Recent Read: Athelstan the Great?

13594113Aethelstan: The First King of England by Sarah Foot

Rating 5 Stars

Sarah Foot’s Athelstan was another of those books which I largely skimmed for dissertation reading. Why Athelstan? Primarily because his aunt, Æthelflæd ‘The Lady of the Mercians’ and daughter to Alfred the Great is the subject of the study. According to William of Malmesbury’s twelfth century account, generally accepted by historians, he was in the Mercian court by her and her husband, Earl Ethelred.

Yet it was another title I would consider reading again for its own merits- and perhaps for Athelstan’s. As a title in the ‘Yale English Monarchs’ series,it follows a similar layout to the others, with sections and chapters related to specific relevant aspects of the King’s life and reign, in this case Family, War, Kingdom, Church and Court.

Even putting aside my academic cap, books like this can raise the question of why us Brits remember our defeat at the hands of the Normans, but seem to have largely forgotten the West Saxon ruling dynasty who effectively made England?
Alfred is at best remembered for burning the cakes in the popular imagination, not for his laws, educational reforms, or victories against the Vikings.
His daughter ‘the Lady of the Mercians’ was until recently all but unknown to many- despite being the first woman to rule a kingdom in her own right, 600 years before Elizabeth.
Athelstan seems to be another largely forgotten ruler, yet his rule and achievements resulted in him being dubbed ‘the English Charlemagne’.  A King who proved in his own actions that a United Kingdom of the English could be a viable reality, and ‘threw of the dominion’ of the Britons at Branburh. Yet also seems to have consciously chosen not to marry, and appears to have remained celibate throughout his lifetime.

A timely biography that  is rather academic, but recommended for anyone who wants to know about the First King of England. For ‘his is a life not merely to commemorate but to celebrate’.

Alfred the Great: The Man who Made England by Justin Pollard

Published 2007, 368 Pages

Alfred was Engla118001nd’s first king, and his rule spanned troubled times. As his shores sat under constant threat from Viking marauders, his life was similarly imperiled by conspiracies in his own court. He was an extraordinary character—a soldier, scholar, and statesman like no other in English history—and out of adversity he forged a new kind of nation. Justin Pollard’s enthralling account strips back centuries of myth to reveal the individual behind the legend. He offers a radical new interpretation of what inspired Alfred to create England and how it has colored the nation’s history to the present day.

This book was a lively and readable account of the life reign and legacy of the only English King to be called ‘the Great’. If only one conclusion were to be reached, it would be that the King’s adage is well deserved. I believe it can honestly be said that I am not the only one who is dismayed that one of England’s greatest monarchs is remembered by many only for a story about burning cakes. Yet the possible metaphorical significance and practical application by Alfred is intriguing. It was not so much about his lack of ability as a cook, but rather a failure to identify with the needs of his people.

A failure which, it is argued, though not generally by historians, to have resulted in his own deposition at the hands of a group of his nobles shortly before the infamous attack by Guthrum on Chippenham.  Whilst the author is an excellent storyteller, not all of the conclusions reached may necessarily be agreed upon and the mistake in the blurb (probably not the author’s fault) of dubbing Alfred as ‘England’s first King’ overlooked . Like most works of popular history there is not engagement with the critical historical debates, IT would be unrealistic to expect them.

What the reader will get it a useful introduction to Alfred’s world and reign, the struggles and challenges he and Western Europe faced in the midst of the Viking invasions as well as internal political strife, as well as an appreciation of why the King of a small part of the Island of Britain made such an important contribution. Each chapter is headed with an excerpt from the King’s own writings, relevant to the theme, and demonstrating that Alfred had perhaps learned not to take power and position for granted. The early part of his reign, as mentioned above, was a tale of hard lessons costly in their learning which ultimately wrought success.

Yet it is not a work of hagiography, and questions the Victorian assertion that Alfred never lost a battle. Indeed, some great victories were won by others, loyal servants of the King who himself tasted defeat more than once. If anything remained undefeated it was perhaps Alfred’s determination for himself and his kingdom to survive against the odds, an indomitable heroism to be admired in any age.

