England in the Age of Chaucer by William Woods

I’ve had this book on my shelves for a while and finally had a great excuse to read it. Published in the 1970s, it’s an account of medieval England focussing mainly on the years between, roughly, 1320 and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Using the great Geoffrey Chaucer, his life and works as a broad lens through to which to examine the social and cultural changes that occurred, this is a wonderful and learned book that differs from more modern accounts in that it doesn’t shy away from being poetic itself or making some assumptions – something which I quite enjoyed. It also quotes extensively from Piers the Ploughman, Chaucer’s works and other poetry and treatises of the era to support various arguments and facts.

Each chapter concentrates on either a different stratum of society – peasants, merchants, writers etc – or events, using these to explore the huge social changes that were occurring, prior to, but hastened by the advent of the Black Death and the enormous loss of life and thus workers, priests, administrators, and other social roles it facilitated. Giving rise to questions about class, purpose and even God (remembering this was the time of the great schism in the church and two Popes – one in Rome and the other in Avignon), commoners began to demand more rights, the merchant class began to rise swiftly as wealth changed from being exclusively in the hands of landholders to being in that of producers and distributors, and the status quo that had been extant for hundreds of years began to crumble. England was at endless war with France and other regions and while its sorties on land and at sea were at first successful, earning England its various nobles a mighty reputation, as the century wore on, it lost more battles than it won, gained more debt than power and swiftly lost its reputation as a formidable power. Yet, it was the commoners who suffered and suffered significantly.

The chapter devoted to the plague and the transformations it wrought is excellent as is the one on the change from bellicose or religious poetry to pieces focussed on courtly love and how these influenced perceptions of sex and gender. Of course, the role of men of all classes especially is scrutinised though, having been written in the 1970s, the book does suffer from a lack of examination of the role women played in love, war, sickness, health and marriage.

Finishing with chapters devoted to the Peasant’s Revolt during the early years of King Richard II’s reign, and looking closely at cause and effect, the book is nonetheless a lovely addendum to many of the other books written about this incredible period in not just British history, but European as well. Thoroughly enjoyable and filled with titbits of information and dare I say, interpretation of these, not readily available in other sources.

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The Wealth of England: The Medieval Wool Trade and its Political Importance 1100-1600 by Susan Rose

If any had told me a few years ago that there would come a day when I would be completely riveted by a book on sheep and the complexities of the medieval wool trade, I would have told them to go soak their heads and laughed. But they would have been right.

Purchasing this book as research towards one I’m about to start writing (fiction), I confess I opened it with some reluctance. I mean, how interesting can such a dry subject be? Well, it turns out that in the hands of Susan Rose, it’s a fascinating subject. Remaining within the temporal parameters she’s set, Rose explains the maintenance of sheep, different breeds, regions, the production and trading of wool in England and across its major trading partners during different and very fraught periods. Through various reigns, wars, plague, and maritime disasters, markets, The Company of Staple, politics, the demands of the Crown, excise, smuggling – the role of sheep and wool in these as well as Crown finances, Rose takes the reader on a journey, exploring English dominance of the wool trade and then its decline as well as the court’s reliance on wool to rescue and/or support it in various ventures. Personal reputations and fortunes rose and fell, risked on wool and the flock upon which it depended. The various trades associated with wool, such as broggers, to the washing of fleeces and then those sorting the fleeces are explained, as are the handling and administrative tasks associated with such a multifaceted business.

But it’s the politics and personal stories of those who made some very successful livings from wool, cloth and the related industries that are the most absorbing. As well as how wool came to not only define English policies and politics, but is even to this day, an important parliamentary symbol as it’s regarded – rightly and wrongly – as having created England’s wealth. The truth, as Rose is at pains to explain, is that English wool – as a much-in-demand product for many centuries, made select people – farmers and merchants – at certain times in history, very rich and even saved a King by providing his ransom and the Crown from bankruptcy during wars. But did it make a nation rich? Unlikely. It was also responsible, as more and more landholders enclosed acres in order to run sheep, for the eviction and thus dispossession of ordinary folk. Sheep and wool may have elicited excitement from some by allowing them to transcend the ranks of their birth through the accumulation of wealth and thus power, but because of these people, wool and sheep also came to symbolise the deep resentment of the working poor at the way they were disregarded and discarded when there was money to be made.

