This week’s look at five books about the Middle Ages
By Wendy A. Stein
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The intensely expressive art of the Middle Ages was created to awe, educate and connect the viewer to heaven. Its power reverberates to this day, even among the secular. But experiencing the full meaning and purpose of medieval art requires an understanding of its narrative content.
Excerpt: Most of the art of the period served that powerful purpose. None of it was made “for art’s sake,” not even the secular art. Every work had a function, not just containers and vessels and objects with a specific use in liturgy or other ceremonial context, but each painting and carving. An object depicting a sacred scene had an active role in religious practice. It had many purposes: to recall to the viewer the larger story; to provide the believer with guidance; to embody and exalt that which is holy; to link the past with the present; to connect the worshipper to heaven. The powerful function of art, moreover, did not only inhere in the object; it also depended upon the direct involvement of the viewer. The intense gaze of an icon or reliquary head was returned by the worshipper’s passionate contemplation. This art was made in expectation of a profound relationship between the object and the observer.
By Peter Jackson
Yale University Press
Excerpt: This book sets out to explore two questions. First, it investigates the impact on the Islamic world (Dar al-Islam) of the campaigns of conquest by the armies of Temujin, better known as Chinggis Khan (d.1227), and his three successors, under whom the empire of the Mongols (or Tatars, as they were often termed) came to embrace all the Muslim territories east of Syria and the Byzantine Greek oecumene. And second it examines the character of Mongol rule over Muslims down to, and just beyond, the conversion of various khans to Islam, and the longer-term legacy of subjection to the infidel.
By Stephen Turnbull
From lowly attendants (samurai literally means ‘those who serve’) to members one of the world’s most powerful military organisations, the samurai underwent a progression of changes to reach a preeminent position in Japanese society and culture. Even their eventual eclipse did not diminish their image as elite warriors, and they would live on in stories and films.
This proud and enduring tradition is exemplified and explored by the carefully selected objects gathered here from Japanese locations and from museums around the world. These objects tell the story of the samurai from acting as the frontier guards for the early emperors to being the inspiration for the kamikaze pilots.
The artefacts, many of which are seen here for the first time, include castles, memorial statues, paintings and prints associated with the rise of the samurai along with their famous armour and weapons. The latter include the Japanese longbow, a thirteenth century bomb and the famous samurai sword, but not every artefact here is from the past. In a Japanese souvenir shop was found a cute little blue duck dressed as a samurai complete with helmet, spear and surcoat, dressed authentically as the brutal samurai Kato Kiyomasa, who was responsible for a massacre at Hondo castle in 1589!
Edited by Ian W. Doyle and Bernard Brownie
Four Courts Press
This volume explores the medieval period in County Wexford, in southeast Ireland, as seen through history, archaeology, language, settlement and landscape. These essays acknowledge the interests and writings of the late Dr Billy Colfer as well as the esteem in which he was held by a wide number of colleagues. Billy has left a deep mark on County Wexford history through his numerous publications and he also inspired a large number of students through his encouragement and generosity with knowledge.
There are 23 articles in this book, including “The abbey and cathedral of Ferns, 1111–1253, ” by Tadhg O’Keeffe and Rhiannon Carey Bates; “Pirates, slaves and shipwrecks: cultural evidence above and below the water in the southeast,’ by Connie Kelleher; “Medieval rabbit farming and Bannow Island,” by Paul Murphy; and “The barony of Forth and the practice of history,” by Edward Culleton
Edited by Graham A. Loud and Martial Staub
York Medieval Press
Twelve essays that examine medieval history has developed to the present time, including “Why Re-Inventing Medieval History is a Good Idea,” by Janet L Nelson and “Distance and Difference: Medieval Inquisition as American History,” by Christine Ames.
Excerpt: The intention behind this project was to examine, and initiate further discussion about, how the writing and study of medieval history over the last two centuries has developed and been conditioned by its environment. Far from being a neutral, or bloodless, activity, the history written about this distant period has always reflected the pre-occupations of the societies in which it was engendered. In addition, we sought to make our range as international as possible, to bring some of the preoccupations of Continental (and it two essays North American) medievalists to the attention of the Anglophone audience which would not necessarily be familiar with them. As historians we need to reflect, perhaps rather more than we normally do, about how and why we study history, as well as to show that the history of the Middle Ages has a real contemporary relevance.