The Middle Ages is in fashion. Inspiring many historical novels, even medieval-fantastic works, this period never ceases to arouse fantasies, fears and unfortunate misinterpretations. Alessandro Barbero, professor of medieval history at the University of Piedmont-Oriental in Vercelli and author of many successful works translated into French1, paints a picture of an era in his new book Divin Moyen Age published by Flammarion editions, using the sources and by focusing more on the actors. The Italian title of the work Donne, Madonne, Mercanti, e Cavalieri (“Ladies, Merchants and Knights”) reflected the author's intentions much better. Through six personalities, the author offers us a glimpse of what it meant to live in the Middle Ages.
Six personalities were selected. Parity is respected: the historian suggests that we follow in the footsteps of three men and three women between the 13th and 15th centuries who had very distinct paths. These stories are not simple biographies but a means for the author to approach this or that aspect of the Middle Ages. The individuality of these individuals in the society that saw them emerge is restored. The author also criticizes the idea that the individual did not exist in the Middle Ages. The "six characters would have made fun of such a received idea". The author's choices are linked to the available sources produced. The six personalities selected have all produced (directly or indirectly for one of them) a significant number of writings which allow “to enter the minds of men and women of the past”. Almost no footnotes, the author has a clear style that is understandable by most. Alessandro Barbero tries to write a general public work of social history far from that of the Annales school. The actor and the agency (agency) are at the heart of the book. These personalities, although exceptional, are contemporaries and, for the author, this is enough for medieval society to take “life before our eyes” thanks to their testimonies.
The first portrait dedicated to Salimbene by Adam, better known under the name of Salimbene de Parma (1221-1288), allows us to approach the ethos of the noble class. Although he chose the monastic path in the Franciscan order, Salimbene will always retain certain prejudices and behaviors linked to his former condition. The choice of monastic life was very badly perceived by his father because it called into question the sustainability of the lineage. At the turn of the story, the author also discusses the arts of the table, memory in the Middle Ages, the struggle between the Dominicans and the Franciscans or even rather lax ecclesiastical mores. The second portrait is dedicated to the merchant Dino Compagni (c. 1255-1324) who had an active part in Florentine political life. Through this biography, the author tries to retranscribe for us the framework of political life of medieval Italian municipalities (republics dominated by the upper layers of society). The political struggles between the popolo ("the bourgeoisie") and the nobility, Guelphs and Ghibellines or whites and blacks and their share of violence are well highlighted. The author develops in particular the opposing values of the aristocracy and the "bourgeoisie" which influence the politics of the city: the nobility tends to push for war because it is its raison d'être while the merchants , to the deeper bureaucratic and administrative skills of the merchants who know full well that armed conflicts are bad for the finances of the State and for theirs. Justice and corruption are not overlooked by Dino Compagni and seem endemic in this “democratic” city: Florence is for him a city “where everything is sold, even auctions and trials”.
With the portrait of Jean de Joinville (1225-1317), Alessandro Barbero brings us into the realm of ordinary faith and its repercussions in everyday life. His religiosity is compared with the “holiness” of Saint Louis that he will not be able to achieve. It is also the occasion for the author to evoke other aspects of the noble culture and the crusades. The second half of the work is devoted to three exceptional women: Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), Christine de Pizan (1364-1430) and Joan of Arc (1412-1431). The author however succeeds less in transcribing the medieval world to us with these portraits with the exception of that of Christine de Pizan which allows us to discover the world of the court, writers and officials. On the other hand, the question of the feminine gender in the Middle Ages is highly developed by the author because the three chosen personalities more or less reject it: Catherine de Siena has a problem with her body, Christine de Pizan criticizes the society of her time with her writings which make her one of the first feminists of her time and Joan of Arc with her disguise which poses a certain number of problems such as that of following the soldiers in the field. These women with an exceptional destiny have, more than the selected male personalities, carried out actions which made them go down in history. The author thus succeeds here in an attempt to popularize the history of women (or “gender studies”).
Alessandro Barbero's new work is therefore an interesting introduction to the medieval world accessible to all. Not claiming to be exhaustive, he seeks through well-documented personalities who have left a substantial volume of writings (directly or indirectly) to transcribe the social and cultural world in which they evolved. The details mentioned by the author constitute the great wealth of the book. These over the pages contribute to the composition of a social picture: that of the late Middle Ages.
Divine Middle Ages: History of Salimbene de Parma and other edifying destinies, by Alessandro Barbero. Throughout history, Flammarion 2014.