If you like history but don't find facts and figures that interesting, this is a great book for you. Power
has reconstructed the lives of six different people to represent different times, places and walks of life within the Medieval period. Marco Polo, of
course, was a famous person, but the others were quite ordinary, yet drawn from substantial records still available. I find that fact alone fascinating, and
this period has always intrigued me anyways. Each chapter moves forward in history, highlighting the entire, long era referred to as "Medieval."
Power points out that most histories are based on the famous people of the period—political histories, wars, dynasties, and the mostly men who were prominent history-makers. This book, however, is about common people—what they did, how they lived, worked and entertained themselves. Each one is unique and thoroughly captivating.
The book begins with a chapter on the precursors to the Medieval period. It was not included in the original publication, and Power died before it was completely prepared for publication. However, it still tells a great deal, and sounds all too familiar. They say history repeats itself. Take heed.
The Medieval period grew out of the crumbling of the Roman Empire, and the invasions of barbarians. She compares the two:
"Above all, Roman civilization was a civilization of the mind. It had behind it a long tradition of thought and of intellectual achievement, the legacy of Greece, to which it had in turn made its own contribution. The Roman world was a world of schools and universities, writers and builders. The barbarian world was a world in which mind was in its infancy and its infancy was long."
So what caused the collapse of the Roman Empire?
"It shows itself in the great inflationary crisis from about 268 and in the taxation which gradually crushed out the smaller bourgeoisie while the fortunes of the rich escaped its net. It shows itself in the gradual sinking back of an economy based upon free exchange into more and more primitive conditions when every province seeks to be self-sufficient and barter takes the place of trade. It shows itself in the decline of farming and in the workless city population kept quiet by their dole of bread and their circuses, whose life contrasted so dramatically, so terribly with that of the haughty senatorial families and the great landowners in their palatial villages and town houses."
Hmmm. . . Then she goes on to cite three different men, living years apart who witness the crumbling, and worse yet,
there seems to be no one at the top who notices or cares. While life on the surface appears to be much the same as always, there is an implosion slowly
taking place. Roman Empire or the present time? Sounds the same to me.
The rest of the book brings to life six representative people who lived after the fall of the Roman Empire after the barbarians had most likely become a bit more civilized.
The first one is The Peasant Bodo. He lived during the reign of Charlemagne in the ninth century, and Charlemagne was very
particular about issuing orders about how his estates were run. In this case, Irminon, the Abbot of St. Germain des Prés drew up an estate book, so there was
a record of every man, woman and child living on the estate, and everyone's rent and services. It is from this that Bodo has been recorded.
Slavery is a terrible thing, and it has been around for a long, long time. It is not about certain ethnic or racial groups. In the early Middle ages, basically, everyone who wasn't a wealthy landowner or religious was a slave to some extent. Certain people had the title of freemen, but in effect, they were not.
(And neither are most of us now, by the way.)
The lands were possessed by monks, in this case, the Abbey of St. Germain, divided into estates (fiscs), each run by a steward. The land was divided into that which was the monks' and the farms rented by tenants. In addition to the rents paid by the tenants, they were also required to give up a certain amount of time per week working the monks' land. Even the families who were "free" were really not—they were bound to the land, and if it was sold, they went with it. Everyone in the family who was old enough to work, worked. The women such as Bodo's wife Ermentrude, did work such as spinning, weaving, dyeing, sewing. There was a large comfortable room where the women gathered. Did they complain? Yes, they did! This was a hard life, no doubt about it. But they found ways to entertain themselves, such as dancing and singing, or going to the fair. Here is an excerpt from the chapter on Bodo:
"The manse next door to Bodo is held by a group of families: Frambert and Ermoin and Ragenold, with their wives and children. Bodo bids them good morning as he passes. Frambert is going to make a fence round the wood to prevent the rabbits from coming out and eating the young crops; Ermoin has been told off to cart a great load of firewood up to the house; and Ragenold is mending a hole in the roof of a barn. Bodo goes whistling off in the cold with his oxen and his little boy; and it is no use to follow him farther, because he plows all day and eats his meals under a tree with the other ploughmen, and it is very monotonous."
The next chapter on Marco Polo, is much different from Bodo's, but equally as interesting. Of course we all learned
about Marco Polo in school, but unfortunately, high school history was dreadfully dull. Fortunately as an adult, I love history, and have discovered
volumes of great books that are anything but dull. So I was very happy to become reacquainted with this famous traveler.
Power begins by giving an overview of Venice at the time. It was one of the world's greatest and most powerful cities during the period we have landed in—about 1268. Marco yearned to know about the Tartars. And with good reason. His father, Nicolo, and his uncle Maffeo had traveled east, never to return, at least not yet, and they had been gone for years as wealthy jewel merchants traveling through Europe and entering what is now China. (This chapter includes a map of the Polos' journeys.) There they were befriended by the Grand Kahn Kublai, serving him for years. They finally returned, with a request from the Kahn to ask the Pope to send missionaries to his lands.
