Thursday, November 9, 2017

Book Review: Medieval People by Michael Prestwich

Medieval People: Vivid Lives in a Distant Landscape by Michael Prestwich

The medieval period covers a long time and is populated with a great diversity of people. This book looks at some seventy people who lived from 800 to 1500 AD. He chronicles Christians, Muslims, Huns, and heretics from many levels of society. Some were religious or civil leaders (sometimes both), some were artists, some were everyday merchants, craftsmen, and farmers. 

The biographies are short, typically three or four pages with at least one page's worth of pictures or art depicting the person or items related to the person. In such limited space, condensing a person's life is hard. The writing is occasionally choppy, like a longer biography was edited for length without any adjustments to make the narative flow naturally.

That wouldn't be so bad if many of the things left in are inaccurate, like the caption of a picture from the motion picture El Cid about the 11th century Spanish warrior. The caption claims the character was "Charlton Heston in his most famous role." [p. 39] More famous than Ben-Hur or Moses in The Ten Commandments? Plenty of other dubious interpretations and factual errors spring up, ruining the author's credibility.

If that wasn't bad enough, his treatment of spirituality is appalling. He claims Thomas Aquinas did not have mystic visions at the end of his life, rather he had migraine headaches that stopped him from writing. Catherine of Siena receives nothing but scorn, contempt, and mockery from the author. Joan of Arc probably had anorexia, which would explain her "voices" and belief that she would save France but not her few military victories.

The best thing about the book is the illustrations and pictures. It is a coffee-table size book and unfortunately fits that cliche--a book better to look at than to read.

Not recommended.

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