I've been reading medieval-focused books with the enthusiasm of a hyperfixating middle schooler.
I'm a person who loves the reason why. Tactical choices, planning ahead. But medieval stuff is just on my radar because I like it. It's fun to follow the whim down the rabbit hole. In case you, too, would like to be gripped by the bizzare happenings of the Middle Ages, here are some things I've been reading.
I think it started with the Weird Medieval Guys Twitter account. I see a lot of images as a graphic designer and chronically online person, but these guys!! They're weird in a way that modern stuff isn't. The account is irreverently delighted by these weirdos. I needed to know more!
I mean!! There's a story there. Who are these people and why did they raise their naked baby in a snail?
I'm in a life/work burnout dip. I'm tired. Medieval art is old enough that if I copy stuff, it's an homage (right?) I could use a dose of weirdness. Plus, I love art that plays with words, so illuminated manuscripts hit.
I've been thinking about the way modern American churches engage with art (poorly, it often turns out) and it turns out there are a bunch of visual precedents that got set in medieval religious culture. Those precents were reacted to pretty strongly (looking at you, Protestant iconoclasm), leaving a weird weird no-man's land in Christian visual tradition. It's been a fun tangle to dive into.
Also, it's just really funny art sometimes.
Reading multiple books on a topic and letting them speak to each other is my favorite way to do it. Here's what I've been into:
by Olivia M. Swarthout
The ideal book, really. Chock full of weird lil guys, funny commentary, quizzes, and a bestiary in the back. It's also just a gorgeous object. I have another book about illuminated manuscripts, and the photos feel fuzzy, and they're hard to take in on the sheen of glossy paper. None of those problems here!
The content refers back to historical information, but it's very jokey and not a deep dive on the weirdness of the time period. I've loved getting more background info (and more medieval jokes) from the Weird Medieval Guys podcast. A Twitter account shouldn't be able to spin off into a book and podcast that are good as standalone things, but it DID and I'm so glad.
This is a good read if your past experiences with Medieval stuff conjure up brown-garbed Dark Age peasants. These people were very colorful, I tell you.
by Eleanor Janega
It's not not a book on medieval sex. But it's also about gendered assumptions and pressures of the Medieval world. Annoyingly, the stuff about the pressure that the church put on women felt way too familiar. The whole chunk on beauty ideals and nudity in church paintings was fascinating:
"These images were objects of religious devotion and veneration; people would pray with them, focusing their minds on them, or being reminded of what they had lost with the Fall of Man. While the women had to be beautiful to make the religious point that they were holy, these images were also considered sexy. We know this from decidedly hostile witnesses: Protestants. ... In 1520 one Protestant in Strasbourg complained, "I often had base thoughts when I looked upon the female saints on the altars. For no courtesan can dress or adorn herself more sumptously or shamelessly than they nowadays fashion the Mother of God, Saint Barbara, Katherine, and the other saints." The fact that this unnamed man was turned on by church statues is not only a testament to the human erotic imagination, but also funny and instructive. As we have seen, the medieval concept of beauty was painstakingly constructed and repeated ad nauseam down through the centuries, which can make it difficult to ascertain whether the average medieval individual agreed with it. Did most people think small-breasted women with big thighs and pot bellies were beautiful, or was this just a literary and artistic conciet? This unnamed Protestant's religious complaint shows that not only did individual men agree with the artistic beauty ideal, but it also turned them on in church."
This is full of primary-source citations. It's also written with a perfect sense of humor. I cackled, I underlined a lot, I was mad but kept wanting to read.
Janega writes with the premise that women have always had cultural narratives about who they are, what they're capable of or not allowed to do, but the narrative is a construct. By comparing the stereotypes in medieval times to ours, we can see that those constructs are fluid (and often shaped by those in power to support whatever their platform is). If what we believe to be true about women isn't based on immutible standards carried across centuries, we can challenge and change them to something truer.
The church was a huge part of medieval life, and it's interesting to read about this written in past-tense when I've grown up with (and am still involved with) so much church influence. There's a bunch of stuff that feels familiar.
I read something called the 'modest survey' as a teenager, in which young Christian men answered a robust questionnaire on whether nitpicky things were 'stumbling blocks.' One question was whether sitting criss-cross applesauce was a turn on. Other questions touched on tight pants, visible bra straps, and skirt length. I mentioned it to my mom more recently and she apologized: "I shouldn't have let you guys read that. I was trapped by that whole modesty thing, too."
The whole idea that women are these temptresses that can't help but ensnare good men by doing something terrible like wear makeup (Medieval people were taught that it could literally lead souls to damnation) is still lurking in pockets of church culture. The book's description of medieval pressure to effortlessly fit a beauty standard while not actively working at it is pressure I feel today, especially as I participate in church community. (Are you allowed to be hot on purpose at church?? The ethics of being hot is a really funny premise to me).
How long did I believe that my thoughts were the only safe way to attract a man? That if my body wasn't part of the equation, I'd be acceptable?
This insidious separation of mind and body plants a bizarre seed: if you're a wild creature that must be hidden by sleeves and fingertip-brushing hems, you could really wreak havok if you stripped down. Once and Future Sex sheds a lot of light on where some of that ideation originated.
by Damien Kempf and Maria L. Gilbert
Felt like a snack, after the weight of Once & Future Sex. A pictoral run through a bunch of beasts. The captions are more matter-of-fact than Weird Medieval Guys, but I still laughed out loud at the absurdity in a coffee shop while reading.
by Elina Gertsman and Barbara H. Rosenwein
I tried reading straight through this, novel-style, and lost steam quickly. It's better when browsed. Each item has a standalone entry with historical background. I see this slotting in as a visual reference for future art projects.
It's been interesting to see the mix of absurd (wacky guys) and the serious (gender roles, oof) that come up in this casual research. It's nice to follow a thread for interest's sake, not a big practical project.