Jean Verdon: S’amuser au Moyen Âge

October 5, 2022

     It’s not a book I’d have chosen to buy, but when I bought a pile of French novels in Luxembourg earlier this year, the assistant said, ‘You get a free book!’ and presented me with a box to choose from… I had read one of Jean Verdon’s earlier books on travel in the Middle Ages and it was fascinating. This one I have to confess to skim-reading a good deal of, particularly the lengthy extracts from documents in mediaeval French.

Life was so different back then: so many religious feast days (and leftovers from earlier, pagan days, too, despite the best efforts of the church) when work just didn’t happen or was limited; of course this counterbalanced those times when you had to work every hour that God sent, but even so… and there were also restrictions in terms of the daylight available for anything productive. It was a time of lurching from feast to famine; so much of the empty time was spent on eating and drinking when that was possible, and hunting and fishing. Peasants had their own produce whereas townsfolk did not, but then they were at the mercy of the weather. There were innumerable taverns – a regulation was passed somewhere once saying there should be no more than one for every eight houses – and prostitution was rife.

Having made the simplistic judgement that things have always been pretty much the same, I then thought a bit more deeply: work as we understand it now was a rather different concept for most people. At one level it was a deeply integrated part of your life and the person you were, with no possible escape from that fate, but it didn’t tie you down in quite the same futile ways it perhaps does today, when you think about what is real work, and what are real necessities.

Equally, there were none of the static, time-wasting amusements that we ‘enjoy’ today; what people did was largely participatory and based on social interaction; the closest a peasant would have got to anything resembling today’s passively consumed entertainments was possibly a travelling mystery or morality play. These, incidentally, were far more sophisticated in terms of stagecraft and mechanics than I’d previously known. And there were processions, royal entrances, public executions.

I wouldn’t have liked to live back then, obviously; life was proverbially nasty, brutish and short, and I have greatly valued the intellectual stimulus of my studies and career. Nevertheless the value of a book like this lies in its ability to make one step back for a while and reflect on what is of real significance and value in our own lives and what is of no real value and serves someone else’s purposes…

Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: