The Romance of the Middle Ages @the Bodleian Library

Laptop in classic library

Knight farewelling his Lady by Edmund Blair Leighton (1852 – 1922)

The Romance of the Middle Ages, an exhibition that was featured at the Bodleian Library at Oxford in England in 2012, showcased manuscripts and early printed books, including romantic literature.

Dr Nicholas Perkins exhibition curator said: ‘The Bodleian’s wonderful collections …  are of huge importance in telling the story of romance, and include some of the most spectacular books from medieval Europe. They have also offered inspiration to those captivated by the Middle Ages as a time of romance and wonder… the Library has nourished both scholarly and imaginative engagement with the medieval for centuries.’

Except for ‘rock and roll’ The Middle Ages at least on the surface, seems to have had it all. Art and life in the age of chivalry was all about Knights on Crusade, handsome Knights rescuing fair maidens, Courtly love, merchants at Venice and Padua involved in family feuds and matters of the heart. Then there were merry monks and monarchs, Queens locked up in towers or at court, tons of people dashing about on passionate pursuits, not to mention those languishing about in gardens of love.

Then there was straight out uncomplicated sex, chastity and piety, not necessarily in that order.  Seriously, the beginning of democratic freedoms started at this time, as well as technology and developments in printing, engraving, metallurgy and designs for ships of war and firearms.

Highlights of the exhibition included: The Song of Roland – the earliest copy of France’s national epic (mid-12th century), exquisite ivory carvings from France (14th century), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – one of the most precious manuscripts of Middle English poetry. On loan from the British Library (c.1400), The Red Book of Hergest – among the most important books written in Welsh, containing The Mabinogion and many other texts, on loan from Jesus College, Oxford (c.1400), William Caxton’s The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye – a copy of the first book ever printed in the English language (1473/4). There is a draft illustrated page from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1946), Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Terry Jones’s own working copy of the screenplay for the film, never shown to the public before (1973).

Manuscripts and early printed books from the ‘Romanz’ period of the Middle Ages, lavishly illustrated volumes about King Arthur or Alexander the Great as well as personal notebooks and fragments saved by chance are also on show. The exhibition examines how stories from this period inspired writers and artists across the centuries, including William Shakespeare, Ludovico Ariosto and Miguel de Cervantes in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Sir Walter Scott, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris in the nineteenth century, as well as JRR Tolkien, Philip Pullman,  the Monty Python team and JK Rowling during the twentieth century.

Medieval Christianity embraced every aspect of life during the Middle Ages.  “The House of God’ was like the trinity, divided into three. It was a frontier society, fragmented, fearful and fortified against itself. Feudalism rested equally on lord and castle, peasant and hut, the monk and his church – those who prayed, those who went to war and those who worked the fields.

Europe’s social equilibrium depended on these three groups happily co-existing. Taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience helped determine a pattern for medieval living. During this period towns, in the true sense of the word ceased to exist with fortified castles and the protection of a lord under a feudal system, the only security for everyone.

During the eleventh century books about the practice of medicine by important Muslim physicians like Ibn Sina (980-1037 CE) and al-Razi (864-930 CE) were translated into Latin and brought into European universities, which had been established by the Christian church. They were used for centuries. They included an understanding of hygiene and the importance of cleanliness, which meant separate wards for different diseases. An established system of medical care was open to all. Hospitals set up in Spain by Andalusian physicians included great gardens with running water as part of their natural therapies. Doctors had a concern and care for their patients, treating them with great kindness and dignity.

Out of the carnage and chaos of the Crusades to the Holy Land all was not loss and destruction. Crusaders brought back to Europe and England positive influences such as enlightened thought in theology and spirituality; a great deal of plant material and methods of horticulture that enlivened and enlarged that known in Europe until that point in time.

There was a great deal of influence also on architecture, including the introduction of the brick and decorative brickwork into England via France, as well as into the design of churches and castles. Illumination of manuscripts was another direct result, a graphic expression of the priceless jewel contained in the Scripture of God’s revelation to man.

It became considered highly appropriate to embellish books that contained his words. This also allowed for an additional, worthy thought, that of aesthetic pleasure and monks in monastic libraries kept alive the light of learning and enlightenment with their creativity.

