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The Twisted Phenomena and Strange Features of Medieval Art

The Twisted Phenomena and Strange Features of Medieval Art

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Why would knights be fighting snails? Medieval art is a complex weave of surreal, bizarre and sometimes disturbing imagery and artists took creative license to a whole new experimental level. With increased global traveling, reports of bizarre creatures and strange phenomena from the new-found lands grew more popular, but what exactly did people see out there in the mountains, oceans and skies that lead to some of mythologies’ most famous dragons, serpents and even UFO attacks?

Illustration of a winged, fire-breathing dragon. Friedrich Justin Bertuch

Sky Phenomena: UFO Attack?

Medieval art presents some pretty bizarre phenomena in the skies, particularly illustrated in a woodcut by artist Hans Glaser depicting a: “sky filled with different shaped objects. Again there were disks. There were also long tubes, bulbous crosses, and arcing streaks.”

Prodigious event over Nuremberg , Germany on April 14, 1561. Hans Glaser woodcut (1566). While this is most often presented as a historical UFO sighting, scientists maintain these types of images are representations of Aurora borealis or Sun dogs (Parhelion). ( Public Domain) .

This woodcut depicted a scene that many thousands of eye-witnesses saw above Nuremburg where ‘tubes and crosses’ began to fight one another and shoot fire at each other. A broadsheet article published on April 14, AD 1561 describes a ‘mass sighting of UFOs’ by residents of Nuremberg who reported seeing: “objects of various shapes including crosses, globes, two lunar crescents, a black spear and tubular objects from which several smaller, round objects emerged and darted around the sky at dawn.” What is more, after this lightshow: ‘a large black triangular object’ appeared in the sky and crashed outside the city limits. The broadsheet also claims witnesses observed: “hundreds of spheres, cylinders and other odd-shaped objects that moved erratically overhead.”

In 1566, a similar celestial phenomenon was reported over Basel, Switzerland and The Basel Pamphlet describes “unusual sunrises and sunsets” and phenomena “fighting together” in the form of numerous red and black balls in the sky before the rising sun. ( Public Domain) .

So, if the sightings in Basel and Nuremberg were not alien visitors, what then did the people see in the sky? Surely this is beyond the realms of a mass hallucination? Military historians maintain that the tubes were cannons and the spheres were cannonballs, a theory which is supported in the black spearhead at the bottom of the scene.

Romanticism - History and Concepts

The term Romanticism was first used in Germany in the late 1700s when the critics August and Friedrich Schlegal wrote of romantische Poesie ("romantic poetry"). Madame de Staël, an influential leader of French intellectual life, following the publication of her account of her German travels in 1813, popularized the term in France. In 1815 the English poet William Wordsworth, who became a major voice of the Romantic movement and who felt that poetry should be "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings," contrasted the "romantic harp" with the "classic lyre." The artists that considered themselves part of the movement saw themselves as sharing a state of mind or an attitude toward art, nature, and humanity but did not rely on strict definitions or tenets. Bucking established social order, religion, and values, Romanticism became a dominant art movement throughout Europe by the 1820s.

Literary Predecessors

An early prototype of Romanticism was the German movement Sturm und Drang, a term usually translated as "storm and stress." Though it was primarily a literary and musical movement from the 1760s to the 1780s, it had a great impact and influence on public and artistic consciousness. Emphasizing emotional extremes and subjectivity, the movement took its name from the title of the play Romanticism (1777) by Friedrich Maxmilian Klinger.

The most famous advocate of the movement was the German writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) became a cultural phenomenon. Depicting the emotionally anguished story of a young artist who, in love with the woman who is engaged and then married to the artist's friend, commits suicide, the novel's popularity caused what came to be called "Werther Fever," as young men adopted the protagonist's clothing and manner. Some copycat suicides even occurred, and countries like Denmark and Italy banned the novel. Goethe himself renounced the novel as he later turned away from any association with Romanticism in favor of a classical approach. Nevertheless, the idea of the artist as a solitary genius, emotionally anguished, whose originality and imagination was spurned by the rational world, gripped public consciousness, becoming a model for the romantic hero of the subsequent era.

In the 1800s the British poet Lord Gordon Byron became a celebrity upon the publication of his Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812), and the term "Byronic hero," was coined to denote the figure of the lone and brooding genius, torn between his best and worst traits.

Romanticism in the Visual Arts

Both the English poet and artist William Blake and the Spanish painter Francisco Goya have been dubbed "fathers" of Romanticism by various scholars for their works' emphasis on subjective vision, the power of the imagination, and an often darkly critical political awareness. Blake, working principally in engravings, published his own illustrations alongside his poetry that expressed his vision of a new world, creating mythical worlds full of gods and powers, and sharply critiquing industrial society and the oppression of the individual. Goya explored the terrors of irrationality in works like his Black Paintings (1820-23), which conveyed the nightmarish forces underlying human life and events.

In France, the painter Antoine-Jean Gros influenced the artists Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix who subsequently led and developed the Romantic movement. Chronicling the military campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte in paintings like Bonaparte Visits the Plague Stricken in Jaffa (1804), Gros emphasized the emotional intensity and suffering of the scene.

Théodore Géricault's painting The Raft of the Medusa (1819) and Eugene Delacroix's The Barque of Dante (1822) brought Romanticism to the attention of a larger public. Both paintings scandalized the Paris Salons that they were exhibited in, Géricault in 1820 and Delacroix in 1822. Deviating from the Neoclassical style favored by the Academy and using contemporary subject matter outraged the Academy and the larger public. The depiction of emotional and physical extremity and varied psychological states would become the hallmarks of French Romanticism .

Following Géricault's early death in 1824, Delacroix became the leader of the Romantic movement, bringing to it his emphasis on color as a mode of composition and the use of expressive brushwork to convey feeling. As a result, by the 1820s Romanticism had become a dominant art movement throughout the Western world.

In England, Germany, and the United States, the leading Romantic artists focused primarily on landscape, as seen in the works of the British artist John Constable, the German Caspar David Friedrich, and the American Thomas Cole, but always with the concern of the individual's relation to nature.

A Revolutionary Movement

Largely developing during the French Revolution, Romanticism was allied with a revolutionary and rebellious spirit. The rule of reason and law of the Enlightenment was perceived as confining and mechanistic. As a result, artists turned to scenes of rebellion and protest. Géricault intended The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19), inspired by a true account of a shipwreck, as an indictment of the French government's policies that led to the tragedy. Similarly, Turner's The Slave Ship (1840) was intended to influence the British government into a more active abolition policy. Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People (1830) was created to support the uprising of the people of Paris against the restoration government of Charles X. Delacroix also painted a number of works depicting the Greek fight for independence against the Ottoman Empire. His Scène des massacres de Scio (Massacre at Chios) (1824) depicts the survivors of a massacre that occurred when the Ottoman Empire conquered an island of rebellious Greeks and killed or enslaved most of the inhabitants.

The Sublime

In 1756, the English philosopher Edmund Burke published A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, and in 1790, the German philosopher Emanuel Kant, who explored the relationship between the human mind and experience, developed Burke's notions in Critique of Judgment. The idea of The Sublime came to hold a central place in much of Romanticism in order to counter Enlightenment rationality. Burke explained, "The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature . . . is Astonishment and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other." To experience the sublime, one does not just experience something beautiful but something that overtakes one's rational sense of objectivity. The awe and terror experienced by observing a great storm or an infinite vista make the individual contemplate his or her place in the natural world. This state, though, necessitates that one is at some remove from what one is seeing, that one is not in danger of being physically harmed by the storm or lost in the wilderness. When one tries to comprehend the boundlessness, or formlessness, of nature's power, one feels overwhelmed emotionally. The experience of the sublime triggers self-examination that was crucial to Romanticism. Many Romantic painters sought to evoke the sublime in their landscape paintings, portraying stormy seas and skies witnessed by a solitary individual.


As early as the Renaissance, artists depicted the Middle East through exoticized images, as reflected in The Reception of the Ambassadors in Damascus (1511) by an anonymous Venetian painter. As the art critic Andrew Graham Dixon described, the painting attempted to compress all that made Damascus "vivid and strange, to Venetian eyes, within the scope of a single canvas: figures in turbans a laden camel on its way to the bazaar the great Mosque the citadel the public baths private houses and their distinctive, lush walled gardens." In the 19 th century a fascination with Middle-Eastern subjects overtook both Neoclassical and Romantic painting, as seen in treatments of the nude like Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres' Grande Odalisque (1814), or the popularity of harem scenes like Delacroix's The Women of Algiers (1834). Romantic painters projected desires, fears, and the unknown into their depictions of African and Middle Eastern scenes.

Subsequently, scholars have reevaluated these depictions of an exoticized Middle East. The cultural critic and historian Edward Said coined the term "Orientalism" with his influential book, Orientalism (1978). Said argued that in its depictions of the Middle East, Western art and literature showed a "subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture." This prejudice was reflected in stereotypical depictions of Middle Eastern culture and people as primitive, irrational, and exotic.

About The Author

Mary Ann Sures

Mary Ann Sures is an art historian who has lectured extensively, beginning in the early 1960s, on the application of Objectivist esthetics to the visual arts. She did graduate work in art history at the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University and at Hunter College, from which she received an M.A. She taught art history at New York University (Washington Square College) and at Hunter College. She is co-author with her late husband, Charles, of Facets of Ayn Rand, a memoir of their longtime friendship with Ayn Rand and her husband, Frank O’Connor.

See also Ramses II. c. 1250 B.C. Open Air Museum, Memphis, Egypt. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it

2 Statue of a Youth (Kouros). c. 590&ndash580 B.C. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it also, different views can be selected by clicking the small images found below the main image.

3 Polykleitos. Doryphorus (Spear Bearer). Roman copy after a bronze original of c. 450&ndash440 B.C. National Archeological Museum, Naples. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.

4 Nike Fastening Her Sandal. c. 410 B.C. Relief from the parapet of the Temple of Athena Nike, Acropolis Museum, Athens.

6 Attributed to Praxiteles. Hermes with the Infant Dionysus (head and torso). c. 340 B.C. National Archaeological Museum, Olympia. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.

7 Last Judgment. c. 1130&ndash1145. St. Lazare, Autun. Note especially the central figure of Christ.

8 Isaiah. c. 1150. Sainte Marie de Souillac, Souillac.

9 Eve, from St. Lazare, Autun. c. 1130. Musée Rolin, Autun.
See also detail of head, Eve.

10 Detail of the Damned, from the Last Judgment. c. 1140&ndash1145. St. Lazare, Autun.

11 Roettgen Pietà. c. 1325&ndash1360. Rheinisches Landesmuseum (formerly Provincial Museum), Bonn.

12 Donatello. St. George. 1415&ndash1417. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.

13 Botticelli. The Birth of Venus. c. 1482. Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.

15 Michelangelo. David. 1501&ndash1504. Academy, Florence. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.

16 Michelangelo. Dying Slave. 1513&ndash1516. Louvre, Paris. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.

See also detail of head and torso, Dying Slave. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.

17 Michelangelo. Rondanini Pietà. 1564. Sforza Castle, Milan. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.

18 Auguste Rodin. She Who Was Once the Helmet-Maker&rsquos Beautiful Wife, also called The Courtesan. Modeled 1887, this bronze cast 1910. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.

19 Auguste Rodin. Eve. Modeled 1881, this bronze cast 1911. Rodin Museum, Paris. Note: This image can be enlarged by hovering the mouse over it also, different views can be selected by clicking on the small images found below the main image.

20 Auguste Rodin. The Thinker. Modeled 1880, this bronze cast 1903. Rodin Museum, Paris. Note: This image can be enlarged by clicking on it.

21 Standing Female Figure. Late 19th century. Democratic Republic of the Congo. Brooklyn Museum. Note: The figure described in the article is not available on the Internet however, this figure is similar in many respects.

22 Male Figure. Early 19th century. Easter Island. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Note: The figure described in the article is not available on the Internet however, this figure is similar in many respects.

23 The figure described in the article is not available on the Internet. However, it is similar to the male figure referenced in footnote 22 above.

28 Leslie Thornton. Crucifix. 1958. Private collection. Note: The referenced image is fifth from the top of the page.

Why babies in medieval paintings look like ugly old men

To find the answer, I spoke to Matthew Averett, an art history professor at Creighton University who edited the anthology The Early Modern Child in Art and History. But really, just how ugly are these babies?

Ugly might be too weak a word for medieval babies

These babies look like horrifying tiny men with high cholesterol and strong opinions about housing association rules.

They're babies like this one from 1350:

This 1350 baby in "Madonna of Veveri" by the Master of the Vyssi Brod Altar looks like he's about to be fired for sexual harassment.

Painted in 1333 in Italy, Paolo Veneziano's "Madonna With Child" makes this baby look slightly too creepy for a David Lynch movie.

Paolo Veneziano/Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images

These scary man-babies make one wonder how we went from ugly medieval depictions to the recognizably cherubic babies of the Renaissance and today. You can use the slider below to see just how much our idea of a "baby face" has changed:

So why were there so many ugly babies? The reasons turned out to say a lot about art, medieval culture, and even the way we think of children today.

Were medieval artists just bad at drawing?

This ugly baby by Jacopo Bellini is actually from the 15th century, but he's an example of the medieval baby style. He looks like he was just accused of violating insider trading laws.

These ugly babies were very intentional. Drawing a line between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is a useful tool when considering ugly babies and significantly more lovable ones. The two eras tend to show a difference in values.

"If we're thinking about children in a fundamentally different light, the painting will reflect the attitudes," Averett says.

"Style is chosen," he continues. "We might look at medieval art and go, 'These people don't look right.' But if your goal is to look like Picasso and you make a realistic painting, they'd say you didn't do it right, either." Though there were artistic innovations that came with the Renaissance, they aren't the reason babies became better-looking.

(Ugly baby note: Generally, people believe the Renaissance began in Florence, Italy, in the 14th century and rippled outward from there. However, like any intellectual movement, that characterization is simultaneously overly broad and narrow: It's too broad in that it gives the impression that Renaissance values were everywhere, instantly, and it's too narrow in that it limits a mass movement to a single pocket of innovation. There were holes in the Renaissance — you might easily see an ugly baby in 1521, if the artist were committed to the style.)

We can break down the following two reasons for the man-babies of medieval art:

    Most of those medieval babies were depictions of Jesus. The concept of the homuncular Jesus affected how children were portrayed.

Medieval portraits of children were usually commissioned by churches. And that made the range of subjects limited to Jesus and a few other biblical babies. Medieval concepts of Jesus were deeply influenced by the homunculus, which literally means little man. "There's the idea that Jesus was perfectly formed and unchanged," Averett says, "and if you combine that with Byzantine painting, it became a standard way to depict Jesus. In some of these images, it looks like he had male pattern baldness."

This baby by Barnaba da Modena (active 1361 to 1383) looks like it's about to have a midlife crisis.

That homuncular, adult-looking Jesus became a convention for painting all children. Over time, it simply became the right way that people thought that they should paint babies.

This unrealistic depiction of Jesus reflects a broader approach to medieval art: They were less interested in realism or idealized forms than Renaissance artists were.

"The strangeness that we see in medieval art stems from a lack of interest in naturalism, and they veered more toward expressionistic conventions," Averett says.

In turn, this made most of the people in medieval art look similar. "The idea of artistic freedom to depict these people however you want would have been new. There were artistic conventions."

That style of painting kept babies looking like out-of-shape soccer dads, at least until the Renaissance happened.

How the Renaissance made babies beautiful again

A nice cute baby painted by Raphael in 1506.

Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

So what changed to make babies cute again?

    Non-religious art flourished — and people didn't want their own babies looking like creepy men

In the Middle Ages, "we see less art of the middle class or even the common people," Averett says.

Once the Renaissance happened, that began to change as Florence's middle class flourished, and people were able to afford portraits of their own children. As portraiture expanded, people wanted their babies to look like cute babies instead of ugly adult homunculi. That changed the norms for a lot of art, including, eventually, portrayals of Jesus.

"In the Renaissance," Averett says, "there's this new interest in observing nature and depicting things as they're actually seen" rather than the expressionist attitudes of earlier art. That included more realistic babies — and beautiful cherubs that picked the best features drawn from real people.

Averett cautions against reading too much into the changing role of children in the Renaissance world — parents in the Middle Ages didn't love their kids any differently than Renaissance parents did. But during the Renaissance, a transformation of the idea of children was underway: from tiny adults to uniquely innocent creatures.

"We later have this idea of children being innocent," Averett notes. "If children are born without sin, they can't know things."

As adult attitudes toward children changed, so did adult portrayals of kids. Ugly babies (or beautiful ones) are a reflection of how a society thinks about their kids, about art, and about their goals as parents.

Why we still want our babies to be beautiful

With all those factors combined, babies became the cheek-pinchable figures we know today. And that's easy for modern viewers like us to understand, since we still have some post-Renaissance ideals about kids.

That's why, to our eyes, it's a good thing baby pictures changed. Because this is a face only a mother could love:

This 1304 Icon from Bitonto shows a baby that looks like he wouldn't want to play peekaboo.