Finally, those even remotely familiar with Alfred may know that he was more than a pre-conquest warlord, but also a patron of learning and the man who created a defence system almost unsurpassed in Britain at the time. Reportedly, nobody was supposed to be more than a day’s ride from a defensive burh. Some were taken due perhaps to the laziness reluctance or ineptitude of those supposed to build and secure them, but perhaps the genius of their conception was in the taking of one, others still remained, and forces could be raised to against those who had ‘dug in’, what’s more, they gave the people a ‘vested interest’ in the defence of their kingdom. A system of rotational service, mentioned in The Life of Alfred allowed for men to be available in such circumstances, as this was a time when some armies were comprised in large part of farmers, bound by the seasons to bring in the harvest.

Some of those burhs and towns built or re-established by Alfred and his children remain today, including Winchester whose streets are ‘laid out the plan he first devised’ alongside many others. His ‘influence also continues to resonate …in his belief that the government should be conducted, and conducted accountably in the language of its people-English’. This belief in the accountability of the ruler would influence men into the high and later middle Ages and beyond. Alfred also ‘lives on in his books, in his own words- the words that made him ‘Great’.

The power of literacy was one to be used not only be the King but also to be shared- and even forced upon his subjects who had ‘neglected learning’. A policy borne perhaps of harsh experience which caused him to pen such thoughts as ‘In prosperity a man often destroys he good he has done; amidst difficulties he often repairs what he long since did in the way of wickedness’.

‘The Secret History’ Procopius

205 PAGES, NEW EDITION 2007 PENGUIN CLASSICS

EDITED BY PETER SARRIS, TRANSLATED BY G.A WILLIAMSON

1133999A trusted member of the Byzantine establishment, Procopius was the Empire’s official chronicler, and his “History of the Wars of Justinian” proclaimed the strength and wisdom of the Emperor’s reign. Yet all the while the dutiful scribe was working on a very different – and dangerous – history to be published only once its author was safely in his grave.

“The Secret History” portrays the ‘great lawgiver’ Justinian as a rampant king of corruption and tyranny, the Empress Theodora as a sorceress and whore, and the brilliant general Belisarius as the pliable dupe of his scheming wife Antonina. Magnificently hyperbolic and highly opinionated, “The Secret History” is a work of explosive energy, depicting holy Byzantium as a hell of murder and misrule.

An unofficial history recounting what the author really thought about the 5th century Byzantine establishment. Biting, vitriolic and pulling no punches ‘The Secret History’ has been described as the Early Medieval version of salacious tabloid gossip. Certainly, there does seem to be an element of exaggeration because some of the events and actions the author described are almost so extreme and deplorable it is hard to believe them true.

Was The Secret History simply a compilation of viscous slander and savage accusations compiled by a bitter individual disillusioned with the political system who wanted to blame everything on the ruler? Or, does  the fact that he specifically requested that it not be published until after his and the Emperor’s death  suggest that may indeed have been ‘something rotten’ in the heart of the Byzantine state?

Though an old translation, this version is still useful with an extensive introduction and notes.Also, there are some intriguing details about social customs and institutions- like the late Roman postal service, and even a description of what we would call Mullet hairdos!

Hardgoing at times, and sometimes  disgusting (though these parts were meant to shock to audience by revealing how awful the people they speak of were) , but if those parts can be skipped over an interesting read for anyone interested in the history of the early Byzantine Empire.

‘I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince’ by Rosanne E Lortz

Published June 2009, 372 Pages

6663371A Tale of Arms, of Death, of Love, and of Honor.

Set against the turbulent backdrop of the Hundred Years’ War, I Serve chronicles the story of Sir John Potenhale. A young Englishman of lowly birth, Potenhale wins his way to knighthood on the fields of France. He enters the service of Edward, the Black Prince of Wales, and immerses himself in a stormy world of war, politics, and romantic intrigue.