This book surprised me in the best of ways and I am so glad I read it. Beautifully written, really well researched with an astounding number of sources, it is a terrific addition to the history of not just trade in England, but to the complex role sheep, wool and merchants played in England’s political and social history.

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Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

Here are two reviews of historian and fiction writer, Ian Mortimer’s wonderful book written six years apart. I first read this book in 2013 – not once, but twice, when researching my medieval novel, The Brewer’s Tale. I loved it then and enjoyed it even more now as I commence research for my next fictional foray into medieval England and Europe with my new novel, tentatively entitled The Mostly True Story of the Wife of Bath. So expect a great many works of non-fiction about these times and fiction set in this period as well to be reviewed over the next few months!

Original review written in 2013: Historian Ian Mortimer does something really interesting with this book: he sets out to recreate the period (the Fourteenth Century) as if he were writing a travel book for tourists as opposed to researching and explaining a forgotten time. In other words, he places the reader in the moment, advising you where to go, what to see, how to behave, speak, dress and what to expect should you happen to have the good fortune to be transported back to not-so-merry old England in the 1300s. 

After my second reading of this book in less than a year, I wish I had access to Dr Who’s Tardis because, with Mortimer’s well-thumbed book under my arm, I would head straight for Exeter, where the book opens, prepared for the ordure of the aptly named, Shitbrook, the breath-taking sight of the cathedral, avert my eyes from the remains of criminals clinging to the gallows, and be careful not to stare at the bright and strange clothes the people are wearing, while tripping along the cobbles, one hand firmly on my money so a cut-purse does not take it. 

Like many contemporary historians, Mortimer believes in social history, reconstructing the past in order to understand how it was lived and not simply by kings, queens, monks, lawyers and nobles, those who have left records of their deeds and desires for us to absorb and through which we judge them. Instead, Mortimer turns to all classes and all experiences and takes the reader on a magnificent and fascinating journey back to a character-filled society with its own delights and dangers. It was so good the first time, I did it again and liked it even better. 

Explaining where to stay, how to tell the time, greet people (Eg. “fellow or friend, ye be welcome”), about the sumptuary laws, what certain coins look like and what you might be able to buy and where, what diseases we might succumb to if we’re not careful, what we might be served and how to eat it whether it be in an inn, a peasant’s house or a king’s castle (all of which are thoroughly described as if you’re on a guided tour), Mortimer runs the gamut of class and place in this vivid recreation that is at once hugely informative and always vastly entertaining. 

Even how to avoid running foul of the law and what punishment might be meted out is made clear as well as the significance of religious observances. Medieval humour is also explored as well as, for those so inclined, where you might find the best er hum, sexual services (Southwark, the Stews, or specific areas in London, in case you wanted to know). He also discusses how to entertain ourselves while we’re there (the Stews aside) and who, among the great figures known to us now, we might expect to encounter on our journey – Geoffrey Chaucer anyone? He has rooms above Aldgate. 
Just when you think you’ve stepped back into the present, Mortimer will remind you to take a deep breath and stop. Listen, he advises. What do we hear? Very little. Maybe some bells, the sounds of birds and animals and, above all, the chatter and clutter of people should we be near a town or city. Or, if present at a joust, the thunder of hooves. The medieval world is a very quiet place, something I hadn’t considered, along with many of the other preconceptions and yes, prejudices I had about this period and which Mortimer’s grandest of tours manages to overturn. 

