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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Sunshine by Kim Kelly

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 superb.

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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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