CONTROVERSY has raged over the cradle of Gothic architecture, and is not yet at an end. No certain answer can be given to the question: where did Gothic begin? But the origin of certain factors has become clearer than it was a generation or two ago. The prime importance of the pointed arch is now seen to go beyond mere convenience in the practical arrangement of vault-ribs. It is a key motive accepted as the symbol of a new culture, and borrowed from the East. Pointed arches had been known in the Saracenic world for several centuries, and by the "Arabs" had been introduced to Sicily. But until the end of the eleventh century the Arabic Mediterranean and Romanesque Europe had been segregated, were worlds apart. Then within one lifetime the whole position was changed: in 1066, William of Normandy conquered England; between 1060 and 1090 Sicily was won by another Norman, Roger of Hauteville; in 1099 the new united energy of the West conquered Jerusalem. Again the impetus was provided by Normans, close relatives of Roger: Bohemund and his nephew Tancred.
By the year 1100 Norman dynasties were firmly settled at the centre and both ends of the world of western Christianity. And it is important to note that before this date there had been no occurrence of the pointed arch in the West. Yet within a generation it had begun its triumphal course, and in two it was established at the core of a new art. It can hardly be mere coincidence that the eastern arch appears first in the Norman realm of Sicily; the earliest combination of pointed arch and ribbed vault Normandy and in England; the earliest flying buttresses, albeit hidden, again in Norman England; in fact, that the whole cultural movement that we know as Gothic should have followed immediately upon the great expansion of Norman power. Had the Norman realms ever coalesced into one political unit, this early primacy might never have passed from them. But as it was, after a few decades of keen competition, the leadership of the new civilization fell to the King of France and the area of his centralized government close to Paris. The identification of Gothic art with France is due to the capacity of the French Kings to pursue their policy over a period of generations, and to the corresponding disunity of the Norman princes, and their internecine conflicts, such as those between the sons of William the Conqueror.
In this limited sense, the development of Gothic belongs particularly to France, but by no means to a French national state, nor to the personified French people of chauvinist myth. The importation of such conceptions into the cultural history of the twelfth century is an utter anachronism. Besides, even the nominal Kingdom of France of that day differed widely from the France of our maps. While it included the county of Barcelona beyond the Pyrenees, it lacked everything east of the line of Meuse, Saône and Rhone, and much to the west too. Beyond this line was the Empire, a strange and loose union of Germany with northern Italy and with Provence. None of the three great monasteries, Cluny, Citeaux and Clairvaux, which were centres of cultural diffusion in the new age, was more than twenty-five miles from the frontier. But in speaking of frontiers we must remember that in the twelfth century the whole western European polity was a single unit in a way that it no longer is. Differences of vernacular language were of comparatively little significance when all learned men had a common language in Latin; a common ecclesiastical loyalty to Rome.