Writing Things

I’m holed up in our cabin in the woods, working on my book. These are just a few of the things I’ve read in the past week. I need to format it right. Send halp and booze.

Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by Richard Green, Martino Publishing, 2011. 

Brewer, Jessica. “Etheldreda: Queen, Abbess, Saint.” Medievalists.net, 23 Feb. 2019, http://www.medievalists.net/2019/02/etheldreda-queen-abbess-saint/.

Cartwright, Mark. “The Daily Life of Medieval Nuns.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 10 Mar. 2020, http://www.ancient.eu/article/1298/the-daily-life-of-medieval-nuns/.

Clark, Christine G. “Women’s Rights in Early England.” BYU Law Review, 1995 March; 207(1): 206-236.

Crosby, Everett U. “Children of the Middle Ages.” Review of Medieval Children by Nicholas Orme. The Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn 2002, vol 78 issue 4, p. 766-773.

Cybulskie, Danièle. “Royalit: What Did Medieval Kings Read?” Medievalists.net, 14 Apr. 2018, http://www.medievalists.net/2016/04/royalit-what-did-medieval-kings-read/.

Dawkins, Richard. Outgrowing God. New York: Random House, 2019.

Dragnea, Mihai. “The Influence of the Bible on Medieval Women’s Literacy.” Medievalists.net, 14 July 2014, http://www.medievalists.net/2014/07/the-influence-of-the-bible-on-medieval-womens-literacy/.

Dresner, Samuel H. “Barren Rachel.” Judaism. Fall91, Vol. 40 Issue 4, p 442. 

FitzGerald, Brian D. “Medieval Theories of Education: Hugh of St. Victor and John of Salisbury.” Oxford Review of Education, vol 36 issue 5, October 2010, p. 575-588.

Friehs, Julia Teresa. “What Did People Read in the Middle Ages? Courtly and Middle-Class Reading Matter.” Die Welt Der Habsburger, http://www.habsburger.net/en/chapter/what-did-people-read-middle-ages-courtly-and-middle-class-reading-matter.

Frijhoff, Willem. “Historian’s Discovery of Childhood.’ Paedagogica Historica Vol. 48, No. 1, February 2012, 11–29.

Gordon, Edward E. Centuries of Tutoring: A Perspective on Childhood Education. 1988. Loyola University, PhD Dissertation. 

Green Richard. “Introduction.” In Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy, translated by Richard Green, Martino Publishing, 2011.

Guillelmi de Conchis’s Dragmaticon. Translated by Italo Ronca, University of Notre Dame Press, 1997.

Harvey, Katherine. “Episcopal Virginity in MEdieval England.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 2017 May ; 26(2): 273–293.

John of Salisbury (1962 [1159]) The Metalogicon of John of Salisbury: a twelfth-century defense of the verbal and logical arts of the trivium. Translated by D. McGarry. Berkeley, University of California.

Kuefler, Mathew S. “‘A Wyred Existence’: Attitudes Towards Children in Anglo-Saxon England.” Journal of Social History. Summer91, Vol. 24 Issue 4, p823-834. 

Lewis, Katherine J. “Model Girls? Virgin-Martyrs and the Training of Young Women in Late Medieval England.” In Young Medieval Women, edited by Katherine J. Lewis, Menuge Noël James, and Kim M. Phillips. St. Martins Press, 1999: 25-46.

Lewis, Mary, Fiona Shapland, and Rebecca Watts. “On the Threshold of Adulthood: A New Approach for the Use of Maturation Indicators to Assess Puberty in Adolescents from Medieval England.” 2016. American Journal of Human Biology, 28:48-56.

Otten, Willemien. “Christianity’s Content: (Neo)Platonism in the Middle Ages, Its Theoretical and Theological Appeal.” Numen 63 (2016): 245-270. 

Potkay, Monica Brzezinski and Regula Meyer Evitt. Minding the Body: Women and Literature in the Middle Ages, 800-1500. London: Twayne’s Women and Literature Series, 1997.

Riches, Sam and Miriam Gill. “Saints in Medieval Society.” Pilgrims and Pilgrimage, http://www.york.ac.uk/projects/pilgrimage/content/med_saint.html.

Riches, Sam and Miriam Gill. “Saints in Medieval Society.” Pilgrims and Pilgrimage, http://www.york.ac.uk/projects/pilgrimage/content/med_saint.html. 

Salih, Sarah. “Saints and Sanctity in Medieval England.” The British Library, 4 Jan. 2018, http://www.bl.uk/medieval-literature/articles/saints-and-sanctity-in-medieval-england#. 