WATCH: How infants can learn to save their own lives

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The Middle Ages is one of the three major periods in the most enduring scheme for analysing European history: classical civilisation or Antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Modern Period. [1] The "Middle Ages" first appears in Latin in 1469 as media tempestas or "middle season". [2] In early usage, there were many variants, including medium aevum, or "middle age", first recorded in 1604, [3] and media saecula, or "middle centuries", first recorded in 1625. [4] The adjective "medieval" (or sometimes "mediaeval" [5] or "mediæval"), [6] meaning pertaining to the Middle Ages, derives from medium aevum. [5]

Medieval writers divided history into periods such as the "Six Ages" or the "Four Empires", and considered their time to be the last before the end of the world. [7] When referring to their own times, they spoke of them as being "modern". [8] In the 1330s, the Italian humanist and poet Petrarch referred to pre-Christian times as antiqua (or "ancient") and to the Christian period as nova (or "new"). [9] Petrarch regarded the post-Roman centuries as "dark" compared to the "light" of classical antiquity. [10] Leonardo Bruni was the first historian to use tripartite periodisation in his History of the Florentine People (1442), with a middle period "between the fall of the Roman Empire and the revival of city life sometime in late eleventh and twelfth centuries". [11] Tripartite periodisation became standard after the 17th-century German historian Christoph Cellarius divided history into three periods: ancient, medieval, and modern. [4]

The most commonly given starting point for the Middle Ages is around 500, [12] with the date of 476 first used by Bruni. [11] [A] Later starting dates are sometimes used in the outer parts of Europe. [14] For Europe as a whole, 1500 is often considered to be the end of the Middle Ages, [15] but there is no universally agreed upon end date. Depending on the context, events such as the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453, Christopher Columbus's first voyage to the Americas in 1492, or the Protestant Reformation in 1517 are sometimes used. [16] English historians often use the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 to mark the end of the period. [17] For Spain, dates commonly used are the death of King Ferdinand II in 1516, the death of Queen Isabella I of Castile in 1504, or the conquest of Granada in 1492. [18]

Historians from Romance-speaking countries tend to divide the Middle Ages into two parts: an earlier "High" and later "Low" period. English-speaking historians, following their German counterparts, generally subdivide the Middle Ages into three intervals: "Early", "High", and "Late". [1] In the 19th century, the entire Middle Ages were often referred to as the "Dark Ages", [19] but with the adoption of these subdivisions, use of this term was restricted to the Early Middle Ages, at least among historians. [7]

The Roman Empire reached its greatest territorial extent during the 2nd century AD the following two centuries witnessed the slow decline of Roman control over its outlying territories. [21] Economic issues, including inflation, and external pressure on the frontiers combined to create the Crisis of the Third Century, with emperors coming to the throne only to be rapidly replaced by new usurpers. [22] Military expenses increased steadily during the 3rd century, mainly in response to the war with the Sasanian Empire, which revived in the middle of the 3rd century. [23] The army doubled in size, and cavalry and smaller units replaced the Roman legion as the main tactical unit. [24] The need for revenue led to increased taxes and a decline in numbers of the curial, or landowning, class, and decreasing numbers of them willing to shoulder the burdens of holding office in their native towns. [23] More bureaucrats were needed in the central administration to deal with the needs of the army, which led to complaints from civilians that there were more tax-collectors in the empire than tax-payers. [24]

The Emperor Diocletian (r. 284–305) split the empire into separately administered eastern and western halves in 286 the empire was not considered divided by its inhabitants or rulers, as legal and administrative promulgations in one division were considered valid in the other. [25] [B] In 330, after a period of civil war, Constantine the Great (r. 306–337) refounded the city of Byzantium as the newly renamed eastern capital, Constantinople. [26] Diocletian's reforms strengthened the governmental bureaucracy, reformed taxation, and strengthened the army, which bought the empire time but did not resolve the problems it was facing: excessive taxation, a declining birthrate, and pressures on its frontiers, among others. [27] Civil war between rival emperors became common in the middle of the 4th century, diverting soldiers from the empire's frontier forces and allowing invaders to encroach. [28] For much of the 4th century, Roman society stabilised in a new form that differed from the earlier classical period, with a widening gulf between the rich and poor, and a decline in the vitality of the smaller towns. [29] Another change was the Christianisation, or conversion of the empire to Christianity, a gradual process that lasted from the 2nd to the 5th centuries. [30] [31]

In 376, the Goths, fleeing from the Huns, received permission from Emperor Valens (r. 364–378) to settle in the Roman province of Thracia in the Balkans. The settlement did not go smoothly, and when Roman officials mishandled the situation, the Goths began to raid and plunder. [C] Valens, attempting to put down the disorder, was killed fighting the Goths at the Battle of Adrianople on 9 August 378. [33] In addition to the threat from such tribal confederacies in the north, internal divisions within the empire, especially within the Christian Church, caused problems. [34] In 400, the Visigoths invaded the Western Roman Empire and, although briefly forced back from Italy, in 410 sacked the city of Rome. [35] In 406 the Alans, Vandals, and Suevi crossed into Gaul over the next three years they spread across Gaul and in 409 crossed the Pyrenees Mountains into modern-day Spain. [36] The Migration Period began, when various peoples, initially largely Germanic peoples, moved across Europe. The Franks, Alemanni, and the Burgundians all ended up in northern Gaul while the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes settled in Britain, [37] and the Vandals went on to cross the strait of Gibraltar after which they conquered the province of Africa. [38] In the 430s the Huns began invading the empire their king Attila (r. 434–453) led invasions into the Balkans in 442 and 447, Gaul in 451, and Italy in 452. [39] The Hunnic threat remained until Attila's death in 453, when the Hunnic confederation he led fell apart. [40] These invasions by the tribes completely changed the political and demographic nature of what had been the Western Roman Empire. [37]

By the end of the 5th century the western section of the empire was divided into smaller political units, ruled by the tribes that had invaded in the early part of the century. [41] The deposition of the last emperor of the west, Romulus Augustulus, in 476 has traditionally marked the end of the Western Roman Empire. [13] [D] By 493 the Italian peninsula was conquered by the Ostrogoths. [42] The Eastern Roman Empire, often referred to as the Byzantine Empire after the fall of its western counterpart, had little ability to assert control over the lost western territories. The Byzantine emperors maintained a claim over the territory, but while none of the new kings in the west dared to elevate himself to the position of emperor of the west, Byzantine control of most of the Western Empire could not be sustained the reconquest of the Mediterranean periphery and the Italian Peninsula (Gothic War) in the reign of Justinian (r. 527–565) was the sole, and temporary, exception. [43]

New societies

The political structure of Western Europe changed with the end of the united Roman Empire. Although the movements of peoples during this period are usually described as "invasions", they were not just military expeditions but migrations of entire peoples into the empire. Such movements were aided by the refusal of the Western Roman elites to support the army or pay the taxes that would have allowed the military to suppress the migration. [44] The emperors of the 5th century were often controlled by military strongmen such as Stilicho (d. 408), Aetius (d. 454), Aspar (d. 471), Ricimer (d. 472), or Gundobad (d. 516), who were partly or fully of non-Roman background. When the line of Western emperors ceased, many of the kings who replaced them were from the same background. Intermarriage between the new kings and the Roman elites was common. [45] This led to a fusion of Roman culture with the customs of the invading tribes, including the popular assemblies that allowed free male tribal members more say in political matters than was common in the Roman state. [46] Material artefacts left by the Romans and the invaders are often similar, and tribal items were often modelled on Roman objects. [47] Much of the scholarly and written culture of the new kingdoms was also based on Roman intellectual traditions. [48] An important difference was the gradual loss of tax revenue by the new polities. Many of the new political entities no longer supported their armies through taxes, instead relying on granting them land or rents. This meant there was less need for large tax revenues and so the taxation systems decayed. [49] Warfare was common between and within the kingdoms. Slavery declined as the supply weakened, and society became more rural. [50] [E]

Between the 5th and 8th centuries, new peoples and individuals filled the political void left by Roman centralised government. [48] The Ostrogoths, a Gothic tribe, settled in Roman Italy in the late fifth century under Theoderic the Great (d. 526) and set up a kingdom marked by its co-operation between the Italians and the Ostrogoths, at least until the last years of Theodoric's reign. [52] The Burgundians settled in Gaul, and after an earlier realm was destroyed by the Huns in 436 formed a new kingdom in the 440s. Between today's Geneva and Lyon, it grew to become the realm of Burgundy in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. [53] Elsewhere in Gaul, the Franks and Celtic Britons set up small polities. Francia was centred in northern Gaul, and the first king of whom much is known is Childeric I (d. 481). His grave was discovered in 1653 and is remarkable for its grave goods, which included weapons and a large quantity of gold. [54]

Under Childeric's son Clovis I (r. 509–511), the founder of the Merovingian dynasty, the Frankish kingdom expanded and converted to Christianity. The Britons, related to the natives of Britannia – modern-day Great Britain – settled in what is now Brittany. [55] [F] Other monarchies were established by the Visigothic Kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula, the Suebi in northwestern Iberia, and the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa. [53] In the sixth century, the Lombards settled in Northern Italy, replacing the Ostrogothic kingdom with a grouping of duchies that occasionally selected a king to rule over them all. By the late sixth century, this arrangement had been replaced by a permanent monarchy, the Kingdom of the Lombards. [56]

The invasions brought new ethnic groups to Europe, although some regions received a larger influx of new peoples than others. In Gaul for instance, the invaders settled much more extensively in the north-east than in the south-west. Slavs settled in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkan Peninsula. The settlement of peoples was accompanied by changes in languages. Latin, the literary language of the Western Roman Empire, was gradually replaced by vernacular languages which evolved from Latin, but were distinct from it, collectively known as Romance languages. These changes from Latin to the new languages took many centuries. Greek remained the language of the Byzantine Empire, but the migrations of the Slavs added Slavic languages to Eastern Europe. [57]

Byzantine survival

As Western Europe witnessed the formation of new kingdoms, the Eastern Roman Empire remained intact and experienced an economic revival that lasted into the early 7th century. There were fewer invasions of the eastern section of the empire most occurred in the Balkans. Peace with the Sasanian Empire, the traditional enemy of Rome, lasted throughout most of the 5th century. The Eastern Empire was marked by closer relations between the political state and Christian Church, with doctrinal matters assuming an importance in Eastern politics that they did not have in Western Europe. Legal developments included the codification of Roman law the first effort—the Codex Theodosianus—was completed in 438. [59] Under Emperor Justinian (r. 527–565), another compilation took place—the Corpus Juris Civilis. [60] Justinian also oversaw the construction of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and the reconquest of North Africa from the Vandals and Italy from the Ostrogoths, [61] under Belisarius (d. 565). [62] The conquest of Italy was not complete, as a deadly outbreak of plague in 542 led to the rest of Justinian's reign concentrating on defensive measures rather than further conquests. [61]

At the Emperor's death, the Byzantines had control of most of Italy, North Africa, and a small foothold in southern Spain. Justinian's reconquests have been criticised by historians for overextending his realm and setting the stage for the early Muslim conquests, but many of the difficulties faced by Justinian's successors were due not just to over-taxation to pay for his wars but to the essentially civilian nature of the empire, which made raising troops difficult. [63]

In the Eastern Empire the slow infiltration of the Balkans by the Slavs added a further difficulty for Justinian's successors. It began gradually, but by the late 540s Slavic tribes were in Thrace and Illyrium, and had defeated an imperial army near Adrianople in 551. In the 560s the Avars began to expand from their base on the north bank of the Danube by the end of the 6th-century, they were the dominant power in Central Europe and routinely able to force the Eastern emperors to pay tribute. They remained a strong power until 796. [64]

An additional problem to face the empire came as a result of the involvement of Emperor Maurice (r. 582–602) in Persian politics when he intervened in a succession dispute. This led to a period of peace, but when Maurice was overthrown, the Persians invaded and during the reign of Emperor Heraclius (r. 610–641) controlled large chunks of the empire, including Egypt, Syria, and Anatolia until Heraclius' successful counterattack. In 628 the empire secured a peace treaty and recovered all of its lost territories. [65]

Western society

In Western Europe, some of the older Roman elite families died out while others became more involved with ecclesiastical than secular affairs. Values attached to Latin scholarship and education mostly disappeared, and while literacy remained important, it became a practical skill rather than a sign of elite status. In the 4th century, Jerome (d. 420) dreamed that God rebuked him for spending more time reading Cicero than the Bible. By the 6th century, Gregory of Tours (d. 594) had a similar dream, but instead of being chastised for reading Cicero, he was chastised for learning shorthand. [66] By the late 6th century, the principal means of religious instruction in the Church had become music and art rather than the book. [67] Most intellectual efforts went towards imitating classical scholarship, but some original works were created, along with now-lost oral compositions. The writings of Sidonius Apollinaris (d. 489), Cassiodorus (d. c. 585), and Boethius (d. c. 525) were typical of the age. [68]

Changes also took place among laymen, as aristocratic culture focused on great feasts held in halls rather than on literary pursuits. Clothing for the elites was richly embellished with jewels and gold. Lords and kings supported entourages of fighters who formed the backbone of the military forces. [G] Family ties within the elites were important, as were the virtues of loyalty, courage, and honour. These ties led to the prevalence of the feud in aristocratic society, examples of which included those related by Gregory of Tours that took place in Merovingian Gaul. Most feuds seem to have ended quickly with the payment of some sort of compensation. [71] Women took part in aristocratic society mainly in their roles as wives and mothers of men, with the role of mother of a ruler being especially prominent in Merovingian Gaul. In Anglo-Saxon society the lack of many child rulers meant a lesser role for women as queen mothers, but this was compensated for by the increased role played by abbesses of monasteries. Only in Italy does it appear that women were always considered under the protection and control of a male relative. [72]

Peasant society is much less documented than the nobility. Most of the surviving information available to historians comes from archaeology few detailed written records documenting peasant life remain from before the 9th century. Most of the descriptions of the lower classes come from either law codes or writers from the upper classes. [73] Landholding patterns in the West were not uniform some areas had greatly fragmented landholding patterns, but in other areas large contiguous blocks of land were the norm. These differences allowed for a wide variety of peasant societies, some dominated by aristocratic landholders and others having a great deal of autonomy. [74] Land settlement also varied greatly. Some peasants lived in large settlements that numbered as many as 700 inhabitants. Others lived in small groups of a few families and still others lived on isolated farms spread over the countryside. There were also areas where the pattern was a mix of two or more of those systems. [75] Unlike in the late Roman period, there was no sharp break between the legal status of the free peasant and the aristocrat, and it was possible for a free peasant's family to rise into the aristocracy over several generations through military service to a powerful lord. [76]

Roman city life and culture changed greatly in the early Middle Ages. Although Italian cities remained inhabited, they contracted significantly in size. Rome, for instance, shrank from a population of hundreds of thousands to around 30,000 by the end of the 6th century. Roman temples were converted into Christian churches and city walls remained in use. [77] In Northern Europe, cities also shrank, while civic monuments and other public buildings were raided for building materials. The establishment of new kingdoms often meant some growth for the towns chosen as capitals. [78] Although there had been Jewish communities in many Roman cities, the Jews suffered periods of persecution after the conversion of the empire to Christianity. Officially they were tolerated, if subject to conversion efforts, and at times were even encouraged to settle in new areas. [79]

Rise of Islam

Religious beliefs in the Eastern Roman Empire and Iran were in flux during the late sixth and early seventh centuries. Judaism was an active proselytising faith, and at least one Arab political leader converted to it. [H] Christianity had active missions competing with the Persians' Zoroastrianism in seeking converts, especially among residents of the Arabian Peninsula. All these strands came together with the emergence of Islam in Arabia during the lifetime of Muhammad (d. 632). [81] After his death, Islamic forces conquered much of the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia, starting with Syria in 634–635, continuing with Persia between 637 and 642, reaching Egypt in 640–641, North Africa in the later seventh century, and the Iberian Peninsula in 711. [82] By 714, Islamic forces controlled much of the peninsula in a region they called Al-Andalus. [83]

The Islamic conquests reached their peak in the mid-eighth century. The defeat of Muslim forces at the Battle of Tours in 732 led to the reconquest of southern France by the Franks, but the main reason for the halt of Islamic growth in Europe was the overthrow of the Umayyad Caliphate and its replacement by the Abbasid Caliphate. The Abbasids moved their capital to Baghdad and were more concerned with the Middle East than Europe, losing control of sections of the Muslim lands. Umayyad descendants took over the Iberian Peninsula, the Aghlabids controlled North Africa, and the Tulunids became rulers of Egypt. [84] By the middle of the 8th century, new trading patterns were emerging in the Mediterranean trade between the Franks and the Arabs replaced the old Roman economy. Franks traded timber, furs, swords and slaves in return for silks and other fabrics, spices, and precious metals from the Arabs. [85]

Trade and economy

The migrations and invasions of the 4th and 5th centuries disrupted trade networks around the Mediterranean. African goods stopped being imported into Europe, first disappearing from the interior and by the 7th century found only in a few cities such as Rome or Naples. By the end of the 7th century, under the impact of the Muslim conquests, African products were no longer found in Western Europe. The replacement of goods from long-range trade with local products was a trend throughout the old Roman lands that happened in the Early Middle Ages. This was especially marked in the lands that did not lie on the Mediterranean, such as northern Gaul or Britain. Non-local goods appearing in the archaeological record are usually luxury goods. In the northern parts of Europe, not only were the trade networks local, but the goods carried were simple, with little pottery or other complex products. Around the Mediterranean, pottery remained prevalent and appears to have been traded over medium-range networks, not just produced locally. [86]

The various Germanic states in the west all had coinages that imitated existing Roman and Byzantine forms. Gold continued to be minted until the end of the 7th century in 693-94 when it was replaced by silver in the Merovingian kingdom. The basic Frankish silver coin was the denarius or denier, while the Anglo-Saxon version was called a penny. From these areas, the denier or penny spread throughout Europe from 700 to 1000 AD. Copper or bronze coins were not struck, nor were gold except in Southern Europe. No silver coins denominated in multiple units were minted. [87]

Church and monasticism

Christianity was a major unifying factor between Eastern and Western Europe before the Arab conquests, but the conquest of North Africa sundered maritime connections between those areas. Increasingly, the Byzantine Church differed in language, practices, and liturgy from the Western Church. The Eastern Church used Greek instead of the Western Latin. Theological and political differences emerged, and by the early and middle 8th century issues such as iconoclasm, clerical marriage, and state control of the Church had widened to the extent that the cultural and religious differences were greater than the similarities. [88] The formal break, known as the East–West Schism, came in 1054, when the papacy and the patriarchy of Constantinople clashed over papal supremacy and excommunicated each other, which led to the division of Christianity into two Churches—the Western branch became the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern branch the Eastern Orthodox Church. [89]

