The inescapable first thought on opening this book is how beautifully produced it is. Nearly 500 full-color images, including a number of informative maps, adorn its oversized pages, so that not a single page lacks a bright splash of color. Each of the 26 short chapters offers at least one full-page illustration, but more often the reader, or browser, finds a gallery of smaller images artfully arrayed around the text. The effect is that of a luxury manuscript, like the leaf from the 1460 copy of Vergil's Aeneid reproduced on p. 268, though at a price of just fifty dollars, Cardini's Companion to Medieval Society is decidedly more affordable. Aficionados of the European Middle Ages will be able to dip with pleasure and profit into its brief thematic chapters--essays, really, on topics ranging from roads to holidays and feasts, science and magic, and birth and death--confident that they will find brilliant images and pithy texts.
It might be enough to dismiss this as a coffee table book and leave it to the fate that often awaits such glossy publications, which commonly fail to meet their publishers' ambitious sales estimates (as of 4:07 p.m. on 20 July 2014, the Amazon sales rank of this one, which deserves better, was #2,258,933 in Books) and end up on remainders tables. But its author is one of Italy's most eminent medievalists, and undoubtedly its most prolific. Back in 2009, Franco Cardini's CV included more than 140 books that he had authored or co-authored; the bibliography of his books, articles, and other writings published in 2011 required nearly 400 pages to list them all; and he shows no sign of slowing his pace since then: in 2012, the year this book appeared in Italian, French, German, and English, he published at least five other books. Cardini is, in short, a scholar and author whose publication record eclipses that of many a large and active department. Given his eminence and visibility, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the vision of medieval society that he wishes to project in this volume.
Cardini's Middle Ages is a decidedly aristocratic one--no surprise, this, from an author who has published extensively on knighthood, chivalry, and the military orders. But in light of recent scholarly work that has called into question the very notion of feudalism, it is rather more surprising to find Cardini describing the medieval political order as a "feudal system...based on the delegation of powers from the apex to the base and from the centre to the periphery" (101)--a center that Cardini identifies with the Empire, whether Roman, Byzantine, Carolingian, Ottonian, or Habsburg. For Cardini's Middle Ages is not simply aristocratic: it is exquisitely imperial. He embraces a descending model of authority, in which all rule is embodied in the person of the emperor and flows from him to his subjects. When the Roman Empire in the west came to an end in 476, "the Eastern Roman Empire remained as the only recognized source of authority, law, and right" (69)--as if Frankish, Visigothic, Ostrogothic, Burgundian, Anglo-Saxon, and Lombard kings did not exercise authority, issue laws, and uphold justice. All that, Cardini insists, was no more than the exercise of power by powerful men, whose power was only legitimate to the extent that it was legitimized by the emperor--the Eastern emperor at first, and for more than three centuries, until their coronation as emperor gave Charlemagne and his heirs "moral authority over his people and over the West, which no previous Germanic king had enjoyed" (70). Cardini's mystification of imperial majesty reaches its apotheosis in a striking passage on the sacredness of power, and in particular the nexus between "celestial divinity, royalty, and paternity," in which he cites the Indo-European ideologist Georges Dumézil, the anthropologist Gilbert Durand, and the historian of religion Mircea Eliade, invokes the Egyptian and Babylonian archetypes of divine monarchy, and asserts that "the sources of the Christian notion of emperor, which is assured by Christ the cosmic ruler, ruler of time and space, Kosmokrator and Kronoskrator, were essentially part of the Egyptian and Persian traditions, as redefined by Alexander the Great but initially paired by Caesar and then by Augustus, Ptolemaic Egypt, and the Soldatenkaiser of the third century, who developed a concept of the Syrian King-Priests devoted to the cult of the sun, as well as the great Arsacidian kings" (73). This passage is notable not only for its massive barrage of allusion and erudition, designed to reduce the reader to a state of shock and awe, but for how little any of it has to do with the European Middle Ages.
