Sunday, March 8, 2015

It has nothing to do with the age...

Most people have the general idea that everything coming from the roman period was superbly made with perfect symmetry and form,  but, after the "fall" of the empire, Europe was swept into an abysmal "dark Age" from which it took a thousand years to slowly crawl back out. Along with this notion comes its twin, which is the idea that the farther back one goes in the Middle Ages, the more primitive things become. While this may be true to some extent in certain regions and during certain eras, I am dedicating the remainder of my life to utterly shattering that myth as a universal, all encompassing truth.  The reality is much more nuanced and complex. Basically put, time has nothing to do with the quality of the creations that the talented and gifted craftsmen and artists produced during the millennium which we call The Middle Ages. This blog posting will begin to show the truth of this statement.

The following page, from a late 8th century manuscript in the St Gallen Archive, illustrates quite nicely most people's perception of pre-14th century medieval art in general. There is no denying that it is rather naive and primitive in appearance. The "barbaric"/Celtic forms of art are here in their most vivid form, therefore, proof of a standard much lower than what came before...or is it?

A medieval scribe is illustrated in this
civil document from the early stage of
Charlemagne's reign.
St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 731, zt. 234
Here is another page from a different manuscript of the same time period (within fifteen years). The Bibliotheque Nationale states this work as "around 800", but "before 814", Wikipedia however, says it is from about 827, Perhaps they know something the folks in Paris do not?

St Luke Composing his Gospel from the
Gospels of St Medard of Soissons
BNF Lat 8850 fol 11v
I have spent a lot of time pouring over medieval manuscript images, ones that the average person would consider dull and boring; decorated initials and illustrations of columns and arches like those above, which are called Canon Tables, and are used to notate similar passages of scripture among the Four Evangelist. Many of these tables are much simpler than this one, and a few are even more elaborate. Much can be learned from these types of illustrations; even though they usually do not portray any sort of 'picture', (as this one does) they can lend great insight into the manner of ornamentation used at the time of their creation, and show us the quality of workmanship which could be found in their era of execution. Another thing that can be observed about the images from this early time period, is the seeming rivalry between the 'Roman' model and the 'Celtic' mode of decoration (I will use the term "early" to refer to the 6th through 9th centuries, "middle" for the 10th through 13th, and "late" for those of the 13th through 15th. [yes there is some overlap; 1000 cannot be divided neatly into three equal centuries.] I also know that the first 'third' is actually weighted more than the others, but this is to distinguish the phases of development that more or less occurred in the style of art during these time periods. Furthermore, the split between middle and late would better be placed at the second quarter of the 13th century than at is close.). In many manuscripts, one finds either one or the other, wholly, whilst in others there can be a mixing of both types of artwork in separate illustrations, or, even mixed together in the same illustration. The first example would be one of wholly Celtic style, the second, that of a completely Roman model. 

It may surprise some readers, but in reading the 6th through 9th century contemporary writings of persons living in the regions formerly under the control of the Roman Empire, such as Gaul and Germania, the writers spoke of themselves as "Roman" and distinguished themselves from the "Barbarians", who were, by their definition, "not Romanised" Thus, while modern scholars consider the Roman world to have "collapsed" about 500 AD, no one bothered to tell the people living at that time about it, and they went right on considering themselves Roman. The whole bit about Charlemagne being crowned in Rome was to give legitimacy to him as a "western" Roman ruler, as opposed to the "Roman" rulers of the eastern realm, known in English as the Byzantine Empire, but in German as the Oströmische Reich, which translates to English as, the Eastern Roman Empire; this is precisely how it was viewed by contemporary peoples of both regions. (Of course the eastern half also wanted to, and did try, to re-unite the two halves under their control.)

Back to the above illustrations, I can imagine hearing many readers, familiar with the time of Charlemagne, saying, "but just a minute, that second illustration is from the 'Carolingian Renaissance School' also known as the 'Court School' and thus is an exceptional example from a brief bright spot in an otherwise dark age." Well, thank you, I am glad you brought that up, because again, like the first notion which we are discussing, this is a mixture of truth and on.

