Book Review: Chaucer’s People: Everyday Lives in Medieval England, by Liza Picard

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_chaucers_peopleAs an English lit student, many years ago at University, I was fascinated by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The trouble was there was not enough information to help the ordinary reader put the people in context

That is no longer a problem. Liza Picard is a social historian and has written about many periods in English history, giving the background and the depth to the actual events. She brings the same academic excellence and readable scholarship to the world of Chaucer. While many writers of historic events put in too much detail and get side-tracked, she avoids these pitfalls. This book is both informative and engaging. It is perhaps not a Summer beach read, but certainly a book I will dip in to and discuss with others.

Picard takes each of the characters form the Tales and puts them in to a group. She then gives us the information about that group. The Wife of Bath comes under the heading of Country Life, but we then get a description of her occupation as a Weaver. The research is meticulous but this is a readable version of the facts. I enjoyed finding out about The Reeve. I did not realise double entry book-keeping was already in existence in the 1300’s. The medical section is so good I kept reading passages aloud to my long-suffering husband. We find out about surgeons, apothecaries, pestilence, women’s problems and mental illness.

‘Most home remedies relied on common herbs, with perhaps some alcohol and faith. A scalded penis (how could that happen?) called for the ashes of burned cloth on a linen bandage. For snakebite take thine own piss and drink it….’. The section on food includes some Medieval recipes, but the suggestion not to try them!

While this book is perhaps more for those with an academic interest in life in Medieval England, it is an interesting tome for the general reader. I worry that we no longer read to widen our knowledge and understanding, but read only for specific outcomes. To me the beauty of a book, is that it leads me in to an unknown world and helps me understand the present by reflecting on the past. Surely, this is the purpose of historical writing.

Liza Picard will lead the reader into a fascinating world behind the characters Chaucer so well presented to us in the Canterbury Tales. You will embark on your own pilgrimage to Medieval England but beware of Cooks, Reeves, Merchants, Knights and above all, the Doctor of Physic!

by Kathy Watson

Chaucer’s People: Everyday Lives in Medieval England
by Liza Picard
Published by Weidenfield & Nicolson
ISBN 9781474606318

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