The Middle Ages Unlocked by Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania

There are so many really good books written about the Middle Ages, both general and specific which, collectively, are fabulous resources for students of history, writers and those with just a general interest in a long and fascinating period. This book came with huge and exciting claims by a well-known writer of fiction, so I was thrilled to get a hold of it and, even though it is slightly out of the period I am homing in on at the moment (the mid to late 1300s), I hoped it would provide a solid general overview of the previous two to three centuries.

In some ways, the book does exactly this. It covers roughly the eleventh through to the end of the thirteenth century and examines topics such as religion, literature, education, music, women and men’s roles, trade etc. However, where some general books also give very specific and detailed examples of the information they are relaying, sadly, this book did not. Or, rather, when it did, it was superficial to the point of not being very helpful. It was also very dry in parts. While I did enjoy some aspects of it, I have found other books on this period (eg. anything by the Guises, Judith Bennett’s works, Paul Strohm, Terry Jones, Alison Weir, Liza Picard, Barbara Hanawalt – just to name a few), to be more in-depth, better written and, frankly, far more useful as both starting points for developing an understanding of this era but also for advancing it. Where it did serve well was as a reminder of the most important and significant aspects of this era.

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Chaucer’s People: Everyday Lives in Medieval England by Liza Picard

If anyone knows how to breathe life into the past, to imbue the people, landscape, cities, trades and the nobility who rule over all of them with colour, drama and adventure, it’s Liza Picard. Her latest book, Chaucer’s People is no exception as she takes as her frame narrative the characters Geoffrey Chaucer introduces in his Canterbury Tales and frees them from the confines of his wondrous prose to teach us about the Middle Ages.

Rather than explicating the uncompleted poem with its pilgrims and the tales they tell to help the trip from Tabard Inn Southwark to Canterbury Cathedral pass more pleasantly, Picard examines not just the individuals as Chaucer describes them, but the trades and roles of each of the pilgrims, setting them in a broader social and historical context.

The book is divided into expansive parts, such as Country Life, City Life, The Armed Services etc. before chapters are given to the well-known pilgrims. Yet, this book isn’t about analysing the characters as Chaucer defines them or their tales reveal. Starting with Chaucer’s physical and sometimes psychological descriptions, she then delves into the characteristics of the pilgrims’ roles, trades or professions; how and where they fit into the broader medieval landscape and beyond. So, for example, she deals with the religious figures by outlining just how their various orders were established, when and where, the specific role say a friar, prioress, abbot or parson might play (eg she unpacks the Pardoner as someone who travelled to Rome to purchase indulgences for sins from the Pope then returned to England to sell them at an elevated cost (along with fake holy relics), thus profiting from people’s desire to seek penance for their spiritual offences. Picard makes it clear – as does Chaucer – that Pardoners and their motivation as well as public perception were becoming increasingly questioned). From lawyers, to merchants, clerks, yeomen, squires and, of course, the Wife of Bath, each is taken out of the tale and placed in history. For example, the Shipman, to which the final chapter is dedicated, is located within not just the actual maritime wars and adventures of the period, but within the broader discourse of travel writing which was growing in popularity at this time and of which medieval audiences would have been aware. Thus we’re given a potted history of Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville, their writings, their reception and the fantastical sites they claim to have seen and of which, according to Picard, any shipman worth his salt would have been aware.

Just like the Tales upon which this draws, this is a colourful, fascinating and ofttimes very funny book that casts an intellectual’s eye over medieval times in order to bring them into sharp focus. I found this book difficult to put down. If only all history was written in such a lively and irresistible fashion! For lovers of history and well written books, I can highly recommend a journey with Picard and her version of Chaucer’s pilgrims.

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Book Review: The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch

This was a strange book, but not in a bad way. Described as an historical thriller that’s set in Germany during the late 1600s, it tells the story of the hangman in the town of Schongau, Jakob Kuisl’s, efforts to exonerate a midwife accused of witchcraft and the murder of three orphan children and other sundry crimes. Uniting with the town’s young doctor, Simon, Jakob finds himself in a race against time to prove the midwife’s innocence before he’s forced to first torture her then put her to death. With the town’s Burgers refusing to listen to reason and wilfully ignoring the dreadful witch purge of decades earlier, and with the villains one step ahead, Jakob needs all his formidable abilities to catch the real perpetrators.

Graphic in the way it discusses the torture process and careful to evoke the period in which its set in terms of sights, sounds and smells, the narrative moves fairly swiftly in the initial sThe Hangman's Daughter (The Hangman's Daughter #1)tages before stalling a little in the middle and racing to the end. Though an easy and quite enjoyable read, there were elements I struggled with in the book.

