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Entry Levels, Entrance Fees

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And don’t ask me why that’s the title, because I don’t know.

First, I’d like to say that if it was up to me to pick something for the general reader to get a good and accurate picture of the Middle Ages, I’d still go with Norman Cantor’s Civilization of the Middle Ages.  There’s a new, revised version of this thing out, and I don’t know what has been improved or if anything has been messed up, but I do know that the edition I had nearly twenty years ago, I think, was damned near perfect for non-specialists.

Cantor is one of the grand old men–possibly the grand old man–of Medieval Studies, one of the scholars who broke the reflexive dismissiveness against the period by departments of history and literature, and he had the good fortune to write before the departments became obsessive about “gender, race and class.”  

If I was going to recommend a novel with an accurate depiction of life in the Middle Ages, I wouldn’t use Brother Cadfell–the sensibility there is distinctly modern–but Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.  That’s the Middle Ages in Italy and France mostly, rather than England, but Eco is a Medievalist with a significant reputation and he knows what he’s talking about.  If you’re looking for nonfiction about the Middle Ages, he’s also produced a book on Medieval art that is one of the touchstones in the field and short on top of it.

There are also some neat little studies of the kind that require sort of a mental hobby to suit–I have a wonderful little book about life in a Medieval “great house,” going through the rooms and what they were used for, the people who lived there, the schedule of a typical day, etc. 

Okay, you have to be seriously obsessed to find that kind of thing really interesting.

What I wouldn’t rely on is anything that has come out of either Women’s Studies or Cultural Studies.  In spite of the yelling and screaming, there has been some interesting work coming out of Women’s Studies departments, but not much of what applies to the Middle Ages is among it.  The book that I can’t get out of my head is an emense volume called Sisters in Arms, which purports to be about women in religious orders.

And, you know, really, if you’re going to do a work about the Middle Ages from a feminist perspective, women’s religious orders is definitely a good place to start.  Due to the way the Roman Catholic Church is organized–note I said Roman.  Some day, maybe I’ll go into the whole thing about the structure of the Catholic Church, but the point here is that we’re talking about what are called Western Rite Catholics–anyway, due to that organization, abbesses were as thoroughly in control of their monasteries as abbots were, and some of them controlled and administered vast tracts of land and collections of cottage industries that sometimes rivalled those under the control of secular authorities. 

For all the silly contemporary talk about “weaker vessels” that dotted the sermons and the pious tracts of the time, the Church in practice tended to assume that women could hold their own as the heads of vast enterprises, and the state actually gave women more rights than they would later have during the reign of Victoria, especially when it came to owning and running their own small home-based businesses. 

What they didn’t have was twentiety century feminist sensibilities, and that seems to have caused the author–I can’t for the life of me remember who this was, exactly–to see conflicts an “transgressiveness” where none existed. 

If you’ve looking for something more specialized, there’s always Marcia Colish’s Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition, which is a bit dry and a little unfocused for my tastes, but gets through tme material well enough.  It’s also part of a really great series, the Yale Intellectual History of the West.

Then there’s The Age of Reform, 1250-1550, by Stephen Ozment, which is the High Middle Ages shading into the Renaissance. 

And, you know, you’d have the best possible view on how people in the Middle Ages saw and understood each other just by reading The Canterbury Tales, and Penguin has a really excellent modern English version of those.

Okay, I’ll admit it.  I love doing this stuff.

There’s your Medieval reading list for Christmas.

For what it’s work, the movie of the Jean Annouilh Becket, and also of The Lion in Winter, both with Peter O’Toole, give what are probably pretty accurate depictions of what it was like to live day to day as a nobleman in Middle Ages–meaning, really, you have no idea what a difference central heating makes.  But also, the incredible nakedness of things, the lack of art and decoration even in the homes of people who had the best their societies could offer.

Oh, and if you’re a biography sort of person, there’s Alison Weir’s biography of Eleanor of Aquitane.   If  you think of feminism in the post-modern sense of a consciousness of systemic oppression, well, she’s hopeless.  But if you think of it in the sense of women being willing to bust balls where needed to get the world to work their way–what can I say?  Eleanor was a woman and a half.

But as much as I like reading and writing about this stuff, the reason I keep bringing it up is because inaccurate knowledge of the Middle Ages in particular and of intellectual history in general is contributing to a much bigger problem.

I think we are, for better or worse, at the end of the time when the foundational narrative of modernity is going to be servicable.  

It would help to find a new one if we actually knew where we’d been over the course of the last 3000 years.

I’m going to go look into tea and cats.

Written by janeh

December 17th, 2009 at 11:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Entry Levels, Entrance Fees'

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  1. Oh, I liked Alison Weir’s book about Eleanor of Aquitaine a lot. I just ordered two DVDs of Lion in Winter too – one for me and one to give my sister for a present. Jane, what do you think of the movie of Name of the Rose? I read the book so long ago that I think I should re-read, but just watched the movie a year or two back.


    17 Dec 09 at 1:16 pm

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