The period between 1215 and 1320 saw great social changes spreading through the entire continent of Europe, and these social changes in turn had a great influence on the arts and sciences of this time period. The rise of nation-states, the rise of towns, and the establishment of universities all helped to create the rich Gothic arts of this time period.
Most historians agree that one of the most important changes to take place in Europe during this period of time was the rise of the city-state and the resultant rise of the town. In particular, the countries of France, England and Spain began to consolidate power in their kings (Wikipedia), and this is turn led to the rise of the town. Fleming notes that “the town as a central unit had been gaining ascendency over the manorial estate” (Fleming), and that the old feudal system was declining (Wikipedia) as peasants moved from the more restrictive manors into the towns. The towns contained new opportunities for business and economic growth and it was these opportunities which led to the growth of a burgher, or trade class, associated with the rise of the importance of towns (Meyers). Meyers further notes that as the monarchies grew stronger, the importance of the towns also grew and this strengthening led to the development of uniform laws, city councils and municipal law courts (Meyers).
This time period was an age of prodigious growth: Europe saw an increase in its population from approximately 30 million in the year 1000 to around 80 million in the year 1374 (Wikipedia) and this fueled the growth of the towns and cities. One of the most important social changes to come of this was the rise of the medieval university. This phenomenon defined the High Middle Ages as an age of learning, and the universities of the 12th and 13th were centers of that learning, the center of scholarship arguable being the University of Paris, which was chartered in 1200 (Myers).
These social changes brought about changes in the arts and sciences of this time period. One of the most important symbols of the arts in the High Middle Ages was the Gothic cathedral. Myers notes the direct relationship between the rise of the cathedral and the political context in which they were built by noting that the “national character of the Gothic style was made possible by political centralization under kings” (Myers), and Fleming notes that the cathedral “represented a composite effort of the stone cutters, masons, carpenters and metalworkers….It was the greatest single product a town and its craftsman could produce” (Fleming); in other words, the cathedral was the direct result of the rising prominence of medieval towns and cities.
Architecture, however, was not the only art to be greatly influence by this rich period in European history. With the rise of medieval universities came movements like scholasticism, which combined faith with reason (Wikipedia) and Fleming notes that it was at this time that “intellectual understanding as well as faith was now one of the paths to salvation” (Fleming). One of the greatest of the medieval universities, and very representative of its time, was the university in Paris, which became famous for the teachings of Abelard, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and Bonaventura (Fleming).
In short, the High Middle Ages was a period of increased urbanization and nationalization and of movements away from manorial, rural life and into the urban life of towns and cities. The result of this increased urbanization and population was, among many developments in the arts, the construction of the Gothic cathedral and of a rise in intellectual movements in theology and philosophy fostered by the growth of the urban medieval university. It is arguably of the the richest time periods in European history.
Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia. Europe and the Middle Ages 2013. Web. April 17, 2013
Fleming, William. Arts and Ideas. Holt, Reinhardt, and Winston, Inc. NY: 1968
Myers, Bernard S. Art and Civilization. McGraw Hill. NY: 1967