Shapland, Fiona, Mary Lewis, and Rebecca Watts. “Lives and Deaths of Young Medieval Women.” Medieval Archaeology, vol. 59, 2015, pp. 272-289.

Stevenson, Cait. “The Holy Spirit in Female Form: Medieval Tales of Faith and Heresy.” Medievalists.net, 29 Aug. 2019, http://www.medievalists.net/2019/08/the-holy-spirit-in-female-form-medieval-tales-of-faith-and-heresy/.

Vauchez, André. Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages. Cambridge: University Press; 1997.

Vincent, Nicholas. “The Great Lost Library of England’s Medieval Kings?: Royal Use and Ownership of Books, 1066-1272.” 1000 Years of Royal Books and Manuscripts, edited by Kathleen Doyle and Scot McKendrick, British Library, 2013, pp. 73-112.

Wilkinson, Louise. “Isabella, First Wife of King John.” Magna Carta Trust, https://magnacarta800th.com/schools/biographies/women-of-magna-carta/isabella-of-gloucester/

 

Bright Blade (Byrhtnoth Chronicles #3)

Bright Blade coverBright Blade by Christine Hancock 

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fiction

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 398 pp

Published by: Madder Press (8 Oct 2019)

Thegn Byrhtnoth owes allegiance to his lord, Ealdorman Athelstan, and his king Eadred. He is, however, less than thrilled to be ordered to participate in Ealdred’s attempt to retake the Northumbrian kingdom from the self-styled King of York. In the war, Eadred pits his army not only against the political North, but its people as well, giving his soldiers free reign to plunder, pillage, and rape indiscriminately. Byrhtnoth has issues with this, partly because it goes against his personal sense of honor. When Eadred assigns him to repair ships in Devon to bring to the war effort, Byrhtnoth finds himself in the middle of a battle to revenge himself upon a man who harmed his wife (in a previous book) and a quest to find his long-lost father. 

This novel is the third in the Byrhtnoth Chronicles series. While it was very readable and told a fast-paced story, I don’t think it is really good as a standalone. There are references to events from the prior two books that attempt to fill in the gaps, but it wasn’t really adequate for readers who haven’t read the whole series. Additionally, there were a few anachronisms, such as the term ‘girlfriend,’ which didn’t come into use until the 20th century. These are relatively minor quibbles, though, as the plot and action were engaging and the characters are generally intriguing enough to make readers want to learn more about them and what happens in their lives. 

The historical detail in this novel was precise and layered. I enjoyed reading about the Anglo-Saxon culture and the ways in which their political system worked. Some references to other very well-known texts, such as Beowulf, added depth to the story. Additionally, the details of the treatment of one specific wound (which I won’t detail further to avoid spoilers!) aligns with archaeological evidence from the Wharram Percy site, to the northeast of York. It always thrills me to read historical fiction that blends in actual practices and is based on evidence from the historical record. 

I didn’t see a lot of character development in this novel, but much of it may have occurred in the previous books. The story and writing were compelling enough that I plan to backtrack and read the first two installments in the series. The writing itself and structure of the book draw readers in and encourage them to keep reading, as the chapters are quite short. 

Overall, a very pleasing read about one of the most famous Anglo-Saxon lords. I look forward to reading the rest of the series, and the fourth book, anticipated later in 2020.

Sword of Shadows

47863903Sword of Shadows  by Jeri Westerson (WEBSITE, FACEBOOK)

Her Grace’s rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fiction

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Netgalley 

Length: 224 pp

Published by: Severn House (20 April 2020)

We are nearing the end of the adventures of Crispin Guest, disgraced lord and knight, self-created Tracker of London. In this tale, Crispin and his apprentice Jack Tucker are hired by Cornish treasure hunter Carantok Teague to assist him in finding a long lost sword. It turns out to be none other than Excalibur that Teague seeks. Crispin is, of course, skeptical, but takes the job as he needs money, as always. Teague leads them to Tintagel, the fabled birthplace of King Arthur, to seek the sword. While there, two men in the castle guard are murdered, and Crispin is sidetracked from the search for the sword to investigate the deaths. Along the way, he encounters Kat Pyke, his one-time lover, as well as a host of young women jilted by one of the murdered men, and a hidden village in the forest full of Druids. Exactly what Crispin needs to have an interesting time.

Anyone who knows me at all knows I have a particular soft spot for Arthurian legend. Mixing that in with one of my favorite historical fiction series is like human catnip to me. The murder investigation element of the story takes a fairly normal course, and certainly not all is as it first appears. The Arthurian element was fun because who hasn’t thought about that sword in the stone or of where its final resting place might really be? I did feel that the Athurian sections were not as well fleshed out as the rest, but that just adds to the mystery a bit. And the surprise at the end with the old caretaker was a delight. 

