Weird Medieval Guys: this deeply researched book takes you on a romp through the Middle Ages

Weird Medieval Guys: this deeply researched book takes you on a romp through the Middle Ages
Detail of a creature pulling a face from the margins of a medieval manuscript. British Library, CC BY-NC

Packed full of satire, stunning imagery and interactive maps and quizzes, Weird Medieval Guys is a deep-dive into some of the most extraordinary – and quirky – aspects of medieval daily life. This little book, which should appeal to older children as well as adults, is split into two parts: The Struggle: Surviving Life, Love, and Death, and The Bestiary.

Weird Medieval Guys is a riot, packed full of brilliant medieval facts. Its author, Olivia Swarthout, has been creative in using quizzes and puzzles to engage readers who might like history but don’t get on with dense scholarly texts in the wonderful, wacky world that is the Middle Ages.

What is particularly evident to me, as an expert in medieval literature, is the number of hours she has spent consulting digitised manuscripts from the first century onwards, as well as old and recent scholarship on medieval manuscript culture and life in general.

Surviving life

Beginning at the beginning (the Bible’s seven days of creation), the reader is taken on a riveting ride through a series of manuscript images – small, square, Instagram-like windows bursting with life and colour – that depict both the normalcy and turbulence of everyday life in medieval times. As you make your way through the book, you can pick a patron saint, a name and a job – and even learn a little Middle English slang.

Now fully equipped for the journey of a lifetime, Swarthout moves swiftly to tell you everything you need to know about surviving the ups and downs of finding an ideal partner, such as: should you carry your dagger at all times? Does one need a pudding-basin haircut? What was that secret aphrodisiac ingredient for that love potion you want to concoct?

Swarthout answers all of this and more as she delves into some of the funniest and weirdest traditions of the Middle Ages. The book is not too far off the mark, but does forgo some of the finer details about women’s lived experiences of marriage throughout the Middle Ages. What we know from medieval manuscript sources tells a slightly different story, where marriage was less about love and more about political arrangements.

Part one finishes by discussing death. Although never a particularly appealing topic, it wasn’t all doom and gloom in medieval times. Rather, Swarthout includes images from medieval manuscripts of the Danse Macabre (dance of death), which depicts a skeletal personification of death leading people of all ages and walks of life in a dance to their graves, occasionally with musical accompaniment.

As a medieval scholar, I found this approach to exploring life and death in the Middle Ages engaging. But Swarthout does well to make the sometimes difficult and grisly subjects approachable to non-expert readers through the book’s use of full-colour images, puzzles and flowcharts.

Animals in the medieval world

Part two, The Bestiary, is rather different and catalogues the animal side of life in the Middle Ages. Moving systematically through the four categories of the animal kingdom – beasts, birds, fish and serpents – Swarthout does a very good job of giving the reader a fully-fledged tour of everything you could ever want to know about these animals.

Again, there is fun to be had and facts a plenty you’ll want to share with friends. Take, for instance, the fact that in medieval folklore, hedgehogs were said to use their quills to carry great amounts of food on their backs. Or that eels were valuable creatures used by many as a form of payment.

A medieval drawing of a hedgehog carrying food.
A medieval drawing of a hedgehog carrying food.
British Library, CC BY-NC

Again, Swarthout has done her research, drawing on medieval manuscripts called bestiaries, which still survive today. These were treatises on various real or mythical kinds of animals, often accompanied by moralising anecdotes.

Weird Medieval Guys is an entertaining book. It’s bright and colourful and would make a perfect gift for anyone with an interest in the Middle Ages, or in history more generally. Although this is by no means a scholarly text, the purpose of the book – to give a fun introduction to life in the Middle Ages – is more than well achieved. Most of all, the text is enticingly re-readable and will remain a favourite for the non-expert, while also being enjoyable to the specialist.

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Madeleine S. Killacky does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.