The Brilliance of Medieval England

The Brilliance of Medieval England

From Notting Hill Editions

The historian David Horspool says that we are wrong to think of medieval England as backward. It produced art, architecture and books - on display in a new British Library exhibition - of staggering sophistication.

There's a story in Peter Ackroyd's latest book, a history of medieval England called Foundation, about what one Englishman did to his sister, deformed since birth. Robert de Bramwyk "plunged her into a cauldron of hot water; then he took her out and began stamping on her limbs in order to straighten them."

To Ackroyd, "The records of madness evince some of the general qualities of the medieval mind." But do they? Could the same be said of modern Britain, that the activities of, say, the criminally insane are indicative of the way we Brits behave in general?

It seems an odd conclusion to draw, and there is much in Ackroyd's book that attests to his own empathy with the people and the lives he describes. But the story of Robert and the author's comment on it seems a manifestation of a very common British prejudice, one which if it were directed against some exterior group in modern society would be roundly condemned.

Taking a leaf out of Edward Said's book I'll call this prejudice "medievalism"; I realise medievalism usually describes the practice of those who study the Middle Ages, not denigrate them. Still, the same could be said of Said's re-coining a word, Orientalism, which previously had been used to describe those who neutrally studied the East, to mean those who belittled it - so perhaps for the purposes of this essay, we might be allowed to take out the word on loan. Medievalism: the unsubtantiated belief that people in the Middle Ages were by definition stupider, more naive and more violent than people who came after them.

When E. P. Thompson referred to "the enormous condescension of posterity", he was talking about those "small" lives that used to get written out of big history. These days, thanks in large part to the efforts of Thompson and his disciples, the Luddites and handloom weavers he was rescuing are assured of their place in the national story.

But men and women from slightly longer ago, and from all sections of society, have taken the place of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century working classes as fair game for a good sneer. Here is John Julius Norwich, bidding a relieved farewell to medieval England in his latest book, A History of England in 100 Places: "What a relief it must have been, after Bosworth, when the Tudors got a grip at last". A relief for whom he doesn't say, but one gets the impression he means for himself as much as for the people of 15th-century England.

Now the personal preferences of Lord Norwich are none of my business, but did the people of England have so much more to look forward to in Tudor England than they ever had in medieval England? They could expect a good deal more religious persecution, royal oppression and quasi-judicial savagery. There would still be harvest failures and plagues to contend with, and medicine had not suddenly leapt into the modern age; if life was nasty, brutish and short in the Middle Ages, in other words, it really wasn't materially any better in Tudor times, or, frankly, until at least the 18th century. But we seem as a nation to think that the Tudors and their successors compensated for any number of failings because of the "glories" of their reigns, from Shakespeare to Hardwick Hall, from the Empire to the spinning jenny.

It would be foolish to argue that the English Middle Ages were golden. There were civil wars, a devastating (and recurrent) plague, short life expectancy and perennial political instability. But all those phenomena affected later periods of English society to a greater or lesser extent, and medieval England, too, had its compensations. Nor, in many fields of endeavour, were the people of medieval England any less sophisticated than those who came after them. Why would they have been? They were, after all, just like you and me; they just lived longer ago.

There is an extraordinary example of medieval English sophistication currently on show at the British Library, in their new exhibition of illuminated royal manuscripts, The Genius of Illumination. The beautifully - almost perfectly - preserved books, manuscripts and scrolls form just a fraction of the wealth of the royal collection begun by Edward IV; and all in the middle of the Wars of the Roses that Norwich would have you believe rendered the country barren of culture. They were kept in royal clutches until they were donated to the nation by George II in 1757.

Although the collection was begun in Edward's reign, and contains some of the finest examples of decorated work from that period, subsequent acquisitions extended the collection back in time. So the earliest manuscript on show at the exhibition is a Gospel book from Lindisfarne made in the eighth century, a survivor of Viking raids and any number of religious and political upheavals until it came into royal hands in the reign of Charles II. On this, probably the least flamboyant item on display, there is still an exquisite example of manuscript painting in the initial capital, an "X" beautifully rendered as the intersecting bodies of birds. And this, the curators tell us, was a "workaday" book in general use for much of its long life, already more than 100 years old by the time it came into possession of Athelstan, the first King of a united England.

In the late Middle Ages, workaday gave way to de luxe par excellence, with examples from Paris and Bruges, the two great centres of manuscript illumination, but also from London. Compare the extraordinary version of the Annunciation from the Beaufort Hours, in which the Virgin shrinks away from a palely robed, discreetly winged Gabriel, with an almost exactly contemporaneous rendition of the same subject by an acknowledged Italian genius, Fra Angelico, and you can see that the artist who painted the manuscript was very much in the same league as the far more celebrated Florentine. We may not know his name (or even if he lived in London or elsewhere), but he certainly deserves to be mentioned in the same breath.

The uncertainty about the provenance of some of the work in these books is evidence not only of the many owners they have had, but of the milieu in which such work was produced. Far more than in many subsequent eras, the English Middle Ages was a time of interaction with the Continent. It helped that for much of the period England was ruled, in effect, by foreigners, but even those kings who tried to establish their "English" credentials were happy to look across the Channel for inspiration or expertise. Medieval England was more cosmopolitan, and relations with Europe more fluid, than at almost any other time in our history (or even, arguably, than the present day).

