- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 22, 2005


By Chiara Frugoni

Translated by William McCuaig

University of Chicago, $37.50, 206 pages, illus.

This is a stunningly beautiful book, and a good read as well. Chiara Frugoni’s “A Day In A Medieval City” isn’t a moment by moment telling of what it was like to wake up one day in the year 1200 A.D., go to work and then come home in the evening. Rather, Ms. Frugoni, building on an essay on medieval urban life written more than a half century ago by her father, the historian Arsenio Frugoni, offers descriptions of every aspect of quotidian life in the Middle Ages, from the education given children to how to start fires for cooking, and out of all that information, readers are able to build their own notions of what everyday life was like in European cities of a thousand years ago.

What makes the book so beautiful is that Ms. Frugoni, a professor emerita of medieval studies at the University of Rome, illustrates her text (which is admirably succinct) with a splendid selection of paintings and other works of art from the time she writes about. These works are handsomely reproduced, in most cases, in ravishing color. But this is not an art book. The images aren’t chosen just for their aesthetic quality, but because they are visible representations of what Ms. Frugoni writes about: busy shops and markets in town squares, for instance, and the behavior of men and women in taverns when out for a good time (answer: as badly when drunk as men and women of any time and place).

Ms. Frugoni relies on such late medieval authors as Giovanni Boccaccio, Franco Sacchetti and numerous others to supply specific examples of what average people said and did. This combination of stories lifted from the time along with pictures works well. There are images of children learning the alphabet and their numbers and we’re given telling examples of how the young were taught. Medieval textbooks, not unexpectedly, were catechism-like, giving rote questions asked by teachers followed by rote answers from students.

When the master asked “What is a schoolboy?” the young scholar was to reply, “One who is solicitous to learn virtue.” Other questions included, “Where are you a schoolboy?” Student: “Here, everywhere, and in every honest place.” Master: “How many are the works of a schoolboy?” The answer was supposed to be six: “Get up in the morning, get dressed immediately, comb my hair, wash my hands, praise God, and go willingly to school.”

That medieval students weren’t always as well-behaved as that exchange might imply, should come as no surprise. Boys, it seems, will always be boys, and Ms. Frugoni, who notes that punishment in schools could be brutal, describes the rebellion of a group of angry young scholars against such punishment when they set fire to the monastery — the year was 937 — of St. Gallen in what is today Switzerland. The irate boys used as kindling for their fire the very rods that the masters had unwisely sent them up to the attic to fetch as part of their punishment.

What about shopping? What could a medieval man or woman purchase at the local market? A great deal, as far as basics go. Ms. Frugoni makes use of a well-known miniature painting from the early 15th century of Porta Ravegnana in Bologna to make this point. It is a busy day, and shopkeepers are eagerly showing a rich array of merchandise to potential buyers. There are pots and pans, chests, pails and tubs, fabrics, a toilet stool, andirons, grates — even readymade suits: A customer tries on a jacket, while a salesperson dressed in bright red helps him pull it over his shoulders.

The markets carried fish (kept in special containers), meat, grains and fresh vegetables in season, Ms. Frugoni tells us. She goes into some detail about how the towns were kept themselves clean. Busy marketplaces, after all, left behind trash. Horses, donkeys and other beasts added manure to the streets. There was human waste. To take care of the mess, city officials contracted with garbagemen, who were given special permission to use pigs (along with other means) to do the job. The swine roamed the squares and streets freely.

Ms. Frugoni points out that a great deal of daytime life in the cities was passed out-of-doors because homes and workshops were small. At nighttime, though, people stayed inside, and always slept in the nude. Night was a time of fear when people did not go out because of robbers. Travel, night or day, was undertaken with trepidation for the same reason.

One of the most familiar sounds for medieval men and women were bells, which, in Ms. Frugoni’s words, beat “out the rhythm of day and night, announcing political assemblies and festivals,” whether religious or secular. The author tells a great story about one of the largest of medieval bells, the 17,000 pounder in Florence known as “the great bell of the people” that no one had been able to ring for 17 years at full peal. As many as 12 men had tried pulling the bell rope at one time, to no avail. But luckily in 1322 there arrived ” a subtle master from Sienna” (in the words of a manuscript of the time) who was indeed successful. With his “subtle and beautiful skill” as few as two men were able to make the bell move and after it moved, just one was needed to make the bell reach full peal.

Medieval man had no street addresses, which meant sending a letter required a messenger who knew a city and its inhabitants thoroughly. Punishment for crime was public so that everyone saw — and heard — the criminal’s pain and agony. Thieves were whipped then put in stocks and branded on the cheek with a red-hot iron and forced to stay there for hours. Murderers found themselves tied to the tails of an ass or horse, dragged through the whole city and hanged.

Religion of course played a major role in everyone’s life. Ms. Frugoni explains how saints were summoned to help in almost every crisis. St. Julian protected travelers. A marvelous panel painting by Ambrogio Lorenzetti shows “A Child Brought Back to Life by Saint Nicholas,” the saint whose special care was the very young. Another series of works from the 15th century by the well-known painter Simone Martini portray a saint saving infants from a savage dog attack and from a fall from a balcony.

The central role religion plalyed in the life of the medieval city is suggested by an unusual (at least by presentday standards) work called “The Miraculous Recovery of the Mule,” which dates from 1281-1294. It tells, in a series of cartoon-like pictures, the story of a poor mule in Terena, Portugal, who was lying in a stable with its hind legs paralyzed and swollen. One day its owner decided to have it put down. But the mule, dragging itself along, recovered miraculously when it got to the door of the Church of Santa Maria. The penultimate panel shows the mule kneeling in thanks before the statue of the Madonna and Child. The final panel has the faithful in church to join the mule in giving praise. The story seems to be saying that if God cares for the suffering of a poor dumb animal, how very deeply must He care for you, too.

Near the end of “A Day In A Medieval City,” Ms. Frugoni describes the ritual families followed when going to bed. Fear of fire was everyone’s concern, and the wooden homes abutting one anothing on narrow streets increased that fear. Candles were put out, coals in stoves checked to see that they offered no danger. One burning ember or one lighted candle ignored could cause a conflagration(and frequently did), destroying a whole section of the city.

Life in medieval Europe could be harsh, the author makes clear. But the overall theme of this book isn’t the bleakness or the difficulties faced by medieval men and women and their children. What comes across is the richness life had for these people, the closeness of family life, the concern for education, the significance of religion and faith. It’s amazing how much wealth of detail and image Ms. Frugoni has packed into this delightful, relatively small book.

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