Tag Archives: medieval

Tall & skinny

I may exaggerate slightly, but you get the idea.

The years and centuries toddled on. In the north, a new style of architecture (building design, that is) was replacing the rounded, grounded, low-center-of-gravity basilica which was the Romanesque style of church. The miracle of a basilica had been fitting an enormous circular dome onto a square church without the whole thing collapsing into itself. This new style was entirely different—strictly vertical. If you want to get closer to G-d, you build taller churches, right? You design tall, taller spires that go up and up with pointy arched windows to let in sunlight through stained-glass windows. You keep everything from falling down by attaching more spires—flying buttresses—to relieve the outward pressure and outsmart a building’s biggest enemy: gravity.

So tall and skinny is the new look.

Here’s an excellent article about Romanesque vs Gothic architecture—
https://courses.lumenlearning.com/atd-sac-artappreciation/chapter/reading-romanesque/
https://aleteia.org/2017/10/29/what-is-the-difference-between-a-basilica-and-a-cathedral/
https://study.com/academy/lesson/pendentives-squinches-in-architecture.html

A tip of the hat to the memory of Rolly Ivers, my high school art teacher, who introduced me to church architecture all those years ago.

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From their lips to God’s ears

My take on Saint Jerome in his study by one of my heroes, Albrecht Dürer. Who doesn’t have a human skull laying around in one’s study?

As we saw in ancient Egypt, there’s a down side to concentrating literacy exclusively into one thin slice of the population. The Egyptian scribes had protected their monopoly on hieroglyphics. Their world fell apart when the Phoenicians invented the alphabet. Was that about to happen again?

In mediæval Europe, literacy gave the clergy access to the Bible. They encouraged the idea that access to the Bible meant access to G-d, and that regular shmoes needed the clergy to talk to G-d on their behalf.* I don’t condemn the clergy entirely for doing this. Probably most were doing their best to keep a faithful interpretation of G-d’s Word (there were some wacky interpretations and heresies back then). Friends, that’s a lot of responsibility. It’s a great temptation to assign power to oneself. As we will see, the clergy would give in to that temptation.

*Saint Jerome had translated the Bible from Hebrew & Greek into Latin in the ad 300s. He worked directly from the original languages and so his translation was very accurate. St Jerome’s Bible, in ‘vulgate Latin,’ was the officially approved Church Bible. But by the Middle Ages, most people didn’t speak Latin anymore.

https://ourworldindata.org/literacy
https://www.quora.com/What-were-literacy-rates-in-Medieval-Europe-How-did-they-compare-to-literacy-rates-in-the-Roman-Empire
https://spartacus-educational.com/YALDeducation.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerome

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A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

The Yankee lights up his pipe as he goes holy-grailing

Feudalism was an economic system designed to keep people permanently in their own class, their own caste. A serf had no hope of ever accumulating enough wealth to escape serfdom. Even for a freeman, the likelihood of owning land was small, since all land was owned by the king, nobility or the Church. It’s not easy for someone in the United States, a free-born citizen of a representative republic, to understand feudalism. I learned about feudalism in school but didn’t really get it. A book that helped was Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. I was in 8th or 9th grade when my dad suggested it to me, so you middle-schoolers/high-schoolers are ripe to enjoy it. As an American citizen, Mark Twain was troubled by the class system that still hung around Europe in his time (Twain’s book, Tom Sawyer, helped turn people against slavery in the U.S.). He used humor to promote a point of view, to change people’s minds. Twain lived and wrote over a century ago, so (let’s not cancel Mark Twain) please forgive any lapses into unwokedness. A Connecticut Yankee isn’t a happy book, but it is funny. You’ll love it. I enthusiastically recommend it. Click on the link to get started—https://www.gutenberg.org/files/86/86-h/86-h.htm

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Okay, only some people read

I’ll show myself out…

Let’s take a breath. This flowering of learning and culture wasn’t for everybody. Literacy—reading and writing—was doing fantastic in the monasteries, schools, colleges and universities. Outside those buildings, the literacy rate for regular shmoes was depressingly low. Mediæval Europe had a rigid class system—feudalism—with 3 classes: nobility, freemen and serfs. The economy was all about land. The nobles owned land; the freemen rented land (or lived in a town); the serfs farmed someone else’s land (in exchange for protection and a portion of the harvest).