Jack is grown now and Crispin is letting him take the lead on a variety of tasks that he wouldn’t have before. I’ve said it before and will say it again here that it is good to see Jack grow from a mischievous young boy to an honorable, dependable man. If she wanted to, Westerson could easily continue her medieval noir novels with Jack as the protagonist and new Tracker, with Crispin making cameo appearances. I think she has no such plans, but it is still fun to consider, as well as the final story in the series. I know how *I* hope Crispin’s tale ends, but we shall have to wait and see what Ms Westerson thinks about it! 

Strongly recommended! 

The Land Beyond the Sea

31568110The Land Beyond the Sea by Sharon Kay Penman (WEBSITE, FACEBOOK)

Her Grace’s rating:  5 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fiction

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Edelweiss+

Length: 688 pp

Published by: Putnam (3 March 2020)

Many people are at least a little familiar with the Crusades, Richard the Lionheart, and Saladin. Far fewer, I would wager, know about the life of Balian of Ibelin, a Frankish lord born in the Levant. Penman tells his story in The Land Beyond the Sea. The timespan of the novel is actually fairly short, beginning when Balian is a young man. Penman takes readers on a journey among the Poulain, the people born in the Levant and descended from the Crusaders who remained in the region after the First Crusade; she shows us the complex and surprisingly collaborative interactions between the Poulain, the migrant Crusaders, and the Saracens, which influence the local politics to an extraordinary degree; and she demonstrates, above all else, that history is not always what we’ve learned from school. 

Balian’s story here starts with his relationship with King Baldwin, known to history as The Leper King. The two had a relationship built on respect and Balian rose high at the court in Jerusalem as a result of Baldwin’s favor. Balian also had a good relationship with Saladin himself, as well as his brother, Al-Adil, one of Saladin’s most trusted advisors. These relationships came into play at the height of Balian’s influence, when he convinced Saladin to accept Jerusalem’s peaceful surrender after a prolonged siege that would have left thousands of civilians dead or sold into slavery. 

The labyrinthine politics of the court are described in detail and were an interesting change of pace, for me anyway, from the court politics I’m more used to reading about. I understand the politics of periods like the Wars of the Roses, the Tudors, or the Plantagenets, but I had never read anything set in the medieval Levant. Penman does a thorough and highly accurate job of showing these twisting intrigues. It was a bit surprising to me to learn how much the European and Saracen societies mingled and cooperated with one another. I think I had this vague notion that the two societies were mostly segregated from each other because of the religious wars between them. I think my favorite thing was learning just how closely tied the societies were and how much they had in common. Though, really, that shouldn’t surprise me at all, since rationally I knew the region was something of a melting pot; I just hadn’t really thought much about it. 

Related to that, I was fascinated by the way they treated each other. For example, once Saladin accepted Jerusalem’s surrender, he allowed the people to put forth a ransom rather than have them all shipped off to the slave markets in Cairo. Of the roughly 15,000 people who were too poor to help raise a ransom and would have been sent into slavery, he released 7000 of them, then granted his brother, Balian, and Patriarch Eraclius gifts of 1000 slaves each, which they immediately manumitted. The way the Saracen guards/escorts treated the group who was able to leave Jerusalem was also wonderful to read. They took good care to protect them, even though they were defeated enemies; however, Saladin had ordered them to treat them well, and so they did. In Penman’s extensive Author’s Note, she indicated, rightly, that she would have been hard pressed to believe that if it had been described so only in Saracen chronicles, but the description came from several Christian chronicles. 

Also, Penman has a great talent for taking her characters, whether fictional or historical, and making readers care about them. I was so sad when William of Tyre died; I felt awful for and was sad when Baldwin died, because he was so brave in facing his illness; I was furious when Guy de Lusignan did, well, all the stupid things he did; I loved and was grateful to Anselm for his unflinching service to Baldwin. So many other examples. Even though these people, the ones who were real anyway, died nearly 1000 years ago, Penman breathes life into them, brings them springing forth with their wonderfully messy, complex, endearing, irritating humanness. 

