Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Curious Myths of the Middle Ages by Sabine Baring Gould

Why I read it: Focused on medieval history in college, sort of an undeclared minor.

Summary: An attempt to debunk the longstanding myths of medieval times.

My Thoughts: I once had a professor at UMASS Amherst, a dear friend who has since passed on, who took a statement from a student and stood it on its head. The student, when asked a question about medieval history, said, "I wouldn't know. I only study American history."

Professor Ware looked at him and said, "Oh, I see. What's that, like 400 years, in one language?"

Gould escorted me back to those days at UMASS, but brought my studies to a whole new level. We didn't get into myths. We didn't have time. The beautiful tapestry of life in the Middle Ages - which, of course, featured the Bayeaux Tapestry - was too complex, too interwoven to complete in twenty-eight weeks (broken into early and later Middle Ages courses). Myths were just a theme we didn't get to.

But we all know so many of them - the Wandering Jew, William Tell, etc. Some have survived to the modern day as folk tales, but we know them to be just that - tales. There was a time, say, in the Middle Ages, when folks believed them to be true. That's because they had never met Sabine Baring Gould.

Gould was the nineteenth century destroyer of Medieval European myths. He wrote this particular study in 1866, and didn't just debunk them, he proved that across international borders the same stories had been told for generations with just names, faces and minor themes changed. The book is fascinating in the sense that first he tells the myth, then rips it apart before our eyes.

My only disappointment in reading this book is the loss of my friend. If only I could have sat with Professor Ware one morning in his office and started the debate. "Yes, I've heard of the Wandering Jew, but according to S. Baring Gould..." I so miss those days.

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