With the consolidation of territory and centralization of power in the royal courts and churches of twelfth-century Europe, the nobility, clergy, and, to a lesser extent, the common man, turned their attention to art and culture. The period is considered a cultural renaissance, in which education was formalized and universities grew, the gothic style in architecture emerged, and vernacular forms of poetry and music flourished.

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While territorial conflicts continued in many areas and religious fervor led persecution, prejudice, and violent crusades – both successful and disastrous – the relative stability and a new love of learning, art, romance, and personal conduct would set in motion many trends leading to the Italian renaissance in the fifteenth century.

States, rather than kingdoms, with defined borders and political hierarchies began to form in the twelfth century. The emerging class of men educated in universities, with an understanding of Greek and Roman politics and law, formed the bureaucracy of hired officials to run these young states. In England, by mid-century the government was so efficient and autonomous that “The king hardly needed to be present.” In France, the young King Philip II took back northern territories from the English and consolidated his power and territory. He instituted more efficient record keeping and administrative practices in his lands and employed educated men from the lesser nobility to run his court and oversee the coordination of his territories. In Germany, Frederick I managed to subordinate the warring princedoms that prevented unity in the first half of the twelfth century and also gained greater autonomy for his nascent state from both England and Rome.

In the cities of Germany, England, France, Spain, and Italy, new corporate entities were formed for the sole purpose of higher learning. These centers, which would develop into what we know as the modern university, had the blessing of both the church and royal court. French and German monarchs issued special decrees for the protection of these institutions and the students and faculty who wandered between them. The common language of Latin and a common organization of knowledge into the seven liberal arts (grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) allowed these scholars to travel from place to place and teacher to teacher in search of wisdom. The more practical subjects of law, medicine, and theology were also taught. As curriculum became more formalized and requirements to teach or take up a profession established, students and masters gravitated to the permanent learning centers in Paris, Oxford, Bologna, and elsewhere.

Royal patronage was essential to the development of universities, as it was for new forms of art, music, and literature. Poets began writing popular love songs and romantic epics in the vernacular, beginning with the French troubadours. To please their patrons, these poets wrote of courtly love as well as the moral codes and heroic deeds of the knighthood. Many of the narrative poems in the epic and romantic genres were inspired by the legends of King Arthur’s court. One popular work of this kind was Lancelot: The Knight of the Cart, composed by Chrétien de Troyes in the late twelfth century. It captures the excitement and romance of the style:
… Their slashing
Strokes often cut
Through helmets and mail shirts, making
Blood spurt from the metal
… Each
Assaulted the other on equal
Terms, neither able
To gain the slightest advantage.
But it could not last…
… if
He knew she was at the window,
Watching from on high, it might give him,
Strength and courage. And had she
Known his name, she’d have gladly
Told him (calling down
From the tower) that his love was there
And he could glance up, and see her.

Lovers are obedient men,
Cheerfully willing to do
Whatever the beloved, who holds
Their entire heart, desires.

Lancelot represented the ideal of the medieval knight: Terrible and unrelenting in the face of his enemies, but gentle and obedient to the object of his affections. This was related to the knightly code of chivalry that was developed among the nobility and glamorized in poetic epics and romances. “The chivalric hero was a knight constrained by a code of refinement, fair play, piety, and devotion to an ideal,” though how often this was actually true in practice might be debated. Similarly, the songs of the troubadours often stressed the virtues of courtesy and refinement that characterized courtly life.

As a testament to order, logic, harmony, and artistic liberties, the development and spread of the gothic architecture is one of the great achievements of the twelfth century in Europe. With its flying buttresses, lofty interiors, and exquisite stained glass constructions, the gothic cathedral is impressive and imposing. But it is also bright, harmonious, and delicate, with a rational architectural form “designed to lead people to knowledge that touched the divine.” As Hunt notes, one can find embodied in the gothic cathedral many of the major the developments of the era: the liberal arts, divine wisdom, the power and patronage of newly unified states, and an appreciation of beauty and romance.