Thursday, October 22, 2015

Miri Rubin's "The Middle Ages: A Very Short Introduction": Book Review

Very straightforward. In 120 pp. of text, this London-based medieval historian applies her knowledge to chapter 1's overview of a time in the "middle" according to the Renaissance humanists, but of course continuing from the Roman times into that early modern period with less disruption and more continuity than supposed. Rubin stresses the more seamless and less dramatic divisions that permeated a long medieval period, in some areas ending as early as the 1300s and in others going as far as into the 1800s.

Chapter 2, "People and their life-styles" covers such issues as what colorful clothing men, women, and children wore respectively in Norse Greenland, and then on the next page, shows how the medieval notions of the humours effected what people were expected to do and how they were assumed to act on their nature. She often, as her sources show, draws on very specialized monographs for her examples. These may not be that accessible to general readers, but she does provide recent studies by scholars of each topic. While literature and popular culture may not earn as much attention, and while philosophy and theology are submerged, this remains a quick primer.

"The big idea: Christian salvation" comes next, and unsurprisingly Rubin shows how this filtered into all walks of life. The illustrations of sculpture and art are well chosen to enliven the impact of Christian piety upon the masses. Similarly, "Kingship, lordship, and government" treats this subject briskly, if in less space. I found the religious element more stimulating, by contrast. The effects of belief and popular piety gain verve, while the theories of how rulers dominate felt more stolid.

"Exchange, environments, and resources" looks at the environmental impacts. The use of the forest (as she tells, from the Latin for "outside,") is deployed here to show woodland management. Rubin reminds readers how rather than untamed wilderness, the woodlands were often a locale of careful attention and frequent visits by many people from different ranks and for diverse reasons.

"The 'Middle Ages' of 'others" treats not only Muslims and pagans in passing, but the persecuted Jews. Their precarious position, as they found themselves dependent on rulers, was difficult. Often they had to convert and even then, as in Spain, they remained under suspicion. Maneuvered into go-betweens for finance and trade, they were often pawns of unscrupulous Christian regimes.

Finally, "The 'Middle Ages' in our daily lives"  suggests in universities, especially, ties to our own times. As Rubin says, the Middle Ages can be manipulated for unions and radical reform, or for conservative and traditional lifestyles. Its thousand years, here summed up rapidly by necessity, suggest a period as complicated and free of stereotype as any other for our European ancestors.
(Amazon US 5-8-15)

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