I bring you a non-fiction book about a topic we all have read and watched films and series about.
Life in Medieval Europe: Fact and Fiction by Danièle Cybulskie
Have you ever found yourself watching a show or reading a novel and wondering what life was really like in the Middle Ages? What did people actually eat? Were they really filthy? And did they ever get to marry for love? In Medieval Europe in Fact and Fiction, you ll find fast and fun answers to all your secret questions, from eating and drinking to sex and love. Find out whether people bathed, what they did when they got sick, and what actually happened to people accused of crimes. Learn about medieval table manners, tournaments, and toothpaste, and find out if people really did poop in the moat.
About the author:
Danièle Cybulskie has been researching and writing about the Middle Ages for over a decade. She is the author of The Five-Minute Medievalist and is a featured writer at Medievalists.net. A former college professor and specialist in medieval literature and Renaissance drama, her work has been published across international magazines, spanning topics from The Hundred Years’ War to Roman togas. Her mission is to make history fun, entertaining, and engaging, as well as to draw attention to our shared human nature across the centuries.
I thank Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for providing me an ARC paperback copy of this non-fiction book that I freely chose to review.
We all have some image in our minds of the Middle Ages. We’ve read novels and/or historical texts, watched movies and TV series, visited castles, churches and cathedrals of the period, and imagined what it must have been like. Images of a king sitting at his throne, knights fighting in tournaments, princesses being courted, minstrels, big banquets, mixed with the Black Death, dirt, ignorance, religious intransigence, torture and violence. It can be difficult to disentangle truth from fiction, but the author of this book, Danièle Cybulskie, does a great job of covering a wide range of topics and dispelling many of the myths and misconceptions about the era within a fairly small volume.
The book is divided into seven chapters: A dirty little secret (about hygiene, cleanliness, and the disposal of waste); Farming, fasting, feasting (about food, diets, drinks…); the Art of love (sex, marriage, LGBTQIA, contraceptives, childhood); Nasty and brutish (about battles, combats, the justice system, torture, weapons, slavery…); the Age of faith (about religious belief, pilgrimages, convents and monasteries, Christianity and other religions); In Sickness and in health (about doctors, midwives and healers, treatments [more or less scientific], women’s medicine, Black Death…), and Couture, competition, and courtly love (about people’s clothing, entertainment, sports, games, reading materials…). The author also includes ‘a final word’ where she reminds us of how varied the life of the people in that era would have been (after all, it was a very long period, over a thousand years), and encourages us to think of them as people in their own right, as varied, individual and interesting as we are.
The text also includes a set of images, colour photographs of locations, objects, and manuscripts (many from the British Library, gorgeous), a bibliography (books, articles, and websites), a section of notes with details about the sources of information the author has used for each chapter, an index, and her personal acknowledgements.
This is an easy book to read from cover to cover, and can also be used as a general resource, to dip in and out of, for people interested in the period. It offers a good overview and plenty of information for the casual reader. I don’t think experts will find anything new here, but it is a solid entry level volume for those looking for an introduction to the history of the period, and it offers advice on other resources for those who might want to study any of the topics covered in more detail. I was particularly intrigued by the mention of the medical treatments and treatises in use, and enjoyed learning about a society that was far more varied and complex than we generally give it credit for.
Here a brief quote from the chapter on the age of faith, commenting on the role of convents on some women’s lives.
Convents were places in which women’s learning was encouraged too, so that they could better understand holy texts. For many women who did not wish for a life of marriage and children, convents were a sanctuary in which they could spend their days learning and discussing theology… For these women, many of whom would have been literate, having lifelong access to a convent’s library must’ve seemed a heavenly option, indeed. (80-1)
In sum, this is a great book for people interested in Medieval Europe who are not looking for a historical text full of dates, battles, and royal dynasties, but rather want to get a sense of what everyday life would have been like. A good resource for writers, amateur historians looking for further information, and a gift for those who enjoy a balanced and well-informed account of a historical period most of us don’t know as well as we think.
Thanks to Rosie Croft, Pen & Sword, and the author, thanks to all of you for writing, and remember to keep safe, and like, share, and click if you find it interesting. Keep smiling and take care.