Thomas L. McDonald has been a writer and editor for the past 25 years, covering technology, history, archaeology, games, and religion. He has degrees in English, Film, and Theology with a concentration in Church History. He’s been a certified catechist for twelve years, and taught Church History for eight. His other writing can be found at Weird Catholic.
Anyone who reads even casually about the Middle Ages encounters the many vivid personalities who emerge from the history books, from titanic figures like St. Thomas Aquinas and Eleanor of Aquitaine to lesser known people like Simon de Montfort (largely responsible for the horrors of the Albigensian Crusade) and the Countess Matilda of Tuscany (an ally of Pope Gregory VII and successful military leader). Their stories are told so many times that it can seem like little is left to be said.
Michael Prestwich’s Medieval People (Thames & Hudson: $40) attempts to appeal to several kinds of reader at the same time: those deeply read in medieval history; relative novices looking for a good introduction to its people, history, and themes; and people in search of a copiously illustrated coffee table book. That it achieves all of these goals is nothing short of remarkable.
I approached the book cautiously, having never read the author (a notable medievalist and Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Durham) and having been disappointed by similar efforts. The title calls to mind disappointing general interest books and documentaries about the middle ages, such as Norman Cantor’s shockingly poor Medieval Lives: Eight Charismatic Men and Women of the Middle Ages, or the awful Medieval Lives book and series by Monty Python’s Terry Jones.
So much of what’s written about the Middle Ages is just nonsense fueled by pseudo-facts, bias, and modernist agendas. It’s hard to find someone who makes a genuine effort to understand people in the context of their times, and is willing to engage people as real human beings, faults and all. This scrupulous fairness and balance is one of the most appealing things about Professor Prestwich’s writing.
Medieval People follows a strict format. Seventy men and women are profiled in three pages of text each, with two to three pieces of art per person The art is the usual crisp Thames & Hudson reproduction, with a total of 179 period pieces, all but eight of them in full color.
The subjects run the gamut from the famous to the lesser known, but it’s not intended as an encyclopedic work. The Plantagenet kings, for example, don’t get their own entries, leaving their stories to be told through figures like William Marshall, Eleanor, and Thomas Becket. This works wonderfully, since it shifts the perspective and prevents the book from being one long march through the medieval dynasties.
One way to take the pulse of a book like this is to see how handles Church figures, and the results are impressive. They get a fair hearing, and are presented sympathetically yet accurately. It's rare to find an overview like this take the Crusades as they were, not as modern revisionism paints them. His asssessment of Urban II as a "rational political realist" is appealingly concise, as well as accurate. Innocent III is noted not just for his reshaping of papal power, but also his sense of humor. Trendy medical and psychological diagnoses of St. Joan (anorexia) and Guildbert of Nogent (Oedipal issues) are waved as simplistic answers to complex people.
He treats visions of figures like St. Hidlegard on their own terms, not as symptoms. His suggestion that, due to his limited successes and intractible personality, St. Thomas Becket would "not have had a high reputation" without his martyrdom is certainly a reasonable, if not likely to be popular, conclusion. He seems uncertain about St. Dominic's character, which is addmittedly difficult to asssess through the distortng effects of hagiographry. Prestwich stumbles a bit with Catherine of Siena. But even though you can sense his discomfort with her extreme asceticism (a discomfort shared even by her admirers, of which I am one), he’s unwilling to simply write her off as mentally disturbed, which is a trend among contemporary medievalists.
The range and type of people included provides as good a cross-section as one could want, from political, religious, and military leaders to writers, artists, and inventors. The focus is on Europe, but some figures of the East (Saladin, Usama ibn Munqidh, Anna Komnene, and others) are included as well.
This fairness and clarity is obviously informed by a lifetime’s immersion in the the subject, but as the flap copy accurately observes, it “carries its learning lightly.” Prestwich is a strong writer with a sure eye for telling and colorful details. It’s not easy to capture a life in three pages, but he cuts through the accretions and legends and agendas to get to the real people. He breathes life into these figures, living up the book’s subtitle: “Vivid Lives in a Distant Landscape, From Charlemagne to Piero della Francesca.”
Medieval People succeeds on all fronts: as an art book, as an introduction to the people of the Middle Ages for novices, and as the perspective of a scholar who knows and loves his subject. The indiviudal entries are entertaining and enlightening, and can be read in any order. The net effect is to create a mosaic of characters that tells the story of the times through the people that shaped it.