I don’t remember too much from my high-school Chaucer, but I have always remembered, perhaps because of my eventual career choices, that a lawyer was among the pilgrims. Chaucer’s lawyer has gravitas–at least he throws around “wise words”–and lots of clients, though, the narrator tells us in a famous aside, he’s not really as busy as he seems to be, an observation one could make about lots of lawyers (and law professors!) today as well. But I hadn’t understood that law plays an important role in the The Canterbury Tales. A new book from Notre Dame Press, God’s Patients: Chaucer, Agency, and the Nature of Laws, by John Bugbee (University of Virginia) explores the legal themes in Chaucer’s work. Here’s the publisher’s description:
God’s Patients approaches some of Chaucer’s most challenging poems with two philosophical questions in mind: How does action relate to passion, to being-acted-on? And what does it mean to submit one’s will to a law? Building on the work of Jill Mann and Mark Miller, who have pointed out the subtlety of Chaucer’s approach to such fundamentals of ethics, John Bugbee seeks the source of the subtlety and argues that much of it is ready to hand in a tradition of religious (and what we would today call “mystical”) writing that shaped the poet’s thought. Bugbee considers the Clerk’s, Man of Law’s, Knight’s, Franklin’s, Physician’s, and Second Nun’s Tales in juxtaposition with an excellent informant on a major stream of medieval religious culture, Bernard of Clairvaux, whose works lay out ethical ideas closely matching those detectable beneath the surface of the poems. While some of the positions that emerge—most spectacularly the notion that the highest states of human being are ones in which activity and passivity cannot be disentangled—are anathema to much modern ethical thought, God’s Patients provides evidence that they were relatively common in the Middle Ages. The book offers striking new readings of Chaucer’s poems; it proposes a nuanced hermeneutical approach that should prove fruitful in reading a number of other high- and late-medieval works; and, by showing how assumptions about its two fundamental questions have shifted since Chaucer’s time, it provides a powerful new way of thinking about the transition between the Middle Ages and modernity.
In June, the Cornell University Press will release “Where Three World Met: Sicily in the Early Medieval Mediterranean,” by Sarah Davis-Secord (University of New Mexico). The publisher’s description follows:
Sicily is a lush and culturally rich island at the center of the Mediterranean Sea. Throughout its history, the island has been conquered and colonized by successive waves of peoples from across the Mediterranean region. In the early and central Middle Ages, the island was ruled and occupied in turn by Greek Christians, Muslims, and Latin Christians.
In Where Three Worlds Met, Sarah Davis-Secord investigates Sicily’s place within the religious, diplomatic, military, commercial, and intellectual networks of the Mediterranean by tracing the patterns of travel, trade, and communication among Christians (Latin and Greek), Muslims, and Jews. By looking at the island across this long expanse of time and during the periods of transition from one dominant culture to another, Davis-Secord uncovers the patterns that defined and redefined the broader Muslim-Christian encounter in the Middle Ages.
Sicily was a nexus for cross-cultural communication not because of its geographical placement at the center of the Mediterranean but because of the specific roles the island played in a variety of travel and trade networks in the Mediterranean region. Complex combinations of political, cultural, and economic need transformed Sicily’s patterns of connection to other nearby regions—transformations that were representative of the fundamental shifts that took place in the larger Mediterranean system during the Middle Ages. The meanings and functions of Sicily’s positioning within these larger Mediterranean communications networks depended on the purposes to which the island was being put and how it functioned at the boundaries of the Greek, Latin, and Muslim worlds.
In March, Oxford University Press released “Crowds and Sultans: Urban Protest in Late Medieval Egypt and Syria,” by Amina Elbendary (American University in Cairo). The publisher’s description follows:
During the fifteenth century, the Mamluk sultanate that had ruled Egypt and Syria since 1249-50 faced a series of sustained economic and political challenges to its rule, from the effects of recurrent plagues to changes in international trade routes. Both these challenges and the policies and behaviors of rulers and subjects in response to them left profound impressions on Mamluk state and society, precipitating a degree of social mobility and resulting in new forms of cultural expression. These transformations were also reflected in the frequent reports of protests during this period, and led to a greater diffusion of power and the opening up of spaces for political participation by Mamluk subjects and negotiations of power between ruler and ruled.
Rather than tell the story of this tumultuous century solely from the point of view of the Mamluk dynasty, Crowds and Sultans places the protests within the framework of long-term transformations, arguing for a more nuanced and comprehensive narrative of Mamluk state and society in late medieval Egypt and Syria. Reports of urban protest and the ways in which alliances between different groups in Mamluk society were forged allow us glimpses into how some medieval Arab societies negotiated power, showing that rather than stoically endure autocratic governments, populations often resisted and renegotiated their positions in response to threats to their interests.
This rich and thought-provoking study will appeal to specialists in Mamluk history, Islamic studies, and Arab history, as well as to students and scholars of Middle East politics and government and modern history.
In June, Brepols Publishers will release “
Muslim law developed a clear legal cadre for dhimmīs, inferior but protected non-Muslim communities (in particular Jews and Christians) and Roman Canon law
decreed a similar status for Jewish and Muslim communities in Europe. Yet the theoretical hierarchies between faithful and infidel were constantly brought into question in the daily interactions between men and women of different faiths in streets, markets, bath-houses, law courts, etc. The twelve essays in this volume explore these tensions and attempts to resolve them. These contributions show law was used to attempt to erect boundaries between communities in order to regulate or restrict interaction between faithful and non-faithful—at at the same time how these boundaries were repeatedly transgressed and negotiated. These essays explore the possibilities and the limits of the use of legal sources for the social historian.
