Daily Living in the Twelfth Century - Urban Tigner Holmes, Jr. (1952)

I'm a fan of the "Daily Living" style of history books; I want to state that up front. When done well, these books capture the feel of a different age in the way that a list of important events, people and cultural trends can not. When done poorly, they are a waste of time, as the author swirls in a morass of speculation and hypothesis. I am pleased to report that Prof. Holmes has done his task well.

Has has chosen as his framing device the journey of Alexander Neckam from London to Paris in 1178 (or thereabouts) and his subsequent years of study in the latter city. The use of this historical person allows Holmes to smoothly show and discuss the things that Neckam might see and do. By choosing a foreigner in Paris, he is able to make comparisons and contrasts to life in London without seeming forced.

Holmes' style is easy and readable, but make no mistake, this is a well-documented piece of work. The references in the text are appropriate and illustrative without being intrusive. The extensive endnotes are available for those who wish to read them, but are not necessary for the reader who is willing to simply accept that Holmes has done his homework. (A tiny quibble about the notes: often the quoted source is Latin, sometimes old French, and a translation is not always included. This is a minor failing, though.)

The book is perhaps not quite as accessible as the current gold standard of "Daily Living" books, the series by Joseph and Francis Gies. At a few points, there is an assumption of at least passing familiarity with medieval history, and the reliance on Latin or French terms rather than a modern English equivalent is almost certainly more accurate but may be a little off-putting for the casual reader. For even an amateur scholar, though, those asides and references are invaluable! Sometimes there is no real modern equivalent, and using one would load it with inappropriate connotations.

Overall, the book is quite a useful addition to the library of a medieval scholar, or aspiring medieval scholar, and a particularly useful addition if one is collecting a shelf of "daily life" sorts of books.

Overall Grade: A-

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