The ecclesiastical structure of the Roman Empire survived the movements and invasions in the west mostly intact, but the papacy was little regarded, and few of the Western bishops looked to the bishop of Rome for religious or political leadership. Many of the popes prior to 750 were more concerned with Byzantine affairs and Eastern theological controversies. The register, or archived copies of the letters, of Pope Gregory the Great (pope 590–604) survived, and of those more than 850 letters, the vast majority were concerned with affairs in Italy or Constantinople. The only part of Western Europe where the papacy had influence was Britain, where Gregory had sent the Gregorian mission in 597 to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. [90] Irish missionaries were most active in Western Europe between the 5th and the 7th centuries, going first to England and Scotland and then on to the continent. Under such monks as Columba (d. 597) and Columbanus (d. 615), they founded monasteries, taught in Latin and Greek, and authored secular and religious works. [91]

The Early Middle Ages witnessed the rise of monasticism in the West. The shape of European monasticism was determined by traditions and ideas that originated with the Desert Fathers of Egypt and Syria. Most European monasteries were of the type that focuses on community experience of the spiritual life, called cenobitism, which was pioneered by Pachomius (d. 348) in the 4th century. Monastic ideals spread from Egypt to Western Europe in the 5th and 6th centuries through hagiographical literature such as the Life of Anthony. [92] Benedict of Nursia (d. 547) wrote the Benedictine Rule for Western monasticism during the 6th century, detailing the administrative and spiritual responsibilities of a community of monks led by an abbot. [93] Monks and monasteries had a deep effect on the religious and political life of the Early Middle Ages, in various cases acting as land trusts for powerful families, centres of propaganda and royal support in newly conquered regions, and bases for missions and proselytisation. [94] They were the main and sometimes only outposts of education and literacy in a region. Many of the surviving manuscripts of the Latin classics were copied in monasteries in the Early Middle Ages. [95] Monks were also the authors of new works, including history, theology, and other subjects, written by authors such as Bede (d. 735), a native of northern England who wrote in the late 7th and early 8th centuries. [96]

Carolingian Europe

The Frankish kingdom in northern Gaul split into kingdoms called Austrasia, Neustria, and Burgundy during the 6th and 7th centuries, all of them ruled by the Merovingian dynasty, who were descended from Clovis. The 7th century was a tumultuous period of wars between Austrasia and Neustria. [97] Such warfare was exploited by Pippin (d. 640), the Mayor of the Palace for Austrasia who became the power behind the Austrasian throne. Later members of his family inherited the office, acting as advisers and regents. One of his descendants, Charles Martel (d. 741), won the Battle of Poitiers in 732, halting the advance of Muslim armies across the Pyrenees. [98] [I] Great Britain was divided into small states dominated by the kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex, and East Anglia which descended from the Anglo-Saxon invaders. Smaller kingdoms in present-day Wales and Scotland were still under the control of the native Britons and Picts. [100] Ireland was divided into even smaller political units, usually known as tribal kingdoms, under the control of kings. There were perhaps as many as 150 local kings in Ireland, of varying importance. [101]

The Carolingian dynasty, as the successors to Charles Martel are known, officially took control of the kingdoms of Austrasia and Neustria in a coup of 753 led by Pippin III (r. 752–768). A contemporary chronicle claims that Pippin sought, and gained, authority for this coup from Pope Stephen II (pope 752–757). Pippin's takeover was reinforced with propaganda that portrayed the Merovingians as inept or cruel rulers, exalted the accomplishments of Charles Martel, and circulated stories of the family's great piety. At the time of his death in 768, Pippin left his kingdom in the hands of his two sons, Charles (r. 768–814) and Carloman (r. 768–771). When Carloman died of natural causes, Charles blocked the succession of Carloman's young son and installed himself as the king of the united Austrasia and Neustria. Charles, more often known as Charles the Great or Charlemagne, embarked upon a programme of systematic expansion in 774 that unified a large portion of Europe, eventually controlling modern-day France, northern Italy, and Saxony. In the wars that lasted beyond 800, he rewarded allies with war booty and command over parcels of land. [102] In 774, Charlemagne conquered the Lombards, which freed the papacy from the fear of Lombard conquest and marked the beginnings of the Papal States. [103] [J]

The coronation of Charlemagne as emperor on Christmas Day 800 is regarded as a turning point in medieval history, marking a return of the Western Roman Empire, since the new emperor ruled over much of the area previously controlled by the Western emperors. [106] It also marks a change in Charlemagne's relationship with the Byzantine Empire, as the assumption of the imperial title by the Carolingians asserted their equivalence to the Byzantine state. [107] There were several differences between the newly established Carolingian Empire and both the older Western Roman Empire and the concurrent Byzantine Empire. The Frankish lands were rural in character, with only a few small cities. Most of the people were peasants settled on small farms. Little trade existed and much of that was with the British Isles and Scandinavia, in contrast to the older Roman Empire with its trading networks centred on the Mediterranean. [106] The empire was administered by an itinerant court that travelled with the emperor, as well as approximately 300 imperial officials called counts, who administered the counties the empire had been divided into. Clergy and local bishops served as officials, as well as the imperial officials called missi dominici, who served as roving inspectors and troubleshooters. [108]

Carolingian Renaissance

Charlemagne's court in Aachen was the centre of the cultural revival sometimes referred to as the "Carolingian Renaissance". Literacy increased, as did development in the arts, architecture and jurisprudence, as well as liturgical and scriptural studies. The English monk Alcuin (d. 804) was invited to Aachen and brought the education available in the monasteries of Northumbria. Charlemagne's chancery—or writing office—made use of a new script today known as Carolingian minuscule, [K] allowing a common writing style that advanced communication across much of Europe. Charlemagne sponsored changes in church liturgy, imposing the Roman form of church service on his domains, as well as the Gregorian chant in liturgical music for the churches. An important activity for scholars during this period was the copying, correcting, and dissemination of basic works on religious and secular topics, with the aim of encouraging learning. New works on religious topics and schoolbooks were also produced. [110] Grammarians of the period modified the Latin language, changing it from the Classical Latin of the Roman Empire into a more flexible form to fit the needs of the Church and government. By the reign of Charlemagne, the language had so diverged from the classical Latin that it was later called Medieval Latin. [111]

Breakup of the Carolingian Empire

Charlemagne planned to continue the Frankish tradition of dividing his kingdom between all his heirs, but was unable to do so as only one son, Louis the Pious (r. 814–840), was still alive by 813. Just before Charlemagne died in 814, he crowned Louis as his successor. Louis's reign of 26 years was marked by numerous divisions of the empire among his sons and, after 829, civil wars between various alliances of father and sons over the control of various parts of the empire. Eventually, Louis recognised his eldest son Lothair I (d. 855) as emperor and gave him Italy. [L] Louis divided the rest of the empire between Lothair and Charles the Bald (d. 877), his youngest son. Lothair took East Francia, comprising both banks of the Rhine and eastwards, leaving Charles West Francia with the empire to the west of the Rhineland and the Alps. Louis the German (d. 876), the middle child, who had been rebellious to the last, was allowed to keep Bavaria under the suzerainty of his elder brother. The division was disputed. Pepin II of Aquitaine (d. after 864), the emperor's grandson, rebelled in a contest for Aquitaine, while Louis the German tried to annex all of East Francia. Louis the Pious died in 840, with the empire still in chaos. [113]

A three-year civil war followed his death. By the Treaty of Verdun (843), a kingdom between the Rhine and Rhone rivers was created for Lothair to go with his lands in Italy, and his imperial title was recognised. Louis the German was in control of Bavaria and the eastern lands in modern-day Germany. Charles the Bald received the western Frankish lands, comprising most of modern-day France. [113] Charlemagne's grandsons and great-grandsons divided their kingdoms between their descendants, eventually causing all internal cohesion to be lost. [114] [M] In 987 the Carolingian dynasty was replaced in the western lands, with the crowning of Hugh Capet (r. 987–996) as king. [N] [O] In the eastern lands the dynasty had died out earlier, in 911, with the death of Louis the Child, [117] and the selection of the unrelated Conrad I (r. 911–918) as king. [118]

The breakup of the Carolingian Empire was accompanied by invasions, migrations, and raids by external foes. The Atlantic and northern shores were harassed by the Vikings, who also raided the British Isles and settled there as well as in Iceland. In 911, the Viking chieftain Rollo (d. c. 931) received permission from the Frankish King Charles the Simple (r. 898–922) to settle in what became Normandy. [119] [P] The eastern parts of the Frankish kingdoms, especially Germany and Italy, were under continual Magyar assault until the invader's defeat at the Battle of Lechfeld in 955. [121] The breakup of the Abbasid dynasty meant that the Islamic world fragmented into smaller political states, some of which began expanding into Italy and Sicily, as well as over the Pyrenees into the southern parts of the Frankish kingdoms. [122]

New kingdoms and Byzantine revival

Efforts by local kings to fight the invaders led to the formation of new political entities. In Anglo-Saxon England, King Alfred the Great (r. 871–899) came to an agreement with the Viking invaders in the late 9th century, resulting in Danish settlements in Northumbria, Mercia, and parts of East Anglia. [123] By the middle of the 10th century, Alfred's successors had conquered Northumbria, and restored English control over most of the southern part of Great Britain. [124] In northern Britain, Kenneth MacAlpin (d. c. 860) united the Picts and the Scots into the Kingdom of Alba. [125] In the early 10th century, the Ottonian dynasty had established itself in Germany, and was engaged in driving back the Magyars. Its efforts culminated in the coronation in 962 of Otto I (r. 936–973) as Holy Roman Emperor. [126] In 972, he secured recognition of his title by the Byzantine Empire, which he sealed with the marriage of his son Otto II (r. 967–983) to Theophanu (d. 991), daughter of an earlier Byzantine Emperor Romanos II (r. 959–963). [127] By the late 10th century Italy had been drawn into the Ottonian sphere after a period of instability [128] Otto III (r. 996–1002) spent much of his later reign in the kingdom. [129] The western Frankish kingdom was more fragmented, and although kings remained nominally in charge, much of the political power devolved to the local lords. [130]

Missionary efforts to Scandinavia during the 9th and 10th centuries helped strengthen the growth of kingdoms such as Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, which gained power and territory. Some kings converted to Christianity, although not all by 1000. Scandinavians also expanded and colonised throughout Europe. Besides the settlements in Ireland, England, and Normandy, further settlement took place in what became Russia and Iceland. Swedish traders and raiders ranged down the rivers of the Russian steppe, and even attempted to seize Constantinople in 860 and 907. [131] Christian Spain, initially driven into a small section of the peninsula in the north, expanded slowly south during the 9th and 10th centuries, establishing the kingdoms of Asturias and León. [132]

In Eastern Europe, Byzantium revived its fortunes under Emperor Basil I (r. 867–886) and his successors Leo VI (r. 886–912) and Constantine VII (r. 913–959), members of the Macedonian dynasty. Commerce revived and the emperors oversaw the extension of a uniform administration to all the provinces. The military was reorganised, which allowed the emperors John I (r. 969–976) and Basil II (r. 976–1025) to expand the frontiers of the empire on all fronts. The imperial court was the centre of a revival of classical learning, a process known as the Macedonian Renaissance. Writers such as John Geometres (fl. early 10th century) composed new hymns, poems, and other works. [133] Missionary efforts by both Eastern and Western clergy resulted in the conversion of the Moravians, Bulgars, Bohemians, Poles, Magyars, and Slavic inhabitants of the Kievan Rus'. These conversions contributed to the founding of political states in the lands of those peoples—the states of Moravia, Bulgaria, Bohemia, Poland, Hungary, and the Kievan Rus'. [134] Bulgaria, which was founded around 680, at its height reached from Budapest to the Black Sea and from the Dnieper River in modern Ukraine to the Adriatic Sea. [135] By 1018, the last Bulgarian nobles had surrendered to the Byzantine Empire. [136]

Art and architecture

Few large stone buildings were constructed between the Constantinian basilicas of the 4th century and the 8th century, although many smaller ones were built during the 6th and 7th centuries. By the beginning of the 8th century, the Carolingian Empire revived the basilica form of architecture. [138] One feature of the basilica is the use of a transept, [139] or the "arms" of a cross-shaped building that are perpendicular to the long nave. [140] Other new features of religious architecture include the crossing tower and a monumental entrance to the church, usually at the west end of the building. [141]

Carolingian art was produced for a small group of figures around the court, and the monasteries and churches they supported. It was dominated by efforts to regain the dignity and classicism of imperial Roman and Byzantine art, but was also influenced by the Insular art of the British Isles. Insular art integrated the energy of Irish Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Germanic styles of ornament with Mediterranean forms such as the book, and established many characteristics of art for the rest of the medieval period. Surviving religious works from the Early Middle Ages are mostly illuminated manuscripts and carved ivories, originally made for metalwork that has since been melted down. [142] [143] Objects in precious metals were the most prestigious form of art, but almost all are lost except for a few crosses such as the Cross of Lothair, several reliquaries, and finds such as the Anglo-Saxon burial at Sutton Hoo and the hoards of Gourdon from Merovingian France, Guarrazar from Visigothic Spain and Nagyszentmiklós near Byzantine territory. There are survivals from the large brooches in fibula or penannular form that were a key piece of personal adornment for elites, including the Irish Tara Brooch. [144] Highly decorated books were mostly Gospel Books and these have survived in larger numbers, including the Insular Book of Kells, the Book of Lindisfarne, and the imperial Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram, which is one of the few to retain its "treasure binding" of gold encrusted with jewels. [145] Charlemagne's court seems to have been responsible for the acceptance of figurative monumental sculpture in Christian art, [146] and by the end of the period near life-sized figures such as the Gero Cross were common in important churches. [147]

Military and technological developments

During the later Roman Empire, the principal military developments were attempts to create an effective cavalry force as well as the continued development of highly specialised types of troops. The creation of heavily armoured cataphract-type soldiers as cavalry was an important feature of the 5th-century Roman military. The various invading tribes had differing emphases on types of soldiers—ranging from the primarily infantry Anglo-Saxon invaders of Britain to the Vandals and Visigoths who had a high proportion of cavalry in their armies. [148] During the early invasion period, the stirrup had not been introduced into warfare, which limited the usefulness of cavalry as shock troops because it was not possible to put the full force of the horse and rider behind blows struck by the rider. [149] The greatest change in military affairs during the invasion period was the adoption of the Hunnic composite bow in place of the earlier, and weaker, Scythian composite bow. [150] Another development was the increasing use of longswords [151] and the progressive replacement of scale armour by mail armour and lamellar armour. [152]

The importance of infantry and light cavalry began to decline during the early Carolingian period, with a growing dominance of elite heavy cavalry. The use of militia-type levies of the free population declined over the Carolingian period. [153] Although much of the Carolingian armies were mounted, a large proportion during the early period appear to have been mounted infantry, rather than true cavalry. [154] One exception was Anglo-Saxon England, where the armies were still composed of regional levies, known as the fyrd, which were led by the local elites. [155] In military technology, one of the main changes was the return of the crossbow, which had been known in Roman times and reappeared as a military weapon during the last part of the Early Middle Ages. [156] Another change was the introduction of the stirrup, which increased the effectiveness of cavalry as shock troops. A technological advance that had implications beyond the military was the horseshoe, which allowed horses to be used in rocky terrain. [157]

Society and economic life

The High Middle Ages was a period of tremendous expansion of population. The estimated population of Europe grew from 35 to 80 million between 1000 and 1347, although the exact causes remain unclear: improved agricultural techniques, the decline of slaveholding, a more clement climate and the lack of invasion have all been suggested. [160] [161] As much as 90 per cent of the European population remained rural peasants. Many were no longer settled in isolated farms but had gathered into small communities, usually known as manors or villages. [161] These peasants were often subject to noble overlords and owed them rents and other services, in a system known as manorialism. There remained a few free peasants throughout this period and beyond, [162] with more of them in the regions of Southern Europe than in the north. The practice of assarting, or bringing new lands into production by offering incentives to the peasants who settled them, also contributed to the expansion of population. [163]

The open-field system of agriculture was commonly practiced in most of Europe, especially in "northwestern and central Europe". [164] Such agricultural communities had three basic characteristics: individual peasant holdings in the form of strips of land were scattered among the different fields belonging to the manor crops were rotated from year to year to preserve soil fertility and common land was used for grazing livestock and other purposes. Some regions used a three-field system of crop rotation, others retained the older two-field system. [165]

Other sections of society included the nobility, clergy, and townsmen. Nobles, both the titled nobility and simple knights, exploited the manors and the peasants, although they did not own lands outright but were granted rights to the income from a manor or other lands by an overlord through the system of feudalism. During the 11th and 12th centuries, these lands, or fiefs, came to be considered hereditary, and in most areas they were no longer divisible between all the heirs as had been the case in the early medieval period. Instead, most fiefs and lands went to the eldest son. [166] [Q] The dominance of the nobility was built upon its control of the land, its military service as heavy cavalry, control of castles, and various immunities from taxes or other impositions. [R] Castles, initially in wood but later in stone, began to be constructed in the 9th and 10th centuries in response to the disorder of the time, and provided protection from invaders as well as allowing lords defence from rivals. Control of castles allowed the nobles to defy kings or other overlords. [168] Nobles were stratified kings and the highest-ranking nobility controlled large numbers of commoners and large tracts of land, as well as other nobles. Beneath them, lesser nobles had authority over smaller areas of land and fewer people. Knights were the lowest level of nobility they controlled but did not own land, and had to serve other nobles. [169] [S]

The clergy was divided into two types: the secular clergy, who lived out in the world, and the regular clergy, who lived isolated under a religious rule and usually consisted of monks. [171] Throughout the period monks remained a very small proportion of the population, usually less than one percent. [172] Most of the regular clergy were drawn from the nobility, the same social class that served as the recruiting ground for the upper levels of the secular clergy. The local parish priests were often drawn from the peasant class. [173] Townsmen were in a somewhat unusual position, as they did not fit into the traditional three-fold division of society into nobles, clergy, and peasants. During the 12th and 13th centuries, the ranks of the townsmen expanded greatly as existing towns grew and new population centres were founded. [174] But throughout the Middle Ages the population of the towns probably never exceeded 10 percent of the total population. [175]

