Given-Wilson, Chris

title.none: Horrox, ed., Fifteenth-Century Attitudes

identifier.other: baj9928.9507.004 95.07.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Given-Wilson, Chris, University of St. Andrews

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Fifteenth-Century Attitudes: Perceptions of Society in Late Medieval England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. $54.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-521-40483-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.07.04

Fifteenth-Century Attitudes: Perceptions of Society in Late Medieval England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. $54.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-521-40483-5.

Reviewed by:

Given-Wilson, Chris
University of St. Andrews

'There is no such thing', Margaret Thatcher once declared, 'as society.' Not everyone would agree, but it prompts the thought, as does the title of this book, of what one might expect to find under the sub-title 'perceptions of society' - and, having asked that question, it is difficult, when turning to the contents page of this book, not to be just a little disappointed. There are twelve chapters here: on (1) The King and his Subjects, (2) Law and Justice, (3) Aristocracy, (4) Service, (5) Education and Advancement, (6) Information and Science, (7) Women, (8) Urban Society, (9) Rural Society, (10), The Poor, (11) Religion, and (12) Death. Most are written by experts in their fields, and often it shows: Jeremy Goldberg (on 'Women'), Miri Rubin (on 'The Poor'), and Margaret Aston (on 'Death') reveal themselves to be as fully in command of their subjects as one would expect them to be. Indeed, nearly all the chapters are lucid, informative and elegantly written. What one wonders a little about, however, is the choice of subjects: not that it is indefensible, but it does seem a bit unadventurous - which is to say that, whereas the title of the book suggests something rather different from traditional 'social history', the division of responsibilities seems to fall very much along the lines adopted by most other social histories. Here, surely, was an opportunity to open up lines of enquiry into rather different subjects: attitudes to work, for example (rather than the well-worn distinction between 'urban society' and 'rural society'), to the court, to the supernatural, or to the place of ritual and ceremony in the fifteenth century. This somewhat conservative approach is compounded by the fact that the contributors are not entirely consistent in their interpretation of what was required. The intention of the book was evidently to present a synthesis of contemporary perceptions, yet at times what we get is closer to historiography, ie, the differing attitudes of historians (rather than contemporaries) to the subject in hand. Yet these criticisms should not detract from what is undoubtedly an interesting and useful book - which, given the credentials of the contributors, is far from surprising. One might doubt whether G. L. Harriss's chapter on 'The King and his Subjects', or Edward Powell's on 'Law and Justice', are really about contemporary perception, but they are certainly wide-ranging and very well-informed. Colin Richmond (on 'Religion') is also interesting, if somewhat self-indulgent at times (and strangely dismissive of Lollards as 'too few, too fragmented and too lower class to be met with anything other than a distaste or derision'; surely Ann Hudson, Margaret Aston and Michael Wilks have taught us to take Lollardy rather more seriously than that - on each of those counts?) Mark Bailey makes a real, and very rewarding, attempt to investigate labourers' attitudes to work and wages; Kate Mertes, despite excessive reliance on the evidence of Courtesy Books, makes a real attempt to look at attitudes both of and to the nobility; and Rosemary Horrox, in a chapter on 'Service', brings many useful ideas together. There are also a number of quite pleasant illustrations, and the book is produced to a high standard.