Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
19.08.22 Barton et al, Boundaries in the Medieval and Wider World

19.08.22 Barton et al, Boundaries in the Medieval and Wider World

In his classic work on liminality, Victor Turner argued that the state of being betwixt-and-between is generative, a source of new structures and symbols. Thus, it is fitting that a book on boundaries should put me in a speculative mood. This collection of essays is as much an homage to the animating spirit of Paul Freedman as it is a reflection of medieval studies at a cross-roads. Individually, as focused studies, and collectively, as a reflection of shifting methods, these essays speak to the state of field. Boundaries in the Medieval and Wider World both exemplifies and transcends the genre of a festschrift.

In his own career, Freedman has been something like a trickster, who slides sideways through keyholes. His early work on the Diocese of Vic, a detailed and pioneering study of ecclesiastical lordship, inspired two later works on peasants, each displaying greater range and interpretive flair. Individually, these books addressed the productive tension between ideas of law and custom as well as between images of the rich and poor. Nevertheless, what bound these works was an appreciation for the knot rather than the solution, for pursuing the problem rather than the answer. Resisting the positivism and progressivism that characterized his teachers' generation as well as the postmodernism and pessimism that has characterized his own, Freedman nevertheless remains engaged with the essential question of philosophy, the relationship of individual to society or to put it differently, of conscience to being. Even in the turning and twisting that has characterized Freedman's later work on food history, which makes it difficult to pin him down, it is his attention to uncertain boundaries--social, cultural, and methodological--that has remained constant.

This collection of essays, which is divided into four thematic sections, reflects not only the breadth of Freedman's interests but also his interest in interpretive tension. A section on law, which includes essays by Thomas Barton, Sarah Ifft Decker, Jeffrey Bowman, and Susan McDonough, addresses the relationship between Roman law and local custom, a classic theme that these scholars take in unexpected directions. Ifft Decker, for instance, asks why Jews sought out Christian notaries in medieval Catalonia. If the practice reveals the permeability of boundaries and the triumph of agency, Ifft Decker also highlights the limits. The gap between the Romano-canonical and Jewish legal traditions, she argues, could not be fully bridged, a fact that placed the Jews in medieval Catalonia in a different position than Jews in the Islamic world. In an elegant and contrapuntal essay on elite women, Bowman argues that twelfth-century lordship was not yet gendered. A section on religion, which includes essays by Sarah McDougall, Annalena Müller, Michelle Herder, and Lauren Mancia, investigates the boundaries between the clergy and the laity, between free and unfree. Sara McDougall, for example, considers the effect of the uneven penetration of the Roman law tradition upon marriage practices among the clergy, arguing that what constituted legitimate marriage remained flexible in the twelfth century. In a marvelously detailed contribution, Mancia reads a twelfth-century prayer book closely in order to question the presumed mechanical operations of religious rituals. The essays in a section on peasants share with Freedman an interest in the apparent and inherent contradictions in the medieval image of peasants. Agnieszka Rec traces the journey of the cult of Saint Isidore from Iberia to Poland, arguing that, in a different context, the same saint who once subverted could now serve serfdom. William Chester Jordan's gem-like essay on gleaning itself gleans new meaning from a harvested source--the Psalter of St. Louis. He summarizes the spirit of the collection as a whole: " ever quite so simple as it might first appear" (202). A standalone and provocative essay by Adam Franklin-Lyons on Mediterranean historiography echoes Freedman's own intervention into debates about alterity. Franklin-Lyons pushes against the implicit and explicit dreams of unity and certainty that have animated an enduring interest in the sea. Finally, a section of essays by Matthew Wranovix, Azélina Jaboulet-Vercherre, Bobbi Sutherland, and Teofilo Ruiz follows Freedman's recent turn toward food, medicine, and the exotic. Here, it is worth highlighting the utterly delightful piece by Jaboulet-Vercherre on the practice of wine pairing in the Middle Ages. Whereas modern sommeliers prescribe taste, their medieval equivalents prescribed to people, seeking to match wines to individual constitutions. Meanwhile, in an equally delightful essay, Ruiz reminds us of the centrality of food to marking social distinctions in medieval Castile. Read together, the essays in this section tell us that medieval culinary cultures were strange and familiar.

While each of these essays will draw the interest of specialists, who may want to pluck them to use them separately for courses or research, the whole collection merits some reflection. As medieval studies struggles to find its bearing in a new century, rethinking its essential structures and symbols, it bears considering the polytropic and polyvalent quality of these essays as a productive pathway. Tricksters make and unmake the world, and a new language emerges through their continued boundary work. For a certain kind of scholar, uncertainty is not an obstacle but rather a wellspring of creativity.