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Quest for the Common Man

Emily A. Winkler

The Axe and the OathRobert Fossier, translated by Lydia G. Cochrane
The Axe and the Oath: Ordinary Life in the Middle Ages
University Presses of California, 2010
400 Pages
£24.95
ISBN 978-0195399622


Robert Fossier sets out on a quest to find the common man (and woman) in The Axe and the Oath: Ordinary Life in the Middle Ages. As in most medieval quests, the hero is beset by trials along the way; resolution is achieved in the end, usually at some cost. In this book, Fossier’s trials are of his own making, and resolution is the province of the inquiring reader. It is a quest worth investigating, but what are the costs of accompanying Fossier on his journey?

The extreme bitterness which the author has for mankind taints the book. In a pattern common throughout, he rails against the modern man who is sensorily starved: blinded by electricity, deafened by machines, tasting only frozen food. This leads into a discussion about the medieval man, who was able to laugh about blindness, who found deep symbolic value in touch and gesture, who may have listened in churches but could not necessarily hear the liturgy. The sensory framework provides an accessible and intriguing guide for asking questions about what it felt like, literally, to be alive in the Middle Ages. Yet Fossier damages his quest to “find” the common man independent of time by his unmitigated attacks on today’s common man. “I am persuaded that medieval man is us”, he later claims, but this is a jarring claim given his earlier implication that modern man has moved into a sensorily deprived box. His claims are not tempered by acknowledgements of how man has extended his senses: constructing telescopes to see distant stars up close, developing audio and radio technology that permit us to hear the voices of loved ones though they be thousands of miles away. There is a degree of inconsistency in his selective skepticism. Fossier asks questions of the sources about “medieval man”, but does not do the same for “us”: he takes modern advertising at face value as a representation of modern culture and values. If he has so little regard for people, why write a book for them—or about them?

Fossier sets himself up as a champion of medieval people: the “others” whom he claims are not knights, bishops, or kings but are nine-tenths of humanity typically disregarded by historians. There are a few problems with these claims. His frequent and acerbic charges at historians’ indifference to the common man miss the mark: there are well-established trends of social history and history of the common man, and these trends are not limited to the academy. Most school curricula mandate study of the common man and woman; gift-shops at historical tourist sites are filled with books about him and her. Furthermore, when looking at his defensive strategies on behalf of these “others”, one begins to wonder how concerted a fight he is really making on their behalf. He claims it is pointless to “accuse” him of “mixing up centuries, of being content with simplistic generalizations…of using deceptive words and impure sources”, arguing that by putting these aside, he can better access the human being across time.

It is an injustice to those nine-tenths of society to decide that, because specifics about them are less readily available, we are permitted to generalize freely about these people. The desire to search for the common man is commendable, but there is a kind of tyranny in his apathetic attitude toward deceit: it sends the message that common people are not worth the time, effort, and precision of serious study. The common man of the Middle Ages deserves a better champion.

The costs of Fossier’s quest do not mean that the quest should not be undertaken. The immense value of a book like this lies in its latent ability to stimulate readers—be they historians professional or amateur—to ask stimulating questions. If a reader drinks in Fossier’s readable, intriguing discussion of medieval lay-learning, and learns enough from his wide-ranging discussion to ask a question either of Fossier or of the medieval sources, he has made great progress. Indeed, if this book inspires its readers to go off on their own quests for the medieval common man—even if it means leaving Fossier’s quest behind—it will have achieved a resolution to rival all medieval quest stories. A solid resolution worth more to today’s reader, perhaps, than the ever-elusive Holy Grail.

Emily A. Winkler is reading for a DPhil in History at Jesus College, Oxford.