Review: Strange Histories June 28, 2010Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback
Strange Histories: the trial of the pig, the walking dead, and other matters of fact from the medieval and Renaissance worlds by Darren Oldridge (Routledge 2005) caught Beachcombing’s attention in Little Snoring’s charity shop. The book, in truth, stood out like a sore thumb among all the Mills and Boons, a GI Joe surrounded by Barbies, and Beachcombing couldn’t bear to leave it there. So having paid fifty pence for this treasure he set off down the High Street, hiding the frightening cover from any passing children. Then, once sat in the garden, pipe in hand, Beachcombing began to read.
The first thing Beachcombing learnt was that he and Darren – Beachcombing always employs first names with authors if he manages to finish their books – have different historical interests. Beachcombing’s likes to seek out ‘the outlandish, the anomalous and the curious’ from the past; whereas Darren ‘[has] tried to reconstruct the thinking of men and women who accepted as normal ideas that now seem to be absurd’. Translated. Beachcombing is looking for the stuff that folks in the fifteenth century found strange about the fifteenth century: elephants in Scandinavia, polar bears in Arabia etc. Darren, instead, is after the stuff that we in the twenty-first century find strange about the fifteenth century but that those living in the fifteenth century found perfectly normal: witchcraft, ordeal, heresy etc. And, of course, to do that Darren has to put his deep thinking hat on…
Now Beachcombing is a simple historian with a simple mind and does not deal easily with ideas. Indeed, when his students say something too theoretical he starts hyperventilating and tells them that he is having ‘an Anglo-Saxon moment’. Beachcoming, therefore, almost swallowed his pipe when ‘the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz’ made an appearance on p. 4: Beachcoming can promise the reader that he would not have paid fifty pence to rescue Dr Geertz from the Hospice Shop! But trying to understand the past is the marrow of this book and Beachcombing was soon hacking into the bones with the best of them. After all, Darren has put together sources ranging from Augustine to Hawthorne, with throwaway (but pertinent) nods to modern (alleged) satanic sex abuse, (alleged) astral travel and Al Quaeda, not to mention vampires and the Marquis de Sade… Very few writers could have pulled this off without being obtuse, irrelevant and irritating. Darren is none of these.
Beachcombing might, admittedly, set up some tiny semantic shooting wars. Darren, for example, is keen on the idea that people in the Middle Ages were as rational as we moderns. Beachcombing would counter that people in the Middle Ages were as ‘reasonable’ as we moderns: we moderns are a good deal more ‘rational’ and that is possibly one of our problems. But Beachcombing knows that in a philosophical fist fight Darren would knock Beachcombing to the floor, so he is going to leave it at that and avoid any cognitive black eyes. (Mrs B gives him enough of those already).
What does matter is that this book makes an excellent stab, in accessible, enjoyable English at explaining how ‘common sense’ is not a universal and how different ground rules in different societies make us jarringly different from our ancestors and, more worryingly, from our neighbours. Thanks to Darren Beachcombing doesn’t understand the French any better, but he does feel a little easier about them living next door.
Beachcombing is now saving up for Darren’s Witchcraft Reader or hoping that it too will appear on the hallowed Hospice Shop shelves…