All in all, while I have come to expect nothing short of amazing writing and research from Sharon Kay Penman’s books, it is nevertheless a delight to dive into a new book of hers and discover that her reputation as a precise and vivid storyteller remains intact and well-deserved. 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • “You can get Amalric to pay his ransom.” Others might have found that answer cold, uncaring. Agnes did not. Her mother was simply recognizing the reality confronting them, as women had been compelled to do down through the ages. 
  • William suddenly found himself on the verge of tears, almost as if he knew he’d just been given a precious gift, a memory of the young king at a perfect moment in his life, one that held no shadows or dread, only bright promise. 
  • “This is the first course, honey dates stuffed with almonds. I am sure you’ll like them if you give them a try.” Balian leaned over and put a date on the other man’s plate. The knight let it lie there untouched. He was gazing at it as if it were offal, not a delicacy sure to please the most demanding palates, and Balian began to entertain a fantasy in which he held Gerard down and force-fed him every date in Outremer. 
  • He gestured toward the arrow with a grimace, saying it was only a flesh wound. [Was this a deliberate reference to Monty Python and the Holy Grail?? If so, well played, Ms Penman, well played.]
  • Almost as if sensing how dark his thoughts had become, Cairo padded across the chamber and nudged Baldwin’s hand with a cold nose. He’d noticed years ago that the dog never touched his right hand, the one without feeling; it was always the left, crippled but still capable of sensations. How did Cairo know? [Another thing I love about Penman’s writing is how she always portrays the dogs as noble and loving. Dogs are so much better than we are. We do not deserve dogs.]
  • [Balian playing with his children upon arriving home from battle] Once his father had boosted him up onto his shoulders, he whooped with delight, and for reasons he was too young to understand, that moment imprinted itself upon his memory. Long after he was grown, with sons of his own, he would recall very little of their flight from Nablus. But he would vividly remember the afternoon that his father came home and made him fly.
  • He wondered if the other man had acted impulsively, moved by the misery of the enslaved Franks. Or had he always intended to make this request, confident that his brother would welcome an opportunity to display mercy again? … Balian smiled, realizing he’d never have the answer to that question. He could answer another question, though, one that he’d pondered since their first meeting in Salah al-Din’s tent at Marj al-Safar. They shared neither the same faith nor the same blood. But al-Malik al-Adil Saif al-Din Abu Bakr Ahmad bin Ayyub was his friend. 

 

 

 

A Feather on the Breath of God

hildegard_of_bingen_and_nuns
Hildegard and her nuns

In the year 1112, a young girl who had been given to the church by her parents as a tithe was entombed in an anchorite’s cell with another woman, Jutta. The mass of the dead was performed over the enclosed cell, as was customary, and the girl became an anchoress until her eventual release in 1136 upon Jutta’s death. The girl, now around 38 years old, was then unanimously declared as the next abbess of the Disenbodenberg convent. She went on to become a renowned theologian, composer, and mystic. The girl was Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 17 Sept 1179), medieval firebrand, visionary, thorn in the side of her male contemporaries, and she remains as relevant today as she was in her own time.

Hildegard was a product of her time and was not a feminist by any modern definition of the word, but she was a fierce advocate of the sacred value of women. Her theology was feminine, focusing largely on the idea of God as a cosmic egg, a womb that nurtures all things. She acknowledged the dogma of her time, which decreed that God was male, but she claimed that she was unable to bear looking upon the divine in her visions unless it presented as female. Although women were prohibited from preaching, nevertheless, she persisted, going on several tours to preach to her male superiors about the sins of the Church, which was rife with sexual misconduct and corruption. One of Hildegard’s more interesting visions, Ecclesia, depicts the Church giving birth to the Antichrist because of the venality of its clergy. She was not afraid of confrontation, and even wrote scathing letters to Pope Anastasius IV about the sad state of his Church:

You are neglecting justice, the King’s daughter [the Church], the heavenly bride, the woman who was entrusted to you. And you are even tolerant that this princess be hurled to the ground. Her crown and jeweled raiment are torn to pieces through the moral crudeness of men who bark like dogs and make stupid sounds like chickens which sometimes begin to cackle in the middle of the night. They are hypocrites. (Fox, 1987, p. 274)

At one point, Hildegard and her nuns were even placed under interdict for refusing to comply with orders to disinter a suspected apostate, whom Hildegard allowed to be buried in hallowed ground in her convent. Hildegard refused to relent and eventually the interdict was lifted. She could, and did, go toe to toe with male authority, and bravely fought for her beliefs within the system that was available to her.

