The Enlightened Middle Ages

Reconstruction of Cluny, the largest church ever built, 1088-1130. Source: K.J. Conant,Carolingian and Romanesque Architecture (Yale 1959).

Medieval Europe was more united from a religious point of view than the politically united Roman Empire. The Roman Empire didn’t include the northern and eastern part of Europe, medieval Europe (500-1500), united larger parts of Europe by (Latin) language, law, universities, scholarship, business, religion and dynasties. Although this unity was more elitist than the Roman common citizenship throughout Europe, many citizens traveled over long distances, to foreign countries and maintained long distance trading networks and correspondence. Students and scholars studied and learned throughout Europe, from Cracow to Paris, from Bologna to Prague. Catalans, Poles, Germans, Italians, Scots, Britons, Flemish or Byzantines, to name just a few ‘nationalities’, lived abroad. Artists became familiar with the latest artistic and technical developments from ‘far away’ countries and art, trade and business flourished.

Nationalistic, geographic and religious barriers as we know them today didn’t exist. The feudal and hierarchical society had other restrictions, but they were based on the system of guilds and descent and not so much on nationality. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London shows the Middle Ages from this perspective. Medieval people laughed, loved and created as well. Art flourished, gothic cathedrals for example, and tecnical innovations were in process. The legacy from ancient times found new parents in cloisters and later universities and wealthy burghers. The restructured Medieval and Renaissance galleries present an outward bound Europe, a crossroad and link with other continents and empires, from Ottoman and Byzantine emperors, to the King of Sri Lanka and Chinese, Arab and Indian rulers. Globalization and capitalism are as old as civilization and a few generations of Communist anomaly and religious extremism can not undo a history of many centuries. The means of communication, life and society may have changed, the patterns from medieval times are still recognizable. The Victoria & Albert Museum is perhaps the first museum that successfully integrated medieval art and society from this perspective. Further information: www.vam.ac.uk.

Reconstruction of Cluny, the largest church ever built, 1088-1130. Source: K.J. Conant,Carolingian and Romanesque Architecture (Yale 1959).