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History 221: Life in the Middle Ages

09 Feb

The Middle Ages are a very colorful time to be considered so dark!  The elegance and grandeur of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans has faded and a new but recycled bit of design work is taking place.  The rules are still the same in some ways such as using materials you have locally, doing as much with as little as possible and sheltering your people.  As with other cultures before them the world at this time is searching for ways to tame nature, keep the food and water flowing as well as develop a sense of social hierarchy.  The Middle Ages saw the most innovation in the way of agricultural development and borrowed columns, arches and water systems from wherever they found them.  

Homes in the Middle Ages were the first to be used for communal living where employees lived in the home of their employer.  The great halls were the centerpiece of the home, a social space where everyone gathered, communicated and ate as one stratified cluster.  The fireplace and raised table were areas where you knew where to sit according to your social status.  If you were the head of the house you would sit in the chair, that usually would be at the end of a trestle and board table, at times covered with textiles that would show your wealth.  Textiles were used to cover very basic architecturally based designs for chairs that were plank construction, meaning exactly that, made of planks of wood, then covered for comfort and beauty.  The phrase “the chairman of the board” originates from the Middle Ages as the important man in the chair at the board, or table.  Chests were used to store valuables and the cupboard came into being as a place to store your cups on a board.  The development of the architecture of the time brought about the need and development of furniture to fill the spaces. The English are noted for their poor furniture design with an extremely heavy and uncomfortable style. Short, stocky columns filled with rubble was a practical use of building at the time as the society of the Middle Ages found their way to a lighter and more frivolous existence.

Smoke was a big problem in the homes of the Middle Ages.  Living in basically one large room has advantages and disadvantages.  There were openings in the rafters which allowed the smoke to work its way out eventually, but the invention of the chimney would change everything about living communally in the Middle Ages.  Having a central flue to allow the smoke to rise out of the house and not fill your house completely was met with discomfort in some cases as people actually would complain about the lack of smoke, as if it had insulated them from illness or added something comforting to the space.  Now separate rooms for the kitchen, living room and other rooms as allowing privacy to come into existence for really the first time.  Chimneys popped up all over with some boasting going on for who had the most chimneys.  They were the latest status symbol!  Use of ornate glass windows was also a new symbol of wealth and if you moved it was a common occurrence to take your windows with you to your new home and install them.  Social hierarchy was growing by the day as more and more leisure time allowed the wealthy to discover new ways to show off their wealth and power.

The Catholic Church was an enormous influence on the world during the Middle Ages.  Cathedrals and soaring Gothic arches looked like they were reaching heaven itself.  The light cast through the clerestory windows and the stained glass gave the ecclesiastical buildings of the time an ethereal feel as the “fingers of God” would stream into the cathedrals and capture the hearts of the people as they were taught about Christ.  The people of the time were mostly illiterate and were taught by the stained glass, stories of the bible and were led to the church by the glorious architecture that was didactic and helped to show the glory of God.   The basilica was similar in style to the Romanesque buildings with the rounded arches attributed to the Romans along with the Gothic pointed arches.  The wooden ceiling of the south were amazing in their intricacy and beauty.  Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey is one of the best examples of Byzantine architecture showcasing an enormous central space with a dome filled with pendentives and a circle of windows at the base. Multiple levels of arches supported by Byzantine capitals make this a stunningly elaborate church to behold. Constantinople, the capital of the eastern Roman Empire would develop it’s own style of design in architecture combining Romanesque qualities with more eastern influences in a fine example at Ravenna, the basilica with an octagon shape and breathtaking mosaics it is one of the finest examples of Byzantine architecture in existence. The mosaic of Justinian and Theodora is one of my personal favorites as they stand together, showing the strength of Constantinople. The didactic architecture and tile work educated the people of Byzantium and added to the sense of the eternal in Constantinople.

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Posted by on February 9, 2013 in History 221 Class Notes

 

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