Hildegard was also a gifted composer of music, another realm generally designated for men only. Because she was a Benedictine nun and adhered to that order’s strict daily schedule, she sang the Divine Office eight times a day. She believed that singing was the highest form of prayer and music connected humankind directly to the divine. During her interdict, she was prohibited from singing, which was the harshest punishment for her. Hildegard said in a letter to the prelates of Mainz that “the soul is arises from heavenly harmony” (Fox, 1987, p. 359) and in music she referred to herself as a feather on the breath of God. She wrote over 70 songs and Ordo Virtutum, which is sometimes considered to be the first opera. A sampling of her songs may be found at the following sites: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8gK0_PgIgY or http://www.slacker.com/artist/hildegard-von-bingen

Her mystical visions still bring inspiration. Often, they reflect her concept of Viriditas, the greening power, which she believed was the divine made manifest in everything on earth. She wrote, “I, the fiery life of divine essence, am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows, I gleam in the waters, and I burn in the sun, moon and stars … I awaken everything to life” (Fox, 1987, p. 8-10). Hildegard felt the creation of all things reflected the face of the divine and that nature was sacred, something that is “highly relevant for us in this age of climate change and the destruction of natural habitats” (Sharratt, 2012, para. 6).

Hildegard’s death on September 17, 1179 marks a date of commemoration for this woman, a medieval mystic, visionary, healer, and saint. She was ordained a Doctor of the Church 900 years after her death. Today, women the world over still find solace and strength in her words and songs. We can use her for guidance to find our own viriditas, strength, and sacredness in nature, regardless of faith or lack thereof.

References

Classical Music goturhjem2. (2013, Feb 13). Hildegard von Bingen – Music and Visions [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8gK0_PgIgY.

Hildegard of Bingen. (1987). Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works: With Letters and Songs. Matthew Fox (Ed.). Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Company.  

Hildegard von Bingen. (n.d.). Slacker Radio. Retrieved from http://www.slacker.com/artist/hildegard-von-bingen.

Newman, B. (1987). Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sharratt, M. (2012, Oct 27). 8 Reasons Why Hildegard Matters Now. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mary-sharratt/8-reasons-why-hildegard-matters-now_b_2006626.html.

The History of William Marshal

29006215The History of William Marshal translated by Nigel Bryant

Her Grace’s rating:  3 out of 5 stars

Genre: nonfiction/biography

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 243 pp

Published by: The Boydell Press (1 Aug 2016)

This medieval chronicle, written in the 1220s in verse, depicts the life of William Marshal, The Greatest Knight. The author is unknown, but he was likely a close friend or a member of Marshal’s household. He wrote events as he knew them, both from firsthand knowledge or by asking those closest to Marshal. It certainly exaggerates Marshal’s life and abilities and glosses cheerfully over the times he blew it, but it is overall a valuable document of medieval noble life.

As a medievalist, I’ve read my share of chronicles and documents of the time. This one was a delightful change from the texts that are often dry accounts. It was easy to read and surprisingly funny. In part, this is due to Bryant’s skillful translation, but he can’t translate what wasn’t already there to begin with. The chronicler had a witty and sometimes playful tone to his writing. 

The whole document gives a fascinating glimpse into medieval noble life and the ways in which a knight can make a name for himself. The medieval mindset and things that the chronicler focused on are so intriguing. The politics and balancing acts these people had to perform must have been exhausting. It is also clear that women may have been respected (Eleanor of Aquitaine is mentioned in glowing terms) but they are still very much second-class citizens. One of Marshal’s horses is given a name, Blancart, and yet none of his sisters were named. Even queens are often referred to as ‘the queen’ or so and so’s wife. 

I wonder how much of the Stoics the author knew. Some passages were very Stoic in their reader: ‘But I tell you truly, no heart should grieve or rejoice excessively’ (p 28). Almost certainly he was influenced by Boethius as well; The Consolation of Philosophy had a lot of influence on medieval thought, and throughout Marshal’s history, numerous references exist to Fortune and her wheel. It feels like there may be some influences of the Beowulf poet on the chronicler as well. I’ll have to look into that more, because I’m a nerd. But the intro reminded me very much of the intro to Beowulf: þæt wæs god cyning! Yes, þæt wæs god knight! 

 This is definitely a must-read for any medievalist. Who doesn’t like learning about knights anyway, especially the one who was known as the greatest knight even in his own lifetime? 

