Me­dieval mind­sets

HAN­NAH SKODA re­views an en­gag­ing, but flawed, ex­plo­ration of or­di­nary life in the Mid­dle Ages

BBC History Magazine - - Books / Reviews - Han­nah Skoda is fel­low in his­tory at St John’s Col­lege, Ox­ford

Chaucer’s Peo­ple: Ev­ery­day Lives in Me­dieval Eng­land by Liza Picard Orion, 368 pages, £25

The premise of this en­ter­tain­ing book is to pro­vide his­tor­i­cal con­text for the mul­ti­tude of fig­ures in Ge­of­frey Chaucer’s Can­ter­bury Tales. It is well re­searched and packed with in­trigu­ing nuggets – from the et­y­mol­ogy of the word ‘hab­er­dasher’ (from an old Ice­landic word mean­ing a ped­lar’s sack), to the story of Richard Steris, “one of the cun­ningest play­ers at the tenys in Eng­land”, and a won­der­ful se­lec­tion of me­dieval recipes.

Di­vided into sec­tions on ‘Coun­try Life’, ‘City Life’, ‘Re­li­gious Life’ and ‘The Armed Ser­vices’, the book is clearly struc­tured. Picard pro­vides a wealth of de­tail both about the oc­cu­pa­tions of the var­i­ous char­ac­ters, and the wider con­texts in which they op­er­ated. The sec­tion on the over­whelm­ingly com­plex na­ture of me­dieval law is par­tic­u­larly clear and ef­fec­tive.

Chaucer’s Peo­plee is en­gag­ing and fun, though one couldn’t say that it brings The Can­ter­bury Tales to life, since Chaucer’s book is al­ready one of the most vi­va­cious and en­gag­ing in the English canon. But it does help to give us a sense of how me­dieval read­ers might have re­sponded to his text, as well as help­ing us to un­der­stand what Chaucer’s writ­ing can tell us about the 14th cen­tury.

Nev­er­the­less, this reader has some qualms. There are some in­ac­cu­ra­cies: Ar­ras is not in the Nether­lands, for ex­am­ple. I was more both­ered, though, by Picard’s ref­er­ence to ‘the me­dieval mind’, and a re­peated sense that all ‘me­dieval peo­ple’ thought alike. Given that Chaucer’s text is all about care­ful dis­tinc­tions – whether on the ba­sis of so­cial stand­ing, gen­der, or char­ac­ter – this is rather odd. The Can­ter­bury Tales demon­strate that there re­ally is no such thing as ‘the me­dieval mind’: me­dieval so­ci­ety, like our own, was made up of a mo­saic of dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties (as Picard ac­knowl­edges), com­plex prej­u­dices and vary­ing pre­oc­cu­pa­tions.

Fur­ther­more, Picard im­plies that much of what me­dieval peo­ple got up to was rather stupid or down­right bizarre. The cyn­i­cal tone cer­tainly makes for a witty and en­gag­ing read, but it risks down­play­ing the so­phis­ti­ca­tion of much me­dieval thought. An ex­am­ple would be the treat­ment that me­dieval sci­ence re­ceives. It is cer­tainly true that med­i­cal prac­tices left a lot to be de­sired, but they were nei­ther ir­ra­tional nor stupid, and, most im­por­tantly, they were highly var­ied. Me­dieval so­ci­ety had its fair share of quacks, but by the 14th cen­tury the so­phis­ti­ca­tion of much med­i­cal thought was im­pres­sive.

The par­son’s brother, the plough­man, is in­di­cated by Chaucer by the dung which he is ac­cus­tomed to carry. Picard notes this rather hu­mor­ous de­tail, but com­ments that it seems an odd ob­ser­va­tion given that all me­dieval peo­ple prob­a­bly smelled pretty bad. But it never does to gen­er­alise. An old French fa­bliau (a corpus of sto­ries on which Chaucer drew heav­ily) de­scribed a rus­tic peas­ant who vis­ited a town. The peas­ant smelled of ma­nure, and fainted when he passed the fine scents and per­fumes of the more cul­ti­vated towns­peo­ple. This fa­bliau is a story whose hu­mour de­pends on the very fact that all me­dieval peo­ple did not smell the same: the dif­fer­ences re­ally mat­tered. They mat­tered partly in the sense of the very real so­cial in­equal­i­ties which lie at the heart of Chaucer’s text, and they formed part of the com­plex­ity of me­dieval so­ci­ety and thought.

Me­dieval so­ci­ety was a mo­saic of dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties

A 15th-cen­tury il­lus­tra­tion of The Cook’s Tale from Chaucer’s The Can­ter­bury Tales – one of the “most vi­va­cious and en­gag­ing books in the English canon”

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