The late Middle Ages are a challenging period to survey and synthesise. Any attempt to summarise their complexity, chaos, and dynamism within a restricted publisher’s word limit and at the same time provide an effective textbook for undergraduates is fraught with issues of coverage, comprehensiveness, and accessibility.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the history of the Jewish communities of 12th- and 13th-century England was a neglected subject in English historical studies. No longer.
When Pero Tafur visited Bruges in 1438 he had a keen eye for the material wealth of the town and the splendor in which its citizens seemed to indulge. In his famous travel diary he noted that ‘without doubt, the goddess of luxury has great power here, but it is not a place for poor men, who would be badly received here.
Religious solitaries were a feature of the English spiritual landscape ‘from the dawn of Christianity in England until the sixteenth century’ but, since Rotha Clay (who wrote those words) attempted her overarching survey almost a century ago, coverage of their history has been decidedly patchy.(1) It is less so now, thanks to Tom Licence’s important new book.
Nuremberg in the later Middle Ages was one of the most prominent cities in central Europe: a free Imperial city, the location of the imperial regalia and the place where Imperial Diets were held, it was also a wealthy centre of economic life, one of the largest cities in German-speaking Europe, and an important manufacturer of many industrial products, in particular weapons.
Michel Foucault famously described sodomy as an utterly confused category. The same could be said for marriage, especially during the Middle Ages, as the two studies under review demonstrate. Like sodomy, marriage is a category traversing several fields – law, culture, religion – that bites into people’s flesh.
David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition is an impressive scholarly accomplishment that matches a dauntingly large subject matter with a vast vault of personal knowledge. At 474 pages and 13 chapters covering more than 3000 years, it is thorough without being exhaustive.
Contemporary interest in the period of the Crusades has intensified in the last decade or so, partly because of the inflammatory invocations of holy war and jihad made immediately after the traumatic events of 9/11.
The Andalusian jurist Abū Bakr al-Ṭurṭūshī (d. 1126) was once asked whether or not it was permissible to eat cheese imported into Alexandria from the Christian territories along the northern coastline of the Mediterranean. The question clearly intrigued al-Ṭurṭūshī, since he went to considerable lengths to research the subject before issuing his final response.
This is an extremely ambitious, thought-provoking, challenging and inspiring book.