Despite being titled The Hangmans’ Daughter, the daughter, Magdalena Kuisl, a feisty, smart and very beautiful young woman, is little more than a secondary character. The story very much belongs to her father, Jakob, a man with conscience and a heart who takes his job (and the requisite drink he must down before being called to execute or torture) very seriously. As if to atone for the death he delivers, Jakob is also a self-educated healer of extraordinary talent and experience. The reasons for this are made clear in the prologue which provides a context for the rather schizoid personality Jakob occasionally exhibits, whether its as a righteous father warning an amorous suitor (usually, the town’s young doctor) away from his daughter, or whispering words of compassion to an intended victim. A big man, Jakob engenders fear and grudging respect from those he encounters, even while his occupation assures he and his family will always remain outcasts.

So, while I did enjoy the story, I didn’t love it. I found it became bogged down with chases here and there and dead ends and felt padded at times. The villains were also two-dimensional and oddly portrayed. There were moments when they were mysterious and elusive, at others, they stepped from the shadows and behaved with all the skill of a keystone cop. The main villain was also never fleshed out (and pardon the pun there – which will become clear if you read it). He started off being quite scary but, by the end, was more tiresome and contradictory. Likewise with the character known as “moneybags”. Maybe it’s the translation, but when he’s revealed, there are inaccuracies in his portrayal that jarred. Ultimately, because of this and other parts of the action (which occur, rather conveniently, off-stage) the climax is turned into a bit of an anti-climax.

I also found the use of modern idiom difficult to believe. At first, it gave rather a fresh flavour to the book, brought the Middle Ages into a more contemporary setting. When I encountered metaphors like “bun in the oven” to refer to a pregnancy and increasingly more contemporary patois, I found it took away from the rather excellent scene-setting and period evocation that Pötzsch does so well.

There was also a tendency to place contemporary mores and thoughts in the minds of those who, anyone with a slight grasp of the era knows, were unlikely to exist. For example, some of the young doctor’s and hangman’s dismissal of certain medical practices in favour of what we know work now didn’t ring true. An amount of scepticism might have been accounted for, but the hangman particularly looked upon the studies of the doctors of his era with utter disdain and disregard. Admittedly, Pötzsch was able to provide the names of books and philosophers that the hangman preferred, but even so, his skills smacked more of twenty-first century hindsight than they did knowledge gained through wartime experience or seventeenth century reading.

Overall, however, the novel was a good diversion, a romp through Bavaria in the 1600s with an element of mystery and lots of gore. What I enjoyed most about it was learning that Pötzsch was inspired by his own family history – it turns out he’s a descendant of a lineage of executioners – the Kuisl’s and Jakob and his daughter were real people. To turn an element of his own past into such a interesting adventure (and there are more books in the series) shows writing and imaginative flair indeed.

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Book Review: World Without End, Ken Follett


In many ways, this book would be more aptly entitled, “Novel Without End” as much like a soap opera, it’s a never-ending story. Having said that, it’s also a very entertaining read that, using the setting established in Pillars of the Earth, the imagined Kingsbridge and Shiring (UK), moves readers familiar with that landscape and events forward in time roughly one hundred and fifty years and introduces us to a new set of characters but, in many ways, a very similar story. It’s almost as if Follett, having such success with the first book, uses the template for that as a basis for this novel as well.

I never read Pillars of the Earth. I did watch the TV series and enjoyed that thoroughly. I had every intention of engaging with the written version, but when I picked up the book, I didn’t want to invest in over one thousand pages of a narrative that I already knew, so I moved straight to book two. I know that was naughty and that books have so much more depth than their filmic equivalents, but I just couldn’t face that many pages when I knew pretty much what occurred never mind the ending.

Instead, I moved on to the second book and, despite some minor reservations (which I will get to) was not disappointed.

WWE basically follows the lives of five people who, at the beginning of the story are united by a dramatic incident. There’s a man named Thomas, and four young people, Merthin, Caris, Merthin’s brother Ralph, and Gwenda, all of whom either bear witness to and/or participate in a terrible crime and agree to keep it a secret (there is something else that occurs, but I don’t want to spoil the book). The seeds are thus sewn for an epic tale of love, loss, murder, grief, humour, sex (some very squirmy, clumsy sex scenes, I have to say), betrayal, cruelty and so much more. Despite class and spiritual differences, these five people share something that means they are forever linked and while we at times, as readers, can forget this, Follett will ensure that at some point over the years that are covered (decades), we’re given reminders of why the initial incident is significant and the awkward bond that exists between these characters.

