More Than Gore

Article excerpt

When the gangster Marsellus Wallace memorably threatened to "get medieval" in the darkly comic film "Pulp Fiction," he definitely didn't mean it in a positive way. He was conjuring up the savage England of Shakespeare, where feudal lords battled for political eminence in the Wars of the Roses, King Henry V's bloodthirsty nobles slaughtered the French at Agincourt and a hunchbacked Richard III had his little blond nephews murdered in the Tower of London. But a captivating new exhibit at London's Victoria & Albert Museum depicts a medieval period far less bloodthirsty than Shakespeare's. "Gothic: Art for England, 1400-1547" (Oct. 9-Jan. 18) evokes a considerably more refined 15th century by drawing on more than 300 of its finest surviving works, including tapestries, manuscripts, sculptures, paintings, jewelry, tomb effigies and stained glass. "There's a deeply scored presumption that the Middle Ages were all mud, blood and s--t," says architecture historian John Goodall. "The idea of the exhibit is to challenge that. This was not a dirty, dying, exhausted culture, but an incredibly vibrant one."

As the exhibit makes clear, 15th-century England may have been rent by the Wars of the Roses at home and sporadic fighting against the French abroad, but it was hardly a cultural backwater. Wealthy, cosmopolitan lords sought out the best craftsmen across Europe, commissioning intricately illuminated books from France and embroidered cloth from Italy. Superb paintings from the Netherlands, displaying a subtle, new mastery of tone, were in high demand, as were lavish tapestries and intricate stained glass depicting vivid religious and everyday scenes. In between battles against the French, Henry V's brother, the bibliophile warrior Duke of Bedford, picked up a gorgeous pair of illuminated manuscripts in Paris, which are reunited at the V&A for the first time in six centuries.

"Gothic" comes amid a general resurgence of interest in medieval culture. The BBC has been airing an adaptation of Chaucer's poem "The Canterbury Tales," the first piece of literature ever written about ordinary people in common English. Rather than draw on the set shop's colorful staple of medieval castles, horses and hooded monks, however, the series moves the story to modern England. The staggeringly frank, much-married Wife of Bath, for instance, is effectively recast as a volatile soap-opera actress, who beautifully brings home Chaucer's point about the different standards that apply to men and women. Such treatment emphasizes the universal appeal and ongoing relevance of medieval tales. Likewise, novelist Peter Ackroyd recently won a huge following with his murder mystery, "The Clerkenwell Tales," which is based on Chaucerian characters.

For better and worse, the Gothic period has always been a favorite target of historians. Thinkers during the 16th-century Renaissance--and the Enlightenment 200 years later--liked to caricature the medieval world as unpredictable and terrifying, where life was shrouded by superstition, virulent plagues, violent justice and a brutal, byzantine Roman Catholic faith. …