Now that I’ve begun reading up on medieval grotesque, I am ready to give my view on what it is. It’s taken me a while to figure it out, in my head, because oh, boy – the medieval grotesque is so much more complex than I imagined.
If we only used our sight to understand the grotesquerie produced through the Middle Ages, it would be very easy to dismiss it as childish doodles.
This, it is not.
The medieval grotesque is so deeply intertwined with society, that it cannot be understood without at least a very basic understanding of how people viewed the world during that period of time. That, let me tell you, takes a lot of reading.
The shortest and most accessible way to discuss this is to talk about how society was divided in two different parts.
Religion was everything. Religion is what formed the world view of the time. Religion is what gave society shape and form. Religion was the filter through which each and everyone looked at the world. The bible was the most important book of them all. Connecting with God, and aspiring to some sort of spiritual clarity, was the goal of everyone.
And even if some odd individual wouldn’t believe in Christ, God and the rest of it, s/he would still be as influenced by it, as we are today by our society and what’s important to the culture we grew up and live in.
In this very spiritual belief, the body is naught but a vehicle that our spirit travels around in. The body needs to be controlled by spirit, so that noone would indulge in sin.
The medieval society was rigidly controlled by its religion, and also by the state. Kings, knights et cetera, ruled the real world while priests and monks (and, to some extent, nuns) took care of our spiritual needs.
The grotesque is the complete opposite of this. The grotesque ridicules everything that church and state stands for. It displays the physical body, with all our faults, it allows us to aknowledge the system of physical life. The beginning, the process of change, the end, and the rebirth. It is a neverending story of physicality, of physical needs and desires, and all of it to spite the religious side of everyday life.
The grotesque is in opposition to the formality of church and state. It is the art and expression of the people. It is free and infinite. It is physical and bodily, and it is ridiculous.
While this blog may be focused on the art within the grotesque concept, we should not forget that it also contains literature, theatre, satire, and later on, also music. The grotesque is a wide spectrum of artistic expressions that, during the Middle Ages, make people laugh.
As I continue to read, I realize that the view I had of the Middle Ages before, was sadly shallow. It is intricate and complicated – much more so than I could ever have imagined. It is indeed easy to dismiss a period in our history because it was so long ago, and how could they possibly have been having any advanced ideas back then?
Oh, but they did.
One thing I’ve learned is that the people who lived during this period in time, loved ambiguity, and that, they had – in abundance. The correlations that can be found within the grotesque are so intricate that it’ll take me forever (at the pace I’m reading, anyway) to figure it out.
Another thing that is quite interesting is that while there certainly are general “rules” to the medieval grotesque, it should also be noted that regardless if it contains of “doodles” or some sculpture outside a church or monestary, the insinuations and meaning behind it most likely is very local. No point in painting or creating something noone would recognize, is there!?
Oh, and another point to be made is that the medieval grotesque has very little to do with terror or horror. Religious art took care of that one, leaving the grotesque to be amusing rather than scary. The horror and terror didn’t emerge with the grotesque until later in history.
To conclude; the grotesque we find throughout the Middle Ages is made for the people, and I find it reasonable to guess it was used to release stress, frustration et cetera, from being under the control of church and state.