The Secret Middle Ages: Discovering the Real Medieval World

Malcolm Jones

Sutton Publishing, 2002, ISBN 0-7509-2685-6

The Secret Middle Ages is a survey of the neglected arts and crafts of the medieval period (roughly 1100 to 1600) in Britain and continental Europe including France, the Low Countries and Germany. The author comments that most studies of medieval art present only a partial picture, confined to religious art and the precious objects owned by the elite. His survey, by contrast, sets out to explore what he calls the "other half" of medieval art, the everyday objects accessible to the bulk of the population - biscuit moulds, furniture, cheap lead jewellery, personal seals, floor tiles, woodcuts in books that illustrate contemporary stories and sayings, and decorative carvings in churches such as misericords and carved capitals.

The book begins by discussing an inventory of 40 biscuit moulds owned by a wealthy businessman in Frankfurt in 1521. Pictorial biscuits were given as seasonal presents, a sort of edible greetings card. Three-quarters of the moulds depict scenes that are non-religious, and about half are concerned with love in its courtly or erotic manifestations. So much for the popular view of the Middle Ages as a repressed society obsessed with religion!

Chapters on various themes follow. Popular religion covers lucky charms, talismans and souvenirs from saints' shrines, official, unofficial and frankly absurd (who could resist St Uncumber, a bearded lady whose job it was to relieve women of their undesired husbands?). A survey of animals and their symbolism includes dogs, cats (including the association between cats and witches), exotic creatures such as baboons, and the small furry animals such as bunny rabbits, mice and squirrels that were often used as lovers' pet names. Representations of monstrosity and folly deal with creatures such as Wild Men, mermaids, donkey-headed fools and races of people with tails, and a chapter on insult and humiliation reveals a startling range of insults and ingenious punishments. Being pushed off to hell in a wheelbarrow seems to have been a particular favourite on lively church wood carvings; the author doesn't mention it, but I wonder if that image is related to the phrase, "going to hell in a handcart"?

A survey of proverbs and proverbial follies, such as shoeing a goose, driving a snail with a whip, sawing through the branch you're sitting on, throwing the baby out with the bathwater, carrying daylight (or soup) in baskets reveals the surprising antiquity of some of the phrases and figures of speech that are still in common use today. The 'Irish joke' (What's black and hangs from the ceiling? An Irish electrician) turns out to have a long provenance, except that in the Middle Ages it was applied to the inhabitants of Norfolk (UK) or fictional villages such as Gotham (UK) or Schilda (Germany).

The World Turned Upside Down was a popular motif in medieval art and literature, including flying pigs, hares that hunt and cook the huntsmen, animals playing musical instruments, and the reversal of gender roles (the woman wearing the trousers, the man spinning with a distaff). Many of the conventions of romantic love in use in the medieval period are still in use today, such as the heart symbol and the giving and receiving of love tokens such as flowers or trinkets. Two chapters on sexual and scatological imagery round off the book.

The Secret Middle Ages is a cornucopia of vivid, fascinating, humorous and frequently surprising insights into the rich and varied world of ordinary life in the Middle Ages. In some ways this world is very different from ours, for example, its evident misogyny is unattractive to modern ideas. In others, such as the conventions of romantic love and the many proverbs and phrases that are still in use today, it is very recognisable. The everyday objects surveyed in this eclectic book do more than much High Art to bring the Middle Ages to life - for example, the cheap little lead brooch in the shape of a violet with a romantic caption that was perhaps bought at a fair or from a pedlar by some village boy as a love-present for his girl.

The writing style is witty and engaging. In his preface, the author observes that he has, "…managed to forget my scholarly pretensions sufficiently often to seem like a person interested in what he is writing about". As a result the book is a pleasure to read from beginning to end, as well as to dip into. Almost every page will raise a smile, or (unless you are already an expert) tell you something you didn't know. An invaluable resource for anyone trying to, in the author's words, "…get to grips with the puzzles and contradictions of an era that is both so like and so unlike our own."

Entertaining, erudite and eclectic survey of the everyday arts and crafts of the Middle Ages.