Book Review: “Paris, 1200” by John W. Baldwin

Paris 1200 book cover

I love French medieval history so this book looked like it was right up my alley. John W. Baldwin is Charles Homer Haskins Professor Emeritus of History at Johns Hopkins University and has written many books on French history. This particular book was originally published in French in 2006. It was so popular, Stanford University Press decided to publish it in English in 2010.

Using sources only for the years 1190 to 1210 gives Baldwin a laser like focus on this seminal year. Construction of Notre Dame and the great wall of King Philip Augustus was underway. Pope Innocent III put the royal domains under interdict in January because the king had tried to put aside his lawful wife, Ingeborg of Denmark. This uncomfortable state of affairs for the ordinary people lasted for nine months. The churches were closed, no weddings or burials were performed, no mass was celebrated and no confession was allowed. King Philip made an important treaty with King John of England and the students of Paris threatened to go on general strike to protest infringements of their rights.

Baldwin gives us an interesting perspective on certain personalities of this time period such as the bourgeoisie who played a role in the king’s government, the working poor, the prostitutes, the king, Pierre the Chanter who directed the choir of Notre Dame and other women of the city. He tells us how the city was provisioned, who the merchants were, the use of currency and credit, and how trade was imperative to the economy of the city and France. There is an important chapter on the government of Philip Augustus. Before he went on Crusade, he set up a bureaucracy to rule in his absence and to collect taxes which was very successful.

Other sections of the book deal with the church, clergy and religious life and on the operation of the schools in the city. The details Baldwin gives on the schools is fascinating. He has gleaned from the documents who the teachers were, the subject matter they taught and what books they used. He even tells us who the students were, how they lived and especially how they got into a lot of trouble.

A final chapter deals with everyday life of the people of Paris. Baldwin gives details about the festivals people celebrated, how they worshiped at Christmas, the tournaments of the aristocracy, the joys of marriage, entertainment such as jongleurs and music, how the people spoke and swore and the art of love. All of this is very intriguing and really gives a feel for how people lived in the era.

There are some great photos in the book. Included are miniatures from illuminated manuscripts depicting everyday life and how the clergy lived and worshiped. There are photos of Notre Dame and a diagram of its choir. There is a map of Paris from 1200 and other maps and tables. I really enjoyed this book and learned a lot. I highly recommend it.

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