Monday, January 11, 2010

Book of the week

Great reading! Mortimer's book is written as if for a modern-day person taking a visit to the 14th century. He reminds readers that we shouldn't judge things like cleanliness, good parenting, and animal cruelty by our present standards because the world has changed a great deal in the past 600 years and our own "enlightened" views may be found primitive or barbaric by future generations. His text is filled with interesting tidbits, including:

~ What must be the worst job in the world: gongfermor, or latrine pit cleaner.

~ Geoffrey Chaucer's take on the fairer sex: "What is better than wisdom? Woman. And what is better than a good woman? Nothing."

~ If you are accused of a felony, you can claim benefit of clergy, which simply means you are able to read. If you can prove your literacy by reading a passage from the Bible, you will be turned over to the church court, which may try you again but will most likely just let you go.

The author, a British historian, clearly gets that people, no doubt including many of his readers, have a sick interest in the Great Plague (the phrase "Black Death" isn't used until the 19th century). I admit that I'm one of those people, and he soberly chastises us :

"The deaths in 1348-49 are so numerous that the statistics are much easier to talk about than the individual tragedies. Looked at from the safe distance of the twenty-first century, one can see its beneficial effects -- how the Great Plague cauterizes feudalism, frees up capital, and allows society to develop in a more democratic way. But a visit to the time reminds you, with a sharp shock, of both the reality and the scale of the suffering. If anything, it proves the value of virtual history -- of understanding historical events as lived experiences, as opposed to impersonal facts. Imagine a disease were to wipe out 40 percent of the modern population of the UK -- more than 25 million people. Now imagine a historian in the future discussing the benefits of your death and the deaths of your partner, your children, and your friends . . . You would want to cry out, or hang your head in despair, that historians could blithely comment on the benefits of such suffering. There is no shadow of a doubt that every one of these people you see in 1348 -- whether they will die or survive -- deserves your compassion. When you see women dragging their parents' and children's corpses into ditches, weeping a screaming -- when you listen to a man who has buried all five of his sons with his own hands, and, in his distress, he tells you that there was no divine service when he did so, and that the death bell did not sound -- you know that these people have entered a chasm of grief beyond description."

1 comment:

kb said...

Oh, now this is totally my kind of book! Having toured the underground tunnels of Edinburgh at night and knowing that I was walking where plague victims lay sick and dying and the uncleanliness of how they were living was such a freaky thing to experience...yet just fascinating as well. Yep, I'm a little off, but proud of it! Thanks for sharing this one!