- The Companion to Medieval Society by Franco Cardini
Recently some major publishers have produced an array of “companions” and “handbooks” on a variety of topics associated with the humanities. Among the most recent additions to this growing body of literature is The Companion to Medieval Society by Franco Cardini. Cardini is one of the foremost (and also one of the most prolific) Italian historians of the Middle Ages. A professor at the University of Florence, he has published on an impressive range of subjects, including knighthood, magic and witchcraft in the Middle Ages, St. Francis of Assisi, the significance of 1492 for Europe, St. Joan of Arc, and the history of Florence and Tuscany, among many others. The Companion to Medieval Society is the English translation of the Italian text that appeared the same year, La società medioevale (Milan, 2012), and it is a book that contains impressive flashes of insight and sumptuous illustrations. It is also a text marred by numerous errors.
Unlike most other recent “companions” or handbooks associated with the Middle Ages, such as those published by Oxford and Cambridge, The Companion to the Middle Ages is not intended for an audience of scholars, graduate students, and undergraduates. Rather, lavishly illustrated, it seems primarily aimed at the general, educated reader. It is meant more for the living-room table than the research or undergraduate library. Written without footnotes or endnotes, it has a short select bibliography of only thirty-four titles. Organized both chronologically and topically, the book tackles a wide variety of subjects, framed by the first and last chapters: “What Are the Middle Ages?” and “Toward the Renaissance.” Among its other twenty-four chapters are “The Christianization of Europe,” “Women in the Church and in Society,” “The New Figurative Art,” and “Internal and External Enemies.” Cardini is very careful to stress that generalizations about the Middle Ages, which he defines roughly as the fourth through fifteenth centuries, are difficult to make, given the “profound changes” (p. 17) of the period. Along with its sumptuous pictures and maps, the book includes some valuable insights. The author notes for example that recent scholarship recognizes that early economic expansion in Europe probably commenced in the eighth and not the eleventh century. In chapter 12 there are some illuminating observations drawn between northern [End Page 808] European and Italian cities. The chapters on “Kings” (chapter 8), “The Aristocracy” (chapter 9), “Science and Magic” (chapter 22), and “Languages and Literature” (chapter 23) are especially insightful, perhaps because they draw on his particular expertise in the history of magic and knighthood.
The overall quality of the text, however, is disappointing. Some shortcomings are conceptual. The application of the term medieval “solely to the Western world” (p. 17) oddly relegates the Islamic world and Byzantium to minor, peripheral roles in the narrative. The stated aim of the book is to explore themes that “provide a possible meaning for the term, ‘medieval’” (p. 16), but the book seems to present no argument that summarizes what those themes may be. Words like “feudalism” and the “feudal system” (as on page 42) appear frequently, but some readers will not know that these are now very vexed and disputed terms, often now avoided altogether by historians. Did Abelard and Heloise really invent “love as it would come to be understood in modern times”? (p. 179). There are also numerous errors of fact. For example, King Cnut died in 1035, but we learn that he attacked England in 1055 (p. 84). Bernard of Clairvaux was born in 1090, but he was canonized in 1104 (p. 98). In what must have been an error in translation, we learn on page 124 that Coluccio Salutati (1331–1406) was writing in the thirteenth century. These examples and others like them were avoidable mistakes that could have been corrected by careful proofreading.