Medieval Europe

The Lewis Chessmen

The late medieval period is difficult to define and different authorities understand different things by the term.  It is, however, generally seen to end with the Renaissance. At the British Museum, the years from about 1050-1540 are used to signify the period.  This is with the exception of material from Italy where the Renaissance can be seen to begin around the middle of the fifteenth century.

Two major art-historical styles characterise these years.  The first is Romanesque (around 1050-1200) and the second is Gothic (around 1200-1540).  The Romanesque style is identified by solid, rounded forms and a love of pattern, as demonstrated by the late twelfth century Lewis chessmen.  The Gothic style places greater emphasis on graceful, slender figures as shown by the knight and his lady painted on the Shield of Parade towards the end of the fifteenth century. 

Late medieval Europe was Christian but the period also saw the establishment of Muslim states on European soil for the first time.  Jews, Muslims and Christians lived peacefully in southern Italy and Spain for several hundred years.  The resulting exchange of ideas saw the transfer of much scientific knowledge to western Europe along with the translation of classical texts and the transmission of chess.

The turbulence of war, religious intolerance and plague has played a significant part in forming an unfavourable impression of the period for many.  However, the same period saw the invention of printing and the foundation of modern institutions such as schools, universities and hospitals.

Image caption: The Lewis Chessmen
Probably made in Norway, about AD 1150-1200. Found on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

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