Weekend: Books: Inspiring Window into the Middle Ages; Medieval Panorama. Edited by Robert Bartlett (Thames & Hudson. Pounds 29.95). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds

Article excerpt

Byline: Richard Edmonds

It is usual to define the Middle Ages as that period in European history which began with the collapse of the Roman Empire and ended with Martin Luther and the Reformation.

It was, in its heyday, the period of ``vassalage'' when young men would attach themselves to some great lord, eat at his table and fight his battles for him - something recognised by the Romans and developed by Shakespeare in Julius Caesar. Christianity was the driving force at the start of it all when the Romans crumbled, as this book illustrates so well. And Christianity flourished, in spite of sneers from the early Christian fathers such as Tertullian who noted that the crudest Christian rustic was ready with answers to questions which had always puzzled the wisest heads in antiquity. It was Christianity in the marketplace proselytising to new converts and conscious of its developing muscles.

Christian doctrine, as it took hold, was the driving force behind the magnificent architecture of buildings such as Cologne Cathedral, illuminated books, gold work, fine art and beautiful paintings all of which gives the Middle Ages a kind of supremacy. The French philosopher and freethinker Voltaire saw the Middle Ages as a period of ferocity and anarchy when Europe was divided up like a cake amongst numerous petty tyrants. And certainly Voltaire had a point.

``Picture to yourself a wilderness'' he wrote, in the 18th century, ``where wolves, tigers and foxes slaughter timid, straggling cattle - that is a picture of Europe over the course of many centuries.''

Voltaire's portrait of a time full of social degradation and high art - contrasts in extremes shown in this fascinating book - changed in time. By the 18th century the Middle Ages was neatly deodorised and reconstituted by the Romantics as a rather lofty period of high poetry, great art, troubadours, local colour and popular speech.

It was an attitude which coloured Victorian idealism and ushered in both the Pre-Raphaelites and the word of ``Gothic'' which covered a multitude of sins perpetuated by, amongst other people, the 19th century architect and designer A W N Pugin who claimed, rather vaguely, that ``the pointed arch was produced by the Catholic faith''.

There are lots of pointed arches in the book's beautiful illustrations that include Hans Memling's painting of The Last Judgement where paradise is approached through the pointed archways of Gothic cathedral.

The publication is carefully cross-referenced and so Bartlett allows the reader to take in every aspect of the Middle Ages from colour consciousness in terms of black peoples to anti-Jewish sentiments. An excellent introduction includes the influence of the Middle Ages upon cinema producing those 1950s romantic spectacles such as Ivanhoe and Charlton Heston's El Cid.

The 800 illustrations provide a panorama which sweeps the reader along and the chief virtue of this handsome book is that it is likely to whet the appetite of the reader who may move on to more serious studies of the period.

While further funding is currently being sought for an ambitious pounds 3 million scheme to restore The Leasowes, the poet Willliam Shenstone (1714-63) who created these celebrated landscaped gardens has been dismissed as ``a dull, impecunious bore'' by gardening historian Charles Quest-Ritson.

The austere religious leader John Wesley wrote of Shenstone's creation of walks, cascades and vistas at his hillside farm near Halesowen town centre: ``I was never so surprised. I have seen nothing to compare with it. …