Shana Worthen

title.none: Frugoni, Books, Banks and Buttons (Shana Worthen)

identifier.other: baj9928.0602.015 06.02.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Shana Worthen, University of Toronto,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Frugoni Chiara. Books, Banks, Buttons: and other inventions of the Middle Ages. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. Pp. 186. ISBN: $19095 0-231-12813-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.02.15

Frugoni Chiara. Books, Banks, Buttons: and other inventions of the Middle Ages. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. Pp. 186. ISBN: $19095 0-231-12813-4.

Reviewed by:

Shana Worthen
University of Toronto

"Medieval technology--isn't that a contradiction in terms?" quips another new acquaintance, yet again. My replies have always been restrained. What those situations really require, however, is a copy of Chiara Frugoni's Books, Banks, Buttons, and Other Inventions from the Middle Ages, an exuberant, accessible survey of a large number of medieval inventions, lavishly illustrated and whimsically written. The book's primary contribution to academic literature is to conveniently collect a multitude of strands which have not been gathered before. Its importance as a public relations tool should not be overlooked either: no other books make the topic of medieval innovation look so attractive.

The book, translated from the original Italian text by William McCuaig, explores a variety of medieval innovation, both objects and practices, over the course of six thematic chapters: Reading and Keeping the Books; Time for Pleasure and Time for Duty; Dressing and Undressing; And then Came the Fork; Making War; By Land and Sea. The first chapter may well have been the inspiration for the entire collection, as it comprises over a third of the volume. It encompasses everything from eyeglasses to the development of universities, covering banking, charitable foundations, and moveable type along the way. The other five chapters are similarly inclusive within their broad themes. "By Land and Sea," for example, includes the wheelbarrow, the compass, and Santa Claus. When perusing this book, it is worth remembering that even the section headings within the chapters rarely reveal the full extent of the inventions listed under them.

Yet the book is not intended only for those ignorant of the technological wealth of this period; Frugoni tackles the challenge of explaining the historiography of the origin of eyeglasses, as well as providing copious endnotes with pointers to further bibliography on most of her subjects. She makes extensive use of descriptions and anecdotes written by medieval authors, such as Dante on the mechanical clock and compass, Jacques de Vitry on disorderly students in taverns, and Franco Sachetti on everything from mills to forks. Indeed, she usually defers to the descriptions written by medieval authors over those her own, one of the features which not only substantiates her arguments but gives the text a feeling of honesty. The book's goal is to put modern readers in touch with medieval innovations; working extended quotations deftly into her own text is one of the author's tools for accomplishing this.

Another method of bringing the modern reader to these innovations is through imagery, depicted by medieval artists or, in a few cases, as recreated by modern museums. The book is a treasure trove of reproductions, with a hundred of them, many full page, all full color, scattered through the pages, as integral and expansive an argument on the importance of medieval innovation as the text itself. The depiction of a precariously perched windmill in Brueghel's "Procession to Cavalry" is an odd choice for the one illustration of windmills, given how common images of more probable post mills are. (127)

According to an introductory note, McCuaig, the English translator, worked closely with Frugoni. The text clearly benefits from their collaboration; oddly technical translations occur only rarely. In at least one instance, I suspect that the Italian has misled the English: "the flow of time as measured by hourglasses filled with water" is a likely confusion of the meaning of the Italian clessidra, which can refer either to sandglasses (including hourglasses) or to water clocks. (86) The scrupulous translation of the multivalent phrase monte di pieta ("a 'mount' or 'heap' or 'fund' of 'piety' or 'pity'") is more typical. (55) I have only one regret in the way the translation was handled, a decision made by either the editor or the translator. Frugoni regularly mentions the medieval origins of modern Italian colloquial phrases; in the first chapter, a substantial portion of the book, the explanations remain intact, but the omission of the original Italian means that the explanations have no context. In the final two chapters, the Italian is retained in these cases. But these are quibbles.

Books, Banks, and Buttons was never intended to be a comprehensive guide to medieval inventions. (x) It is a sampling of the period's riches, focusing especially on reading and writing-related developments. Above all, it is a survey, although by no means an exclusive one, of Italian contributions to medieval innovation. While objects which developed elsewhere are discussed (windmills, gunpowder), their origins are less likely to be mentioned than those originating in Italy. This focus, in primary sources (Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Sachetti), in art work, and in the etymology of phrases, reflects the audience for which it was originally intended. The Italian orientation of the book is not a real flaw, but it sometimes a limitation in the scope of discussion of particular objects. A few pages are devoted to gunpowder, but its Chinese origins are not mentioned. (137-40) The windmill, which likely developed in Norman England, is only mentioned in passing as a continuing tourist attraction in the Netherlands. (128)

A few points in the text proved frustrating for lack of citations. There is no bibliography provided for the discussion of Fibonacci and the beginning of the use of Arabic numerals in the West. (50-51) That gloves were a medieval invention was a revelation to me, but no further details or notes were supplied to supplement that one intriguing mention. (114 )

In Books, Banks, and Buttons, Frugoni has brought together her extensive expertise in medieval artwork and daily life to create a lively, meandering narrative which visits a broad sampling of festivals, financial practices, book history highlights, and technologies along the way. The book will be useful for specialists and non-specialists alike, with its beautifully-reproduced images. Indeed, I have already taken advantage of its existence to give copies to interested friends, a convenient and pleasant way to introduce them to my field of study.