Book Review: Daily Life in Chaucer’s England by Jeffrey L. Forgeng and Will McLean

For various professional reasons, I’ve been indulging in a medieval feast – the literary kind – where I’ve immersed myself in all things medieval in an attempt to get a feel for the period, the people, the material life. Reading a huge range of non-fiction and fiction books has been enlightening to say the least but, one of the most useful I found, and enjoyable, was Daily Life in Chaucer’s England (second edition) by Jeffrey L. Forgeng and Will McLean.

Acknowledging the importance of daily life and material culture to any understanding of the past, Forbeng and McLean present this marvellous and detailed overview of just what it would have been like to dwell in the late Middle Ages, using Chaucer’s time on earth as rough guide. This means we get a decent glimpse of the Fourteenth Century and the fears, foibles and beliefs of those who lived and died in this period.

Setting a context for their book by discussing, albeit briefly, the various wars and the kings who waged them, they then plunge into the nuts and bolts of society, explaining each stratum and their relationship to each other. Each chapter then focuses on an aspect of daily life from time, the importance of religion, to clothing and accessories, what was consumed, general amounts and costs, and there are even some recipes should you wish to try them yourself!

Arms and armour is a fascinating chapter where they deconstruct just what it took to place a knight on the battlefield and what weaponry and protection was required. That foot soldiers and less well-equipped individuals still fought for king and country without the benefit (!) of such armoury made me wince while reading.

A chapter is devoted to entertainment – songs, dances, cards and the importance that gambling played in life in those times. There are even music sheets and lyrics to the more popular songs.

What I particularly enjoyed as well were the break-out boxes that use more contemporary sources to highlight the chapter’s theme – so we have snippets of Chaucer’s works, legal documents, letters and general accounts.

Always aware that the period they’re covering was one in which society began to change quite dramatically (the plague mid-century and different attitudes to the clergy, brought about largely by the plague, the schism in the Church (two Popes) and the growth of the Lollard movement), Forgeng and McLean segue back and forth in each chapter, keen to make the reader aware of the various forces working to alter world and social perceptions.

If you are a lover of history, fascinated by the minutiae of daily life in the past, a writer or just a fact-finder, this is a terrific book.

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