The Forgotten Kingdom

The Forgotten KingdomThe Forgotten Kingdom by Signe Pike (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: historical fantasy*

Setting: 6th century Scotland

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Toni Frutin, Gary Furlong, and Siobhan Waring

Source: my own collection

Length: 14:07:00

Published by: Simon and Schuster Audio (15 Sept 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Forgotten Kingdom is the second instalment in Signe Pike’s Lost Queen trilogy. It picks up immediately after the events of the first book. Languoreth is imprisoned and awaiting news of a battle that holds the fates of her brother, eldest son, and husband. The land is divided and her brother, Lailoken, is battling against her husband, Rhydderch. At the same time, Languoreth’s youngest daughter, Angharad, is traveling with Lailoken to become a Wisdom Keeper. IN the chaos of battle, they become separated and Lailoken is drawn into the political and military intrigues while his young niece is lost in the wilderness and left on her own. The survivors of the battle are similarly thrown to the elements, left to fend for themselves in the Caledonian forest. 

This summary does no justice to the depth of this novel. While I liked the first book in the trilogy a bit better, this was a necessary examination of the politics and alliances Languoreth and her kin had to make to survive against the tide of the new Christian religion. Readers are introduced to Artur, who will, I’m sure, become King Arthur later. Angharad, surviving with a relative she discovered among the Pictish folk, may, I suspect, become the Lady of the Lake. I’m very curious to see if I am right, and how this will all play out.

Dumbarton Castle and Fortingal are the modern names for real places in the book. Pike set her story among these locations based on her extensive research. Clyde Rock and the kingdom of Strathclyde, as well as Languoreth’s birthplace of Cadzow, were historical sites, long since lost to history. But, as I have said in other reviews, placing a fantasy in a historical context is the best. It gives us hope that the figures and stories we love so well might not be stories at all, but are part of an actual history that has been lost or overwritten. 

Pike’s term “the forgotten kingdom” regrets to the Picts, the Scots of Dalriada, and other Brythonic peoples. Much of what we know about these people comes from Roman records, which must be taken with a large grain of salt. The Britons of the early medieval period passed knowledge primarily through oral tradition and so their histories were recorded by others. Few relics of their cultures survive. Sometimes, the best we can hope for are post holes from a building; the buildings themselves were mostly made from wood, or wattle and daub, and rotted away. Pike did a terrific job with the use of historical placenames and customs of various groups of people and of bringing the characters to life.

The politics and battles in this book were complex and dramatic. In a way, I wish this period of history was better recorded so we could know more for certain about it. But the very fact that it is not well recorded leaves rich ground for authors to craft stories around the few facts we do have. 

I highly recommend this book (though it is not really a standalone, so you’ll want to read The Lost Queen first, if you haven’t already). The only thing I don’t like is that the third book isn’t coming out until late 2023, per Pike’s website. That is so long! 

*The author’s note made an excellent argument that historical fiction is often miscategorized as historical fantasy, especially if there are references to old or other deities than those found in the Christian tradition. A character will do a chant, prayer, or spell and something happens as a result of it, so they think, and so the story is labeled fantasy. And yet, when Christian characters do the exact same things, the story is labeled historical fiction, as though the religions and beliefs of pre-Christian cultures are somehow less worthy of being considered real. Pike makes a great point with that argument. What we now consider to be mythology was once the official religion of state for the Roman Empire. It would be interesting to see what people in a thousand years will think of Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. Short of having actual magic or dragons or other similar elements of pure fantasy, I will be calling all books like Pike’s historical fiction. She made a convert out of me. Every pun intended.

Age of Druids

Age of Druids by Christy Nicholas (Website, Twitter)

Genre: historical fantasy

Setting: Ireland and Faerie

I read it as a(n): ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 284 pp

Published by: Tirgearr Publishing (14 Oct 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Age of Druids is the ninth and final book in Christy Nicholas’s Druid’s Brooch series. In this instalment, readers are taken to early Christian Ireland, roughly 5th century, where Cliodhna struggles to come to terms with the new religion that is invading and pushing out her beloved old religion. She is accustomed to welcoming the day with the sun, feeling the spirit and energy of living things, and communicating a bit with the Fae who live in the woods near her roundhouse. To her dismay, not only do the new religion have no place for the things she loves, but her two eldest children, nearly grown themselves, are drawn to this religion and are changing because of it. On top of that, Cliodhna’s husband has been missing for months, adding a layer of suspicion through which the zealous abbot, Padraic, views her.