In March, the University of Chicago Press will release “The Mercenary Mediterranean: Sovereignty, Religion, and Violence in The Medieval Crown of Aragon,” by Hussein Fancy (University of Michigan). The publisher’s description follows:
Sometime in April 1285, five Muslim horsemen crossed from the Islamic kingdom of Granada into the realms of the Christian Crown of Aragon to meet with the king of Aragon, who showered them with gifts, including sumptuous cloth and decorative saddles, for agreeing to enter the Crown’s service.
They were not the first or only Muslim soldiers to do so. Over the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Christian kings of Aragon recruited thousands of foreign Muslim soldiers to serve in their armies and as members of their royal courts. Based on extensive research in Arabic, Latin, and Romance sources, The Mercenary Mediterranean explores this little-known and misunderstood history. Far from marking the triumph of toleration, Hussein Fancy argues, the alliance of Christian kings and Muslim soldiers depended on and reproduced ideas of religious difference. Their shared history represents a unique opportunity to reconsider the relation of medieval religion to politics, and to demonstrate how modern assumptions about this relationship have impeded our understanding of both past and present.
Apropos of recent posts by Mark and our guest, Professor Nathan Oman, here is an interesting book by Professor Dennis Romano (Syracuse) on the cultural and moral importance of the market and the marketplace in the high medieval and early renaissance period, Markets and Marketplaces in Medieval Italy, c. 1100 to c. 1440, published by Yale University Press last month. The publisher’s description follows.
Cathedrals and civic palaces stand to this day as symbols of the dynamism and creativity of the city-states that flourished in Italy during the Middle Ages. Markets and Marketplaces in Medieval Italy argues that the bustling yet impermanent sites of markets played an equally significant role, not only in the economic life of the Italian communes, but in their political, social, and cultural life as well. Drawing on a range of evidence from cities and towns across northern and central Italy, Dennis Romano explores the significance of the marketplace as the symbolic embodiment of the common good; its regulation and organization; the ethics of economic exchange; and how governments and guilds sought to promote market values. With a special focus on the spatial, architectural, and artistic elements of the marketplace, Romano adds new dimensions to our understanding of the evolution of the market economy and the origins of commercial capitalism and Renaissance individualism.
Francis of Assisi is (by saintly standards) much in the news of late. It is therefore lucky that what looks like a magisterial treatment of St. Francis was recently translated for English-speaking audiences–one which explores not only his own ideas but how those ideas influenced subsequent generations of political actors, religious leaders, and intellectuals to the present day. The book is Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint (Yale University Press 2012, but only just released in the more affordable paperback) by the eminent medieval historian André Vauchez (University of Paris X) (translated by Michael Cusato). The publisher’s description follows.
In this towering work, André Vauchez draws on the vast body of scholarship on Francis of Assisi produced over the past forty years as well on as his own expertise in medieval hagiography to tell the most comprehensive and authoritative version of Francis’s life and afterlife published in the past half century.
After a detailed and yet engaging reconstruction of Francis’s life and work, Vauchez focuses on the myriad texts—hagiographies, chronicles, sermons, personal testimonies, etc.—of writers who recorded aspects of Francis’s life and movement as they remembered them, and used those remembrances to construct a portrait of Francis relevant to their concerns. We see varying versions of his life reflected in the work of Machiavelli, Luther, Voltaire, German and English romantics, pre-Raphaelites, Italian nationalists, and Mussolini, and discover how peace activists, ecologists, or interreligious dialogists have used his example to promote their various causes. Particularly noteworthy is the attention Vauchez pays to Francis’s own writings, which strangely enough have been largely overlooked by later interpreters.
The product of a lifetime of study, this book reveals a historian at the height of his powers.
By far the most fascinating story to be covered at today’s inaugural festivities involves the genesis and meaning of Justice Scalia’s head-dress. The voracious hunger for conspiratorial explanations in the Twitterverse was predictable, but it was sated (or perhaps ‘whetted’ is the mot juste) by CLR Forum friend Kevin Walsh, whose dash and sense of medieval panache is second to none.
Peter T. Leeson (George Mason U.) has posted “God Damn”: The Law and Economics of Monastic Malediction. The abstract follows.
Today monks are known for turning the other cheek, honoring saints, and blessing humanity with brotherly love. But for centuries they were known equally for fulminating their foes, humiliating saints, and casting calamitous curses at persons who crossed them. Clerics called these curses “maledictions.” This article argues that medieval communities of monks and canons used maledictions to protect their property against predators where government and physical self-help were unavailable to them. To explain how they did this I develop a theory of cursing with rational agents. I show that curses capable of improving property protection when cursors and their targets are rational must satisfy three conditions. They must be grounded in targets’ existing beliefs, monopolized by cursors, and unfalsiﬁable. Malediction satisﬁed these conditions, making it an effective institutional substitute for conventional institutions of clerical property protection.
This November, Boydell & Brewer will publish English Nuns and the Law in the Middle Ages Cloistered Nuns and Their Lawyers, 1293-1540 by Elizabeth Makowski (Texas State University). The publisher’s description follows
In late medieval England, cloistered nuns, like all substantial property owners, engaged in nearly constant litigation to defend their holdings. They did so using attorneys (proctors), advocates and other “men of law” who actually conducted that litigation in the courts of Church and Crown. However, although lawyers were as crucial to the economic vitality of the nunneries as the patrons who endowed them, their role in protecting, augmenting or depleting monastic assets has never been fully investigated. This book aims to address the gap. Using records from the courts of the common law, Chancery, and a variety of ecclesiastical venues, it examines the working relationships without which cloistered nuns could not have lived in fully enclosed but self-sustainingc communities. In the first part it looks at the six mendicant and Bridgettine houses established in England, and relates the effectiveness and resilience of their cloistered spirituality to the rise of legal professionalism in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It then presents cases from ecclesiastical and royal courts which illustrate the work of legal professionals on behalf of their clients.