Fun with Footnotes

One reason why I like Clifford Backman’s Worlds of Medieval Europe (Oxford UP, 2008) is his learned yet accessible and personable style. I especially like such bons mots as these:

To: “These attitudes [of civic pride] may have been more a matter of parochialism than anything else; people tend to identify rather fiercely with their home cities.”

Note: I myself will forever defend Minneapolis against the criticism leveled at it by bigoted fools. Salve magna parens.

To: “The only place to get rid of human waste was to dump it in the street.”

Note: Louis IX of France once had the contents of a chamberpot poured on his head as he strolled through Paris early one morning. He stormed to the door of the house and demanded to know who had done it. It turned out that the guilty person was a university student who had risen early in order to study Louis was so impressed by the young man’s dedicated that he gave him a scholarship. (This is not recommended as a way of financing a college education.)

To: “The most common method was coitus interruptus.”

Note: At last, a piece of Latin I don’t have to translate for you!

To: [retelling of Matthew 19:21-24]

Note: The image of a camel passing through the eye of a needle is a bizarre one and may have resulted from a simple spelling error. The word for “camel” in biblical Greek is kamelos, but the word for “rope” is kamilos. It certainly makes more sense to picture someone trying to thread a rope through a needle’s eye than to push a camel through one.

To: “Further to the east, two brothers, Wenceslas and Sigismund, wore the crowns of Bohemia and Hungary, respectively, and through their ineptitude kept both realms in a state of confusion, war, and rebellion.”

Note: This is not the “Good King Wenceslas” of the well-known Christmas carol. He was a tenth-century figure who died a martyr’s death in 935. The fourteenth-century Wenceslas was incompetent and a hopeless alcoholic, whereas his brother was mentally ill. In fact, a common joke of the time was that Wenceslas was only sober in the mornings while Sigismund was only sane in the afternoons – which explained why the brothers could never agree on any sensible regional policies.

To: “Since rat populations tended, then as now, to reside in centers of human population, the plague literally exploded onto the urban scene with deadly force.”

Note: A discomfiting fact of human history is that there is generally one rat for every person in any given city. In Boston, where I now live, the ration is estimated to be two-to-one. The reasons we don’t see more of them in that they generally dislike us as much as we dislike them and stay hidden during the day (except, of course, for places like Boston, where the rats have real attitude).


Of course textbooks are a massive scam (cynically inflated prices + frequent, gratuitous new editions); lately, I have also come to regard them as actual impediments to learning – they tend to cram as many details as possible into a chapter, and which itself is composed in a bland, institutional style. But this upper-level medieval text is the work of a single author who, as I say, knows a lot and who also has a sense of humor and good prose style. Moreover, the book only costs $42 – still twice what it needs to be, but at least not four or five times.