- Medieval Life: Archaeology and the Life Course by Roberta Gilchrist
The recent “material turn” in the social sciences and humanities has witnessed a widespread acknowledgment that the detailed study of objects, in their appropriate historical contexts, can open new windows onto the lived experience of past populations. Such object-led research is an inherently interdisciplinary undertaking, since recreating the historical contexts from which things took their meaning requires careful attention to the widest possible array of source materials. Historical archaeologists are ideally placed to compare the physical remains of the past with the well-documented periods that they study, and Gilchrist is a renowned master of the field for the Middle Ages. She previously explored the spatial arrangement of female religious communities in the ground-breaking Gender and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Religious Women (London, 1994), as well as embodiment and burial practice in Requiem: The Medieval Monastic Cemetery in Britain (London, 2005). In this new book, she turns her attention from elites and ecclesiasts to the material practices of daily life among the “ordinary folk of medieval England” (xii). The result is a vital and innovative contribution to our understanding of how medieval people interacted with and comprehended the world that they inhabited.
The book’s organizing framework is the sociological model of the “life course,” which connects the successive stages of life from infancy to old age on a single continuum, stressing the rituals, social customs, and institutions that create linkages between different phases of the life cycle. Through four detailed case studies, Gilchrist argues persuasively that medieval people conceived of an “extended life course,” which began before birth with the material practices surrounding conception and pregnancy and ended well after death, encompassing “the myriad strategies that aimed to ensure memory of the dead and their well-being in the afterlife” as they awaited eventual resurrection at the end of time (1).
Gilchrist’s methodology—which combines her detailed knowledge of the archaeological evidence with a critical reading of the sources and secondary literature from fields as diverse as history, art history, literary studies, and anthropology—yields striking new insights into the sub stance of medieval life on nearly every page. We learn, for instance, how pregnant women combated fears of death in childbirth by wearing religious amulets, apotropaic rings, and even relic girdles that were borrowed (for a fee) from a saint's statue at the local church (137–138). We encounter industrious children who made their own toys out of animal bones and worked from a young age, carrying wet clay pots to the kiln and leaving their small, telltale fingerprint impressions on the finished products (149, 147). In Gilchrist’s hands, the remarkable evidence of surviving leather shoes testifies to everything from the libido of young men (who stuffed their long pointed toes with moss to keep them erect), to the infirmities of the elderly (who alleviated their bunions by slashing [End Page 254] holes in their shoes), to domestic protection rituals in which the shoes of dead relatives were deliberately concealed in the home to safeguard vulnerable spots like chimneys and windows (101, 64–65, 229–230).
Medieval Life is at its most original when discussing the agency of such “biographical objects” as wedding rings and birthing girdles, which were often curated as family heirlooms or donated to churches due to their association with the life-course rituals of specific individuals (Chapter 6). By connecting the biographies of people and their things, Gilchrist reveals medieval Europe as a world animated by powerful objects at every social scale—a world in which the well-known cult of saints’ relics suddenly makes much more sense. Well-illustrated and indexed, with fourteen helpful appendixes and an extensive, up-to-date bibliography, this book is an exemplary model of interdisciplinary history that successfully integrates the theories of numerous social sciences with the textual, visual, and material evidence of the past in order to shed new light on the lived experience of the Middle Ages.