Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ordinary Life in the Middle Ages by Robert Fussier

Here I am, at the end of my road. Academic custom demands a “conclusion” at the end of my journey, but, to tell the truth, I do not know what to “conclude”. I have tried to follow very ordinary people in their lives and daily cares, their material concerns in particular. Although I have attempted to penetrate into the domains of the mind and soul, I have felt myself less at ease there, perhaps for lack of metaphysical sensitivity. I have taken my ordinary people for a millennium, and then I have left them, but they were there before, and they remain there after. What can be said, then, about this small nub of time in this small stretch of land, in the ocean of the human adventure? Nothing that is not known, nothing that is not banal.

My narration arose out of two preoccupations to which I hold strongly and that have cropped up here and there, perhaps expressed too personally. First, I do not believe in the superiority of our species, wherever it comes from, and in spite of its egoistic and dominating comportment. I cannot but grieve at its total inability to master nature, which it treats with imprudent scorn, and I cannot get used to its perfect ignorance of the animal world. It is thus a simple living being, called “man”, that I have sought and pursued, I fear, without spiritual depth, from when he was a baby shaking a rattle to the moment of his death.

In the interest of keeping to what is essential. I have attempted to shake up the mass of stereotypes and a priori statements of those who take pleasure in praising medieval times and those others who read them or listen to them: No! The “Middles Ages” is not the university, the Cistercians, the Teutonic Hanseatic League, or the statutes of the Arte della lana, any more than it is the Summa of Thomas Aquinas or the cathedral of Amiens. I am tired of hearing only about knights, feudalism, Gregorian reform, or seigneurial bans under the pretext that nothing is known about other people. These 'others' are nine-tenths of the humanity of those times. Can we not try to perceive them? I have tried to do this.

It is useless to accuse me of mixing up centuries, of being content with simplistic generalizations, of eliminating nuances of time and space, of using deceptive words and impure sources. I know all this and assume responsibility for it. At least this explains why everything that is indisputably in motion – the political, the economic, and the social scale – has been systematically thrust aside as mere vicissitudes in the history of men.

The human being whom I have followed during this thousand-year period, is he the same as us? Does my analysis lead me to the conclusion that only nuances separate us from medieval men and women? In spite of the convictions brandished by almost all medieval historians, I am persuaded that medieval man is us. Many objections could be raised. The economy is not the same, thanks to capitalism and competition in particular; in those far -off times social hierarchy was based on secondary criteria (learning, common service public or private); the spiritual climate is not the same since the disappearance of the “Christian” vision of the world; daily life itself has been turned upside down by new conceptions of time, space and speed. All this is indisputable but superficial. It is a view taken from on high, as medieval historians are so often wont to do. An attentive reading of any daily newspaper will make it abundantly clear what is essential.

As in the long-gone times of which I speak, life does not lie in the performance of the Stock Exchange, or in the political gesticulations, or in coiffure fashions; what the newspapers are really talking about is professional concerns and money, problems of board and lodging, of violence, love, sports and leisure activities, or else they offer consoling discourses. The ignorant chatterboxes who reign over our sources of information may indeed call a particular decision or event “medieval”, but they fail to see that we are still living “in the Middle Ages”.

1 comment:

  1. Preface...One last word: I have borrowed almost everything from others, and I do not cite them. But as is usually said in hastily prepared acknowledgments, they will recognize themselves. Here and there I have added a though or two of my own, especially on the import of what is “natural” and on the “misery” of man. I take responsibility for these, as well as for everything summarized and all simplifications and neglect of chronological or geographical nuances that are sure to set the “specialists” teeth on edge. But that is the price of all pillage.

    Robert Fussier is professor emeritus of medieval history at the Sorbonne and Editor of the Cambridge History of the Middle Ages.