Sunday, June 23, 2019

History Repeats Itself

This blog carries on in many different directions and of late it has not gone very far in any of them. Circumstances in my private life have left me much less time to devote to this project, but from time to time I manage to squeeze a bit of time out for it. It has been a while since I have been able to add anything of interest to the portion of my audience which is interested in the Middle Ages and therefore it seemed a good idea to put something here for all of you who are primarily interested in that aspect of this blog.

Reading any history of "The Middle Ages" one will find many generalisations. This is partly due to lack of space and a desire stick to whatever general them is being discussed, but it is also partly due to a false presumption that "The Middle Ages" was a single time period and a single culture. (and, yes, this is also a gross generalisation) Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth and one could write volumes on the diversity of life based on regions within Europe, (which is generally the area inferred when Western authors are speaking of this time-period). Add to that the fact that the medieval period is a span of roughly a thousand years and one should quickly get the idea that almost anything mentioned under a blanket statement of "during the Middle Ages" must be a very broad generalisation with a lot of exceptions being expected.

One thing that has occurred to me as being useful in helping to convey certain aspects of the artistic and creative variety in the Middle Ages, is to compare that time period with a much more recent, and therefore better understood period in modern history. What I am referring to is the (mostly) 18th and 19th century European colonial period.

On the left is a replica of the American President, Abraham Lincoln's birth-
place. On the right, a painting from 1668 of the palace of Versailles as it
was at that time, nearly 150 years before Lincoln was born.

Very quickly and briefly, the point of comparison to be made with these two periods in history is the diversity of quality of life (measured by the quality and quantity of possessions, the availability and prevalence of refined goods and the prevalence of luxury objects) from region to region and distance from primary sources of commerce and industry. To bring the point home quickly, consider that the famous American President, Abraham Lincoln, (born 1809) growing up in his primitive log built house in the forest of the American hinterlands was doing so more than one hundred years after the glorious "Sun King" of France rebuilt Chateau de Versailles. (a continuous work of expansion and remodeling from 1661-1715)

Just as in Australia, South Africa, or the Americas, where most places were more remote, rustic and rudimentary than the cities and towns of Europe from which the emigrants had originated, life in rural Medieval Europe would have been much more "primitive" than what would have been found in large cities such as Rome, Mainz, or Palermo. (A modern reader will be surprised to learn that some of the largest modern European cities, such as Paris and London, had approximately 20,000 residents by the middle of the Middle Ages [1000 ad], whilst other now relatively smaller cities such as Laon, Milan and Regensburg had much higher populations [25,000 30,000 40,000 respectively].) In the colonial territories of the modern era, imported goods were expensive and the lack of sufficient capital and clientele to support the local production of finer wares and goods ensured that on a relative scale, colonists led a more simplified existence than did their European piers, irrespective of their social status. In the 18th century Americas, even the grandest of houses paled in comparison to the chateaus and palatial dwellings of their continental contemporaries. As wealth increased and more goods were manufactured locally and the quality of life increased in urban areas, there was still the same relative disparity in the more remote or "frontier" life in faraway places.

Geographic placement had everything to do with the disparity between these two
pieces of furniture from the time of Louis XIII.

Taking this into account, one should look again at the way we view "life in the Middle Ages" with respect to architecture and personal property. It would probably be a safe assumption that a nobleman living in the northern or western UK or the northern half of Germany would have less opulent personal possessions than would his piers in Central, or southern Italy or the heart of the Franco-Germanic lands in the Middle of the period in question.

One factor that adds another curve to the entire equation, however, is the shifting fortunes, over the thousand years of consideration, of any particular region. Consider for example, the fact that whilst the population of Cordoba Spain in the year 1000 was roughly 110,000, (actually the most populous European city at the time) by the year 1100 it had fallen to 60,000. One could probably assume, that in this area a lot of artists and craftsmen lost their jobs or had to scale back the production of what they had been accustomed to doing. Likewise, the city of  Paris rose from roughly 20,000 inhabitants to 50-65,000 in the same time period. It would be a fair guess that, here, craftsmen made a pretty good living during this time. In fact, there are a lot of surviving architectural and decorative objects which bear out this assessment.

I do not wish to make an absolute connection between remote areas and poor quality of products, because, as I have said in the past, good artists have always been found in every period and every place. The degree to which these craftsmen would have been able to support their craft and the resources which they were able to utilise in their production were very much relevant to the region and time in which they lived and to the degree in which they were able to produce luxurious and opulent objects. An artist working in a remote region with less available resources and less wealthy patrons would generally produce works of a more utilitarian and fundamental quality with an emphasis on practicality and functionality, but one must bear in mind, that even these objects would have been decorated according to vernacular stiles and to the degree of which the patron had paid for.

Two baptismal fonts from the late 11th or early 12th century, both found
in small churches in the UK, but the first is from Portchester, an important
trading town during the 9th-13th centuries. The second comes from a small
church in a remote corner of England, near Wales, a region not particularly
important for anything. (unless you are from there, then perhaps it is)
Both of these fonts, and many others can be found on a website listing all of the known, extant Romanesque artifacts in the UK, and is a fascinating "rabbit-hole" to visit.
Another factor which altered the productive "landscape" of any particular region would have been the discovery or improvements in production of a local natural resource. The area around Rammelsberg in Germany is one such example. This region was far enough away from most of the larger and more prosperous cities of the early Middle Ages to be considered a "remote region". Although mining had been practiced there since the Bronze Age, the increased 9th and 10th century exploitation of the minerals found in the mountain led to the eventual relocation of the Imperial seat of the Holly Roman Empire, with a palace being first built in the town of Goslar (at the foot of the mountain) by Henry II (Heinrich II) in 1005. With the imperial court in the midst of the town and metals being mined and shipped throughout the world, it is doubtless that skilled craftsmen and artisan could be found in abundance in this area, and in fact, the surviving portion of a throne of the 11th century bears witness to the skill of this region. Although mining in the mountain continued almost to the end of the 20th century, by the 13th century the political winds had changed and the imperial court had moved on; doubtless taking some of the skilled trades with it. From the story of this region we could compose a probable anecdotal story of the general rise and fall of the overall quality of craftsmanship in this area.

1875 architectural rendition of the Imperial hall of Goslar, which was
originally built in the 11th century. Sadly, this building is of little use to
a student of early medieval architecture and even less so for the study
of interiors as it spent most of its existence serving other uses to that
of an imperial palace.By the 19th century is was little more than a
ruined hulk.

I have posted this before, but it is a very nice example of what
quality furniture decoration could be in the 11th century

History has had many twists and turns with the rise and fall of empire, commerce and trade, and the story of the arts has gone hand in hand with it, but no matter the degree of flourish or decline, those in the furthest reaches of civilisation would have had a much simpler and more rugged existence than would their more urban/industrialised contemporaries. The goods and possessions locally crated for these individuals would have generally followed, in comparative decorative quality, to those same existing conditions. It was not a "medieval" condition which created artifacts of simple and "crude" form, but rather one of locality and economic factors as was continually demonstrated in every century of human existence right up to our own. (For example, no wealthy rancher in the western state of Wyoming ever built an estate so large or grand at the Biltmore, built by the Vanderbilts in the east of the US during the "gilded age".)


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