During the Gothic period (roughly the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries) feudalism continued, but
more significantly, cities became important and a merchant economy developed that rivaled older systems
based on personal loyalty. Cities also replaced monasteries as cultural centers. In this period, many of
Europe’s great universities were founded, encyclopedias were written, and the systematic philosophy
known as Scholasticism was at its height. It was the age of chivalry, and courtly love was an important
theme in literature and art. At the beginning of the Gothic period, in the mid-twelfth century, the Kingdom
of France controlled only the area around Paris, known as the Île-de-France. By the beginning of the
fifteenth century, however, the king and his brothers ruled an area that included—and extended beyond—
modern day France.
The Gothic style of architecture began around 1140, just outside of Paris. Its origin can be credited to the
ideas of one man: Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis. Suger was the ambitious and highly educated abbot of the
church where French royalty had been buried for centuries. He had strong connections to the king of France
(he actually governed in the king’s absence for a time), and he wanted to make his abbey into a glorious
monument to France, the king, and himself. Suger was particularly interested in the ideas of a first-century
Christian writer who described God as light. Thus, everything in the choir of Saint-Denis is constructed so
that light fills the space. Abbot Suger and the builders who carried out his ideas drew from experiments
found in Romanesque buildings, but they brought the experiments together to form a coherent structural
system. Three of the most important elements of Gothic architecture are seen in the new choir for the
Abbey Church of Saint-Denis.
Choir of the Abbey of St.-Denis Plan
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