While campaigning in France, Potenhale develops an interest in Margery, a spirited lady-in-waiting with a close-kept secret. He soon learns that Sir Thomas Holland, a crass and calculating baron, holds the key to unlock Margery’s mystery and possesses the power to overturn all of his hopes.

When the Black Death strikes Europe, however, Potenhale realizes that the fiercest enemy does not always appear in human form. Seeing the pestilence as a punishment for the sins of his generation, he questions his calling as a knight and considers entering the cloister. Margery or the monastery? Torn between losing his soul and losing the love of his life, he finds friendship with a French knight who might–just possibly–help him save both

Personally, I found it quite a welcome change to discover a book written by an American set during the Hundred Year War which was not anti-English. I Serve was that book, it was critical of my country folk at times and sometimes perhaps a little uncritical of the French, but generally presented a balanced and detailed representation of the period. Replete with realistic battle scenes, romance, and the life experiences of a young man at arms the service of his lord. Service could be considered a theme of this work- with the traditional motto of the Princes of Wales as the title and the various characters on both sides trying and sometimes struggling to render due service duty to their masters,  honour , the ladies they love, their duty and their God.

Rosanne Lortz book brings King Edward III, his famous son Edward, the Black Prince of Wales and their world and their compatriots to life with a host of colourful characters in a milieu of knights, tournaments, chivalry, villains and warfare. A world of changing certainties in which the Protagonist, Sit John Potenhale (who was a real person) questions the morality and honour of knighthood, and the worthiness of high position in the wake of the Black Death. With skilful use of contemporary ideas, introduced by one Geoffroi de Charny, author of The Knight’s own Book of Chivalry the rights and wrongs of the vocation are explored, and the possibility of just war being compatible with Christian ideals. Did being a knight mean a man could not be saved, as Potenhale feared? The solution raised is both touching and relevant.

The style appeared to be emulating the works of Victorian authors such as Howard Pyle, with more pseudo-archaic language towards the end of the book, and a rather narrative style of recounting the major events. This may not be according to everyone’s taste, as it was very much ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’ but as the work covered and long and complex period, it was in some way necessary.

The bibliography in the back of the novel attests to the level of research and author’s belief in the importance of reading primary sources. So the book is largely accurate- though I did notice one or two errors-like the comparison of the whipped backs of the flagellants to the stripes of a skunk, a species indigenous to the Americas which the average 14th century Englishman would have had no idea about the appearance of.

The only other issue I had was the way that there seemed a tinge of skepticism, perhaps even bordering on ridicule of those who believed the plague to be the judgement of God, who seemed to be portrayed as a few isolated fanatics, or having lost their minds as a result of the affliction. In reality, many people in England believed just this  including members of the clergy.

Overall, I Serve is recommended, although those who are not used the writing style may have some issues

God’s Philosophers by James Hannam- Review

8493544“The adjective ‘medieval’ is now a synonym for superstition and ignorance. Yet without the work of medieval scholars there could have been no Galileo, no Newton and no Scientific Revolution. In “God’s Philosophers”, James Hannam traces the neglected roots of modern science in the medieval world. He debunks many of the myths about the Middle Ages, showing that medieval people did not think the earth was flat, nor did Columbus ‘prove’ that it is a sphere.

Contrary to common belief, the Inquisition burnt nobody for their science, nor was Copernicus afraid of persecution. No Pope tried to ban human dissection or the number zero. On the contrary, as Hannam reveals, the Middle Ages gave rise to staggering achievements in both science and technology: for instance, spectacles and the mechanical clock were both invented in thirteenth-century Europe. Ideas from the Far East, like printing, gunpowder and the compass, were taken further by Europeans than the Chinese had imagined possible. The compass helped Columbus to discover the New World in 1492 while printing allowed an incredible 20 million books to be produced in the first 50 years after Gutenberg published his Bible in 1455.

