Review of Life in the Middle Ages (1910)


G. G. Coulton (writer).

Read in 2016.

Review refers only to volume III out of IV, in the 1967 paperback edition, which incorporates Coulton’s 1928 revisions.

Collected historical documents. Extracts 33-35, all from Frauendienst (1255) by Ulrich von Lichtenstein, gets quite visceral in its description of cosmetic surgery for a hare lip (extract 34) with marjoram and verdigris salve, but is otherwise shockingly reminiscent of modern American LARP/re-enactor stereotypes, all tedious ostentation. Coulton claims it bridges the gulf between Dante’s La Vita Nuova (1295) and Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605), but I cannot see how. Lichtenstein does write of a personal passion with stale and quite clearly hollow, hence Cervantes-like, courtly idealism. The object of his affection strings him along until he gets an excuse to find another love interest, but Cervantes’ wit and sting are absent. It’s just the sort of pained narcissism Dante wanted to get away from by writing about love in the abstract rather than people.

Extract 39, from a 13th or 14th century preacher’s manual, denigrates the priesthood; in it a ghost haunting a ruin is surprised to meet a priest because “They came down so thick among us into hell, that methought no priest could be left on earth”. Extract 41, from Year Books of Edward III (Anno XXIX, Hilary Term, Case No. 34), is a hilarious non-fiction account—a legal document—of the medieval Christian church’s willingness to engage in greed, violence, politics and “witchcraft” at home in England.

Extract 79 is even more amazing. It is a report written in 1505 by three English gentlemen sent to Spain to answer Henry VII’s questions about the young queen of Naples, following the death of Henry’s queen in 1503. The questions, many of which are hopeless for the men to answer, concern details of physical appearance including “whether the palm of her hand be thick or thin”, “her breasts and paps” (nipples) and “any hair about her lips”. Rather fewer questions concern the woman’s wealth, which Coulton speculates was ultimately a more important consideration.

References here: Historieätarna (2012).

text non-fiction