Jews also spread across Europe during the period. Communities were established in Germany and England in the 11th and 12th centuries, but Spanish Jews, long settled in Spain under the Muslims, came under Christian rule and increasing pressure to convert to Christianity. [79] Most Jews were confined to the cities, as they were not allowed to own land or be peasants. [176] [T] Besides the Jews, there were other non-Christians on the edges of Europe—pagan Slavs in Eastern Europe and Muslims in Southern Europe. [177]

Women in the Middle Ages were officially required to be subordinate to some male, whether their father, husband, or other kinsman. Widows, who were often allowed much control over their own lives, were still restricted legally. Women's work generally consisted of household or other domestically inclined tasks. Peasant women were usually responsible for taking care of the household, child-care, as well as gardening and animal husbandry near the house. They could supplement the household income by spinning or brewing at home. At harvest-time, they were also expected to help with field-work. [178] Townswomen, like peasant women, were responsible for the household, and could also engage in trade. What trades were open to women varied by country and period. [179] Noblewomen were responsible for running a household, and could occasionally be expected to handle estates in the absence of male relatives, but they were usually restricted from participation in military or government affairs. The only role open to women in the Church was that of nuns, as they were unable to become priests. [178]

In central and northern Italy and in Flanders, the rise of towns that were to a degree self-governing stimulated economic growth and created an environment for new types of trade associations. Commercial cities on the shores of the Baltic entered into agreements known as the Hanseatic League, and the Italian Maritime republics such as Venice, Genoa, and Pisa expanded their trade throughout the Mediterranean. [U] Great trading fairs were established and flourished in northern France during the period, allowing Italian and German merchants to trade with each other as well as local merchants. [181] In the late 13th century new land and sea routes to the Far East were pioneered, famously described in The Travels of Marco Polo written by one of the traders, Marco Polo (d. 1324). [182] Besides new trading opportunities, agricultural and technological improvements enabled an increase in crop yields, which in turn allowed the trade networks to expand. [183] Rising trade brought new methods of dealing with money, and gold coinage was again minted in Europe, first in Italy and later in France and other countries. New forms of commercial contracts emerged, allowing risk to be shared among merchants. Accounting methods improved, partly through the use of double-entry bookkeeping letters of credit also appeared, allowing easy transmission of money. [184]

Rise of state power

The High Middle Ages was the formative period in the history of the modern Western state. Kings in France, England, and Spain consolidated their power, and set up lasting governing institutions. [185] New kingdoms such as Hungary and Poland, after their conversion to Christianity, became Central European powers. [186] The Magyars settled Hungary around 900 under King Árpád (d. c. 907) after a series of invasions in the 9th century. [187] The papacy, long attached to an ideology of independence from secular kings, first asserted its claim to temporal authority over the entire Christian world the Papal Monarchy reached its apogee in the early 13th century under the pontificate of Innocent III (pope 1198–1216). [188] Northern Crusades and the advance of Christian kingdoms and military orders into previously pagan regions in the Baltic and Finnic north-east brought the forced assimilation of numerous native peoples into European culture. [189]

During the early High Middle Ages, Germany was ruled by the Ottonian dynasty, which struggled to control the powerful dukes ruling over territorial duchies tracing back to the Migration period. In 1024, they were replaced by the Salian dynasty, who famously clashed with the papacy under Emperor Henry IV (r. 1084–1105) over Church appointments as part of the Investiture Controversy. [190] His successors continued to struggle against the papacy as well as the German nobility. A period of instability followed the death of Emperor Henry V (r. 1111–25), who died without heirs, until Frederick I Barbarossa (r. 1155–90) took the imperial throne. [191] Although he ruled effectively, the basic problems remained, and his successors continued to struggle into the 13th century. [192] Barbarossa's grandson Frederick II (r. 1220–1250), who was also heir to the throne of Sicily through his mother, clashed repeatedly with the papacy. His court was famous for its scholars and he was often accused of heresy. [193] He and his successors faced many difficulties, including the invasion of the Mongols into Europe in the mid-13th century. Mongols first shattered the Kievan Rus' principalities and then invaded Eastern Europe in 1241, 1259, and 1287. [194]

Under the Capetian dynasty the French monarchy slowly began to expand its authority over the nobility, growing out of the Île-de-France to exert control over more of the country in the 11th and 12th centuries. [195] They faced a powerful rival in the Dukes of Normandy, who in 1066 under William the Conqueror (duke 1035–1087), conquered England (r. 1066–87) and created a cross-channel empire that lasted, in various forms, throughout the rest of the Middle Ages. [196] [197] Normans also settled in Sicily and southern Italy, when Robert Guiscard (d. 1085) landed there in 1059 and established a duchy that later became the Kingdom of Sicily. [198] Under the Angevin dynasty of Henry II (r. 1154–89) and his son Richard I (r. 1189–99), the kings of England ruled over England and large areas of France, [199] [V] brought to the family by Henry II's marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine (d. 1204), heiress to much of southern France. [201] [W] Richard's younger brother John (r. 1199–1216) lost Normandy and the rest of the northern French possessions in 1204 to the French King Philip II Augustus (r. 1180–1223). This led to dissension among the English nobility, while John's financial exactions to pay for his unsuccessful attempts to regain Normandy led in 1215 to Magna Carta, a charter that confirmed the rights and privileges of free men in England. Under Henry III (r. 1216–72), John's son, further concessions were made to the nobility, and royal power was diminished. [202] The French monarchy continued to make gains against the nobility during the late 12th and 13th centuries, bringing more territories within the kingdom under the king's personal rule and centralising the royal administration. [203] Under Louis IX (r. 1226–70), royal prestige rose to new heights as Louis served as a mediator for most of Europe. [204] [X]

In Iberia, the Christian states, which had been confined to the north-western part of the peninsula, began to push back against the Islamic states in the south, a period known as the Reconquista. [206] By about 1150, the Christian north had coalesced into the five major kingdoms of León, Castile, Aragon, Navarre, and Portugal. [207] Southern Iberia remained under control of Islamic states, initially under the Caliphate of Córdoba, which broke up in 1031 into a shifting number of petty states known as taifas, [206] who fought with the Christians until the Almohad Caliphate re-established centralised rule over Southern Iberia in the 1170s. [208] Christian forces advanced again in the early 13th century, culminating in the capture of Seville in 1248. [209]


In the 11th century, the Seljuk Turks took over much of the Middle East, occupying Persia during the 1040s, Armenia in the 1060s, and Jerusalem in 1070. In 1071, the Turkish army defeated the Byzantine army at the Battle of Manzikert and captured the Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV (r. 1068–71). The Turks were then free to invade Asia Minor, which dealt a dangerous blow to the Byzantine Empire by seizing a large part of its population and its economic heartland. Although the Byzantines regrouped and recovered somewhat, they never fully regained Asia Minor and were often on the defensive. The Turks also had difficulties, losing control of Jerusalem to the Fatimids of Egypt and suffering from a series of internal civil wars. [211] The Byzantines also faced a revived Bulgaria, which in the late 12th and 13th centuries spread throughout the Balkans. [212]

The crusades were intended to seize Jerusalem from Muslim control. The First Crusade was proclaimed by Pope Urban II (pope 1088–99) at the Council of Clermont in 1095 in response to a request from the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081–1118) for aid against further Muslim advances. Urban promised indulgence to anyone who took part. Tens of thousands of people from all levels of society mobilised across Europe and captured Jerusalem in 1099. [213] One feature of the crusades was the pogroms against local Jews that often took place as the crusaders left their countries for the East. These were especially brutal during the First Crusade, [79] when the Jewish communities in Cologne, Mainz, and Worms were destroyed, as well as other communities in cities between the rivers Seine and the Rhine. [214] Another outgrowth of the crusades was the foundation of a new type of monastic order, the military orders of the Templars and Hospitallers, which fused monastic life with military service. [215]

The crusaders consolidated their conquests into crusader states. During the 12th and 13th centuries, there were a series of conflicts between them and the surrounding Islamic states. Appeals from the crusader states to the papacy led to further crusades, [213] such as the Third Crusade, called to try to regain Jerusalem, which had been captured by Saladin (d. 1193) in 1187. [216] [Y] In 1203, the Fourth Crusade was diverted from the Holy Land to Constantinople, and captured the city in 1204, setting up a Latin Empire of Constantinople [218] and greatly weakening the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines recaptured the city in 1261, but never regained their former strength. [219] By 1291 all the crusader states had been captured or forced from the mainland, although a titular Kingdom of Jerusalem survived on the island of Cyprus for several years afterwards. [220]

Popes called for crusades to take place elsewhere besides the Holy Land: in Spain, southern France, and along the Baltic. [213] The Spanish crusades became fused with the Reconquista of Spain from the Muslims. Although the Templars and Hospitallers took part in the Spanish crusades, similar Spanish military religious orders were founded, most of which had become part of the two main orders of Calatrava and Santiago by the beginning of the 12th century. [221] Northern Europe also remained outside Christian influence until the 11th century or later, and became a crusading venue as part of the Northern Crusades of the 12th to 14th centuries. These crusades also spawned a military order, the Order of the Sword Brothers. Another order, the Teutonic Knights, although founded in the crusader states, focused much of its activity in the Baltic after 1225, and in 1309 moved its headquarters to Marienburg in Prussia. [222]

Intellectual life

During the 11th century, developments in philosophy and theology led to increased intellectual activity. There was debate between the realists and the nominalists over the concept of "universals". Philosophical discourse was stimulated by the rediscovery of Aristotle and his emphasis on empiricism and rationalism. Scholars such as Peter Abelard (d. 1142) and Peter Lombard (d. 1164) introduced Aristotelian logic into theology. In the late 11th and early 12th centuries cathedral schools spread throughout Western Europe, signalling the shift of learning from monasteries to cathedrals and towns. [223] Cathedral schools were in turn replaced by the universities established in major European cities. [224] Philosophy and theology fused in scholasticism, an attempt by 12th- and 13th-century scholars to reconcile authoritative texts, most notably Aristotle and the Bible. This movement tried to employ a systemic approach to truth and reason [225] and culminated in the thought of Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), who wrote the Summa Theologica, or Summary of Theology. [226]

Chivalry and the ethos of courtly love developed in royal and noble courts. This culture was expressed in the vernacular languages rather than Latin, and comprised poems, stories, legends, and popular songs spread by troubadours, or wandering minstrels. Often the stories were written down in the chansons de geste, or "songs of great deeds", such as The Song of Roland or The Song of Hildebrand. [227] Secular and religious histories were also produced. [228] Geoffrey of Monmouth (d. c. 1155) composed his Historia Regum Britanniae, a collection of stories and legends about Arthur. [229] Other works were more clearly history, such as Otto von Freising's (d. 1158) Gesta Friderici Imperatoris detailing the deeds of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, or William of Malmesbury's (d. c. 1143) Gesta Regum on the kings of England. [228]

Legal studies advanced during the 12th century. Both secular law and canon law, or ecclesiastical law, were studied in the High Middle Ages. Secular law, or Roman law, was advanced greatly by the discovery of the Corpus Juris Civilis in the 11th century, and by 1100 Roman law was being taught at Bologna. This led to the recording and standardisation of legal codes throughout Western Europe. Canon law was also studied, and around 1140 a monk named Gratian (fl. 12th century), a teacher at Bologna, wrote what became the standard text of canon law—the Decretum. [230]

Among the results of the Greek and Islamic influence on this period in European history was the replacement of Roman numerals with the decimal positional number system and the invention of algebra, which allowed more advanced mathematics. Astronomy advanced following the translation of Ptolemy's Almagest from Greek into Latin in the late 12th century. Medicine was also studied, especially in southern Italy, where Islamic medicine influenced the school at Salerno. [231]

Technology and military

In the 12th and 13th centuries, Europe experienced economic growth and innovations in methods of production. Major technological advances included the invention of the windmill, the first mechanical clocks, the manufacture of distilled spirits, and the use of the astrolabe. [233] Concave spectacles were invented around 1286 by an unknown Italian artisan, probably working in or near Pisa. [234]

The development of a three-field rotation system for planting crops [161] [Z] increased the usage of land from one half in use each year under the old two-field system to two-thirds under the new system, with a consequent increase in production. [235] The development of the heavy plough allowed heavier soils to be farmed more efficiently, aided by the spread of the horse collar, which led to the use of draught horses in place of oxen. Horses are faster than oxen and require less pasture, factors that aided the implementation of the three-field system. [236] Legumes – such as peas, beans, or lentils – were grown more widely as crops, in addition to the usual cereal crops of wheat, oats, barley, and rye. [237]

The construction of cathedrals and castles advanced building technology, leading to the development of large stone buildings. Ancillary structures included new town halls, houses, bridges, and tithe barns. [238] Shipbuilding improved with the use of the rib and plank method rather than the old Roman system of mortise and tenon. Other improvements to ships included the use of lateen sails and the stern-post rudder, both of which increased the speed at which ships could be sailed. [239]

In military affairs, the use of infantry with specialised roles increased. Along with the still-dominant heavy cavalry, armies often included mounted and infantry crossbowmen, as well as sappers and engineers. [240] Crossbows, which had been known in Late Antiquity, increased in use partly because of the increase in siege warfare in the 10th and 11th centuries. [156] [AA] The increasing use of crossbows during the 12th and 13th centuries led to the use of closed-face helmets, heavy body armour, as well as horse armour. [242] Gunpowder was known in Europe by the mid-13th century with a recorded use in European warfare by the English against the Scots in 1304, although it was merely used as an explosive and not as a weapon. Cannon were being used for sieges in the 1320s, and hand-held guns were in use by the 1360s. [243]

Architecture, art, and music

In the 10th century the establishment of churches and monasteries led to the development of stone architecture that elaborated vernacular Roman forms, from which the term "Romanesque" is derived. Where available, Roman brick and stone buildings were recycled for their materials. From the tentative beginnings known as the First Romanesque, the style flourished and spread across Europe in a remarkably homogeneous form. Just before 1000 there was a great wave of building stone churches all over Europe. [244] Romanesque buildings have massive stone walls, openings topped by semi-circular arches, small windows, and, particularly in France, arched stone vaults. [245] The large portal with coloured sculpture in high relief became a central feature of façades, especially in France, and the capitals of columns were often carved with narrative scenes of imaginative monsters and animals. [246] According to art historian C. R. Dodwell, "virtually all the churches in the West were decorated with wall-paintings", of which few survive. [247] Simultaneous with the development in church architecture, the distinctive European form of the castle was developed and became crucial to politics and warfare. [248]

Romanesque art, especially metalwork, was at its most sophisticated in Mosan art, in which distinct artistic personalities including Nicholas of Verdun (d. 1205) become apparent, and an almost classical style is seen in works such as a font at Liège, [249] contrasting with the writhing animals of the exactly contemporary Gloucester Candlestick. Large illuminated bibles and psalters were the typical forms of luxury manuscripts, and wall-painting flourished in churches, often following a scheme with a Last Judgement on the west wall, a Christ in Majesty at the east end, and narrative biblical scenes down the nave, or in the best surviving example, at Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, on the barrel-vaulted roof. [250]

From the early 12th century, French builders developed the Gothic style, marked by the use of rib vaults, pointed arches, flying buttresses, and large stained glass windows. It was used mainly in churches and cathedrals and continued in use until the 16th century in much of Europe. Classic examples of Gothic architecture include Chartres Cathedral and Reims Cathedral in France as well as Salisbury Cathedral in England. [251] Stained glass became a crucial element in the design of churches, which continued to use extensive wall-paintings, now almost all lost. [252]

During this period the practice of manuscript illumination gradually passed from monasteries to lay workshops, so that according to Janetta Benton "by 1300 most monks bought their books in shops", [253] and the book of hours developed as a form of devotional book for lay-people. Metalwork continued to be the most prestigious form of art, with Limoges enamel a popular and relatively affordable option for objects such as reliquaries and crosses. [254] In Italy the innovations of Cimabue and Duccio, followed by the Trecento master Giotto (d. 1337), greatly increased the sophistication and status of panel painting and fresco. [255] Increasing prosperity during the 12th century resulted in greater production of secular art many carved ivory objects such as gaming-pieces, combs, and small religious figures have survived. [256]

Church life

Monastic reform became an important issue during the 11th century, as elites began to worry that monks were not adhering to the rules binding them to a strictly religious life. Cluny Abbey, founded in the Mâcon region of France in 909, was established as part of the Cluniac Reforms, a larger movement of monastic reform in response to this fear. [258] Cluny quickly established a reputation for austerity and rigour. It sought to maintain a high quality of spiritual life by placing itself under the protection of the papacy and by electing its own abbot without interference from laymen, thus maintaining economic and political independence from local lords. [259]

Monastic reform inspired change in the secular Church. The ideals upon which it was based were brought to the papacy by Pope Leo IX (pope 1049–1054), and provided the ideology of clerical independence that led to the Investiture Controversy in the late 11th century. This involved Pope Gregory VII (pope 1073–85) and Emperor Henry IV, who initially clashed over episcopal appointments, a dispute that turned into a battle over the ideas of investiture, clerical marriage, and simony. The emperor saw the protection of the Church as one of his responsibilities as well as wanting to preserve the right to appoint his own choices as bishops within his lands, but the papacy insisted on the Church's independence from secular lords. These issues remained unresolved after the compromise of 1122 known as the Concordat of Worms. The dispute represents a significant stage in the creation of a papal monarchy separate from and equal to lay authorities. It also had the permanent consequence of empowering German princes at the expense of the German emperors. [258]

The High Middle Ages was a period of great religious movements. Besides the Crusades and monastic reforms, people sought to participate in new forms of religious life. New monastic orders were founded, including the Carthusians and the Cistercians. The latter, in particular, expanded rapidly in their early years under the guidance of Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153). These new orders were formed in response to the feeling of the laity that Benedictine monasticism no longer met the needs of the laymen, who along with those wishing to enter the religious life wanted a return to the simpler hermetical monasticism of early Christianity, or to live an Apostolic life. [215] Religious pilgrimages were also encouraged. Old pilgrimage sites such as Rome, Jerusalem, and Compostela received increasing numbers of visitors, and new sites such as Monte Gargano and Bari rose to prominence. [260]

