Cultural and Construction History of the Gothic Period Essay

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Gothic Period

Cultural and Construction History of the Gothic Period (13th to 15th Century)

Cultural Environment

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Historians generally define the periodization of the history of Western Europe during the Middle Ages into three eras: the Early Middle Ages (5th-11th Centuries AD); the High Middle Ages (1000-1300 AD); and the Late Middle Ages (1300-1500). Construction of the great Gothic cathedrals began during the High Middle Ages, which was an era that experienced a "dramatic re-emergence of urban life and an increasing sophistication in secular culture" (Singman xi). Major events in the High Middle Ages include the conquest of England by the Normans in 1066, the conflict between the popes and emperors for political control of Europe, and the Crusades. Indeed, the very idea of Europe during the Middle Ages was based on conflict between Christendom and Islam, although no unity existed between the Latin Christians of the West and Greek Orthodox Christians in the East (Delanty 17). In the Late Middle Ages, the Little Ice Age, the great famine and Black Death wiped out 40-50% of the population, and perhaps more in some areas. In addition, the invention of gunpowder and firearms reduced the influence of the knights and the code of chivalry, while social, religious and political crises like the peasant revolts, the Great Schism and Babylonian Captivity challenged the power of the nobility and Catholic Church. Historians have studied the Late Middle Ages far more than the earlier periods, in part because more sources are available, although no overall paradigm exists that "integrates the multiple facets of culture and society of western Europe" (Cantor 563). By 1500, the Reformation, the printing press and the beginning of colonization in Asia, Africa and the Americas ushered in the end of the Middle Ages.

Essay on Cultural and Construction History of the Gothic Period Assignment

Medieval society was characterized by the lack of a centralized state and the political and economic power of the landed aristocracy, which also controlled the military. This feudal system was based of "personal relationships like kingship and patronage" rather than abstract institutions like bureaucracies and corporations (Singman 1). High nobles in England in the 13th Century with an income of 5,000 pounds per years were earning five hundred times more than the poor, and even though landless knights existed there was still a tremendous gulf between commoners and the elite. Aristocrats were about 1% of the population in Western Europe, "but their power and influence were far greater than their actual numbers" (Singman 4). Wealthy capitalists and bourgeoisies began to emerge in the Late Middle Ages, while the labour shortage after the Black Death undermined serfdom and created a class of wealthy peasant farmers, gentry and the lower bourgeoisie. In spite of this, and the peasant and artisan rebellions of the 14th and 15th Centuries, the aristocracy remained in control. Even during the Italian Renaissance, "the great merchant families modelled the political behaviour of the northern grandees" (Cantor 564).

Gothic art and architecture evolved out of the Romanesque style in the early thirteenth century. The development began in France and spread throughout Europe, but centred in Northern and Western Europe. Many European cathedrals and abbeys are Gothic, but this architectural approach is also evident in universities, castles, guild halls, town halls, and palaces. The Gothic provided a natural stylistic transition from the Romanesque to the Renaissance. Its popularity lasted into the fifteenth century (Charles).

Relationship to Previous Periods

The transition from Romanesque to Gothic is not marked by an unambiguous event or change; rather, it was a gradual progression. Gothic figures slowly became more animated and precise in relation to backgrounds or scenery. As with the Romanesque, the Gothic kept the predominance of religious subject matter in its sculptural, painted, and glass expressions. In architecture, the Gothic style continued the Romanesque challenge of building larger cathedrals (Gothic Art). However, its emphasis was different. The Gothic Period was typified by "vast space and lots of light to create an impression of reverence" (Branner 327 -- 33). This contrasted with the dark, bulky, and gloomy Romanesque churches.

