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7th Grade Social Studies / Lesson 11 - Learning, Literature, and the Arts

  Learning, Literature, and the Arts
  • How did medieval universities advance learning?
  • How did "new" learning affect medieval thought?
  • What styles of literature, architecture, and arts developed in the High Middle Ages?


Medieval Universities
  • As economic and political conditions improved in the High Middle Ages, the need for education expanded. The Church wanted better-educated clergy. Royal rulers also needed literate men for their growing bureaucracies. By getting an education, the sons of wealthy townspeople might hope to qualify for high jobs in the Church or royal governments. 
  • By the 1100s, schools had sprung up around the great cathedrals to train the clergy. Some of these cathedral schools evolved into the first universities. They were organized like guilds with charters to protect the rights of members and set standards for training.


 Medieval Universities

  • Salerno and Bologna in Italy boasted the first universities. Paris and Oxford soon had theirs. In the 1200s, other cities rushed to organize universities. Students often traveled from one university to another. They might study law in Bologna, medicine in Montpellier, and theology, or religion, in Paris. 
  • University life offered few comforts. A bell wakened students at about 5 a.m. for prayers. Students then attended classes until 10 a.m., when they had their first meal of the day - perhaps a bit of beef and soup mixed with oatmeal. Afternoon classes continued until 5 p.m. Students usually ate a light supper and then studied until it was time for bed.

 


Medieval Universities
  • Because medieval universities did not have permanent buildings, classes were held in rented rooms or in the choir loft of a church. Students sat for hours on hard benches as the teacher dictated and then explained Latin texts. Students were expected to memorize what they heard.
  • A program of study covered the seven liberal arts: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, grammar, rhetoric, and logic. To show that they had mastered a subject, students took an oral exam. Earning a degree as a bachelor of arts took between three and six years. Only after several more years of study could a man qualify to become a master of arts and a teacher.


Medieval Universities
  • Women were not allowed to attend the universities. This exclusion seriously affected their lives. Without a university education, they could not become doctors, lawyers, administrators, church officials, or professors. They were also deprived of the mental stimulation that was an important part of university life.
  • An exception was Christine de Pizan, an Italian-born woman who came to live in the French court. De Pizan was married at 15, but her husband died before she was 25. Left with three children to raise, De Pizan earned her living as a writer, an unusual occupation for a woman of that time.


Medieval Universities
  • De Pizan used her pen to examine the achievements of women. In The City of Ladies, she questions several imaginary characters about men's negative views of women. She asks Lady Reason, for example, whether women are less capable of learning and understanding, as men insist. Lady Reason replies: "If it were customary to send daughters to school like sons, and if they were then taught the same subjects, they would learn as thoroughly and understand the subtleties of all arts and sciences as well as sons."
  • Still, men continued to look on educated women as oddities. Women, they felt, should pursue their "natural" gifts at home, raising children, managing the household, and doing needlework, and leave books and writing to men.


 Europeans acquire "new" learning
  • Universities received a further boost from an explosion of knowledge that reached Europe in the High Middle Ages. Many of the "new" ideas had originated in ancient Greece but had been lost to Western Europeans after the fall of Rome. 
  • In the Middle East, Muslim scholars had translated the works of Aristotle and other Greek thinkers into Arabic, and their texts had spread across the Muslim world. In Muslim Spain, Jewish scholars translated these works into Latin, the language of Christian European scholars. By the 1100s, these new translations were seeping into Western Europe. There they set off a revolution in the world of learning.


Europeans acquire "new" learning

  • The writings of the ancient Greeks posed a challenge to Christian scholars. Aristotle taught that people should use reason to discover basic truths. Christians, however, accepted many ideas on faith. They believed that the Church was the final authority on all questions. How could they use the logic of Aristotle without undermining their Christian faith? 
  • Christian scholars, known as scholastics, tried to resolve the conflict between faith and reason. Their method, known as scholasticism, used reason to support Christian beliefs. Scholastics studied the works of the Muslim philosopher Averro and the Jewish rabbi Maimonides. These thinkers, too, used logic to resolve the conflict between faith and reason.

 


Europeans acquire "new" learning
  • The writings of these thinkers influenced the scholastic Thomas Aquinas. In a monumental work, Summa Theologica, Aquinas examined Christian teachings in the light of reason. Faith and reason, he concluded, existed in harmony. Both led to the same truth, that God ruled over an orderly universe. He thus brought together Christian faith and classical Greek philosophy. 
  • Works of science, translated from Arabic and Greek, also reached Europe from Spain and the Byzantine empire. Christian scholars studied Hippocrates on medicine and Euclid on geometry, along with works by Arab scientists. They saw, too, how Aristotle had used observation and experimentation to study the physical world.


Europeans acquire "new" learning
  • Yet science made little real progress in the Middle Ages because most scholars still believed that all true knowledge must fit with Church teachings. It would take many centuries before Christian thinkers changed the way they viewed the physical world. 
  • In mathematics, as we have seen, Europeans adopted Hindu-Arabic numerals. This system was much easier to use than the cumbersome system of Roman numerals that had been traditional throughout Europe for centuries. In time, Arabic numerals allowed both scientists and mathematicians to make extraordinary advances in their fields.


