Book of the week: The Story of Work by Jan Lucassen

Lucassen, a Dutch historian, sets out to ‘chronicle the history of human work’

The Story of Work cover
The Story of Work by Jan Lucassen

The rise of the medieval church was extraordinary, said Harry Mount in The Spectator: “as early as 1200 there were 9,500 churches in England – all built since 597”. Many are still there – and “must be the highlight of our architectural history” – but it’s hard to imagine what they were like in their heyday.

“Step forward Nicholas Orme, emeritus professor of history at the University of Exeter.” In this “useful, eye-opening book”, he explains in impressive detail what churches (and church-going) were like in the Middle Ages.

At times, the world Orme evokes is familiar, said Duncan Morrison in The Daily Telegraph – with children clattering about at the back and adults nodding off during sermons. Elsewhere, its alienness is striking: parishioners are told to stop licking relics; a knight punches a vicar for “upbraiding him for bringing his hunting hawk to Mass”; and the women of Leicester throw stones at a deranged misogynist preacher.

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A “vast intricate mosaic resting atop a mountain of research”, Orme’s book is “often funny, often moving, and always fascinating”.

Yale 496pp £20; The Week Bookshop £15.99

Going to Church in Medieval England

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