The Gothic style correlated with social and cultural changes throughout Europe. Its foundations lay in Christianity, of course, and monumental Gothic art and sculpture was used educationally to tell biblical stories. Yet it arose, as did the Romanesque, in a European environment of increased urbanisation, proliferation of the university system, and facilitation of trade within Europe and externally. Europe was moving toward a capital-based economy. Increased literacy and the establishment of a middle class that could afford to patronize art propelled Gothic into the mainstream (Cahill). Craftsmen artists experienced a new level of exposure.

Contribution(s) to Western Civilisation

The Gothic style, which is still in evidence today, shaped human perceptions. The Gothic became a different way of viewing the human condition. Punter describes this difference skilfully:

In painting and sculpture, just as in literature and poetry, figures become more animated and lifelike, more realistically aligned to the background, and without the exaggeration of previous ages. The use of light and shadow to define the subject in art, the use of subtleness of character in literature all gave the Gothic artist a more humanistic palate from which to draw -- certainly a legacy that helped transition from the overt focus on religiosity to a more secular approach to human culture. (Punter)

Beyond this, the idea that the average household could utilise art such as woodcuts to decorate their homes was an important movement away from feudal drudgery toward a more humanistic appreciation of life (Lilley).

2. Scientific Environment

Only in the West did science become institutionalized in universities during the Middle Ages, which never occurred in China or any of the Islamic societies. Many historians of science regarded the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th Centuries as a radical break of discontinuity with medieval natural philosophy. After all, Galileo denounced Scholasticism and the physics of Aristotle as "the enemy of the new science" (Grant 168). Nevertheless, medieval scholars laid the foundations for modern science by the translation of the Greek and Arabic texts into Latin, and their attempts to reconcile the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle with Christianity. All the new universities founded in Paris, Oxford, Padua and Bologna after 1200 were "different from anything the world had ever seen" (Grant 172). Their curricula were all derived from Greek and Arabic documents and remained in place for the next 500 years. Natural philosophy was at the core of the medieval curriculum, and was not only accepted by the Catholic Church but became accepted orthodoxy. This was widely disseminated throughout Western Europe, and even though the new Renaissance science came into being mostly outside the older universities, these "venerable institutions had already done their foundational work" (Grant 173). By 1300, "the most advanced ancient thought had already been discovered and translated," including algebra, geometry and arithmetic, and some natural philosophers had already begun to move beyond Aristotle into consideration of ideas about gravity, inertia, momentum and the mechanical or clockwork universe (Hannam 177).

Theologians and natural philosophers often attempted to combine the two subjects when discussing the origins of the universe or the proofs of God's existence. Even so, they "rarely allowed theology to hinder their inquiries into the physical world" (Grant 174). Among the most famous of these were Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, Robert Grossteste, John Pecham and Nicholas Oresme. William of Conches attempted to reconcile Christianity with Plato's natural philosophy, which he did by refuting the notion that the Bible should be interpreted literally. Like the other natural philosophers, he posited the concept of a physical universe created and set in motion by God that also followed certain predictable natural laws (Hannam 53). In this way, natural philosophy became the basis for modern science in the West, which in fact was still called natural philosophy until the 19th Century. In the exact science like astronomy and optics, medieval natural philosophy made few advances in its own right, but it did translate all the important ancient texts into Latin as a foundation for later scientists to build upon and surpass (Grant 192).

Christian natural philosophers at the end of the Middle Ages were involved in a search for the natural causes of events, rather than being content to rely on explanations of forces and processes that referenced supernatural intervention. For example, the fourteenth-century Catholic natural philosopher Nicole Oresme discussed natural wonders, saying, "there is no reason to take recourse to the heavens, the last refuge of the weak, or demons, or to our glorious God as if He would produce these effects directly, more so than those effects whose causes we believe are well-known to us" (Numbers 267).

The various waves of plague that swept through Europe affected the progress of knowledge. A third of Europe's population was wiped out in AD 1348, including many towns that were the repositories of scientific information and innovation. Coupled with the plague were destructive famines and numerous violent peasant uprisings, especially in Germany, that significantly distressed European society (Blickle). Given this sequence of events, it is… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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