Thursday, 12 May 2016


I don't think I could be called fashionable by any stretch of the imagination, but having new clothes is always a nice feeling - unless you let yourself think about suffering and exploitation which goes into so much clothing production and 'fast fashion' nowadays.  There are some lovely ethical brands (eg., but it's amazing that, on the whole, we are all so complacent about this issue.  Indifference and fashion go hand in hand - in many ways, apathy seems to be the prerequisite of fashion.

Dress by People Tree -

Tragedies in clothing production occur on a fairly regular basis (eg. the Rana Plaza disaster), quite apart from the daily misery of conditions in many factories - but fast fashion only needs to nod vaguely towards their responsibilities and most people seem to be satisfied.

I'm reading a lot of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century sermons at the moment (this is for my project on nostalgia in the fourteenth century).  It isn't a huge surprise to find the preachers  fulminating against contemporary fashions, revealing necklines, fancy jewellery and so on (usually with a good dose of misogyny thrown in) - in their view, the growing obsession with finery and fashion seemed to embody pride and avarice.  But I was a little more surprised to find their critique also turning to the implications of the production of this clothing.

The early fifteenth-century preacher, San Bernardino of Siena passionately told the crowd, 'were you to take one of these gowns and press it and wring it out, you would see, gushing out of it, a human being's blood.'

Most of San Bernardino's fiery rhetoric would do us little good today - quite the opposite - but on this issue, his combining of anger and compassion might stir us in the right direction.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Prudence inquired, "Have I done too much?" and enthusiasm or compassion, "Might I not, perhaps, have done more?

I'm reading the autobiography of Iris Origo at the moment.  She was a fascinating woman, born in 1902 to an aristocratic Anglo-Irish mother, and a father from the mind-bogglingly wealthy New York Cutting family.  After the death of her father from tuberculosis, she was brought up by her mother in the Florentine Villa Fiesole.  She married an Italian aristocrat, Antonio Origo, and they bought a vast estate near Siena, called La Foce, which they restored with gardens designed by Cecil Pinsent.

Iris Origo: source

During World War II, Iris and her family sheltered refugees on their estate, and she established a model farm, model school and hospital at La Foce for the tenant farmers.

La Foce: source,

Iris Origo was also a rather interesting historian.  She wrote several biographies and works of history, and I came across her first because of an article in Speculum 1955 entitled 'The Domestic Enemy: The Eastern Slaves in Tuscany in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries'.  It's a very stimulating article, amassing a good deal of archival material about late medieval slavery, and showing how owners both exploited, and were terribly afraid of, their slaves.  She is perhaps most famous for her book, The Merchant of Prato, about Francesco Datini, a fourteenth-century merchant who left the most extraordinary archive of around 153 000 documents.

I'm enjoying getting to know the woman, as far as one can, through her autobiography - and learning about her extraordinarily privileged, and rich (in every sense) life.  Some of her comments are very much of her time, some of them appal me slightly, and some resonate in such a way that I would just love to have met her.

In her personal diary, she wrote that the challenge of life:

'arose from a continual necessity to weigh in the balance not courage and cowardice, or right and wrong, but conflicting duties and responsibilities equally urgent.... At the end of each day prudence inquired, "Have I done too much?" and enthusiasm or compassion, "Might I not, perhaps, have done more?"'

Thursday, 31 December 2015


This is the depiction of the giving of New Year gifts, for the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. It's a jolly image, but one which seems to me fraught with tension and competition.  The manuscript was famously illuminated by the Limbourg brothers.  In 1411, the brothers presented the Duke with a New Year gift themselves: 'un livre contrefait d'une pièce de bois en semblance d'un livre, où il n'a nuls feuillets ne rien escript' ('a piece of wood made to look like a book, with no pages, and nothing written in it').  It was lavishly decorated and made to look quite splendid. I wish you all the jokiness of the Limbourgs, and none of the tension of the Dukes.

source: wikipedia

Tuesday, 29 December 2015


I'm sorry that I'm a bit late wishing a very happy Christmas to anyone who is nice enough to read my blog!

We're in Germany for Christmas.  My son has had a wonderful time learning to skate on a rink outside the Cathedral in Wetzlar.

I took him inside the Cathedral to have a look at the nativity scene. I assumed that it would be reassuringly cute.  It wasn't.  Bits of rubbish were strewn around it, some filthy baby clothes, and a dirty nappy.  The dirty nappy really was taking it a bit far - it was properly disgusting.  There was no explanation, but I guess it was supposed to resemble a refugee camp (there was also barbed wire, and a Red Cross sign).  On reflection, I still think it was unnecessarily revolting, but it did at least give us a jolt.