Nicolo found that his wife had died in childbirth with the child she was carrying when he left. At the present time, the Pope, now deceased, had not been replaced, and after two years of waiting, Nicolo and Maffeo decided to return to China, without the large number of missionaries requested by the Kahn. However, they did take the now sixteen-or-seventeen-year-old Marco with them. He, too, became close to the Grand Kahn, spending years in his service, collecting information for him about how all the different peoples under his jurisdiction lived. (The Polos all spoke the native languages.) He wrote all his stories down, though who could believe them when he returned?—they were all so unbelievable. And that includes his visit to the Kahn's summer palace, the legendary Shandu, or Xanadu. Though the Kahn Kublai did not want to release them, he eventually did, because the Polos longed to return home. After the Kahn died, relationships with the west became much less open.
I have already made a note to myself for future reading to learn more about this extraordinary man and his travels! According to Power when this book was first published, the best modern edition of Polo's book was Marsden's translation from 1818 called The Travels of Marco Polo the Venetian. (Please note—as of this writing, Dover Publications carries another edition in two huge volumes, 567 pp. and 896 pp. respectively.)
The chapter on Madame Englentyne is hysterical! She was the actual prioress in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales—a well bred lady, to be sure. She was fine-looking and knew how to behave in the proper manner:
"She leet no morsel from hir lippes falle, Ne wette hir fingres in hir sauce depe.
Wel coude she carie a morsel and wel kepe, That no drope ne fille up-on hir brest."
Not only could she eat without making a mess, she loved little dogs and cried when a mouse died in the trap.
And, she could pinch her wimple!!!
By the time Englentyne was Prioress, most of the ladies at the convent were from well-to-do families, and joining had little to nothing to do with wanting a religious vocation. It was more about too many daughters to marry off, and they had to be disposed of some way.
Therefore, living in a convent may have been a little more wild than we think. On the periodic visits from the bishop, each nun got to voice her complaints in private, and they were little tattle-tales:
"She-is-a-very-bad-business-woman-and-she-has-let-the-house-get-into-debt-and-the-church- is-falling-about-our-ears-and-we-don't-get-enough-food-and-she-hasn't-given-us-any-clothes- for-two-years-and-she-has-sold-woods-and-farms-without-your-licence-and-she-has-pawned-our-best-set-of-spoons. . ."
Englentyne really did not have much savvy for financial matters, and even worse, she kept to herself about spending
money, when she was supposed to consult with other nuns. That soon got corrected, however.
And as for the little dogs, the nuns not only kept them, but brought them to church, along with pet birds and rabbits! So much for the pious life!!
In The Ménagier's Wife, we meet a well-off man in his sixties who has just married a fifteen-year-old orphan. She is from
a high-class family, but without training, and she requests that he instruct her on how to behave properly. The result is a book that contains all manner of
instruction on being a good wife and housekeeper.
My first impression was that I was going to be reading chauvinistic commands in an era dominated by men. But our stereotypes of this period may not be accurate. (Do you ever think about what future generations might think of people's behavior in our century, say five hundred years from now? Egad!) He instructs her in the ways, not only to take care of him, but also the next husband she will have after he is gone. He assures her that if she provides for her husband's needs, then he will have no occasion to stray, and will remain faithful even when he is away.
He instructs her how to take care of the servants, to treat them well, make sure they are fed and provided for, and that they should leave the meal when they start to gossip or argue, and must then be sent to bed. He says they should all have a candlestick and a candle to take to their bed, and be taught to extinguish it with their mouth or hand, but not with their shirt! He also says that if any of the servants fall sick, she must lovingly help nurse them back to health. Everything speaks of strong yet gentle manners. Very surprising.
He also gives details about getting rid of fleas, flies and mosquitoes, then gives elaborate instructions on meals. The Medieval people were piggies, truly:
"There are black puddings and sausages, venison and beef, eels and herrings, fresh water fish, round sea fish and flat sea fish, common pottages unspiced, spiced pottages, meat pottages and meatless pottages, roasts and pastries and entremets, divers sauces boiled and unboiled, pottages and "slops" for invalids. . ."
The last two chapter are about the cloth industries, beginning with the wool merchants, who were downright wealthy, then in the next century, the clothiers took over. We see that now it is not the born-and-bred who are prosperous simply because of their bloodline, but the working class who have earned their way up to the top—quite a change from the beginning of the era. The book ends with the coming of the Protestant Reformation where all those rich abbeys went to pot, and the beginning of the Renaissance.
Power has provided ample Notes and Sources in the back of the book, along with a comprehensive index. This book is a must read for anyone interested in history or the Medieval period.
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