I read this courtesy of NetGalley; it’s out in January 2023, from WW Norton.
Janega aims to explore medieval attitudes towards women in a variety of contexts – appearance, sexuality, education, work, maternity and so on – and to show how that is similar to, different from, and informing modern attitudes. I think she does an excellent job on the first, but I think there’s something lacking in the second.
The introduction to the concept of “the Middle Ages” is excellent, as is her argument for why studying this period is important, both for understanding the development of attitudes towards women and more broadly. Janega uses an excellent variety of sources to demonstrate how medieval society – particularly at the elite level, but also how that percolated through the other 99% – developed their ideas; through theologians (mostly male, but also Hildegard de Bingen of course), and medical texts, becoming educational manuals, as well as through ‘pop culture’ like ballads and Christine de Pizan’s poetry, and visual art as well. She also destroys some really important myths, like the notion that women as workers is a modern invention (you think a “farmer’s wife” is sitting around doing nothing?) and that beauty standards are in some way objective and timeless (all those images of nude Eve with a wee pot belly).
I do think that some of the ideas Janega draws together from medieval and modern are really important. The thing about beauty, for instance: that only the wealthy could attain what was regarded as truly beautiful, but that women shouldn’t be seen to work at BEING beautiful; if you did work on being beautiful that was vain and therefore sinful; if you were poor and somehow, miraculously, beautiful, you were clearly meant to be amongst the great instead… and so on. Also, beauty and virtue going together. It’s painfully clear how these things resonate today, with issues of cost as well as luxury time all coming together – think of women who are on public transport in their sneakers, with their high heels in their bag. Beyond the beauty issues, Janega talks about a lot of other issues for modern women and how these are similar to/different from our medieval counterparts. However, I didn’t feel like the links were drawn quite strongly enough between the medieval and the modern to show how one developed from, or reacts again, the other.
Overall I do think this is a very good book about historical European ideas of women: who they are and can be and should look like. Janega does make some imortant commentary on modern women, too – the fact that I wanted a tighter connection does’t detract from her powerful statements. This can definitely be read with little knowledge of the European Middle Ages.
How exactly did I get to this age without reading a biography of Matilda??
Well… it’s not entirely my fault, because there just haven’t been that many. And oh, couldn’t we talk about the reasons for that. And in fact Catherine Hanley does discuss some of the reasons for the lack of historical focus on this astonishing woman, and puts in the historical context for how she was discussed 900 years ago as well.
Let me say upfront: it may be 900 years ago, but the THEFT of the English crown from Matilda by her cousin Stephen STILL MAKES ME MAD.
Matilda: oldest child of the English king; married at 8 to a foreign emperor; widowed; named her father’s heir (because her brother had drowned); crown STOLEN by Stephen; spends many years fighting Stephen for the right to be monarch of England; eventually manages to have her son named Stephen’s heir, lives to see her son crowned king (although not literally, because being present would have made all the menfolk feel a bit uncomfortable). Matilda was amazing.
Matilda’s epitaph places her in the context of three Henrys: her father (Henry I of England), her first husband (with a complicated set of titles but eventually crowned emperor of ‘the Empire’; his lands included what is today Germany and various other bits), and her oldest son (Henry II of England). This epitaph is not surprising given 12th century attitudes. It’s probably also not the surprising that she has continued to be placed in this context.
Hanley does a really great job of using the existing contemporary documents (all histories written by men, mostly monks, as well as charters and other such legal documents) to give a reasonable suggestion of what Matilda was doing, Matilda was responsible for; reasons for Matilda’s actions and how she worked within, as well as bucking against, 12-century expectations of a royal daughter/wife/mother.
This is why a feminist, and now gender, lens is so important for history. Matilda was often described as ‘haughty’ and other such words… for doing exactly what her father, in particular, was praised for doing. She makes a really nice point of how when Stephen’s queen (…also Matilda, it was as bad as Henry) acted in a masculine way on behalf of Stephen, it was praised; but do so for your OWN benefit, and you’re a ranting virago.
