The Axe and the Oath: Ordinary Life in the Middle Agesby Robert Fossier
In The Axe and the Oath, one of the world's leading medieval historians presents a compelling picture of daily life in the Middle Ages as it was experienced by ordinary people. Writing for general readers, Robert Fossier vividly describes how these vulnerable people confronted life, from birth to death, including childhood, marriage, work, sex, food, illness/i>
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In The Axe and the Oath, one of the world's leading medieval historians presents a compelling picture of daily life in the Middle Ages as it was experienced by ordinary people. Writing for general readers, Robert Fossier vividly describes how these vulnerable people confronted life, from birth to death, including childhood, marriage, work, sex, food, illness, religion, and the natural world. While most histories of the period focus on the ideas and actions of the few who wielded power and stress how different medieval people were from us, Fossier concentrates on the other nine-tenths of humanity in the period and concludes that "medieval man is us."
Drawing on a broad range of evidence, Fossier describes how medieval men and women encountered, coped with, and understood the basic material facts of their lives. We learn how people related to agriculture, animals, the weather, the forest, and the sea; how they used alcohol and drugs; and how they buried their dead. But The Axe and the Oath is about much more than simply the material demands of life. We also learn how ordinary people experienced the social, cultural, intellectual, and spiritual aspects of medieval life, from memory and imagination to writing and the Church. The result is a sweeping new vision of the Middle Ages that will entertain and enlighten readers.
Juanita Feros Ruys
Emily A. Winkler
"This remarkable book . . . belongs with William Manchester's A World Lit Only by Fire as a window into a world so far removed from us and yet still very much present today."Nick Schulz, National Review
"Fossier writes with a passion that makes this amazing period of European history come alive for any reader interested in medieval or social history."Library Journal
"[A] grand-scale, breathless, dizzying tour, whisking us through a labyrinth of concepts, texts, authors and centuries in pursuit of the lives of the ordinary people who make up the world of medieval Europe."Juanita Feros Ruys, Australian
"The subject of this skillful, elegantly produced translation of Ces gens du Moyen Age is immensely important and represents the culmination of a lifetime of work by one of the leading French medievalists of his generation. Fossier examines 'ordinary life' under a series of illuminating thematic headings: the physical being of man himself, growth from childhood to adulthood, private life, the workplace, and death. But he also considers external and psychological categories, such as the weather, trees, animals, memory, expression, faith, and salvation. In doing so, Fossier has been careful not to impose the arbitrary divisions of modern society upon a civilization that know no such compartmentalization, doing readers a great service."Choice
"The result is a sweeping new vision of the Middle Ages that will entertain and enlighten readers."Spartacus Educational
"The immense value of a book like this lies in its latent ability to stimulate readersbe they historians professional or amateurto ask stimulating questions. If a reader drinks in Fossier's readable, intriguing discussion of medieval lay-learning, and learns enough from his wide-ranging discussion to ask a question either of Fossier or of the medieval sources, he has made great progress."Emily A. Winkler, Oxonian Review
"Fossier draws upon over four decades of experience in the social history of medieval France to produce what is an immensely wide ranging, eclectic and engaging study of human life from conception to burial."Carol Hoggart, Parergon
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THE AXE AND THE OATHORDINARY LIFE IN THE MIDDLE AGES
By Robert Fossier
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2007 LIBRAIRIE ARTHEME FAYARD
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNAKED MAN
I want to ask the reader-and I admit that this is a difficult exercise-to leave aside for the moment all traditional schemas and try to describe and evaluate the human being.
A FRAGILE CREATURE
An Ungainly Being
This heading may seem shocking, but it is the result of archaeological, textual, physical-I was about to say zoological-observations based on bodies found intact, gripped in ice or encased in mud: mummies of holy men or great personages; skeletons, entire or partial, recovered from a necropolis; the remains of clothing or tools in which places, dates, and conditions of conservation are but anecdotal details. Iconography, painted or sculpted, differs from these indisputable remains only in the care it takes to highlight a detail: a gesture, stature, a gaze. Reasonably, the variations between these men and our contemporaries are negligible. They may be a bit shorter, if we can judge by the equipment of daily life, but with more muscular vigor, as illustrated by the surprising exploits of the warrior or the woodsman. Is this a question of alimentation? Or perhaps of lifestyle? Besides, in the cemetery, who is capable of distinguishing the tibia of a vigorous serf from that of a sickly lord?
