02 January, 2008

The Secret Middle Ages: Discovering the Real Medieval World, by Malcolm Jones. Book review

Sutton Publishing, 2002, ISBN 0-7509-2685-6.

Many thanks to Elizabeth Chadwick for recommending this book!

The Secret Middle Ages is a survey of the neglected arts and crafts of the medieval period (roughly 1100 to 1600) in Britain and continental Europe including France, the Low Countries and Germany. The author comments that most studies of medieval art present only a partial picture, confined to religious art and the precious objects owned by the elite. His survey, by contrast, sets out to explore what he calls the “other half” of medieval art, the everyday objects accessible to the bulk of the population – biscuit moulds, furniture, cheap lead jewellery, personal seals, floor tiles, woodcuts in books that illustrate contemporary stories and sayings, and decorative carvings in churches such as misericords and carved capitals.

The book begins by discussing an inventory of 40 biscuit moulds owned by a wealthy businessman in Frankfurt in 1521. Pictorial biscuits were given as seasonal presents, a sort of edible greetings card (Now there's a tradition worth reviving!). Three-quarters of the moulds depict scenes that are non-religious, and about half are concerned with love in its courtly or erotic manifestations. So much for the popular view of the Middle Ages as a repressed society obsessed with religion!

Chapters on various themes follow. Popular religion covers lucky charms, talismans and souvenirs from saints’ shrines, official, unofficial and frankly absurd (who could resist St Uncumber, a bearded lady whose job it was to relieve women of their undesired husbands?). A survey of animals and their symbolism includes dogs, cats (including the association between cats and witches), exotic creatures such as baboons, and the small furry animals such as bunny rabbits, mice and squirrels that were often used as lovers’ pet names. Representations of monstrosity and folly deal with creatures such as Wild Men, mermaids, donkey-headed fools and races of people with tails, and a chapter on insult and humiliation reveals a startling range of insults and ingenious punishments. Being pushed off to hell in a wheelbarrow seems to have been a particular favourite on lively church wood carvings; the author doesn’t mention it, but I wonder if that image is related to the phrase, “going to hell in a handcart”?

A survey of proverbs and proverbial follies, such as shoeing a goose, driving a snail with a whip, sawing through the branch you’re sitting on, throwing the baby out with the bathwater, or carrying daylight (or soup) in baskets, reveals the surprising antiquity of some of the phrases and figures of speech that are still in common use today. The archetypal "Irish joke" (What’s black and hangs from the ceiling? An Irish electrician) turns out to have a long provenance, except that in the Middle Ages it was applied to the inhabitants of Norfolk (UK) or fictional villages such as Gotham (UK) or Schilda (Germany).

The World Turned Upside Down was a popular motif in medieval art and literature, including flying pigs, hares that hunt and cook the huntsmen, animals playing musical instruments, and the reversal of gender roles (the woman wearing the trousers, the man spinning with a distaff). Many of the conventions of romantic love in use in the medieval period are still in use today, such as the heart symbol and the giving and receiving of love tokens such as flowers or trinkets. Two chapters on sexual and scatological imagery round off the book.

The Secret Middle Ages is a cornucopia of vivid, fascinating, humorous and frequently surprising insights into the rich and varied world of ordinary life in the Middle Ages. In some ways this world is very different from ours, for example, its evident misogyny is unattractive to modern ideas. In others, such as the conventions of romantic love and the many proverbs and phrases that are still in use today, it is very recognisable. The everyday objects surveyed in this eclectic book do more than much High Art to bring the Middle Ages to life – for example, the cheap little lead brooch in the shape of a violet with a romantic caption that was perhaps bought at a fair or from a pedlar by some village boy as a love-present for his girl.

The writing style is witty and engaging. In his preface, the author observes that he has, “…managed to forget my scholarly pretensions sufficiently often to seem like a person interested in what he is writing about”. As a result the book is a pleasure to read from beginning to end, as well as to dip into. Almost every page will raise a smile, or (unless you are already an expert) tell you something you didn’t know. An invaluable resource for anyone trying to, in the author’s words, “…get to grips with the puzzles and contradictions of an era that is both so like and so unlike our own.”

Entertaining, erudite and eclectic survey of the everyday arts and crafts of the Middle Ages.

Has anyone else read it?


Susan Higginbotham said...

Oh, I'll have to put this on my list!

Gabriele Campbell said...

That sounds like a fun read.

