THE 12TH CENTURY WORLD – Nature and Art

St Chad’s was built in the middle of the 1100s, during the reign of King Henry II. Henry married Eleanor of Aquitaine. Their sons included King Richard the Lionheart and King John. Henry’s dispute with Thomas Becket led to his murder in Canterbury Cathedral on 29th December 1170. Becket was made a saint and his shrine became a great centre of pilgrimage.


This was a time when new ideas in the arts and sciences blossomed, inspired by a changing attitude to Nature.

(Philosophy, from Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy)

In a mysterious way, people began to see the world differently at the time St Chad’s was built – and this seems to have been true of priests, philosophers and ordinary people. This was the time when the idea of “Nature” first appears – as a way of understanding the whole of material creation – to the medieval mind, the world below the heavens.

Philosophers learned from the ancient Greek Plato the idea that God had begun to create the world by making a kind of pattern, a Soul of the World, which was the same pattern as we all have in ourselves. The 12th century idea was that “Natura”, Nature, was the force that helped unshaped matter form itself into the pattern in God’s Mind.

These days people think of “nature” as just the “natural” parts of the world. This medieval “Natura” involved everything that exists and everything that happens.

Rather than the material world being something bad, as some people were thinking at the time, this was a world in which the raw stuff, matter, was growing towards goodness and beauty, guided by Nature.

At the same time as St Chad’s was being built Bernardus Silvestris wrote an epic poem “Cosmographia” which tells the story of Creation and Nature’s work. This poem was the inspiration of C S Lewis’s science fiction novels. Lewis was one of the first to rediscover these medieval ideas in the 20th century.


The new interest in Nature led to the beginnings of science. The earliest scientists were 12th century monks who wanted to know how Nature worked. The church never opposed scientific research. Understanding Creation could only lead to knowledge of God. Monks took learning across Europe. Ideas were also exchanged with the Islamic world, through Spain.

Within a few years of the building of the first Norman churches, with their rounded arches, new knowledge of mathematics and physics led to the building of vast cathedrals, with soaring gothic arches, which could support the weight of the highest ceilings, and allow great windows to fill the buildings with light and colour.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, was seen as the teacher of this knowledge, and became the patroness of schools and universities. On a portal at Chartres Cathedral she is shown surrounded by the symbol of the arts and sciences.


In France the troubadours wrote a new kind of love poetry. They sang songs of courtly love, often for unattainable women. Their songs are some of the earliest written music that survives.  In Germany Hildegard of Bingen wrote mystical hymns with elaborate melodies.

Behind all the new science was a belief in a law of harmony in everything. The same short period of history saw the development of written music, which made it possible to compose music in many parts that harmonised together. This music, light, and colour were inseparable parts of the great cathedrals, which were places for continuous worship, celebrating the harmony of Nature.

In medieval poetry and translations of Plato the unshaped stuff, matter, was called “Silva”. “Silva” can mean wood, or forest, so a poetic idea grew that dark forests, places for adventure and mystery, were symbols of the dark matter, seeking form and meaning through Nature.

Geoffrey of Monmouth popularised the world of King Arthur and by the end of the century poets wrote romances set in an imaginary Arthurian world, of forests, adventures, and chivalry.


This optimistic and joyful attitude to Nature came to a climax with St Francis of Assisi (1181/2-1226) who sang praises with “brother sun and sister moon”, and everything else in Creation, including Sister Death.

St Chad’s Church has carvings which are mysterious and shadowy, but they have to be seen as part of the whole church. The dark and strange images in stone may reflect the idea that matter is being drawn towards meaning, and God, by Nature – including the faces that seem to grow out of leaves and branches.

The 12th century discovery of Nature was short lived. The optimism was quickly lost as ideas changed. War and disease led people to have a less happy attitude to the world. Within a very short time, just after 1200, philosophers and theologians began to study Aristotle, and the works of Islamic students of the Greek philosopher, and this encouraged a more abstract, analytical view of nature, and a very remote and unknowable idea of God. Could philosophers and monks affect how ordinary people, working in the fields and orchards, thought? It’s hard to see how. Perhaps, as 20th century writers, such as Owen Barfield, have thought, something changed in everyone. We all began to lose touch with Nature and to become separated from God and each other.