Social & Economic Influences on Romanesque Art & Architecture

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  • 0:00 Historical Context of…
  • 0:18 The Early Middle Ages
  • 1:54 Stability and Economy
  • 2:35 Growth of the Church
  • 3:22 Manuscript Illumination
  • 4:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Cassie Beyer

Cassie holds a master's degree in history and has spent five years teaching history and the humanities from ancient times to the Renaissance.

The Romanesque style developed at a time when there were many changes going on. Learn how influences such as growing economies, larger populations, and political stability helped shape Romanesque art and architecture.

The Historical Context of the Romanesque Style

The Romanesque style of art and architecture began in the 11th century, the same time the Early Middle Ages transformed into the High Middle Ages. This timing is not coincidental. The social and economic changes that marked this transition are the same forces that allowed the Romanesque style to develop.

The Early Middle Ages

If you lived in a Roman city at the height of the Roman Empire in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, you would find yourself surrounded by large stone buildings decorated with rich murals and mosaics. Life-size and greater than life-size statues stand as decoration. Impressively engineered aqueducts bring in fresh water. Goods are traded throughout Europe. If you lived in Rome itself, you would be sharing it with more than a million other people.

Fast forward to the 5th century CE, when the Western Roman Empire falls and the Early Middle Ages begin. Many different Germanic tribes, which originate in Central Europe, have moved into the area. Instead of everything being ruled by a single organization, Europe is now divided among many different leaders who are warring with one another, pillaging each other's lands, and constantly pushing borders. Travel becomes dangerous, collapsing trade networks. Centers of wealth, the cities, become targets and are abandoned.

Now, you're living in a small community with structures built of wood. The statues are gone. Instead, art has become small and personal in the form of rings, belt buckles, ceremonial goods, purse covers, and so forth. Certain individuals had the wealth to afford such luxuries, but communities as a whole came nowhere close. Also, with so many people moving around, it made sense for artwork to be portable rather than monumental. The look of the artwork is also different. Germanic art is very abstract and stylized in comparison to the realism of Rome. That stylization will continue in medieval artwork for centuries.

Stability and Economy

By the 11th century CE, things had settled down. Relatively large territories, such as England and France, had stable borders. Cities began to form again, and trade increased, both of which improved the economy.

Stability also helped grow the population, which meant more people to farm. It also meant more people to come up with new farming technologies. The result was more food which meant even more people, and those extra people had time to be artists, engineers, and other professions. The High Middle Ages saw more stability, larger populations, improved economy and free time allowing for division of labor, and all of this encouraged developments in art and architecture.

Growth of the Church

When the Roman Empire fell, most of Europe was pagan. That is, they were not Christian. Throughout the Early Middle Ages, however, Christianity spread across Europe, and paganism was almost completely extinct by the time of the High Middle Ages. This gave the Church a lot of money and influence. They started building larger and larger churches. To do this, they needed new engineering techniques. More specifically, they relearned the techniques of the Romans. Thus, the evolving style became known as Romanesque, or Roman-like.

In fact, the Romanesque style is a fusion of ancient Roman ideas with the more abstract and stylized Germanic ones. Roman styles became an increasingly important influence going forward, and much of the emphasis comes from the Church.

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