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Having A Plantagenet Face

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Every once in a while, I go through these little fits of needing to Google things right and left, and this past week I have been looking for Medieval Art from Italy.

In a way this is not surprising–I’m reading Dante’s Paradiso, and that’s Medieval literature from Italy, so it makes a certain amount of sense that I’d be interested in checking out the painting.

I even managed to find a really good site with a really good essay on Italian painting in the period, here:


And I found a painting I really love, too, here:


But the fact is that I read a lot about the Middle Ages, and I read a fair amount of Medieval literature from all over the place.  This doesn’t usually make me feel like I have to spend the afternoon Googling related sites.

I was thinking about why I felt so drawn to do it this time, and I came up with a surprising discovery about myself.

Advanced degrees be damned, I unconsciously associate different periods of history with different national cultures.

Partially because I studied English literature, partially because of years of Sir Walter Scott novels and Robin Hood movies and even more “serious” things like Becket and The Lion in Winter, to me, in my head, the Middle Ages are quintessentially English.

The Renaissance, on the other hand, is definitely Italian, and most especially Florentine.  The Enlightenment tends to be stuck in my head as American, even though the  US was only the result of the Enlightenment and not its source.  But while Europe was going increasingly Baroque, the American colonies and the new American nation had a “plain” style both in writing and in architecture, and that whole period between 1700 and 1860 just “feels” American to me.

Then we hit the Victorians, and we’re back to a period that’s “English” again.

Now, I know, intellectually, that none of this makes any sense.  It especially makes little or no sense in the Middle Ages, when national feeling was nowhere near as clearcut as it is now.   

Not only was this a period when the nation was the king, but it was also a period in which men were encouraged to think of themselves as first and foremost inhabiting something called “Christendom.”

The religious identification was not secondary.  Kings claimed to have their rights and power derived from God Himself, and they accepted the idea that their only access to God Himself was through the Church.

Pope John XXII became a scandal to the world because of his corruption, not the least of which was his habit of excommunicating princes and then only lifting that excommunication when the princes finally offered enough gold to suit him.  These days, such corruption would make most people think that the power was itself illegitimate.  In John XXII’s day, nobody questioned that when he excommunicated somebody, that somebody would go to hell for eternity if he died before the excommunication was lifted. 

This is not to say that the princes took all this lying down, or without trying to maneurver around it.  On a number of occasions, one king or another captured the Pope (and at one point, captured him and moved him from Rome to Avignon, where it would be easier to keep an eye on him). 

But if Stalin had asked his question–how many divisions does the Pope have?–in 1200, he’d have received a resounding answer:  he’s got the keys to Heaven, and he can send you to hell and have you tormented for eternity. 

The unifying effects of a shared religion with a shared and single head were amplified by the fact that Europe also had a single language for official documents and official business, as well as for scholarship and art, right down to the thirteenth century.  Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is famous not only because it is a great work of art, but because it was the first work of “high” art written in the English vernacular, as Dante’s Divine Comedy was the first in the Italian vernacular.

Three hundred years later, most literature and all philosophy, science, and international documents were still being written in Latin, most university students heard their lectures in Latin, and all religious rituals were performed in Latin.  It took the Reformation to change that.

In spite of all this, I really can’t shake the feeling of “Englishness” in my vision of the Middle Ages, any more than I can shake the feeling of “Englishness” of the Victorian period.  I suppose I should be grateful that my vision of the Middle Ages at least recognizes the everybody else that was there.  My vision of the Victorian period is such that, when I am thinking of the Victorian period, or reading about it, or reading Victorian literature, it’s as if, in that period, nobody else existed on earth.

I don’t know, exactly, why I’ve attached the nationalities I have to the periods in question.  The English really were the world’s great power in the Middle Ages, and the Italians really were the great promoters of Humanism in the Renaissance–but the Americans were not the premier anything in the eighteenth century (in fact, we were rather minor and provincial), and England was largely a backwater on the world scene through most of the Middle Ages.

I wonder how much of my understanding of these periods–to the extent that I understand them at all–is affected by my subconscious assignment of them to particular national cultures.  I wonder how much of my attraction to, and dislike of, particular works of art, literature and music from these periods is affected by the same thing.

If you go to the first of the links at the start of this post, you’ll find a page that not only has an essay on it, but that has a series of thumbnail sketches of Italian paintings of the Middle Ages.  When I looked at it, I went completely past the first two–because they looked far too much like Greek icons, a style of art I associate with Greece in general and the Greek Orthodox Church in particular. 

The painting that really struck me is, in fact, the one that looks most like what would come next in Italian painting in the Renaissance.

Whatever.  As a conundrum to have in a life, it’s minor enough.  It’s just the kind of thing I can sometimes talk myself into worrying about.

Written by janeh

June 18th, 2010 at 6:27 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Having A Plantagenet Face'

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  1. Interesting. I missed the medieval tilt toward England and the renaissance tilt toward Italy, probably by dumb luck. An early and formative professor tended to “do” the Middle Ages heavy with Byzantium and Germany, and to stress the Northern Renaissance. Thank you Dr. Blumenshine! (And I met my wife in his classes, too.)
    In the 18th Century, I am biased, but differently. Military history left me with the impression that the 18th Century is “supposed” to be German with a French-speaking aristocracy, filled with baroque and roccoco art, violins and woodwinds. I understand British North America, but it feels a little strange.


    18 Jun 10 at 8:01 pm

  2. Your point about Victorianism is well taken. I’ve studied German literature and they don’t think of the mid-late 19th century as Victorian at all. There is a strong cultural and literary tradition for the same era in Germany mainly unrelated to that of England.


    18 Jun 10 at 8:32 pm

  3. The Victorians seem to have admired things German, to judge by some of the novels – perhaps an influence from the Queen, whose family and adored husband were German.

    In my case, I always associate the medieval and even the early modern world with England, and to a slightly lesser extent, the rest of the British Isles and those bits of what is now France that England claimed. I am absolutely certain that this bias is due to my childhood reading patterns quite independantly (because earlier) than any teaching I got in school. If I’d come across as many adventure stories for children set in medieval Germany or Russia or China, I’d probably have developed a life-long fascination with those areas. I read a few books set elsewhere – but far, far more about the UK.

    The Renaissance started in Italy, sure, and one of my favourite books was about an Englishman raised in Italy at that period who turned out to be the long lost heir to a castle on the Welsh Marches. I think it was by Trease, and portrayed the contrast in the cultures in the two places.

    I don’t in the least think of the US as ‘Enlightenment’; that’s England and France to me, although I can see how the US was influenced mightily by the ideas of the time.

    North American history used to bore me to tears – I never even got into the American ‘settling the west’ stories, much less all that stuff about political quarrels in the colonies that became Canada. I just liked local history, which had pirates and shipwrecks and evil fishing admirals. I’ve begun reading more about Canadian history and enjoying some of it, but I can assure you that if you want to entertain a child, knights and outlaws and castles are much more interesting than the constitutional developments that gradually led to the modern Canadian state.

    This approach to history has of course left me a bit limited in understanding any given period, because I don’t have even the most basic knowledge of what went on in areas outside, say, medieval England, and consequently find things written about them confusing. And I haven’t had the time to overcome that yet. Not for even a tiny fraction of the world’s cultures.


    19 Jun 10 at 7:44 am

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