This next Illustration is another one of those Canon Tables which I mentioned a minute ago; however, in this case, someone never got 'round to filling in the appropriate text. This table is from "some time between 736 and 760", and thus earlier than Charlemagne's ascension as king of France, (768) and at the very least least, forty years before his coronation as Emperor in 800 AD. It is true that after he became Ruler, he did set up a "Court School" to promote the dissemination of learning and the arts throughout his realm, but in order to set up such a school, there must have been available talent, willing and able to come and teach at said school. The blind cannot lead the blind. Charlemagne went throughout the known (to him) world and recruited people (actually his agents did) from nearly every country, thus, there already was an established 'pool' of skilled craftsmen to pick from, before his school was begun. Given politics being what they are, and have always been, this does not even mean to say that the best were necessarily selected, as opposed to the brother's cousin, or the prime minister's best friend etc. etc.who was good at one craft or another and, some favour or other was either given or gotten in the deal. This canon table shows nearly the same level of craftsmanship to that executed by the creator of the second illustration above, yet whomever produced it would, in all likelihood, have been dead and gone before that famed school was ever conceived of . In a world in which students learn from their masters, under a system of apprenticeship, it is actually quite hard to completely erase a skill or craft. 

BL Add. MS 5463 fol 1v
That fact causes me to be baffled, when, in the context of the development or loss of skills and trades, I am confronted with the notion that somehow, whilst the arts of weapons, fabrics, and building continued to evolve and improve during the course of the Middle Ages, people expect me to believe that the art of making furniture was nearly snuffed out, to the point of furniture makers resorting to "dug-out chests, and planks set on tree trunks as tables". I am not making this up, I continuously come across such descriptions of furniture as being the types of furnishings used during the "early" (usually pre-14th century in these writings) middle ages. The following picture is from a Museum in Germany, and is talking about the "earliest forms of a chest" It says the word originated from meaning a tree, and that chests in the earliest time in history were so constructed; and continued to be used in remote places such as alpine valleys, long after the close of the Middle Ages.

To be fair, this museum did not define "earliest time in history" but most people reading this, seem to interpret it to mean "...of the Middle Ages" It is quite probable that at some point in neolithic history, chests were originally made in this manner, but we can go back as long ago as the Minoan civilisation and find representations of chests made with a post and panel construction.

This clay model of a chest comes from the 14th or 15th century BC
(that is 3500 years ago) and clearly shows one of the same forms
 used until at least the 13th century AD in Europe.
Just as the placard in the museum states, however, in some regions of Europe, log chests were made even into the 17th century. A few years ago this two part log chest was for sale at Christies; it was made in the second half of the 16th century.

A "primitive, medieval" chest; except it comes from the
Renaissance; the "age of enlightenment". It is contemporary
with some of the finest furnishings in the top museums.
These two pictures, alone, should demonstrate what was said in the title of this blog; that time had nothing to do with the quality or craftsmanship of an object. I want to knock a few more holes in most peoples notions of the quality of furniture during the medieval period before I go on, however. I mentioned something about planks set up on tree stumps for tables as well. I saved that statement and its source in my files, but it has since been lost and I have not found where I read the original statement again. I do have, though, from the will of Charlemagne, at his death, a brief description of a few of the items he had in his possession. The source of this is from Einhard's Vita Karoli Magni and though the description of most of his possessions are not very explicit, there is one delicious tidbit of information; is well known that among his other property and treasures are three silver tables, and one very large and massive golden one. He directs and commands that the square silver table, upon which there is a representation of the city of Constantinople, shall be sent to the Basilica of St. Peter the Apostle at Rome, with the other gifts destined therefor; that the round one, adorned with a delineation of the city of Rome, shall be given to the Episcopal Church at Ravenna; that the third, which far surpasses the other two in weight and in beauty of workmanship, and is made in three circles, showing the plan of the whole universe, drawn with skill and delicacy, shall go, together with the golden table, fourthly above mentioned, to increase that lot which is to be devoted to his heirs and to alms. (from the Medieval Source-book; this text translated from Latin in 1880)

None of these tables sound anything to me like planks set up on tree trunks! There is, in the 8th century biography of St Eligius, a brief story of him having constructed two chairs of gold and precious stones for the king, these, also were obviously sumptuously made, and had nothing to do with the general image most people have of early medieval furnishings. No one, today, knows exactly what those chairs looked like, because they have long since succumbed to the ravages of time, but there is a chair, from roughly the same time period as those made by St Eligius, which is now housed in the Bibliotheque Nationale, in Paris, and is said to have belonged to Dagobert. It has no jewels or precious stones, but it is still a very well crafted and beautiful chair.
You may look it up yourself on the internet, as there are many images of it, I chose to show this detailed view to demonstrate the skill involved in its making. Since it is cast of brass, this attests also to an whole other line of craft and the skills required to produce such an object.

