Art Question

1- Medieval Manuscripts, an Introduction

  1. Why are medieval books more likely to survive than scrolls?
  2. Who made the books?
  3. Why were books essential to the practice of Christianity?

The Bestiary

  1. What is a bestiary?

Listening to the medieval book

  1. What is parchment made out of?
  2. What is the difference in sound between the cheap parchment and the expensive parchment?
  3. What is a Paris Bible?
  4. Who likely used the Paris Bible?


2- Complete and respond to classmates:

  • Look at the pictures of the Romanesque Churches below, exteriors and interiors.

EditSt. Sernin, Toulouse, France

St. Sernin, Toulouse, France

Interior of St. Sernin

Interior of St. Sernin

Pisa Cathedral, Italy
Pisa Cathedral, Italy

Pisa Cathedral, Interior
Pisa Cathedral, Interior

  • Read the following excerpt about peasant life in Medieval Europe and try to imagine what your life would be like if you lived then.

Barbara Tuchman, in A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous Fourteenth Century, tells us that peasants were considered:

“aggressive, insolent, greedy, sullen, suspicious, tricky, unshaved, unwashed, ugly, stupid and credulous… in satiric tales it was said the [peasant’s] soul would find no place in Paradise or anywhere else because the demons refused to carry [him] due to the foul smell.” And…

… by what right does a [peasant] eat beef? …Rather let them eat thistles and briars, thorns and straw and hay on Sunday and peapods on weekdays… they should chew grass on the heath with the horned cattle and go naked on all fours.”

The following is a fictional, but likely, account of a day in the life of a medieval peasant:

“Woke up this morning. Little Jacques lost some more teeth in the evening; so did I. Marie has dysentery, the less said about that, the better. Julianne continues to breast-feed Robert, even though he’s four years old [Extended breast feeding lowers fertility]. Michel showed up this morning with my spade; he’d buried four of his plague-stricken children himself. He was unable to hire gravediggers as they won’t bury diseased dead. I’m not sure I want my spade back.

Went to town. Left seven-year-old Jacques to borrow one of Lord Foix’s oxen and plow the field. He’s a tough little bugger. Saw a large party, maybe 300, striding through town, beating themselves with iron-studded leather whips in front of sobbing townspeople. Pretty strange bunch. They must have a lot of free time. [The flagellants, as they were later called, felt corrupt clergy could no longer save mankind and decided self-abuse was the proper way to absolve humanity’s sins. Tuchman tells us “they were forbidden to bathe, shave, change their clothes, sleep in beds, talk or have intercourse…” without their leader’s permission. “Evidently this was not withheld, since the flagellants were later charged with orgies in which whipping was combined with sex.” While originally possessing religious fervor, the flagellants grew secular and attempted to usurp power from the Church. Failing that, they settled for slaughtering some 10,000 Jews before France’s Philip VI hanged and beheaded them. -HH] After the crowd moved through, saw neighbor Jean, covered with red rashes, staring openmouthed at the sky, talking about demons, frogs, and wildflowers. He looks different. His wife tells me his left arm fell off last week [Jean has St. Anthony’s Fire, a poisoning caused by the ergot fungus in rye flour kept over winter. Ergot contaminates grains in the field, causes wild hallucinations, blood vessel constriction and limb loss and is still a threat to modern agriculture. -HH].

A Beheading from Jean Froissart's Chronicles

Ran into friends Charles, Philip, and Gaston in the center of a large crowd, playing the village’s favorite game with Marat’s cat. They had their hands tied behind their backs, and they were trying to beat it to death with their heads. It was nailed to the post in the middle of town, and Guillaume played his trumpet. Gaston had his eye put out by the cat. After a few beers it was an awfully good laugh. He bit its paw off, and finally killed it. Well done, fellows. [Tuchman refers us to Origo’s Merchant of Prato, which details this and other horrific peasant games. – HH] Smells pretty bad in town, and I don’t think it’s just the decapitated bodies from last week’s inquisition. Seems like the last time I was in town it was to watch old Louis get flogged, hanged and quartered for something or other. [In 1327, Avignon’s public sanitation was so deficient that the stench forced historian Petrarch to move out to nearby Vaucluse “to prolong my life.” It also caused a visiting ambassador from Aragon to faint. In addition, Tuchman notes that “torture was authorized by the Church… in everyday life passersby saw some criminal flogged… passed corpses hanging on the gibbet and decapitated heads and quartered bodiesimpaled on stakes in the city walls.” -HH].

