Selling the Middle Ages to the public ought not, on the face of it, to be difficult: the National Trust, English Heritage, and thousands of churches do it every day and every summer. Indeed, the first issue of Medieval Life opens self-consciously with a discussion of the legitimacy of restoring medieval interiors, the alternative being to leave them scrupulously as ruins (or, more accurately, to regard as sacrosanct the accumulated vandalism, restoration and graffiti of subsequent centuries). Since visitors increasingly expect furniture and decor to be provided more materially than in the imagination, it may as well be done by experts, rather than by designers. By the same token, it ought to be possible to interest armchair tourists in the history and texts and images of the period whose buildings they so often frequent, without compromising academic integrity. Medieval Life set out two years ago to be such a showcase, and it is now backed by the interdisciplinary Centre for Medieval Studies at York.
Getting the formula right in a visitor centre, however, is a different challenge from a magazine, especially one run on a shoe-string yet with aspirations to replace the glossy and well-backed Medieval World, which failed after eight issues. It is not just a question of lavish illustration, although this is of crucial importance (Medieval Life's pictures are of good quality, but will need to continue to become more numerous if it is to appeal more widely). Some of the most successful articles focus on an object, text or image whose beauty and interest draw the reader in. This is then contextualised, leading the reader on and out into its world. George Beech's examination of the Eleanor vase is a perfect example: a beautiful object with a problem (in its inscription), different approaches available for investigation - artistic (glass production and trade in West and East), linguistic (the transliteration of Arabic names into Latin) and political (Christians and Moors in reconquista Spain) - leading to a neat and satisfying solution. By the time one has traced the vase back from Suger's St Denis, through Louis VII, Eleanor of Aquitaine and her grandfather Duke William IX, to Imad al-Dawla, ruler of Saragossa, one has the sense of having learnt much.
Other approaches are successful, too, in presenting original material vividly and accessibly. A good story never goes amiss, as the chequered amorous career of Joan of Kent shows, especially in a neat juxtaposition with the androgynous one of Joan of Arc. A traditional analysis of a problem can be equally lively, such as the defence of Philip Augustus's military reputation, or a proposed solution to the problem of the distended belly in the medieval image of female beauty. There is plenty of variety - of material and theoretical approach, of chronology and geography. The latest issue of the five to date takes a new "thematic" turn in focusing on women, without leaving the reader feeling any narrowing of range (helped by an additional report on excavations of the Anglo-Saxon and Norman dock at Bull Wharf).
Medieval Life in its early stages has provided a forum for the early fruits of research students' work, which one hopes will continue to be a strong feature, especially when they are well written for this genre: increasingly sure journalistic judgement is informing the selection of articles. Nevertheless, one hopes that more established scholars will contribute in larger numbers. John McGuckin in reflecting on Byzantine monasticism not only offers broad scholarship, but also feels able to suggest how his reflections might affect us and our view of humanity and society: we seem to have lost the ability to listen, at the centres of social and political power, to those whose societal experience is at the margin. A "popular" magazine might have a particular role in displaying not only the ruined remains of the medieval world but also their potential for restoration in and interaction with our own.
Benjamin Thompson is fellow and tutor in medieval history, Somerville College, Oxford.
Medieval Life (four times a year)
Editor - C. J. R. Pickles
ISBN - ISSN 1357 6291
Publisher - Centre for Medieval Studies, University of York
Price - £2.25 per issue
Pages - -