Most people didn’t know how to read or write. The schools I talked about earlier were for the sons of nobles, or freemen who made a nice living. The nobility were either knights (military) or clergy (church). Clergy definitely needed to read and write to understand the Bible. Of the well-off freemen, merchants learned how read, write and do math because they needed to keep records of merchandise bought and sold, like the Phoenicians did. Lawyers and doctors needed to read and write. But most people—low-income freemen and serfs—couldn’t afford literacy. Papyrus is cheap but doesn’t last very long away from the desert. Parchment is expensive. Books written by hand are expensive. If you were a serf, forget about going to school. The very last thing nobles wanted was their cheap labor going to school to learn stuff. They even made it illegal. https://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/parliament-rolls-medieval/november-1391

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Will_no_one_rid_me_of_this_turbulent_priest%3F

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Higher education

Colleges popping up!

These things don’t happen all at once. First schools—colleges—popped up, to teach the trivium and quadrivium (the liberal arts). Next, there were specialized schools that taught medicine or law or divinity. In late eleventh-century Bologna (that’s in Italy) somebody got the idea to gather together schools that taught specialties and the liberal arts under one philosophical roof and call them a university. ‘University’ comes from the Latin word universitas that means ‘whole, the sum of all things.’

Side bar: these terms for higher learning institutions are used differently in different countries. In Spain, ‘college’ sounds a lot like their word for high school. In Italy, ‘liceo’ (lee CHAY oh) means high school, but in Great Britain or the US, a lyceum is a hall where people give lectures or concerts.

https://www.medievalchronicles.com/medieval-life/medieval-schools/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_European_universities
https://www.britannica.com/topic/university
https://www.medievalists.net/2011/08/medieval-university/
https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/2018-02-14/understand-the-difference-between-a-college-and-university-in-the-us
https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/lyceum

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Charlemagne’s culture boom

Your books will ship in 1-2 business days!

All of Charlemagne’s and Alcuin’s hard work paid off. The scriptoria were busy cranking out books using Alcuin’s new Carolingian-style letters (did you know Charlemagne’s sister Sister Gisele ran a scriptorium?) and choirs were singing those beautiful polyphonic hymns. Charlemagne’s push for education and culture inspired collections of schools to become universities—who clamored for even more books.

Sister Hildegard would do just about anything to improve the lighting in her scriptorium.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carolingian_Renaissance
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chelles_Abbey
https://thenewinquiry.com/blog/women-scribes-the-technologists-of-the-middle-ages/

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Polyphony

A bewigged quartet of musicians I drew for my pals at the good ol’ Renaissance & Baroque Society of Pittsburgh some years ago. Did Alcuin have any idea his invention would eventually come to this?

It wasn’t long before musicians figured out they could use notation to write several tunes into the same song: tunes that harmonize with or play against the main tune and enrich it. This is called polyphony.

Alcuin’s invention makes it possible to write fugues and symphonies and operas with parts for an entire orchestra of musical instruments and many human voices. Other cultures nowadays may write and perform symphonies, but they couldn’t do it without Alcuin and Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire.

Here are a couple of quick explanations of how musical notation works:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZN41d7Txcq0
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFaKNR7eeJk
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyphony
https://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/dec/17/polyphonic-music-fragment-origins-rewritten
Mediæval music manuscripts are a lovely combination of lettering and notes. https://sites.google.com/a/umich.edu/from-tablet-to-tablet/final-projects/music-in-medieval-manuscripts
https://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=44459
Here are the Mediæval Bæbes to show us what the Middle Ages sounded like—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXrdfTSLWCY
Likewise Carlo Gesualdo (he’s the composer; I can’t find who performed the Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Saturday in this recording)—
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YjXQeuO0fLw
You sure can’t beat the Tallis Scholars—
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4VoKso5ERI
Girls could play the game, too. In the 1100s, divinely-inspired Sister Hildegard von Bingen created this music—
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YTOiJ-zjP0
Eventually (ad 1700s—see the sketch above) we got Johanne Sebastian Bach writing stuff like this. I believe the bottom staff has the main tune while the top staff has all the deedle-deedle-deedle (I don’t know how to read music so maybe a musically-literate reader can help me out): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCL5Zvnt0TU
A couple centuries later—you can hear and see the different lines of music played here, in Khachaturian’s gorgeous adagio from Spartacus (this piece brings me to tears every time): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wXsDsLHasWo
Here’s what 20th-century New York City sounded like. This is a 1940s Hollywood recreation of the 1924 debut of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, but that sure looks like Paul Whiteman at the podium. The piano plays the main tune; the orchestra plays the variations. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAuTouBhN5k

