The Axe and the Oath: Ordinary Life in the Middle Ages

Despite the awkward translation, Helen Castor is moved by an absorbing study of medieval life

October 28, 2010

To start with, I must admit, I was sceptical. This is a sweeping overview of the life of the "little people" of medieval Europe, a text full of philosophical postulations and abstractions under a portentous title (in English, at least), the significance of which is no clearer to me now that I've read the book than it was before I started.

But Robert Fossier's title in the original French - Ces gens du Moyen Age - is much more direct than The Axe and the Oath. In fact, it is untranslatably straight-forward in its ability to suggest the humdrum salt-of-the-earthness of these "medieval folk", while simultaneously bridging the gap between past and present (since, where we have to choose between the proximity of "These Medieval Folk" and the distance of "Those Medieval Folk", "Ces gens" collapses both meanings in one). The niggling sense that something is being lost in translation is compounded here, as the book progresses, by a doggedly literal rendering of Fossier's text that translates "alimentation", "grippe" and "indocile" as "alimentation", "grippe" and "indocile", rather than "diet", "flu" and "unruly".

All in all, by the time I was 200 pages into the book, I expected to be losing patience. Instead, I found myself increasingly moved. This is a wonderful book - the product of a lifetime's immersion in the documents and artefacts that survive from the 1,000 years that we call the "Middle Ages".

First published in France in 2007, Robert Fossier's 80th year, it is an idiosyncratic and deeply personal meditation on the human condition, in which Fossier sees continuities rather than discontinuities, so that "in spite of the convictions brandished by almost all medieval historians," he says, "I am persuaded that medieval man is us".

This is not a textbook, still less a jolly survey of the quirks of medieval life. Fossier seeks to describe how medieval people experienced their world, his viewpoint sometimes soaring, eagle-eyed, across panoramic vistas of settlements, forests and seas, sometimes inhabiting the interior psychological world of instinct, emotion and faith.

Sometimes he is ruminative - and here the infelicities of an unidiomatic translation give this English text a French inflexion and archaic quality that add an accidental resonance to the particularities of Fossier's vision. ("As with nautical sports and oceanic competitions today, people of those centuries saw the sea as fully charged with marvellous and dreamlike qualities.")

At other times, he is razor-sharp - as, for example, when he points out tartly how little we take note of the fact that the chronological gulf between the "medieval" thinkers Gregory of Tours and Thomas Aquinas is as large as that between Aquinas and Jean-Paul Sartre.

His approach is grounded in the lived experience of the people he seeks to describe, something that leads him to sweep aside historical or technical constructs such as "feudalism" or "serfdom" as meaningless distractions: "standing with a pitchfork in hand or as mixed bones in the cemetery, workers, free or not, were identical".

Yet one of the distinctive features of this thought-provoking evocation of humanity's past is the absence of individual lives. Fossier's deep knowledge of the medieval world is here distilled into generalities and universals, untrammelled by the citation of specific examples. And that descriptive purity raises his final question: for whom, he wonders, is he writing? Is the book too "simplistic for the erudite, confusing for the student, obscure for the non-initiate?"

In the end, Fossier concludes, "I felt like saying all this, and that is enough." More than enough, when a book as absorbing and challenging as this is the result.

The Axe and the Oath: Ordinary Life in the Middle Ages

By Robert Fossier

Princeton University Press 400pp, £24.95

ISBN 9780691143125

Published 15 September 2010

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