Historical and Cultural Context

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E-Mail Doug at mrdoug@aznet.net or Melissa at mjmckinstry@earthlink.net

Early Middle Ages - Europe (450-1000)

Events that shaped the arts from 450 to 1000.

Attila the Hun (circa 406-53), king of the Huns (circa 433-53). - One of the most feared and notorious barbarians of all time, Attila is believed to be of distant Mongol stock, he ravaged much of the European continent during the 5th century AD (http://art1.candor.com/barbarian/attila.htm#Hun)

Success is the result of hard work that overcomes all forms of disappointment and moments of discouragement. - Attila the Hun (http://www.smartlink.net/~jeff/Wisdom.html#Attila)

496 - Ruthless Frankish king named Clovis ruled much of northern Gaul. The Franks were pagans, but Clovis's wife was a Christian who urged her husband to convert. During a battle with another German army Clovis invoked God's blessing and won the battle. Clovis and 3,000 of his warriors asked a bishop to baptize them. This aided the Roman Catholic Church by establishing a special partnership with the Frankish kingdom which would lead to the spread of Catholic rather than Arian Christianity. The Arians were considered heretics by the Church (WH, p. 203).

500's - Disease, war, famine, and natural disasters make life in sixth century Europe difficult at best. (http://www.historychannel.com/).

Under Justinian I, Byzantine scholars organized a great code of Roman law (HM, p. 500).

German-speaking barbarians destroyed the western half of the Roman empire. Germanic customs replaced the reasoned logic of Roman laws (WH, p. 201).

Constant warfare and pirating on the sea and land disrupted trade. As towns, once centers for trade declined, city dwellers left their decaying cities and drifted out into the countryside to grow their own food. The population of western Europe became overwhelmingly rural (WH, p. 202).

525 - Dionysius Exiguus, a Roman theologian and mathematician, records in his Easter Tables Jesus of Nazareth's birthday as December 25, 753 years after Rome was founded. The error, an incorrect year and date, is repeated in all Christian calendars (http://www.historychannel.com/).

ca. 530 - Abbot Benedict wrote a book describing a strict yet practical set of rules for monastic life. Almost all Italian, English, and Frankish monks and nuns lived according to the Benedictine Rule (WH, p. 204).

The Holy Rule of St. Benedict - The 1949 Edition - Translated by Rev. Boniface Verheyen, OSB of St. Benedict's Abbey, Atchison, Kansas - www.kansasmonks.org/RuleOfStBenedict.html

Daily life in a Benedictine House - http://www.skell.org/dailylife.htm


Pope St. Gregory the Great -

590 - Pope Gregory I begins the spread of Christendom, a spiritual kingdom fanning out from Rome to the most distant churches. Pope Gregory I wrote books, sent out missionaries, governed Rome, and expressed a new view of the world. He ignored the political divisions between kingdoms and saw the entire region from Italy to England, from Spain to western Germany as the responsibility of the pope (WH, p. 205).

600 - Priests were the only Europeans who were literate (WH, p. 202).

600's-700's - Monasteries of Ireland and England were the leading scholarly centers of the day. Monastic communities were like islands of stability in a sea of chaos. They were the best-governed communities anywhere in Europe because they followed an orderly, written body of rules. Monasteries were also the most educated communities. They operated schools, maintained libraries, and copied books.

Monasteries were communities in which groups of Christian men or women gave up all their private possessions, lived very simply, and devoted their lives to worship and prayer (WH, pp. 204-5).

610 - Muhammad, the founder of Islam, began preaching (HM, p. 500).


They laid then the beloved chieftain, giver of rings, on the ship's bosom, glorious by the mast. There were brought many treasures, ornaments from far-off lands...On his bosom lay a host of treasures, where were to travel far with him into the power of the flood. - Beowulf - http://itsa.ucsf.edu/~snlrc/britannia/suttonhoo/suttonhoo.html#anchor1288164

The Sutton Hoo-model and the ship engraving from a 5th century stone from Bro (1) on the island of Gotland. -

625-630 - Immediately before the outbreak of the Second World War, a large burial mound at Sutton Hoo in East Anglia was excavated by English archaeologists. The grave contained the richest Anglo-Saxon grave-goods known from that period in England, and also contained well-preserved traces of a ship, 27 m long, which had been placed in the grave together with the body, around 625-630 AD.

The reconstructed Royal Helm (British Museum). -


The Lindisfarne Gospels - 698 -

698 - The Lindisfarne Gospels is one of the most important inheritances from early Northumbria. Written and illuminated about 698 in honour of St Cuthbert, the famous Bishop of Lindisfarne, who died in 687, it is a masterpiece of book production and a historic and artistic document of the first rank (http://portico.bl.uk/diglib/treasures/lindisfarne.html).

700 - After more than 200 years the power of Merovingian kings (ancestors of Clovis) had dwindled to almost nothing. The most powerful person in the kingdom was not the king but an official known as the major domo or mayor of the palace. Officially, a major of the palace was in charge of the royal household and estates. Unofficially, he commanded armies and made policy. In effect, he governed the kingdom in the king's name (WH, p. 206).


