05.09.10, Oldridge, Strange Histories

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Tom Cohen

The Medieval Review baj9928.0509.010


Oldridge, Darren. Strange Histories: The Trial of the Pig, the Walking Dead, and other Matters of Fact from the Medieval and Renaissance Worlds. London: Routledge, 2004. Pp. x, 198. ISBN: 0-415-28860-6.

Reviewed by:
Tom Cohen
York University

Note the tension in the title of this book, for its irony well sums up the message. Here we have a double notion. To wit, after the colon stand a pig on trial and an ambulating corpse, and, by implication, sundry other acts or tales that violate our habitual boundaries between animals and men, between the living and the dead, between the natural and the praeter- or supernatural that all were--in their time--mere matters of simple fact. Or, at least, if somehow extraordinary, they still were so in ordinary fashion. But then, before the colon, we have not "matters of fact," but strangeness. Whose then was the strangeness of these acts, events, and stories? Did it belong to past centuries, or is it ours?

Oldridge's book, like his ironic title, pushes in two directions. That is, by collecting tales that shock and titillate us moderns, it amplifies the past's strangeness, even if just by zestful telling. All the while, however, it stresses the ordinariness, to learned and unschooled alike, of prophecy, magic, witchcraft, possession, the diabolical perversion of heretics, angelic visitations, ghosts, and ambulating corpses. Reasonable men and women, he argues, given their doctrines, beliefs, and values, had compelling, altogether rational arguments for accepting such phenomena. Our ancestors thus were far more rational than we normally believe and we--regard our own habits of belief!--are less so, and closer to our forebears than we like to think.

Oldridge's argument here, that rational folk using reasonable arguments could defend the supernatural, should hardly astound a scholar; we assent readily. His audience, however, in the Routledge way, is more popular than learned, and certainly, for undergraduates and for myriad devotees of misleading novels or shrill, dark films about the European past, his goal of making medieval and Renaissance folk less besotted, credulous, and macabre can do no harm.

Of a work like this, a scholarly journal should ask two questions. First, did the author, himself a scholar, do lay readers justice? And, second, did he advance the cause of learning? On the first count, I give him credit on several points. Oldridge tells good stories and he cites authorities--theologians, legists, learned observers of their times--pertinently and clearly. On the second count, I am far less happy. To explain why, I must step back and ponder historians' modus operandi.

Famously, between a distant event and the modern reader, transmission's chain is long and torturous. Back in a distant past, things happened. And people saw them happen, first perceiving them, then remembering them, and finally recounting them to other folk. Somewhere on transmission's oral chain, a writer, consulting his or her own senses and memory, or the words of others, transformed event or tale, fresh or faded, into a first text and then, finally--often after assorted later textual siftings, transmissions, borrowings, interpretations, refractions, inversions, or studied distortions--at the chain's end we receive what we call our primary source. Every step in that long train of transfers, as we all know, was colored by the shifting politics of assorted moments, and by an evolving culture of perception, reading, memory, and expression. For which reason we historians, when careful, take pains to keep track of where our stories come from. It is here, precisely, that Strange Histories falters: it is damnably careless about telling us where and how its stories originate. Who was the author, and where did he or she stand vis-a-vis the event in question? The intellectual slippage here is all the more evident when we confront tales, for instance, of walking dead who, of course, never left their tombs. Between event and eventual tale, something creative had to happen.

Let me illustrate just one instance among many where the book lets a reader down.

"Bishop Ebert of Trier cursed a flock of swallows that invaded his cathedral, and they promptly dropped to the ground. A similar fate befell a swarm of flies in the church of Foigny when St Bernard pronounced an anathema against them. This proved so effective that the dead pests had to be thrown from the building in shovels." (54)

But who told these stories, to whom, where, when? The footnote says only "Evans, Criminal Prosecution, 92." Oldridge's index does take us to a single earlier reference to E. P. Evans, author of a "pioneering study" of 1906 that discusses the prosecution of animals. But, on that page, in the single footnote for an entire paragraph, Evans is nowhere to be seen. In the absence of a bibliography, we are forced, without the least assistance from the index, to backtrack in Oldridge's notes (the full citation does appear in the first note to chapter 3: E. P. Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, 1906, reprinted by Faber and Faber, London, 1987) Good to have a name, title and date. But, to test Oldridge's claims or to trace his medieval sources we still would need the Evans book in hand. Thanks to the reprint, some good libraries do have it.

To a degree, this failure of Strange Histories lies at the publisher's door: Routledge must have wanted the book light, palatable, and cheap, the bibliography scotched and the notes and index threadbare. But, as with the grounded swallows and shoveled flies, impoverished notes and apparatus make it hard to tell where Oldridge's citations come from. Many of them, as here with Evans, he has excavated from other secondary works and, I suspect, seldom has he checked them in the original or otherwise vetted them. In cultural history, translations are very often treacherous. What little apparatus we do have is not critical; this is no book to cite without further homework, closer to the documents.

The weakness of citation, to a cultural historian like this reviewer, underscores a weakness in Oldridge's larger argument, to wit, that the past and the present share a common mental culture. The failure to observe more closely how stories arose, where the tellers stood, and how they organized their narratives, obscures subtle differences between past and present times. Perception, memory, and narrative had their cultures and their genres; accordingly, they now have their cultural history. Cognitive style itself is no constant. Little more readily brings out this fact than the transformation of a tale, from the event itself, if event there ever was, or from the non-event, to the eventual report, court testimony, or holy legend. Stories of the miraculous, of prophecy, and of supernatural powers were loci of invention. Such tales, just like modern stories, illustrate the particularity of the story-telling culture. Indeed, it was the very subjects of such tales that made them especially prone to transformation. Ignoring culture makes it easier to stress the rationality of the past and to coax readers to exaggerate common ground.

In sum, here we have an entertaining book that, with a bit more hard work and care, could have been much more subtle.

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Author Biography

Tom Cohen

York University