In the 13th century mendicant orders—the Franciscans and the Dominicans—who swore vows of poverty and earned their living by begging, were approved by the papacy. [261] Religious groups such as the Waldensians and the Humiliati also attempted to return to the life of early Christianity in the middle 12th and early 13th centuries, another heretical movement condemned by the papacy. Others joined the Cathars, another movement condemned as heretical by the papacy. In 1209, a crusade was preached against the Cathars, the Albigensian Crusade, which in combination with the medieval Inquisition, eliminated them. [262]

War, famine, and plague

The first years of the 14th century were marked by famines, culminating in the Great Famine of 1315–17. [263] The causes of the Great Famine included the slow transition from the Medieval Warm Period to the Little Ice Age, which left the population vulnerable when bad weather caused crop failures. [264] The years 1313–14 and 1317–21 were excessively rainy throughout Europe, resulting in widespread crop failures. [265] The climate change—which resulted in a declining average annual temperature for Europe during the 14th century—was accompanied by an economic downturn. [266]

These troubles were followed in 1347 by the Black Death, a pandemic that spread throughout Europe during the following three years. [267] [AB] The death toll was probably about 35 million people in Europe, about one-third of the population. Towns were especially hard-hit because of their crowded conditions. [AC] Large areas of land were left sparsely inhabited, and in some places fields were left unworked. Wages rose as landlords sought to entice the reduced number of available workers to their fields. Further problems were lower rents and lower demand for food, both of which cut into agricultural income. Urban workers also felt that they had a right to greater earnings, and popular uprisings broke out across Europe. [270] Among the uprisings were the jacquerie in France, the Peasants' Revolt in England, and revolts in the cities of Florence in Italy and Ghent and Bruges in Flanders. The trauma of the plague led to an increased piety throughout Europe, manifested by the foundation of new charities, the self-mortification of the flagellants, and the scapegoating of Jews. [271] Conditions were further unsettled by the return of the plague throughout the rest of the 14th century it continued to strike Europe periodically during the rest of the Middle Ages. [267]

Society and economy

Society throughout Europe was disturbed by the dislocations caused by the Black Death. Lands that had been marginally productive were abandoned, as the survivors were able to acquire more fertile areas. [272] Although serfdom declined in Western Europe it became more common in Eastern Europe, as landlords imposed it on those of their tenants who had previously been free. [273] Most peasants in Western Europe managed to change the work they had previously owed to their landlords into cash rents. [274] The percentage of serfs amongst the peasantry declined from a high of 90 to closer to 50 percent by the end of the period. [170] Landlords also became more conscious of common interests with other landholders, and they joined together to extort privileges from their governments. Partly at the urging of landlords, governments attempted to legislate a return to the economic conditions that existed before the Black Death. [274] Non-clergy became increasingly literate, and urban populations began to imitate the nobility's interest in chivalry. [275]

Jewish communities were expelled from England in 1290 and from France in 1306. Although some were allowed back into France, most were not, and many Jews emigrated eastwards, settling in Poland and Hungary. [276] The Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, and dispersed to Turkey, France, Italy, and Holland. [79] The rise of banking in Italy during the 13th century continued throughout the 14th century, fuelled partly by the increasing warfare of the period and the needs of the papacy to move money between kingdoms. Many banking firms loaned money to royalty, at great risk, as some were bankrupted when kings defaulted on their loans. [277] [AD]

State resurgence

Strong, royalty-based nation states rose throughout Europe in the Late Middle Ages, particularly in England, France, and the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula: Aragon, Castile, and Portugal. The long conflicts of the period strengthened royal control over their kingdoms and were extremely hard on the peasantry. Kings profited from warfare that extended royal legislation and increased the lands they directly controlled. [278] Paying for the wars required that methods of taxation become more effective and efficient, and the rate of taxation often increased. [279] The requirement to obtain the consent of taxpayers allowed representative bodies such as the English Parliament and the French Estates General to gain power and authority. [280]

Throughout the 14th century, French kings sought to expand their influence at the expense of the territorial holdings of the nobility. [281] They ran into difficulties when attempting to confiscate the holdings of the English kings in southern France, leading to the Hundred Years' War, [282] waged from 1337 to 1453. [283] Early in the war the English under Edward III (r. 1327–77) and his son Edward, the Black Prince (d. 1376), [AE] won the battles of Crécy and Poitiers, captured the city of Calais, and won control of much of France. [AF] The resulting stresses almost caused the disintegration of the French kingdom during the early years of the war. [286] In the early 15th century, France again came close to dissolving, but in the late 1420s the military successes of Joan of Arc (d. 1431) led to the victory of the French and the capture of the last English possessions in southern France in 1453. [287] The price was high, as the population of France at the end of the Wars was likely half what it had been at the start of the conflict. Conversely, the Wars had a positive effect on English national identity, doing much to fuse the various local identities into a national English ideal. The conflict with France also helped create a national culture in England separate from French culture, which had previously been the dominant influence. [288] The dominance of the English longbow began during early stages of the Hundred Years' War, [289] and cannon appeared on the battlefield at Crécy in 1346. [243]

In modern-day Germany, the Holy Roman Empire continued to rule, but the elective nature of the imperial crown meant there was no enduring dynasty around which a strong state could form. [290] Further east, the kingdoms of Poland, Hungary, and Bohemia grew powerful. [291] In Iberia, the Christian kingdoms continued to gain land from the Muslim kingdoms of the peninsula [292] Portugal concentrated on expanding overseas during the 15th century, while the other kingdoms were riven by difficulties over royal succession and other concerns. [293] [294] After losing the Hundred Years' War, England went on to suffer a long civil war known as the Wars of the Roses, which lasted into the 1490s [294] and only ended when Henry Tudor (r. 1485–1509 as Henry VII) became king and consolidated power with his victory over Richard III (r. 1483–85) at Bosworth in 1485. [295] In Scandinavia, Margaret I of Denmark (r. in Denmark 1387–1412) consolidated Norway, Denmark, and Sweden in the Union of Kalmar, which continued until 1523. The major power around the Baltic Sea was the Hanseatic League, a commercial confederation of city-states that traded from Western Europe to Russia. [296] Scotland emerged from English domination under Robert the Bruce (r. 1306–29), who secured papal recognition of his kingship in 1328. [297]

Collapse of Byzantium

Although the Palaeologi emperors recaptured Constantinople from the Western Europeans in 1261, they were never able to regain control of much of the former imperial lands. They usually controlled only a small section of the Balkan Peninsula near Constantinople, the city itself, and some coastal lands on the Black Sea and around the Aegean Sea. The former Byzantine lands in the Balkans were divided between the new Kingdom of Serbia, the Second Bulgarian Empire and the city-state of Venice. The power of the Byzantine emperors was threatened by a new Turkish tribe, the Ottomans, who established themselves in Anatolia in the 13th century and steadily expanded throughout the 14th century. The Ottomans expanded into Europe, reducing Bulgaria to a vassal state by 1366 and taking over Serbia after its defeat at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Western Europeans rallied to the plight of the Christians in the Balkans and declared a new crusade in 1396 a great army was sent to the Balkans, where it was defeated at the Battle of Nicopolis. [298] Constantinople was finally captured by the Ottomans in 1453. [299]

Controversy within the Church

During the tumultuous 14th century, disputes within the leadership of the Church led to the Avignon Papacy of 1309–76, [300] also called the "Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy" (a reference to the Babylonian captivity of the Jews), [301] and then to the Great Schism, lasting from 1378 to 1418, when there were two and later three rival popes, each supported by several states. [302] Ecclesiastical officials convened at the Council of Constance in 1414, and in the following year the council deposed one of the rival popes, leaving only two claimants. Further depositions followed, and in November 1417, the council elected Martin V (pope 1417–31) as pope. [303]

Besides the schism, the Western Church was riven by theological controversies, some of which turned into heresies. John Wycliffe (d. 1384), an English theologian, was condemned as a heretic in 1415 for teaching that the laity should have access to the text of the Bible as well as for holding views on the Eucharist that were contrary to Church doctrine. [304] Wycliffe's teachings influenced two of the major heretical movements of the later Middle Ages: Lollardy in England and Hussitism in Bohemia. [305] The Bohemian movement initiated with the teaching of Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake in 1415, after being condemned as a heretic by the Council of Constance. The Hussite Church, although the target of a crusade, survived beyond the Middle Ages. [306] Other heresies were manufactured, such as the accusations against the Knights Templar that resulted in their suppression in 1312, and the division of their great wealth between the French King Philip IV (r. 1285–1314) and the Hospitallers. [307]

The papacy further refined the practice in the Mass in the Late Middle Ages, holding that the clergy alone was allowed to partake of the wine in the Eucharist. This further distanced the secular laity from the clergy. The laity continued the practices of pilgrimages, veneration of relics, and belief in the power of the Devil. Mystics such as Meister Eckhart (d. 1327) and Thomas à Kempis (d. 1471) wrote works that taught the laity to focus on their inner spiritual life, which laid the groundwork for the Protestant Reformation. Besides mysticism, belief in witches and witchcraft became widespread, and by the late 15th century the Church had begun to lend credence to populist fears of witchcraft with its condemnation of witches in 1484, and the publication in 1486 of the Malleus Maleficarum, the most popular handbook for witch-hunters. [308]

Scholars, intellectuals, and exploration

During the Later Middle Ages, theologians such as John Duns Scotus (d. 1308) and William of Ockham (d. c. 1348) [225] led a reaction against intellectualist scholasticism, objecting to the application of reason to faith. Their efforts undermined the prevailing Platonic idea of universals. Ockham's insistence that reason operates independently of faith allowed science to be separated from theology and philosophy. [309] Legal studies were marked by the steady advance of Roman law into areas of jurisprudence previously governed by customary law. The lone exception to this trend was in England, where the common law remained pre-eminent. Other countries codified their laws legal codes were promulgated in Castile, Poland, and Lithuania. [310]

Education remained mostly focused on the training of future clergy. The basic learning of the letters and numbers remained the province of the family or a village priest, but the secondary subjects of the trivium—grammar, rhetoric, logic—were studied in cathedral schools or in schools provided by cities. Commercial secondary schools spread, and some Italian towns had more than one such enterprise. Universities also spread throughout Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. Lay literacy rates rose, but were still low one estimate gave a literacy rate of 10 per cent of males and 1 per cent of females in 1500. [311]

The publication of vernacular literature increased, with Dante (d. 1321), Petrarch (d. 1374) and Giovanni Boccaccio (d. 1375) in 14th-century Italy, Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400) and William Langland (d. c. 1386) in England, and François Villon (d. 1464) and Christine de Pizan (d. c. 1430) in France. Much literature remained religious in character, and although a great deal of it continued to be written in Latin, a new demand developed for saints' lives and other devotional tracts in the vernacular languages. [310] This was fed by the growth of the Devotio Moderna movement, most prominently in the formation of the Brethren of the Common Life, but also in the works of German mystics such as Meister Eckhart and Johannes Tauler (d. 1361). [312] Theatre also developed in the guise of miracle plays put on by the Church. [310] At the end of the period, the development of the printing press in about 1450 led to the establishment of publishing houses throughout Europe by 1500. [313]

In the early 15th century, the countries of the Iberian Peninsula began to sponsor exploration beyond the boundaries of Europe. Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal (d. 1460) sent expeditions that discovered the Canary Islands, the Azores, and Cape Verde during his lifetime. After his death, exploration continued Bartolomeu Dias (d. 1500) went around the Cape of Good Hope in 1486, and Vasco da Gama (d. 1524) sailed around Africa to India in 1498. [314] The combined Spanish monarchies of Castile and Aragon sponsored the voyage of exploration by Christopher Columbus (d. 1506) in 1492 that discovered the Americas. [315] The English crown under Henry VII sponsored the voyage of John Cabot (d. 1498) in 1497, which landed on Cape Breton Island. [316]

Technological and military developments

One of the major developments in the military sphere during the Late Middle Ages was the increased use of infantry and light cavalry. [317] The English also employed longbowmen, but other countries were unable to create similar forces with the same success. [318] Armour continued to advance, spurred by the increasing power of crossbows, and plate armour was developed to protect soldiers from crossbows as well as the hand-held guns that were developed. [319] Pole arms reached new prominence with the development of the Flemish and Swiss infantry armed with pikes and other long spears. [320]

In agriculture, the increased usage of sheep with long-fibred wool allowed a stronger thread to be spun. In addition, the spinning wheel replaced the traditional distaff for spinning wool, tripling production. [321] [AG] A less technological refinement that still greatly affected daily life was the use of buttons as closures for garments, which allowed for better fitting without having to lace clothing on the wearer. [323] Windmills were refined with the creation of the tower mill, allowing the upper part of the windmill to be spun around to face the direction from which the wind was blowing. [324] The blast furnace appeared around 1350 in Sweden, increasing the quantity of iron produced and improving its quality. [325] The first patent law in 1447 in Venice protected the rights of inventors to their inventions. [326]

Late medieval art and architecture

The Late Middle Ages in Europe as a whole correspond to the Trecento and Early Renaissance cultural periods in Italy. Northern Europe and Spain continued to use Gothic styles, which became increasingly elaborate in the 15th century, until almost the end of the period. International Gothic was a courtly style that reached much of Europe in the decades around 1400, producing masterpieces such as the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. [327] All over Europe secular art continued to increase in quantity and quality, and in the 15th century the mercantile classes of Italy and Flanders became important patrons, commissioning small portraits of themselves in oils as well as a growing range of luxury items such as jewellery, ivory caskets, cassone chests, and maiolica pottery. These objects also included the Hispano-Moresque ware produced by mostly Mudéjar potters in Spain. Although royalty owned huge collections of plate, little survives except for the Royal Gold Cup. [328] Italian silk manufacture developed, so that Western churches and elites no longer needed to rely on imports from Byzantium or the Islamic world. In France and Flanders tapestry weaving of sets like The Lady and the Unicorn became a major luxury industry. [329]

The large external sculptural schemes of Early Gothic churches gave way to more sculpture inside the building, as tombs became more elaborate and other features such as pulpits were sometimes lavishly carved, as in the Pulpit by Giovanni Pisano in Sant'Andrea. Painted or carved wooden relief altarpieces became common, especially as churches created many side-chapels. Early Netherlandish painting by artists such as Jan van Eyck (d. 1441) and Rogier van der Weyden (d. 1464) rivalled that of Italy, as did northern illuminated manuscripts, which in the 15th century began to be collected on a large scale by secular elites, who also commissioned secular books, especially histories. From about 1450 printed books rapidly became popular, though still expensive. There were around 30,000 different editions of incunabula, or works printed before 1500, [330] by which time illuminated manuscripts were commissioned only by royalty and a few others. Very small woodcuts, nearly all religious, were affordable even by peasants in parts of Northern Europe from the middle of the 15th century. More expensive engravings supplied a wealthier market with a variety of images. [331]

The medieval period is frequently caricatured as a "time of ignorance and superstition" that placed "the word of religious authorities over personal experience and rational activity." [332] This is a legacy from both the Renaissance and Enlightenment when scholars favourably contrasted their intellectual cultures with those of the medieval period. Renaissance scholars saw the Middle Ages as a period of decline from the high culture and civilisation of the Classical world. Enlightenment scholars saw reason as superior to faith, and thus viewed the Middle Ages as a time of ignorance and superstition. [16]

Others argue that reason was generally held in high regard during the Middle Ages. Science historian Edward Grant writes, "If revolutionary rational thoughts were expressed [in the 18th century], they were only made possible because of the long medieval tradition that established the use of reason as one of the most important of human activities". [333] Also, contrary to common belief, David Lindberg writes, "the late medieval scholar rarely experienced the coercive power of the Church and would have regarded himself as free (particularly in the natural sciences) to follow reason and observation wherever they led". [334]

The caricature of the period is also reflected in some more specific notions. One misconception, first propagated in the 19th century [335] and still very common, is that all people in the Middle Ages believed that the Earth was flat. [335] This is untrue, as lecturers in the medieval universities commonly argued that evidence showed the Earth was a sphere. [336] Lindberg and Ronald Numbers, another scholar of the period, state that there "was scarcely a Christian scholar of the Middle Ages who did not acknowledge [Earth's] sphericity and even know its approximate circumference". [337] Other misconceptions such as "the Church prohibited autopsies and dissections during the Middle Ages", "the rise of Christianity killed off ancient science", or "the medieval Christian Church suppressed the growth of natural philosophy", are all cited by Numbers as examples of widely popular myths that still pass as historical truth, although they are not supported by historical research. [338]

Ancient and Medieval

The striking example of ancient and medieval art is Saint Michael and the Devil which was drawn by Spanish artist Bartolomé Bermejo in 1468. Probably it is the altar’s central panel in the church of San Miguel in Tous, near Valencia. Full title of this work of art is Saint Michael triumphant over the Devil with the Donor Antonio Juan. Used materials are oil and gold on wood. The creation’s size is 179.7 x 81.9 cm.

I have chosen this work of art because it is an impressive picture which reflects the main characteristics of medieval art. It is an example of religious art. An interesting phenomenon of medieval religious art is representation of the donor. The donor in the situation of paintings is the person or group of persons who order and pay for the creation of the work. Sometimes donors depicted within the work which become a means of expressing their faith. In our example donor is Antonio Juan, Lord of Tous. He is shown kneeling on the left. He holds a Psalter open at two penitential Psalms: 51 and 130. There is the victorious archangel Saint Michael achieving triumph over his enemy. The devil is shown here as a compound and grotesque monster. It combines elements from different animals such as snakes, ducks and frog. It is typical way of demons’ presentation for northern European art of the late medieval period. Figure of archangel towers up over the donor and the devil. The shining panoply, red and golden mantle, big wings and elegance express archangel’s realm sublimity verses the prosaic world populated by the donor.

