IN the last few years there has been a great revival of interest in the Gothic are--the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries A.D. in Western Europe. The beatific vision of the Victorians: a world steadily progressing, yet to all intents and purposes already perfect, has faded, and left in its place a disillusionment that we hardly care to contemplate. Established values have become discounted, and men's eyes are turning towards a time when Europe was in fact as in theory a living entity, united in a culture, a religion, and a learned language. Our culture may have little in common with that of John of Salisbury, or Thomas Aquinas or Reginald Peacock; we may not share their religion, and it is more than likely that our Latin has become rusty. Yet we may still find apt lessons for our time in an age which was closing five centuries ago.
Again, enormous strides have been made in historical knowledge of the Middle Ages during the last twenty-five years. Much has been done by continental scholars, by Americans (especially by the Mediaeval Academy of America, with its organ Speculum), and a respectable amount by Englishmen. English research has been strong in literature and science; American, among others, in music; continental workers have pressed far into the rediscovery of architecture and the plastic arts. There are no national monopolies and it is gratifying to find that there is nothing jingo, and very little sectarian, but a growing and catholic enjoyment of a great epoch. The progress made by scholars is beginning to reach a wider public; twenty years ago, for instance, the late Dr. Tancred Borenius and Professor E. W. Tristram showed the importance of English Medieval Painting, and it is now possible for Mr. Cyril Bunt in an admirable survey to relate the English work to its continental and cultural background. The large share taken by fifteenth-century Englishmen under the leadership of John Dunstable in the creation of harmonic music is just becoming recognized, thanks to scholars such as Dom Anselm Hughes and Dr. Manfred Bukofzer. Sculpture, both English and French, is gaining recognition on the shoulders of Mr. Arthur Gardner.
The interest aroused reaches beyond professed enthusiasts of the mediaeval: even so noted an authority on Renaissance architecture as Mr. John Summerson has produced an "interpretation of Gothic" which wittily converts it from the sublime to the aediculous. Such straws prove that a strong wind is blowing, even though the aedicular hypothesis of Gothic may seem to share in the diaphany of the Emperor's new clothes. But Mr. Summerson has done mediaeval studies a service by his insistence that the leading feature of Gothic architecture is not a system of material construction, but the symbolic pointed arch. The verdict of the nineteenth-century preachers of evolution has been greatly modified.
Architecture is of first importance because it was indeed the Mistress Art during the whole Gothic period. After the Renaissance of Roman style and detail, architects were only too glad to acquire their designs second-hand from foreign pattern-books or even from engravers' fancies--title-pages and the like. But from the twelfth to the fifteenth century exactly the reverse had been the case; it was the architect who led the way with his buildings, and all the other artists who gathered round to adorn them, or to adapt his details to their own uses. For four hundred years we have seen the architect led by the nose: by Vitruvius, by foreign interpreters and imitators of Vitruvius, by fashion-plate draughtsmen, by travellers, by dilettanti, by history-books, and lastly by the engineer; in the Gothic age the architect led the way with a flourish of trumpets, while the rest brought up the rear.