Favorite parts/ lines:

  • On helping Empress Mathilda escape but she slowed them down by riding sidesaddle: ‘By Christ, lady, you can’t spur when you’re seated so! You’ll have to part your legs and swing over the saddle!’ (29)
  • And the fact is, sirs, the prowess of a single valiant knight can embolden a whole army… (37)
  • …joy and happiness are the due reward and stimulus for aptitude and prowess. (43)
  • Let’s be honest: being sedentary is shameful to the young. (52)
  • He won something of far more value, for the man who wins honour has made a rich profit indeed. (59)
  • I loved the part where the Marshal was at a tourney and he got smacked on the helmet so hard that it got stuck and he had to go lay on the smith’s anvil so the smith could pry it off. LOL. 
  • A man reveals himself by his actions! (70)
  • People often get what they deserve, and those who covet all lose all. (72)

 

 

Memoirs of a Traitor

41t033qmoel._sx331_bo1204203200_Memoirs of a Traitor by Lee Levin

I read it as an: ARC

Source: HNS

Length: 384 pp

Publisher: Royal Heritage Press

Year: 2018

Presented as a found document, Memoirs of a Traitor is the story of William Stanley, knight banneret, and brother of Lord Thomas Stanley. These brothers played an interesting role during the Wars of the Roses, fighting for the Yorkists at the Battles of Blore Heath and Tewkesbury, but later fighting for the Lancasters at the Battle of Bosworth. Sometimes you just can’t fucking decide who to fight for, you know? Like most others of their peers, they were primarily concerned with keeping their heads securely attached to their shoulders. One managed to do so, the other, not so much. Just the way the cookie crumbles, I reckon. This book tells the tale of William, the younger Stanley brother, supposedly written from the Tower the night before his execution for treason for his role in supporting Perkin Warbeck’s claim to the throne.

This was a very readable book. The style was conversational, engaging, and yet still informative, if somewhat too informal for my usual taste. First-person narratives are kind of hit or miss for me, but since this was supposed to be Stanley’s own written account, there was no other way it could have been written. Sometimes it worked fine and helped draw me into the story more fully; other times it brought me out of the story because I thought it was cheesy or distracting. I do think it really limited the extent to which the other characters were fleshed out. Only a handful of secondary characters were really given very much attention or life. Most were pretty flat, with a couple notable exceptions such as Baron Simon de Rochford and Owen the squire. It would have been nice to get to know them better. I didn’t think the rest had well developed voices and it was difficult to differentiate them on the page.

I think, too, that the pace might have been a little too fast in that some major events or battles happened too quickly with not enough detail given. I get that the premise of the book was that William was hunched over a parchment, scribbling his thoughts in a hurry in one night before going to the block, but it felt like there was too much lost that would have been good to add depth and flavor to the tale had it included more detail. However, all the main points are touched upon and this really would be a great book to use to introduce someone to the Wars of the Roses who isn’t as familiar with it. The overall historical accuracy and engaging writing style make it easy enough to forgive some glossing over of the finer details, especially given the first-person narration.

All in all, I found this to be an enjoyable read and would recommend it, though with some caveats.

^This is a longer, more detailed version of a review my published via the Historical Novel Society.

Traitor’s Codex

42730289Traitor’s Codex (A Crispin Guest Mystery Book 11)* by Jeri Westerson (website, Facebook)

Her Grace’s rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fiction – medieval, 14th century London

I read it as a: hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 198 pp

Published by: Severn House (June 1, 2019)

**Spoilers below**

In 1394 London, Crispin Guest, self-styled Tracker of London, and his apprentice Jack Tucker are making ends meet with small jobs here and there. But their world gets turned upside down when a mysterious man drops a package in Crispin’s lap and disappears. Inside is a book written in a language Crispin has never seen. Making use of his varied contacts throughout the city, he learns that the book is written in Coptic and contains a secret gospel, the Gospel of Judas, which claims that Judas was the most beloved apostle and that salvation can come from within a person, not through Christ’s sacrifice. Knowledge of this gospel would overturn the Church’s authority and lead to a dangerous heresy, something even skeptical Crispin isn’t willing to allow. When people who have helped him start getting murdered, Crispin finds himself in the middle of a race to get the book to a safe place. In the meanwhile, someone in London is impersonating Crispin and wreaking havoc on his reputation… 

Throughout this novel, themes of loyalty, oaths taken, and reevaluating what we thought we knew take the lead. Crispin and Jack both are forced to closely analyze the things they had always taken for, well, gospel truth, and both come away from their adventure changed in some fundamental ways. I think it was a good, if hard, lesson for Crispin to learn that Jews are people who have a great deal to contribute to his society and he realises he was not very good to them, or not as good as he could have been, only after two of his Jewish friends are killed. 

The subplot with Crispin’s copycat were amusing, and the way he handled it was very inventive. I liked how it came full circle in the end and Crispin used the man the way he did. It made that subplot more meaningful, rather than just a nuisance to Crispin that had no other purpose. 