If you’re looking for a book that will literally transport you to another time and place, than I cannot recommend this one highly enough. A fabulous read. 

Review written March 2019: Having just reread this marvellous book, I have to change my rating to five plus stars. This was even better on a third read. Immersive, dark and wondrous, Mortimer really does bring alive aspects of the calamitous Fourteenth century and the people who inhabited this era.

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Tombland: A Shardlake Novel #7 by C.J. Sansom

For anyone who loves a great novel and especially those who love historical fiction and haven’t yet read a C.J. Sansom Shardlake book, stop what you’re doing now and grab a copy of the first, Dissolution. I only suggest that so by the time you get to Sansom’s latest, Tombland, you not only have a full appreciation of the imaginative scope and the character arcs in these novels, but also the historical backdrop in which these wonderful adventures featuring the intrepid and kind hunchback lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, are set.

The latest in the series, Tombland, an epic at over 800 pages, is also an absolute masterpiece. Set two years after the death of Henry VIII, in the Spring of 1549 during the Protectorate and young King Edward’s reign, this novel follows Matthew and his assistant Nicholas, as they’re called to investigate a distant relative of young Princess Elizabeth (recently involved in a shameful incident with the former queen’s husband, Thomas Seymour), who has been accused of murder and is imprisoned in Norwich. Elizabeth has no desire to be openly involved, but is determined to get to the truth of the accusation and help a family member. Left with no choice but to obey the unusual request, Shardlake and Nicholas head north-east, keen to get out of London, if not to become embroiled in royal antics and politics anymore. However, they assure themselves that the case doesn’t appear complicated and they shouldn’t be occupied with it for too long.

Naturally, we know they’ve spoken too soon.

Not only is the case involving John Boleyn far more complicated than Shardlake first hoped, but while they’re preoccupied with proving John Boleyn’s innocence, East Anglia erupts into violence as a peasant rebellion lead by a landowner, Robert Kett, begins.

The more Shardlake tries to stay remote from the peasant rebellion, the more he and his friends are drawn into it, including Barak (who is in the area for the assizes). Witnessing great cruelty, corruption, bravery and kindness, Shardlake is tested in so many ways. Not only is his loyalty to king and country put on the line but that to his closest and dearest of friends as well. Shardlake quickly learns that being a lawyer and gentleman can be more dangerous than he ever would have believed.

Set against the backdrop of a genuine and little-known rebellion, and at a time when the English currency was debased, inflation on the rise and the English people suffering the catastrophic effects of an ongoing war with Scotland and France as well as poor harvests, by injecting Shardlake into a relatively obscure part of English history, Sansom has brought it to life in such a majestic and yet devastating way. Through Shardlake’s eyes, we see the desperation, suffering of the English poor as well as their blind faith in their king to do the right thing by them. The way in which they felt they’d no choice but to rebel and even so, did all in their power to adhere to a code of conduct that would impress their sovereign, is heart-wrenching. So are the consequences of their actions.

Whether it’s intimate scenes between friends, or an interrogation that Sansom writes or sweeping battles, the reader is in the heart of the story and it’s an aching one that leaves you wanting both more and less.

Having said that, I couldn’t put this book down and I didn’t want it to end either. Shardlake’s world, while cruel, contrary and riddled with injustices, is also rich and fascinating. Moreso, because we are guided through it by one of the best characters in historical fiction today – the ethical and compassionate, wise and good-humoured, self-reflective Shardlake.

Sansom’s PhD in history really comes to the fore here as he uses – not just history, but a sense of its continuity and relevance to today, inviting us to immerse ourselves in the moments, all of which propels his story along. As a bonus, readers are treated to an essay on the actual events from Sansom at the back of the book and it so worth reading. There is also a recommended book list and sources. I loved discovering how and where he used actual events and people in his tale and where he inserted Shardlake – who, despite being fictional, appears seamlessly.

