The Axe and the Oath: Ordinary Life in the Middle Ages
By Robert Fossier, Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane
Reviewed by Benjamin Schwarz
Here is a history that confronts the brutal—and mostly unchanging—facts of life. Fossier, professor emeritus of medieval history at the Sorbonne and the editor of The Cambridge History of the Middle Ages, explores the material and natural circumstances that ordinary people faced in the Middle Ages, and how men’s and women’s psyches and daily lives were shaped by those circumstances. Stripping away “the distorting prism of political institutions, social hierarchies, juridical rules, [and] the precepts of faith,” this is a book largely about birth and death, food and shelter, defecation and illness, sex and danger. Written in an annoyingly curmudgeonly style, and drawing on a lifetime of profound learning (and depending largely on French sources), this nearly 400-page essay (no footnotes!) is impressionistic, opinionated, sometimes distorted, and occasionally wrong. But it’s full of eccentric insights (Fossier elucidates men’s fear of women and insistence on masculine authority, and traces these characteristics to the customary age difference between man and wife, which meant that “the home sheltered a young woman of sixteen or eighteen, and an adult male ten or fifteen years older”) as it offers a jolting and shrewd way to apprehend that faraway country, the past.