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The Ties That Bound by Barbara A Hanawalt

I read this book a few years ago when I was undertaking research for an earlier novel, The Brewer’s Tale and remember being so impressed with it. Returning to it again (as I am also returning to the Middle Ages with my next book – only a slightly earlier period), I was once more struck not only by the lucidity and depth and breadth of research, but by the astute observations Hanawalt makes, observations always backed by evidence. Where there is little or none, Hanawalt also points this out and alerts her reader to the fact. But what makes this book so exceptional is its accessibility and readability. It is a joy to read and lose oneself in.

Instead of focussing, as so much history has, on the nobility or royalty or even religious bodies and thus power-brokers of a particular country or culture (mainly because that’s about and for whom records were kept), The Ties That Bound chooses instead, as Hanawalt puts it, to “enter the doors of the peasant’s house” and give voice to those who didn’t have one. Choosing the family and its material environment as her foundation, Hanawalt investigates how, why and when families survived in the Middle Ages (she uses the fourteenth century as a rough framework), focussing on their working patterns (and so the medieval economy as centred around family, landholdings, agriculture and industry), marriage, childbirth, childhood, adolescence, godparents, household sizes, their structures – in terms of people as well as houses and land worked – sickness, death, neigbourhoods, manorial allegiance, gilds, village life, festivals, weather, war, and conflict and examines the impact all of these had on the day to day living of the average person in England over this period.  She also addresses the dramatic changes that occurred following the Black Death in 1348-49.

Image result for medieval peasant images

Using coroners’ rolls (among other and local records) to examine patterns of accidental death as well as homicides etc. she is able to cleverly contest and even overturn earlier findings and sentimental assumptions about those who lived in the Middle Ages. Whereas other historians have often sought to demonstrate the differences to as well as distance from medieval family life and the modern one, Hanawalt is able to show that while there were, of course, differences, they were not as great as previously thought. After all, when all is said and done, we’re basically human whether we lived in the 1300s or now in the 21st century.

Barbara Tuchman notes in her wonderful book, A Distant Mirror, quoting Voltaire, “history doesn’t repeat itself, man [sic] does,” and this is something Hanawalt proves over and over  – our capacity for great kindness, cruelty, generosity, greediness, violence, selfishness and love – towards each other whether family, kin or stranger, no matter what our class, education or earning power.

This is a terrific book for scholars, students and anyone with a passion for history and a readiness to know how the “other three-quarters” lived.

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