Thus, the creation of Bartolomé Bermejo called Saint Michael triumphant over the Devil is striking example of religion medieval art. This picture units such distinctive characteristics as theme of art, main characters (archangel, donor and demon), way of demon’s and archangel’s expression.

Harper, A., Proctor, C. (2008). Medieval Sexuality: A Casebook. Routledge, …

Teaching beyond the borders of medieval art

Utah State students examine manuscripts

[Guest post by Alexa Sand, Professor of Art History, Utah State University]

As recent discussions within the field of medieval studies and medieval art history in particular have made clear, there are politics to the way in which we organize our survey courses and present the “Middle Ages” to our students. In the wake of some disturbing recent expressions of racism, Eurocentrism, and religious bigotry from within the ranks of medievalist academicians, the need to critically examine how and what we teach is more urgent than ever. As I set out to redesign my upper-division medieval art survey course for the spring semester of 2018, I challenged myself to think beyond the standard narratives and outlines that shaped the textbooks and syllabi from which I had been taught, and from which educators continue to teach the topic. I developed a research-focused, student-engagement-centered curriculum that, while retaining the chronological organization of a traditional survey course, turned away from an exclusive focus on “the west” to present a more varied, multicultural, and fluid picture of what “medieval” means.

The five units of the course allowed students to explore in depth periods and regions as different as eighth-century Northumbria and twelfth-century Sicily, and to trace cultural exchange back and forth across boundaries of religion, language, and geographical or ethnic identity. While it felt strange to downplay the narratives that had always shaped my syllabi in the past, this new, somewhat more fragmentary approach allowed the students to delve deeply into topics and ideas more often passed over as mere indices for example, they learned not only to recognize the stylistic origins and cultural significance of the interlaced motifs in early Insular book arts, but also to reproduce these motifs using the mathematical and geometric tools developed by monastic artists to generate complexity and connectedness. Subsequently, students were much more attentive to methods of construction and composition across all media whether looking at the interior of the dome of the Great Mosque at Cordoba or at the labyrinth pavement at Chartres, they were sensitized to the way in which abstract, linear forms express complex social, religious, and aesthetic concepts.

A variety of both online and in-class assignments tapped into my students’ varied training as designers, artists, and scholars my goal was to give them a sense of ownership of the material by engaging with it on their own terms. Several students, both those representing the majority culture at USU and those from URM groups, expressed a sense of wonder and pleasure at discovering that the Middle Ages wasn’t “just a bunch of knights and cathedrals,” as one student put it. Many class discussions turned from the historical material towards contemporary issues, and readings that emphasized the uses to which the Middle Ages, and in particular its visual culture, have been put encouraged students to think about how we make (art) history in the image of our own beliefs and blind spots. In this post, I will discuss my pedagogical choices, share my syllabus and some student work (with their permission), and investigate what worked, what did not, and why.

I began the process of redeveloping my syllabus with the question of how to teach the art of the Middle Ages in a relevant and compelling way suited to the particular demographic of my typical upper-division survey classroom. This includes a majority of white students from the Intermountain West, many of whom are active members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, and many of whom have never travelled far outside our semi-rural, semi-suburban region of northeastern Utah. In addition to these majority-population students, a significant minority of students who identify as Latinx, Pacific Islander, or Native American Indian characterizes the student body in our department. Furthermore, only two or three out of all the students in any upper-division art history class are art history majors most are studio art or design majors seeking their BFA or BID, and few are non-art majors from other humanities departments, such as History, English, or Classics. Once in a blue moon, I will have a student from a STEM field taking the class for breadth distribution requirements. This means that my students tend to have the following characteristics:

  • Little or no knowledge of the Middle Ages
  • Little experience of cultural difference
  • Little sense of prior investment in art history

As I always do when planning a new course, I used a backward design approach (Wiggins and McTighe, 1998 and 2001), asking myself at the outset what my desired results would be. Whereas in earlier iterations of the course I identified these in terms of historical content, scholarly practice, and art historical theory, for the spring of 2018, I added specific language about the contemporary relevance of medieval art history. In addition to my usual focus on integrating research skills into my instruction, I wanted my students to walk away from the course with some transferable learning about multiculturalism, about the ways in which historical narratives shape the present, and about how the study of the Middle Ages might help them see past the glib stereotypes of identity and ethnicity that shape so much of the discourse they encounter in the media.

The change was expressed in my Learning Objectives:

  • 2016
    • To build your knowledge of the range of artistic forms, styles, and iconographies of the Middle Ages in their historical contexts
    • To strengthen your written and oral communications skills, particularly in regard to the critical analysis of visual works and to the comprehension and integration of scholarly perspectives
    • To introduce you to the methods of research and criticism that form the basis for the discipline of art history
    • Develop general knowledge of medieval history and culture, specifically in regard to the visual arts
    • Understand the connection between “doing” medieval art history and questions of contemporary concern, such as cultural diversity, religious intolerance, violence
    • Improve writing and oral communications through both formal and informal, group and individual writing and presentations
    • Build fundamental and transferable research skills

    The next question in the backward design process has to do with assessment: how will I know if students are progressing towards these outcomes? Keeping in mind that many of my students are visual thinkers, and that high-stakes writing assignments freak them out, I decided to use frequent, varied, and low-stakes assignments, some individual and some collaborative, to keep my finger on the pulse of their learning. This made it easy for me to conceptualize the course as a series of modules with parallel, but not identical assignments that gradually expanded the range of skills, knowledge, and understanding demonstrated.

    I planned five such modules, each running three weeks, to fit our fifteen-week semester. This meant that every three weeks, students would have an opportunity to reflect on what they had learned and what questions they still had, and I would get useful feedback that would allow me to adapt upcoming instruction to their learning. The final assignment in each module was therefore a questionnaire that looked something like this:

    1. Which readings were most useful or interesting to you in this unit, and why?
    2. Which readings did you find least useful or most difficult, and why?
    3. Was the feedback you received on your catalog essay helpful, how, or how not? Do you feel that you learned any new writing skills, and if so, which?
    4. Do I have your permission to publish your essay, with your name attached, on a wordpress site I’m developing about teaching multicultural medieval art history? Please write “Yes” or “No”
    5. How difficult, on a scale of 1-10 would you rate the Thematic Presentation, and what were the challenges, if any? What would you do differently next time you are asked to present with a partner?

    Along with this opportunity to reflect on and critique the course, I always provided them with debriefing notes: these were my general observations about their preparation for classroom discussion, their oral and written communications, and other elements of the coursework. This way, a two-way discussion of how things were going could take place frequently.

    The content of the five units was the crux of the course planning – it had to deliver on my commitment to take the concept of a multicultural Middle Ages seriously, and it had to follow at least a somewhat chronological structure so that my students, many of whom were encountering medieval studies for the first time, would not become completely disoriented.

    So, I started by looking at my typical syllabus, which usually took a theme (in 2016 it was “Transgression”) and explored it through a fairly linear narrative beginning with a comparison of post-classical and “Northern” art in the seventh century, and culminating with the art of Italy in the early fourteenth century – basically the standard syllabus for medieval surveys as established in existing textbooks. The implied continuities, and the implied central narrative of this approach gave students a strong sense of historical flow, but lacked traction for the discussion of diversity. I always felt I was struggling to “work in” material like Visigothic metalwork or Spanish Gothic architecture because it didn’t fit into the continuous picture I was trying to paint. Furthermore, I often felt like the breadth of the course forced me to sacrifice the experience of digging deeply into the material.

    My first decision, then, was to leave the continuity and breadth elements up to the students – they would have to find the connections between our different topics on their own. Instead, I would essentially give them five case studies, and these would not necessarily be the expected cases I would focus on areas or groups that might seem, in the lens of the textbook narrative, more peripheral. Seeking to expand the geographic and religious landscape of “medieval” within the limits of my own expertise, I identified the following cases:

    1. Book culture in Ireland and Northumbria in the 6th-9th centuries
    2. Court arts in Al-Andalus in the 8th-10th centuries
    3. Power and politics in Bavaria and Northern Italy in the 10th-12th centuries
    4. Narrative art in zones of Norman occupation in the 11th-12th centuries
    5. “Gothic” as a multicultural phenomenon in the 13th-14th centuries

    Within each unit, I focused on particular media (for example book arts, or ivory carving), institutions (monasticism, Caliphal marriage and inheritance), and/or modes of expression (narrative, allegory). Gender was also a theme that ran through all units of the course, especially 2, 3, and 5. The unit structure gave me space to introduce each case-study in a broad, contextual lecture, and then move into much more detailed and focused examination of particular objects or monuments in the subsequent two weeks of the unit. Readings from a variety of sources ranging from museum websites to scholarly journals and monographs formed the backbone of each week’s lecture, discussion, and in-class activities.

    In order to meet my goal of communicating the contemporary relevance of medieval art history, I also included in each unit a reading or viewing assignment or an in-class activity that looked at twentieth- and twenty-first-century appropriations of the medieval. For the first unit, this was an in-class discussion of “Celtic” tattoos and jewelry inspired by Maggie William’s Material Collective blog post of August 2017. In unit four, it was an online “Pinterest” style assignment in response to Isabelle Dolezalek’s essay, “Fashionable Form and Tailor-Made Message. Transcultural Approaches to Arabic Script on the Norman Kings’ Mantle and Alb,” in which students posted pictures of modern fashion that appropriates medieval imagery they then wrote informal commentary on how such works deploy medievalism in ideological terms [Isabelle Dolezalek, “Fashionable Form and Tailor-Made Message. Transcultural Approaches to Arabic Script on the Norman Kings’ Mantle and Alb,” The Medieval History Journal, 15/2 (2012): 243-268].

    Attached to each unit was a substantial research and communications assignment (the course meets a university general-education communications-intensive requirement, so writing, visual communication, and oral presentation are central to its structure). Each assignment took a different form so that students would have exposure to a variety of ways of practicing and disseminating research. The first unit’s assignment was a catalog essay, building on skills students have already developed in the introductory art history survey. Each student wrote on a single folio of an Insular manuscript, and after revisions, these essays became part of a wordpress site “Multicultural Medieval History” which is intended to serve as a platform for sharing some of my ideas about the course and to showcase student work (very much work-in-progress). The second unit involved students working in pairs to develop a PowerPoint presentation on a thematic strand of their choosing public speaking skills, collaboration, and good design principles for visual aids were the emphasis here. The third unit, which emphasized patronage, was again an individual project – each student designed a small ‘zine on a patron (individual or corporate) and the works associated with that patronage. This allowed students to combine scholarly research with visual and verbal communication aimed at a broader, non-scholarly audience.

    The assignment for the fourth unit turned out to be the most intensive, and the most productive. Students were placed into group discussions on the course-management platform (Canvas) each group had an assigned source text in translation and a work of narrative art. They were asked to read their primary source (all of these were literary texts with narrative elements), and study the images, and then respond, in a group forum, to a series of five questions I posed to them about the relationship between the way narrative elements were handled in the verbal and visual texts. The writing they did for this assignment far exceeded the usual quality of text and image analysis for undergraduate papers, perhaps in part because they knew their peers were seeing what they wrote, and in part because of the cumulative and iterative nature of the writing. This is an assignment I could easily see reproducing across all my courses, and the students agreed with me that it got them writing much more deeply and thoughtfully than they were accustomed to doing.

    The final unit’s project was far less structured and was designed to tap into the strengths of the students as artists and designers. They were invited to choose an individual or collaborative mode of production, a topic related to the course material, and an outcome this open-ended approach, I have found, only works when students are already comfortable with the research process, having done more scaffolded work earlier in the course. This particular assignment, for me, was crucial in determining whether the students really got the course objectives: the research and communication skills, the knowledge base, and the understanding of the Middle Ages as heterogenous, diverse, and decentered.

    Here is a link to the syllabus, which anyone is welcome to plunder, but if significant portions are used, I’d like to be given credit.

    The Students and Their Work

    I had twenty-eight students enroll in the class, and all but two stayed through to the end of the term. Unfortunately, both students who dropped represented POC groups, which drastically reduced the cultural diversity in the class in one case the student’s health issues led to a withdrawal from the university, but in the other, the student’s need to work eclipsed his ability to take the class, a fact that, had I had known it before he withdrew, I would have done my utmost to mitigate. I felt like this was a typical example of how URM students often do not receive the advantage of student-support programs simply because they are not aware that they can ask for help. In future versions of syllabi for all my classes, I plan to add some language encouraging students to be assertive about seeking help from me, from their academic advisor, and from student services if conflicts with family or work obligations arise. This may seem a bit tangential to the topic here, but given that one of my ambitions for the class was to make the study of the Middle Ages more welcoming to students ordinarily excluded from the white, Christian image of the period, it was frustrating to lose even one such student in this way.

    The tri-weekly “debriefings” were one of the elements that I felt worked extremely well for me and for the students. One indicator of the success of this method of dialogue-based feedback and self-reflection were the “Student Ratings of Learning on Relevant Objectives” in the IDEA course evaluations at the end of the semester 100% of the respondents (about 73% of the class) rated their attainment at a 4 or 5 on a scale of 1-5. Several students commented to me or on their course surveys that they appreciated the opportunity they had to critique the course materials and assignments.

    Another indicator of student attainment of the learning objectives was the quality of the work students produced, both in class and as homework this improved steadily throughout the semester, in terms of both its written and visual content. One assignment common to all five units was that students were required to take hand-written notes on class meetings and on all readings and videos I gave them individual critique on these notes, but I also included general observations in the debriefings, and almost all the students were taking better, more useful notes by the end of the semester than they had taken at the beginning.

    I have already mentioned some of the work that students produced for the major assignments associated with each unit. Here are a few examples:

    Unit I: Catalog Essays – the four examples here represent the best work from students in the class. Access them here.

    Unit II: Thematic Presentations – These were PowerPoint presentations accompanied by commentary from the partners who had created them. It’s a little difficult to capture the experience in a static form next time I will use lecture capture technology to get their live performances! Access them here.

    Unit III: Patronage Mini-Zines – These individual projects allowed students to focus on some of the artworks they had encountered in the unit and on the people associated with their production. They also had to solve some design problems about how to convey the material. I think the technical challenge was a bit much for some of them, even using the template I provided.

    Unit IV: Narrative Art in Word and Image – This project was complex and interactive, so it’s a bit hard to illustrate. Each group of 4-5 students had a primary source text and a work of art with narrative content, and I asked them a series of questions, to which they responded in a discussion format. The writing that some of them did for this assignment blew me away in terms of insight, finesse of visual description, and critical thinking about narrative. The pairings were:

    • The Song of Roland and the Bayeux Embroidery
    • The Vie de Saint Alexis and the Alexis Quire from the Albani Psalter
    • The Auto de los Reyes Magos and the Infancy cycle capitals from the Chapterhouse of the Collegiate Church of Saint-Lazare, Autun
    • Le Chevalier de la Charette Chrétien de Troyes and Modena, archivolt of the Porta della Pescheria

    And the questions, which were asked over a period of two and a half weeks, were of this nature:

    Even in translation, you can get a sense of literary style elements of repetition, metaphor, exaggeration, diminution, testimonial, questioning… any of these could be hallmarks of a literary style. What are the stylistic features of the text, and how do they relate to its subject matter? Compare these to the artistic style of the pictorial narrative. Elements of artistic style might include figure style (naturalistic, exaggerated, childlike), drapery/garment style (patterned, folded, looped, fluttering), spatial setting (deep, shallow, implied, depicted), depiction of time (episodic, continuous, “flashback”). Are the verbal and pictorial narratives similar or different in their styles, and why might this be?

    Unit V– These projects were diverse, though I think my favorite was a crocheted doll that could be dressed in various historically accurate costumes to represent a range of different medieval women (ranging from Central Asia to Ireland) who were known patrons and connoisseurs of the arts. A cookbook that explored medieval food from a graphic-designer’s perspective was also pretty cool. Access it here.

    Overall, I was fairly pleased with the course revision. Naturally, the student feedback gave me plenty of ideas for improvement and streamlining. As usual, I overloaded the students with readings, and I will cut back on those in the future, replacing unpopular readings with more relevant material at the same time. The ‘zine project needs a lot of tuning, too – turning it into something more hand-made might spark additional creativity and allow students to spend more time doing research on their topic and writing good prose, and less time trying to figure out how to format the booklet. I would also like to introduce at least one major research/communications assignment that focuses more specifically on multiculturalism and on the medieval-modern connection.

    The final, creative-response projects gave me a good sense of how the students had come to understand the Middle Ages broadly that is, whether they had a sense of historical continuity and geographical particularity, whether they had developed an appreciation for the diversity of cultures and peoples, and what they had learned about the contexts for the production and use of visual art. Unlike a final exam, where I could direct them to reveal this learning through pointed questions, I had to rely on them to produce this information. It was striking to me how many of them did, without specific prompting.

    On the other hand, the fact that the class was so modular, and that it lacked the final, unifying exercise of an exam, meant that I felt less confident about the attainments of some students than I would have liked. The students who produced the cookbook, for example, did not clearly demonstrate that they understood that there were different food cultures (and therefore different vessels and implements for cooking and eating) throughout the period under consideration. To address this, in the future, I may place some additional constraints on the creative response project, and introduce an element in its grading rubric that specifically looks at these learning objectives.

    Two students from the course, my math and statistics major (now an art history minor), and an art education BFA major, have gone on to turn their final creative engagement projects into independent research projects, and this, to me, is a major sign of success. Their curiosity was so sufficiently sparked that they took it beyond the semester and the classroom/for-credit setting.