Medieval Literature
  • While Latin was the language of scholars and churchmen, new writings began to appear in the vernacular, or the everyday languages of ordinary people, such as French, German, and Italian. These writings captured the spirit of the High Middle Ages. Medieval literature included epics, or long narrative poems, about feudal warriors and tales of the common people.


  Medieval Literature

  • Across Europe, people began writing down oral traditions in the vernacular. French pilgrims traveling to holy sites loved to hear the chansons de geste, or "songs of heroic deeds." The most popular was the Song of Roland, which praises the courage of one of Charlemagne's knights who died while on a military campaign in Muslim Spain. A true feudal hero, Roland loyally sacrifices his life out of a sense of honor. 
  • Spain's great epic, Poem of the Cid, also involves battle against Muslim forces. The Cid was Rodrigo Daz, a bold and fiery Christian lord who battled Muslims in Spain

 


  Medieval Literature

  • "In the middle of the journey of life, I found myself in a dark wood, where the straight way was lost." So begins the Divine Comedy by the famed Italian poet Dante Alighieri. The poem takes the reader on an imaginary journey into hell and purgatory, where souls await forgiveness. Finally, Dante describes a vision of heaven. 
  • "Abandon all hope, ye that enter here" is the warning Dante receives as he approaches hell. There, he talks with people from history who tell how they earned a place in hell. Humor, tragedy, and the endless medieval quest for religious understanding are all ingredients in Dante's poem. His journey summarizes Christian ethics. It also highlights in vivid detail a key idea of Christianity-that people's actions in life will determine their fate in the afterlife.

 


 Medieval Literature
  • In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer follows a band of English pilgrims traveling to Thomas Becket's tomb. In brilliant word portraits, he sketches a range of characters, including a knight, a plowman, a merchant, a miller, a monk, a nun, and the five-times-widowed "wife of Bath." Each character tells a story. Whether funny, romantic, or bawdy, each tale adds to our picture of medieval life.


Art and Architecture
  • "In the Middle Ages," wrote French author Victor Hugo, "men had no great thought that they did not write down in stone." With riches from trade and commerce, townspeople, nobles, and monarchs indulged in a flurry of building. Their greatest achievements were the towering stone cathedrals that served as symbols of their wealth and religious devotion.


Art and Architecture
  • About 1000, monasteries and towns built solid stone churches that reflected Roman influences. These Romanesque churches looked like fortresses with thick walls and towers. Typically, the roof of a Romanesque church was a barrel vault, a long tunnel of stone that covered the main part of the structure. It was so heavy that it had to be supported by massive thick walls. Builders provided no windows or only tiny slits of windows for fear of weakening the walls that supported the roof. As a result, the interior of a Romanesque church was dark and gloomy.


Art and Architecture
  • About 1140, Abbot Suger wanted to build a new abbey church at St. Denis near Paris. He hoped that it "would shine with wonderful and uninterrupted light." Urged on by the abbot, builders developed what became known as the Gothic style of architecture. A key feature of this style was the flying buttresses, or stone supports that stood outside the church. These supports allowed builders to construct higher walls and leave space for huge stained-glass windows.


Art and Architecture
  • The new Gothic churches soared to incredible heights. Their graceful spires, lofty ceilings, and enormous windows carried the eye upward to the heavens. "Since their brilliance lets the splendor of the True Light pass into the church," declared a medieval visitor, "they enlighten those inside."
  • Cities all over Europe competed to build grander, taller cathedrals. The faithful contributed money, labor, and skills to help build these monuments "to the greater glory of God."


Art and Architecture
  • As churches rose, stonemasons carved sculptures to decorate them inside and out. The sculptors portrayed scenes from the Bible and other religious themes. They also carved images of everyday life that included lifelike forms of plants and animals. Among the most interesting of their creations were whimsical or frightening images of mythical creatures such as dragons, griffins, and unicorns. 
  • At the same time, other skilled craftworkers created stained-glass windows that added to the brilliant splendor of Gothic churches. The artisans stained small pieces of glass in glowing colors. They then set the pieces in thin lead frames to create pictures depicting the life of Jesus, a biblical event, or other religious themes. Stained glass and carvings served as a religious education for the people, most of whom were illiterate.


 Art and Architecture
  • In the 1300s and 1400s, the Gothic style was applied to paintings and illumination, that is, the artistic decoration of books. Since the early Middle Ages, monks, nuns, and other skilled artisans had illuminated books with intricate designs and miniature paintings of biblical scenes and daily life. Characteristics of the new Gothic style included bold, brilliant colors and decorative detail. Some fine examples of Gothic painting appeared in prayer books known as Books of Hours. Artists decorated these prayer books with depictions of towns and castles, knights and ladies in gardens or at banquet, and peasants working in the fields.