Michael Bennett

title.none: Laing and Laing, Medieval Britain: The Age of Chivalry (Bennett)

identifier.other: baj9928.0101.003 01.01.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Michael Bennett, University of Tasmania,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Lloyd and Jennifer Laing. Medieval Britain: The Age of Chivalry. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. Pp. iv, 224. $16.95. ISBN: 0-312-21793-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.01.03

Lloyd and Jennifer Laing. Medieval Britain: The Age of Chivalry. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. Pp. iv, 224. $16.95. ISBN: 0-312-21793-5.

Reviewed by:

Michael Bennett
University of Tasmania

Lloyd and Jennifer Laing's Medieval Britain. The Age of Chivalry seeks as its aim "to introduce the lay person to the fascinations of the medieval period". Its format is certainly 'user-friendly'. It is attractively illustrated, and presents itself almost in the manner of a montage of British life between 1066 and 1485. The introduction provides a historical framework for the period. There follow chapters on "Society", "Castles", "The Countryside", "The Church", "Towns", "Trade and Communications", "Science and Teachnology, Superstition and Medicine", "Leisure and Fashion", "Intellectual and Artistic Endeavour". Each of the chapters is divided into short, caption-sized sections.

As the preface clearly states, "it is not an academic book". It has a short bibliography, but no other scholarly apparatus. Given the scope of the survey and its modest word-length, it would be unfair to judge the book on austerely academic grounds. Yet the authors--one of whom is Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Nottingham--might be expected to bring some special expertise to their work. This expectation is not entirely disappointed. There is a refreshing emphasis on the material remains of the Middle Ages. There is some redress of the balance away from the worlds of chivalry and the church towards the everyday world of towns and country. There is some recognition of the technical achievements of the Middle Ages. There is a better balance between English and Scottish material than in most such surveys. Throughout the book there are frequent references to archaeological findings. Many of the illustrations come from their own fieldwork.

Overall, though, the book leaves a lot to be desired. The introductory survey of Britain in the Middle Ages begins with the odd assertion that "the Middle Ages traditionally begin with the arrival of William of Normandy in 1066, and end in 1485 with Battle of Bosworth". Many readers will know that the beginning of the Middle Ages is 'traditionally' associated with the Fall of the Roman Empire, or perhaps with the rise of Islam, and might initially assume that what the authors are talking about the 'Age of Chivalry' not the 'Middle Ages'. Yet the Laings hold to their eccentric periodisation. In chapter 3 they claim that the reign of Edward I (1272-1307) "marks the apogee of early [sic] medieval England."

The introduction reads like the old-hat British history parodied in Sellars and Yeatman's 1066 and All That . There are statements like "it was not until [the reign of Henry VII] that the power of the nobles was crushed sufficiently for the 'Middle Ages' to develop into the 'Renaissance' of the Tudor period", (11) and that "it was not until after the medieval period that disputes [between crown and church] grew so great that Henry VIII did what many had undoubtedly wished to do before and instituted a total break from the Roman Church". (19) Likewise we learn that "starting from the reign of King John, a parliament was established that gradually usurped many of the king's powers", though we are subsequently told that Magna Carta "was of comparatively little moment". (12-13)

Chapter 1 offers a brief survey of the social order, introducing the main social groupings and addressing relations between the sexes and generations. The banality of the discussion of the position of women does scant justice to the scholarship of the past three decades: "On the one hand misogynists did their utmost to denigrate and relegate them to the role of slaves and baby-factories. On the other, in a direct attempt, notably by men, to redress the balance, ideas of chivalry elevated them to objects of worship". (34) The authors seem to see medieval society as inclusive: "There was also a place in society for outlaws, of whom Robin Hood is the most famous". (33) The chapter ends with a curious paragraph on children whose growth was deliberately stunted "to produce a dwarf who could be sold for a good price as a court performer." The chapter's last sentence is a classic: "The life of a court dwarf however was not a bad one". (46)

In Chapter 2 there is clear and useful discussion of castles, though the section on "Livery and Maintenance and Bastard Feudalism" says nothing about 'livery and maintenance', and mentions 'bastard feudalism' only in passing, and then misleadingly. Chapter 3 looks at the rural economy, and has some useful sections on land-use, the organisation of the village, crops and diet. Chapter 4 offers a sketchy overview of the place of church in society, church architecture, the various monastic orders, and the lay-out of monastic sites. Chapters 5 and 6 are more successful, if only because towns, urban life and trade are often overlooked in popular accounts of life in the middle ages. Its explanation of urban and commercial institutions, survey of the material culture of towns and patterns of trade, and vignettes on urban low life, are informative and interesting for the lay reader.

In the remaining chapters the Laings are more adventurous, opening up wider vistas of science and technology, leisure and fashion, and the world of learning and the arts. There are sections on clocks, mills, fuel, pollution, medicine, astrology, alchemy, witchcraft, games, music, theatre, feasts, table manners, dress, jewellery, gardens, pets, schools and universities, literature, art, manuscripts, sculpture, wall-painting, church plate, graffiti, stained glass, wood-carving, textiles and embroidery. The sections, though, rarely consist of more than a few short paragraphs-- little more than might appear in a good museum exhibition, and generally less authoritative.

The book's main virtue remains its attractive format. It is generously and choicely illustrated: about fifty full colour pages, two hundred or so black-and-white photographs, and lots of line-drawings. Even the specialist will find something of interest here!

Meanwhile its encyclopaedic range and its accessible lay-out will make it a tempting purchase for novices seeking an introduction to medieval Britain. Let us hope that the book encourages them to proceed--as soon as possible--to the "Further Reading" on pages 220-1.