Intellectual Appeal of the Middle Ages

Bicycle…’ the most efficient means yet devised to
convert human energy into propulsion.’1

In the Spring of 1908 a first-year undergraduate of Jesus College, Oxford University, prepared his bicycle for an ambitious tour of France. The young man, nineteen years of age, was Thomas Edward Lawrence (Fig. 1). Ten years later he would be known to the world at large as Lawrence of Arabia.2345

Fig. 1 – The Lawrence brothers (1910): (left to right) Ned, Frank, Arnold, Bob and Will. (By permission of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford: MS. Photog. c.122, fol.3)

Young ‘Ned’ Lawrence’s scheme for a tour of France, scheduled for the approaching summer vacation, stemmed from his fascination with the medieval world of Europe and its extremes of brutality and beauty. His studies, much influenced by the prolific writings of the famous French architect and medievalist Viollet-le-Duc, ranged from Gothic architecture and codes of chivalry to details of dress, armour and heraldry. In keeping with the Romantic tradition, he tended to be more interested in the activities of nobles, troubadours, scholars and architect-builders than the day-to-day struggles for survival of more humble folk. With time his attentions turned increasingly to the design philosophy and physical structure of the great stone castles which characterize the Middle Ages. His youthful enthusiasms in this direction are readily understandable. To stand at the foot of a great castle keep, to perceive the cunning of its angles and curves, to touch fine surfaces and joints cut by masons eight hundred years ago; these simple acts form part of ‘the pleasure of ruins’. History becomes substance.

Having already used his bicycle to visit many medieval fortresses in England, Wales and Normandy in 1906 and 1907, his thoughts stretched to French castles in general. The stimulus to his plans for the proposed tour was the discovery that a thesis was acceptable to the University as a part-alternative to some of the customary final written examinations in Modern History. Being well-versed in the history of the Middle Ages, he chose to study castle architecture, with the intention of basing his analysis upon an extensive study of French fortresses built before the close of the twelfth century; that is, up to the time of the death of King Richard I of England in 1199. A formidable challenge for a young student, but one which appealed to his restless temperament and intellect. His wanderlust reminds me of another classics-minded young man who chose, just twenty-five years later, to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. He was Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011). Each would travel into a darkening European world. Like Lawrence, he would achieve both military and artistic fame.6

  1. Encyclopædia Britannic []
  2. David Garnett (ed.), The Letters of T.E. Lawrence (London, Toronto: Jonathan Cape, 1938) []
  3. John E. Mack, A Prince of our Disorder: the Life of T.E.Lawrence
    (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976) []
  4. Jeremy Wilson, Lawrence of Arabia: the authorized biography of T.E. Lawrence. (London: Heinemann, 1989) []
  5. Malcolm Brown, Lawrence of Arabia (London: Thames and Hudson, 2005) []
  6. Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts(1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986).(London: John Murray). Leigh Lermor was a member of the SOE group that kidnapped Major-General Heinrich Kreipe from German-occupied Crete in 1944. []