Sunday, 29 August 2004

The waning of the Middle Ages

Listening to:

Handel, Concerto grosso in G major, op. 3, no. 3. Played by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, led by Neville Marriner.


Windows XP Service Pack 2. The little green progress bar is only halfway across the “Preparing to download” space. Goodness knows how long the actual download will take.

Just read:

J. Huizinga, The waning of the Middle Ages.

This is a famous cultural history, first published in the 1920s. It conveys a vivid impression of life in the late Middle Ages, focussing on France and the Netherlands, and describing that period’s art, literature, religion and general beliefs. The first chapter is The violent tenor of life and begins:

To the world when it was half a thousand years younger, the outlines of all things seemed more clearly marked than to us. The constrast between suffering and joy, between adversity and happiness, appeared more striking. All the experience had yet to the minds of men the directness and absoluteness of the pleasure and pain of child-life.

Huizinga describes an incredibly foreign world, one that comes across as dominated by hysteria and delusions. An important part of Huizinga’s thesis is that the Middle Ages didn’t just imperceptibly meld into the Renaissance. Rather, the Middle Ages had its own distinct way of doing things, and of thinking about things. Huizinga describes these patterns of thought and behaviour in rich detail.

For example, a simple characterisation of late medieval art and literature is that it is dominated by sterile allegory. Medieval thought became increasingly detached from the real world, and instead consumed itself in the invention of increasingly baroque symbolism. Nothing was worthy of examination in itself, but had to instead be related to other symbols. Intellectual activity built ever more complicated towers of inter-relationships without ever really considering the true nature of the world: everything was subsumed into symbolism.

Huizinga is interesting on the survival of painting as opposed to literature from this period. It turns out that there’s lots of awful medieval writing still extant, and very few paintings. Moreover, many of the paintings are actually quite appealing. Was there some sort of disconnect between the two fields? Probably not. The histories indicate that the painters we know about were just as willing to do (presumably artistically uninteresting) costume design and scene painting for regal festivities and events. We just don't have so many examples of their bad stuff. It’s easy to see how texts might survive with little effort on the part of their owners. Paintings, on the other hand, are much more likely to be subject to pruning by owners, both at the time of creation, and subsequently. Thus, the paintings that we have from the medieval period may be totally unrepresentative, and provide rather more insight into the attitudes of later periods.

Huizinga also discusses chivalry, love and religion over a number of chapters. For example, he characterises chivalry as a myth the medieval world told itself to make sense of a political and historical situation that it couldn’t otherwise understand. All of these topics are fascinating, and Huizinga’s book does a great job of describing an alien world.

Now reading:

Charles Darwin, The voyage of the Beagle.