Game over, we went to church. Before Jean went mad, he had organized an Indignation Meeting for tonight, and we met in the cemetery. The nobles have been treating us rather poorly [While the codes of chivalry prohibited killing unarmed men, knights reasoned peasants did not abide by the codes and were thus fair game. Pillage, rape, and slaughter by local nobility were common. -HH]. What’s more, they have contributed to the capture of our beloved king. We found out last week that some local knights fled Jean II while fighting the English in Poitiers without actually fighting. Cowards. [Jean II was captured in the Battle of Poitiers against Charles of Navarre in 1358. -HH] We all got pretty riled up, went to Lord Foix’s castle, raped then killed his wife and daughter, saving him for last, and then burned the castle. I guess Foix won’t get his ox back. It was pretty nuts. Went home, drank a gallon of ale, and went to bed. Long day.

[Our protagonist had joined a movement started in 1358 that eventually encompassed tens of thousands of peasants in France who pillaged and raided cowardly nobility. However, a large garrison of nobles eventually met the peasants in Meaux and killed a bunch of them, giving new license to the slaughter of commoners, and the original order was swiftly returned. Because this site is made in America, where we believe in the happy ending, our hero survived the retribution of the nobles and the Plague and died of pneumonia at the ripe age of 35. -HH]”

  • Share with us what you think it was like for a poor peasant, to enter the Church of St. Sernin in Toulouse, France?
  • What was it like to sit in the Mass, listen to the Bishop in his holy regalia and participate in the service? Remember, you are a poor peasant.

Now read the following excerpt from St. Bernard of Clairvaux as regards his views of opulence of the Benedictine Bishops.

Bernard of Clairvaux was a member of the Cistercians, an ascetic order founded in the eleventh century in opposition to the increasing opulence of the Benedictines. His letter to the Benedictine abbot William of St.-Thierry of about 1127 denounces all monastic luxury, especially the presence of art in cloisters. Like many others, Bernard believed that monks were spiritually superior to the “carnal” layfolk and so should not need material inducements to devotion.

“As a monk, I put to monks the same question that a pagan used to criticize other pagans: “Tell me, priests,” he said, “what is gold doing in the holy place?” I, however, say…”Tell me, poor men, if indeed you are poor men, what is gold doing in the holy place?” For certainly bishops have one kind of business, and monks another. We [monks] know that since they [bishops] are responsible for both the wise and the foolish, they stimulate the devotion of a carnal people with material ornaments because they cannot do so with spiritual ones. But we who have withdrawn from the people, who have left behind all that is precious and beautiful in this world for the sake of Christ, we who regard as dung all things shining in beauty, soothing in sound, agreeable in fragrance, sweet in taste, pleasant in touch-in short, all material pleasures-…whose devotion, I ask, do we strive to excite in all this?…

Does not avarice…cause all this…? Money is sewn with such skill that it may be multiplied…the very sight of these costly but wonderful illusions inflames men more to give than to pray. In this way wealth is derived from wealth…Eyes are fixed on relics covered with gold and purses are opened. The thoroughly beautiful image of some male or female saint is exhibited and that saint is believed to be more holy the more highly colored the image is. People rush to kiss it, they are invited to donate, and they admire the beautiful more than they venerate the sacred…What do you think is being sought in all this? The compunction of penitents, or the astonishment of those who gaze at it? O vanity of vanities…! The Church is radiant in its walls and destitute in its poor….It serves the eyes of the rich at the expense of the poor. The curious find that which may delight them, but those in need do not find that which should sustain them…”


  • What was it like to be a powerful Bishop with access to the opulence of a rich church?
  • What was it be like to be a monk, dedicated to poverty, chastity and charity? What did monks do artistically?

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