And Hannam argues that scientific progress was often made thanks to, rather than in spite of, the influence of Christianity. Charting an epic journey through six centuries of history, “God’s Philosophers” brings back to light the discoveries of neglected geniuses like John Buridan, Nicole Oresme and Thomas Bradwardine, as well as putting into context the contributions of more familiar figures like Roger Bacon, William of Ockham and St Thomas Aquinas. Besides being a thrilling history of a period of surprising invention and innovation, “God’s Philosophers” reveals the debt modern science and technology owe to the supposedly ‘dark’ ages of medieval Europe”

It seems that I sometimes have and controversial and nonconformist taste in history books. I don’t generally like tabloid style, sensationalistic controversy for its own sake, especially if this is based on dubious assumptions or modern judgement- but sometimes controversy might spark my interest. One thing that attracted me to this book was the extreme polarization of opinion- the way that historians and interested laypeople seemed to love it, but many with secular humanists hated it. As a student of medieval history I have long known that the notion of all Medieval Europeans being backwards and stupid was a fallacy, so I was inclined to side with the author, and bought the book shortly after the paperback first came out.

After nearly two years I finally got around to reading and finishing it. On the one hand God’s Philosophers is an accessible and necessary work. Necessary because it challenges popular views and misconceptions which still exist to this day, especially where the history of science and philosophy are concerned. Hannam demonstrates that it was in the Universities of Medieval Europe that natural philosophers, theologians and intellectuals made important discoveries and theorised, analysed, and strove about the world around them in many subjects from astronomy to mathematics, physics to rationality. More importantly, especially to Hannam’s line of argument is that most of these important thinkers were churchmen.

The most common misconception that the author seeks to correct is that the church sought to supress learning and rational inquiry. It may be based perhaps on a modern, humanistic understanding of reason which holds itself to be the antithesis of faith, and therefore incompatible. However, those who read anything of the scholastic thinkers of the 11th century onwards will realize that their definition of reason was different. It was not the enemy of faith, for they were men of faith, but rather a gift from God to help men. A creation based belief system told them the universe was ordered and adhered to certain laws, and so men could understand and interpret the creation and the world around them.

Of course there was conflict, especially when some scholars sought to use philosophy to challenge Orthodoxy or formulate beliefs deemed heretical. The paranoid herecy hunting church hounding innocent scientist is however not truthful or accurate picture of the time- a time in which a English blacksmith’s son by the name of Richard of Wallingford would in his closing years create one of the world’s first mechanical clocks, in Italy the first spectacles appeared, as well as many other inventions and innovations in agriculture, architecture and many other areas. So much for the supposed ‘intellectual stagnation’ of Medieval Europe which did not end until ‘the Renaissance’- in fact there was more than one Renaissance.

On the other side of the coin, there are some drawbacks to this work. Hannam is to my knowledge, a scientist first and foremost, not a historian. Hence he does seem to apply the preconceptions and attitudes of modern science and ‘progress’ to his work sometimes, and they do not always sit well. His view of medieval medicine is rather scathing, for instance, but does not seem entirely justified. At least, a medical historian at my University would not agree with his generalization that all medicine of the time was useless and more likely to do harm than heal. To the contrary, there is some evidence that herbal remedies of past may have been effective.

Conversely, whilst having little good to say about medical practitioners and quacks, credit it given to some astrologers, alchemists and even occultists in spite of the dubious basis of their beliefs- even by the standards of the time. Also, I felt there was some bias against Creationism and Protestantism on the part of the author, which came through in the work, so the accusations of a Pro-Catholic slant may not be entirely unfounded.

Altogether, a useful and necessary work, though with some deficiencies, and perhaps suffering from one or two misconceptions of itself.

Recent Reads- Wars of the Roses and Alfred’s Daughter

Being in state of ‘between books’ doesn’t perhaps give much material for detailed reviews or analysis, but I haven’t been up to nothing. So here’s the lowdown  on two titles I have recently read., or mostly read mostly for assignments.

Helen Castor, Blood and Roses: The Paston Family and the Wars of the Roses

1063816

The Wars of the Roses tore England

asunder. Over the course of thirty years, four kings lost their thrones, countless men lost their lives on the battlefield or their heads on the block, and others found themselves suddenly flush with gold. Yet until now, little has been written about the ordinary people who lived through this extraordinary time.

