Lady of the Sun: The Life and Times of Alice Perrers by F. George Kay

This was a fascinating book about a sometimes elusive historical figure – the much maligned mistress of Edward III, Alice Perrers. Perrers has been (mis)represented by history as a lower class, avaricious, grasping woman who had Edward III firmly wrapped in her serpentine coils, rising to impossible heights before falling in disgrace, stripped of her property, lands and dignity by powerful men who deeply resented the power she wielded and what she came to represent – a corrupt court. Yet, this apparently lowly-born woman rose from being one of Queen Phillippa’s maidens to become, not only the king’s lover and a mover and shaker of the times, but one of the wealthiest landowners in England at the time.

Casting doubt on previous contemporary accounts of the much-loathed Perrers and applying logic to what is known about her through deeds, court transcripts and letters (among other things) Kay critiques the way history has painted her. Starting with the notion she was lowly born, he suggests she at least must have been of middle-class origins to be able to read, possibly write and speak other languages (just to communicate with the king, she must have had a good grasp of French), even if she wasn’t fluent in these skills. Considering French would have only been spoken among the middle and upper classes, this is one clue, as is her name and possible familial relations. Explaining where other historians have perhaps made incorrect assumptions about Perrers’ upbringing, Kay seeks to put this right – but without being dogmatic. Rather, he puts forward alternate ideas and evidence and lets the reader decide. Kay also points out that Perrers’ business acumen must have also been exceptional to have acquired the property she did, never mind the fact she had the respect and allegiance of some of the finest businessmen (albeit somewhat shonky) in London and abroad – men who later paid a high price for their professional relationship with the woman. If nothing else, Perrers was one smart operator – but don’t expect her contemporaries to have acknowledged that or the (mostly male) historians who came later either. Rather, they repeated and emphasised all the negative qualities those seeking to malign and scapegoat her in the aftermath of Edward III’s reign, making any alternate reading of the woman difficult if not impossible.

What is fascinating about Kay’s account (and which I suspect the author, Vanora Bennet, used when writing her marvellous The People’s Queen), is that Kay places Perrers’ at the heart of many events that occurred in not only Edward’s reign, but even his successor’s, the hapless and spoiled Richard II’s. Whether it was championing various businessmen, nobles, bishops and seeking their favour with the king, or somehow getting involved with the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, Kay presents a persuasive argument for Perrers’ being, if not central, then likely a key figure. There’s little doubt she would have known Chaucer (though he fails to obviously mention her, though Kay feels a physical description of her exists in The Canterbury Tales, not as the Wife of Bath, as some other historians have posited, but rather as the Miller’s wife in that tale).

Rather than following traditional notions of Perrers as a greedy, selfish woman who would stop at nothing to acquire what she could while she could (though Kay acknowledges she likely did that as well), he also admires her as a woman of the times who used the resources available to her – her wit, mind and charm – to advance herself in ways that weren’t otherwise available to women, let alone a woman of her birth.

Overall, I found this book really interesting and the connections and analysis convincing. The era comes alive as well as Perrers, and while she might have been wiped from history in the immediate aftermath of her fall, there’s no doubt that she nevertheless left enough of an impression for many historians and writers to wish to uncover what made her tick and bring her back to life – I am certainly glad Kay did.

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Book Review: Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

Historian Ian Mortimer does something really interesting with this book: he sets out to recreate the period (the Twelfth 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.The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: a Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century

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, 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.

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Book Review: Daily Life in Chaucer’s England by Jeffrey L. Forgeng and Will McLean

For various professional reasons, I’ve been indulging in a medieval feast – the literary kind – where I’ve immersed myself in all things medieval in an attempt to get a feel for the period, the people, the material life. Reading a huge range of non-fiction and fiction books has been enlightening to say the least but, one of the most useful I found, and enjoyable, was Daily Life in Chaucer’s England (second edition) by Jeffrey L. Forgeng and Will McLean.

Acknowledging the importance of daily life and material culture to any understanding of the past, Forbeng and McLean present this marvellous and detailed overview of just what it would have been like to dwell in the late Middle Ages, using Chaucer’s time on earth as rough guide. This means we get a decent glimpse of the Fourteenth Century and the fears, foibles and beliefs of those who lived and died in this period.

Setting a context for their book by discussing, albeit briefly, the various wars and the kings who waged them, they then plunge into the nuts and bolts of society, explaining each stratum and their relationship to each other. Each chapter then focuses on an aspect of daily life from time, the importance of religion, to clothing and accessories, what was consumed, general amounts and costs, and there are even some recipes should you wish to try them yourself!

Arms and armour is a fascinating chapter where they deconstruct just what it took to place a knight on the battlefield and what weaponry and protection was required. That foot soldiers and less well-equipped individuals still fought for king and country without the benefit (!) of such armoury made me wince while reading.

A chapter is devoted to entertainment – songs, dances, cards and the importance that gambling played in life in those times. There are even music sheets and lyrics to the more popular songs.

What I particularly enjoyed as well were the break-out boxes that use more contemporary sources to highlight the chapter’s theme – so we have snippets of Chaucer’s works, legal documents, letters and general accounts.

Always aware that the period they’re covering was one in which society began to change quite dramatically (the plague mid-century and different attitudes to the clergy, brought about largely by the plague, the schism in the Church (two Popes) and the growth of the Lollard movement), Forgeng and McLean segue back and forth in each chapter, keen to make the reader aware of the various forces working to alter world and social perceptions.

If you are a lover of history, fascinated by the minutiae of daily life in the past, a writer or just a fact-finder, this is a terrific book.

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Book Review: The Servant’s Tale by Margaret Frazer

I quite enjoyed this medieval murder mystery, part of a series written by Frazer and featuring the clever and intrepid nun, Sister Frevisse who, it happens, was a great-niece of Geoffrey Chaucer. Though this is the second book in the series, it’s the first I’ve read and it stands alone nicely.

Steeped in historic detail that deposits you in the period easily (approx 1430s), the pace of life and religiosity of not only the nuns who share the nunnery with Frevisse, but the villagers as well is described. It’s Christmas time, and a group of travelling players seek the hospitality of the Nunnery as the only child among them is sick. So, we discover, are many of the nuns who have succumbed to the time of year, the bitter temperatures, drafty halls and lack of warmth and a lurgy that spreads. Coughs and sneezes punctuate prayers and hymns and Frevisse herself is fighting off a malady and finds the constant sickness of her peers (and herself) frustrating.

It’s just as well then that, halfway through the book, something happens to distract her. A young villager, Sym, the son of one of the nunnery’s servants, dies after a fight in a tavern. When she examines the body, which is brought to the nunnery for the rites, the sister discovers that it wasn’t the fight in the tavern that killed this feisty, disagreeable sixteen year old, but another, deeper and deliberate wound.

Determined to get to the bottom of this case before the Crowner arrives to investigate, what Sister Frevisse doesn’t expect is the body count to rise – but it does. Suspicion naturally falls on the travelling players, but Sister Frevisse isn’t convinced. Can she overcome the biases of the Crowner and the villagers and see justice done? Or will the travellers pay for a crime they didn’t commit? Or did they? Can she discover the perpetrator before even more people die?

This was an easy to read book that was also a little slow. Setting the scene and time took pages and pages – and while the writing is tight and the characters wonderfully drawn, nothing actually happened till almost the halfway point in the book. After that, the action was swifter, but only by comparison. If a reader is looking for a murder mystery (as the book is advertised), they might be disappointed. As an historical novel, however, the book is excellent.

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