One of the great challenges facing historians of any era is to make the strangeness of the past comprehensible in the present. This task is especially difficult for scholars of the Middle Ages, a period that can seem particularly alien to modern sensibilities. In Telling Tales, Joel Rosenthal takes us on a journey through some familiar sources from fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England to show how memories and recollections can be used to build a compelling portrait of daily life in the late Middle Ages. Rosenthal is a senior medievalist whose work over the years has spanned several related areas, including family history, women’s history, the life cycle, and memory and testimony. In Telling Tales, he brings all of these interests to bear on three seemingly disparate bodies of sources: the letters of Margaret Paston, depositions from a dispute between the Scropes and Grosvenors over a contested coat of arms, and Proof of Age proceedings, whereby the legal majority of an heir was established.
In Rosenthal’s hands these familiar sources all speak to questions of testimony, memory, and narrative at a time when written records were just becoming widespread. In Margaret Paston, we see a woman who helped hold family and family business together as she mastered the arduous and complex task of letter writing. In the knights whose tales were elicited for the Scrope and Grosvenor case, we witness the bonding of men-at-arms in the Hundred Years War. From the Proofs of Age, we have brief tales that are rich in the give-and-take of daily life in the village—memories of baptisms, burials, a trip to market, a fall from a roof, or marriage to another juror’s sister. From a historian at the top of his craft, Telling Tales shows how medievalists can turn scraps of recollection into a synthetic story, one that enables us to recapture the strange and lost country of the European Middle Ages.