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.
This beautifully crafted novel set in rural Australia in the
aftermath of WWI, is an incredibly moving story of loss, betrayal, masculinity,
and terrible and entrenched bigotry. The story is told from three perspectives
– that of two returned servicemen, Snow and Jack, and explores the expectations
placed on them by themselves, others and especially patriarchal and white
society – and a British nurse, the appropriately named Grace, who, married to
an Australian returned serviceman, the eccentric and damaged Arthur, travels
with him when he returns to his homeland and takes up the grant of land offered
to all white soldiers. Only Jack, an Indigenous former Light Horseman is not
given the opportunity to either own (by white laws) or work the land which is
his anyway. Accustomed to being treated as if he has no rights, his service and
sacrifice for his country so swiftly forgotten, Jack remains a drifter on the
soil that is his.
Like Jack, both Arthur and Snow – the latter who most people
give a wide berth – carry the internal wounds of their experiences and actions,
the horrors to which they bore witness and played a part in – unable to quite
readjust to their survival and the role that the land and the government now
demands of them – never mind others. But what none of the men, who prefer to
keep others at a distance anticipated is firstly, Grace, and the ability she
has to recognise their pain and seek ways to heal them and herself, but also
the land and the capacity it has to regenerate – not just what’s grown but
those who work it. The land and each other.
I found this book achingly beautiful. Sparse yet so rich in
its descriptions I found myself lingering on the words, the richness of the characters,
the setting (which is marvellously represented), their memories and current
interactions long after I’d finished the tale. The writing is sublime and the
story that is told so important. It’s one that makes you squirm at the way the
men, especially Jack, are treated – feel a deep shame that this happened – and the
knowledge that it still does in parts. But it’s also such an important and
unknown part of our history that needs to have a light shone on it. Kim Kelly
does that and more and in relaying such a tragically-beautiful story, infuses
not just sunshine on a dark past but imbues it with hope for the future. Simply
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.