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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Medieval People- Eileen Power

Read this for A Tournament of Reading. A very scholarly read that I really enjoyed; I was entertained as well as informed while I read this book. The author sets out to illustrate life in the Middle Ages and she draws on diaries, wills, letters, account books, and other records. In doing so, she provides insight into the lives of six individuals who lived during this time, and also draws on her own fascination and grasp of economic and social history. The edition I have also includes a previously unpublished essay by the author, "The Precursors", that describes the lives of three men living during the barbarian conquest of Rome. In this essay, she demonstrates that "they were not only the epigones of Rome but the true precursors of the Middle Ages" and that many aspects of their social lives survived to reemerge in the Middle Ages.

She starts out with describing a day in the life of Peasant Bodo, who lived during Charlemagne's reign. In this chapter, you catch a glimpse of life working a manse, the hardships and the pleasant times. I especially liked the description of Bodo, his wife Ermentrude, and their three children going to spend the day at the St. Denys fair, which went on for a whole month outside of Paris. They worked hard and they played hard!

Next, she describes the life of Marco Polo, drawing on his diaries and writings of his travels. In 1269 in Venice, Marco is a young, restless daydreamer who is given the chance to travel with his father Nicolo and his uncle Maffeo. He observes, asks qustions, and learns many things through many experiences, among which he becomes proficient in the Tartar language, meets the great Khan Kublai and becomes his attendant for many years. Ms. Power is careful to point out at the end of this chapter that Columbus not only read Polo's writing in the Latin versions and took extensive notes on them, they were the reason he decided to sail west and have adventures himself!

The third character we meet is Madame Eglentyne. When I read "For a long time historians foolishly imagined that kings and wars and parliaments and the jury system alone were history" on pages 74 and 75, I had flashbacks to college classes when I would be thinking the same thing. Any classes I took that focused on non-male (or non-white for that matter!) historical figures had to be separate. Anyway, in this chapter the author does a fantastic job of describing the huge amount of information historians found on social and ecclesiastical life when they began to look in other places outside of war and glory. By studying registers of medieval bishops who visited the nunneries, our author is able to describe details of monastic life that otherwise would probably have remained a mystery. Madame Eglentyne liked entertaining, dressing prettily, and having rooms to herself as the prioress. And you also learn that, to get around the rule of silence, the nuns had their own version of sign language. In some cases of extremely relaxed priories, the Prioress and her sister nuns had...*GASP*...pet animals! Here is where I'd like to get on my soapbox and say a few words about my favorite patron saint, St. Francis of Assisi!

In the fourth character study, Ms. Power draws on a book of deportment, written by the Menagier de Paris (Goodman of Paris) for his young wife between 1392 and 1394. She describes this book as one of particular interest "because of the robust good sense of its writer and the intimate and lively picture which it gives of a bourgeois home." (Yeah, but I still say the old fart was a bit of a pig!) In it, the Goodman describes everything from his wife's religious and moral duties, to household management, to how she should spend her free time! It also contains details on medieval cooking, "beginning with a list of specimen menus for dinner and suppers, hot or cold, fast or feast, summer or winter, giving hints on the choice of meat, poultry, and spices, and ending with a long series of recipes for all manner of soups, stews, sauces, and other viands, with an excursus on invalid's cookery!" (That sounds interesting to me.) It also described how she should dress and carry herself, but as Power writes, "The greater part of the Menagier's book is concerned, however, not with the theoretical niceties of wifely submission, but with his creature comforts." So, it's very informative on the life of a particular Parisian housewife of the time, but I honestly got impatient with the old goat husband very quickly when Power referred to him, and felt sorry for his wife. Bourgeois snob.

Chapters six and seven focus on two Thomases; Thomas Betson, a Merchant of the Staple in the fifteenth century, and Thomas Paycocke of Coggeshall, an Essex clothier in the days of Henry VII. The author's knowledge in the medieval economic system helps to bring both merchants to life through a compilation of letters. She is a genius at keeping things real; real people and what we can glean from actual physical documents. I really enjoyed this book and highly suggest it to anyone interested in medieval life.

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