The concept of loyalty also comes into play a lot throughout this novel. It was good to see Crispin evaluating his past role in the rebellion to place John of Gaunt on the throne and to understand the impact it had on others in ways he had never considered. Assessing one’s own thoughts and actions is an indication of a well-rounded adult and Crispin has really learned a lot about himself throughout the novels, and in this one especially. 

I am looking forward to the next book in the series with both excitement and bittersweetness, knowing it will be one of the last. But also – Excalibur! YES! I am also really, really curious to see how Crispin’s tale will end. I know *I* have my own ideas and hopes for how it will end and what will become of Crispin, Jack, and the rest. But it will be interesting to see if any of those align with Westerson’s plan for our favorite intrepid, disgraced knight. 

Favorite parts (potential spoilers!):

  • The bookseller’s excitement over his books, especially the Launcelot book that was written in London but which he got in the Holy Land. Book nerds from the Middle Ages geeking out about their books is absolutely something I want more of in everything I read! 
  • When Julian of Norwich comes to visit. I loved the nod to her writing when Julian refers to Mother Jesus, and later her most famous quote: All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.. As a medievalist who focuses on the writings of holy women, including Julian, I dig it when someone makes us if them in their own work. Also, the author’s note explains why Julian was in London and not in her cell, which is where she actually would have been, and does so in a way that is believable within the scope of the novel. Nicely done, my lady Westerson!

 

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Earl of Huntingdon

42551630Earl of Huntingdon (Outlaw’s Legacy Book 3)* by NB Dixon

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 418 pp

Publisher: Beaten Track

Year: 2019

Earl of Huntingdon is the third in the Outlaw’s Legacy series, a reimagining of the Robin Hood legend by NB Dixon. In this installation, Robin of Huntingdon, formerly of Locksley, is an earl, a former outlaw pardoned by King Richard for his lawless ways. He had married Marian, the heiress of Huntingdon, though his heart was given to one of his companions, Will Scathelock. Now, years later, Robin is facing an old enemy from his Crusading days, Roger of Doncaster, who had been promised to Marian in his youth and never forgave her or Robin for coercing her marriage to Robin instead. Roger is determined to do all he can to destroy Robin, whose only solace now is in the arms of the man whose heart he broke.

The action begins with a new group of outlaws in Sherwood. The difference here is that these outlaws are truly bad people, raping, pillaging, and plundering from the innocent. The new sheriff of Nottingham, Matthew Picard, is as inept as Guy of Gisbourne ever could have been, and does nothing to stop them. Robin takes matters into his own hands and dispatches the outlaws himself with the aid of his loyal men…and Will Scathelock. However, the outlaws were connected to a spy in Robin’s midst working with Roger of Doncaster to bring Robin down and killing the outlaws sets in motion a chain of events neither Robin nor his men could have anticipated.

This was an utterly unstoppable read. While I confess I’ll read just about anything labelled “Robin Hood,” that doesn’t mean all such are actually well written or entertaining; Earl of Huntingdon, however, is both. I enjoyed the rich historical details, such as the training the men did in the lists and at the tiltyard, or the ways in which castles could be besieged. Adding in the historical details in this way make these novels which are based on legend spring to life, making it seem that much more possible that people like Robin Hood really could have existed.

The characters were all interesting and well developed. I loved how very human Robin was – he was conflicted in wanting to do right by Marian and by what I think was his genuine affection for her, but also his desire for Will and wanting to be with the man he truly loves. He isn’t a perfect person, and never tries to be, and it makes him that much more believable.

Marian is not always likeable and her reasons are understandable. She’s endured many losses and suffered a lot of heartache, which makes her rather shrewish at first. We get to know her more as the book goes on and I grew to like her more. Having Marian be less likeable than she often is in more traditional versions makes this novel compelling and more relatable – it reminds readers that she is a woman of her time and subject to the whims of the men in charge of her, and yet she has endured it all as best she can.

All the secondary characters – Will, John Little, Tuck, John’s wife Daphne, Alan a Dale, and so on – have distinct personalities and foibles of their own. Daphne in particular is a woman to be reckoned with. She’s awesome, even though her role in this novel was relatively minor.

Roger of Doncaster is a complex antagonist. He is so incredibly hateful towards Robin that, without having read the previous books, I am left to wonder if he is supposed to have been closeted. He hates Robin and other gay men so much, and bases his hatred for them in his religious devotions, that it makes me wonder if the hatred isn’t really supposed to be a projection of his own self-loathing. That possibility wasn’t really addressed in this book, but it did make me wonder as I was reading.

