The Axe and the Oath: Ordinary Life in the Middle Ages

The Axe and the Oath: Ordinary Life in the Middle Ages

The Axe and the Oath: Ordinary Life in the Middle Ages

The Axe and the Oath: Ordinary Life in the Middle Ages

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

“We of the Middle Ages, we know all that,” states one of the characters in a play by an author who wrote a century ago. That ludicrous statement was intended to raise a smile from a literate audience, but how about the others? How about those for whom the “Middle Ages” is a vast plain with uncertain contours in which collective memory sets into action kings, monks, knights, and merchants placed somewhere between a cathedral and a castle with a keep, with all of them, men and women, bathed in a “medieval” atmosphere of violence, piety, and occasional feast days? the politicians, journalists, and media people who perform before our eyes dip into that mix, usually in total ignorance, for their peremptory and hasty judgments. This is all very moyenâgeux, a term and an attitude that we can leave to the music hall repertory of the Châtelet and say “medieval” or “Middle Ages,” which cover the same area with no hint of condescension.

Several decades ago, Lucien Febvre (and Fernand Braudel after him, although less aggressively) laughed at those who claimed to approach and describe those men and women as they changed and multiplied over a thousand years. the two scholars agreed, as Marc Bloch had established once and for all, that the territory of history was the human condition, man or men in society, but they considered it pure fiction to seek an unchanging prototype over such a long time span. “Medieval man” did not exist. Yet, this was the title that Jacques Le Goff gave, some twenty years ago, to the essay that served as an introduction to a collective work by ten well-known scholars. Le Goff avoided the creation of a general model, however, by offering a series of portraits of “social types” (in fact, in English translation the book is titled “Medieval Callings”): the monk, the warrior, the city dweller, the peasant, the intellectual, the artist, the merchant, the saint, the marginal man—and women and . . .

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