A Day in a Medieval City by Chiara Frugoni
Trans. by William McCuaig
2005. 224pages. Hardcover.
In a nutshell:
In this short scholarly work, Frugoni paints a picture of life in a medieval city. She extensively uses medieval literature, art and other primary source material to support the text and to show details. There are many illustrations contained in the book.
I’ll be upfront and say that I skimmed parts of this book. I did this partly because of an impending library due date. However, sometimes Frugoni would go off on a detail or a medieval tale that did not interest me and I skated over those parts. It’s an academic work, so it was easy to slip into the information gleaning habits from my college years while reading it.
There are a lot of fascinating tidbits to glean. Medieval townspeople were constantly in each other’s lives, borrowing fire and water, exchanging gossip at the well, at benches outside their door and in the narrow streets. Medieval city-dwellers often built their kitchen on the top floor so that if a fire started, it would not be so devastating.
Medieval doctors operated mostly by examining the patient’s urine in a glass container made for that purpose. You can spot them in medieval illustrations because they hold this signature container. Obviously these doctors were usually quacks and so it was sometimes professional envy that stoked witchcraft accusations against the more effective midwives.
The book talks at some length about medieval people’s religious worldview. I thought perhaps Frugoni could have gone into less depths about this worldview and said more about how their daily lives were directed by the worldview.
The illustrations are definitely the book’s greatest asset. I’m guessing that some of these illustrations would be hard to see published anywhere, not to mention published with helpful commentary.
A number of these pictures consist of stories told in panels. One such story is of a gambling woman who, piqued at a betting loss, throws a stone at a statue of the Virgin Mary. As the shocked bystanders watch, an angel statue to the left of Mary blocks the stone’s trajectory. For her blasphemy, the people burn the woman and the last panel shows them looking at the fire in great satisfaction.
Certainly the book makes me glad to live in the 21st century.
My favorite illustration is that of medieval townspeople engaged in a snowball fight. For all that their ways were strange to me, seeing them at play in the snow was a fun moment of connection to the past.