I like reading about various periods of history, and the medieval period is one of my favorites. But, you have to admit that a lot of what is written is …how shall I say this …. while interesting, not always entertaining. I have read monographs, thesis papers, published books, both recent and pretty darn old — moldy and dusty. Well, they would be moldy and dusty if I were reading the actual book, but electrons don’t make you sneeze, so chalk another one up for e-readers.
Gotta tell ya, this book has got to be my favorite so far. It is somewhat along the lines of Misconceptions About the Middle Ages, in that it talks about our erroneous ideas of what life was actually like in medieval times. Misconceptions considers the middle ages to be from 500 AD to 1500 AD, whereas Medieval Lives likes to think of it as being from 1066 (the Norman invasion, doncha know) to 1485 when Henry Tudor took the reins. Whatever. I am up for any interpretation.
The Renaissance invented the Middle Ages in order to define itself; the Enlightenment perpetuated them in order to admire itself; and the Romantics revived them in order to escape from themselves. In their widest ramifications ‘the Middle Ages’ thus constitute one of the most prevalent cultural myths of the modern world.
We learn all kinds of nifty facts, such as a ‘village’ was where the lord of the manor kept his villeins – men who were bound either to the land itself or to his personal service, and who lived with their wives and children in wretched cottage hovels.
We learn that literary culture arose out of the tradition of jongleurs, the troubadors and traveling poets. Remember, there was no TV so folks had to get their entertainment somewhere.
We learn more about the horrific eradication of the various religious groups and ethnic groups. Honest to pete, we are a savage species with only a thin veneer of what we call civilization.
The Albigensian Crusade was truly genocidal in intent, and it has been estimated a million people were slaughtered.
All in the name of God.
I learned that ‘forest’ was a technical term in the Middles Ages and stood for something that was far from idyllic.
One of William’s first acts as conqueror of England was to create ‘the New Forest.’ This didn’t mean he planted a lot of nice trees so people could enjoy a picnic in the shade. What he was doing was ear-marking a vast tract of land as his own personal hunting ground. This is what the Norman word ‘forest’ meant. Where there were trees or not wasn’t really the point. The ‘forest’ was wherever ‘Forest Law’ applied, and ‘Forest Law’ was not something anyone wanted to live under.
Towns and villages could be, and were, destroyed, and every animal and tree became royal property. The forest was administered by royal officials with draconian powers, who replaced the community as denouncers before the court.
Give a whole new meaning to ‘a walk in the woods’, doesn’t it.
We learn about the Church:
But the men who then ran the Church were not theologians. The most powerful bishops and archbishops were career politicians, with little or no theological training. For them, the Church was a political and economic power base.
Did you know that Isaac Newton was also actually an alchemist, and that by far the greater part of his writings was devoted to alchemy and interpreting the Book of Revelation? Yeah, me, neither.
There is just so much in this book, about knights and chivalry, and who was and wasn’t a good king, (“The Good King/Bad King stories are the propaganda of their successors. And even the question of who was and was not a king of England was decided after the men themselves were dead — by the chroniclers. Propaganda, thy name is History.”).
The emphasis is on that period in England, with only brief references to the time in Europe and other countries. It is not a comprehensive world overview by any means, but, so what. I loved it.
Terry Jones is best known from his stint with Monty Python, but he is a comedian, screen writer, poet, musician, director, and historian. Well, no wonder the book is so readable. ‘Real’ historians, you know, those with degrees and such, write for the most part for other historians and academics. Jones (and his writing partner Alan Ereira) write for us unwashed masses, so it is all so much more entertaining.
If you like history, read this. You will love it. If you like in particular the medieval period, read this, you will love it. If you simply want to disabuse yourself of some erroneous ideas, read this, it will help with that.