminated manuscripts.
During the last period of the Middle Ages known as the Late period, several factors have contributed to cultural transition to the period know as Renaissance. Bubonic plague has devastated large cities undermining the economy forcing people to relocate to the country (Chambers, 1995). This shift in a population has allowed surviving people to establish as the new middle class adding to changes in the social landscape that were not previously seen during the feudal order of the Middle Ages (Chambers, 1995). Reintroduction of classical text and reignited interest in learning and Antiquity. Italian writer Petrarch is argued to be among the key personalities contributing to the beginning of Renaissance by inducing the will to study classic texts.
Several examples of art and architecture of the Middle Ages could be named as extensively influential and outstanding. Notre Dame Cathedral is one of the best examples of the Gothic architecture that is widely known around the world (Sekules, 2001). The construction of the cathedral lasted for more than a century. The rose window on the northern part of the cathedral is one of the finest examples Rayonnant style of Gothic architecture. The statue of the Virgin Mary and Child attributed to Netherlandish artist Claus de Werve represents a fine example of returning tendency for naturalism in human depiction. Moreover, the interest toward the Virgin Mary was reinforced by the Catholic church. The Book of Hours is another example of influential art. The book can be characterised as Christian and was written in Latin (Sekules, 2001). The pages of each book were exquisitely decorated in a style known as illuminated manuscript where bright colours were introduced using precious metals such as gold.
To conclude everything mentioned above, the Middle Ages was a period in the history of Europe characterized by fundamental changes in all spheres of life. Administrative and political changes went hand in hand with cultural innovations. The Christian church has played a significant role contributing to arts and preservation of classic texts. As a result of accumulated cultural and social changes the Middle Ages gave way for innovations of the Renaissance.
Chambers, M. (1995). The Western experience. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Janson, H., Janson, A., & Janson, H. (2004). History of art. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson/Prentice-Hall.
Sekules, V. (2001). Medieval art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.