An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

May 31, 2016

Polack and Kania, The Middle Ages Unlocked

Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania, The Middle Ages Unlocked: A Guide to Life in Medieval England, 1050-1300. Forward by Elizabeth Chadwick. Stroud, UK: Amberley Publishing, 2015.

Reviewed by Valerie B. Johnson (

Scholars who teach medieval subjects know that many of our students arrive in our classrooms with little accurate knowledge of the period – they think that Shakespeare is “Old English,” that no one lived past 40, that absolute monarchies and the Church controlled every moment of civic and religious life. The Middle Ages Unlocked: A Guide to Life in Medieval England, 1050-1300 seeks to shatter these misconceptions with careful and precise presentations on a broad range of subjects. Authors Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania make innovative organizational decisions to address their readers’ concerns, focusing initially on broader topics including class divisions, government, and religion, before turning their attention to specific practical details like clothing, consumables, and even measurements. The book reads like an extended introductory lecture, providing a level of detail and precision missing from many similar texts. However, The Middle Ages Unlocked serves a very specific audience: a writer of historical fiction who is looking for a solid grounding in the period, enough detail on quotidian life to begin to establish an imaginative world, and some further reading with directed research tracts.

This audience often finds itself locked out of medieval studies: many introductory volumes are designed as classroom texts (and thus require continual supplements and guidance) or as extremely broad overviews of the period (and thus lack detail). As the novelist Elizabeth Chadwick notes in her “Foreword,” no such “starter volume” existed when she began her research; as an author invested in world building, with a desire to balance the imaginative and the authentic, with a book like The Middle Ages Unlocked “I might have saved myself a great deal of time. Rather than wandering all over the place like an inebriated spider, I’d have had a route map to follow!” (9). The volume is an excellent starting point for those who produce medievalism through their artistry and craft, as well as those who are drawn to the period by the products of medievalism. After all, access is vital to learning, and for many students, writers, scholars, and enthusiasts, the Middle Ages are inaccessible. The period needs to be unlocked and the gates of scholarship thrown open to those outside a relatively small community of academics.

Polack and Kania thus seek to provide their readers with detailed knowledge of the period while not burdening them with academic conventions. This is a major consideration for a teacher who is considering assigning The Middle Ages Unlocked: because the audience is primarily imagined as an artist seeking to build an authentic fictional world through historical detail, Polack and Kania deliberately and consistently avoid the sorts of academic citation, notation, and deep referencing that many audiences find impenetrable. Their discourse is not with scholars: their discourse is with writers and artists. Their book is thus ideal for praxis-oriented researchers and those who are simply curious (and enthusiastic) about the period. The book is not ideal for use in classrooms where students might take the lack of citation and notation as a standard academic practice.

However, The Middle Ages Unlocked provides an incredibly valuable gift to readers because it deliberately and systematically normalizes the medieval Jewish experience alongside the standard Christian-centered narrative. There are far too many introductory and advanced volumes available that present Christian European history as universal history. The consequences of such neglect are immediate in fiction and also in the classroom: American public projects like People of Color in Medieval European Art History (Medieval PoC on Tumblr and Twitter) respond directly to the consequences of these educational gaps, and recently a racist UKIP Twitter user demonstrated the vital need for representation in fiction (for the entire story, please see David Perry’s excellent debriefing). The Middle Ages Unlocked tackles another aspect of this neglect, and indirectly demonstrates the deeply complex interlacing between Christians and Jews, by explaining the practices of both groups in the context of internal theological currents as well as mixed-culture realities. This is to say that they help readers understand complex concepts like hierarchy, obligation, and the distinctions between medieval and modern notions of freedom by presenting both groups, the means by which they interlace, and then discussing how exclusion and deliberately cultivated prejudices encourage the formation of group identity (pages 23-24, Chapter 1: “Rich and Poor, High and Low: Social Groups and Circles”).

Polack and Kania are well-qualified to bring this work to the world: beyond their substantive intellectual achievements - Polack holds double Ph.D.s, the first in medieval history and the second in English (specifically the craft of writing), and Kania holds a Ph.D in medieval archaeology with a focus on textiles - both are prominent public scholars. Polack’s website and blog are forums for lively discussions on topics ranging from women’s history to food history to the craft of teaching writing while also writing novels; Kania’s website and blog provide a fascinating window into the research and practice of medieval textiles. Their acknowledgements note the deeply communal and audience-oriented origins of the book: from a community of readers and writers who articulated the need for such a volume, to the practices of collaborative writing across the globe and time zones, The Middle Ages Unlocked is a book that shows us what may well be a future for public-facing academic publishing.

