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Pugin & the Medieval Dream

Once upon a time... nostalgia for the imagined medieval harmony of the arts, religion and society was a powerful impetus for the aesthetic revival in these areas in Victorian England.

Pugin c. 1840; detail from an oil painting at the National Portrait GalleryThere is a tendency to think of Britain in the Victorian era as a country in which the 'forces of reform' gradually persuaded the 'forces of reaction' to concede 'moderate progress' in the areas that mattered most: democracy, education, social conditions and the overall standard of living. There is, of course, some element of truth behind the popular images, but Victorian society was as complex as those that preceded and succeeded it. And one very important underlying trend within Victorian society was the appeal to a past golden age, in this case Christian Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Appeals to the past are a common theme in history, and we are not exempt from them today. However, within the present century, such appeals have generally been linked with those considered eccentric and obscurantist. Within Victorian society these appeals were much more serious and mainstream and had a direct impact not merely upon aesthetic values in architecture, art and literature, but on politics, religion and social reform.

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