The Axe and the Oath: Ordinary Life in the Middle Ages

Christopher Dyer has doubts about an ambitious analysis of medieval life

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Reviewed by: Christopher Dyer
Author: Robert Fossier
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Price (RRP): £24.95

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A book about medieval life which covers many themes and all kinds of people should be very welcome. The French original of this book, published in 2007, was called Medieval People (Ces Gens du Moyen Age) but that English title had already been used for a bestseller by Eileen Power.

Robert Fossier, a leading social historian in the second half of the 20th century, steers away from the conventional approach of drawing pen sketches of knights, peasants, monks, merchants and so on, but instead pursues general themes such as the human body, the ages of man from birth to death, marriage and household, the natural world, fire, water and earth, the land and animals, social groups, knowledge and religion.

Surveying all aspects of medieval life and thought is an excellent approach, and one appreciates the comprehensive sweep that Fossier has achieved. To cover so much ground needed a light touch, without becoming bogged down in detail, but the reader is bound to be frustrated by the way that subjects are mentioned but not explored.

The book could have served as a guide to more lengthy treatments of the topics: houses, hunting or heresy, for example, but there is not even a short list of books to help the reader to explore other writings in more detail.

Although the subject matter is potentially full of interest, this is a book that is not easy to read, partly because of a clumsy translation. The original probably had some difficult sentences, and the occasional appearance of obscure words may be following the French original: I am probably not the only reader to be phased by ‘carpology’ and ‘theogonic’.

The author does not bombard the reader with facts and figures, but prefers rather vague and sometimes dogmatic generalisations. Unfortunately these are not always accurate, which is partly because he aims to write about western Europe, but tends to regard France as typical.

Fossier says, for example, that barley was rarely consumed as human food, which would have surprised the inhabitants of East Anglia in the 13th century, who ate little else.

He has a persistent prejudice against fish, whether keeping them in ponds, catching them at sea, or eating them as food, which leads him to underrate their importance for medieval people.

When he makes a surprising and unexpected statement which is not common knowledge we are bound to be interested but also distrustful – did locusts destroy crops in Europe for the last time in the year 873? And did people with the B blood group escape the ravages of bubonic plague?

So this is a brave attempt at a wide perspective on medieval life, with too many generalisations that cannot always be trusted. We can also do without the author’s personal philosophising and fondness for making superficial comparisons with the modern world. 

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Christopher Dyer is a professor in the Centre for English Local History, University of Leicester