Medieval Power: Symbols & Splendour Queensland Museum, Brisbane. Until April 10
When a society is functioning properly, its members behave on the whole in a peaceful and co-operative manner; competition, rivalry and the pursuit of wealth remain natural instincts and even useful economic forces, but they are mitigated by respect for the law, civic-mindedness and courtesy. Most significantly, these social values do not have to be enforced by the state; they arise from a shared sense of the authority of custom or the law. The success of humans as a species is largely due to our capacity for social living.
The larger, more diverse and more anonymous a society becomes, the more likely it is to include individuals who do not conform to the law; crime, in that sense, is one of the negative consequences of civilisation, like epidemic disease. But it is only when a society is in a state of breakdown that violence and the e resort to force become widespread, requiring a corresponding use of f force by the state to maintain order. That is why the phenomenon of domestic violence, for example, is more than a moral issue: it is a symptom of social dysfunction, of the failure of f the values and moral authority that should make such behaviour unthinkable.
When authority fails, its place is taken by force. There are many places around the world, especially in the Middle East and Africa, where social order is under constant attack from paramilitary thugs and religious fanatics, and violence is endemic. In the history of Europe too there have been such lamentable episodes, but by far the most important and prolonged was that which followed the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west in the fifth century and which lasted for almost half a millennium before a new Europe arose, different in its ethnic composition, geographical centre of gravity and religion, but inspired by the great civilisation of antiquity.
Modern Europe did not regain something like the cultural and technical level of antiquity for 1000 years after the fall of Rome, which is a sobering testimony to the extent of the catastrophe that the end of the empire represented for western Europe — far more dramatic than any of the smaller catastrophes endured by civilisation in India or China.
The whole of this millennium is the subject of Medieval Power, which comes to Brisbane from the British Museum, although the title is more aptly applied to the first half of that period. For while Rome had been willing to use force when necessary against barbarians and rebellious subjects, the empire had brought peace and prosperity to most of its population.
The fall of the empire brought centuries of violence and bloodshed: hordes of barbarians invaded the imperial territories, some of them extraordinarilye savage and murderous,o and all them culturally primitive.p A short-lived reconquest by the eastern imperialp armies caused more damage and was followed by the arrival of still more brutal barbarians. Then the rise of Islam meant further waves of disastrous invasion, and the loss of some of the most civilised and ancient parts of the Mediterranean world. The Arabs were only stopped by Charles Martel at the Battle of Poitiers (AD732) and then gradually pushed back by the military power of the Franks, barbarians turned guardians of civilisation. Charles’s grandson Charlemagne later suppressed the formerly intractable Saxons with great loss of life. He was crowned emperor in 800, theoretically restoring the Roman Empire, but his heirs were unable to face the new and different threat of hitand-run Viking raids in the ensuing century. Arab pirates continued to prey on the south of Europe, while a new menace, the Magyar assault on central Europe, was finally crushed by the very Saxons who had been conquered by Charlemagne and now in turn took up the cause of empire and order against barbarian invasion.
It was a harsh period in which civilisation, as Kenneth Clark famously said, hung on by the skin of its teeth. By the end of the 10th century, though, Europe was largely safe from large-scale external threats, and a couple of centuries later was ready to go on the offensive — even if with very mixed success — during the age of the Crusades. The next and last significant threat of invasion came when the Turks conquered the Arabs and then took Constantinople in 1453; the Turkish menace was constant and terrifying, especially in the Mediterranean in the 16th and 17th centuries, and it was only in the 18th that Ottoman power began to wane as that of Europe rose decisively.
The long transition from ancient to modern Europe is, for most people, the least well-known period in the history of the West, and the Brisbane exhibition does not do a lot to clarify it. There are a couple of maps, but they represent the beginning and end of the story rather than helping to understand its successive stages. To make matters worse, items in the exhibition are disconcertingly out of chronological order. Thus we have a Viking axe a few feet away from a late-15th-century helmet, and then much further on, surrounded by objects from the high middle ages and the Gothic period, we come upon things from the ninth or 10th centuries.
There are also arguably too many small objects, and they are often hard to see properly because many are displayed very low, perhaps so that they can be viewed by children. Nor has there been any thought of providing magnification for tiny but beautiful things such as a Gothic brooch in which Hercules, in the guise of
a contemporary knight, confronts the Nemean lion. For all these reservations about the exhibition as a whole, however, it is undeniably full of individually interesting and sometimes exquisite objects.
The small scale of many objects is most understandable in the early period, the centuries known with some justification as the Dark Ages. Everything shrank in this period when civilisation was struggling to survive and when even most of those on whom the duty of preserving it fell were illiterates, barely civilised themselves by ancient standards. Buildings were hovels and artistic expression was reduced to the illuminated manuscripts of the monks — the only ones who could read — and the jewellery and metalwork of the aristocracy.
Thus the most beautiful early pieces are examples of Anglo-Saxon metalwork, such as the Wingham Brooch (c. 575-625), or the Crundale Sword Pommel (675-700), in which we can recognise the same lithe and intertwined animal forms as in contemporary or slightly later manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels (c. 700) or the Book of Kells (c. 800). The Angles and Saxons had themselves been Germanic barbarians who invaded Roman and Celtic Britain after the fall of the empire. In time a few monasteries in Britain became the leading intellectual centres of Europe, and Charlemagne appointed Alcuin of York to lead his program of cultural renovation.
And then the Vikings came and destroyed most of what had been achieved, burning the monasteries that had preserved literacy and some vestige of intellectual life. Only Alfred the Great, a rare example of a literate and intellectual ruler, was able to stop them in Wessex.
Figure of a knight in armour stone (13751425), Britain; the Wingham brooch (575625), below left, is made from silver-gilt, niello, garnet, glass and shell