I spent most of today reading Shulamith Shahar's Growing Old in the Middle Ages, not entirely for pleasure but still with great enthusiasm. It seems like a day doesn't go by at the moment without my reading the magic word, the word that makes my academic muscles sing: "marginalisation". A buzz word. Social, medieval historians are climbing over each other to discover and re-cover the marginalised, raiding the anthropologists for ideas and rolling their eyes at demography and statistics. Counting stuff is sooooo 1980s don't you know. And I'm right there with them. My mantra: reorientate! refigure!
Tis so much fun...history at its most wacky and playful; history getting into the cracks.
The elderly, Shahar suggests, are just such a marginalised group, physically and symbolically removed from the centres of medieval power structures. Old men (and women to a lesser extent), gradually deteriorating beyond independence, underwent a status reclassification rhetorically analogous with that women and children. All fascinating. But what I love most about Shahar, quite aside from her formidable reputation as a feminist and a medievalist, is the way she throws herself so lustily into her material. Her analysis makes use of all kinds of source material, disregarding nothing, scrutinizing everything. So, although I started out this morning with an eye to medieval conceptualisations of aging, I ended up running the gamut from the Old Testament to Goethe, from Icelandic sagas to Freud, from modern gynaecology to Florentine "ricordanze". She projects a sense of looming hugeness, entirely enjoyable and beautifully woven: the macro and the micro dodging about each other.
I was pleased to see the note she begins and ends upon - a quote from Leon Battista Alberti's Della Famiglia, a 15th century Florentine patrician's take on the correct way to nurture a family and its assets. Alberti isn't usually a great prose artist, but he is always humane, an advocate of love in life even as he regurgitates the prejudices of his day. Very occasionally he seems to model his prose on Dante and wins me (and Shahar too):
"The truth is that the winter season treats us very differently from the trees, for winter lightens the trees, unclothing and stripping them of leaves, but to us old men winter brings burdens and clothes us in shadow and pain."
Note that I cheated on this, my first real entry in our blog. Instead of sitting down and composing an erudite piece on Vikram Chandra's magical realist epic Red Earth and Pouring Rain, I've retreated to what I know best - i.e. what I did today. But I suppose the idea of this is that we talk about the immediately relevant. All books, and thoughts thereupon, welcome. :-)