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Middle Ages: Arts and Culture

Resources for Year 8 study of Medieval History

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Brief, basic information laid out in an easy-to-read format. May use informal language. (Includes most news articles)


Provides additional background information and further reading. Introduces some subject-specific language.


Lengthy, detailed information. Frequently uses technical/subject-specific language. (Includes most analytical articles)

Arts and Culture

Impact on society

Monks and nuns performed many practical services in the Middle Ages, for they housed travelers, nursed the sick, and assisted the poor; abbots and abbesses dispensed advice to secular rulers. But monasticism also offered society a spiritual outlet and ideal with important consequences for medieval culture as a whole. Monasteries encouraged literacy, promoted learning, and preserved the classics of ancient literature, including the works of Cicero, Virgil, Ovid, and Aristotle. To beautify the celebration of the liturgy, monastic composers enriched the scope and sophistication of choral music, and to create the best environment for devotion, monasticism developed a close and fruitful partnership with the visual arts. The need for books and buildings made religious houses active patrons of the arts, and the monastic obligation to perform manual work allowed many monks and nuns to serve God as creative artists. Exceptionally, some of them signed their works in words that seem intended not only to name the maker but also to identify the object as a prayerful offering. So the Latin inscription on an exquisite silver chalice (47.101.30) translates, “In honor of the Blessed Virgin brother Bertinus made this in the year 1222,” and the three nuns who made a fourteenth-century lace altarcloth (29.87) included their own names in the fabric along with the wish, “May our work be acceptable to you, o kindly Jesus.”


Stained glass



Illuminated manuscripts

The Annunciation to the Virgin, Gualenghi-d’Este Hours, Taddeo Crivelli, circa 1470, Ferrara  (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig IX 13, fols. 3v-4)


Medieval Art 1200- 1399

Medieval Music

Stained glass text

Medieval narrative through stained glass

December 19, 1997

Churches with painted windows cast light on life in the later middle ages.

THE MEDIEVAL stained glass of Europe provides a rich insight into the devotional life of the later middle ages, largely overlooked by historians of art and architecture, researchers have found.

While the magnificent windows of Canterbury, York and Tewkesbury are well documented, these make up only a fraction of the glass surviving in 8,000 medieval parish churches around Britain alone.

Most are undocumented and barely studied, and their secrets remain hidden. Yet time, pollution and dilapidation are taking their toll, and a full record of surviving stained glass is urgently needed, according to art historians in an international research project aiming to do just that.

The task is enormous, but thanks to the diligence of the Corpus Vitrearum project, glass painting may eventually enter the canon of medieval art alongside architecture, sculpture, frescoes, panel paintings and manuscripts.

"In the middle ages stained glass was the most important form of painting and played a huge role in the development of narrative in art," he says.

Understanding the work in its economic and social context is the key to any analysis of the significance of the images to medieval life. This task is made more difficult, he says, by the fact that much medieval stained glass is no longer in its original setting. It has found its way into valuable private collections, affecting the way it is understood today.

Most art histories of the period are based on analyses of illuminated manuscripts. But in fact, according to project president Richard Marks, stained glass was far more prolific, and accessible to a much wider audience in about 10,000 churches and monasteries.

"Looked at in this way, illuminated manuscripts seem rather peripheral," said Professor Marks, of York University.

The huge scale of the loss of stained glass during the Reformation meant it was gradually relegated to a minor art, particularly during the Renaissance when it was regarded as mere decoration. But during the middle ages, its significance was very much deeper, Professor Marks says.

One of the most difficult problems hampering the Corpus Vitrearum is the amount of restoration which took place during the 19th century. This is often indistinguishable from the original work, although in the Victorian period, in particular, it is suspected that restorers "tidied up" the images while failing to understand the original iconography.

"From an academic point of view, we need to know what we are looking at. We need to be sure the glass is 13th century, and not 19th century, because the restorer inevitably puts his own interpretation on the work and changes its meaning," Professor Marks said.

He has recently completed a mapping of stained glass in Northamptonshire, a painstaking task which turned out to be considerably larger than expected. Instead of the anticipated 30 or so parish churches containing material, there were 90, and there were some important finds.

Tim Ayers, secretary of the Corpus at the Courtauld Institute in London, said that along with wall painting, stained glass represented the most important surviving body of medieval monumental painting.

"Much of the glass in our parish churches has never been published and deserves to be better known," he said. This was particularly important since atmospheric pollution was speeding up the decay of the fragile works of art. Scholars from other disciplines were also watching the research with interest, he said.

Comparisons were being made, for example, between text and stained glass narratives of the period. "We have much more to learn from stained glass," he said.


Focus Questions

  • What are the key features of your chosen aspect of Medieval life?
  • How does your aspect demonstrate the beliefs and ideas of Medieval society?
  • What does it reveal to us about what people thought at the time?
  • What are some of the ways that your aspect reflected and re-enforced medieval social structures?
  • Explain with reference to at least two different historians’ opinions.
  • How and why did your aspect change over time?
  • In your opinion does your topic demonstrate similarities between the medieval period and today? Explain

Medieval Music

Medieval Books