    One question that a number of medievalist art historian colleagues have raised with me when I’ve discussed my approach to this revision is whether it doesn’t “dilute” the really important art historical content. It is true that my students do not necessarily learn the architectural elements of a Romanesque portal, and they may not be able to identify specific masterworks such as the Stavelot Triptych or the Psalter of Louis IX. They would struggle to write an essay exam about the role of Abbot Suger in the early development of the Gothic style in architecture. But I am not sure this is necessarily a drawback, and it might even be an advantage in some ways. Not being bound to a particular set of recognized masterworks and not having memorized canned narratives about change through time allows them to look at all products of medieval visual cultures in a more balanced way they can bring to bear on any work, no matter how insignificant or difficult to classify it might be under the usual schemes of art history, the same critical attention, the same openness to the possibility that this thing, this object or building or fragment, might have something to say. I acknowledge that something is lost I still think it is important to know who Abbot Suger was and what he wrote (and I do not entirely leave him out of the course). On the other hand, at this moment when our field is struggling to combat an identification with white, Christian Eurocentrism (at the very least, and violent white supremacism at the very worst), I think we need to be particularly willing to examine every potential shibboleth of our practice as teachers and scholars. What if the history of medieval art begins far from Rome? What if the art of the European Middle Ages is as much a product of trade relations with Asia and Africa as it the outcome of erudite Latin theological concepts? Recent scholarship on medieval materiality has turned us toward these questions one of my students’ favorite readings was Sarah Guérin’s essay, “Avorio d’ogni ragione: the supply of elephant ivory to northern Europe in the Gothic era.” We owe it to our students to teach medieval art history both as it is being practiced by leading scholars today, and as we wish to see it practiced going forward.

    Earlier, I stated that I wanted my students to walk away from the course with some transferable learning about multiculturalism, about the ways in which historical narratives shape the present, and about how the study of the Middle Ages might help them see past the glib stereotypes of identity and ethnicity that shape so much of the discourse they encounter in the media. Did I succeed in this? A long discussion in the penultimate week of class, when we were speaking about urban Jews in Spain and Germany in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, led me to believe that at least the seeds had been planted. Few of my students have ever encountered Jewish people (or if they have, they haven’t been aware of it), and they peppered me with questions about the relationship between the historical diversity of medieval Jews and modern Jewish heterogeneity. Few had even heard of “Ashkenazi” and “Sephardi” (far less Mizrahi or Ethiopian) Jews, and none had been aware of the history of Jewish presence in western Europe since antiquity. What began as a discussion of Nina Rowe’s scholarly work became an eye-opening discussion of modern politics and religious tribalism. They were visibly excited and stirred up by all of this, and I was not surprised when one student wrote, in the free-response portion of the student course survey, “I never expected a medieval art history course to teach me something about the world today. I am an Irish dancer, with Celtic roots, but now I see the whole issue of my family’s pride in these things as more complicated than I thought.”

    About the Material Collective

    As a collaborative of students of visual culture, Material Collective seeks to foster a safe space for alternative ways of thinking about objects. We strive for transparency in our practice, and we encourage the same in our institutional surroundings.

    Feminism & Art

    This class will look at how feminist thinking has impacted the arts—both by looking at the work of women artists influenced by these ideas since the 1960s, and by considering how a feminist lens can change the way we look at art made throughout history, and even the category of art itself. Because this is a vast project, this lesson uses just one or two artistic examples per theme, and offers them in relation to subjects likely to have come up in past lessons, in order to engage students in critical thinking rather than attempt a historical narrative.

    • Constructs and Performances of Masculinity and Femininity
    • The Personal is Political—and Art is Personal and Political
    • History, Myth, and Narration—Deconstructed and Reconstructed

    Chronologically, “Feminist Art,” a category of art made by women consciously aligning their art practices with the politics of the Women’s Rights Movement and feminist theory, emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This means a class on feminism will come quite late in the semester, if not on the last half of the last day, if at all. A lecture on Feminist Art can be a good opportunity to reflect on the narrative of art history that has unfolded over the course, and point toward ways that more advanced courses or continued study in art history might critically complicate that story.

    Consider past material covered with the class—how have women appeared within the course? As subjects mostly, as patrons occasionally, and very infrequently as artists, writers, or figures of power. How much have we learned about the lives and impact of women throughout history from online resources used over the semester, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Timeline of Art History or the BBC’s The History of the World in 100 Objects? Why might that be?

    Use this prompt to start a discussion about the many ways gender bias can affect our understanding of history. Ask your students to take a few minutes in groups to answer the question above, referring to concrete examples from the course, before coming back together as a class. As a group, try to compile a list of the material/economic/societal role limitations faced by women in different periods, as well as the biases of historians and contemporary evaluators of “importance” who often believe that their criteria of what is important is universal, without recognizing how their judgment is shaped by the particularities of their privileged positions. Also note biases of categories and values, such as the hierarchy of painting (with genre/women’s scenes at the bottom) or the hierarchies of mediums themselves, with painting “crafts” at the bottom.

    Another effect of gender bias in our accounts of history can be illustrated by a slide from the Prehistory lesson, showing a contemporary white male professor demonstrating how cave painters would blow paint around their hand, together with a discussion of the recent scientific analysis showing that these “signatures” of the early cave painters were mostly made from women’s hands.

    Show students the slide, and ask them if they remember it (if it appeared earlier). Ask if anything struck them as strange about it when they first saw it. How about now, in the context of this class? If you don’t get any answers, you can start prompting them to think about who was likely to commission or use the image (scientists, professors) and how closely the “stand-in” figure for the original artists of all of human history looks to the stereotype of a professor or scientist, visually suggesting the women and minorities were unlikely candidates to fill either role. Then pass out or hyperlink to an article reporting on the new findings and have the class read it quickly. What strikes them about the article—what kinds of assumptions underlie the surprise it expresses? How are the slide and the tone of revelation in the article connected?

    Background Readings

    Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, 1964, Performance.

    Some background readings for teachers that are both foundational feminist art historical texts and address various applications of the topic outlined above (women artists, art historical value judgements, subtle inscriptions of power and difference on contemporary artist biographies) include:

    Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” ARTnews (January 1971), 22–39, 67–71.

    Griselda Pollock, “Feminist Interventions in the Histories of Art” (1988), in Eric Fernie, ed., Art History and Its Methods (London: Phaidon Press, 1995), 296–313.

    Anna Chave, “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power,” Arts 64:5 (January 1990), 44–63.

    If the survey text book includes a section on feminist art, you can include that for students’ background reading, though it is likely to be quite short. As preparation for class discussion, the Brooklyn Museum’s Curatorial Overview for Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party gives not only great background on the work, but a good overview of the art context from which it emerged, as well as numerous feminist strategies used in this and other feminist works over the decades. If this is the reading assignment, the lecture section on The Dinner Party could be redesigned so that students are responsible for presenting on specific ideas (historical revisionism, women’s work, “central core” imagery, etc.). For a shorter and more general introduction, Blake Gopnik’s review of the exhibition WACK! is a lively polemic, and can be used to prompt debate or inspire “review-style” writing assignments.

    Video resources fall into two categories—about artists’ practices, like Art21, which features feminist-associated artists such as Nancy Spero, Kara Walker, and Kiki Smith, and museum-produced videos, like this great interview with Wangechi Mutu as well as the wealth of original performance art and video works available on YouTube and UbuWeb. (Another incredible video resource, the uncut interviews used for !Women Art Revolution, are hosted by Stanford and perfect for crafting a class report/research assignment.)

    Most concise and great for a pre-class overview might be the Tate’s recently posted “Where are the Women?” featuring Girls star and aspiring painter Jemima Kirke. At the end of the video, she raises the issue of “revisionist art history,” noting that how best to address women’s erasure from history is still hotly debated. This is a debate that you could choose to have at the end of class or via a written response afterward.

    Content Suggestions

    Deconstruction: a method of critical analysis of philosophical and literary language that emphasizes the internal workings of language and conceptual systems, the relational quality of meaning, and the assumptions implicit in forms of expression. (via Merriam-Webster)

    Feminist art: work that is rooted in the analyses and commitments of contemporary feminism and that contributes to a critique of the political, economic and ideological power relations of contemporary society. It is not a stylistic category nor simply any art produced by women. (via Grove Art Online)

    Historical revisionism: the reinterpretation of orthodox views on evidence, motivations, and decision-making processes surrounding a historical event. Though the word “revisionism” is sometimes used in a negative way, constant revision of history is part of the normal scholarly process of writing history. (via Wikipedia)

    Performativity: an interdisciplinary term often used to name the capacity of speech and gestures to act or consummate an action, or to construct and perform an identity. Performativity reverses the idea that an identity is the source of more secondary actions (speech, gestures). Instead, it inquires into the construction of identities as they are caused by performative actions, behaviors, and gestures. Performativity problematizes notions of intention and agency it complicates the constitution of gender and subjects. (via Wikipedia)

    Postmodernism: a host of late-twentieth century movements, many in art, music, and literature, that react against Modernist tendencies and are typically marked by revival of historical elements and techniques. Postmodernism is often associated with deconstruction and post-structuralism because its usage as a term gained significant popularity at the same time as twentieth-century post-structural thought. (via Wikipedia)
    Feminism first manifested in the arts as a sudden eruption of questions and criticism—an awakening among women artists, writers, and thinkers who believed they had serious grounds upon which to challenge the notion that women were naturally less talented, less motivated, or less interested/interesting than men. Instead they argued that women had been systematically and structurally kept from paths of achievement, but also that even when they overcame those limitations, their achievements were in other ways co-opted, ignored, or erased and finally, that the notion of achievement was itself relative and defined by male values.

    Over the course of this class, we’ll look at how this thinking impacted the arts—not just art made by women, but the entire field—as it was forced to rethink some of its basic tenets and most cherished beliefs about itself. Instead of being seen as simply tracing, preserving, and celebrating the great cultural achievements of humankind, feminism forced art theory and history to consider the roles they might have played, by separating art as a special, elevated category of human production predominated by male artists, critics, and patrons, in creating the impression that women were inferior, not just in the arts, but in all elevated aspects of human achievement.

    The key ideas of this lecture can be explored in an hour and fifteen minutes through a variety of examples listed below by theme, including:

    Constructs and Performances of Masculinity and Femininity

    To understand the disruption that feminism caused, it is helpful to think about the context of American culture just before feminism gained momentum. On one hand, the 1950s and 60s in America had perhaps some of the most rigid ideas of what was appropriate and acceptable behavior for each gender since the Victorian era, and in post-war America, the rise of TV and mass media culture allowed those ideals to be naturalized and widely disseminated, regardless of how attainable or true they might be to people’s actual experience. For example, the idea that all women could or should be happy housewives was a powerful message across the nation, despite the fact that women had proved capable of working in a variety of fields during WWII, and that poor women and women of color were never really factored into this fantasy of femininity.

    At the same time that people’s expectations and experiences were being highly policed according to gender, the values of high art were focused on the universal, transcendent potential of abstraction—the idea, as we talked about in relation to Abstract Expressionism, that art was meant to be a purely visual medium, only about itself and its own potential for innovation, and as such an expression of human creativity, freedom, and existence in abstract and universal terms. Art “about” something specific was seen as trivial and the implication was clear that those who weren’t moved by abstract art were just not culturally evolved enough to appreciate it, rather than that it might not be as relevant for some people’s experiences as for others’.

    • Jackson Pollock at work in his studio, 1950. Photograph by Hans Namuth
    • Carolee Schneeman, Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions, 1963, Paint, glue, fur, feathers, garden snakes, glass, and plastic with the studio installation “Big Boards.” Photograph by Erró

    (For further discussion of these works, see this interview.)

    Depending on your preference, perhaps present these two images side by side without identifying captions at first, and invite the class to respond to what they see on screen. Begin with a compare and contrast discussion of Schneeman’s image in relation to Pollock’s, which will presumably be familiar and recently covered material.

    What are we looking at in Schneeman’s image? Multi-panel collaged paintings, with elements of the real world (á la Rauschenberg) included in the structure. In each of the series of photos, the artist’s naked painted body is presented as part of the tableaux. Schneeman’s artwork becomes unstable, an evolving set of potential images activated by her performance, and her body and its difference refuses to be transcended—her body is embedded, encrusted in the surface of the work just as Pollock’s masculinity had been read into his paintings, but without ever having to make itself visible.

    You may remember that we talked about the way Pollock drip paintings were interpreted as ultimate modernist paintings all about painting and flatness, as psychological deposits of artistic angst or quasi-spiritual existential pourings of his inner being, but also as Action Paintings: the canvas as an “arena on which to act.” In Pollock’s context all of these interpretations were cast in the most masculine terms—bravery, facing the abyss, attacking an opponent (notice it isn’t a stage for dancing, but an arena, like a boxing match). The next generation of artists would be inspired by the idea of the body itself becoming part of the work, or the medium of art itself, but feminist artists in particular would focus on the performance of the body as not just any body, but always a gendered body that is read differently, expected to have certain qualities and behaviors, and therefore bound to interact, perform in, and experience the world differently. This fact that the artist’s body plays a part in his/her work, as well as the idea of art as a performance rather than an object, are taken to their literal culmination in the series of photographs directed by artist Carolee Schneeman called Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions (1963).

    (See here for further information.)

    Carolee Schneeman, who trained and thinks about herself primarily as a painter, has continued to work in ways that blur the boundaries between static and durational formats. She was at the forefront of Happenings and performance art in the early 1960s, performing in works such as Claes Oldenburg’s Store Days (1962), Robert Morris’s Site (1964), and directing and performing in her own exuberant Meat Joy (1964). She then began making experimental films that were hand-colored, highly textured, and mixed abstract and very specific, highly personal imagery (most famously, Fuses, 1965). While her work is now considered groundbreaking, during the early part of her career she faced a lot of discrimination from the avant-garde film world, which was even more of a boys’ club than painting. Like painting under the influence of Clement Greenberg, art films had taken the idea of medium-specificity to its extreme, so that the most highly praised films were about technical aspects of filmmaking, like the zoom or editing, or about the conditions of projecting film, like light and darkness, or dirt accumulating on the surface of the film strip.

    Schneeman’s most widely reproduced work, Interior Scroll (1977), is a performance during which she unravels and reads a text from her vagina. Through the images alone, this piece seems to be very rooted in the experience of the body, about nature and fertility from the womb, but the text Schneeman reads has nothing to do with vaginas, wombs, or fertility, as you can see from the excerpt on the screen [perhaps ask students to read aloud, or the instructor can read aloud and ask for an interpretation/summary in response]. The text is really a snarky, pointed response to the gendered value systems of the art world, which may pose as neutral but were set up to privilege male voices and only allow women to speak if they agree to speak like men. Schneeman is challenging what seemed to her (and others) as the suspicious side-effect of Greenbergian Modernism and the minimalism and linguistic conceptualism that followed. That is, the time when it was first possible for women and minorities to find voices in the larger culture and access the refined halls of high art conveniently coincided with a push for art to have no narrative, to be something purely aesthetic or conceptual about the nature of art, rather than the story of the artist or to be entirely about the viewer<‘s interpretation of an abstract, analytic proposition instead of reflecting the artist’s personal experience.

    (Extended discussion here, artist’s reflections here)

    Performance became a favored medium for feminist artists because it was both new, without a long history that excluded them, like painting’s, but also because it always foregrounded the degree to which experience is based in bodies that are differentiated by gender, as well as race, class, and other such socially divisive categories. These two powerful performance pieces emerged at almost the same moment from what we might say was a gender-neutral interest in Conceptual Art, that is in making work using instructions as a way of relinquishing or limiting the artist’s control over the work. Yoko Ono’s instructions for her piece read: “Performer sits on stage with a pair of scissors in front of him. It is announced that members of the audience may come on stage—one at a time—to cut a small piece of the performer’s clothing to take with them. Performer remains motionless throughout the piece. Piece ends at the performer’s option.” Vito Acconci’s piece is based on the self-determined rule that he would pick a stranger walking along a public street and follow them until they went into a non-public place, an activity that could last anywhere from a few minutes to eight hours.

    How would you interpret each of these pieces separately—what kinds of metaphors and philosophical ideas do each mobilize? How does that giving up of control signify differently? How do the artists’ gendered bodies affect how we read these pieces? How are their symbolisms and affects different?

    Both investigate issues of control and ego as well as the relationship between the individual and others in a social/relational field, but in comparison also suggest oppositions such as passivity versus aggression. It is interesting that Acconci’s idea of giving up control looks like stalking, and Ono’s looks like submission. Is this because of the way they constructed their experiments to circumvent control, or because of the way we read their bodies in action? It could be a little of both. Ono’s piece can be performed by a man, and when it is it reads very differently, though never ominously like the photos of Acconci. But when it is Ono on stage, the implications resonate in a variety of directions, and many do relate to a certain kind of body—interpretations related to sexual violence or female objectification are common evocations of sensitive imagery from World War II of Japanese civilians with their clothes shredded by the atomic blast and from the escalating Vietnam War are also put into play. Yet, Ono also wanted to challenge Western, masculine value systems that see submission as weakness, and she speaks eloquently about being influenced by stories of the Buddha and attempting to “produce work without ego in it…Instead of giving the audience what the artist chooses to give, the artist gives what the audience chooses to take” (statement by the artist).

    The Personal is Political—and Art is Personal and Political (whether it’s obvious or ideologically naturalized)

    By investigating how different types of bodies have different experiences in the world, and lead to different interpretations and responses to artworks, feminist artists helped make visible the powerful insight of the slogan “The Personal is Political,” which was used widely by the Women’s Rights Movement. As women around the country came together to talk about what felt like isolated, private experiences—from sexual abuse to dissatisfaction with housework—that society tended to cast as individual failings on the woman’s part, they realized their “personal” problems were in fact widely shared, and politically structured aspects of society.

    Likewise, women and minority artists started resisting the idea that art would only be valid if it wrestled with concepts that transcended the “personal,” especially if speaking of personal, but shared, experiences had the power to unite classes of people who felt isolated by the silence surrounding anything that differentiated their experience from the “universal.” For if art was to be important to people’s lives, shouldn’t it be able to address highly personalized and yet widely-shared experiences such as sexism and racism? If art was always appealing to the universal human, it was bound to ignore the specific challenges and exclusions placed on certain categories of humans. Also, the question was raised whether there was really anything universal and neutral in art related to mathematical logic or formal abstraction, since these were all areas that had been dominated by and played to the (socialized) strengths of upper class, white men. Maybe Minimalist sculpture was just as personal for the men making it—speaking to the industrial towns they came from, their technical training and fondness for engineering, spare aesthetics, and a denigration of emotionality.

