The Middle Ages saw a decrease in prosperity, stability, and population in the first centuries of the period—to about 800 AD, and then a fairly steady and general increase until the massive setback of the Black Death around 1350, which is estimated to have killed at least a third of the overall population in Europe, with generally higher rates in the south and lower in the north. Many regions did not regain their former population levels until the 17th century. The population of Europe is estimated to have reached a low point of about 18 million in 650, doubling by 1000, and reaching over 70 million in 1340, just before the Black Death. In 1450 it was still only 50 million. To these figures, Northern Europe, especially Britain, contributed a lower proportion than today, and Southern Europe, including France, a higher one. The increase in prosperity, for those who survived, was much less affected by the Black Death. Until about the 11th century most of Europe was short of agricultural labour, with large amounts of unused land, and the Medieval Warm Period benefited agriculture until about 1315.
The medieval period eventually saw the falling away of the invasions and incursions from outside the area that characterized the first millennium. The Islamic conquests of the 6th and 7th century suddenly and permanently removed all of North Africa from the Western world, and over the rest of the period Islamic peoples gradually took over the Byzantine Empire, until the end of the Middle Ages when Catholic Europe, having regained the Iberian peninsula in the southwest, was once again under Muslim threat from the southeast.
At the start of the medieval period most significant works of art were very rare and costly objects associated with secular elites, monasteries or major churches, and if religious, largely produced by monks. By the end of the Middle Ages works of considerable artistic interest could be found in small villages and significant numbers of bourgeois homes in towns, and their production was in many places an important local industry, with artists from the clergy now the exception. However the Rule of St Benedict permitted the sale of works of art by monasteries, and it is clear that throughout the period monks might produce art, including secular works, commercially for a lay market, and monasteries would equally hire lay specialists where necessary.
The impression may be left by the surviving works that almost all medieval art was religious. This is far from the case; though the church became very wealthy over the Middle Ages and was prepared at times to spend lavishly on art, there was also much secular art of equivalent quality which has suffered from a far higher rate of wear and tear, loss and destruction. The Middle Ages generally lacked the concept of preserving older works for their artistic merit, as opposed to their association with a saint or founder figure, and the following periods of the Renaissance and Baroque tended to disparage medieval art. Most luxury illuminated manuscripts of the Early Middle Ages had lavish treasure binding book-covers in precious metal, ivory and jewels; the re-bound pages and ivory reliefs for the covers have survived in far greater numbers than complete covers, which have mostly been stripped off for their valuable materials at some point.
Most churches have been rebuilt, often several times, but medieval palaces and large houses have been lost at a far greater rate, which is also true of their fittings and decoration. In England, churches survive largely intact from every century since the 7th, and in considerable numbers for the later ones—the city of Norwich alone has 40 medieval churches—but of the dozens of royal palaces none survive from earlier than the 11th century, and only a handful of remnants from the rest of the period. The situation is similar in most of Europe, though the 14th century Palais des Papes in Avignon survives largely intact. Many of the longest running scholarly disputes over the date and origin of individual works relate to secular pieces, because they are so much rarer – the Anglo-Saxon Fuller Brooch was refused by the British Museum as an implausible fake, and small free-standing secular bronze sculptures are so rare that the date, origin and even authenticity of both of the two best examples has been argued over for decades.
The use of valuable materials is a constant in medieval art; until the end of the period, far more was typically spent on buying them than on paying the artists, even if these were not monks performing their duties. Gold was used for objects for churches and palaces, personal jewellery and the fittings of clothes, and—fixed to the back of glass tesserae—as a solid background for mosaics, or applied as gold leaf to miniatures in manuscripts and panel paintings. Many objects using precious metals were made in the knowledge that their bullion value might be realized at a future point—only near the end of the period could money be invested other than in real estate, except at great risk or by committing usury.
The even more expensive pigment ultramarine, made from ground lapis lazuli obtainable only from Afghanistan, was used lavishly in the Gothic period, more often for the traditional blue outer mantle of the Virgin Mary than for skies. Ivory, often painted, was an important material until the very end of the period, well illustrating the shift in luxury art to secular works; at the beginning of the period most uses were shifting from consular diptychs to religious objects such as book-covers, reliquaries and croziers, but in the Gothic period secular mirror-cases, caskets and decorated combs become common among the well-off. As thin ivory panels carved in relief could rarely be recycled for another work, the number of survivals is relatively high—the same is true of manuscript pages, although these were often re-cycled by scraping, whereupon they become palimpsests.
Even these basic materials were costly: when the Anglo-Saxon Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey planned to create three copies of the bible in 692—of which one survives as the Codex Amiatinus—the first step necessary was to plan to breed the cattle to supply the 1,600 calves to give the skin for the vellum required.
Paper became available in the last centuries of the period, but was also extremely expensive by today’s standards; woodcuts sold to ordinary pilgrims at shrines were often matchbook size or smaller. Modern dendrochronology has revealed that most of the oak for panels used in Early Netherlandish painting of the 15th century was felled in the Vistula basin in Poland, from where it was shipped down the river and across the Baltic and North Seas to Flemish ports, before being seasoned for several years.
Art in the Middle Ages is a broad subject and art historians traditionally divide it in several large-scale phases, styles or periods. The period of the Middle Ages neither begins nor ends neatly at any particular date, nor at the same time in all regions, and the same is true for the major phases of art within the period. The major phases are covered in the following sections.
- Heslop traces the beginning of the change to “around the twelfth century”, quoted, 54
- Kitzinger (throughout), Hinks (especially Part 1) and Henderson (Chapters 1, 2 & 4) in particular are concerned with this perennial theme. Google books
- Fordham University Josiah Russell’s figures – all estimates are of course very imprecise. See Consequences of the Black Death for more details.
- Dodwell (1982), pp. 22–23, and Chapter III
- The White Tower (Tower of London) was started in 1078, and some later royal apartments in the Tower of London survive, as do the hall and parts of Eltham Palace, the most significant medieval remains from an unfortified royal palace. Royal apartments survive in some castles.
- the small Carolingian(?) Equestrian Statue of an Emperor in the Carnavalet Museum in Paris, Hinks, 125-7; and the 12th(?)-century bronze of a man wrestling with a lion, variously considered English, German or Sicilian in origin, discussed by Henderson (1977), 135–139.
- Grocock, Chris has some calculations in Mayo of the Saxons and Anglican Jarrow, Evidence for a Monastic Economy, according to which sheep required only one third as much land per page as calves. 1,600 calves seems to be the standard estimate, see John, Eric (1996), Reassessing Anglo-Saxon England, Manchester: Manchester University Press, p. 14, ISBN 0-7190-5053-7
- Campbell (1998), 29 – the following pages describe gold, pigments and other materials.
- Dates are discussed in Calkins (1979), xix-xx, Kitzinger (1955), 1, Beckwith (1964), 9.