During the twelfth century advances in philosophy and science imposed themselves and the nature of the individual was held up to scrutiny. This “Twelfth Century Awakening” refers to an outpouring of extraordinary intellectual inquiry and discovery that took place just as Cathedral schools and universities being established in England and Europe through the influence of the powerful Islamic influence on thought.

The Knight in medieval times was an absolute master of his castle, and his wife. A contemporary description gives us a glimpse of Norman knights ‘riding ‘through the meadows and gardens – happy and joyful on their horses, cavorting hither and thither. Expressing personal feelings in relation to the beauty and bountiful joys of women was the province of troubadours, who were both composers and performers of lyrical poetry. They roved about visiting castles and their communities to deliver the latest ditties in song. The themes favoured were chivalry and courtly love.

Courtly love was a cult that refined the manners of many a knight, while it encouraged marital indiscretion. It glorified the relationship of a knight to his chosen lady, which meant any lady but his wife. In the Garden of Love, knights and ladies exchanged amorous banter to the songs of a troubadour. ‘Lady take me body and heart, and keep me for your love’.

Mary's-GardenThe most famous literary celebration of gardens from the Middle Ages was the Romaunt de la Rose printed in 1277. In it the lover, possibly a knight, goes in search of the desirable symbolic rose. The lover wanders into an outer garden where he is confronted by a high wall with a door in it. He cannot enter until the door is opened by Lady idleness; he enters the inner garden where the trees are set at exactly equal distances and have their tops so inter-woven that the sun’s rays cannot penetrate. He finds himself in a place belonging to the spirit to make him happy and full of joy’. In this representation Adamant the lover is being led into the garden by idleness, and narcissus is studying his reflection in the well.

The origins of courtly love can be traced to the court of William IX, Duke of Aquitaine one of the first troubadour poets as well as leaders of the first crusade in 1101. Born on the wrong side of the blanket, William was the son of his father’s third wife whom the Roman church did not recognise.  An anonymous biography written in the 13th century said of him…

‘The Count of Poitiers was one of the most courtly men in the world and one of the greatest deceivers of women. He was a fine knight at arms, liberal in his womanizing, and a fine composer and singer of songs. He travelled much through the world, seducing women’.

He was the earliest troubadour some of whose work still survives as a testimony to his romantic adventures. He loved scandal and shocking everyone but was known for being kind and generous. We could be generous too and say that he genuinely shared the love around….

Laptop in classic libraryThis is a time when the classical revival and the new and exciting literature for leisure appeared. It was defined by the use of the Latin word Romanz, as distinct from what was known as ‘real’ literature, which was ironically written in Latin. With its captivating themes of love, ladies and passion in the courts of Europe it was not long before it became known as Romantic literature.

The exhibition at Oxford also highlighted works by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 1400), who is known today as the Father of English Literature and widely considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages.

In graphic art singers from the Middle Ages are shown often with strained expressions, their furrowed brows and exaggerated mouth positions suggest perhaps Chaucer was right when, in his fourteenth century Canterbury Tales when he described singing as being ‘intoned through the nose’.

The Book of Hours, contained ‘painted prayers’, that were appointed for various hours of the day, based on monastic practice.

For over 300 years they were best sellers, one of the most famous belonging to the Duc du Berry, a French nobleman. They are today a wonderful source for illustrative representations of gardens as well as important cultural artifacts from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries.

Sir Walter Scott’s stories of the knights of the crusades such as Ivanhoe helped to fuel the Gothic Medieval Revival in England during the nineteenth century. They were romantic, gallant and inspiring, influencing all aspects of design and the decorative arts. Sir Walter Scott as well as being an author had a great passion for reading at a time when libraries became an integral part of every educated person’s way of life. They offered a peaceful place for study and hours of quiet contemplation.

Medieval-TravellerThe Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford form the largest university library system in the United Kingdom. They include the principal University library—the Bodleian Library—which has been a library of legal deposit for 400 years; major research libraries; and libraries attached to faculties, departments and other institutions of the University. The combined library collections number more than 11 million printed items, in addition to 30,000 e-journals and vast quantities of materials in other formats.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2012


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