Summary: Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation Part 2 – “The Great Thaw”, on the “great acceleration of development” around 1100
Please see our recap of part I right here.
In part II of this 1969 thirteen part series, art historian Kenneth Clark (1903 – 1983) discusses what he calls the “great acceleration of development” around 1100, which took place worldwide, but was “strongest and most needed in Western Europe.” He describes the profound changes in Europe at the time as an outpouring of energy in all branches of life, but will, for the most part, be concentrating on art, particularly architecture. He uses the monumental buildings of the age as his evidence for the “heroic energy, this confidence, this strength of will and intellect” with which they were built.
Particularly interesting, Clark says, is how all this change was quite sudden and happened “in a single lifetime“. The change he detects, implies a certain social and intellectual background. Besides stability, it asks for certain technical skills, and the wealth to put them to use. But also, and above all else, the “confidence necessary to push through a long-term project.” As the source of all these elements, Clark identifies above all else the Catholic Church.
Calling it “the triumph of the Church“, Clark discusses the role and influence of the Church as an institute, not a religion. The Church, as understood by in the 12th century was “ a power, ecclesia.” Clark describes it as democratic, meritocratic and international. He points out it functions as science does in the 20th century, but in more segments of society. However, he will concentrate his discussion of the Church in its role as a transmitter of the arts.
Clark starts with the Abby of Cluny and the style developed there under the influence of its important abbot, Hugh of Semur. At one point the greatest church in Europe, with a large library, it was in Cluny where the first translation of the Qu’ran was made “the first attempt to understand the infidel, instead of merely fighting him.” Though the buildings were destroyed in the early 19th century, the style it pioneered spread throughout Europe through its subordinate priories. Clark calls this the “first great eruption of ecclesiastical splendour,” which is “unashamedly extravagant” and “self-delighting.”
It was not without its critics, though. Its most well-known critic was Bernard of Clairvaux, who would, by reforming the Benedictine monastery at Clairvaux, organise a competitor to the Cluniac Order: the Cistercians. The style he promoted was more sober, more strict. When visiting a Cistercian monastery, Clark comments that the life of the order is
“a way of life concerned with an ideal of eternity, and that is an important part of civilisation.“
Besides the art and architecture, that constitute the intellectual developments of the new ideas of the 12th century, there was a physical side to the Great Thaw, that is the hardest for us to understand: pilgrimages and Crusades. The Crusades are an outgrow of the pilgrimages, and undertaken, as Clark says, in the “spirit of the pilgrimage.” Their effect on European civilisation is difficult to gauge, but its effect on art was immense: it was important in the style called Romanesque and is instrumental in the further development of this style into Gothic. The Gothic style came from a new centre, that of St. Denis, under the leadership of Abbot Suger. The 12th century also sees the beginning of the veneration of the Virgin Mary, with the early Gothic Cathedral of Chartres being dedicated to her.
As Clark says:
“Chartres is the epitome of the first great awakening in European civilisation. It is also the bridge between Romanesque and Gothis, between the world of Abelard and the world of St. Thomas Aquinas, the world of restless curiosity and the world of system and order.“