Romanticism and the Middle Ages
Romanticism or the Romantic Period was a literary, artistic and intellectual movement which originated in Europe in the late 18th century. It was a back lash against Industrialism and the rise of Empirical science.
The Romantic Movement possessed an idealized vision of the Medieval Period. The Middle Ages could be seen as the defining element of the Romantic character. Romantics such as Keats, Coleridge and Novalis looked back to the Middle Ages as the last great age for two reasons. The first being that it could be seen as the last great Christian period, with England and the rest of western Europe untiled under one Church collectively known as Christendom. This gives the impression of not only a united world but also a younger, more pure, noble and idyllic place.
The second reason was that the medieval period could also be seen as having a strong element of superstition and magic. Even though Christianity blanketed the land as the age progressed, tiny pockets of paganism and old magic were believed to linger. It was believed that the forests and the wild woods were savage, evil places which were inhabited with fairies, sprites and demons. And therefore, these wild places should be avoided at all costs. The supernatural fascinated and influenced the Romantic poets and the Middle Ages were seen as being filled with magic and other worldly beings.
The Romantics were repelled by the ideals of the Enlightenment, such as the rise of Empirical science and that we are no more than the sum of our experiences. For the Romantics, inspiration and intuition were more important than experience. So while the Enlightenment wished to reduce everything to physical matter, dismiss innate ideas and find logical, scientific explanations for all things; the Romantics countered this with a return to the beauty of nature, inspiration, intuition, exploring the unseen forces (the supernatural), bliss and dreams. The medieval period was seen as the age where all these qualities could be explored. It lent itself to the idealized writing of the Romantics. Certain aspects, particularly from medieval England and France aided this rose coloured view of the age that was handed down through time. These would have to include chivalry, courtly love, the wandering troubadour and the Arthurian and Parzival myths. With such high and noble ideals, it was easy to see how heroic deeds, honour, handsome knights, faith, romantic love, damsels in distress and lofty castles could overshadow and conceal the reality of hard lives dogged with loss, violence and disease.
Examples of this can be seen in Coleridge’s Christabel and Keat’s The Eve of St. Agnes. Both used the backdrop of the Middle Ages for their respective poems.
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