Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Book Review: Medieval Women: Village Life in the Middle Ages by Ann Baer

Medieval Women: Village Life in the Middle Ages by Ann Baer
304 pages ISBN: 9781782438984

‘In spite of death and fear, life must go on and it was usually a woman’s job to see that it did.’ - p122

Medieval Women is a little out of period for me but I couldn’t resist reviewing this hist-fic novel which Philippa Gregory (the queen of historical novels herself) described as ‘Completely persuasive and ringing with truth’. So after wrestling my daughter for the book (pretty sure she just wanted to eat it) I proceeded to read with great interest.

Originally published in 1996 (when the author was 82 years old) this book is the result of years of her meticulous research and interest in the medieval period. Baer, who attended the Chelsea School of Art, even hand illustrated the book herself including a little map of the village. Medieval Women follows a year in the life of a woman and her family with each chapter taking on a different month. The story focuses on the everyday ins and outs (quite literarily, toilet breaks included) of medieval English village life. It doesn’t commit to a precise year but I believe this was intentional to present Marion as a kind of ‘everywoman’ of the Middle Ages.

The narrative provides a sensitive portrayal of the ordinary lives of Marion Carpenter, her husband Peter and their children Peterkin and Alice. In telling Marion’s story Baer illustrates the hierarchical set up of rural communities in medieval England. You feel for her as she has to pass on her hard earned produce to Sir Hugh, the Lord of the manor and you agree with her when she decides to keep something for herself.  Although her life is full of hard manual work and pain, through her eyes we also see the beauty of her village and the small pleasures in her life. It also gives an insight into Marion’s innermost thoughts as she ponders her own existence (‘this is my life…my only life’ p.83) and remembers her lost children (‘If she had kept him warm, he might not have died’ p.6.).

It’s hard to imagine bringing up a baby without the conveniences of modern life (washer/dryer/central heating/electric lighting) or even (for me anyway) without the luxuries of books, beauty and home dΓ©cor. However, Baer manages to paint an intimate picture of what life would have been like for many ordinary women without all the things we take for granted. Though this isn’t the type of book I normally read I found I did enjoy it and would recommend it for giving a flavour of how ordinary medieval people may have lived, thought and talked. 

Copyright © 2018 E.JH

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