To try to hold on to her way of life, Cliodhna begins lessons with Adhna, a man of the Fae. He teaches her how to draw upon earth energy to revitalize plants and animals as well as to protect herself. Cliodhna soon finds herself drawn into Adhna’s world more deeply than she ever imagined possible. She will be forced to make a choice between the mortal world, full of strange new ideas and shifting loyalties, and the Fae world, utterly foreign and frightening. 

It was interesting to see how the various threads from the other books in this series were entwined throughout this novel. We learn how the brooch was created at last and how and why it was gifted to Cliodhna’s family line to begin with. Learning how her family became connected to the Faerie realm was satisfying after so many books preceding it that hinted but never confirmed. 

I have read many of Nicholas’s books and, while I greatly enjoyed this one, it was probably my least favorite of the Druid’s Brooch series. There were a few places, in particular scenes set in the Faerie realm, that I felt I had read before. I spent a lot of time backtracking my old reviews and copies of the other books to see where I had read it before. I couldn’t find any duplicated scenes, so I am clearly wrong. But there was a lot that read in a very familiar way which I hadn’t gotten from any of her other books. Maybe it was just a function of having read the other ones and Nicholas’s writing style has become familiar. That is not in itself a bad thing.

The descriptions were all top notch, both in the mortal realm and in Faerie. I liked the diversity of characters and how they changed over time. The Christian monks in general, and the Abbott in particular, were described in a pretty negative way since they were seen primarily from Cliodhna’s point of view. This negativity was explained in a later part of the plot, but devout readers, which I am decidedly not, may be a little put off by it. The villagers had a few bright spots in terms of character development as well. Ita in particular was an interesting figure and I wish there had been more scenes with her. She added a nice counterpoint to Cliodhna, who was all feisty; Ita was a good balance for her. 

The ending felt a little abrupt, but it makes sense because now the timeline starts to move forward, rather than backward. Readers could tackle the series in the reverse order of publication if they really wanted to and get a sweeping epic fantasy. Which, of course, it is anyway. I really loved the way the entire series moved backward through time to get to the genesis of the brooch that was central to the lives of the characters. I thought that was a really fun way to approach it.

One small quibble I had was the title. There really weren’t any Druids in the book. They were mentioned in passing. Druids are awesome, so I wish there had been more, or a Druid who played a main role. Cliodhna was not a Druid so she couldn’t have been the one the title implies.

Overall, this novel nicely done and provided a satisfactory summation to the entire series. Definitely recommended for fans of historical fantasy and Irish culture.

Isabella of Angouleme: The Tangled Queen 1

27396420._sy475_Isabella of Angouleme: The Tangled Queen 1 by Erica Laine (Website, Twitter, Facebook)

Genre: historical fiction

Setting: 13th century England

I read it as a(n): kindle book

Source: my own collection

Length: 124 pp

Published by: Brook Cottage Books (28 Oct 2015)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Not many things, fictional or otherwise, are written about Isabelle of Angoulême, so when I came across this trilogy while researching the wives of King John, I was pleased. This first installment covers Isabelle’s life from just prior to her marriage to John, while she was still betrothed to Hugh le Brun de Lusignan, to John’s death in 1216. 

Almost nothing is known about Isabelle’s early life, but Raine filled in some blanks admirably with educated guesses at how a girl of her status would have been raised. There were tons of historically accurate details about daily life in medieval Europe, which made for an immersive reading experience. For instance, Laine often used quotes from various medieval manuscripts, chronicles, or people. They were not always given to the people who actually said the words, but it didn’t make a negative impact on any given scene, and I doubt anyone who hasn’t been up to their eyeballs in medieval research would even know it. But I got a kick out of reading things like “To some it was ugly news, to others, lovely,” which is from the History of William Marshal, and knowing where they were from, who said it, and the context. Raine clearly did her research even while taking some creative liberties.

Similarly, there are several different schools of thought regarding Isabelle and John’s relationship, why he married Isabelle, the reasons for his loss of the continental Angevin lands, and the personalities of each. Raine took some of these various theories and used them to spin a plausible story about this royal couple. It will be interesting to see how the rest of Isabelle’s life plays out in the remaining two books, and how she herself will grow and change. In this book, Isabelle was portrayed as very much a spoiled, somewhat vapid brat, a girl who was raised to be ambitious but who could be distracted with shiny baubles and jewels. 

