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15.10.20, Bednarski, A Poisoned Past

The Medieval Review

15.10.20, Bednarski, A Poisoned Past

The medieval past, for most undergraduates, is a compelling but utterly foreign place. How historians go about researching and writing the medieval world is equally unfamiliar to those seated on the other side of the classroom podium. In A Poisoned Past, Steven Bednarski demystifies both the life of a medieval woman and how he, as a historian, went about assembling the pieces of her life. To make history "transparent," Bednarski directly engages students with how he has crafted his narrative of Margarida de Portu's life and times. Not only does the book succeed admirably in telling students how historians "do" history, it also provides a lively and engaging account of Margarida's life and world.

Using a run of late medieval court records, Bednarski constructs the life of Margarida de Portu, an ordinary woman. These sources allow the author to give voice to an otherwise overlooked person of the past, but also give students a practicum on how historians put together the pieces of the past. He is upfront about the choices he makes, which helps students to understand that there is not a singular "truth" to the past but rather several competing reconstructions. The supporting apparatus and layout of the book were designed to assist the targeted student audience. The book starts out with a "List of Characters," a useful resource as the complex narrative unfolds. Next comes a timeline of the events of Margarida's life. Placed just before the introduction is an excellent map that situates Margarida's environment. Bednarski begins his book by providing a short overview of the basic elements of the story and his goal of making the process of history transparent to the reader. The author also alerts students to a historian's subjectivity: "A modern mind has assembled the tale of her ordeal and attempted to ascribe to it some meaning. The story in this book, therefore, cannot but reflect modern interests and priorities" (xvii). For many students taking a college history course this will come as a radical idea, as they assume that history is static and immutable. By frontloading how the present affects the past, Bednarski prepares the reader to dive into Margarida's story.

Chapter 1 contextualizes Bednarski's approach to Margarida's life. He unpacks the field of microhistory, but also situates his own study of Margarida de Portu in that scholarship. Bednarski's overview of the historiography is very useful as it models a concept (i.e., historiography) that students struggle to grasp. This chapter also lays out how the study of history has developed over the course of the twentieth century and the impact that other disciplines have had on historians.

The next three chapters comprise the heart of Margarida's tale, as well as Bednarski's framing and analysis of her life. Chapter 2 begins with a discussion of the death of Margarida's husband and the accusation brought by her brother-in-law that she had poisoned her husband. The trial is broken down and each element analyzed. First come the accusations made by Margarida's brother-in-law which convinced the judge to indict her and launch a full-scale investigation. Bednarski uses the trial records to lay out the charges brought against Margarida, what the witnesses had to say about her, and her own responses to the charges. An important factor shaping these accusations and subsequent trial was the fact that Margarida suffered from epilepsy. One of the interesting facets of the case was the role of the Jewish doctor who cleared Margarida of blame. His testimony allows Bednarski to interrogate the role of Jews in southern French society, but also perceptions of the body. The chapter concludes with a section on "Lessons," where Bednarski extracts information about Margarida, but also how her story can be used to shed light on mental landscapes, medicine, legal traditions, etc.

Chapter 2 continues the conflict between Margarida and her brother-in-law into the next legal stage: dispute over Margarida's husband's estate. As he died intestate, his blood kin jockeyed for a share of his property. This chapter is extremely rich. Bednarski uses court records to show students how to wring information out of primary sources. Through analysis of Margarida's husband's debts, he ably reconstructs the life of an ordinary man. Bednarski then goes on to demonstrate how legal documents can be used to flesh out the personality of Margarida's adversary, her brother-in-law Raymon Gauterii. Bednarski is deft in his treatment and admirably describes what certainly appears to have been a rather contentious individual. Yet he is careful not to push his evidence too far. To conclude the chapter, the author discusses how these same records could be employed to answer questions about legal traditions and practices in the south of France. In doing so, he highlights how he has subjectively constructed his own argument from these sources--keeping true to his promise to be intentional in developing his own interpretation of the past. As part of this discussion, Bednarski addresses the nature of these sources, how they were produced--including abbreviations for per, pro and propter. This is a masterful chapter that provides a primer for students on the delights and frustrations of working with archival material and alerts them to the choices historians must necessarily make when they are analyzing these documents.

