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catherine, called birdy

14 november 2015

I have remarked here before about the enduring popularity of children's books set in the Middle Ages. They offer everything: history lessons, a safe space for refracting contemporary concerns, a comfortable ordered universe, the absence of capitalism, knights in shining armor. Karen Cushman's 1995 Newbery Honor Book Catherine, Called Birdy is no exception, but it's notably well-written and engaging in terms of both narrative voice and plot. It rings true (always allowing that any "authenticity" in imaginations of the Middle Ages is authenticity to our necessarily warped idea of them) and it manages to tell an old-fashioned story in new-fangled terms. It's the kind of book kids like – well, at least I liked it, and I'm fairly childish – and I think it makes readers think.

When I call Catherine, Called Birdy "authentic," I mean of course adjusting for its essential impossibility. The title character, daughter of a minor member of the Lincolnshire gentry in the years 1290-91, is literate and high-verbal – quite possible, if perhaps not the norm. But she also keeps a very modern kind of diary thanks to an apparently inexhaustible supply of ink and parchment.

While Catherine's writing habits are unrealistic, that doesn't interfere with Cushman's ability to convince. The diary is a literary convention, and if you can't accept it, you need to go to an island somewhere and join a community of pedants. What Catherine writes about is far more important than the mechanisms by which she writes. And she writes of the passage of seasons, the liturgical calendar, the rhythms of farm work, the cooking and washing and mending and other aspects of life on the manor that endlessly fascinate modern readers.

Why is that stuff so fascinating – and why pretty much only for the Middle Ages and not for cultures before and after, I wonder? I think the western Middle Ages in England offer a safe ground for representing domestic work because 13th-century England was neither explicitly a slave society nor one where domestic service was done on a wage basis. Catherine calls her father's people "tenants," which makes them seem less like serfs and more like people who found apartments on Craigslist. Their rent discharged in kind (which seems nice and organic), they then all pitch in to help one another in more communal projects. I don't think that 13th-century rural tenants would have had quite so sanguine a view of things, but that's another issue.

The plot interest in Catherine comes from our narrator wondering who her father will marry her off to. I told you it was old-fashioned! But it's old-fashioned in a deep historical sort of way, not in a 1950s teen-romance way. As Cushman tells us in an afterword:

Their world is different from ours. The difference runs deeper than what they eat or where they bathe or who decides who marries whom. Medieval people live in a place we can never go …

Our ideas of individual identity, individual accomplishments and rights, individual effort and success did not exist. Family and community and guild and country were what mattered. (165)
This is a standard argument which I've noted argued from both sides here before, whether it's the stance Cushman takes (eg that Shakespeare couldn't really have cared about his kids) or the reverse (that on some level Athenians must have felt as we do toward siblings and children). The past is a foreign country, as Cushman pretty much says, and it's impossible to adjudicate the controversy for sure.

What one can note is that Cushman, having taken this theoretical line on the Middle Ages, proceeds to write very differently. Catherine-called-Birdy is very much a child of the present. She wants independence, women's rights, a free hand in choosing a husband, literacy, travel, artistic expression. She sympathizes with Jews and convicts. She's a proto-animal-rights activist. She's a bit of a freethinker for a medieval girl – no agnostic or anything, but someone with individual ideas about God and cosmic justice.

Cushman's Birdy is thus a late-20th-century girl plopped down into the late 13th century – though again, there's nothing wrong with that. If Catherine were written as Cushman's theory of foreignness dictates, we couldn't understand her at all, and there would be little point in writing the book or trying to read it.

But though perhaps lacking in theoretical rigor, Cushman's novel convinces us that kids 700 years ago wanted things very much like kids wanted 700 years later. The modern world would never have come about if individualizing forces hadn't attracted people enmeshed in medieval communitarianism.

Birdy (to spoil the plot slightly) ends up in an arranged marriage, though there are some satisfying twists in the process. We could hardly expect her to break altogether free and start her own consulting firm or discover radium or something. She does try to run away from home rather than submit to a miserable marriage. She continually dreams of the freedoms that men enjoy in her culture, which seem from her perspective unlimited. She dreams simply of having more personal space:

I dream sometimes that I lie in bed and reach out my arms and fingers as wide as I can, and stretch my toes to the bottom of the bed, and do not touch anybody! … I think if I were a king I would keep one room in my palace just for me, where I could go and be alone. (108-09)
Yet theoretically she ought not even to be able to have such dreams. Could these feelings been have felt, these words been articulated, in 1291? One imagines so, in some form, and even if Cushman must necessarily couch them in our language. And that's where the essential authenticity of the story lies, not in its verisimilar details and its deployment of research.

Cushman, Karen. Catherine, Called Birdy. 1994. New York: Houghton Mifflin, n.d.