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Medieval Reads: Van Loon’s Lives by Hendrik Van Loon

By Gillian Polack

Some books don’t travel as well in time as others. A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court is a romp through time on many levels. Van Loon’s Lives, one of the classics of my childhood, is less so.

Van Loon’s Lives was published during World War II and is educational fiction. I’ve often wondered if it was written in the way it was to show people that one can lead a complex inner life in a time of great constraint. The author, Hendrik van Loon, was a Dutch American writer, and at the time his book was published (in the United Kingdom) the Netherlands was occupied by the Germans. His dedication is telling.

It’s a very simple construct, and an old one. Each chapter is a dinner party (not always successful) between Van Loon himself and various famous (dead) people. They come to dinner at his home in the 1930s. My personal label for it is this-is-fantasy-fiction-but-it’s-acting-as-fact. Or I could call it a novel about dinner parties with dead people.

The choice of the great people Van Loon and his best friend dine with shows what kind of cultural environment he lived in, and how he saw history. These two things are very closely related. Peter the Great, of course, dines with Voltaire. Plato and Confucius meet. The balance of the guests relates strongly to popular perceptions of history both in the Netherlands and in the United States. The biggest reminder it gives me, every time I open it, is that the Middle Ages was a sandwiched period for Van Loon and may like him. Classical history and Early Christian and everything Reformation and Enlightenment were of far more interest than the Middle Ages.

The first edition of Van Loon’s Lives

I suspect this view of the Middle Ages – which dates right back to the time when the term “the Middle Ages” was invented – is still particularly important for the Great Men and Great Works of History. When people make lists of things that are historically important, some periods will take precedence. This doesn’t mean the Middle Ages doesn’t appear on lists of Great Men and Great Events – it means it is small compared with other periods’ presence. The Early Middle Ages (what used to be thought of as the Dark Ages) is almost invisible on such lists.

The reason I have a copy is that, of all the novels I read, this most pushed me into food history when I was a child. I enjoyed the book as a whole, but I kept returning to the food in it and wondered how Van Loon knew what people ate.

The answer is that he didn’t. The food is a connector in this volume in much the same way as some views of European history see the Middle Ages as a connector between Classical and Renaissance history. Van Loon uses his own nostalgia for the Netherlands as a way into that connection. He begins Chapter Eleven (“St Francis, Hans Andersen, and Mozart Come, but They do Not Come Alone” – which would be an excellent title for a horror story) for instance, with a regular textbook history introduction to the three figures. Van Loon tells us who they were, when they lived, why they were important and maybe a cute factoid about their lives. This writing method explains why Van Loon doesn’t question standard periodisation of the 1940s and why the Middle Ages is not of equal importance to, say, the Reformation in the period. The focal point of each description is on making children aware of why that person was so important, so Francis’ preaching gets a whole paragraph and the everyday culture of his life (what food he ate, what roads he walked) is of lesser importance. Like a newspaper article or an encyclopaedia article, the introduction is measured by the historical argument for Francis’ importance and that is the stuff on which it focuses.

Many pages on, Van Lon turns to his preparation for the dinner party. He began with music, and playing the works of Mozart to Mozart.

The food? Where biographies told him that a person loved a food, he included it. Ice cream was included for Mozart as the first item of food listed. His only real thought about the food Francis might have eaten as that Francis made the choice to go hungry, that is, he was not overly concerned with food. A recipe Thomas Jefferson had given someone for spoon bread would be perfect, given this. This is an interesting choice. Spoon bread is a bread so soft it was eaten with a spoon, and it was very much a North American type of bread and is, in fact, a variety of corn bread. It would have been very exotic to Francis, for maize was not introduced into Europe until centuries after his death.

Photo of Hendrik Willem van Loon from 1922

I always stumble on suggestions like this. How is that recipe of spoon bread in any way linked to Francis’ religious asceticism? There is a link in Van Loon’s background, but not in mine.

Other food has what Van Loon himself describes as ‘reminiscent of the Middle Ages.’ It’s a vegetable soup with almond milk and that almond milk in a savoury dish is indeed reminiscent of medieval European cooking. This means Van Loon must know about corn and that his choice is made knowingly. He does not say so. He creates most of the dinner around potatoes and meat and it’s a modern Dutch meal in many ways. This means that, in a real world dinner, Francis would have encountered a great deal of strange food and only a little familiar food. It also means that the Middle Ages is still a connector between other periods. Mozart of Andersen’s food habits are far more carefully met than those of Francis of Assisi – the food choices indicate the same historical hierarchy that the choice of dinner guests indicates.

Francis is busier with making sure that the birds and animals that invited themselves to dinner were fed, and so we do not hear how Francis reacted when he ate his first potato. Or maybe we do. “poor fellow,” one of the characters exclaims afterwards, “if he had only taken care of himself and had paid a little attention to the things he ate, think of what he might have done!”

The entire lack of importance of food to Francis is partly how the character is depicted (holy, not interested in the ways of the flesh) but it’s also another aspect of the connection. The food is the food that Van Loon’s readers would have known because that connects them to the past. It also shows them that their own time and place have more important cultural habits than those of the thirteenth century, for where food differences were important, Van Loon allowed for them. They were important for Mozart, but not for St Francis.

This highlights another angle from which this method of using one period to connect to another is important. At a time when the Netherlands was occupied and Van Loon himself could not visit and may have had no way of finding out what was happening to his family and friends, this novel uses history to show that there is a big world in small things. The Middle Ages is chiefly of value in giving value to a fraught present. Francis’ way with animals and birds is used by the author to bring solace and Francis’ own life and what he might eat and when is left aside, for it would not bring such solace. While in the 1940s many historians thought of the Middle Ages as a connector between Classical and Renaissance history, Van Loon was using all periods of history as connectors between his readers and happier times.

Gillian Polack is an Australian writer and scholar who focuses on how historical fiction, fantasy and science fiction writers see and use history, especially the medieval period. Among her books is The Middle Ages Unlocked. Learn more about her Gillian’s work on her website, or follow her on Twitter @GillianPolack

Click here to read more from the Medieval Reads series

 

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