The Middle Ages is an era that I have disliked for a long time, partly because we learned in school that it was an age defined by its darkness and the plague. But also, it’s a period which has not left any traces in Quebec or in North America, in any case not any traces that are inline with our European representation of the Middle Ages. Whether it be by the number of years or by the geographical distance, I have always felt that it was distant epoch.
I’ve begun to gain interest in the Middle Ages when I arrived in France because it suddenly became tangible. Remains such as the Castle of Vincennes, the village of La Couvertoirade built in the Larzac by Templar knights or the city of Aigues Mortes and its fortified walls made its history come alive. This new interest has also grown because of the few France Culture radio shows dedicated to history. Much to my delight, they have a few shows each year dedicated to the Middle Ages.
One morning, as I was putting the finishing touches to my makeup and listening to La Fabrique de l’Histoire, I was captivated by the interview Emmanuel Laurentin was conducting with Boris Bove and Claude Gauvard. The two of them had come to present their new book: The Paris of the Middle Ages.
Le Paris du Moyen Âge, Boris Bove et Claude Gauvard (Belin, 2014)
The thing that struck me as interesting while they were speaking about the book was that the authors were speaking about the civil life in Paris and not about the kind of top-down history that we are accustomed to. Their book contains twelve chapters written by nine authors on different themes. Plus, it is illustrated with medieval paintings and illuminated manuscripts.
A few weeks after the show I bought the book and I enjoyed reading it. I have discovered new things about life in Paris during the Middle Ages:
- L’hôtel Dieu was an hospital with great hygiene for the time, they even had a system where they had running water in the whole building.
- The prison sentences were proportional to the depth of your pockets. If you did not have the means to pay for the room and the food you were released from prison, it didn’t matter if you were a recidivist or danger to the society.
- In the year 1300, only 15% of the Parisians were taxable, within this group the richest 1% paid 80% of the taxes levied in Paris. No tax heavens for the medieval man!
- The work of women was codified and esteemed even though they were barred from intellectual work as they could not attend university since they could not become clerics who were considered part of the Catholic clergy.
- Many justice systems were competing, depending on your social position, your residence and the crime you had committed, you could be judged by a ecclesiastical court, seigniorial court (some religious orders were also Lords), by the parliament of Paris or by the royal justice.
- And so much more !
The book steers away from the beaten path and avoids to rests its arguments on well disseminated facts that may not be true after-all. While reading, I felt that the historians had taken particular care to research facts that could shine a new light on the medieval Paris. That is the most interesting aspect of the book, it tackles twelve subjects that allow the reader to round off his knowledge of the Middle Ages.
In the radio interview, Gauvard explained that they wanted to write a book for the general public. However, I felt that some chapters were harder to read, such as the one on Aristotelianism in the University. Furthermore, to thoroughly enjoy the book it’s best to have some background on the history of Paris and the Middle Ages as they won’t explain who was Sainte-Genevieve or what were the functions of the provost.
I enjoyed reading this book and upon turning its last page, I found my self wishing for more chapters. Its price is higher (28€) than what I usually allow my self to spend on a book, however it’s printed in colour on glossy paper which enhances the 80 illustrations. It’s a great gift for someone passionate about the Middle Ages … or for oneself!
Co-directed by Boris Bove and Claude Gauvard
Published in 2014 by Belin
Price: 28 €
Currently available in French only