he 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.
ou'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
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.
s 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
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.
ome 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.
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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