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Alcuin solves the problem

This guy, Alcuin. Not only did he run Charlemagne’s palace school, standardize calligraphy throughout the Holy Roman Empire, invent punctuation (like the question mark), set up the way Latin ought to be pronounced in church—he invented musical notation, too.

It got under Charlemagne’s skin that the Empire’s churches and monasteries sang the same hymns but each church gave a hymn a different tune. Charlemagne was relentless in his campaign to standardize everything. He put Alcuin in charge of making sure every choir sang the same tune. So Alcuin invented musical notation.



Musical notation was meant simply to record the tune of a song. Each note represents a particular pitch, depending on where it sits on a scale. The scale is horizontal lines—it’s a frame of reference. Notes at the top of the scale are sung higher than notes at the bottom of the scale. Thanks to Alcuin, choirs throughout the Empire knew exactly what tune to sing just by looking at the written musical notes.

Here are a couple of quick explanations of how musical notation works:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZN41d7Txcq0
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFaKNR7eeJk

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How to slow down a clock

How did they do it?

Those medieval clock-designers came up with a system to slow down the unwinding. First, they attached a gear around the drive-shaft that meshed with a couple of other gears. As you saw with Archimedes’ odometer, the ratio of gear sizes and number of teeth-per-gear can control how fast one gear turns another gear.

That still wasn’t slow enough, though. You want a clock to operate for at least 24 hours before you have to wind it again. How can you make that unwinding even slower?

The answer: an invention called an escapement. An escapement is a mechanical device that interferes with the gear. It actually stops the gear’s movement for a second, then lets go for a second, stops it, lets go, stops it, lets go, stops it, lets go. The first escapement was called the verge and foliot. The verge is a second shaft (not the drive-shaft) with two paddles, or pallets, set at 90 degrees to each other. These pallets interact with a saw-toothed gear which is powered by the drive shaft. As the drive-shaft turns the saw-toothed gear, one pallet stops the gear for a moment until the other pallet is pushed aside.

This stop-and-let-go motion is controlled even further by a bar at the top of the verge shaft, called the foliot. The foliot has a weight hung on each end so that inertia (the weights’ unwillingness to move) slows down oscillation of the verge-shaft. You can control how fast the foliot swings back and forth by moving the weights closer or farther from the center.

 

https://aapt.scitation.org/doi/10.1119/1.3479712




https://www.mpoweruk.com/timekeepers.htm
https://www.uh.edu/engines/epi1506.htm

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Mechanical clocks

Sometime in the 1200s mechanical clocks began being designed and built. When I say mechanical, I mean there are several moving parts in the design. We’ve already seen sundials and water clocks and hourglasses. Water clocks and hourglasses use the release of energy to tell time, as water or sand run out of one container into another. The mechanical clock is different—it uses the release of energy to make it run but has a system of gears and stops to control that energy.

Like those older clocks, medieval mechanical clocks use gravity to supply their energy. A weight is tied to a long rope that is wound around a drive-shaft. When you let go of the weight, the rope unwinds and turns the shaft. The drive-shaft has an arrow attached at its end to point to the hour on a circular clock face. So far, so good—but the drive-shaft will turn really fast for a few seconds, the arrow will whiz around the clock face and then you’d have to wind the rope around again. You still wouldn’t know what time it is. What you need for a clock is a slo-o-o-ow release of energy. How can you slow down the unwinding of that rope?