A captious person might mutter that The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe is a little 'hobbitical': it reminds one of Professor Tolkien's hobbits, who 'liked to have books filled with things that they already knew, set out fair and square with no contradictions'. This would be unfair, in that it is a splendid volume, presenting contemporary scholarship to the general reader with care, grace, much thought and many illustrations; filled with things that most general readers won't know at all, and that many specialist readers won't have thought of. Still, it is sometimes possible to imagine the contributors putting down their pens, staring at their charts of 'The Capetian Kings' or 'The Royal House of Jerusalem to 1187' - 'BALDWIN I (1100 - 1181) m. (1) Godvere of Tosni (2) daughter of T'oros (3) Adelaide, countess of Sicily' - and getting up from their desks with a feeling of justified completion and a mutter of 'well, that's that!' Here are the pedigrees; here the accounts of political pressures; here are the maps - possessions of the kings of France, trade routes to Islam, routes of Viking invasions - thus, so, black and white, and not otherwise.
LRB 27 October 1988 | PDF Download