The best books on the culture of France and on medieval/modern poverty

Sharon Farmer Author Of Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris: Gender, Ideology, and the Daily Lives of the Poor
By Sharon Farmer

Who am I?

I started out as a religion major in college, but soon became frustrated with the abstract thoughts of privileged white males. I wanted to understand the passions and struggles of ordinary people, and soon became convinced that the examination of the distant past sheds important light on the present. It’s not that I don’t care about the world around me right now. Rather, I am convinced that those who look only at this decade, this century, or even the last century fail to recognize some of the most powerful cultural forces that have shaped our most fundamental understandings of gender, wealth, poverty, work, and so much more.

I wrote...

Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris: Gender, Ideology, and the Daily Lives of the Poor

By Sharon Farmer,

Book cover of Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris: Gender, Ideology, and the Daily Lives of the Poor

What is my book about?

Plenty of books have been written about medieval hospitals and charity – that is to say, about the ways in which medieval religious and secular elites defined, approached, and attempted to ameliorate or control poverty and the poor in the high and late Middle Ages. Mine was the first study to attempt to depict the on-the-ground daily lives of the poor themselves, and to outline the ways in which elites drew on socio-economic and religious differences in order to create subcategories of the genders “male” and “female.”

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The books I picked & why

Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error

By Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Barbara Bray (translator),

Book cover of Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error

Why did I love this book?

Montaillou, which was published while I was in graduate school, provided a new, highly personalized way to study medieval social history: not with quantitative data but through a nuanced examination of court records that offer a mirror into the everyday lives of obscure villagers. When I first read the “Miracles of Saint Louis” I realized this source for late thirteenth century Paris was nearly as rich as Le Roy Ladurie’s inquisitorial record concerning Montaillou. Had Montaillou not been written, I might not have seen the potential in the “Miracles of Saint Louis,” and thus I might not have written Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris.

By Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Barbara Bray (translator),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Montaillou as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie has had a success which few historians experience and which is usually reserved for the winner of the Prix Goncourt...Montaillou, which is the reconstruction of the social life of a medieval village, has been acclaimed by the experts as a masterpiece of ethnographic history and by the public as a sensational revelation of the thoughts, feelings, and activities of the ordinary people of the past."―Times Literary Supplement.

With a new introduction by author Le Roy Ladurie, this special edition offers a fascinating history of a fourteenth-century village, Montaillou, in the mountainous region of southern France, almost…

Book cover of Long Ago in France: The Years in Dijon

Why did I love this book?

Looking back across six decades, MFK Fisher, one of the most astute and evocative travel and gastronomical authors ever to put pen to paper, recalls the year when everything for her was new: France, Europe, marriage, food, culture. Based in provincial Dijon, Mary studied French, shopped in the open markets, learned to cook, and jotted down astute observations concerning everyone she met, while her husband wrote his dissertation. My first encounter with Tours, in 1979, reminds me of Fisher’s encounter with Dijon in 1929. Like her, I was warmed by the joy of discovery, the sense that every stone and leaf, every living thing that I encountered had layers upon layers of meaning, and it was my job to uncover some of them, revealing meanings that no one had seen before. 

By M.F.K. Fisher,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Long Ago in France as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1929, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher arrived in Dijon, the provincial capital of Burgundy and the gastronomical capital of France, there to be initiated into the ways of love and life.

Long Ago in France is Fisher's exquisitely evocative, deliciously candid memoir of her three-year stay in Dijon. It is a delightful journey backward - in the grandest of company - into a voluptuous, genteel world that has vanished forever.

Book cover of The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier

Why did I love this book?

Everyone knows that there are no “French people.” Each region has its particular culture, and Paris is a country unto itself. Focusing on one particular artisan, his clients, and his neighborhood, Carhart helps us to understand what it means to inhabit a single quartier of Paris. It’s one of the most beautiful memoirs I’ve ever read – and I don’t even play the piano!

By Thad Carhart,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Piano Shop on the Left Bank as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Walking his two young children to school every morning, Thad Carhart passes an unassuming little storefront in his Paris neighborhood. Intrigued by its simple sign—Desforges Pianos—he enters, only to have his way barred by the shop’s imperious owner. Unable to stifle his curiosity, he finally lands the proper introduction, and a world previously hidden is brought into view. Luc, the atelier’s master, proves an indispensable guide to the history and art of the piano. Intertwined with the story of a musical friendship are reflections on how pianos work, their glorious history, and stories of the people who care for them,…

Book cover of Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris

Why did I love this book?

If we want to understand medieval or modern Paris, we need to gain some familiarity with all of the stages along the way. Robb provides some episodic portraits of some of those stages, and the chapter on the eighteenth-century architect Charles-Axel Guillaumot is one of the most arresting discussions I’ve ever seen of how the actions of those living in one epoch can reverberate for generations to come. Guillaumot literally saved Paris from collapsing in on its medieval past by bracing up the swiss-cheese-like network of tunnels that had been left behind by its medieval quarry workers.

By Graham Robb,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Parisians as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is the Paris you never knew. From the Revolution to the present, Graham Robb has distilled a series of astonishing true narratives, all stranger than fiction, of the lives of the great, the near-great, and the forgotten.

A young artillery lieutenant, strolling through the Palais-Royal, observes disapprovingly the courtesans plying their trade. A particular woman catches his eye; nature takes its course. Later that night Napoleon Bonaparte writes a meticulous account of his first sexual encounter. A well-dressed woman, fleeing the Louvre, takes a wrong turn and loses her way in the nameless streets of the Left Bank. For…

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America

By Kathryn J. Edin, H. Luke Shaefer,

Book cover of $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America

Why did I love this book?

We can’t understand the present unless we understand the past, but the reverse is also true: I would not be a good historian of medieval poverty – including all the layers of infrastructure, production, famine, religious ideology, and public policy that define, ameliorate and exacerbate poverty – if I did not also pay attention to how these forces work in the present, and to the actual lives of the people who are so affected. This book paints some of the best portraits I’ve seen of people who were trying to make ends meet during the first two decades of the twenty-first century. We now need a book on how and why the poverty landscape continues to change in the wake of the covid epidemic. 

By Kathryn J. Edin, H. Luke Shaefer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked $2.00 a Day as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times Notable Book of the Year
The story of a kind of poverty in America so deep that we, as a country, don't even think exists—from a leading national poverty expert who “defies convention.” (The New York Times)
Jessica Compton’s family of four would have no income if she didn’t donate plasma twice a week at her local donation center in Tennessee. Modonna Harris and her teenage daughter, Brianna, in Chicago, often have no food but spoiled milk on weekends.
After two decades of brilliant research on American poverty, Kathryn Edin noticed something she hadn’t seen before—households…

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