Amazing articles on just about every subject...


Preparation For The Gothic

( Originally Published 1910 )



IN the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries of our era the people of northern France reached the world's high-water mark in architecture. There has been nothing that compared with it before, and there has been nothing since. We adapt and imitate with skill, using the heritage of all the ages, and we have built with common sense and beauty. Yet there is not the least question of our inability to equal the work of these daring experimenters of the Middle Ages. It is an extraordinary, almost inconceivable thing, of course, and one of the very big facts of the whole history of style. I want you to understand very clearly why it is that in these last five most marvellous centuries of the world's progress, architecture as an art has made not one real creative step forward; why, in other words, the apogee of a glorious art should have been reached in mediaeval times, among a semi-barbarous and in many ways subject people. To explain this so that it may be quite apparent it is necessary to review briefly the political, social, and religious conditions of Europe at this time, for we must not expect to find an explanation of the Gothic phenomenon apart from the life of the people among whom it came into being.

In the beginning of the thirteenth century, when the first signs of the Gothic awakening are seen, the feudal system had not yet been outgrown. The continent was still cut up into little personal kingdoms ruled by men who, notwithstanding their outward allegiance to an overlord, were still absolute in their own territory. The national idea was asserting itself more and more, however, and proving a most potent leaven in the movement we are tracing.

While the feudal holdings were not abolished in France until 1789, the feudal lords were losing their power at this time because of the growing domination of the king, who had himself received his fief from God. It was on this basis that the head of the Church claimed the right, as the sole representative of the Divine power on earth, of stepping between the king and the people as well as between the king and God himself.

As the power of the political and ecclesiastical feudal lords diminished, the domain of the king very naturally increased in force and the national spirit began to develop. This idea had its most vigorous supporters among the more intelligent and ambitious of the untitled people—the commons—who, awakened to a sense of their power and their rights, were rapidly forcing their way to recognition. Here in the Middle Ages were the forebears of the dominant middle classes of our own time, and also of our modern political system of government.

This growing spirit of individualism and nationalism had its influence in changing the relation of the people to religion. Religious freedom was practically under the exclusive control of the official Church, an ecclesiastical oligarchy that dominated with relentless strength the lives of all the people. Now people began daring to think a little for themselves, and to take individual responsibility for their conduct and their ideals. Out of this individualism grew the national spirit, or aspiration for a national ideal, as opposed to the ideal of ecclesiastical institutionalism. The latter weakened as the former grew. The effect on the creations which science erected to the ideal is apparent through the progressive stages of development.

The acceptance by rulers and ruled of the claim of supreme authority on the part of the Church gave temporal as well as spiritual power to the popes, and they wielded it unstintedly, often unmercifully, over lords and commons alike. Power bred arrogance in time, and kings who failed of prompt obedience to Rome received excommunication, under which they were as powerless as the poorest peasant. The pope's representatives, men of the monastic orders, were responsible to him directly and to him only, and the civil powers thus found themselves constantly overruled, in the government of their own territory, by the priests. The inevitable result was political and religious warfare, which has continued to this day in the Latin countries.

During this time the monasteries and cathedral chapters had been growing powerful and wealthy, offering opportunities to the younger sons of the ambitious nobility. Many of these men through family influence became bishops and overlords in this feudal system of the Church, but with more divided allegiance than was shown by the monks. They were men of education, and were more often influenced by local and family tradition than by reverence for papal power, and, while they were fathers of the Church, they were also fathers of their own people.

Local pride often proved stronger with the lay priests than the petty and irritating mandates of the Vatican, so it came about that one by one they insisted on more or less individual liberty in temporal affairs, aided therein by the disaffected lords and the awakening commons.

In France, and, in fact, throughout Europe, this middle class had become the traders and merchants, and because of prosperous conditions had grown in wealth till they were in a position to demand recognition from the nobility, so that about this time we begin to find them getting a hand in the government. With the reversion from despotic one-man rule the assemblies of estates came into being as a forerunner of popular government. These assemblies—such, for instance, as the early Parliament of England, the States General of France, the Cortes of Spain, the Diet of Germany—were made up of the nobility, the local clergy, or lay bishops, and selected representatives of the commons, or free, untitled men. Their purpose was to provide the kings with money and advice, who, if they did not always take the advice, at least are not accused of ever having refused the money.

