Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Life in a Medieval Castle by Joseph and Frances Gies

About ten years ago, Commentary published an article on the demise of the secondary source intellectual. It was too bad, the author wrote, that standards in the publishing world had become not so much very professional, as so very professorial. Nowadays, anyone with a book to write on some topic or other, anyone who wanted a prayer of being taken seriously, had first to do what historians looking for a Ph.D. and tenure at a university do: go and unearth primary sources and write from original research, even though the resulting book might develop the same theme and reach the same conclusions as it would have done from the support of secondary sources only, bound and ready in good public libraries. Oh, and to have a prayer of being taken seriously, it was best to already have a Ph.D., before getting to work.

Indeed, it was too bad. Secondary source intellectuals, urbane and entertaining writers whose "Acknowledgements" used to be profuse in thanks to librarians and typists, had often produced delightful, unusual stuff which amused and educated the general reader. And they did, even if only for the satisfaction of their own muse, what I suppose could be called the Lord's work. (The muse's work?) Look at the flyleaf of an older book, and see the long variegated lists of topics "By the same author." A biography of Disraeli might precede a book on gardening and follow a personal travel journal or a history of Dutch art. The muses were wonderfully busy.

Life in a Medieval Castle is an example of the kind of secondary source history whose demise Commentary's author regretted. Its bibliography contains nothing like the Calendars of State Papers that all of today's "real" professionals consult. In it we also find those entrancing old references that the secondary source writer takes seriously, but that the professional today would either ignore or eagerly set aside to explore at some later time in order to write a new, original source monograph dissecting that source for its own sake. Who on earth, for instance, was Ella Armitage, and why did she write and publish Early Norman Castles in 1912? No matter. Joseph and Frances Gies found her worthwhile, and not as a specimen.

The Gieses were a married couple who concentrated on medieval history in their long and, let me say speedily, respected professional career. It may be that in all their other books they worked from original sources, and only relaxed a bit with this one. It's a good book, but is essentially a compilation of good, secondary source information lacking that new theme or major conclusion, exclamation point, with which a scrabbler-through of state papers would want to astonish the world. It's the kind of book that an advanced high school student or undergraduate would use if he needed information on "A Day in the Castle" (chapter VI), "The Villagers" (chapter VIII), or "The Castle at War" (chapter X).

Having said all this, let me assert that this deceptively brief book is packed with information, including long passages from other people's translations of primary medieval sources, that teaches the reader anew about the complexity and sophistication of the medieval world. Sometimes we are so anxious not to romanticize a glamorous-looking former time and place that we fail to do it justice -- we muddy it up with truthful assertions about its misery and filth and disease, forgetting that not everybody was miserable and sick all the time. The chapter on falconry alone raised my respect for this society and what it had the patience and passion to accomplish, merely for amusement. Then castles with stone walls twenty-four feet thick for a start, and the intricate workings of laws and rights governing village life and the common people's relation to authority, the hard labor of pre-industrial farming and the hard play of pagan-tinged holidays, -- all are recorded here and all combine to make the modern person feel he is skating along on the froth of life, held up by a web of blessed technology but completely ignorant of what survival, medieval-style, really meant. Electro-magnetic pulse attack, anyone? No, it's not the name of a rock group.

There are a few small surprises here. Little things, bits of information that we would think someone would have explained to us by now. (Perhaps this is why the Gieses are respected professionals.) The castle, the authors write, served a specific purpose. It was a private fortress sheltering a lord, his family and servants, and his small private army against larger outside forces during troublous times. Castles were first built by Byzantine Greeks campaigning in isolation in North Africa in the sixth century A.D. Adapted by the Muslim conquerors of medieval Spain and perfected by the barons and kings of northern Europe, the castle was the supremely powerful piece of medieval military technology as long as medieval conditions, military, economic, and social, obtained. It was nothing if not rural, nothing if not in command of rural life. Farm and village needed the castle's protection; the castle needed the farms' food and the villagers' labor and occasional service in war. When those conditions changed, when cities and merchants amassed more wealth in coin than the countryside could produce in kind and when centralized government took up the reins of power, the rural private fortress became obsolete. The introduction of gunpowder and cannon also helped batter it to pieces.

One more small surprise among all this professional information concerns the seemingly bizarre nature of European farming in the middle ages. I declare I will never understand this. Northern Europe is startlingly far north. Paris lies at about the same latitude as the Canadian-U.S. border, farther north than Lake Superior. The famed castles of Wales lie still farther north, at the same latitude as Newfoundland. Yet Chapter XI, "The Castle Year," describes an agricultural cycle by which crops were sown in "the winter," from late September to Christmas, and then different crops sown from Christmas to Easter, "the spring." Summer came after Easter week, and lasted till the first of August. The harvest, autumn, fell from August 1st to the end of September. Then a new agricultural year started with the winter planting.

I can certainly understand harvesting crops in September, and I understand that our American, continental climate is far harsher in general than Europe's, but I still stand in amazement at records showing that ground could be worked and seeds planted in December, January, or February. Yea verily, it almost sounds like evidence of global warming. If so, I would think the more of it, the better.

And where are today's equivalents of the Gieses, hardworking scholars who produced reliable, enjoyable secondary-source stuff for the erudition and enjoyment of the general reading public? Have they been driven out of the publishing world by gatekeepers competing for scarce dollars, and unwilling to offer the public, for those dollars, anything that seems unoriginal -- relaxed, unastonishing, unprofessorial? The author of Commentary's article compared the breed, if memory serves, to a butterfly, bright and lovely while it lived but evidently too fragile to survive. Too bad. The approved professionals nowadays sometimes seem all so uniformly moth-ish.

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