Cardini's Middle Ages is just as decidedly male. His lone chapter on women in the church and society opens with a dismissal of gender studies as ahistorical, and proceeds to assert that "during this period women did not represent a 'gender' but were a part of society with its infinite articulations, from simple peasants to powerful and influential figures" (59). He then turns to a brief treatment of marriage and family life that promises well, with its nuanced attention to legal protections for women, the ways they varied depending on status, and the differing treatments accorded men and women--a tacit admission that gender did indeed matter. But this discussion is limited to the early Middle Ages, with no mention of the momentous shift from bride price to dowry and its implications for women from the twelfth century onwards. No attention is given here, or in the chapters on peasants, towns, and education--or even the one on birth and death, where one might have expected to find at least a mention of the high incidence of death in childbirth--of the involvement of women in agricultural and artisanal work, or the question of their access to education, or any of the other ways in which participation in medieval society's infinite articulations was inflected by the individual's gender. Instead, Cardini offers portraits of Matilda of Canossa, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Hildegard of Bingen, as if female experience in the Middle Ages was summed up in that of the countess, queen, and aristocratic and erudite abbess.
As his handling of women suggests, Cardini's fascination with elites sometimes leaves him with a blind spot regarding exploitation and exclusion. To be sure, the chapter on peasants cannot avoid consideration of their personal subordination throughout the period or the gradual deterioration of their living conditions in the later Middle Ages. But he concludes his discussion by suggesting that "poverty was less tragic, less 'present' since the population was more widely dispersed over the territory" and "the generally accepted concept of social stratification made it more 'natural' and less scandalous that there was extensive socio-economic stratification"; "injustices and inequities were therefore less conspicuous" (108-109). Inconspicuous, indeed: Cardini goes on to say that in the aristocratic urban communes, "government involved all the inhabitants in the sense that they were all responsible for decision-making" (122), as if the city's inhabitants did not include women, children, indigents, and laborers, all of whom were excluded from decision-making. A reasonable estimate would be that the "all" that governed the city comprised no more than 5% of the urban population.
Apart from these substantive concerns about matters of interpretation, readers should also be wary about matters of fact. Some of the production resources lavished on the images might usefully have been directed to the text, which would have benefited from better proofreading and fact checking. The caption to an image of Bernardino of Siena preaching in the Campo of his native city (215) mis-identifies the preacher as Bernard of Clairvaux, who belonged to another religious order and another century. Errors regarding centuries abound: the Florentine chancellor Coluccio Salutati is placed in the thirteenth century rather than the fourteenth (124); the emergence of the "gente nova" in the Italian communes and the affirmation of the popolo as a political counterpoise to the magnates is transposed from the decades around 1300 to a century earlier (130-131); and an event recounted in Giovanni Villani's fourteenth-century chronicle is said to have taken place in 1604, instead of 1304 (183). This last is an obvious typographical error, as is the statement that Marco Polo, having set out for China in 1271, remained there in the service of the Great Khan until 1272 (224), rather than 1292. It is probably the translator, however, who rendered the Italian Duecento and Trecento as twelfth and thirteenth centuries, rather than thirteenth and fourteenth--and, more oddly, turned miners into miniaturists on p. 130. Latin seems to have posed special challenges: Cardini's observation that the medieval ruler was often presented as a type or image of Christ (typus Christi) gets rendered as a statement that early rulers were a sacrament of Christ (73), and the followers or vassals of a lord (fideles) become his trust (42). But it is hard to know who bears responsibility--author, translator, typesetter, or proofreader--for dating the letter in which Paolo Toscanelli laid out his calculations of the distance to reach Asia by sailing west to 1488, six years after Toscanelli's death, especially when the letter was correctly placed in 1474 on the previous page (271-272), or for asserting that the future Henry II was eleven days younger than Eleanor of Aquitaine (66) rather than eleven years.
In short, this is a coffee table book that in many respects surpasses one's expectations. The images are spectacular; the treatments of many topics are incisive and insightful; and the prose (aside from occasional patches of mystification) is clear and lively. In other respects, however, it fails to escape the pitfalls that bedevil the genre, such as oversimplification and inattention to detail and nuance. And, whether advisedly or unconsciously, it embeds its descriptions of particular aspects of medieval society in an ideological framework that needs to be carefully deconstructed.