Introduction to the Middle Ages (Introduction to Western Civilization 6.2)

The Middle Ages is a 1000 year period during which Western Civilization took shape. During this time, Europe became a Christian continent. These Christians then began the long process of sorting out the great heritage they had received from those who came before them. The Christians of the Middle Ages wanted to figure out a way to bring together the ideas and traditions they had received from the Greeks, the Jews, and the Romans into one. Of course, they also had to make these Greek, Jewish, and Roman ideas fit with the ideas of their own Christian religion. The result was a thousand years of great achievements in art, architecture, music, philosophy, literature, and science.

Medieval art and architecture focused almost entirely on themes from Christianity. Nearly all of the paintings and sculptures of the Middle Ages are of Jesus, Mary, angels, and other people important to Christians. In almost every town of Europe, the largest and most beautiful building was the church. Often, these churches were not built by experts and construction workers but by the people of the town. The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France, for example, was built by the common people there. Medieval churches were usually built with very high ceilings and filled with art, including paintings, statues, and stained glass windows. They used the art and the high ceilings to emphasize the greatness of God and the beauty of heaven.

Medieval music also drew heavily on Christian themes. Musical instruments were not usually used in Christian worship services, so medieval musicians came up with a variety of ways to use the human voice to create beautiful music. Both Gregorian chant, in the Western part of Europe, and Byzantine chant, in the Eastern part, used all different types of voices singing together. Medieval musicians looked to the psalms in the Bible for inspiration for their own musical creations. Sometimes they would have singers with different kinds of voices take turns singing lines from the text of a psalm. Other musicians wrote their own songs which imitated the psalms in their content and style. It was also during the Middle Ages that the first musical notation was written. Now, it was possible for people in distant places to all sing the same song in the same way by following the notes that were written with it.

Early in the Middle Ages, most poetry and literature were written in Latin, the language of the Roman Empire. As time went on, however, people all over Europe began to appreciate the local languages of their own nations and to write in those languages. The poems and books that were produced are still regarded today as among the greatest literature of the world. In the 13th century, Dante Alighieri wrote an epic poem called The Divine Comedy which told the story of an imaginary journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Geoffrey Chaucer became the first great poet of the English language when he wrote The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories about a group of pilgrims heading to pray at Canterbury, an important Christian site in England. The most popular stories of the Middle Ages were tales of great heroes, warriors, and knights who battled against evil. Love songs about knights and the women they fought to defend were also very popular.

Philosophers of the Middle Ages continued to discuss subjects like God and the meaning of life in the same way philosophers before them had done. Most philosophers of the Middle Ages, however, were Christian. As a result, the answers they gave to the questions philosophers ask often were ones that came from the Bible and other Christian writings. Philosophers like Boethius and Thomas Aquinas tried to figure out if Christian beliefs could be proved by using reason instead of just the Bible.

There were also many important scientific discoveries and inventions during the Middle Ages. Many people became very interested in nature and in the world around them because of the Christian belief that God had created the world to be beautiful. They wanted to investigate the world and the place of humans in it. Astronomy was considered especially important because medieval Christians believed the movement of the stars and planets in the sky had a lot to teach people about God.

All students were required to study astronomy at schools throughout Europe. In addition to astronomy, students also studied music, arithmetic, geometry, rhetoric, logic, and grammar. These seven together were called the “liberal arts” because people believed that studying these subjects liberated a person, which means it made them free. Theology, the study of God, was considered the highest and most important science. A student could only study theology if they had first studied the seven liberal arts.

As the people of the Middle Ages sought to understand their Greek, Roman, and Jewish heritage, they created a great civilization of their own. It was this civilization which became our civilization.

 

Review Questions

 1. What themes are most medieval art, music, and literature about?

2. What are the seven liberal arts?

3. What subject was considered the highest and greatest science?

 

Vocabulary Words

 Liberate – to make someone free

Theology – the study of God and other religious subjects

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