My only quibble, and it is minor, is that a couple of the secondary antagonists are a little stereotypical. Picard, for example, is very good at being a stupid fop and not much else. It makes him a rather boring antagonist because he is one-dimensional. There didn’t seem to be much else going for him. Again, this is a minor issue and didn’t detract from the rest of the plot overall, other than it made a few things a little predictable.

I loved the queering of the Robin Hood legend. It’s always fun to read a reimagining of any beloved story, and to see it done in a way that is socially relevant is a treat. It brings new discussion into the mix and raises a lot of interesting new questions to the traditional story everyone is familiar with. The chemistry between Robin and Will is unmistakable and fierce, but not over the top. As a non-reader of romance in general, I appreciate it when the romance isn’t actually smacking me in the face. The romance and sex in this novel were, I felt, very nicely done for both the gay and hetero couples.

I do feel I would have enjoyed the book even more had I read the previous two in the series. However, I do not feel like I was lost, plot-wise, for having missed them. Enough of the backstory was given so that any gaping plot holes were filled in, though I do feel like I missed out. I enjoyed the book enough that I went and purchased the first two in the series, and will quickly remedy that deficiency. Even without having read the first two in the series, I still happily recommend this book even as it is, and am looking forward to reading the whole series in order.

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The Column of Burning Spices

43458335The Column of Burning Spices: A Novel of Germany’s First Female Physician (Hildegard of Bingen)* by PK Adams

I read it as a: digital book

Source: my own collection

Length: 370 pp

Publisher: Iron Knight Press

Year: 2019

The Column of Burning Spices is the second in PK Adams’s duology about the renowned medieval holy woman, Hildegard of Bingen. This picks up right where the first book left off and covers the latter part of Hildegard’s life, when she was writing and creating the works for which she is most well known.

Where the first book had given Hildegard an interesting background and a plausible history that filled in gaps in the historical record, this second book continued with what is known of her and fleshed her out in a human way. I don’t feel that there was quite the depth of character as there was in the first book, but I think this is simply because there was so much that Hildegard did in her life that it is impossible to capture it all in the scope of one novel. Authors have to make a choice – are they going to focus on her music or her scientific writing? On her struggles with the men of the church or on her charitable work? Adams is no different, and she did exceedingly well with what she chose to include. I thought the details were sufficient for Hildegard fans like me while also serving to whet the appetite of readers who may not be as familiar with her, hopefully inspiring them to go out and learn more about her.

How Hildegard dealt with the troublesome men of the church was handled deftly, and accurately. One of my favorite parts of the book, as well as actual events of her life, was how she handled the question of the burial of a man who had been excommunicated and then forgiven. He was buried, then the canons demanded that he be exhumed and reburied in unconsecrated ground. Hildegard refused because she said his sins had been forgiven. The canons told local authorities to exhume the body, so Hildegard and her nuns went around and removed all the grave markers from the cemetery. I love that so much. She sounds like my granny, a salty old crone. The canons placed Hildegard, her nuns, and the abbey under interdict, so no Mass could be performed and, worse for Hildegard, no songs could be sung. But eventually, she won and they could have their Mass and music back.

I enjoyed how the relationships between Hildegard and others were developed. Volmar, who was her confessor in real life, was given a deeper place in her life. It is not part of the historical record, but the way it was written in the book was believable and still within the scope of acceptable behavior for a Benedictine nun, and raised a poignant “what if” for them both. Similarly with Ricardis, Hildegard’s personal assistant. The two women had a close bond in real life, prompting some scholars to speculate that Hildegard was actually a lesbian. Maybe she was, but I also think that is a stupid assumption; she lived almost entirely in the company of women from the time she was 8 years old and most of the men of her acquaintance were her adversaries. It is no wonder that she formed her closest bonds with other women. It should have no bearing on her sexual preferences. I disagree, however, with how the author handled Ricardis leaving the convent. There is no indication in the historical record that she left because she’d been spying on Hildegard to Abbot Helenger or that she was in the church only to advance her family’s standing. If that had been the case, I doubt very much Hildegard would have continued to write to her after she left, asking her to come back, which she did several times. That part of the novel required too much of a suspension of disbelief, and didn’t fit with the existing historical record, for me to buy.

Overall, the duology was very pleasing – Hildegard of Bingen is hands down my favorite medieval holy woman, and favorite medieval woman second only to Eleanor of Aquitaine. The first installment was stronger, and I would rate it 4.5 stars, but the second still offered a solid performance and I would rank it at at 4 stars. I heartily recommend both books to anyone interested in this fascinating woman, or to anyone who has never heard of her and would like a starting point to learn about her.

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