Medieval Life: Archaeology and the Life Course

By Fizzard, Allison D. | Canadian Journal of History, Autumn 2014 | Go to article overview

Medieval Life: Archaeology and the Life Course


Fizzard, Allison D., Canadian Journal of History


Medieval Life: Archaeology and the Life Course by Roberta Gilchrist. Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 2012. xv, 336 pp. $50.00 US (cloth).

Roberta Gilchrist, archaeologist and author of such works as Gender and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Religious Women and Gender and Archaeology: Contesting the Past, in this volume turns her attention to interpreting the material culture associated with the everyday lives of people in England from the mid-eleventh to the mid-sixteenth centuries. Her aim is to analyze the finds from nine different archaeological assemblages--ranging from urban sites in cities such as London and York to rural sites such as Wharram Percy to catastrophe sites such as the shipwrecked Mary Rose (1540)--using theoretical approaches derived from the fields of sociology, anthropology, and archaeology. Gilchrist's approach is deeply informed by "life course" theory, which views each human life as whole and integrated (as opposed to broken up into a series of stages) and provides a means by which human lives can be understood within their socio-cultural contexts. Gilchrist proposes in this book that medieval lives can be understood in terms of the "extended life course," that is, from conception to the afterlife rather than the "traditional" definition of a human life lasting from birth until death. She provides examples from the nine assemblages to shed light on the connections between medieval beliefs and practices concerning the 'extended life course' and material culture.

For those who are interested in life course theory and the archaeological approach to concepts such as "embodiment and ritual, biography and agency, and time and memory" (p. xii), Gilchrist's first chapter will provide a useful overview. The remainder of the book consists of five thematic studies of archaeological finds: bone evidence and its relationship to medieval concepts of age; dress evidence and its connections with medieval ideas about gender, sexuality, and life course transitions; the material culture of domestic environments and the extended life course; the material culture of medieval religious beliefs and practices, particularly in parochial and domestic contexts; possible evidence for the existence of "heirloom" objects and how this might relate to whether objects can be said to have "agency."

Despite the promise of the first chapter, medieval historians are unlikely to find much that is strikingly new in the application of life course theory to interpretation of the material objects under discussion. Gilchrist draws substantially on the work of historians who have published in the areas of social, dress, gender, and religious history, so for scholars working in these fields, there will be much here that is familiar.

Historians may also be puzzled by Gilchrist's tendency to summarize information from historical scholarship by stating that medieval people believed or did a certain thing, giving the impression that the belief or practice was universal, and only later (or sometimes not) acknowledging that analysis of historical sources or archaeological finds indicates that there was likely considerable local variation. …

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