Episode 17 AD 1200-1350

A Great Cultural Shift in Medieval Christianity

A major transformation in the religious, moral and artistic culture of Europe occurred was brought about by a shift in medieval Christianity, a change in the whole tenor of Latin Christian civilization, its sensibility and values. The usual stress on the transformative effects of the Renaissance has obscured this fundamental cultural advance, whose effects are omnipresent in our culture today. In this episode we trace the outline of that great transformative shift.

Contents of the video (57 mins.)

  • Cultural change usually goes unnoticed as it is happening. A very profound but gradual cultural shift occurred in medieval Christianity during the 150 years after 1200. It showed that Latin Christendom was capable of transmutation, widening the gap between it and the Orthodox Christianity of the east. The conservatism at Constantinople may have become stronger as its power declined.
  • The function of art was to make visible the Divine. Artists were skilled craftsmen. Stylistic changes were not clearly chronological. The Gothic style existed for a century before the earliest Renaissance style made its appearance, then they ran in parallel.
  • Social and economic change provided the context for cultural change. Towns and cities grew and developed as autonomous communities. The papacy’s victory over the Emperors and insistence on uniformity may have triggered heretical revolt in a now less rooted population.
  • The Gothic emerged in central France as a technical innovation of weight-carrying stone. A late-Renaissance writer, Vasari, invented the term ‘Gothic’.
  • Gothic sculpture, at Chartres and Reims cathedrals, are masterpieces of human idealisation in stone, as powerful as the best examples of ancient Greek art.
  • Where did this humanizing insight come from? I suspect it came from the enactment of religious narrative, in sacred theatre.
  • The response to eruptions of heresy was the innovation of travelling, non-cloistered monks, the fratres or friars. Their rhetoric stirred up waves of mass religious fervour. The friars promoted this drama as a means of teaching.
  • Contemplation of the Passion narrative of the New Testament engendered a new sense of the pity of the story. Jesus’ suffering was brought into the foreground, and with it his humanity, promoting a shift in religious sensibility.
  • The symbolic emphasis on, and elevation of, the Virgin Mary was another aspect of this change. She was brought directly into relation to Jesus, upstaging God the Father. She was the approachable intermediary. The Madonna is a unique and a uniquely beautiful product of the European spirit.
  • Another aspect was the feminising of courtly culture, imposing new demands on the male warrior class in terms of behaviour and sensitivity. The birth of the ‘gentleman’.
  • The drastic alternatives of Heaven or Hell after death was softened through literature, with the invention of Purgatory. This popular belief was eventually incorporated into official theology.

Now with the audio-only version included

Recommend to a friend ...