The Axe and the Oath Ordinary Life in the Middle Ages, Robert Fossier (Princeton University Press, English translation 2010, Lydia G. Cochrane)
I did not like this book very well. I forced myself to finish it because I was interested in ordinary life in the Middle Ages. Now that I have read it I’m not altogether certain what I learned about that subject was worth the effort. Robert Fossier is an emeritus professor of medieval history at the Sorbonne and recognized as an authority on the middle ages, a fact I believe contributes somewhat to my dislike of the book. Fossier not only tells you what he knows about the subject, he also tells you why he knows it, or just as often why he doesn’t know it. That is, rather than telling the reader simply about life in the middle ages, he elaborates at length on the available evidence or lack of it. While this might be of use to serious scholars of the period, like himself, it makes it more difficult for an ordinary reader to follow his description. He also has what I think is a disconcerting habit of telling you at times that he should tell you about something but for one reason or another does not. Sometimes this is because the material does not exist, but other times it is because it would, he claims, lead him away from the main topic (there seems to be the implication here that he could tell you if he wanted to but won’t). He is also an inveterate name-dropper, citing scholars that have to be completely unfamiliar to those who do not work in the same field of scholarship. I was also somewhat put off by the fact that the translator often leaves French words and phrases, apparently assuming readers will be familiar with them, or run often to their French-English dictionaries. In short, I think this volume suffers from trying to reach two different audiences at once, ordinary readers and historians like himself, the result being not very satisfactory to either audience.
A basic problem with this attempt has to do with his admission that there is actually very little information on the lives of ordinary people of the period. Ordinary people did not read and write and therefore left no accounts of their lives. Thus scholars of the period have to work with whatever written records do exist, knowing they were written mostly by monks or by a few members of the upper classes who knew how to write. The growing archaeological evidence helps, at least with respect to the material culture of the time, but offers little in the way of the more abstract realms of thought and belief. Apparently this is why he presents the materials in two parts, part one, dealing primarily with man’s place in the animal kingdom and relations with other animals, making a living, working with tools, and existing in a purely physical aspect. He also covers human life at the time from birth to death, illnesses and other afflictions, the relations between the sexes, marriages, households, the forest, the soil, water, and other such natural phenomena. Part two deals with thought and belief as he attempts to understand it from the rather scant materials that are available. This deals with social relations, games, peace, honor, law, power, and then subsequently with such things as memory, measurement, writing, and learning. The final chapter deals with beliefs about the soul, good and evil, virtue and temptation, sinning, dogma and the Church. It is a thorough attempt to understand ordinary life at the time. Unfortunately, because the materials available are so scarce, he is forced to consider a much longer period of time as a single cultural period than is desirable. Obviously people living during the four and five hundreds were quite different from those living in 1000 or 1200, but the nuances are basically just ignored.
Fossier makes it clear that he has a rather low opinion of the human species, both as members of the animal kingdom, and even as a representative of a so-called higher level creature. He portrays the ordinary people of the middle ages as pretty much like people nowadays, only much more subject to the overwhelming influence and control of the Church and superstitions in general, while at the same time primarily interested in just surviving and making a living for their families rather than in anything like politics or philosophy. There was a great deal of violence, mostly in feuds and revenge and violations of honor, and families were pretty much on their own. Common people had no concept of the state or nation and identified themselves only by the vicinity in which they lived, sometimes under the protection of wealthy, militaristic nobles and sometimes not. I found of interest his belief that the concept of feudalism, as described by Marx and others, does not truly apply to this period of time. He insists that ordinary people had no idea of such a form of social organization even if the wealthy knights and others might have experienced something like that. Ordinary people apparently lived their lives in relative ignorance, swearing oaths to the Church and subject to beliefs about sin, damnation, and the afterworld.
I would not recommend this work to ordinary readers unless they are doggedly determined to learn something about the subject and willing to work fairly diligently to dig it out of the generous text. There are no footnotes or references, I assume because it was meant to be a book for general as opposed to professional readers. I also found it deplorable that in a book of this length, complexity, and substance there is no index.