03.03.18 , Linehan and Nelson, Medieval World

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Constance Berman

The Medieval Review baj9928.0303.018


Linehan, Peter and Janet L. Nelson, eds.. The Medieval World. London: Routledge, 2001. Pp. xx, 745. ISBN: 0-415-18151-8.

Reviewed by:
Constance Berman
University of Iowa

On a gray February morning, too cold to be raining or snowing, with temperatures below zero and wind-chills in the danger zones, you may discover that your survey of medieval civilization needs something to perk it up. Help is on the way in the form of The Medieval World, edited by Peter Linehan and Janet T. Nelson. The perfect cure for the tired course, this tome, dedicated to "their long-suffering families in partial expiation for its editors' repeated failure to get home in time for supper," is packed with new interpretations, replete with nearly 80 black and white illustrations, and extremely useful. This collaboration with Nelson's and Linehan's friends and colleagues is a wonderful volume to have on hand when course renovations are in order. It is difficult to review, because few of us can be experts on every topic covered, but I do promise my readers to at least mention (with page numbers) every article included.

The volume provides updated versions on standard topics and speculative pieces about how other topics should be rethought; taking it seriously will upset favorite lectures. The overall quality is high; the brilliance of individual contributions often astounding. While such ventures often include a few really pedestrian pieces, I at least have missed finding them here. On a scale of one to ten with ten high, most entries could be ranked between eight and ten. The illustrations are wonderful, clear, well-produced images that one wants to immediately take into the classroom to share with students. The authors writing for this collection are stars, often young stars, and not in the least dry or stuffy. Few take themselves too seriously. Indeed, most would, like Dominique Barthélemy, celebrate that "he counts as many serfs among his ancestors as knights." Principles of selection are obscure and seemingly playful. Often well-known authorities write on unexpected topics, or twist in one direction or another from what they usually do.

One could construct an account of the history of the collaboration that would merit inclusion in one of those Saturday evening, pseudo-society sessions at Kalamazoo. Having dithered away nearly my entire February and on a still gray day moving into March, here's my entirely fanciful version, but one which I hope does justice to the spirit of "jouissance" already apparent in the quoted dedication:

A group of forty medievalists finding themselves on a train traveling together (to Leeds?) decide to write a new book. They settle on The Medieval World. Then slips are put into a hat in a process that has become somewhat obscure and out are pulled topics and names, the first two names out to be the co-editors. Linehan and Nelson are named editors and assign topics based on making sure that no one should be bored. So we find Nelson writing on monasticism rather than Lawrence, Reuter writing on assemblies rather than Reynolds, but Karras and Brundage writing on sexuality and sex crimes respectively. The train arrived in the station before organization into four sections could be complete, and papers are assigned to the sections (Identities, Beliefs, Power, Elites) in order of appearance in the mailboxes of the editors. They could have been organized in almost any fashion. So much for fancy, now for fun.

For fun is what I'd describe about my experience of reading the volume, often opening it to look up one thing and getting lost along the way to read about something else equally interesting. Since it arrived on my desk my own lectures have incorporated something of what David Nirenberg, "Muslims in Christian Iberia, 1000-1526: varieties of Mudejar experience" (60-76), has to say about categorizing Mudejars and their relationships to Christian authorities, and trying to figure how to discuss Cumans using the excellent descriptions of Nora Berend's "How many Medieval Europes: The 'pagans'of Hungary and regional diversity in Christendom" (77-92). The playfulness of the collection is seen in how Nora Berend's article on Hungary sets off an article by Gábor Klaniczay, "Everyday Life and Elites in the later Middle ages: the civilised and the barbarian" (671-90). On the other hand, I puzzle a little over how to resolve the differences of opinion about medieval chivalry found in Dominique Barthélemy, "Modern Mythologies of Medieval Chivalry" (214-28) and Linda Paterson, "Gender Negotiations in France during the central Middle ages: the literary evidence" (246-66). But then I also have to ask myself why Sarah Hamilton, "The Unique Favour of Penance: the Church and the people, c. 1800-c. 1100" (229-45) is placed between these two? Wouldn't it make more sense to have it adjacent to David d'Avray, "Symbolism and Medieval Religious Thought" (267-78), or is this intellectual history?

