Sigrid Undset on Misunderstanding the Middle Ages

Walters Book of Hours, Above: Flagellation; below: Annunciation to the shepherds, Walters Art Museum
(via Flickr

“People of the nineteenth century showed in fact a quite extraordinary degree of incapacity when they tried to understand the men and women of the Middle Ages, even when they went about it with the best of wills. I had almost said that in this case they failed most miserably; no misunderstanding has so disturbing an effect as mistaken enthusiasm. And in the nineteenth century people were really enthusiastic about certain manifestations of the spirit of the Middle Ages, so far as they were capable of discerning and misunderstanding it— medieval architecture for instance. People had discovered that Gothic was something more than a disorderly ugliness, a regrettable barbaric intermezzo between the representationist formality of late antiquity and the renaissance attempts to put the clock back— to cut a thousand years of development out of the history of Europe and aim at a linking-up with the ideas of a distant past, to prune Christianity right down to its roots and start again where primitive Christianity leaves off, a thing which the Reformers imagined to be possible. The Romanticists had a great fancy for medieval ruins: all over Europe they built sham ruins and restored those that remained— often according to the principle followed in tricking out a fine Swedish manor-house of the early eighteenth century in Victorian Gothic…. New Gothic churches and town-halls and castellated villas were thickly sown over Germany and England. . . .

The fashion of the Gothic was of course like all fashions a symptom of a contemporary spiritual attitude. At the beginning of the century it looked as if revolution and war had made a clean sweep of the world of the immediately preceding generations— the palaces and prisons of absolutism and the academies and ornamental gardens of the age of enlightenment. The young felt themselves to be a chosen generation, called to rebuild the world, more beautiful and better than before. Young minds of the Sturm und Drang periond yearned for an outlook on life which should embrace the whole creation as a unity and at the same time open a way to infinity. “Through the ego leads the vast stairway, from the lichens on the rocks to the seraphs”— but the ego is not the individual ego of each little human being, it has become conscious of being a radiation from the eternal will which draws everything upward and binds everything together. It then dawned upon some of them that the outlook they were striving to formulate had points of contact with the medieval view of the world. And because they felt the need of expressing their new outlook more rapidly and more strikingly than could be done by statement and explanation, they resorted to images and symbols and parables— and discovered that much of that had been scoffed at by the rationalists as medieval childishness, crudity, and the outcome of silly superstition, was in fact nothing but the symbols and emblems of that age. It had simply appeared meaningless to the people of the age of enlightenment in the same way as stenography looks like a meaningless scribble to those who know nothing of shorthand systems.

Nevertheless the nineteenth century only arrived at a very imperfect interpretation of the medieval shorthand signs. . . . The historians continued to unearth, collect, and revise ever increasing masses of material, researchers were at work on popular tradition, architects went on restoring and imitating medieval buildings, poets chose subjects from the Middle Ages for historical dramas and unhistorical romances and ballads. But their understanding failed them on a vital point— that of the religion of the Middle Ages, in other words their very outlook on life.”

—-Sigrid Undset from “Ramon Lull of Parma” in Stages on the Road.

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2 Responses to Sigrid Undset on Misunderstanding the Middle Ages

  1. MrsDarwin April 29, 2018 at 8:30 pm #

    What a incisive analysis.

    A question about semantics: “New Gothic churches and town-halls and castellated villas were thickly sewn over Germany and England. . . .” Is this “sewn” as in a landscape quilted with medievalisms, or is it a typo for “sown”, with the connotations of being strewn like seed? I’ve just never seen sewn used that way, but it’s extremely evocative.

    • Melanie Bettinelli
      Melanie Bettinelli April 30, 2018 at 3:47 pm #

      Oh argh. It’s just a typo for “sown”. What happens when I transcribe while tired.

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