Let us stop contemplating ourselves with delight, as we have done for thousands of years, the female sex even more than the male, and say with brutal clarity that man is an ugly and weak creature. To be sure, we might grant some grace to curves or rounded body parts, at least according to our own criteria of beauty, but how many ungraceful, if not downright ridiculous bodily elements we have: our feet with their useless toes, our rumpled and immobile ears, our heads much too small for the rest of the body (something that Greek sculptors, as friends of harmony, attempted to correct), man's genitals or woman's breasts! Is this purely a question of aesthetics? There is worse, however. Bipedal and plantigrade, man walks, runs, and jumps much less well than the quadrupeds; his lower members are quite atrophied and so weak they would make any carnivorous animal laugh; his fingernails are useless, and what remains of his teeth are not much better; the hair on his body is little protection from rain and snow; copulation forces him into grotesque postures (a defect that he shares, it is true, with many other mammals); with old age his stature shrinks, his flesh sags, his organs betray him. Still worse, his senses are extraordinarily weak: he cannot see very far and not at all at night; he perceives only a small part of the noises and sound waves that surround him; his sense of smell is completely null, and his tactile sense mediocre. His flesh is said to be tasteless and too salty, his smell is stomach-turning, or at least that is the point of view of other animals, those, precisely, whose grace, suppleness, sight, and perception astonish and charm us: the bird gliding on high, the fish swimming with the stream, the feline about to pounce. If we stopped admiring ourselves one thing would be clear. Man is a creature to which Creation was unfair. And yet ...
And yet, how can anyone deny that man has planted his mark deeply on the emergent portions of the planet. He must have been given some particularity to compensate for the mediocre baggage with which he began. If we posit that man is an exceptional creature willed by the Supreme Being, no explanation is necessary. In the Middle Ages no one worried about the question. That there are in the world "white people," "black people," and "yellow people," small and tall people, the good and the bad, geniuses and idiots, and even Christians, Jews, and Muslims was all a part of a superior design the aims of which escaped man's understanding Here Below and might perhaps be revealed to him On High. As a result, there is no trace, during those centuries, that anyone sought (and, for even greater reason, found) the two criteria, one positive and one negative, that make man an exceptional zoological case, whereas today there are very few-even among those of deep spiritual conviction-who will not accept the notion. Man is the only mammal who can oppose his thumbs to the other fingers of his hands, a condition that is unique to him and is indispensable for seizing, transforming, and using tools or for the manipulation of fire. This skill, necessary for everything from chipping flint to building and operating a computer, is the indisputable base of man's superiority over the other animals. The master of fire and the master of the object, man is also, on the other hand, the only mammal, if not the only animated being, who destroys and kills out of hatred or for pleasure, without being pushed to it by fear, hunger, or some sexual impulse. He is the most dreaded and the most pitiless of predators.
Fairly Content with Himself
Persuaded that they were what God willed, men of the medieval centuries necessarily attributed the ugliness and weaknesses that they saw in those around them to that same divine will, but as an alteration of God's original work. Physical or moral imperfections bore the stigmata of divine discontent. If someone had a despicable soul, bodily sufferings, or a heavy conscience, it was because he or she had sinned, and such a one was inevitably described or painted as "ugly" or infirm. Iconography and profane literature leave no doubt about this: Jews, "Saracens," and the crippled were, in principle, "ugly," with grimacing expressions, misshapen bodies, members out of proportion, repugnant skin lesions, a hairy body and a red face, and with abnormal or disturbing nose, eyes, and ears. The effect of such traits was to discourage charity or understanding. The medieval world had little pity for the unlucky and the disgraciés, in the root sense of the word. The blind man's mistakes were laughed at, the sick were excluded and the weak scorned. No one sought to understand either the Jew or the infidel. At best, they were feared and people fled from them; at the worst, they were exterminated, "thrusting the sword into the stomach as far as it could go," as the saintly King Louis put it. Not that there were no movements in the direction of mutual aid, especially from the Church, but charity only rarely included recognition of others. At best, it was the alms of a slight pity or indulgence. Such modest signs of opening up to the other were always stained by a bit of hesitation, even remorse. This was because such victims of the divine anger were surely guilty either of not seeing where true faith lay or of having slighted it. Salvation did not pass that way, but by an utterly personal life of faith and hope. It was better to give a vineyard to the Church than a kiss to a leper. This rejection was not uniquely moral; it was social as well. As written works or paintings were done for "the right people," which meant exclusively the aristocracy until the end of the twelfth century and the "bourgeois" as well after that time, the cowardly knight, the depraved cleric, or the vulgar peasant were "ugly" or at best ridiculous.
The ideas of Good and Evil, the Beautiful and the Ugly are by no means universal. Anyone who does not understand that evident truth risks many disappointments, today more than ever, when we are confronted with other cultures and other systems of thought. These different scales of value expose us, and probably the others as well, to serious errors of evaluation, hasty condemnations, and fearful disorders. For Christians of the Middle Ages in the West, long enclosed within a limited and fairly homogeneous geographical framework of populations of Indo-European, Celtic, Germanic, or Mediterranean origin, the notion of the Beautiful might easily have been uniform. There were only differences of detail between the Celtic horseman and the Roman legionnaire, the Greek Aphrodite and the Germanic Virgin. The canons of Praxiteles or Apelles are quite close to those of the painters of the pre-Renaissance or the Gothic of Amiens: stature in general shorter than 1.75 meters for a man; a head measuring one-seventh of the body's height; an oval face with deep-set eyes, a strong nose, but fine lips; a light skin more rose than brown; thin fingers, moderate body hair, but abundant hair on the head. Naturally, I am well aware that people tended to be bigger to the north of the continent than the south, browner in the south than in the north, and that there were more round skulls in the west and the south than toward the east or the north. In my opinion, all of these "ethnic" nuances are negligible variations in comparison with Semites, Asiatics, or blacks of all sorts. It is striking to note that the prototypes praised by the poets of the langue d'oc and the authors of romances of the langue d'oïl or depicted in frescoes and miniatures actually do have these traits, to the point that, at times despite reality, they are applied indifferently to specific models, which the painter or writer refuses to see.