    • Adrian Piper, Mythic Being: Cruising White Women #1 of 3, 1975, Photograph of performance
    • Adrian Piper, My Calling Card #1, 1986, Lithograph

    (For more information on Piper and/or a great opportunity to discuss Wikipedia and how it creates and polices its content, see her removed and reconstructed Wiki-bio.)

    As a light-skinned, mixed-race woman working first in the style of Conceptual Art, with artists who were interested in art as logical proposition and art as language, Adrian Piper was uniquely placed to press against the presumed universality of these abstract propositions. While Conceptual artists saw their work as political in its resistance to commodification and easy consumption, Piper started to invoke more personal, what we might call “identity” politics.

    Piper started by performing strange actions in public, like Acconci, as a way to investigate social interactions—for example, going out with a rag stuffed in her mouth or covered in wet paint and wearing a wet paint sign. But it quickly became clear to her that there is no neutral body, and so working with one’s own body is to work with identity, identity constructions, and social definitions. Piper was at the forefront of turning performance back on itself, as a commentary on the ways in which all identity is performance, and as a tool for considering how we all play roles for each other based on social expectations that exist prior to realizing what we might consider our unique, innate, or self-determined personalities.

    In Mythic Being (great article on this here), Piper overidentifies with the role most feared by the art world—instead of being the token, unthreateningly pretty, light-skinned African-American girl, she would show up as a revolutionary-looking, urban black man with an Afro.

    Piper did performances dressed as the Mythic Being, going to gallery openings, dancing at the bus stop, and walking the streets muttering lines from her diary to herself over and over. In Cruising White Women (1975), she performs the stereotype at the root of the racist fear of black men on the sexual prowl for white women, and returns it as commentary. Through photos for a gallery-going audience, she showed them their own world-view as caricature and impersonation, a performance she put on to meet their paranoid fantasies. And what could be more personal—both the way people are type-cast and judged by their appearances, and the reactions of the traditional gallery-going audience to the eruption of politics in their pristine white spaces?

    In a later work, Piper again used artistic intervention as a tool for combating her real-world experiences with racism and sexism, producing “calling cards” that she would hand out discretely in social situations, which call people out on racist or sexist behavior.

    • Martha Rosler, Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful (Giacometti), 1967–72, Photomontage
    • Martha Rosler, Body Beautiful or Beauty Knows No Pain (Cargo Cult), 1967–72, Photomontage

    (Further discussion here overview/review of artist’s retrospective here.)

    So “The Personal is Political” can mean that our personal experiences, and the world that shapes them, is inherently and overtly political, and it can be the ground for political movements and the reason for political change (as in the Women’s Rights Movement, seeking political responses to women’s inequality). But “The Personal is Political” also means that each of us, as an individual, exists in a political nexus, acts as an economic, social, political being, and is part of the body-politic that acts on our behalf—whether in local or international matters. In the context of the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-War Movement, the Women’s Movement, and the counter-culture, sexual liberation, and leftist politics of the 60s and 70s, “The Personal is Political” also meant that the micro-level choices each of us make on a daily basis are unavoidably political at macro-level, and need to be examined. As feminist art pushed against abstraction to re-introduce subject matter and overt political critique into work, the critique of sexism could be seen in relation to other kinds of political critique.

    The late 1960s and early 1970s magazine collages of Martha Rosler center around American capitalism and the degree to which desire, as guided by mass media imagery from magazines, TV, film, and advertising, drives consumption. On the one hand, this system helps create and then profit from our pursuit of restrictive, highly gendered, and generally unattainable social ideals. On the other, it necessitates the aggressive economics of globalization and spurred the politics of the Cold War, in which any country (like Vietnam) that didn’t accept American economic imperialism would face American military imperialism.

    Rosler’s collages about the false promises of advertising use the photomontage technique pioneered by Hannah Hoch and other Dadaists to create uncomfortable juxtapositions. On the left, a luxurious, art-filled, serene interior, sold by magazines such as House Beautiful as the ideal home for which we should all strive, is shown to be surrounded by fields of dead Vietnamese from Life Magazine. What are the details of this living room that carry meaning and how might this carefully selected interior help the artist make her point, or deepen that point? A Giacometti sculpture, often interpreted as an existential cry against WWII, becomes just decoration, a commodity for these art-collectors—or can’t they see the relation between European deaths and Vietnamese deaths? A Modernist painting on the wall also problematizes the idea that Modernist painting is the best hope for politically avant-garde or revolutionary potential in art as it easily becomes beautiful decoration for rich people’s homes, its past radicalism dissipates with time.

    Rosler’s collages also play on the idea of the Vietnam conflict as the “living-room war,” so-called because it was the first war widely covered and broadcast by TV news to a growing majority of Americans with TV sets in their home. The question of how one could see such images of carnage, however, from the comfort and safety of the American home and not be moved to action is one that these collages seem to ask but are unable to answer.

    On the right, the beauty rituals of perfect white models are pasted onto shipping containers being loaded by dark-skinned men from places far away onto cargo ships, linking capitalism’s success in focusing women on the relentless pursuit of physical perfection with the relentless pursuit of cheaper labor markets in the third world.

    Through these collages and her video works, Rosler makes clear that the personal couldn’t be more political. The stereotypes and ideals society lays out for women and men not only shape us as individuals, but this shaping process is guided by the interests of the larger political and ideological situation. Here you could mention the video Martha Rosler Reads Vogue (1982) as a prompt for a writing assignment responding to and analyzing the video’s various critiques and strategies.)
    History, Myth, and Narration—Deconstructed and Reconstructed

    The ability to analyze, critique, and re-think this shaping process underpins another strategy and segment of feminist art and theory. Feminist artists, other critical postmodern artists, and many artists working today have realized that individuals come to understand themselves and their world in relation to narratives and images that pre-exist them, and that they are shaped by the biases and interests of society. Thus their work came to focus on the narratives that shape us, investigating how these can be updated, diverted, or disrupted. Historical revision, as we talked about at the beginning of class, and as you read about in relation to Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, is one response to the erasures and absences in history that might make women believe in their own inferiority.

    If you had the students read the curatorial overview on the website, use this as an opportunity to stop lecturing and have them explicate the important aspects of this project. To make this more manageable and make them feel more responsibility, you could assign summaries for different sections to different groups in the previous class, i.e., one group shares background on the artist, another shares why the use of textiles and porcelain were important, another explains “central core” imagery, etc. Or, you can guide a discussion broken up into pieces: what are the subjects or issues raised by this work? What are the goals it pursues? How does the form of the work, the mediums and iconography used, and the method of display relate to its subjects and its goals?

    To give historical context, remind students that this was before women’s studies classes, at a time when one of Chicago’s college professors felt comfortable declaring that women had made no important contributions to history, and when the best compliment most art teachers would bestow on their female students was that they “paint so well, [one] can’t tell a woman did it.”

    When Judy Chicago became an art professor, she decided to work with a group of female students to investigate questions such as: what would a woman’s art look like if she wasn’t trying to make it look like a man’s? How do we build a visual language of our own, when the entire history of art, the entire range of visual culture has been defined by and organized around the ideals and achievements of men? Why have women’s creative work and the mediums available to them—tapestry and textile, ceramics and pottery, and other crafts—been demeaned, and can we bring them into the high art classification? And why does history only consider individual achievement, focusing always on lone producers and innovative sudden creation, instead of communal, traditional, and evolutionary achievements building on continual progress through the work of many? (This is a more accurate understanding of historical movements, after all.)

    So after creating the Feminist Art Program at California State University, Fresno in 1970, Chicago started to work on a project in 1974 that would seek not only to revise the male-centric Western canon, but to challenge many of the values that went along with it. The Dinner Party uses “central core” imagery instead of phallic forms to unify the table and the plates. The work was produced by a community, with many hands and helpers involved, and showcases crafts associated with women’s work.

    Not only a massive artistic undertaking, it was an intense historical research project that helped uncover and share knowledge about over 1,000 women whose stories had been lost. Remember, this was before Google, so finding each name and information on these women was more than a click away—and yet, in early 2014, the Brooklyn Museum sponsored a special Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon to add many of the women from The Dinner Party to Wikipedia. The most common source for quick knowledge on a subject, Wikipedia is created by volunteer submissions and each article requires easily sourced materials, meaning the site often reproduces the biases of traditional histories and the volunteer-editors, who are predominantly male.

    (More about this project is here, and a Smarthistory essay is here.)

    Instead of trying to correct the record of a biased history, many critical artists, especially in the later 70s and 1980s, became increasingly interested in trying to deconstruct the way stories—historical stories, media stories, news stories—all work to shape how individuals present themselves and conform to or perform as certain roles.

    Cindy Sherman’s multiyear project Untitled Film Stills consists of almost a hundred photographs, each of which appears to be a still from a movie featuring a lone female protagonist. What information can we gather from each image? What do we think we know about these women? What about the movies they are in? Why do we think we can make these guesses? The clichéd nature of these images remind us that the outward signs we are reading—clothing, poses, lighting, framing—are legible because they are familiar, shared by our social conditioning. Therefore, just as publicity stills can rely on these signs to tell audiences what to expect, we as individuals learn and then position ourselves in relation to these kinds of signs, or performances of personality. This performance, and its flexibility and manipulability, are made clear by the fact that Sherman was the model for all 80+ of the images—doing her makeup and costuming and setting her stages so that she could be thoroughly convincing as each and every one of these women in entirely fictional and unrealized film projects.

    By showing the same person, these are “self portraits” of the artist, but without ever showing the “real” Cindy Sherman, they call the idea of a stable, set, “real” individual into question. Andy Warhol, who had his own critique of media culture, famously said in a 1966 interview, “I don’t know where the artificial stops and the real starts.” Here we see the impossibility of constructing an authentic identity outside of all of the artificial images that we are fed, which provide models of womanhood, American-ness, whiteness, success, seduction, etc. that we use to construct identity.

    [Optional:] As Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs showed us (if this work has been covered), we can’t identify a real chair except in relation to the word “chair,” which is an ideal with no equivalent in reality. Similarly, we understand ourselves and others in relation to abstract ideas that can never avoid simplifying or idealizing the thing they refer to.

    Sherman’s project offers new insights into how we think about ourselves as individuals and as part of a larger society. We dress a certain way to be perceived as X or Y. Women in particular at this time were asked to fulfill incongruous roles—the sexual playmate and the housewife, the secretary and the devoted mother—and would find that even within one’s individual life, even if the social restrictions on women lessened, they weren’t then free to find some true, authentic self or true essence of womanhood beneath all these clothes and roles. Rather, individuals seemed to be accumulations of roles, of performances, of signs we’ve learned to give off that tell people what to think about us. And while bodies may be biologically assigned as male or female, the performance of femininity or masculinity is something we learn, like we learn language, as babies mimicking what we hear around us. Therefore, there could be no essential or universal experience of what is it to be a woman, because how women and men are asked to perform changes depending on the context in which these signs are learned.

    However, with the rapid expansion of media images in the 20th century—photographs, then movies, then TV, especially in the Western world and America in particular—there became the ability for industry to control and capitalize on this shaping of identities, proliferating available roles but also homogenizing the signs and styles that go with those roles. In many ways, it was this homogenous and oppressive vision of the perfect housewife that had caused so many women in the 50s and 60s to feel suffocated, and ultimately rebel en mass in the Women’s Movement. Arguably, Sherman’s work suggests that that goal of critical feminist art is not to find an essential, shared characteristic, style, or iconography that speaks truthfully or authentically of womanhood or woman’s experience, but to realize how ideas of femininity are constructed and disseminated in the media age, find ways to uncover the mechanisms of control, and in doing so, undermine their effectiveness.

    • Barbara Kruger, Untitled (We Won’t Play Nurture to Your Culture), 1983, and Untitled (We Don’t Need Another Hero), 1987, Photostats

    (Further discussion is here and a good overview and images are here.)

    Similarly, Barbara Kruger’s iconic red and white posters use the visual language of marketing and magazine design to counter the very ideas it is usually used to promote—consumerism, power relations, stereotypical gender roles, the cult of individual achievement, autonomy, and upward mobility—which mark the American ethos, especially during the revived conservatism of the Ronald Reagan years. Having worked as head designer for Mademoiselle magazine, Kruger subversively tweaks the combination of familiar (often nostalgic-seeming), found black-and-white images and slogan-style text bars which are typically used to aggressively sell products but also calibrated to subliminally sell ideas about who you are as a reader, audience, consumer, etc. Kruger makes clear the way advertising asks us to position ourselves in relation to the ideas it is selling by always using ambiguous personal pronouns (we, you, they, us) in her texts. This means that the “We” in “We don’t need another hero” is determined by the imagination or inclination of the person reading it. Is the “We” spoken by the little girl in pigtails, by women as a category, by all people who read the poster, by all anti-heroes? Who is the “You” in “We won’t play nature to your culture”? Whose culture and why is it separate from nature? Who would be asked to play nature and do you include yourself in that group or the other?

    Kruger doesn’t identify her work as strictly feminist, but about all of the power relations that affect us as subjects and about which we need to think critically. Another way that her work performs this expansive criticality is by not being contained within museums or galleries, but often appearing as billboards, on buses, city streets and in other public places, and on consumer products like t-shirts and matches that can move about and interrupt our daily acceptance of the status quo.

    This expansion of feminist critical strategies to encompass an elaborate nexus of power relations affected by a range of identity-formations (gender, race, class, sexual difference) and geopolitical positions, and a desire to intervene in public, non-art spaces and systems, increasingly mark the work of contemporary artists. These artists often are less inclined to call themselves feminist artists, but nonetheless unabashedly work with and build on strategies, subject matter, artistic mediums, and theoretical approaches that blossomed at the intersection of feminism and art in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

    At the End of Class.

    Use the segue at the end of the lecture to get the class to summarize strategies, subjects, mediums, and theoretical approaches found in the works covered in class. Encourage students to write them down so they have a list to refer to later.

    Depending upon whether you want to use the post-class assignment to flesh out historical feminist work, or point the way forward, you could ask students to use this list to discuss the feminist approaches and intentions of video work or performances available online, or to consider how feminist strategies and techniques are expanded by contemporary artists to critically address other issues besides gender.

    For the first approach, students could analyze Martha Rosler’s Martha Rosler Reads Vogue, which touches on many themes of the class, or pick another work from the great, often YouTube-linked Bodytracks Timeline. You could ask them to identify feminist strategies, themes, and critiques present in the work, as well as to respond to it from a contemporary perspective. Are the issues still relevant? How are they affected or not by the themes the artist raises?

    For the second approach, addressing contemporary modes of artistic critique related to feminism, perhaps give students the choice of working with one of the three extra slides included at the end of the powerpoint. They can use the artists’ interviews linked below to support their arguments.

    • Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña, The Year of the White Bear and Two Undiscovered Amerindians visit the West, 1992–94, Performance at museums

    Fusco and Gómez-Peña pretend to be newly discovered members of an indigenous tribe, perform racist clichés, and are displayed in cages as African and New World people were shown in Europe.

    • Kara Walker, Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, 1994, Cut paper on wall

    Walker uses delicate outlines and the old-time nostalgia of silhouette cut-out arts to retell fraught narratives of Southern plantation life. Her works surprise the viewer who looks closer to find twisted racial caricatures and sexual escapades that lurk behind grand myths and heroic tales like Gone with the Wind.

    • Mickalene Thomas, Le déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires, 2010, Rhinestones, acrylics, and enamel on wood panel
    • Édouard Manet (1832–83), Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (Lunch on the Grass), 1863, Oil on canvas

    Mickalene Thomas inserts into the history of painting black, sexually self-possessed women who are the objects of her desire and also stand-ins for herself. What are the differences between her work and her source (Manet’s painting Lunch on the Grass)? In her work, she replaces two men with women, so the trio is self-assuring and based on equality, rather than a hierarchy of gender, class, and race. The figures are all clothed, but sexy, enjoying their sexuality but not cheapened or for sale, catching the viewer’s gaze with equal assertiveness.

    For a ready-to-go lesson plan on Mickalene Thomas, consider using this teaching resource developed by the Brooklyn Museum’s Education Department for Thomas’s 2012–3 solo exhibition, Origin of the Universe. In particular, the debate at the end works well as an end-of-class activity.

    Saisha Grayson-Knoth (author) is a PhD Candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center and an Assistant Curator at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum.

    Jon Mann (editor) is an Adjunct Lecturer at Lehman College, a Senior Contributor at Artsy, and a lecture contributor and editor at Art History Teaching Resources and Art History Pedagogy and Practice.

    Kaegan Sparks (editor) is a PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center and a Publication Associate in Critical Anthologies at the New Museum, New York.

    AHTR is grateful for funding from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and the CUNY Graduate Center.

    19th Century Art History Notes

    It was attacked by critics and caused a scandal. This was because the nude women were removed from their allegorical themes (no religous/ fantasy/ mythical themes) Because of that, they thought the painting was pornographic.

    EM's Luncheon On The Grass composition: Contemporary theme
    3 bold figures (a casual nude who looks at the viewer/ two men talking) that do not INTERACT WITH EACH OTHER.
    Instant vision = Off guard postures and faces.
    Reduction of image to bold FLAT areas.
    Shadows reduced to thin lines(can be seen on the woman's arm), as if figures would appear in one large bold flash of light
    Bold flash of light flattens figures
    No intermediate half tones.
    uses of black white and grey
    Spontaneity in the figures: They do nothing

    EM's Luncheon on the Grass is A traditional demonstration piece that combined two concepts in painting, NUDES AND LANDSCAPES. It synthesizes a nude in a still life.

    EM's Luncheon on the Grass Themes Not in the slightest disguise of allegory, idealization or classicizing. It is direct to the point of brashness. (No allegory) There is no moralizing veneer.

    Watch the video: DOCTVGR 360 VIDEO: EMST (August 2022).