Medievalists have on the whole paid very little attention to the subject of leisure in England in the medieval period. While leisure activities have been discussed when they have fallen within the remit of another historical theme, such as growing up, the area has never been fully investigated in its own right as it has been in later historical periods. Theresa McLean's The English at Play in the Middle Ages (1983) brought out the sheer diversity of medieval leisure activities, and in Pleasures and Pastimes in Medieval England Compton Reeves takes a similar approach, giving an account of what activities gave pleasure and delight to the people of the period.
Like McLean, Reeves organises his book according to the various categories of pastime, with chapters on literature, games, tournaments and even pets and gardening. Each chapter is illustrated with reproductions of manuscript illuminations which depict these pastimes. Reeves's main sources are scholarly articles on particular leisure activities, along with other book-length studies which refer to such activities in passing; a useful bibliography of these is included.
The strength of Pleasures and Pastimes is Reeves's ability to draw upon this diverse range of material, extract from it the information that he wants, and summarise it in a clear, accurate and interesting way. However, Reeves's emphasis on pleasure means that the contested dimension of these activities is not really discussed. For example, there is no mention of the important 1388 statute which forbade servants and labourers from playing tennis, football and other games on Sundays and Holy Days, demanding that they practise archery instead.
While Reeves's decision to link pleasure and pastimes produces an attractive and readable book, to some extent it helps to sustain the myth of a "Merry England" where leisure was enjoyed without conflict or constraint.
As companion volumes go, Medieval England: Towns, Commerce and Crafts 1086-1348 stretches the definition somewhat; today's undergraduates were still in nappies when Miller and Hatcher's first volume on English rural society was published in 1978. Still, this second instalment is likely to become the standard textbook on the economics of the period for this generation of undergraduates, as well as providing a valuable overview for academics and the general reader alike.
The authors take as their subject the "non-agrarian elements in England's economy and society between the Conquest and the Black Death". Their general argument is that developments in industry, internal and overseas trade and urban life enabled and prompted the threefold increase in the English population over the period, or at least until the end of the 13th century. Each of these sectors is discussed in its own chapter and the argument is sustained by reference to primary and secondary sources; the fact that all of the primary sources used are printed versions means that they can easily be followed up where desired.
There are, however, a couple of minor problems which relate to the book's usefulness as a textbook. For some reason, where paragraphs are split across two pages, their footnotes sometimes appear on the page preceding the actual note in the text, rather than at the foot of the page itself. Also, the authors are fond of using phrases like "not untypical", "not excessively wide", "not absent" and even "not basically dissimilar"; surely, for the sake of clarity, the use of these phrases' positive equivalents would not be unhelpful (see what I mean?). All in all though, this book offers an excellent survey of the historical work on the English economy between the post-Conquest and pre-plague periods.
Chris Humphrey is a DPhil student at the centre for medieval studies, University of York.
Pleasures and Pastimes In Medieval England
Author - Compton Reeves
ISBN - 0 7509 0089 X
Publisher - Alan Sutton
Price - £19.99
Pages - 228