Of course, these are not the only individuals in the book; neither are they the only important ones. So many populate this story and, it’s testimony to Follett’s writing and his ability to juggle what in other hands might have been an unwieldy cast that we not only know these people too, but we empathise (or not) with their decisions and the consequences they face as a result of their actions. Where I did struggle a little, is that I felt some of the characters were too black and white – the religious figures particularly. For example, the monk Godwyn and his assistant Philemon were predictable precisely because they generally acted out of self-interest – they never deviated from this pattern throughout and thus never grew or changed, not even when anyone else in the same situation might. Not once did they demonstrate the capacity to think outside their own needs and were constructed as fine little sociopaths. This galled after a while and actually elided some of the drama and tension with which they were associated.

Nonetheless, drama and tension abound as beloved characters are tested in ways that make you ache for them – but also, I confess, become frustrated as you want to screech, “Give them a break!”. I don’t think that phrase is in Follett’s vocabulary and, at times throughout the over 1000 pages of WWE,  the relentless trials that beset these characters, from accusations of witchcraft, foiled love, murder, plague, self-abnegation, deceit, failed enterprises, bullying, and the machinations of others undermining talent and good intentions, grow tiresome. But they also keep the story moving along and readers turning pages – well, at least this reader.

Was this a satisfying read? Yes, it was. Not only because the overall story arc is gratifying and the fact the huge investment first begun when that small group share a terrible secret pays off, but because the sense of place and time underpinning the entire novel, the rich history of the period, is beautifully and painstakingly evoked. Not in a didactic way, but in such a manner that the characters in situ are brought to life and even the inanimate spaces, such as the monastery, hospital, taverns and other places, inventions of Follett’s imaginary Kingsbridge, have life breathed into them. It’s no wonder an eight part television series has been made of this book as well  – produced by Ridley and Tony Scott (among others) and starring Cynthia Nixon and Miranda Richardson. Will I watch it – the jury is out on that for same reasons that I didn’t read Pillars…

If you like historical novels full of drama, pathos and which are unapologetically soap-opera-ish, and are prepared to commit to a huge undertaking by reading this story, then World Without End is for you. For me,  it was time well spent.

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Book Review: Beer in The Middle Ages and Renaissance

If you’re at all interested in the history of ale, beer and brewing, specifically as it developed in Europe and England from roughly the 1200s through the 1600s, then this book is for you. The author, Richard Unger, delivers a well-researched but very easy to read book full of facts and some suppositions about the changing nature of one of the most important drinks in human history and how it altered from being a domestic product, replete with all sorts of medicinal wonders, to a heavily commercialised one that was governed and taxed and, for a long period, thrived, to being ubiquitous across parts of the Northern hemisphere.

The introduction is broad and does establish the fact that the book is very focussed on beer production in Europe during this period – England is really only an adjunct if you’re seriously wanting to learn more about brewing there. Explaining the various process of brewing, from malting to mashing to worting, Unger really describes what occurs, the equipment used and the variations between regions very well. Distinguishing between beer and ale as well, Unger sets the pace and tone for the rest of this fascinating book.

Providing a brief history of beer making beyond his main focus, the reader is, in the first chapter, taken back to 7000 BC, to Sumeria, Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, being brought forward to the Roman period before arriving in the Middle Ages.

The different additives put in brews, their names (gruit for example) and the importance of hops to the growing beer industry, the way it utterly transformed it, are explored very well. As is the resistance to hopped beer in England and other parts of Europe by ale-makers. Legislation increases as brewing metamorphoses into a commercial venture and governments recognise a profit to be made. Unger analyses this in detail and with accompanying tables which reveal consumption, exports and imports and other facts. The rise of guilds is touched on and the rapidly decreasing role of women in an industry they once dominated is, disappointingly, only given a few pages (though Judith Bennett dedicates an entire and excellent book to this). Price-fixing is also discussed as is, in the final pages of the book, the slow decline of beer and brewing as the consumption of spirits, wine, coffee and tea began to challenge beer’s dominance.

While it brushes on the social history of beer, it doesn’t really examine this in detail – that is left to other books, such as A Lynne Martin’s Alcohol, Sex and Gender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. I wish Unger had spent more time on this, however, as I feel he would have been able to offer some insights. At times, I admit, I found footnotes missing where I felt they should have been and some of the “facts” conflicted with other studies I have read. But overall, this is an excellent account of a cultural beverage that has both united and divided the world for centuries.

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