The Middle Ages in 50 Objects by Elina Gerstman and Barbara H. Rosenwein – A Review

It’s another book review this week. The Middle Ages in 50 Objects is both a delight and a disappointment. The delight is in the illustrations. Some of the fifty objects are rather special and there is a full page photograph of each of them. The disappointment is in the text. Each item has a three page essay and these don’t always focus on the object. Many of them talk a bit about the item then go off at a tangent to talk about something (very) loosely connected with the object. Thus a painting of the flagellation of Christ leads to an extremely superficial look at the cult of flagellation during the Black Death, anti-Semitism, the Franciscans, Venice, the Fourth Crusade and trade in the Mediterranean.

When I bought the book, I didn’t realise that the objects were all in the Cleveland Museum of Art, so this should be viewed more as a catalogue than a book about medieval objects. ‘Medieval’ as a term is rather loosely used, as the books definition of medieval is a lot broader than most people would be happy with. Some of the objects date from the third century and some from the sixteenth century.

Although they’re all from one museum, the objects come from a variety of places and times. As well as items that you would expect to see from Europe, there are also Byzantine and Islamic objects from various periods.

The book is divided into four sections. The Holy And The Faithful is about religious artefacts, including a stunning twelfth-century reliquary. The Sinful And The Spectral is a bit of a hotchpotch of images of the Devil and evil sprits. Daily Life And Its Fictions includes coins, buttons, jugs and a lovely lion aquamanile. Death And Its Aftermath is another section that doesn’t really know what it’s about, but there are depictions of the Crucifixion and the death of the Virgin Mary as well as decorations from tombs.

Since the articles don’t go into any great depth, it’s a shame that there’s no bibliography to allow readers to follow up points that interest them. Whilst it’s probably better to see the book as an introduction to the Middle Ages, it’s a rather disjointed introduction and it doesn’t tell the reader where to go next. Some of the essays have quotes from writings that are, more or less, contemporaneous with the object and the sources are listed at the back of the book. It’s not always obvious, however, which source goes with which quotation.

Although I can’t say that I enjoyed the book with my whole heart, I did enjoy aspects of it. Some of the essays are quite enlightening about the objects depicted and some of them made me stop and think about how the objects had been made and used. The photographs of the objects are wonderful and some of the objects themselves are fascinating. My favourite section is definitely the one on daily life, since that’s the aspect of medieval history that really has my attention.

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “The Middle Ages in 50 Objects by Elina Gerstman and Barbara H. Rosenwein – A Review

  1. There are a lot of similar books around ( The British Museum is the most obvious but I have one on Shakespeare one on Jane Austen and one on the Brontes which try and define them by objects). Do you k ow of one on medieval life that does work ?

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    • Welcome, Anne. I’ve got one from the BM which I like, but it’s not really trying to explain the Middle Ages. It just talks about the objects themselves. The only other objects book I’ve got is Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, which I haven’t read, but take off the shelf every now and again to look at the pictures of the manuscripts.

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  2. Sounds interesting, I like a book with good pictures.

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  3. I hate when books do that, get you all excited then don’t live up to the promise. Still its sounds like its worth having in your armory!

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  4. At least the photos are useful! It’s nice to have them all in one handy place like that.

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  5. It is such a good idea for a book giving an overview of a period and can work really well. Shakespeare’s Restless World by Neil MacGregor took twenty objects from the late Elizabethan/early Jacobean period – from Francis Drake’s circumnavigation medal to Jesuit martyr Edward Oldcorne’s eye – and examined them in detail, setting them not only in their historical setting but also in that of Shakespeare’s plays and with coloured illustrations on every second page. I thought it gave a great overview but it was a much much shorter period which makes it easier to do. Liked it so much that after reading the library copy, I bought one for myself.

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    • That’s a great recommendation. I think this book failed for me because it’s limited to the objects held by one museum and none of them is particularly significant. They’re mostly beautiful objects, but rather random. The inclusion of objects that aren’t really medieval made me wonder if they’d decided to do 50 objects because that’s the fashion, but the museum doesn’t have 50 medieval objects and they had to stretch the boundaries to fill the book. Overall, I feel a bit cheated, which is probably why I don’t like it as much as I should.

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