Hilary Mantel

Monks Before Women

Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages

By Georges Duby

Polity Press 232pp £29.50 order from our bookshop

‘What do we know about love in twelfth-century France?’ asks Georges Duby. Indeed, what do we know about love? Until quite recently in the history of the world, we’ve only heard one side of the story – the male version. And even that is partial; we’ve only heard from those men who were literate.

Duby’s greatest problem is the nature of the evidence. If you want to know what women were like in the Middle Ages, your evidence will issue largely from the scriptoria of monasteries. And there is a further problem, which bedevils all historians of society. We can find out what the rules were, for a given people at a given time; we know how the Church and State said they ought to behave. But we don’t know how they did behave, in practice. You might think that poems and stories would be a better guide to reality than the chronicles of female saints; yet nothing much is left to us that is not stylised, idealised, worked over by vested interests.

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