Filling in a gap in my knowledge, this book was priceless (my MA was on this Matilda’s grandmother, also Matilda; this Matilda’s daughter-in-law is Eleanor of Aquitaine). As a thoughtful look at a hugely important part of English medieval history, I think it’s accessible to general readers who are prepared to deal with the Henrys and Matildas.
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in November, 2022.
As a Jill-of-all-trades when it comes to history, I feel like “the Mongols” is one of those topics that a lot of people have vague ideas about but don’t really know what they’re talking about, or any details at all. Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, greatest land empire of all time… done.
Yeah. This book has made an enormous difference to the way I see the Mongols as a group, as an empire, as an historical force.
In his Introduction, Morton promises “a multi-perspective history of the Mongol invasions constructed from many different viewpoints”. And that’s definitely what the book delivers, as the way that the movement of Mongol troops – in and out of territory, sometimes staying, sometimes just installing new leadership after dismantling entire areas – impacts on a variety of pre-existing governments. The thing that surprised me is just WHERE that is happening… because it’s the “Near/Middle East” (which is a stupid term for an Australian to use, but there we go). The book is focussed on how the Mongols impact on everything from Egypt, through the Frankish kingdom of Jerusalem, to Byzantium, and to Syria and Georgia and Armenia. I don’t quite know where I thought the focus would be – I knew the Mongols had briefly penetrated Europe and made everyone crap their pants – but this was not it. And the thing is, the Mongols are a significant force for DECADES. There are events in this history – across the 13th and into the 14th centuries – that I already knew but that I had NO IDEA were at least partly as a result of the pressure coming from the east, via the Mongols: either directly because of the Mongols’ actions, or because of the movement of people driven out by the Mongols (directly or through fear). How is it I had no idea of this?? I’m going to say it’s at least partly racism, and also partly the occasionally narrow focus of some histories – in trying to narrow down the historical story, some things get chopped. (Rant could be inserted here about how choices are made, etc… but I’ll spare my reader.)
One of the slightly odd parts of this book is that it is NOT as focussed as I had expected. There’s entire sections about the politics of the Franks in Jerusalem and the Crusader States… with no apparently connection to the Mongols. Morton gets there eventually, but it does sometimes feel like there’s a lot of extraneous detail that wasn’t required to actually understand the point of the book – the Mongols. Not that I didn’t enjoy the detail! It just wasn’t necessary.
Obviously, I learned an enormous amount from this book. About the Mongols themselves – how they were organised, how they viewed themselves (as having a mandate from heaven to rule, and that all religions were fine because they were all subsumed within their own), and how they dealt with subject people. I also learned a huge amount about what was going on in Egypt around the period of the Mamluks coming to power, and to the east I finally learned something about Georgia and Armenia, which hadn’t previously come across my radar in this period. Also more about the Crusader States, and generally how all of these states interacted with each other. Which is also something that I feel like has been missing from my knowledge here. Of course rulers were in contact, of course they were making deals and alliances, including across religious and ethnic lines… but I don’t really kn0w about them.
The book itself is well-written. I found it engaging – perhaps because I was already invested in the general period and area. As with all such books, I did sometimes find the names hard to follow… if only everyone in the past had differentiated their names more (did there need to be more than one Bohemond?). Morton has structured the book well, largely chronologically and within that, geographically. There are also some useful maps that make locating the changing circumstances of the various polities easier. Overall, definitely a good addition to my understanding of the world.
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out on 22 March, 2022.
I love the Normans. I have been fascinated by them as a group for a pretty long time now. The conquest of England! Randomly being in Sicily! The First Crusades! Occasionally popping up elsewhere!
I also love a good interrogation of sources. And asking new questions, or using new information to contribute to questions already asked.
Therefore, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
Given the above, I can’t say how easy this would be to read for someone with zero knowledge of the Normans. Even I found it hard to follow the Roberts and Rogers and various families (honestly I kind of stopped caring about whether I was completely following who was related to who; it didn’t seem to matter in some instances, and Green often reminded me when it did). It should also be noted that there is more historiography than I think is usual for a purely narrative sort of history, so if learning what specific historians (medieval and modern) have said about specific issues is not your cup of tea, you may well find this book a bit annoying. For the rest of us… this is a really great, and thorough, examination of the Normans in the 11th century.