This new method of government had much to do with the growth of the national idea, but equally potent were the leagues of the cities for the protection of the trade routes against Eastern invaders, and the encroachments of the grafting, petty barons. This brought about the development of more friendly trade relations, and a gradual relaxation of the old interurban enmity into a half-friendly but spirited rivalry which plays a most important part in architectural development.

Meanwhile, the guilds of the Freemasons had grown and fused into a loose international organization of considerable power, and with some of the characteristics of the labor-unions of today. Their members were often possessors of that irremediable defect or blessing (according to the point of view), the artistic and constructive temperament, and were, therefore, of a wandering and insatiable disposition, much given to conviviality and comradeship of a warm-hearted sort. Their need of protection from the barons and their desire to keep the mysteries of the craft from outsiders led them to band themselves together in lodges, to adopt passwords and secret signs and signals; while the mysteries themselves were most carefully guarded, many of these forms, as we have noted, remain with the Freemasons to this day, though they have lost, to a large extent, their original significance.

The Reformation was not far in the future, and the spirit of intellectual revolt was wide-spread and deep-seated. The organization had reached the limit of its temporal power, and the pendulum was poised to swing the other way. The momentum that fairly carried the young civilization off its feet landed it with little damage except a blood-soaking upon heights far above its old level.

But there is one element in the strength and rapidity of this movement that centred in northern France. It colors and vivifies all other elements in unique fashion, and to it must be given a large measure of credit for the stupendous architectural achievement of the time. This is a distinct change of national temperament, due partly, perhaps, to the more rigorous climate of the North, but chiefly to the infusion of new and redder blood. During many centuries the Norsemen, or Northmen, wild wanderers and vagabonds, had been invading the shores of England and Europe. They were the most fearless men of the time, defying the storms of the North Sea and the North Atlantic in open boats, fighting like piratical demons against every foe, and living on the proceeds. England bought them off when she could. France took them in and absorbed them, and because of this we have the Normandy of today.

It is a most curious combination of characteristics that shows itself in these fighting Northmen. Lacking, apparently, any strong national unity, their identity quickly disappears in other countries. So in England they be-came English, and in France French. They readily accepted the Christian religion, and became professional soldiers, or sailors, or craftsmen. But though their nationalism disappeared, their boldness, strength, and virility did not. On the contrary, it infused itself into the absorbing nation with vast benefit thereto.

So we find in northern France, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, a people, made virile and fearless by the blood of the cold North, in revolt against ecclesiastical domination and the old forms and outgrown traditions, and inspired to vast ambition by success in trade, the broadening of the civil life, and the fruition of the Christian ideal of human brotherhood. Southern France had had an earlier maturity, her trade had reached its maximum, her towns and churches were built. The North developed with great rapidity; her quickly growing cities were for the most part without churches of sufficient size to house the people, worship taking place in the open squares. The lay bishops, with their own share of local pride, stirred the rivalry of the cities to highest pitch and called for money to build cathedrals. It came in a vast stream from nobles and merchants and traders and peasants.

The monastic school was not consulted. The growing civic and national pride required that the money and material should be given freely, and not, as in the old days of the Romanesque period, through the sales of relics and indulgences. The architects and craftsmen received the orders from the lay bishops.

It was Norman blood with local pride and a desire to break away from concrete expressions of the old tradition of vassalage that inspired the order to build greater buildings of more magnificence than ever before. It embodies a revolt that reveals a sort of ideal socialism by the people for the people.

The architects and craftsmen were even more Norman than the rest in their boldness and originality. Throwing monastic traditions aside, they set themselves with in-finite delight to the task of finding a way to do the unprecedented thing. They found the way, and in a very ecstasy of inspired daring climbed to undreamed heights of greatness and magnificence. All architectural styles are evolutional, but these men came the nearest to absolute creation that man has reached in the art. The Romans, in derision, called their work Gothic, meaning that it was a product of Northern barbarism. The name remains, but it has taken to itself a significance of a far different sort. It seems now one of the most admirably expressive words in our language.

Home | More Articles | Email: info@oldandsold.com