Friday, April 21, 2017

The Medieval Underworld. By Andrew McCall.

Author Andrew McCall defines the Medieval Underworld as “those people who were unwilling or unable to comply with the laws of medieval society” (McCall, p.12). The laws to which he refers are biblical. They are based upon “The idea of a Chain of Being” where each element of God’s creation (from angels to kings, to aristocrats, to peasants, to animals, to plants to rocks), has “an appointed place and function in the Christian hierarchy…Let anyone try to step outside his appointed place…then here was the seed of disaster” as well as defiance of the Lord’s will (McCall, pp.14-15). The groups presented as members of this underworld include criminals, prostitutes, lesbians, gays, heretics, sorcerers, witches, and Jews.

While the topic is fascinating, McCall’s book provides only a small amount of information about this underworld. The first chapter is devoted to defining the Middle Ages. The second chapter examines the roles of Royal and Ecclesiastical courts in prosecuting behaviors considered criminal. The last chapter provides a medieval depiction of hell based on Dante’s Inferno. In addition, there are many pictures that cover half a page or a full page. Therefore, the sub-cultures which comprise the underground are covered in 175 pages. Of those few pages, half discuss thieves and armed robbers of various stripes. The rest of the groups, actual cultures of non-conformists with interesting worldviews, divide the remaining pages.

McCall claims that his book “looks at the period from the point of view of the outsider,” through the eyes of underground members (McCall, p.18). This assertion is most assuredly false. Almost all of the information employed by the author is from the perspective of the persecutors of these sub-cultures: the Royal and Ecclesiastical Courts that tried these groups. Little is written by members of the underground about themselves. Even with groups like Jews and heretics, both of whom left numerous written documents, the majority of the book’s evidence concerns legal decisions and recorded mob violence against non-conformists.  It is surprising that the voices of the people within these sub-cultures are so poorly represented, given that entire books have been written on each of the non-conformist groups to whom McCall dedicates only a few pages.

In spite of its meager quantity of information, almost all of which is presented by those prejudiced against underground sub-cultures, the book does have value: It provides an overview of Church legal repression and violence against groups who failed to conform. Although that overview is remarkably superficial, it constitutes a starting point, or outline, for non-fiction readers who wish to explore further. In addition, it is informative to have a confession from the Church, in its own documentation, describing its persecution of people who were different.


McCall, Andrew. The Medieval Underworld. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1979.