I cannot recommend this book or series highly enough. I can’t even say these books get better and better because they’ve always been of such an impossibly high standard – and in Tombland, this has been more than maintained.

My only disappointment is I now have to wait (im)patiently for the next one.  A tremendous read – inspirational, unforgettable, entertaining and educational. You can’t ask for much more.

 

 

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A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley

Before I review this wonderful book, I have to explain why I’ve not been reviewing lately and why there are periods where I go “quiet” even though I still read up to four books a week (not all of which I review). The reason is simple – it’s usually because I am busy with my own work. Last month and for a great part of July too, I was caught up doing the copy edit of my next novel, The Chocolate Maker’s Wife (out March 2019) and I also put my head down and made a decent start to the one after that, a novel that has a working title of The Sea Witch of Caledonia (though that will change as it’s felt it has too much a fantasy feel when it’s very much entrenched in history – it’s actually loosely based on a terrible true story). It’s set in Scotland in the early 1700s, so I immersed myself for a over a year in Scottish history *sigh* and was fortunate enough to travel there too though, sadly perhaps, not back in time. So, that is why my reviews have fallen away. I feel terrible about that. Hopefully, I can make up for it this month, though that will depend on how much I write of my own work! Anyhow, thank you for reading my reviews. There are so many marvellous writers and books out there and it’s such a privilege to be able to read and review them and pay tribute to the power of authors’ words and hearts. They nourish my imagination in so many ways and I am very grateful. Now, to Susanna Kearsley’s latest:

One of Scotland’s magnificent lochs with me and my friends being awe-struck by its beauty and mystery.

This is a beautiful, unctuous book that follows two storylines – that of an amateur cryptographer, Sara Thomas in the present and the life of Mary Dundas, an English/French woman living in France in the early 1700s.

Tasked with deciphering the journals left my Mary, Sara is employed by a famous historian and travels to France, staying in a delightful cottage with two women, one of whom, Denise, has a young son and her very handsome and distracting ex-husband as a neighbour.

As Sara starts to decipher Mary’s journals, the narrative shifts to the past and the reader is introduced to a young woman not only embroiled in Jacobite plots, but a lonely soul keen to find a sense of belonging. Asked to accompany a Scotsman escaping English justice to Paris, Mary is thrown onto the company of one Hugh MacPherson, a gruff, mysterious man who avoids company and conversation and appears to have no time for women.

Mary is a story-teller par excellence and in her notes, she weaves a series of wonderful fairy tales that in themselves are rich with analogies to her present and the politics and dangers of the day, including those she increasingly faces.

But as Sara uncovers more of Mary’s journey, observing the changes in the young woman and the company she keeps and avoids, she finds she’s undertaking a personal journey of her own, one that poses its own dangers to her peace of mind and to her heart.

 

While this novel is a bit slow to start, the writing is wonderful and the characters really well-drawn. Sara has Aspergers and the way in which this is depicted is accurate, insightful and thoughtful – just like Sara. Likewise, when we first meet Mary, we are carefully introduced to her and her fractured family life, and so able to understand the decisions she makes and the personal growth she undergoes and which matches the stages in her grand adventure. She is a brave and bold soul with a rich imagination, but also possesses an integrity that shines. In fact, both the leading female characters are strong, interesting women with big hearts and a deep capacity for empathy.

Their stories are parallel in many ways and yet also very different. It’s testimony to Kearsley that though she draws on real characters and events to paint such a vivid picture of history – both time and place – we also invest heavily in the folk both real and imagined. The romances that underpin this book are heart-aching and quite lovely.

I also loved that characters from her earlier books made cameos – that was cleverly done. This is a really lovely story that while it isn’t a rollicking adventure or a time-slip romance, it is a slow-burning narrative with wonderful peaks and troughs that takes the reader on their own voyage. The author’s note at the end is fascinating as well and reveals the level of research Kearsley puts into her books but which never interfere with her ability to tell a damn fine story.

 

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