This point of audience is one that I have mentioned before, and will now return to at length. Scholars often like to think that we are writing to specific and varied audiences, but all too often we write and speak amongst our own communities. Polack and Kania do this as well, but their communities are not as limited as some: Polack is an accomplished novelist as well as a historian, and Kania’s work with textile archeology and reconstruction brings her in contact with museums and groups focused on reconstruction and reenactment. Thus, they are not deducing what their ideal audience needs: they know, from their own experiences and the voices of those communities, how they might best blend subject expertise with engagement in historical praxis. For this reason, the book is packed with meticulous detail and insights, but deliberately avoids footnotes, endnotes, or lengthy biographical lists. Consequently, The Middle Ages Unlocked is a book that aims at an audience neither fully public nor fully academic. Instead, as Chadwick’s “Foreword” shows, the audience for this book is one whose research is oriented towards praxis and application, such as writers of historical fiction, re-enactors, librarians who wish to guide their patrons more easily, and (of course) teachers.

However, the strengths of The Middle Ages Unlocked and its very specific audience mean that the book is difficult to assign to students directly. For context: I often teach literature-based composition courses that focus on medieval topics. Teachers in my position, who use composition and general education courses as an opportunity to introduce students to the Middle Ages, must rapidly impart basic knowledge so that we can then use literary or historical content to show our students why composition or general literary engagement matters to them. My students arrive with little to no knowledge (even negative knowledge if they are uncritical fans of popular medievalism) of the Middle Ages, and I thus always watch for resources that engage my students while also educating them thoroughly. I want to use The Middle Ages Unlocked: it is far more detailed and less “character” focused than like Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives by Jones and Alan Ereira (BBC Books, 2005), the scholarship is far more recent, the organization is engaging, and the phrasing of each statement shows careful attention to how readers will interpret the material. However, what The Middle Ages Unlocked does not have are notations and citations. This is a major stumbling point for teachers who wish to use it in classrooms where students are struggling to understand why citation matters, and how to navigate the stressful waters of academic plagiarism. When I teach composition, readings I assign must reinforce the lessons I teach on citation, reference, and academic dialog, as well as structure, organization, and grammar. Such reinforcement shows students – many of whom complain that accurate citation is time consuming or pointless – working examples of how citation functions and structures a text, and also how students can use scholarly volumes to find more sources themselves. My students struggle to understand the differences between primary and secondary sources: they depend on visual markers like footnotes or endnotes to learn how to distinguish between scholarly and non-scholarly since they do not have the content knowledge to make that distinction, and they are deeply terrified of error because this knowledge is vital to their fields and professional reputations. In my classrooms, students are learning how to distinguish their voices and ideas from other communicators, and systematic citation methods are absolutely necessary to this process. It saddens me that they cannot enjoy this volume on its own terms.

Fortunately, this sort of general education classroom is not the primary audience of The Middle Ages Unlocked. I must be clear: for the intended audience, the problems I articulate are not significant concerns. This audience instead needs easy navigation, which Polack and Kania provide in their thoughtful and organic division of material. The divisions also allow the authors to provide a great deal of depth and precision while acknowledging, even highlighting, gaps in the historical record – a point which also allows them to outline the general methods of deduction that scholars employ to develop facts. This is a lot to do, and Polack and Kania deliver. They begin the book broadly, starting with class divisions (Chapter 1, “Rich and Poor, High and Low”) to confront the pervasive myths of popular feudalism. Other major categories include government (Chapter 3, “Death and Taxes You Cannot Avoid”), which helps demonstrate that medieval monarchies were not the absolutist states that many of our most cherished fictions (written, staged, or drawn) would have us believe. Chapter 4 (“God is Everywhere”) begins to address religion, both Christian and Jewish; since the book focuses specifically on England from the 11th to 14th centuries, this necessarily includes France, and the authors are careful to address the limitations of this focus upon daily life in medieval England. The Middle Ages Unlocked does well in lending detail to broad topics; it does equally well with specific details, such as clothing (Chapter 13, “Clothes Make the Man”), consumables (Chapter 14, “Everybody Needs to Eat), and even measurements (Chapter 17, “How Many Leagues to Babylon?”).

Each chapter is further subdivided according to content: for example, Chapter 2, “From Cradle to Grave” is subtitled “Life Phases.” The brief introduction acknowledges the gaps in the historical record, and outlines the consequences: “without being able to accurately calculate child mortality, which is impossible given the nature of records in our period, we cannot know what life expectancy people had in the Middle Ages [….] Though records for daily life are patchy, they are improving as archaeologists add their data to the work of historians in the field” (40). Such insertions and explanations are useful for the intended audience, and can be used to advantage in classroom contexts. The chapter then subdivides into five major sections. The first, “Childhood,” includes discussions of pregnancy, pre-natal diets and advice to expectant mothers, and distinctions between Christian and Jewish rituals to welcome the newborn into the community, as well as discussing the various milestones of childhood development. “Adulthood” is organized around major rituals and rites – including the increasingly elaborate expectations surrounding Christian marriage. The section foregrounds the discussion of marriage within both Christian and Jewish practices, as well as discussing practical aspects including household finances, consent, adultery, divorce, and remarriage upon annulment or the death of one partner. “Sex and Sexuality” begins with a reminder of the prominent role of literature in recording and influencing standards of beauty, as well as attitudes about sex and sexuality. The reminder is apt for a book directed to writers. Polack and Kania then carefully break down the contexts and sources of sexuality: from Aquinas’s claim (via Galen and Aristotelian schools of thought) “that women existed only for procreation and to give men food and drink” (50) to the conflicting cures for men’s lovesickness (alcohol, separation or proximity to the woman in question, sex, misogynistic stories; 51), the section subtly demonstrates that sexuality has long been considered complex, nuanced, and contradictory. Other portions of the chapter focus on death and the afterlife - “Old Age, Death, and Burial” is a comprehensive review of Christian end of life practices, with a brief contrast to Jewish ritual, and “After Death” delightfully focuses on ghosts (mostly Jewish) and other revenants.

The Middle Ages Unlocked concludes with a fantastic narrative guide, “Reading More About the Middle Ages,” that Polack and Kania segment by the book’s chapter divisions; each topic is carefully annotated. These annotations assume a reader who needs direction, not one who needs the material explained in depth. Consequently, many of the annotations can read as brief overviews of the topic via the available scholarship. Polack and Kania are careful to provide a range of resources, and many of those resources in turn offer further reading or additional sources. For example, a brief discussion of settlements (for readers interested in the material presented in Chapter 9, “Where to Live?: Homes, Castles, Villages, and Towns”) is careful to note the recent research on water supply, directing those interested to modern web resources ( as well pillars of the field (R. H. Hilton’s English and French Towns in Feudal Society). Moreover, the singularity of London is directly addressed, as the section reminds us that “London was a special case. There is a great deal of specialist work relating to living in London, but it cannot be simply applied to life outside of London due to the significantly smaller population bases in the rest of England” (363).

The Middle Ages Unlocked is an ideal volume to guide non-expert readers on their first forays into research; the book’s ideal audiences are praxis-oriented authors and artists, historical reconstruction enthusiasts seeking to expand their understanding of context, and intelligent readers who are simply curious about the period. It can be useful in introductory courses aimed at non-majors by focusing on a similar component of academic praxis: research. The book is incredibly detailed and phrased with exquisite care – precision and accuracy are never sacrificed, and the prose is a good model for public scholars and advanced undergraduate writers, as are the reminders of what we simply do not know (and cannot know) from the historical and literary record. Despite these significant advantages the book’s citation process and apparatus are a stumbling block for classroom use. However, the volume could present teachers with an opportunity to direct and guide student research projects that are less about an argument and more about the process of research or the depth of resources – such as a literature review or white paper. Setting students to find sources and resources that support the topics presented in the book could provide some of the supportive scaffolding that a fully independent research project cannot, as well as a solid guarantee that the information the student seeks to confirm is accurate.

Academic writing aims to persuade through a highly stylized form of world building and logic; in short, scholars often forget how alienating their style of writing can be for those readers who are not part of that “in” group. Creative writing instead seeks to include, and persuades readers to believe its claims through connections to everyday realism. The Middle Ages Unlocked is an excellent resource that rests on the borders of the academic and creative worlds; for those writers less burdened by the specific demands (and whims) of academic writing, this book a fantastic resource that is unmatched in its depth and breadth, and truly throws open the gates of knowledge.   

Valerie B. Johnson
The Georgia Institute of Technology