Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Book 8: The Axe and the Oath by Robert Fossier

Dubbed as a history of ordinary life in the Middle Ages, the Axe and the Oath is easily one of the most confounding history texts I've read in a long, long time. Fossier, a professor emeritus at the Sorbonne, seeks to cover daily life of the non-nobility over a stretch of 1000 years, working thematically instead of chronologically. This task is massive, and, judging from this book, impossible.

Fossier's book is translated from its original French, and I found myself contemplating the writing on a meta-level almost as much as I found myself paying attention to the information in the book. I have to imagine the book makes more sense in French - or, at the very least, Fossier's constant declarations, "I could say more..." come off with a different meaning in French than they do in English. As just an example from the last 100 pages, after I had the brilliant idea to start taking notes on these things:

  • On law: "As is my wont, I will no venture into a technical area that is among the most encumbered..."
  • On peace and honor: "...war (about which I shall have more to say) and the periodic effrois, or terrors (about which I will not)..."
  • On weights and measures: "I shall not pursue the question of the calculation errors that abound in medieval accounting..."
  • On universities: "So much ink and saliva [ew] has already been spent on this majestic medieval 'heritage' that I shall add only a few minor notes..."
  • On literature: "The best I can do is sweep out a corner or two."
  • On monuments: "I am not about to draw up interminable lists of monuments, or painted and sculpted works."
  • On art: "I have no intention of studying the evolution of all these works."
  • On human knowledge: "During the course of my narration, few surveys have left me as unsatisfied as this one."
  • On the Church: "I am supposing that my reader is not hoping here for a history of the Church."
Fossier ends with a three-page epilogue that he mentions is there only because epilogues are expected in an academic work. In this epilogue, he writes, "In truth, I am not quite sure whom I am addressing." It shows.

Moving away from the book, I've actually been looking forward to this book for a few years now. Back in October of 2013, my wife and I took her visiting mother up to the Cloisters. Despite living in the city since 2000, it was my first (and so far only) trip to the museum. For those of you who aren't from New York City, the Cloisters is a branch of the Metropolitan Museum that focuses on medieval art, and mimics in part a medieval castle. I saw the Axe and the Oath in the bookshop and marked it down for future reading.

On that trip to the Cloisters, the 40-part Motet was on display. I had seen it once before at MoMA, but at the Cloisters, it took on an entirely different meaning. The Motet is an installation piece, with 40 speakers set up in a circle; each speaker is an individual voice of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir singing a sixteenth-century chant/hymn. In the antiseptic environment of the MoMA, it is breathtaking. There is nothing else to consider except the human voices coming together in concert to create such a moving, beautiful piece.

In the Langon Chapel at the Cloisters, built in 12th-century style, it is transcendent. Better than anything I can imagine, it captured the feeling of living in the Middle Ages and the role of the Church in such a world. Outside, it was a dark, violent world. The woods were dark and mysterious. Nature was unexplained. Death could come at any moment. Inside, in the confines of a chapel, there was beauty. There was the harmony of God. Better than anything else, it explains the role that a Church (however exploitative it may have even been realized to be at the time) played in the lives of the people. 

1 comment:

Brent Waggoner said...

I have no idea if this would appeal to you, but a couple years ago I read a book, The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England, by Ian Mortimer, and it was a lot of fun and I learned quite a bit. I really enjoy that period of history and this book sounds... confusing?