Robert A. Maxwell

Andrew W. Mellon Penn Faculty Fellow in the Humanities

20032004 Forum on Belief

Robert A. Maxwell

Assistant Professor, Art History

Myth and Family Romance in the Art of Feudal Aquitaine

The twelfth-century saw a dramatic awakening in historical consciousness. Chronicles, family genealogies, charters and cartularies, heroic and historicizing epics, and even fantastic myths and legends, flourished as never before. This hardly represented a Classical “rebirth” or “renaissance” as often claimed, but a heightened interest in historical time and in thinking about the past. Europe’s increasingly literate society–and increasingly bureaucratic when it came to the proliferating paperwork–demanded ever more from written documents to provide contemporary testimony to past events, people and actions. Although overlooked in modern discussions, the visual arts of the period similarly offered opportunities for comment on history and history making. 

For this year’s Humanities Forum, Robert Maxwell explores historical self-consciousness in art works produced in eleventh- and twelfth-century Aquitaine. Focusing on the monumental sculpture and architecture of castle towns, particularly Parthenay, he investigates the ways in which the very processes of urban construction re-wrote past history for the present, and, at the same time, inscribed contemporary history in events of the past. Central to this concern was the active re-writing of family history and the production of timeless myths. Urbanization provided a richly complex discursive field for such expressions, for cities and towns enjoyed foundation myths of their own. Urban history and family genealogy were thus interwoven in texts and images, resulting often in fantastical ancestries for towns and lords alike.