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13.05.06, Gilchrist, Medieval Life

13.05.06, Gilchrist, Medieval Life

The archeological findings presented here concern almost exclusively medieval England, and there are plenty of examples from the sixteenth century. The idea of a life course, an empirical study of people and their social experiences over time, has developed into an interdisciplinary effort across the natural and social sciences, and the humanities. The longitudinal life cycles can begin prenatally and end posthumously. These cycles enable Gilchrist to consider well chosen five case studies as a way to implicate archeology in what she calls the "post humanist turn." In archeology this means complicating the boundaries between the human body and non-human bodies and objects. No one will complain that this book is undertheorized and some may be pleased to learn that the history of emotions is now canonized as the "affective turn." The five case studies are: 1 the body as it can be studied in written sources and bones; 2. Clothing and rites of passage; 3. The medieval household over the life cycles of its inhabitants; 4. The Church and the cemetery, 5. The agencies of people and things. Gilchrist, a distinguished medieval archeologist, brings to bear some of her own research on gender and heirlooms as well as a masterful reading of the most recent research.

Gilchrist looks at the human body as it ages and her best source for this approach is osteobiology. Bones from Tudor cemeteries and the famous wreck of the Mary Rose (1545), battlefields, plague trenches, and hospitals provide good evidence on life cycles. For example, Gilchrist is able to elucidate medieval weaning practices by using research on the bone chemistry of infant skeletons. In brief, nitrogen stable isotopes remaining in teeth and bones reveal what type of milk the infant consumed--from a carnivore (the mother) or a herbivore (dairy). Once the infant was weaned, the intake of the nitrogen isotopes changes and can be measured. Good evidence shows that medieval infants were weaned between eighteen and twenty-four months, and this result closely matches the prescriptive sources. But the intersection of history and archeology is not always so elegant. Gilchrist claims that the archeological evidence supports the view that "20% infant mortality may be a more accurate reflection of living conditions experienced in the medieval countryside and smaller towns." (48-49) Gilchrist knows that cemetery burials do not necessarily reflect all deaths, and she provides evidence later in the book for some infant burials under houses. Also, the absence of evidence from cities like York and London inevitably affects estimates of infant and childhood mortality, which medieval historians usually place higher at as many as 50% mortality by age 10. What can archeology tell us about the boundary between infancy and childhood? More research in the cemeteries and archives may bring harmony to these results.

Grave clothing has almost nothing to contribute to a study of life cycles because so little of it survives that we can hardly be sure in what clothing or shrouds corpses were buried. Buttons and shoes survive well and the rarity of buttons before the thirteenth century tells us something about clothing, but this is not news. The hundreds of male bodies entombed in the wreck of the Mary Rose ended up in cold sea water preserving many items of dress and even the contents of chests and purses. In a passing comment on some objects that can be interpreted as love gifts, Gilchrist sensibly observes that not all courting led to marriage and that "pre-marital sex was common and broadly accepted until the end of the Middle Ages" (109). The proof of this assertion is that many people did not marry until their 20s and that a considerable number never married at all. Gilchrist also cites a chapter by P.J. Goldberg on medieval life cycles in England that argues for the northern European marriage model and age at first marriage but he wisely offered no view on the extent of pre-marital sex because no sources known to me provide any reliable data on this topic. Occasionally Gilchrist reads the secondary literature from historians in a selective or uncritical way. For example, Gilchrist treats Le Roy Ladurie's Montaillou as a reliable authority on medieval social history despite some negative contemporary reviews that have alas slipped into oblivion, leaving subsequent innocent readers of the surviving book in some peril.

Pots and houses illuminate the material culture of everyday life but are less helpful to the book's theme of life courses. Some evidence from written retirement contracts is revealing about the circumstances of the aged, but only a few archeological finds can be brought to bear on the experience of aging, apart from the stories skeletons tell. Two examples of same-sex funeral brasses "may have marked intense same-sex relationships" (130). Gilchrist cautiously observes that "we cannot be certain this [affectionate relationship] was sexual in character." Indeed, but should we even suggest it?

Since about 9,000 parish churches remain in one way or another from medieval England, their fabric and cemeteries comprise an enormous range of materials which Gilchrist astutely applies to the questions surrounding life cycles. St. Christopher's image is the most common one to have survived and its apotropaic powers on behalf of children are important. Likewise the actual portrayals in various media of the life cycles of Mary and Jesus perfectly illustrate the themes of this book. Pictures or sculptural friezes of Hell, Heaven, and Doomsday vividly reminded church goers (and modern scholars) that life cycles did not end with physical death. Written sources point to the church porch as the site where women were purified for readmission to the community four to six weeks after giving birth. Romanesque carvings called "sheela-na-gigs", most common in Ireland and England, placed on the margins of some churches, depict naked women displaying their birth canals. Sometimes considered obscene grotesques or at the least inappropriate sculptures for a church, Gilchrist makes a fine argument that they are best understood as connected to childbirth and subsequent churching. As in many of Gilchrist's points, this rapid summary obscures how carefully she draws on the research of a number of other scholars and is very cautious in interpreting the material items in context.

Gilchrist observes that effigies and inscriptions commemorating the dead are more common in the thirteenth and subsequent centuries (196). This finding is an important change requiring an explanation. Positing that the purpose of a monument is intercession for the deceased, Gilchrist proposes that the evolving and strengthening doctrine of Purgatory may be responsible for the change. Others have, perhaps less plausibly, used the same evidence to argue for the rise of individualism. All observers need to keep in mind the great mass of ordinary people buried with little funerary ritual and no personal commemoration at all. Drawing on the work of Barbara Hanawalt and others, Gilchrist sensibly points out that the "idea that medieval children were not valued has been overturned by 40 years of subsequent historical research" (197). Memorial brasses of infants, surviving in large numbers, testify to emotional ties in English medieval families. Even in the cemeteries, the occasional clustering of skeletons of infants and children is more likely to suggest epidemic mortality than indifference. Since only about two percent of interments include items that can be called grave goods, clearly Christian burial displaced older pagan and more illuminating practices.

The final chapter asks a good question: what did medieval objects do? Being cautious about imputing agency to material objects, Gilchrist nonetheless argues for a stance toward material culture as at the intersection of material and human biographies. Relics, the bits of bones or material objects infused with the power of holy people, are an obvious point where these biographies intersect, down to the helpful labels and documentary proofs that are being carefully analyzed (for French and other collections). Gilchrist has studied heirlooms and curated objects and nicely weaves her own findings into this book. What were once dismissed as items contaminating an archeological site can now be studied as purposeful deposits, like the occasional Roman coin found in a medieval grave. These very rare but significant objects can be used as evidence for a sense of the past, or what Gilchrist calls the patina, the social context of an object. Things passed down in families over generations or communal heirlooms like jewelry adorning the image of a saint merit as much attention as items found in trenches. The "Concealed Shoe Index," an actual database of this special type of deposit found in the fabric of medieval English buildings, reveals that 40% of the shoes belonged to children (229). Shoes are hardy survivors, often conformed over use to the owner's foot. What they were doing in buildings is a good question, and scholars have interpreted these finds as signs of propitiatory offerings or even proxy sacrifices.

This book concludes with a series of useful appendices, the first on the medieval ages of man, the other fourteen providing invaluable lists and references for types of excavated items. Gilchrist's book sustains the case that archeology answers important historical questions. This important book is well written and supports every conjecture with evidence and citations. By organizing the book along thematic questions as opposed to categories of objects, Gilchrist gives a stimulating new perspective on the interdisciplinary topic of life cycles in medieval England.