Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sense and Serendipity

I dropped into the library last week to choose some new books for the DH. He's a job slave all week and doesn't work the flexi-hours that I do, so I get the task of finding his reading material (but that's a post for the future!) Anyway, while wandering the shelves I came across The Senses in Late Medieval England by C.M. Woolgar and what a find it is. I have since ordered my own copy as it's a MUST HAVE for my reference shelves.

The book does what it says on the cover and then some. Woolgar explores the five senses in their medieval context, and discusses them from the Anglo Saxon period right through to the 16thCentury, so there is something for most medievalists between its covers. Woolgar also gives case studies re the senses by exploring the households of Medieval bishops and Queens of England (Eleanor of Provence and Eleanor of Castile for e.g.) with particular attention to textiles, the colour and richness thereof, the frequency with which they were washed etc.
It's a fascinating journey into many aspects of Medieval life and thought with numerous pieces of information for the novelist's gleanings. For example: 'It was held in the tenth and eleventh centuries that one needed to make the sign of the cross when yawning, to prevent the Devil entering the body.' Or: 'The symbolic extinguishing of all lights in the church and throughout the monastery on Maundy Thursday, was matched by the kindling of new fire on Easter Saturday. To create the fire, it was the practice to use a shaped beryl or other crystal to focus the rays of the sun, rather than striking a flint: the fire was generated by Heaven and not by earth. Both Westminster Abbey and York Minster had beryls for this purpse.' Or what about the detail that the Anglo Saxons called some yellows 'Red.' Or the analysis of how often the later queens of England changed their underwear! There are a plenty of illustrations to maintain the interest and illustrate the text, and a very fine bibliography. All in all, this is going on my 'Desert Island' keeper bookshelf with a few other select titles.
Picking up random books from the library is an excellent way of reading around my subject and enhancing my knowledge of the period. There are always books I know I want or I know I have to read when I'm researching, but sometimes, like the above, some stray browsing will turn up a title like this that I didn't know I wanted, but I am so delighted to have come across. Brilliant.


Anne Gilbert said...

I didn't know I wanted that title, either(though it sounds slightly misleading if it starts in later Anglo-Saxon times). But I decided I wanted it so much, that I mentioned this entry on my blog! Thank you.
Anne G

Carla said...

This sounds a fascinating book!