I really liked how Green examined what was going on in Normandy, England, Sicily/Italy and Antioch/the First Crusade as a way of trying to see if there really is something to the very IDEA of ‘being a Norman’ – which honestly is a brave thing when you’re entire book is about ‘the Normans’ – but that’s exactly the point of it. Some people at least claimed the Normans as Very Special People with a Very Special Place in the World (via God or character or whatever else). Is that actually true? Is it even possible to speak of “Normans”? Gosh I love these sorts of questions. I also quite like that Green doesn’t entirely come to a complete answer. She has some suggestions – that maybe Normans themselves in the 11th century weren’t alway seeing themselves as ‘Normans’ – and also proposes a whole bunch more avenues for investigation. Which is the other awesome thing that Green does – she’s not just using the old Williams of history (Jumieges, Malmesbury, etc), but adding in archaeology and DNA and various other sources to make a way more interesting and complete picture.
Overall, not My First Introduction to Medieval History, but a really great work on a group of people who had a fairly hefty impact on medieval Europe (and beyond).
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in March 2022.
1. This has pretty much everything I love about a history book.Rediscovering, or repairing, or reframing, previously maligned historical figures.
1a. In particular, women. And here, Puhak does it to not one but TWO women, living at the same time, with lives that were interwoven and had an enormous impact on each other.
The late 500s in what is now France was a remarkable time: it was, as Puhak points out, a time of “dual female rule” – Brunhild and Fredegund, one a Visigoth princess and the other a former slave, were regents for their grandson and son respectively. Together they controlled nearly as much land as Charlemagne would a few centuries later. This dual female rule wouldn’t be repeated in Europe for another thousand years. And why don’t we know about it? Because, Puhak claims – with some pretty strong evidence – there was a concerted effort at damnatio memoriae; getting rid of all memory of the actions of these two queens from history. A lot like what happened to Hatshepsut in Egypt. Either expunge the actions of the women, or cast them in as completely evil or irrelevant light as you possibly can. Because how embarrassing to remember that women had been instrumental in leading and shaping your kingdom for decades!
2. I learned many new things.
A lot about the Merovingians, of course – which I had no knowledge of, except for the name, and (as Puhak ruthfully notes) as the name of a character in a Matrix film. But I also learned that the Latinised version of ‘Clovis’ – whose name I did know – who was the first Merovingian king – is LOUIS and there you get the beginning of, what, 17 kings with the same name.
3. Utterly readable.
Puhak says that this is “not an academic history; it is a work of narrative nonfiction based on primary sources”. And I think this is a really intriguing way of putting it. I guess the ‘not academic’ aspect is strictly accurate, although I do think Puhak is underselling herself. There aren’t footnotes – but there are extensive references at the back, and my goodness her bibliography is incredible and IF I HAD THE TIME (and access to them) I could glut myself on following them all up. I love the use of the primary sources here; she uses the various histories from the time, and later, judiciously – weighing up their perspectives and their intentions and figuring out what makes sense. And it ends up being absorbing and riveting.
4. What a story.
Honestly, you could present this as fiction and people would believe you. Marriages brokered, broken, and occasionally seen through; so many murders and possible-murders; kingdoms divided and reunited; treason, scheming, bargaining… Puhak argues that Cersei from Game of Thrones is inspired by these two women, in some sense, and I’m not quite convinced of that but it tells you something about their lives.
What a fantastic book.
I received this book courtesy of NetGalley.
This was… completely bonkers.
Some context: I studied medieval history at bit at uni, and I also did a subject about medievalism in modern society; I did an essay on Robin Hood. I am by no means an expert, of course, but I have some awareness of the whole mythology. Which is why I was so excited to read this. I had loved what Tidhar did with the Arthurian stuff in By Force Alone, and I was wide-eyed at what he would do here. The Robin Hood stuff is so wide-ranging – in history and in modern incarnation (Disney’s version is still the best) – that there’s just so much to play with.