Chapter 4 sees the conclusion of Raymon's legal campaign against Margarida. His last, and desperate, salvo was to ask that she be tortured. Although Raymon was able to circumvent the usual legal process for such a request, the judge found no evidence to compel Margarida's torture. Bednarski uses the application for torture as a springboard to investigate attitudes toward the body and how the legal system of Manosque had developed. The second part of the chapter turns to Margarida's attempt to gain a share of her husband's inheritance. She pursued two parallel legal cases to respond to the wrongs that Raymon had committed against her. Margarida brought a civil suit asking for alimentum or a wife's pension. At the same time, she pursued a defamation suit against Raymon for his accusations that she had poisoned her husband and was a woman without honor. Bednarski traces the legal machinations of Raymon and Margarida's responses. His narrative is compelling and suspenseful, so when the records stop without providing a satisfying conclusion to the drama, the reader is disappointed. But Bednarski has accomplished an important goal: illustrating the capriciousness of the survival of the documents from the medieval world--a reality familiar to medieval historians, but less so for our students. Significantly, Bednarski emphasizes Margarida's agency in these cases. Yes, she was a woman accused, one might even say persecuted, by a male family member. Yet she responded forcefully and argued her own position, which leads Bednarski to conclude: "Premodern women, though in many ways players in a patriarchal world, were not disempowered," an assertion that rightly counters "how most people think about medieval women" (102).

Chapter 5 concludes Bednarski's analysis and what he has been able to ferret out about Margarida's life from clusters of court cases. Using archival research as a focal point, he develops how historians apply different theoretical and methodological approaches to the past. Bednarski is careful to place his own work in this context and to discuss the choices he has made in using the evidence from the archives. While the information from the legal sources dries up for Margarida, other extant sources allow Bednarski to continue his narrative of her life. We learn that she lived to be an old woman, that she remarried and had several children. This chapter serves as a worthy conclusion both to her life and to the exploration of how historians create and assemble a narrative of the past.

A Poisoned Past is an excellent book for classroom use. Bednarski unpacks a single microhistory exceptionally well to show students the complexities of archival research, how historians craft a narrative, and that different historians ask different questions of their sources. His inserting "the historian into the history" (18-19) helps students understand the dynamism of historical research. One of the particular strengths of the book is Bednarski's discussion and analysis of the legal sources. The inclusion of images of the documents is a nice touch and shows students that sources do not come nicely printed and transcribed. The fact that Bednarski is able to work from a series of court documents that eventually runs out also helps students to understand why there are gaps in history. But simultaneously this gives Bednarski the opportunity to show them how historians can fill in these gaps or at least overcome them. Another strength is that the book shows how the same materials can be used by historians with differing methodologies or expertise. Students so often assume that sources can only be used in one way to answer one set of questions. Bednarski gives ample examples and evidence of how this is not the case, and he uses the sources well to show students how to go beyond the obvious and extract information from sometimes recalcitrant material.

Although Bednarski has created a wonderful book for the classroom, there are a couple of shortcomings. First and foremost is the lack of a translation of the transcript of the criminal inquest. He does include a detailed transcription, but this will be of limited use to the typical undergraduate who does not know Latin. In light of the emphasis on sources, translation and interpretation, having a translation of the transcript would have insured many teaching moments. Students could have read the inquest to see how Bednarski interprets the evidence, but also come up with interpretations of their own. Given that a translation of the criminal charges is provided, it is surprising and disappointing that the longer and meatier document was not similarly translated--or at least portions of it, as it is a rather long document. A glossary of terms would also have been helpful to students.

A Poisoned Past is a welcome addition to scholarship and the classroom. This book could be used in just about any course--from the introductory to the more advanced. It is also well suited to a class on historiography or historical methodology. This volume should also be read by non-medievalists as it is a remarkable resource for teaching students about the past. Bednarski has given students and their instructors much to discuss and I am looking forward to having those conversations with my own students.