So far, we have looked at objects from the end of the first third of the Middle ages, what about the 10th,11th and 12th centuries? Surely they were the bleakest of times, and the superb skill and exquisite craftsmanship had vanished by then, right?    Wrong.
Detail of the Dagobert Chair from the end
of the first third of the 7th century

Ivory reliquary in the V&A
mid 11th century

Obviously, someone still knew how to carve ivory in the 11th century...

Heinrichskreuz from the Quedlinburg treasury
early 11th century
they could still apparently work gold and gems...

Meister des Registrum Gregorii
Trier Stadtbibliothek
And without a doubt, this shows that they yet retained the skills to paint.

Years ago, when I first saw an image of this painting, I thought it was a fake, because, I too, had been fed the same notion of the primitiveness of medieval art and could not believe this was produced slap bang in the middle of the "darkest" period of the Middle Ages. On doing more research, I discovered what I am sharing with you now, and continue to discover more of, to this day. These discoveries are, as I said, that there were, in fact, times and places during the course of the Middle Ages, in which primitive, naive, and crude objects were produced; however, at the same time, there were always craftsmen of superb talent who produced impeccable objects demonstrating skill and craftsmanship. 

Please look carefully at the five pieces of furniture depicted in this painting and tell me which one of them looks like it was hewn from a log. The desk alone should dispel anyone's lingering doubts about the existence of finely made medieval furniture. 

From the 12th century, we find, in the Minden Cathedral, an altar or pulpit, which at one time was the back panel of a chair, probably belonging to one of the bishops of the cathedral. There is a book (which seems to be out of print), which is titled, Schatz der Staufers, or something of the sort (not the children's comic book by that name in print now) which featured several beautiful 12th and 13th century carved pieces of furniture, This panel is featured among them in an old photograph, dating from some time in the 19th century; it is depicted with its legs still attached. It is instructive to consider, when viewing such items as any of those which I have featured, that though these might be isolated objects and very rare in terms of their survival, that they did not just appear out of thin air; someone made them, and he did not just make one such object. Each of these pieces is testament to an entire career of a craftsman and his work. 

Former Throne, now as a pulpit front in the Minden Cathedral
Mindener Dom Altar, Ehemaliger Thron des Kaisers um 1170
I have come up with a phrase I like to use, which is that, "A lack of existing evidence is not evidence of a lack of existence.". Happily, though, there is plenty of evidence to prove that although there was plenty of the "crude" and "rustic" produced in medieval times, there were, also, in all periods of the Middle Ages, artists and craftsmen who produced fabulous works of art and artifacts. Man has always been a creature of cunning and skill, and the artists of society have always striven to produce works of outstanding beauty, this spirit was in no ways obliterated or extinguished during the age that is only "dark" because we have not really bothered to turn the lights on. 

In future blog postings, I will be examining other aspects which influenced the quality of items produced during the medieval period, including addressing such questions as to how two manuscripts, from the same country, and at the same time, such as the first two illustrations in this blog, wound up having such a marked difference in quality of workmanship.

Videre Scire


  1. Fantastic post! I hope you'll devote an entry or two to architecture -- particularly the use of glazing and decorative tiles and fountains -- like the early 13th century description of John d'Ibelin's palace with its mosaic floors, fountains and polychrome marble walls! I still have readers who insist medieval noblemen lived in dark, dungy, drafty, smokey castles! Keep this up!

    1. Thank you for your comments. I am also very much interested in architecture and interiors, but do not think I will be posting on the topics any time soon. What I say about furniture and furnishings should be understood as applying to interiors and buildings as a whole.

      I once read this, and have been trying to find where since I read your comment; it comes from Wikipedia...
      The oratory at Germigny-des-Prés... was built by Bishop Theodulf in 806 as part of his Gallo-Roman villa in Germaniacus
      The villa had frescos of the Seven liberal arts, the Four Seasons, and the Mappa Mundi

      Sounds like a dark, draughty, smoky castle to me! (you forgot 'cold' as well!)