So there were erotic biscuits. Hehe. Our Spekulatius always have Christmas motives, and they're only served during that time, which is a pity. They'd be tasty all year round. :)

Dear old Schilda. I have a whole book about the Schildb├╝rger (damn, where did I put it?), and one about Till Eulenspiegel who is of the same ilk. And I'm totally stealing the Irish electrician joke for the Ostfriesen that are our Irish. :)

Unknown said...

I haven't read this one but it sounds interesting.

Carla said...

Susan - It's well worth it!

Gabriele - What are Spekulatius? (Forgive my ignorance).
Everybody seems to have an equivalent of the "Irish joke". The Irish tell them about the Kerrymen - in fact, when I first heard the electrician joke it was a Kerry electrician. There's also a medieval Norwegian tale that sounds remarkably like an extended "Irish joke" at the expense of the Swedes. Some things never change :-) Though at least Schilda and Gotham were fictional, which was probably a good thing as you got the laugh without insulting anyone.

Georgie Lee - Hello and welcome. It's a delightful book, informative and also great fun.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Spekulatius are German and Dutch gingerbread cookies. My favourites. :)

Here's a website dealing with everything abut Speculaas/Spekulatius you may want to know. :)

Meghan said...

FINALLY a book about the little details in the Middle Ages. I've been reading about this time period for years and it was always hard to find a book on everyday stuff. I can't wait to read this!

Meghan said...

FINALLY a book about the little details in the Middle Ages. I've been reading about this time period for years and it was always hard to find a book on everyday stuff. I can't wait to read this!

Bernita said...

Sounds perfectly delightful and very useful!

Carla said...

Gabriele - Thanks for the link! Those look wonderful, and they also look like direct descendants of the biscuit moulds described in the medieval inventory. I wonder how many biscuits can claim a pedigree going back 400+ years?

Meghan - it's a terrific book. Hope you can find it in the US; if not, it's probably worth trying inter-library loan, as it looks to me like the sort of book a library collection might have.
Primary sources are often the best place to find all the little everyday details. Have you read the Paston Letters? I think there's a recent modern edition of those, and they're full of domestic minutiae, like a wife asking her husband to buy her particular colours of cloth when he goes to London on business.

Bernita - It is, on both counts!

Chris Eldin said...

Don't even ask how I found you. It's a long story. But thank goodness I found this post. This book sounds awesome! I write middle-grade historical adventures set during this time period. I will buy this book as a reference. Thanks!

Carla said...

Hello Church Lady, and welcome! I'm glad you found the review useful! I think you'll find it an invaluable reference book, because it's full of the little details that make a past world come to life. Some of the jokes, proverbs and phrases are still in use today, so kids will recognise them, and if anyone hisses, "Anachronism!" at you, you can point to this book and its references to prove them wrong :-) It's also great fun to read in its own right.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I am so glad you are a fan of this book Carla. It deserves to be on the bookshelf of everyone interested in medieval history. That quote by Malcolm Jones about his 'scholarly pretensions' is just wonderful, particularly as on an academic list where I hang out, one of the dry academics had a go at it for being a bit prurient and wound up showing off his own 'scholarly pretensions'!
It's not prurient, it's a wonderful celebration of human nature and wit in all its forms. I do love those biscuit moulds. I guess they are still with us in biscuits such as the malted milk 'sports' biscuits and the continental Belgian chocolate ones with symbols on them. However, I haven't yet noticed Tesco's selling ones featuring dildo sellers and couples in intimate embraces! Seems like we still have some catching up to do!

Carla said...

Elizabeth - can't you just imagine the howls of outrage if anyone tried resurrecting some of the images now? Whatever the Middle Ages can be accused of, prudery isn't on the list. Thank you for recommending the book!

Eigon said...

I just happened to get this book out of the library last week, and it really is great fun, and very informative. A pity that things like the biscuits are too late for me to use in 13thC living history (though I may well use St Uncumber!).

Carla said...

Eigon - It's great, isn't it? Are you sure you can't use the biscuits? Did he say when the tradition started? I'd have thought it would be a solidly established tradition for someone to think it worth while owning 40 different moulds, so it may well have started long before 1521. After all, Gabriele's comment about the Spekulatius suggests the tradition of decorated bsicuits might have lasted 500 years from that inventory to the present day, so why not a century or two before as well?

Venetia Jones said...

Hi all!

What lovely comments to read about The Secret Middle Ages! I've read it too and loved it - so much so that I decided to marry the author! Malcolm is as funny and wonderful as the book and was touched to read your comments. Thanks again!
Venetia Jones x

Anonymous said...

this was a fantastic read i think i will show my friends this wow!!

Anonymous said...

it was a fantastic read i think i will tell all of my friends about this wow!!!