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‘The Middle Ages in 50 Objects’: A cavalcade of astonishing things with stories to tell

This book is stuffed with cool things – often astonishing physical items with stories to tell. Gifted historians and storytellers, the authors give us a bristling, three-dimensional view of the Middle Ages.

"The Middle Ages in 50 Objects" by Elina Gertsman and Barbara H. Rosenwein. Book cover.
"The Middle Ages in 50 Objects" by Elina Gertsman and Barbara H. Rosenwein. Book cover.Read moreCourtesy of Cambridge University Press

The Middle Ages in 50 Objects
By Elina Gertsman and Barbara H. Rosenwein
Cambridge University Press. 248 pp. $34.95

Reviewed by John Timpane

This book is stuffed with cool things — often astonishing physical items with stories to tell. As gifted historians and storytellers, the authors tell us — their general, non-expert audience — what these objects are, how they came to be made, and what they say about their times and places. By the end, we have a bristling, three-dimensional view of the Middle Ages. Yes, it was a chaotic time (ours isn't?), with wild shifts in power and identity (ditto). As this book shows, however, it was a time dyed deeply in the human.

Gertsman and Rosenwein work, as they must, with a way-broad definition of the Middle Ages, starting in the late third century A.D. and ending in the early 16th century, with Hans Holbein, seen by some as late medieval, by others as Renaissance or early modern. Loosely anchored in Europe, they roam wide, to Asia Minor, Iraq/Iran, Egypt, Syria, Afghanistan, displaying the vitality of the Islamic world.

They group their objects under four rubrics: "The Holy and the Faithful," "The Sinful and the Spectral," "Daily Life and Its Fictions" (a fanciful but instructive heading), and "Death and Its Aftermath." Judging from their often witty narrative, they are delighted when their chosen objects bust their categories.

History has seen a recent "turn to the material." It's also called "object-history." A prominent surfer on this wave was the British Museum's History of the World in 100 Objects, written by director Neil MacGregor and turned into a memorable BBC series. If not the first, it was a leader, and books now abound on Ireland, baseball, the Civil War, and much more in objects numbered 100, 50, or some other magical, arbitrary number.

What tells a story better than, oh, Object 1, a remarkable marble sculpture, about 16½ inches high, of the whale vomiting Jonah "upon the dry land" (Jonah 2:10)? You're stunned by the workmanship, as we are again and again, right to Object 50, a Holbein "Dance of Death" woodcut. Jonah and whale were wrought in Asia Minor around A.D. 290. It is a Jewish theme made for a Christian purpose (found buried in a grave with Christian objects), created in part of the Roman Empire. (Rome doesn't "officially" fall for another 186 years.)  Christianity was illegal. As the authors show, Object 1 "thus stands as a perfect witness to the cultural and religious complexity" of the time and place.

Which, really, is the theme of the book. Many think of the Middle Ages as pokey and monochrome. If you thought so before, you won't after you savor this book.

Even tiny objects amaze. Object 26, a Frankish brooch fashioned around A.D. 500, is all but art deco, silver with garnets, vibrant with playful color and awe-striking achievement. The Franks may have been called "barbarians," but they were also largely Christian, often blindingly cultured. No brutish northerners these. Then you get to Object 27, a rock-crystal button made perhaps in Constantinople by an artist working in a new, abstract Persian style. Again and again, we get a sense of an "international" Middle Ages.

You never know what tale the tellers will draw. With Object 17, a tiny dragon's head carved around 1100 from walrus ivory (!?), we learn of the Vikings, the Normans, and the English (yet another transfrontier culture), and of the dragon as power symbol. With Object 36, a table fountain made in early 14th-century Paris, we see sparkling, creative technology, and we learn of the rise of Paris, the importance of real fountains in city design, and the incredible medieval poetry involving fountains "as sites of love and loss."

In "Death and Its Aftermath," the authors, though they don't slight the reality of belief, or at least not much, gravitate repeatedly to the taste for luxury, without which many of these illustrations, statues, and designs would not exist. Yet the mordant terror of death, gnawing into every art, can't but disturb. The last two objects are knockouts. Object 49 is the famous "Bridal Couple" painting, showing two hipsters of the era, healthy and in the latest threads. On the flip side, they are naked, wasted specters, their bodies as death will have them. They may well be in Limbo, in a state of putrid suffering.

In Holbein's "Dance of Death, The Pope," the crowd around the Pontiff includes two skeletons. No one appears to notice, but death is always coming. Brilliant and oppressive, it steps right out of this book.

I might not give The Middle Ages in 50 Objects as a gift for the celebratory holiday season. I'd wait for, say, the day after Twelfth Night to send it. It teaches, mesmerizes, throws light in all directions.