Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives
BBC Books (2007)
The main purpose of this book is to challenge the prevailing notion that the Middle Ages was a period totally devoid of intellectual, technological, political or social advances. Focusing primarily on England, the authors cover the period between the 1066 Norman invasion and Henry VIII’s confiscation of the monasteries.
According to Jones and Ereira, among the substantive changes occurring in the Middle Ages are a massive increase in urbanization (in 1066 only 10% of the English population lived in towns or villages) and literacy (prior to 1066 only monks and priests were literate).
Prior to reading this book, I had no idea that despite taxes residents paid to the king and local monasteries, most medieval villages were totally self-governing. I was also surprised to learn that most medieval discoveries were made by monks, including Roger Bacon, a man who was 500 years ahead of Newton in discovering the refraction of white light into colors. Other medieval inventions include time standardization into a 24-hour day, the first mechanical clock, anesthesia, and strong acids, such as hydrochloric and sulfuric acid.
Women enjoyed more rights and had more careers open to them between 1066 and 1400 than they did 500 years later during the Victorian era.
For me, the most significant development in the period described was the codification of “common law” and “juries.” Initially juries were members of the local community required to assist in prosecuting criminals by compiling evidence. Henry I (1068-1135) was the first monarch to grant his magistrates the authority to judge civil matters in the name of the Crown. Prior to his reign, victims of kidnappings, rapes, thefts and murders (ie their surviving families) could only file suit in royal courts against perpetrators in courts run by royal magistrates.
Henry I also introduced trial by jury, in which local juries gained the authority to determine innocence or guilt, in addition to assembling evidence.