Sunday, November 18, 2007

Summary of Lecture Ten

Our attention shifted to the Western Middle Ages. Although this realm gave the appearance of being the unfavored sibling of the two heirs of the Roman Empire, it turned into a Cinderella, as Western Europe was eventually to generate many of the key institutions that were to characterize the modern world.

The differing barbarian groups left their imprint on the emerging nation states of Western Europe (ethnogenesis). There were two contrasting pairs. In England and Germany. the language and culture of the intruders became dominant. In Spain and Italy--despite the heritage of the Vandals, Visigoths, Ostrogoths and Lombards--the original romance culture predominated. France saw a mixed system, as Germanic (Frankish) elements played a key role. This form of hybridity helped to assure the hegemony of France through much of the Middle Ages.

An excursus dealt with the written assignment. While religious art dominated, the Middle Ages (as a hierarchical society) saw a significant production of political imagery We suggested that an initial approach to the problem involves an enumeration of all the realms in which such imagery was likely to be found. These include coins (see Internet for examples), luxury items, buildings and monuments, mosaics and frescoes, and illuminated manuscripts.

An initial comparison of the Constantine coin documenting the 312 victory in Rome and the Missorium of Theodosius revealed significant similarities and contrasts. The path indicated by the Missorium might lead to the David plates from the Cyprus treasure (ca. 628), while the coin discloses many possibilities of follow up. Sometimes such objects are interesting for what they do not show--e.g. the absence of Christian imagery in the Missorium, and the lack of "Frankish" themes in the Charlemagne coin, with its "renaissance" orientation to the Roman imperial past.

Then we returned to the main theme of the lecture. Heretofore we have considered only two legs of our tripod: the classical and the Middle Eastern. Now we can access the Northern, or "barbarian" contribution. This had two components: the older Celtic stratum, going back to before the Roman conquest, and the newer Germanic strain.

In a previous lecture we discussed the consequences of the shift from papyrus and scroll to parchment and codex. In this lecture we sought to document the appearance of a third revolutionary contribution: new forms of writing and decoration in the Merovingian period. There were two main conmponents: the animated initial, and the binary typographical system of majuscule and minuscule. The latter has continued to be normative in our printed books (and even out computers, such as the one I am writing on).

In conclusion we briefly considered, via the Book of Durrow, the alternative system that developed in the Hiberno-Saxon realm. Adducing significant earlier "barbarian" decorative accoutrements, including such bling as spirals and interlace, the insular books also adopted a decrescendo method as a transition from the initial to the main text.

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