The openness to outside ideas was, of course, not confined to the workshops of scribes and illuminators. When kings looked for learned churchmen, for instance, they would often seek them abroad. Perhaps the most intellectually able occupant of St Augustine's chair as Archbishop of Canterbury was (like Augustine) an Italian: Anselm, whom William Rufus appointed in 1093. It was an appointment the not very devout William made in thanks or to make amends after an illness, and one he came to regret. Anselm, who had seemed like an other-worldly figure, a Benedictine monk of simple piety, turned out to be a skilled political operator. He was also an extremely well-educated and formidably intelligent man, author of nothing less than a proof of God's existence.

Anyone who assumes that medieval belief was a matter of blind faith and dogged adherence to tradition is well advised to read through Anselm, whose arguments, though disputed, were thought worthy of discussion by just about every major philosopher from Thomas Aquinas to René Descartes to Immanuel Kant. Though written in the 11th century, the "ontological proof" as it is known, from Anselm's Proslogion, could still work its magic 800 years later, on no less a figure than Bertrand Russell, who we tend to think of as just as much of an atheist as he was a pacifist.

Russell himself tells the story of his Damascene conversion to Anselm's way of thinking (though it was rather less permanent than Saul's). One day, he walked down Trinity Lane in Cambridge to buy some tobacco: "'on my way back, I suddenly threw it up in the air and exclaimed 'Great Scot, the ontological argument is sound"'. Whatever else he can be accused of, Russell was not guilty of medievalism.

It might be argued that yes, some things were achieved in the English Middle Ages, but they all stem from two institutions - the Church and the monarchy - which combined to restrict people's freedom rather than encourage it. There is some truth in that, but, again, I am not proposing that the medieval England was a better, still less a fairer, society than our own.

It was, however, one in which excellence, sophistication and beauty were developed and encouraged in an extraordinary number of fields, so to somehow rank it "below" the centuries immediately after it is sheer prejudice. It is also worth pointing out that throughout history, and right up to the present day, great art has been sponsored by rich people, and often commissioned by and for them. They may not be royal any more, but not all art is created by or for - or, crucially, bankrolled by - the man in the street. Our opera houses and galleries wouldn't get very far without corporate and individual sponsorship, and that includes institutions that can also draw on taxpayers' money.

The British Library exhibition is a nice example. It may have been opened by the Queen and represent the fruit of the labours of tax-funded researchers, but it has been paid for by the Piggott family. If you haven't heard of the Piggott family, you're probably not alone. They are the owners of a hundred-year-old truck company based in Seattle. And they are not medievalists, probably in either sense of the word -- but they are extremely generous.

There are two other points to make against those who dismiss the achievements of medieval England as too royal or too religious. The first is so what? If you want to, you can ignore all those relics of royal or religious achievement but, while you're mooching around with your i-Pad, I'll be gawping at Westminster Abbey before popping over to the Tower of London. Or perhaps I'll take a trip to see some of the finest cathedrals anywhere in the world, at Lincoln, Salisbury or Durham. Or if I prefer to look at something on a smaller, more intimate scale, I could just stick to the magnificent parish churches of England, which everyone from John Betjeman to Simon Jenkins has recognized as one of the most astonishing architectural legacies that any country possesses. The development of English church building, and their unique styles, culminated in the Perpendicular (the Gloucestershire "wool" churches of Fairford, Northleach or Lechlade are glorious examples).

Osbert Lancaster, a pioneer medievalist (of the wrong kind), dismissed advances in medieval architecture as "ingenious rather than beautiful". This is a man who pretends to think that "the west front of Salisbury [shows that] the thirteenth century yields nothing to our own in the way of pointless confusion and downright ugliness." But even he fruitily conceded that, "with all its grandeur and beauty, it must be admitted that the Perpendicular remains, in most cases, an essentially virtuoso performance, compelling an admiration that is not far removed from astonishment."

The other thing to say about the argument that anything worth noticing from medieval England is royal or religious is that it isn't true. There isn't enough room here to go into all the extraordinary examples of administrative ingenuity, jurisprudence, or even technological skill (water mills, metalwork, stonemasonry, etc) to which medieval men and women can lay claim.

So I will refer only to one other medieval English genius, one of the few poets who deserves to sit at the same table as Shakespeare, and who can claim to match him for his extraordinary talent for bringing together high style with low comedy: Geoffrey Chaucer. In his great poem Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer had words of warning for those I have called medievalists here, who presume to condescend to people who lived a long time before them:

Ye knowe eek, that in forme of speche is chaunge

With-inne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho

That hadden prys, now wonder nyce and straunge

Us thinketh hem; and yet they spake hem so,

And spedde as wel in love as men now do;

Eek for to winne love in sondry ages,

In sondry londes, sondry ben usages.

(You know also that the way people speak changes / over a thousand years, and words, / that had a value, we now think wondrous odd and strange / and yet they spoke them that way, / and did as well in love as men do now. / And to win love in different times, / in different countries, there were different ways.)

We should listen to Chaucer, and, to adapt Lord Norwich, "breathe a sigh of relief" that at least some of the priceless legacy of medieval England is still here to be seen.

The Royal Manuscripts exhibition is at the British Library until March 13th, 2012


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