Fascinatingly, Tidhar begins with Maid Marian, and goes somewhere I didn’t expect at all. And then goes to Will Scarlett, and likewise. And then to Rebecca – riffing off Ivanhoe – and… well, there’s a very long section of the story that’s exploring things other than a man with a bow and arrow and Lincoln green. In fact, I would argue that “Robin Hood” is probably the least important main character in the entire narrative. Which is a very interesting choice and one I’m still chewing over. Many of the characters recognisable from old and new stories make an appearance – Guy of Gisborne, the sheriff of Nottingham, Sherwood Forest, Little John and Tuck and Much the miller’s son – although perhaps not as you would expect them (that aspect I’m completely happy with).
The different sections, especially in perhaps the first third, are almost like stand-alone ballads; and maybe that’s intentional, reflecting the structure of those early, medieval ‘Gestes’. But it is somewhat disconcerting if you come to this expecting a straightforward “Robin Hood story” – because it definitely isn’t. I have no problem with this idea; disjointed narratives can be brilliant. Many of the early ideas do eventually have their pay-off later in the narrative, and often in quite clever ways; but it often didn’t feel like enough of a pay-off given the set up. I think perhaps there’s not enough of a crescendo – I finished the book feeling a little flat, a little lost – surprised: “is that it?”
(For those having read By Force Alone: that too was somewhat chaotic, but to me it always seemed like a coherent chaos. In contrast, I think The Hood doesn’t always succeed in coherence, narrative or character wise.)
Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the book. It’s a rollicking ride from the Anarchy of Stephen and Matilda’s civil war of the 1140s through to the 2nd, 3rd, 4th Crusades; Tidhar incorporates a surprising and unexpected amount of English history that’s usually not connected to the Robin Hood stories at all, commenting along the way. There’s an excellent range of characters, all stubbornly themselves and threatening to break away and live their own damned lives, thanks all the same. It’s not always easy to read – Tidhar clearly has a love of language and he likes playing with repetition and surprising slang – but it’s also not a slog.
I have no regrets about having read The Hood, and I will read whatever books Tidhar puts out in the Matter of Britain series (I think I heard it described as a quadrology, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what else will be included).
I read this book courtesy of NetGalley.
I loved this book.
I already love medieval manuscripts and the stories that go along with them – about marginalia and the sheer effort that goes in to making one. What Wellesley has done here is look at manuscripts to understand the people who made them, used them, saved them, and occasionally caused their destruction. I read this in uncorrected proof, as an ebook (and there’s some twisty lineage there from hand-written sheepskin to pixels), so I’m not sure whether the published version will have images, but that’s about the only thing that would make this even more of a joy to read.
An overview of the chapters will show just why this is such a fabulous book.
Chapter 1: Discoveries. aka “near heart-attack-land at the idea that the Book of Margery Kempe was nearly not found.” She uses just a couple of manuscript discoveries to show just how contingent our 21st century knowledge of, awareness of, and possession of such manuscripts is.
Chapter 2: Near Disasters. Imagine me having heart palpitations at the fire in Ashburnham House, home of the Cotton collection and various other rather important bits of parchment. As above with the contingency, with added flames.
Chapter 3: Patrons. Who wanted stories written about themselves, and who wanted their own copies of particular books (Henry VIII annotated his Book of Psalms. I have no problem with this, other than it reveals his colossal ego, equating himself with David.)
Chapter 4: Artists. The images added to some manuscripts make them incredible works of art. Wellesley examines what is known about some of the people who did this work, their inspiration and their methods.
Chapter 5: Scribes. Who did the physical act of writing… and that some of them were women.
Chapter 6: Authors and scribes. Probably one of the hardest things for moderns to grasp is the lack of the concept of ‘author’ in the medieval period. If a student copies a quote without a reference, they’re in trouble; 700 years ago, someone could copy out a story from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and stick it in their own collection of stuff with nary an acknowledgement (yes I am aware this happens today; it was less of a cause for hue and cry back in the day, for various reasons). Figuring out exactly who was the author of various things is the work of a lifetime for some historians.
Chapter 7: Hidden Authors… basically carries on a similar idea from Chapter 6, but in particular looks at works written for (and by?) anchorites – people who had decided to get themselves walled away, to devote themselves more fully to Christ.
