Culture and economy of late medieval Central Europe
February 14, 2014 8:17 PM   Subscribe

I'm working on an architectural research project on late gothic Germanic churches (from about 1500-1650), and feel hamstrung by my ignorance of the cultures and economies in which the architecture was produced.

What should I read to acquire a working familiarity with the major events, cultural and economic trends, and zeitgeist of the period?

I'd appreciate both introductory and esoteric recommendations. Anything that would shed light on the structure of capital and labour (in and out of guilds) or how doctrinal and liturgical changes affected architecture and aesthetic ideals would be especially relevant.

I'm also very interested in knowing what there is to know about how connected Europe was within itself and with the rest of the world, economically and intellectually. Historians are revising the consensus on the intellectual poverty, limited trade and xenophobia of Europe in late antiquity and into the Middle Ages, but is a similar revision underway of the Late Middle Ages?
posted by sakahane to Society & Culture (6 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Reddit would be an excellent resource for you. They have a subreddit called "AskHistorians" and it's moderated like hell, so only the good stuff gets through. I know for a fact there are several people there who are experts in what you ask, so besides what you see here, ask away there for sure, it can't hurt.
posted by sanka at 8:38 PM on February 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

They're actually having an AMA panel on High and Late Medieval Europe right now, although the date range is 1000-1450.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:45 PM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

OOoo! Read the Burgermeister's Daughter.

It's a discrete portrait of one family in Germany, but it tracks a thirty-year legal battle over inheritance and property and offers a lot of really interesting details about life and society in the 16th century.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:06 PM on February 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Sorry, I meant to say 15th to mid-16th century (1400-1550, not 1500-1650)! That's still more early modern than late medieval I guess.

Thank you for the timely (almost uncanny) recommendations. I just signed up to reddit and asked a question.
posted by sakahane at 10:15 PM on February 14, 2014

Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror is one of the best explanations of medeival life and culture I have seen. While it is about France it covers most of Europe and focuses on one noble to illustrate a wide range of cultural and historical themes.

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's Montaillou is a detailed study of medeival Cathar peasants based on diaries and evidence from legal sources.
posted by zaelic at 12:19 AM on February 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: On Gothic architecture, it's still worth going back to the old classics, like Ruskin's The Nature of Gothic (which, thanks to the Internet Archive, you can now read in the gorgeous Kelmscott Press edition) and Henry Adams's Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres. If you want a basic primer on Christian architecture, try Margaret Visser, The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery and Meaning in an Ordinary Church (2001). For an introduction to late medieval religion, try Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (1992).

On the cathedral as a social and economic unit, see Alain Erlande-Brandenburg, The Cathedral: The Social and Architectural Dynamics of Construction (2009). It might also be worth looking at Jacqueline E. Jung, The Gothic Screen: Space, Sculpture and Community in the Cathedrals of France and Germany, 1200-1400 (2012), which covers a slightly earlier period than the one you're interested in, but helps to unpack the religious and social meanings of cathedral architecture.

For the period 1400-1550, it would be helpful to know something about the rise in eucharistic piety, and how this affects sacred space and architecture. Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (1992) is your best guide here. Caroline Walker Bynum, Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe (2011) is immensely stimulating. Bridget Heal, The Cult of the Virgin Mary in Early Modern Germany (2007) is good on Lutheran architecture.

On the economic side of things, you need to look at the literature on the Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages. However, the trend at the moment is to argue that the late medieval economy was not proto-capitalist: see Martha Howell, Commerce before Capitalism in Europe 1300-1600 (2010). On guilds, see Sheilagh Ogilvie, Institutions and European Trade: Merchant Guilds 1000-1800 (2011).
posted by verstegan at 5:11 AM on February 15, 2014 [6 favorites]

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