714 - Charles, known as Martel (the Hammer), held the position of major domo. Charles Martel extended the power o the Franks to the north, south, and east. Upon his death he passed his power on to his son, Pepin the Short (WH, p. 206).

754 - Pope Stephen II, in need of protection from the Lombards, anointed Pepin the Short's head with holy oil and declared him "king by the grace of God." Pepin was the first king ever to be anointed by a pope. Afterward, it became common for kings in western Europe to be crowned "by the grace of God" in a church ceremony. No longer were kings simply political rulers. They now had some spiritual authority as well (WH, p. 207).

Silver and gold statue of Charlemagne encrusted with emeralds and rubies by an unknown sculptor (about 1349); Aachen Cathedral

768-814 - Pepin the Short died and left a greatly strengthened Frankish kingdom to his son, Charles who reigned for 46 years. He became known as Charles the Great or Carolus Magnus in Latin. In French his name became Charlemagne. His descendants were known as the Carolingian dynasty (WH, p. 207).

793 - Vikings, also known as Northmen and Norsemen came from a region called Scandinavia and attacked the monastery on Lindisfame Island near the northeast coast of England starting a 200 year reign of terror from Ireland to Russia (WH, pp. 211-12).

Viking longship - Combined the functions of oceangoing troop carriers and amphibious landing craft. Its remarkably shallow draft enabled a longship to approach almost any beach or to invade deep inland via a waterway only a few meters deep. The more than 60 warriors on the largest ships could jump over the low side of the hull within a few strides of land. A medieval prayer captured the terror: "From the fury of the Norsemen, good Lord deliver us." -


800 - Pope Leo III on Christmas Day in St. Peter's Cathedral, placed a jeweled crown on Charlemagne's head and declared him emperor.

The coronation marked another stage in the growing split between the Church of Constantinople and the Church of Rome. After 800, there were two Christian empires, Greek Orthodox in the east and the Roman Catholic in the west.

As a result of Charlemagne's crowning a new idea of empire arose in western Europe. Later popes gave the title "Roman emperor" to a European king. In theory, the person entrusted with this time became the protector of all Christendom (WH, p. 210).

800 - The Book of Kells is one of the most famous books in the history of the world and was completed in about 800 AD.

An image of the four apostles from the Book of Kells, courtesy of Brian Keller -

The vellum (calfskin) manuscript contains transcriptions of the four Gospels, lavishly illustrated and ornamented. It is the most elaborate manuscript of its kind to survive from the early Middle Ages.

The scribes and artists who created the Book were Columban monks who lived in a monastery on the remote island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. The monastery was founded late in the sixth century by an Irish monk, St Colm Cille.

At the time the book was produced, Irish monks were renowned throughout the rest of Europe for their work as scribes and illustrators.

The Book of Kells contains 680 pages (or 340 folios). Just two of the pages are without ornament (http://www.bookofkells.ie/book.html).


843 - The Treaty of Verdun divided Charlemagne's empire into three kingdoms, one for each of his grandsons. The lands later became the battleground for the future kings of France and Germany (WH, pp. 210-11).

900 - Rise of feudalism - A contemporary illustration of the feudal system - At the top of this pyramid-like system was the king, and below him were the clergy and barons who owned a substantial amount of land. In return for this ownership they became the king's 'vassals' and swore obedience to the king. Known as tenants-in-chief, these men had the right to pass on land and privileges to their other tenants - usually knights - while in return the knights had to swear obedience and fight for their lords when necessary. Then came the 'villeins', some of whom did duty in return for small amounts of land, while a very few of the lowliest held no land but worked just for their food and shelter.


910 - One of the first signs of reform in the Church was the founding of a new French monastery at Cluny. Cluny was founded by a nobleman, the Duke of Aquitaine. Unlike many lords, the duke did not try to make Cluny a source of personal wealth and power. Instead, he arranged that the monastery be subject only to the pope, not to any nearby lord or bishop.

The abbots of Cluny held strictly to the Benedictine rule. Soon Cluny's reputation for purity inspired the founding of similar monasteries throughout western Europe. by the year 1000, there were 300 houses under Cluny's leadership. Cluny acted as a headquarters for Church reform (WH, p. 228).

911 - Rollo, the leader of the Viking army that had been plundering the rich Seine River Valley for years made peace with Charles the Simple. In exchange for not making war against King Charles, Rollo was granted a huge piece of French territory, later known as Northmen's land, or Normandy. This agreement was similar to other agreements which was part of a new political system known as feudalism, a political and military system based on the holding of land. (WH, p. 214).

Gotlandic Box-brooch for the Viking Age -

982 - Eric the Red sailed west from Iceland into uncharted Atlantic waters where he came upon an island that was largely buried under a massive sheet of ice. He misnamed the place Greenland.

1000 - Eric the Red's son, Leif Ericson, sailed from Greenland to another unexplored land. This probably was the Canadian island now known as Newfoundland. The Vikings called it Vinland (WH, p. 213).

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