- Friars’ Tales: Thirteenth-century exempla from the British Isles by David Jones
With his translation of the earliest mendicant exempla collections from the British Isles dating from around the year 1275, David Jones offers an extremely useful tool for university teaching. His work will enrich seminars on the history of the medieval Church and of medieval thought as well as classes in historical anthropology in a broader sense.
At first sight, the translations allow easy access to the practice of medieval preaching: 213 stories from two sermon books, the Franciscan Liber Exemplorum (preserved in Durham Cathedral Library MS B.IV.19, ed. A. G. Little, Liber Exemplorum ad usum praedicantium [Aberdeen 1908], here translated on pp. 27–153) and fifty-two stories from the so-called Cambridge Dominican Collection (preserved in London BL Royal MS 7 D.i., not published so far, here translated on pp. 155–88).
At second glance, the translations facilitate reading and thus help us to understand both the “otherness” and the “likeness” of the Middle Ages. Three aspects are illustrative, although many more could be added.
First, the stories testify to a tremendous circulation of knowledge (both in time and space) at the time. The compiler often speaks as a first-person narrator explaining from where he draws his knowledge. Apart from ancient stories from the Saints’ Lives, the vitae patrum, and so forth, he frequently refers to firsthand sources such as “what I heard from Brother Jordan, a good and truthful friar”; “a clerk named John […] told me this himself”; “a story related to me and Brother Roger Bacon in Paris”; and “I found this in a sermon by Brother Richard Fishacre”—thus witnessing to the lively streams of communication within the mendicant communities.
Second, the tales feature an “international” perspective as a matter of course to the minds of late-thirteenth-century storytellers. The topographical horizon of the [End Page 131] stories reaches from local knowledge in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland to German and Italian sources of information. Brethren from Paris and Oxford, testimonials from Spain, Castile, Seville, Cilicia, the Holy Land are regularly cited, thus documenting a surprising “international” mobility of knowledge, people, and stories at the time.
Third, a radical concern for the fundamentals of the conditio humana is clear: the uncertainty of human life, the agonies of death, the fears and hopes of those left behind, dreams and visions, the promises of magic, the dangers of sexuality and incest, fears of impurity, depression, guilt, possession, neighborhood conflicts, generational conflicts, and many other issues. No doubt this perspective owes a good deal to the friars’ activities as confessors. From this, we might also understand another peculiarity: an almost naive trust in the power of the spoken word. This is most charmingly expressed in the famous story of the clerk named John who, on the way to his concubine one night, managed to defeat the devil in disguise by merely speaking out loudly, “You lie, by the death of Christ.”
In short, this is a wonderful book and is a must-have for those teaching history with a focus on the history of humanity.