In Medieval People: Vivid Lives in a Distant Landscape, historian Michael Prestwich [author of Knight: The Medieval Warrior’s (Unofficial) Manual] challenges generalities about the Middle Ages* by looking at the specific: biographies of 69 people who lived between 800 and 1500, a period that stretches from Charlemagne’s empire to the early Renaissance.
Prestwich’s choice of title invites inevitable comparison with Eileen Power’s classic Medieval People (1924). Like Power, Prestwich is interested in giving history what Power called the “personal treatment”: making the past accessible for the general reader by putting a face on it. Many of his essays deal with the usual suspects (kings, popes, emperors). But Prestwich moves beyond the expected. He recognizes the importance Muslim scholars and the Central Asian conquerors Ghengis Khan and Tamerlane** played in shaping medieval Europe. He includes biographies of illustrious women, noting that their contributions were more remarkable than those of their male counterparts because of the difficulties they faced in making their voices heard. To the extent that quality sources are available, he includes individuals from the middle classes or lower: merchants, mathematicians, artists, a leper and a French peasant leader, Guillaume Cale. (There are inherent limitations on writing about individuals on the fringes of power. As Prestwich points out, it is impossible to consider the career of a specific hermit unless his contemporaries wrote about him at some length.)
Written with authority and occasional humor, illustrated with both contemporary artwork and modern photographs of key historical sites, Prestwich’s Medieval People brings the Middle Ages to life in all its complexity and diversity. Eileen Power would have approved.
*As I’ve mentioned before, the terms Middle Ages and medieval are culturally charged. Prestwich is explicit about the pitfalls and uses both terms with awareness.
**Or more accurately Chinggis Khan and Timur.
Much of this review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers