Thursday, November 16, 2006

Cheyette's Ermengard of Narbonne

I just recently finished reading Frederic L. Cheyette's Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours and was much impressed.

There are parts of the book that were a little dry. If I understand the situation properly, the region and time Cheyette is interested in, the south of France in the 12th century, just before the Albigensian Crusade changed its society forever, is very short on narrative sources (chronicles and histories) and much of its history must be reconstructed from charters and other surviving archival materials. So much of the "history of events" concerning this lost world is made up of little details Cheyette has dug up in his exacting research, connected into a somewhat speculative reconstruction of high politics. Without much in the way of colorful, anecdotal detail, it's a little hard to follow, especially since noble men seem to have been awfully fond of the name "Raymond."

I should make clear that Cheyette is quite aware of the traditional stories concerning the troubadours of the region and their patrons, he is just properly skeptical about the tales they tell.

So much for my reservations. This book and its subject fascinated me, because Cheyette's understanding of 12th century society effortlessly flows in a number of sections that come across as perfect essays on their topics: the nature of lordship, the "culture of fidelity," the nature of heresy and opposition to heresy. All the cliches of medieval history are absent.

Finally, this is a beautiful book, from the wonderful cover (better in the original than in the above reproduction), to the black-and-white sketches and photos that evoke the cityscapes of the time, to the better-than-average maps, to the physical features of the book: size, paper quality, typesetting.

Yes, even in these degenerate days there are well-typeset books. Or at least one.


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