My Middle Ages - page 4

The Middle Ages is of course more than buildings and manuscripts and objects, though. It's about people--people who come to life in the pages of the work of writers like Chaucer, the Beowulf poet, the genius who composed Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and my own research subject: Charles of Valois, duke of Orleans.
      People also live in history books, and, if you treat them right, they'll walk out of those history books and into your life--people like Charles' brother, the count of Dunois. He unashamedly styled himself the Bastard because he was--the bastard son of Louis d'Orleans, brother of King Charles VI of France. The Bastard was also a loyal supporter of his older half-brother Charles during the latter's twenty-five year imprisonment in England. A hero on the battlefield, he defended Charles' lands against both the English invaders and the greedy nobles in the lands around Orleans. He managed Charles' estates, husbanded his dwindling funds (ever going to make up the enormous ransom the English demanded for the duke), and supported the cause of Joan of Arc, one of whose primary goals was getting Charles back to France. If there ever was a perfect hero, it was The Bastard, whom Charles' mother Valentina took in out of the generosity of her heart and raised as one of her own.

You'll also encounter medieval people sometimes "in the flesh," or rather in wood or stone. This impressive face belongs to the prophet Jeremiah. The full-length figure, carved in low relief, is part of the portal (doorway) at the little abbey of Moissac, in southern France. He holds a scroll that presumably carried a few words from the book of Jeremiah to identify him. Carved in the twelfth century, the face looks almost Eastern in the style of the hair, beard, and long moustache. The face is extremely peaceful, as if he knows some spiritual secret that takes away the stress and strain of life. It must have been a calming experience for the people of Moissac to walk past him every time they entered or left the church. This figure, too, was probably painted in life-like colors when it was first made. Notice the "jewels" on the collar of his robe, just visible on his right shoulder.

This lady, carved in stone, is from the biblical story of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, the wise ones being those who are faithful. She stands (or rather stood--she's been brought in out of the weather) in the south-west doorway of Strasbourg Cathedral in France. Some sculptor in the thirteenth century saw the possibility of representing her virtue by making her beautiful, and he clothed her very simply in a real-looking belted dress and a cloak with a hood to show off that beauty. In her right hand she holds her pot of oil, identifying her as one of the Virgins. Look at the way the sculptor has carved her left hand holding the ties of her cloak away from her body.

As the Romantics knew in the nineteenth century, there is nothing more touching than the link between beauty and death (so here's my tribute to the Romantics). Late medieval people, though, had no urge to romanticize death in any form, since they had lived through one of the most horrible disasters in human history, the Black Death, a pan-European plague that some scholars say killed as many as a third to a half of all its inhabitants. Compare that estimate to the effects of any disaster you can think of. One result of this mid-fourteenth-century bubonic plague was a dramatic upswing in death imagery in art and literature. It inspired a German artist to create a wooden statue of Death dressed as a monk, and a French artist to create the so-called "Dance of Death," in which he depicted people of every vocation, class, and gender being "danced" out of this world by skeletons. The imagery was a hit, and copies in art and verse followed in profusion.
      Not every death image grew out of the plague experience, however. Medieval people dealt with death in battle (as in the Hundred Years' War) and diseases that were incurable, but they also knew that death was every man's lot, and the wiser among them did not see death as the ultimate enemy. (Come to think of it, in the seventeenth century, John Donne said much the same in his sonnet that begins, "Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful. . . .) In an age of faith, death's victory was only a temporary setback in man's search for God, and the cloistered religious (monks and nuns) taught themselves that lesson by constructing monuments to death to remind each other to "remember death" and be ready for it, so that they could be prepared to spend eternity with God. The monks of the monastery of St. Francis at Evora, in Portugal, lined the inside of a chapel (called an ossuary chapel) entirely with the bones of the monks who had died before them. Thighbones march up the columns, while skull upon skull marks the edges, and the ceiling is painted with more bones and mottos meant to remind the monks to "think on death."
      Is this morbid? Not if keeping death in mind will keep you from dying the Great Death, the one from which you wake up in Hell. Besides, the wise among us today will tell you that being ready to die makes life much sweeter, every day more vividly real, all relationships very special. Medieval men and women weren't masochists; they were on to something.

Some people (even well-educated people) think of the Middle Ages as a dark, boring time, when everyone was poor and spent their days doing nothing but praying. Think about it. People are people, and whether they have cell phones or not, they communicate. Whether they have television or not, they want to be entertained. Whether or not they have The Simpsons, they want to laugh. Whether or not they are pious, they are going to have sex. They are people just like us, neither more nor less good or bad--they just lived in a world where the rules were very different. The folks who made Monty Python weren't far wrong about a lot of things.

W ell, thanks for coming along. Hope you enjoyed the trip. Let me leave you with a great truth about the Middle Ages: those folks even had a sense of humor. If they hadn't, do you think one of them could have created this little pane of stained glass for York Minster??

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Revised 11/05