A Day in a Medieval City

Review of A Day in a Medieval City, by Chiara Frugoni (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2007)

The thick walls of a medieval city offered protection to its inhabitants. While open during the day, the gates shut tight after curfew; no one could leave or enter the city until the following day. Aside from security, though, the walls also represented a symbolic barrier, one that clearly designated the city as unique from its rural surroundings. In her book, Chiara Frugoni scales these city walls to provide a glimpse into the daily life of urban dwellers. The result is a descriptive account that, like a new visitor to a city, meanders as it explores one interesting topic after another.

Frugoni's interest in the topic stemmed from her late father, Arsenio Frugoni, a professor of medieval history at the University of Rome. Prior to his death, Arsenio had written two short articles on urban life. Frugoni combined the two articles, included her own notes, and has placed it as the introduction to A Day in a Medieval City. She then uses the subsequent seven chapters to elaborate on the themes found in the introduction. The impetus for the book thus creates certain limitations, since the introduction acts as the roadmap for the material covered. As such, there is no thesis, but rather a 'story' of topics pertinent to the medieval city.

The story is brilliantly told and illustrated. The bulk of Frugoni's tale focuses less on the city itself and almost entirely on its inhabitants. To do so, she deftly combines textual and visual sources. Using primarily the fiction of Boccaccio and Sacchetti, Frugoni brings their urban stories to life with a copious number of images. In fact, with 153 images in a book only 177 pages long, almost every page either contains an image or refers to one. The majority derive from Italian frescoes and miniatures, which are complimented with a handful of northern European paintings and manuscript illustrations. All of the images are well reproduced and as an added bonus, in color. It is these images that drive the narrative of her story, as she uses them to move from subject to subject. Her strongest chapter, "Inside the City," contains subheadings which range from the more typical subjects such as "Buying and Selling" and "The Marginalized and the Excluded" to more esoteric realms, such as "Pigs for Garbagemen." Each section is well-done, but as a whole, there is little unity or continuity from one to the other. It is for this reason that Frugoni's book should be considered a collection of tales or stories, rather than a coherent monograph. The structure of the book reflects this. The first chapter discusses medieval concepts of time and seems oddly placed. Her second, third, and seventh chapters all cover aspects directly related to the city; chapters four and five handle the topic of children, and chapter six focuses on adult reading. With no conclusions to the chapters, the transition from chapter to chapter can be somewhat jarring.

In addition to the vignettes of medieval life, Frugoni does emphasize the forces that underpinned medieval life. The most evident is of course religion. In the first chapter, she looks at medieval concepts of time and memory through the annual religious cycle (18). In later chapters, she relies on numerous saint stories and images of miracles to reveal urban anxieties. When discussing the fear individuals had of being locked out of the city, she turns to an Italian miniature depicting a woman so occupied with prayer at a suburban church that she arrived at the gates too late for entrance. As she prayed, the Virgin Mary rescued her from the dark and led her through the city gates (23). In another instance, the urban fear of falling is illustrated through two Italian images; in both, a carpenter and mason fall from scaffolding to what is almost assuredly their deaths. It is only through divine intervention that they are saved as angels and saints keep them afloat until help arrives (70-72). Frugoni's analysis and critique of the multiple images is superb and it is here that she is most successful in this book. In Chapter 4, "The Lives of Children," her images recreate the dangers young infants and children faced. One fresco shows Saint Francesca Romana reviving a baby who fell victim to a common fate, suffocation in the family bed (127). In another image, a bloody toddler lies on the floor after falling from a swinging cradle (122). Again, saintly intervention is necessary. Frugoni evokes scenes that powerfully recreate medieval life.

While visually strong, A Day in a Medieval City is thinner on historical evidence. Frugoni has more success here teasing out the elements of daily life in literature and art. There is little reference to other secondary sources on urban life and the lack of a clear thesis discounts it as a historical monograph. It should also be noted here that the focus is heavily Italian. However, there is much to recommend here and the beautifully illustrated book may well appeal to a wide variety of readers.