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Medieval Rural Life in the Luttrell Psalter, Janet Backhouse (University of Toronto Press; October 2000, 64 pages; $19.95) price: $19.95

If pages of dry, explanatory text about life in the Middle Ages make you want to stand up and shout "OK, show me!" then feast your eyes on Medieval Rural Life in the Luttrell Psalter.

Want a detailed look at how a medieval plough worked? See page 17. Or the quick and dirty method swineherds used to feed their pigs? Check out page 31...with more on the annual cycle of sowing, weeding, harvesting, and threshing on the pages in between.

Animal illustrations include domesticated boar, cows, geese, ferrets, rabbits, and birds. (The house cat's obvious satisfaction with his prize mouse is as comical today as it must have been in 1350.) Representations of sports, pastimes, and musicians round out this study of what life must have really been like.

This is a rewarding reworking, with an impressive pedigree. It's based on a work by Janet Backhouse, a former curator of illuminated manuscripts at the British Museum.

Now, the focus is less on the religious motifs and their meanings, with a closer look at the realistic 14th century images illustrated for its patron, Sir Geoffey Luttrell. He fell in with the rest of the medieval well-to-do who wished to show off their wealth and piety by sponsoring a medieval psalter, or Book of Psalms.

Ironically, the Luttrell Psalter survives today as a colorful archeological dig into the meat-and-potatoes of medieval life, thanks in large part to the custom of filling in dead space with marginal illustrations. As such Sir Geoffrey would probably not be very pleased with this popular, 'lower class' edition.

However, it continues to serve as a fascinating intro into the era for students of the medieval...and a refreshing reminder for jaundiced-eyed scholars about what attracted them to the Middle Ages in the first place.

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