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