Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Middle Ages: A User’s Guide

By Stuart Sharp

Since I am, nominally, an expert on all things historical (feel free to laugh) this month’s theme seemed like an excellent opportunity to introduce you to my own little corner of history, the Middle Ages. As corners go, it’s a little on the large side. If you start talking about the ‘Dark Ages’ as ‘the Early Middle Ages’ there’s upwards of a thousand years of history to deal with.

It’s possible that some of you may have learned rather more than the rest of us about them in school, and to those I apologise if I’m repeating the sort of thing you spent your formative years trying to avoid. If, on the other hand, your school was much like mine, you didn’t get many lessons on medieval history. Even those who did may well find that their lessons only skimmed the surface, or that they were staring out of the window and thinking about a coming PE lesson at many of the crucial points.

‘But that’s not a problem’ I hear you say ‘I can always go and find a book on it.’ At least, I assume you’re saying that, given where we are. If you’re anything like me, when you don’t know something, you reach for a book. But which book? Most likely, you’ll end up reading a ‘popular history’ book, since they make up the contents of most bookshop shelves. In some cases, that’s fine. They’re well researched, well written books that just happen to be on a subject a lot of people are interested in. The work of Alison Weir springs to mind.

In far more cases they are utter rubbish. I know how snobbish that must seem, but they are. The worst are cobbled together out of spare parts to try and tie them in to whatever happens to be on TV, with no original research, no awareness of what’s going on in the debates surrounding the subject, and often more interest in telling a good story than getting their facts straight. The problem is, where else do you go? If you go looking for more academic texts, how do you avoid something impenetrable, overly boring and ultra specialised? And what do you do if what you’re actually after is some medieval literature, not just modern histories?

In answer to both these questions I have compiled a pair of lists. They aren’t definitive. They certainly aren’t comprehensive. Essentially, they’re just lists of a few books on the subject that I happen to have found enjoyable and/or helpful. I’ve mostly tried to stick to history books that are well written as well as authoritative, though in a couple of cases, I’ve assumed that you’d rather have a comprehensive boring book than an entertaining useless one. I have also tried to limit the lists to things I’ve read, which explains any skewing in the subject areas. The first list is of useful history books, the second of books from the Middle Ages.

Finding these books might take a little effort. A local university library will probably have most of them, if you have access to one. Failing that, there are friendly librarians, bookshops, and the Internet. Even if you can’t find these titles easily, hopefully looking for them will point you in the direction of many more serious but readable history books.


List 1: Modern Books on the Middle Ages

1- David Crouch, Tournament- Although I should probably admit to knowing David, that doesn’t make this any less the definitive statement on the medieval tournament scene. He’s managed to take an area that can attract the very casual ‘lots of pretty pictures but no depth’ sort of popular history, and then produce an important work of social history that fits the tournament squarely into the lives of the medieval aristocracies of Western Europe. His biography of William Marshall is also well worth a look.

2- P.Binski, Medieval Death: Ritual and Representation- Death and the afterlife were such central concerns for so many people in the Middle Ages that it would be odd not to include something on this subject. At over ten years since publication, this is possibly getting a little out of date, but it is still one of the best of the specialized works in the area. C.Zaleski’s, Otherworld Journeys includes quite a lot in the area of medieval vision literature (of which more later).

3- Robert Bartlett, The Making of Europe- Probably the least readable of the books on this list, but only because he makes such an effort to be comprehensive that he occasionally forgets to be comprehensible. G. Duby, France in the Middle Ages- It’s seriously out of date by now, but as a general introduction it works well. Included mostly because Duby was one of the most influential medieval historians around.

4- Anyone who finds themselves interested in medieval France might like to try J. Bradbury’s, Philip Augustus: King of France 1180-1223. It’s one of those rare occasions where a biography works well as a general history, and Phillip II doesn’t get the recognition he probably deserves. Anyone wanting a more general history should try J. Dunbabin’s, France in the Making 843-1180. For those more interested in the links between the developing France and England there’s John Gillingham’s The Angevin Empire.

5- C.H. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism- One key aspect of medieval history was the birth of a number of new monastic orders in the central Middle Ages. This book offers an effective guide to them and the influence they had. For anyone who likes their medieval ecclesiastical history with fewer monks in it, there’s always Kathleen Edwards’ The English Secular Cathedrals.

List 2- Some Medieval Books

1- Chansons de Geste. Raoul de Cambrai- The translation I have is by Sarah Kay, and this is probably my favourite of the medieval chansons de geste. For anyone who can’t find it, the Song of Roland is probably better known, and is also definitely worth reading.

2- Medieval Vision Literature. The Vision of the Monk of Eynsham. Before Dante ever got the idea, medieval writers were coming up with long visions of the afterlife. Actually, the English version of this is quite late, but still just about qualifies. Other examples include St Patrick’s Purgatory and various shorter examples in Bede.

3- Medieval histories. Talking of which, his Ecclesiastical History of the English Speaking Peoples remains the best of an entertaining bunch. For the crusades, try Guibert de Nogent’s The Deeds of God through the Franks or Fulcher of Chatres’ A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem. Suger of St Denis’ Deeds of Louis the Fat is an even more blatant piece of propaganda when dealing with medieval France, and is all the more fun for it.

4- Medieval Poetry- Of course, practically everything above was laid out as verse, particularly in the chansons de geste, but here I’m trying specifically to direct you towards the Lays of Marie de France. Finding a translation might take a bit of effort, but they’re more than worth the effort.


April said...

Have you come across any worthwhile historical fiction set during that period? Would love recommendations if you have.

stu said...

I have a fondness for Domini Highsmith's work, partly because books like Master of the Keys are set in my home town of Beverley during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth is also supposed to be good, though it's currently on my 'to be read' pile.