Medieval Woman by Ann Baer is not your typical plot-driven narrative, but rather an intimate portrait of ordinary life among farmers and tradesmen in medieval England. The reader follows Marion, wife of Peter the town carpenter and mother of pre-teen Peterkin and infant Alice.
From the start, Medieval Woman is vivid and raw in its descriptions of harsh and dirty (quite literally) every day life. Baer takes us through one year of Marion’s life, starting in March and describing how the seasons dictate the lives of her family members and the entire village.
Life is communal, insular to the point where the next village over or closest city seems a world away. Days are dictated by weather and light, the bounty (or lack thereof) of the harvest. Medieval-set historical fiction is often action-adventure with wars and politics, but Medieval Woman is a quiet and humble life of an ordinary woman. By default, medieval life was harsh and unforgiving. The people of this time dealt with loss, in all its brutal forms, as part of every day life. You live with what you are dealt, and you survive despite it all–knowing full well something as simple as a splinter could kill you. Baer sugar coats nothing; from a child permanently maimed by fire, to unwashed bodies as the norm, to the long days and nights of winter marked by unforgiving cold and starvation.
If you’re looking for a plot-based narrative, this book likely won’t hold your attention. However, if you are open to being immersed in the dirty details of every day life in the middle ages, I highly recommend Medieval Woman–especially if you also appreciate vivid descriptions of the domestic. As a side note, I’ve always found the month-by-month paintings of every day life in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry to be both fascinating and peaceful (even though the harsh life of a peasant was not!) and this book really reminded me of those paintings.