Medieval Europe: Power and Splendor

I went with my wife Carmen to the Ottawa Museum of History to see the exhibition on “Medieval Europe: power and splendour.” Stunningly beautiful, the Museum of History majestically overlooks the Ottawa River with the back of the parliament buildings visible. It is a wonderful host for presentations of humanity’s (and of course Canada’s) past. After wandering through an exhibition or two, one can gently stroll along the walk that follows the river. One can sit on the rocks and dangle one’s feet if so desired, or simply sit on a bench and delight in the steps of the canal across the river.

We can speak of the pedagogics of exhibition design. This exhibition on Medieval Europe is the first collaboration with the British Museum. It is a superb example of creating the ethos of medieval spaces. The light and colours are muted, music playing in each of the galleries cultivates one’s sensibility and heightens perception. One is nudged to view close-up. And each specific gallery (Heavenly treasures and Courtly life are instances) focuses our attention through stylized symbols of the court or cathedral.

We need all the help we can get. The medieval period is usually dated from the fall of Rome in 400 A.D. to the advent of the Italian Renaissance and Protestant Reformation in the early 1500s. Historians warn us that when we dwell in the past we enter a strange and often unfamiliar and puzzling land. And we may carry our own strange ideas about these medieval creatures. Wasn’t it a dark age? The symbols so exquisitely etched on a coin or sword leave us scratching our minds.

This exhibition organizes itself around the themes of power and splendour. Power adores splendour. The more splendour, the more status. Power displays its riches on every object imaginable. Coins and sword hilts are decorated to speak power to the lowly. For the wealthy woman wearing the “Wingham brooch” (575-625, England) made of gilded silver, garnet, blue glass and shell, and shaped as a four-point star, power has embroidered its magnificence (and our lowly insignificance).  Look, I am rich, and you do not appear so.

The Roman Church declares its magnificence to wealthy and poor alike.  Dotting the landscape of Medieval Europe (and still visited by thousands of tourists), Cathedrals were lavishly, over-the-top visual feasts for the senses. They invited us to believe that we had left the secular realm and stepped into the kingdom of God. Although the Roman church was weakened after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, by 1000 A.D. most of Europe had been swept under the shadow of the Roman Church. The Papacy owned lands.  It could command the best craftsmen who prepared the holy instruments of worship and pageantry as well as decorations on armour. The Church had moved far from Jesus of Nazareth who had no place to lay his head. He travelled light. His church was the open field or modest household.

Few were literate in the Medieval period (though the Protestant Reformation of the early 1500s was possible because of growing literacy and the Gutenberg Press that churned out anti-Catholic pamphlets and woodcuts). But illiterates could gaze on objects such as the “Sart Star Craft Shaft” (900-1000, England). They displayed engraved foliage and delicately interwoven coiled strands. Illiterates could learn something from the delicately ornate symbols.

If they could see the crozier, one mimicking the shepherd’s crook, and produced in Limoges, France, they could see the Virgin Mary crowned as Queen of Heaven. On another, they could observe Adam and Eve clutching a leaf, beautifully designed of course. Those worshippers who used reliquaries for personal devotion focused spiritual attention on images of the crucified Christ. Plagues, infant death, and disease turned distraught people to the crucified One who carried all their diseases away.

But even His agony is beautiful to behold. Those worshipping in the vast cathedrals where the angels seemed to dwell could not help noticing the liturgical objects. The chalice piece in the exhibition (made around 1450 in Spain) is made of gilded silver and enamel. It is so precious with the cup crafted in glowing white enamel and the base swirling, ornate leaves that one dares not handle it.

Many people today know something of the noble, idealized warrior class, the knights. Their education equipped them to ride, sword fight, give loyal service to the court and protect the faith. In the eleventh century, they rode off to fight the Muslims and capture Jerusalem. The exhibition offers us a stone figure of a knight (1375-1425, England). His body is protected with a suit of plate armour. Chain-mail covers vulnerable areas of the neck and lower body.

Once can view close-up the Sallet helmet (crafted around 1470). It is made of steel, completely enclosing the head with a grilled visor. By the end of the medieval period, this helmet offered little protection against musket fire. The exhibition invites you to try one on (including a metal, moveable glove). They are heavy! I tried one on.

In contrast to the plain Sallet helmet, the Arrmet helmet (1500-1525) has beautiful lines sweeping from the brow to the back of the head. The visor is a narrow slit, but the mouth is like a Ram truck’s grill.  If you like war scenes, the exhibition has a few to offer. A wood and silk tapestry depicts “The battle of Roncevaux” of 778. What a wild jumble of lances and wicked weapons and mutilated flesh! And, of course, old swords from Europe (1200-1300) are on display. One wonders how you could even lift one.  I can imagine myself as a medieval soldier decked out in heavy armour. I trip. I can’t get up. My end is near.


Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.