Je sui uns hom

Tom Shippey

  • Medieval Civilisation 400-1500 by Jacques Le Goff, translated by Julia Barrow
    Blackwell, 393 pp, £19.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 631 15512 0
  • The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Middle Ages. Vol. I: 350-950 edited by Robert Fossier, translated by Janet Sondheimer
    Cambridge, 556 pp, £30.00, February 1989, ISBN 0 521 26644 0
  • The Medieval Imagination by Jacques Le Goff, translated by Arthur Goldhammer
    Chicago, 293 pp, £21.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 226 47084 9
  • Concepts of Cleanliness: Changing Attitudes in France since the Middle Ages by Georges Vigarello, translated by Jean Birrell
    Cambridge/Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 239 pp, £25.00, October 1988, ISBN 0 521 34248 1
  • Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas and Power by Jesse Byock
    California, 264 pp, $32.50, October 1988, ISBN 0 520 05420 2

Very good, Mr Hardy. Excellent poetry, especially in a time of the breaking of nations (1915). One of time’s universals. ‘War’s annals will cloud into night/Ere their story die.’ But what if you haven’t invented the harrow yet? Or indeed the collar for harnessing horses? The former is not seen till the Bayeux Tapestry; the date of the latter is much debated, but is definitely a Medieval, not an antique invention. So before perhaps the year 1000 you had to go round and break up the clods after ploughing by hand, maybe with a wooden spade. In those circumstances the oldest horse and the rustiest harrow must have seemed positively glamorous.

It is reflections like these which spring from the pages of Jacques Le Goff’s Medieval Civilisation. The whole book turns on a fascinating blend of the brutally materialistic and the generously imaginative. The Medieval world did not know how to keep wine, Le Goff points out. It was the French habit to smear the inside of the wine barrels with pitch before filling them up. The French said this gave the wine colour; unaccustomed foreigners were often sick. Meanwhile the English had a liturgical formula to say over beer barrels which had had small animals drowned in them (it is not recorded whether the animals were taken out first). Pitch in the wine; weasels in the beer; ergot in the rye; inability to grasp the idea of interest (which meant low capital investment); and people like the abbot of Burton, who told his peasants that they owned nothing, nothing of their own, nihil praeter ventrem, ‘nothing except their bellies’. If you read Medieval Civilisation in some moods, it sounds as if ‘civilisation’ is ironic; it’s also a wonder that the Middle Ages ever managed to reach any kind of economic or demographic ‘lift-off’.

Yet Le Goff is also very quick to point out the Medieval break-throughs: harrows, for instance, but also blast-furnaces, the crank, power-tools, the mill-technology which enabled one stream running through the Abbey of Clairvaux to grind the wheat, drive the fuller’s hammers, soften shoe-leather, filter, rotate, spray, wash and finally clean out the monastic sewers. ‘How many horses would be exhausted, how many men would tire their arms’ without the river, exclaims a monk-poet. The materialism of technology has at least something to do with such traditional themes as ‘the emergence of the individual’; just as the overall ‘technical poverty and stagnation’ of the Medieval West was in the last resort conditioned, according to Le Goff, by ‘the framework of society and thought’. Frequently one feels, reading through his immensely wide-ranging book, that some detail or other could be challenged. It is hard to believe, for instance, that bread with your meals, the companagium, only became common in the 12th century, and that only then did bread take on its ‘almost mythical significance’. Pre-Conquest English sources indicate that bread with no butter, cheese or broth was one of the familiar trials of life, while the ‘Solomon and Saturn’ poem treats dropping bread on the floor almost as a blasphemy, at least as something requiring minor ritual exorcism. But there are always more details. And the broad sweep of the whole is wonderfully stimulating. This is real history, you feel: never a battle nor a regnal date in it.

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