As mentioned above, also surprising is the deconstruction of traditions about who is construed as expert on what. Thus we have Timothy Reuter, "Assembly Politics in Western Europe from the Eight Century to the Twelfth" (432-50), while Susan Reynolds, "Medieval Law" (485-502) and Magnus Ryan, "Rulers and Justice, 1200-1500" (503-17), play against one another. Other entries seem to be paired -- that by Christopher Tyerman, "What the Crusades meant to Europe" (131-45) and that by J. A. Watt, "The Crusades and the Persecution of the Jews" (146-162). Often titles do not to justice to contents. For instance, Cristina La Rocca, "Perceptions of an Early Medieval Urban Landscape" (416-31) is in fact primarily about Theodoric's buildings. Mario Ascheri, "Beyond the Commune: The Italian city-state and its inheritance" (451-68), is about some of our collective amnesia about what the commune was really about.

Gender, sexuality, and issues of women's history are not over-emphasized; one could possibly have asked for more. There is, however, Ruth Mazo Karras, "Sexuality in the Middle Ages" (279-93), which dismisses notions that the medieval period had no sense of sexuality; James Brundage, "Sin, Crime, and the Pleasures of the Flesh: the medieval Church judges sexual offences" (294-308) which takes on the medieval Church as judge of sexual offences; Pauline Stafford, "Powerful Women in the Early Middle Ages: queens and abbesses" (398-415), Agostino Paravicini Bagliani, "The corpse in the Middle Ages: the problem of the division of the body" (327-41), on corporality and canon law; Paul Binski, "The Crucifixion and the Censorship of Art around 1300" (342-65); and Caroline Humfress, "A New Legal Cosmos: late Roman lawyers and the early medieval Church" (557-75l), which has some relationship perhaps to Alain Boureau, "Privilege in Medieval Societies from the Twelfth to the Fourteenth Century, or: How the exception proves the rule" (621-34).

One of the most useful pieces on monasticism I've ever read is Janet Nelson's, "Medieval Monasticism" (576-604), which includes a useful modern rendering of the plan of Saint-Gall. C.H. Lawrence, somewhat unexpectedly to those of us who know best his studies of the religious orders, writes on "The English Parish and its Clergy in the Thirteenth Century" (648-70). Monastic economies of the early to high middle ages are treated in Yoshiki Morimoto, "Aspects of the Early Medieval Peasant Economy as revealed in the polyptych of Prüm" (605-20), but otherwise little is said about medieval economies.

Old fashioned political history is given new twists, as in Jonathan Shepard, "Courts in East and West" (14-37), which has some parallels and similarities to Philippe Buc, "Political Rituals and Political Imagination in the Medieval West from the Fourth Century to the Eleventh" (189-213). Maria João Branco, "The King's Counsellors' two Faces: a Portuguese perspective" (518-33) and James Burns, "Fullness of Power? Popes, bishops, and the polity of the Church, 1215-1517" (534-56) also fit int there. Then there is an eclectic intellectual history in Charles Burnett, "The Establishment of Medieval Hermeticism" (111-130); and possibly Peter Biller, "Through a Glass Darkly: seeing medieval heresy" (308-26).

Big questions about periodization are addressed by Jacques Le Goff, who asks "What did the Twelfth-Century Renaissance Mean?" (635-47) and by Elizabeth A.R. Brown in "On 1500" (691-710), which is really concerned with showing how little the division between medieval and early modern makes sense. Other studies concern big questions, but not of periodization so much as geographical boundaries. They include Peter Linehan, "At the Spanish Frontier" (37-59); Peter Jackson, "Christians, Barbarians and Monsters: the European discovery of the world beyond Islam" (93-110); Paul Fouracre, "Space, Culture, and Kingdoms in Early Medieval Europe" (366-80); Maire Ni Mhaonaigh, "The Outward Look: Britain and beyond in medieval Irish literature" (381-97); and Timothy Insoll, "Timbuktu and Europe: trade, cities and Islam in 'medieval' West Africa" (469-84). Limits of medieval time and space are surpassed in Stuart Airlie, "Strange Eventful Histories: the Middle Ages in the cinema" (163-188). From these brief notices about each chapter, the reader will gather that this is a book full of fascinating subjects talked about competently by a variety of established scholars, providing answers to some of our possible questions about the medieval world, but disappointing in not covering all subjects. Production in the form of index, individual article bibliographies, illustrations, and general presentation are lovely. As I've attempted to show, the organization of contributions could have been considerably different because contributors have felt free to follow unexpected paths and make unusual contributions. That does not detract from their individual and collective value. Despite those missed meals, Nelson and Linehan have produced a diverse and fascinating book, well done and a lasting contribution, but it is a cornucopia, not a summa. And whether its creation had any resemblance to a modern Chaucerian trek is anyone's guess.

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Author Biography

Constance Berman

University of Iowa