Beauty is what God has willed, and given that he made man in his image, man will have what are presumed to be his features; the angels, John the Baptist, and Jesus all resemble one another, as do the Virgins from century to century. This means that we end up with a curious contradiction: No one is unaware that, according to Scripture, it was amid the Jews that God the Father chose to become incarnate; that the prophets, the apostles, and Paul himself were Jews, which means that they were "ugly," according to Western criteria. However, none of the representations of them that were made bear Semitic features-not the Christ, or the twelve apostles, or the archangels or the precursors. Local models wiped out reality, or else it was generally admitted that all those figures were no longer Jews and no longer ugly, given that they recognized the Messiah.
But Are There Nonetheless Nuances?
If a man of those times ventured out of his universe of white-skinned Christians, he immediately lost his critical spirit. This does not mean that he failed to find virtue in someone like Saladin or Avicenna, or even in a learned rabbi, but that he saw only moral traits in such men. Viewed from the outside, all of them were "black men" because black pertains to the night, the unknown, and danger. Turks, Saracens, and Mongols were thought to have black skin, but not the Jews, because they had struck an alliance with God, even if they later killed God. Also, they all had a human appearance. But beyond them, all of the beings sculpted by the artist of Vézelay, imagined by Mandeville in his room in London, or whom Pian del Carpini or Marco Polo encountered on the routes of central Asia are monstrous, a veritable human bestiary. They are deformed, and certain parts of their bodies are hypertrophied or stupefying: their skin, horns, ears, feet, "marvelous" faces are the result of a mixture of Western phantasms and Persian, Indian, or Chinese legends.
When the Christian described these men on his return to his familiar world, he was not indifferent to the nuances I have referred to, nor was he blinded by the prototypes, but his observations were only rarely descriptive and physical. The langue d'oc poet and the langue d'oïl romancer, the warrior author of the sagas or of the chansons de gestes took note of people's stature, hair, and complexion, but they seldom escaped reproducing the topoi; a beard is "flowing," hair is "of gold," lips are "scarlet," the complexion is "like a rose," muscles are "supple," a man is "tall and slim," and when a young man jumps on his horse or the sweet young thing offers a flower to her lover, the admiring circle of "friends" is not surprised and offers noisy approbation. Obviously, as the rustic at the plow or the weaver at his loom is never described, the historian usually says nothing about them. Exceptional circumstances are needed in order to arouse curiosity, such as the fabulous exploits of the companions of Roland or the searchers for the Holy Grail, which go far beyond all verisimilitude, even granted an exceptional sportive vigor. But these tours de force that undoubtedly set youthful warriors atingle may have been created as instruction, not as description.
Finally, attention seems to focus on the general comportment of the individual. One might even stretch things a bit and say that vision was sociological rather than physiological. For example, if the obesity of a king was noted and deplored, it was not in order to allude to his off-kilter diet or out of concern for his health; it was because the function, here a public one, and the activity, here equestrian and warlike, of the king were being flouted, in which case obesity is a sin, a fault, a "disgrace." Much attention was paid to people's gaze, the mirror of the soul; it bore witness to the sentiments that animate the man who is being described or depicted, much more than was true of acts, gestures, or costume. An artist's times impose certain requirements on him. It has been observed that hardly anyone laughs in Roman frescoes and statues, just as if an anguish of the present weighed on the times. In medieval art, eyes are often shown bulging or fearful, as a sort of reflection of those old "terrors of the year 1000" that some people today try so violently to deny or disguise. Peace, to the contrary, can be read in the reposed features of depictions of the Beau Dieu or on the unwrinkled faces of people in thirteenth-century miniatures. The "Reims smile" is not the product of the genial chisel of an inspired artist. It comes from his models.
Still, a chronicler who wanted to "place" his heroes had to find something that set them apart. As he usually cared little for form, he sought a comportment in which the physical supports or enlightens the moral. And without always knowing that he is doing so, he falls back on Galen or Hippocrates. Man has a "temperament," a "humor" that is the result of unequal combinations, within his body, of the four principles of life admitted by ancient, and later Arabic, medicine. He is phlegmatic, melancholic, choleric, or sanguine. The poet leaves it to the physicians (physici) to seek the causes of this; he himself is only interested in its effects in daily life or in social relations, as seen in alimentation, activities, moral or physical reactions, and an entire range of virtues or faults.
Excerpted from THE AXE AND THE OATH by Robert Fossier Copyright © 2007 by LIBRAIRIE ARTHEME FAYARD . Excerpted by permission.
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John W. Baldwin, Johns Hopkins University
William C. Jordan, Princeton University
Piotr Gorecki, University of California, Riverside
Meet the Author
Robert Fossier is professor emeritus of medieval history at the Sorbonne. He is the author of many books on medieval history and the editor of The Cambridge History of the Middle Ages.
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