The book’s intrigue – who wrote it? who sold it? why do we only have one copy? It’s got feminism – women wrote and read and commissioned and created. It’s suffused with a love of books and reading, it’s a celebration of books as objects, and it ends with Gutenberg and that weird interstitial period where some manuscripts were created by copying out the text from a printed book. And the author’s voice is present throughout, which I found a lovely touch: what it was like to view a manuscript at the British Library, or a discovery as an undergrad, or an experience learning about the making of parchment.
This is a wonderful book about books. Entirely accessible to the non-medievalist, in fact a great entry for those with no real conception of the medieval manuscript.
I received this as a review copy via NetGalley.
I love a story about reclaiming women – whether it’s in history or fiction. Turns out I’ve read a few of these recently: Wendy, Darling and Forces of Nature for example. And The Good Wife of Bath fits into that space: yes, it’s that Wife of Bath, perhaps Chaucer’s most contested character (from The Canterbury Tales anyway).
I have to admit it’s a long, long time since I studied Chaucer at university, and I’m not sure I read all of the Wife’s Prologue and Tale even then (I found the language really hard going, not going to lie). Which means that people who’ve never read any Chaucer (like, most of the population, surely) will be just fine with reading this. If you do know the Wife’s original story I guess you get that extra frisson when a name is dropped, but it’s not essential to the story. Honestly I got more of that from the fact Chaucer is a character in the book and I know bits and pieces about his life courtesy of Who Murdered Chaucer? which I recently re-read.
Anyway. The story is Eleanor’s biography, basically beginning with her marriage at age 12 to a stranger several decades older than she is. Which is a deeply unpleasant thought, but it wasn’t until I got to the Author’s Note that it occurred to me that many people would find this shocking – the shocking-ness of not knowing this was at least sometimes a reality in the 14th century, I mean. 12 was the legal age of marriage in much of Europe for much of the Middle Ages, a fact I already knew and so I guess I’ve already dealt with being shocked by that. (I still don’t find it a pleasant idea, don’t worry.) In Chaucer’s recounting, the Wife talks of having had five husbands, and how she has tried to have mastery over them. Two thirds of the book is Eleanor as wife: who she marries, why, and what her life is like in each circumstance. In many ways it’s an exploration of the possibilities for a woman in the late 14th century: a good life or hard, a loving husband or abusive, allowed by her husband to participate in decision making or treated like a child, and the fact that her property becomes his property at marriage. And then the last third is Eleanor attempting to live as a feme sole, or sole woman – not connected to a man – which basically translates to “target”.
What Eleanor doesn’t personally experience, the women within her circle do. And overall that means that this book has some hard parts to read. Life for everyone in the Middle Ages had its brutality, especially compared to many of the things I take for granted in 21st century urban Australia; and the mid 14th century has the added bonus (?) of the Botch – what we call the Black Death. Life for women had its particular brutalities, and Brooks presents these as a part of life. Eleanor is at times very poor, and at times relatively wealthy; living on a farm or in town; respectable and not, surrounded by family and not. Brooks explores the lot. And by including Chaucer as a character, with as accurate a biography as is available, Brooks also includes bits of the contemporary politics (Lollards, John of Gaunt, 1381…).
The one thing I was left feeling a bit… confused by is the subtitle: A (Mostly) True Story. I love an unreliable narrator, and Eleanor certainly has the potential to be one. But nowhere is there a clear suggestion that she is being slippery, or fiddling with facts to make herself look better, or do anything other than present her story as she experienced it. So the suggestion that she is somehow being crafty in presenting her story doesn’t make sense. I actually forgot it was the subtitle while reading, because it’s just not relevant.
Overall, this is a great addition to the reclaiming of women’s voices within fiction. It’s fairly long; that’s balanced by being very readable, and smartly paced: it’s certainly not a trial to read. Definitely recommended to the historical fiction crowd, or if you were compelled to read any of Chaucer at any stage.
I received this book to review via NetGalley.
The good things:
- The very concept. I love the idea of a book that covers all the Plantagenet fellas from Henry II to Richard III. Seeing their wildly varying careers one after the other points up just how outrageous and sometimes amazing and sometimes dreadful this lot could be. So great.
