Friday, April 26, 2019

"Medieval Innovations: From founding Bern and opening the Saint Gotthard Pass to the rise of Amsterdam"

From Lapham's Quarterly, April 23:
In the High Middle Ages, an era that devotes itself to conjuring up vast churches and palaces and excels at great intellectual and religious movements, it is good to focus first on a couple of small objects. The first is really tiny—a spherical lattice about the size of a Christmas-tree ornament, made in one of the Meuse towns, perhaps Dinant. Made from chiseled brass, it was designed to burn incense. The orb is made up of stylized creatures and foliage, but the note of genius is that there are three tiny people on top, showing eloquent surprise at their situation. These are (in a tumble of charismatic names) Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the Jewish men whose faith was tested in the fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar. It seems sad that these tiny characters should be trapped in a museum case in Lille and unable to continue to carry out their witty, nine-century-old role of having perfumed smoke pour upward and round them. Perhaps somewhere in Lille there is a secret underground movement to liberate them and return them to their true function.

The other, only slightly larger object, that I have also kept coming back to just because it is so mysterious, lurks high on a pillar in Freiburg Minster. This must have once been part of a much larger decorative scheme, long since erased but with these figures kept as a reminder, or—more likely—just because they are so wonderful. The carving shows three human figures engaged with three massive, terrible-jawed animals, two of these wearing human clothing. An enormous ram’s head hovers in space, unrelated to the already confused action, and presumably part of a now missing piece of the frieze. Round the corner is a sadly worn—but fabulous—little fragment of Alexander the Great in a griffin-powered flying machine. I have returned to these monsters over the years, not least because of the strange way they echo the animal masks of the Kwakwaka’wakw of the American northwest. I don’t say this as some borderline insane piece of ethnographic showing-off, but because my wife’s family live on the edge of the Salish Sea and most summers I rush off at the first chance to admire examples of this great artistic tradition.
The Freiburg monsters also appear strangely Disney—the humans unperturbed by them, despite the way the sculptor has given them a terrible sense of muscular power. I had assumed they were just mysterious grotesques, but this turned out merely to be my own ignorance. When last in Freiburg somewhat to my dismay I was cheerfully informed by an official that the figure on the right, seemingly a woman on a monster, was in fact Samson (the long hair for strength) subduing a lion, while the two cowled men with the two clothed monsters were telling two different “frames” from the story of Wolf Inngrim, in which a monk dresses a wolf up in human clothes and tries to educate him (there is a little book and pen) but he keeps being distracted by a nearby sheep. Unable to deny his wolfish nature, he turns from the monk and leaps on the sheep. A bit upset at this overturning of what I had lazily assumed was an ancient mystery, I quickly realized that it made no difference—these were creatures that conveyed brilliantly a universal human dismay and fascination.

The wolves were carved around 1200 in the opening phase of the building of Freiburg Minster. It was sponsored by Duke Berthold V, the last of the Zähringer dynasty, fresh from what would prove the equally lasting triumph of founding the city of Bern. These sorts of initiatives are characteristic of what was in many ways one of the most exciting, cheerful, and entertaining periods in all European history. As usual we could tut-tut about life expectancy, poor hygiene, and the relentless grind of agricultural labor, but this is just to buy into the patronizing and intellectually null idea that, in effect, the entire prior sum of human activity across the planet should be pitied and disregarded for not having had access to broadband.
The founding of Bern is a fine example of medieval mobility and ambition that, so close to old Roman cities such as Basel or Constance, could both build on earlier traditions and also start afresh....MUCH MORE