It was in stark contrast with the smooth Christmassy-ness of David Cameron's Christmas message. He nodded to our Christmas duty to remember the poor with his comment that 'Throughout the United Kingdom, some will spend the festive period ill, homeless or alone,' and he thanked those who try to help these vulnerable groups.  It was a comment dangerously close, I thought, to thirteenth- and fourteenth-century attitudes to the poor and homeless.  Miracle collections and devotional texts of the period make it clear that the poor are to be pitied, and valued - not on their own terms, but for two quite other reasons: they provide a reminder of Christ's suffering, and they provide an opportunity for Christian charity.  In other words, they're useful because they make everyone else slightly better Christians - there's no need to try to improve their condition, because they fulfil a crucial function.  The welfare state gives us now a radically different vision from this - but there's always a lingering sense that inequality doesn't matter too much, so long as we all remember the less fortunate at appropriate moments and get a nice glow of self-righteous virtue as a result.

Maybe I'm being too harsh on Cameron and his vision of 'Christian Britain' - his goverment hasn't entirely destroyed the welfare state after all.  But I think his comments about the less privileged are just too comfortable: it's not enough to say that we should all thank those who work for charities, and assume that we'll say the same every year for the next century.  Christmas is a time for warmth and celebrations, but it would be good to think that it could also be a time to shock us into something more.

Saturday, 5 December 2015


An animal rather popular in medieval bestiaries, which repelled its enemies by farting fiery fumes of excrement.  This image is from Douai, Bibliotheque municipale, ms. 711, fol 8r, source here:

The day before yesterday, David Cameron resorted to some strong rhetoric to get his point across:

'These women-raping, Muslim-murdering, medieval monsters, they are hijacking the peaceful religion of Islam for their warped ends.'

Whether or not Cameron's plan amounts to a 'bomb now, ask questions later' approach, his point in this particular statement is incontrovertible.  The horror of Isis’ actions reaches beyond words.

But, perhaps predictably, I take issue with the 'medieval monsters' bit.  On one level, this is because attitudes to violence were so much more complex than this in the Middle Ages.  But that isn't my main objection - after all, when people use the term 'medieval' in this way, they're not trying to be academically accurate, but polemically effective, and that's fair enough.

What I object to is the way that the word 'medieval' recasts a chronological framework in spatial terms.  In other words, Cameron (and so many others who use the word to demonise their enemies), is re-plotting the chronological progress of the past 1000 years on a geographical map.  We in the west are apparently modern and civilised - and those who haven't followed our particular trajectory aren't.  And deploying the 'medieval' card surely only plays into the hands of Isis propagandists intent on describing the 'crusaders' of the west.  Acknowledging that even Isis is a part of our complex, messy, often horrific and deeply problematic modernity is surely critical to any honest or lasting solution

Friday, 4 December 2015


I should possibly have included more of the wiser of the Old French proverbs, but I think that the filthier ones, whilst amusing, also point to an important element of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century life.  The kinds of distinctions we expect to find between different registers of speech, and the judgments we make about what is appropriate in particular contexts - worked very differently.

The Wheel of Fortune, from Boccaccio's De Casibus Virorum Illustrium. Source: wikipedia.

To finish, here's a flavour of the kinds of proverbs I picked out which capture something of what I'm looking for in the idea of nostalgia.    My argument (in the as yet unwritten book) is that cataclysmic social, economic and demographic change in the fourteenth century often provoked contemporary responses in 'nostalgic mode' - one way of coming to terms with one's life being turned upside down, and a way of trying to get to grips with the future, was to refer to 'the good old days'.  This kind of nostalgia is rooted in a particular historical moment.  What's interesting about proverbs is that they embody a much more timeless kind of nostalgia - the almost universal human propensity to say that 'Things ain't what they used to be'.  Part of the goal of my project will be to think about how these two types of nostalgia relate to each other, and play off each other: the one kind, rooted in particular circumstances, the other kind a timeless whinge.


(One praises the day only in the evening)


(You only know it's been a good day when evening comes)


( The old ways are the best)

Some proverbs seemed to acknowledge that these kinds of attitudes were problematic:


(It's not a good idea to keep old baskets when the grape harvest is over)

There are loads on the theme of transience, surely a related idea...:


(Female beauty doesn't last long) - typical misogynism, and remarkably enduring.


(Nothing is stable, beneath the heavens)

The idea of transience could be more historically rooted: commerical expansion led to greater anxiety about the wheel of fortune - one might become very rich, and then, just as quickly, lose it all:


(He who rises really high, will never be secure).

And lest all this sounds too sensible:


(He who has straw in his bum, is always afraid that it might catch fire).

Thursday, 3 December 2015


One of the intriguing things about these proverbs is when they reveal tensions with what we know of established norms in society (whether legal or religious), and, in extreme cases, where they reveal tensions between themselves.  It's so tempting when we study the past to simplify things, but the complexities of some of these proverbs show people to have worried and contradicted themselves when thinking about problematic issues like violence.  Here are a couple of strikingly different proverbs:


(You need to take a step backwards to give a better punch)

source: wikipedia


(One should patiently suffer what cannot be peacefully put right)