When I was beginning my Kalamazoo write-ups I looked for things to read that I would be interested in, but something that wouldn’t tax me too much because of how much time I knew I’d have to put into those. I wanted books that I’d be able to “just read” rather than study, think about new concepts, take bunches of notes on, etc. Also something I wouldn’t feel the urge to comment on, or write a review for.
I picked out two books I’d been aware of for a long time but had never purchased because I was involved in my own form of age discrimination. Then I bought them, as well as a few others, at a/two used bookseller(s) at Kalamazoo for a substantial discount. Both were clean hardcovers, showing just normal reading wear – no highlighting or markings on the pages. After reading them I feel compelled to at least comment on them – and I’m going to resist the urge to do complete reviews.
Edward James’ The Franks (Blackwell, 1988) shows up whenever people start talking about reading materials for Late Antiquity, particularly for the Franks and Gaul. By the time I was aware of it, having figured out what I was interested in, it was 2000, I’d read Wood, Geary, and was into more specialized stuff – detailed books, reading Early Medieval Europe, etc. James was old – over 10 years – and even though I continued to see it footnoted in new books and articles, I didn’t feel an urge to get it.
Wendy Davies’ Small Worlds: The Village Community in Early Medieval Brittany (University of California, 1988) suffered even more severely as not only was it older, but it was beyond the period I was most interested in.
My goal of using these for “light medieval reading” met with mixed results. James fit my preconception – very good book (better than I’d expected, actually) but most of the concepts were familiar to me and many had benefited from more recent publications, including some by Dr. James himself. Using my usual note taking system I ended up with 9 distinct notes, less than a third of a page. However it is interesting how well the concepts discussed in it have held up over time and how, for the most part, this book has not been contradicted, but “fleshed out” by more recent work. I think it remains valuable and is a new “first book on the Franks” that I’ll recommend. It’s very readable, interesting, and has a bunch of utility for someone just getting started. What makes this book a true, undiscovered treasure for me is the prodigious use James makes of charts, diagrams and images which are very helpful in illustrating his concepts. I regret my hubris in thinking this book had little to teach me ten years or so ago – I should have read it when I decided what I was really interested in. My loss.
Davies is an entirely different story. On finishing this I find myself with the urge to write a full-bore review, which I am determined to resist. There do not appear to be a lot of good, accessible reviews out there on it which adds to this impetus – however, unfortunately, this book appears to no longer be in print. If I thought writing a review would inspire a re-issue, possibly in a paperback edition accessible to those with a smaller budget (that thought would be hubris indeed), I would. This is an extremely good book. 1
I need to give yet another shout-out to Jonathan Jarrett – I seem to do that a lot but that’s just how this blogging thing has worked out. I’d had this book wishlisted for a long time but he brought it back to my attention in a comment he made in my World Lit Only by Fire Review. I have no idea if I’d have picked it up at Kalamazoo without his bringing it back to a more prominent part of my brain. Once again, thank you Jonathan.
Small Worlds is absolutely filled with information. Davies examined surviving documentation from 9th century Brittany, particularly charter evidence from the monastery of Redon, and uses it to reconstruct various aspects of life in Brittany – including a great deal of information on peasant life. She augments this with extensive figures and tables. For example, Table 13 on page 200 lists the documentary evidence for all of the annual rents due to the monastery of Redon which range from straight cash payments to one listed as, “2 big sheep, 2 small sheep(value 3d each), 1 pig(value 12d), 1-1/2m wheat, 1m rye, 6m oats, manaheda”.
I can get enthusiastic about this book and it’s a shame it’s not still in print (used copies should be available). This is another example of the kind of detailed, precise information I love – I don’t care if it is 22 years old. And in covering a small geographic region, I’m not aware of anything which has replaced it for information on Medieval Brittany.
In contrast to James, this was not “light reading.” I took extensive notes – 2 full pages and 34 notations, some covering multiple pages. This for a book that is 213 pages long (not counting the forward and bibliography).
To summarize, both of these books have continued value – and I should have read them long ago. The Franks has become my new “first book to recommend” to someone just getting started on the Franks for its readability and quality. And Small Worlds has become an unqualified recommendation, period – a book filled with quality, well documented information. And her books on Medieval Wales have just moved up on my “books I should get” food chain.
NOTE: I anticipate being less active with this blog over the next 3 months. June-August is always a busy time in my real job and, because of weather and having to do some things around home, personally. I generally change my reading habits during this period too – I look for less specialized books because I may have several days running where I don’t find time to read and that’s a poor way to read a complex academic book. I expect to be able to jump back in sometime in September though. I’m hoping to be able to post something at least weekly in the meantime but no guarantees and I absolutely don’t want to “post just to post.”
1 The best review I’ve found is from 1990 by William Chester Jordan in The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 20, 469-471.
Davies, Wendy, Small Worlds: The Village Community in Early Medieval Brittany. Berkely: University of California Press, (1988). Pp. 227, xi. ISBN: 0-520-06483-6.
James, Edward, The Franks. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., (1988). Pp. 265, xii. ISBN: 0-631-14872-8.