Christo­pher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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

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