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.”

The books I picked & why

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Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error

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

Book cover of Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error

Why 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.

Long Ago in France: The Years in Dijon

By M.F.K. Fisher,

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

Why 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. 

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

By Thad Carhart,

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

Why 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!

Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris

By Graham Robb,

Book cover of Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris

Why 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.

$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 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. 

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