Friday, October 16, 2015

Blog Tour Interview: "The Middle Ages Unlocked"

I interviewed the authors of The Middle Ages Unlocked: A Guide to Life in Medieval England, 1050–1300 (Amberley Publishing, 2015), Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania, as part of their U.S. blog tour. One of the things about the book that intrigued me was the two disciplines of history and archaeology (thus question #4) working together:

1. For many years, under the influence of the Enlightenment philosophers and historians, people thought of the Middle Ages as the “Dark Ages”. Does your history offer a key to unlock this view of the Medieval era?

Since the Renaissance, the Middle Ages has been considered the time in between Classical history and the Renaissance. The Renaissance self-defined as rebirth, and tried to distance itself from the time before, calling them the Dark Ages. These days, the time between the fall of Rome and early modern times tends to be described differently. Our book shows one section of the Middle Ages, the time from 1050 to around 1300, in their variety, and it quickly becomes clear that the Middle Ages were not Dark Ages at all. They were neither all dirty, nor all poor, nor all cold and dark and dreary.

2. With the celebration of the Magna Carta this year, did you highlight the issues of freedom and rights in your history?

Our book was a long-term project. We were delighted that it was released in the year of the Magna Carta anniversary (the UK release was actually on the very day!) but we had not planned for it. Freedom and rights are explained in our history as part of legal systems and religion. The Magna Carta is, of course, mentioned, but we did not focus on the Magna Carta specifically: it was far more of a political event than a fundamental shift in rights. We explain structures and society – our book does not replace political histories, but helps to understand them and to put political events into a wider context.

3. Do you consider this book a resource for research or a book to be read straight through—or both?

Both! We worked hard to make it pleasant to read through, and to find a good, logical structure for the individual chapters that lets them flow into each other. The individual chapters are stand-alone enough to provide information on a specific topic, and the corresponding recommendations for further reading are helpful in getting started on further, deeper research.

4. Please discuss how the disciplines of history and archaeology work together (or against each other) in helping us understand the past.

This is a very good question! History and archaeology tend to focus on different aspects and look at things differently even if the research topic is the same. Historians and archaeologists thus have to figure out what the other discipline is looking at, how they pose their questions and what they focus on, which means good communication is absolutely essential for working together successfully. If this does work, blending historical and archaeological work is helpful for getting a bigger, wider picture, and for avoiding misinterpretations due to gaps in our respective sources. For instance, an archaeologist will know more about the materials and techniques used in a workshop, and that knowledge can help the historian to better understand why a workshop was worth a certain amount of money, or why getting a specific resource from abroad could have been important for the craftsperson. Our respective disciplines can work dynamically together, giving important insights and helping us, as modern people, to better understand the Middle Ages.

5. In both your introduction and the foreword by Elizabeth Chadwick, the importance of religion in the Middle Ages is stressed. How can secular readers appreciate the role of religion in Medieval England when they don’t share the worldview that “God is Everywhere”?

Most modern people have a different take on religion to that of a medieval person. Medieval piety was very much a part of daily life. However, that does not mean that somebody needs to be pious, or religious at all, to read and learn about the Middle Ages. Appreciation of how important something is, and how that something works, is fortunately not closely tied to actually believing, using, or having that something. People can learn how a car works, and appreciate how important a car is to our modern society, without having or using one themselves – there is no reason why an atheist should not be able to understand and appreciate how religion permeated medieval society, and how important it was for both government and private life.

6. And to follow up on that question, do you think it is necessary for us to appreciate the role of religion in that era to understand the Middle Ages? If we don't what are the consequences?

Yes, it is absolutely key to take the importance of religion in the Middle Ages into account when we try to understand the era. When its role is underestimated, or when religion is ignored, many things are hard to understand or make no sense to us. On the other hand, it is also very important not to overestimate religion, or to believe that every priest taught their congregation the same things. There was a great deal of variation in religious belief and practice, and churches were not only places for worship, but also social spaces used in many different ways.

7. Aside from primary or contemporary sources, what historians most influenced your overall view of the Middle Ages?

The wonderful thing about working on an overview is that it allowed us to form our own views of the Middle Ages. Of course there are prominent names for research in specific topics, but we have never relied on just one single view or just one single book. Writing an overview also means that many topics are touched from different directions, and it automatically results in a re-evaluation of the current view. Our coming from different academic disciplines added another level to this. So there is no single historian (or archaeologist) that we can name here, and we are happy that this is the case.

8. Are the details about daily life applicable only to England in this era, or would we expect to find similarities with life on the Continent at that time?

Some details are, and some are very different from life on the continent. There is a signifiacnt amount of overlap between English life and life in western France, including the Old French spoken in these areas. It is hard to extrapolate beyond that – not only because we have not researched in detail how similar or how different daily life may have been, but also because this can vary from place to place and from example to example. A spindle stick would look about the same in England, Finland and Germany, but shoes might have looked very different. To really say something about this, however, we need to have enough sources giving us information in sufficient detail, which is not always available. There are several more books’ worth that could be written about similarities and differences between England and France alone!

9. Elizabeth Chadwick highlighted a detail that would add verisimilitude to her next novel set in medieval England. Do you think of this book as a resource for writers? Who else should read this book?

The book was originally intended to help writers understand and use medieval England, so we are happy that writers like Elizabeth find it useful. People who need world-building skills for fantasy or science-fiction novels or other applications such as role-playing might also profit from reading the book, as it shows how many different aspects interconnect and influence each other. The book will also help the general public to get a basic understanding of the era, which will make it easier to find out more on individual aspects, and to put those into context – so basically everyone interested in the Middle Ages might want to read our book!

10. With the cutoff date of 1300 in the subtitle, are you suggesting that life in England was different in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries? Did things start to change?

The fourteenth century was an appalling time. War, plague, famine: it had the lot. Cultural change didn't happen overnight, but it did happen. The period before the fourteenth century set up social structures, legal and political systems that shaped even today’s England, however the amount and nature of the changes that happened in the fourteenth century would have required The Middle Ages Unlocked to be a much longer book if we had included it. Material culture also changed a great deal after the thirteenth century. All these reasons together made it easy for us to decide when to stop with our history.

According to the publisher:

To our modern minds, the Middle Ages seem to mix the well-known and familiar with wildly alien concepts and circumstances. The Middle Ages Unlocked provides an invaluable introduction to this complex and dynamic period in England. Exploring a wide range of topics from law, religion and education to landscape, art and magic, between the eleventh and early fourteenth centuries, the structures, institutions and circumstances that formed the basis for daily life and society are revealed. Drawing on their expertise in history and archaeology, Dr Gillian Polack and Dr Katrin Kania look at the tangible aspects of daily life – ranging from the raw materials used for crafts, clothing and jewellery to housing and food – in order to bring the Middle Ages to life. The Middle Ages Unlocked dispels modern assumptions about this period to uncover the complex tapestry of medieval England and the people who lived there.

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