Overall, a quick and interesting read about a woman many readers would never know about. Recommended.

The Silken Rose

The Silken RoseThe Silken Rose by Carol McGrath (Website, TwitterFacebook)

Genre: historical fiction

Setting: 1300s England

I read it as a: digital copy

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 355 pp

Published by: Accent Press Ltd. (23 July 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 3-4 out of 5 stars*

This novel, the first of a planned trilogy, focuses on Eleanor of Provence, the wife of Henry III, beginning with her journey to England to marry a man who was more than 15 years her senior. In this book, she is called Ailenor. The narrative brings readers along as Ailenor learns first how to be a wife and queen and then a mother. It gives us a varying perspectives, from Ailenor to Eleanor (sister of Henry III, wife of Simon de Montfort) and a fictional embroideress, Rosalind, and covering a variety of the events that plagued Henry III’s reign. The trilogy plans to take a look at the women who have been termed “She-Wolves” for various reasons. This first installment takes care of Eleanor of Provence and her reign as Queen Consort.

First, the good. There were many, many enjoyable things about this book. I loved how much detail there was. In every scene, McGrath evoked imagery, scents, sounds of daily life in medieval London. I especially loved the details with herb and flower gardens. I can practically smell the lavender and rosemary. Similarly, the descriptions of the street scenes in London were pretty evocative as well. 

I also really appreciated other small details, such as the use of relics, in particular the Virgin’s girdle, as charms for a safe childbirth experience. The churching ceremony after giving birth was not given a lot of detail, but it was mentioned a few times throughout the novel and it added extra depth. Also, a queen’s role as intercessor was mentioned several times. I’m fascinated by the queens’ intercessory role throughout time and how it changed, helped, or hindered politics. Little things like this make readers like me happy. I know not everyone cares about historical accuracy when they read a book for pleasure (*horror!*), but I am always deeply appreciative of authors who are accurate anyway. The readers like me will be happy and the readers who don’t care will still read the book and enjoy it regardless. 

A few quibbles. The writing here was clear and easy, flowing smoothly from one perspective to another. The main POV character was, of course, Ailenor, but Rosalind and Nell also got a good deal of time. I was glad, though, that the chapter headings indicated when a change of perspective happened because I didn’t find there was always a lot of variance in the voices between the three women. Ailenor, Nell, and Rosalind often sounded similar and could be hard to tell apart if it were not for chapter headings.

By the same token, I felt that Rosalind was the only one who really had any character development. Ailenor, by contrast, sounded like a fully mature woman even on her journey to meet her husband-to-be when she was only 12 years old. Rosalind, on the other hand, started as a young and shy embroideress but grew into a confident and respected woman, wife, and mother. I did wish a little more of her story had been given to us. She was probably my favorite character in the book. It felt a little incomplete because there were some fairly substantial jumps in the events of her life. However, since she was NOT the primary focus of the novel, it is understandable why the author decided not to make her a larger figure. 

The novel ended with the promised betrothal of Edward to Eleanor of Castile in roughly 1254. This was about ten years before the start of the Second Barons’ War. I was a little disappointed that the novel didn’t cover that time period since I think a lot of interesting content could have been written about Ailenor during that time period. She was considered one of the She-Wolves, and the Barons’ War and Simon de Montfort’s role was a major element within Henry’s reign. It would have been particularly interesting to see Rosalind’s role in that. Even though she is fictional, sometimes those are the best characters through which to explore an historical event or person. Again, I understand why it wasn’t included. It would have been a tome otherwise! 

Overall, I enjoyed this novel. It was a fast, easy read and gives an interesting glimpse into a fascinating period of England’s history. 

*N.B.: I am unclear if the copy I received to review was supposed to be a finished copy or if it was an edited digital galley. The book was already published (in the UK, at least) when I got the file to review, but it was a PDF which is usually how I get galleys. I mention this because if it was a finished copy, then there were numerous places throughout where the text was positively jumbled up and sentences were a mash-up of words. For example: “I think it safer and the apartments there of the City. Without destruction remained have been redecorated.” And “He could not change his mind, had he so wished. as they fell resounding from the ancient A squire always followed his knight.” These are just two of several such examples that were scattered throughout the text. If I got an unedited galley, then never mind, these errors would be corrected upon editing. If it is supposed to be a finished copy, then that is not good and would certainly cause me to greatly reduce my rating of the book. 

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)