- Some of the context given. I appreciated the broader comments about the Crusades, for instance – and this lot were involved right up to Crusade #8, which I didn’t know before this. The book starts with a very general intro to the concept of being a knight, and then gives an overview of the first couple generations after the Conqueror. I didn’t need these, but for a reader less familiar with the era I’m sure it would be very welcome.
- Eleanor of Aquitaine. Any time I get to read about her, it’s a good day.
- It’s pretty straightforward to read.
The less good things:
- The author mentions an historian who claims the Bayeux Tapestry must have been designed by a man because there are penises embroidered on it. And just… leaves that comment sitting there.
- The author repeats that old saw about spices being used to cover the taste of rotting meat. Pretty sure that’s been debunked.
- The editing. Most significantly, the editing. First, there’s some odd things going on here with the structure. Clearly I read a review copy so I don’t know whether it’s still got some editing to go. But there were bits where I wasn’t sure if it was a typo or deliberately presenting variant spellings (Saladdin, and then Saladin); and there were several occasions where it felt like sentences were in completely the wrong place. Like, he would have a paragraph about an event; then the next event in the next paragraph, but suddenly the first event is mentioned completely out of context. And this got more frequent as the book progressed. Really quite confusing. And then additionally, several times there would be two men mentioned as being involved in something, and then “he” made some final gesture… and it was often unclear which “he” was being referenced.
Overall, I did enjoy this as a history of the family. It presents the princes in their context, shows how they’re connected and how they variously win and lose bits of their empire-not-an-empire. I suspect it would be a bit hard for someone with absolutely zero knowledge of the early Middle Ages, but then again if you’re picking this up you must have at least an ember of a passion for that time. The editing problems came close to killing the enjoyment a couple times, but I was able to bull past it.
I received this book courtesy of NetGalley.
I am ambivalent about this book.
The good things:
- Reclaim the women! I am always in favour of a book that highlights a woman who has either been forgotten, or whom history has portrayed in an unfavourable-because-patriarchy light. This book largely does that, going into details about Marie’s life, highlighting the reasons for the decisions that she made as well as the importance of those actions, not just her womb. These are really important things.
- It’s accessible. This is intended for a general readership: there are no footnotes, it opens with a list of people the reader can refer back to when the titles etc get to be too much, and it usually balances complex foreign policy decision-making with ease of reading.
The slightly uncomfortable things:
- The lack of footnotes etc means it’s not the most detailed of historical research: there’s not that many primary sources directly used, and no other historians are referenced, which makes me a bit queasy.
- There are some editing mistakes. Sentences that lack of a primary verb, probably because there are so many clauses that it’s easy to get lost; sentences where it’s unclear whether one person with multiple titles, or several different people, are being discussed.
- Marie’s apparently deliberately decision to remain single after James V’s death is lamented as sad for a woman in her 30s. But… she’s a widow twice over, she has the disastrous example of her mother-in-law to show how badly things can go for a widowed queen with an infant monarch. Why couldn’t this be a sensible political choice? Why couldn’t this be a relief to a woman whose life has been tied to the idea of marriage for more than two decades, usually not at her own decision? No evidence to suggest that she regretted this, and so… attributing emotions is a fraught business. It shouldn’t be done.
The negative things:
- At one point, Clegg describes Marie’s daughter Mary as having various ailments, and suggests they may be dismissed as nothing more than an anxiety related disorder. Uh. That’s… not good.
- The way Marie’s whole life is framed around men. Now I understand that to some extent, with the biography of a powerful woman in the sixteenth century this is unavoidable; her male relations were always going to play a huge part, especially early on, and any husband likewise. However, it felt like a lot of space was spent on men and their doings, sometimes only tangentially connected to Marie’s life. Perhaps this was for added context, but it just served to detract from making Marie the focus. The greatest example of this is the title. In a book of nearly 220 pages, Henry VIII dies on p140. Marie was on a list of possible wives but got away; she got in his way to some extent around the issue of young Mary marrying Prince Edward… but to call her the Scourge of Henry VIII is ridiculous. I guess it made a good title? But I was expecting to discover that she had actively, and over a long period, skewered Henry’s ambitions in the north. Yeh not so much.
Look, overall, for people wanting to find out more about Marie of Guise, this isn’t a bad option – not bad at all, in fact. Just beware that it’s by no means perfect.