“Blood and Roses” is a gripping, intimate story of one determined family conducting everyday business against the backdrop of a disintegrating society and savage civil war. Drawing on a rare trove of letters discovered in a tumbledown stately home, historian Helen Castor reconstructs the turbulent affairs of the Pastons through three generations of births, marriages, and deaths as they single-mindedly worked their way up from farmers to landed gentry. It is a remarkable chronicle of devotion, ambition, and survival that brings a remote and hazy era to vibrant new life

Read for an assignment with a deadline, so skimmed/skipped a fair amount but read quite a bit.

Generally a good work on about the lives and struggles of the Self-made Paston family who rose from the ranks of peasantry during turbulent era of the Wars of the Roses.
‘The Paston letters’ from which most of what we know about the Pastons surviving are the largest collection of surviving personal letters from the later Middle Ages.

The political realities and upheavals of the age are here, along with the great, royal and powerful, and political events in which the family members might be involved or directly effected by.
There is also however, the personal, birth, death marriage, love, lawsuits and service.

I liked the author before reading this from seeing her two television series. Definitely would like to go back and read ‘properly’ at some point, and read the author’s other book.
Definitely a worthwhile read if interested in 15th century England, or socio-political history.

Jane Wolfe, Aethelflead: Royal Lady, War Lady 

1612919Sort of self-explanatory really, a short booklet (just over 30 pages) giving an account of the career and significance of Alfred’s Daughter with some useful maps. A lady who certainly deserves attention for her role int he establishment of the England. If you can find a copy, well worth a read.

Asser’s Life of King Alfred

Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources. Translated with introduction and Notes Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge

“Asser’s Life of King Alfred, written in 893, is a revealing account of one of the greatest of medieval kings. Composed by a monk of St David’s in Wales who became Bishop of Sherborne in Alfred’s service and worked with him in his efforts to revive religion and learning in his kingdom, this life is among the earliest surviving royal biographies. It is an admiring account of King Alfred’s life, written in absorbing detail – chronicling his battles against Viking invaders and his struggle to increase the strength and knowledge of his people, and to unite his people at a time of conflict, uncertainty and war.”

808043This book is a valuable and fascinating resource shedding light on the life and career on King Alfred of Wessex, who became known (in my opinion deservedly so) in later centuries as ‘The Great’. In the simplest level the main body of the book is simple an account of Alfred’s reign, written by the Welsh monk, Asser.

Admittedly, his work was bound to be partisan and designed to make Alfred look good, and the cynical may claim that this renders in unreliable. Yet there may be found insights into the source of Alfred’s greatness. More than simply a warlord fighting against the Vikings, Alfred took steps to restore learning and education. The learning and application of wisdom’ seems to have been a subject close to Alfred’s heart, and  though he himself did not learn to read until his later years, he seems to have established a school of sorts. Since the decline of the learning in England is lamented in the preface to the translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care, this particular foundation may have been considered particularly important.

The ‘other contemporary sources’ mentioned in the title include extracts from some of Alfred’s own translations’ of important works, including Boethius Consolation of Philosophy. There are some profound thoughts here, on life, leadership, philosophy and religion. ‘Wisdom is the highest virtue’ says Alfred’s translation of the work ‘one is caution, the second moderation the third courage and the fourth justice’. The King did take some liberties with his ‘translations’ sometimes inserting ideas of his own (one passage in the Boethius translation hints at the idea of the ‘three estates’ for instance.

Some may challenge the notion that medieval religion was based on ‘blind faith’ with not room for rational inquiry “Therefore we must investigate God with all out might, so that we might know what He is. Although it is not within our capacity to know what He is like, we ought nevertheless to inquire with the intellectual capacity which he gives us”

Or as in a passage from Augustune ‘He rules the Kings who have the greatest dominion on this earth, who are born and die like other men. He permits then to rule as long as He wills it’. Another translation reveals perhaps something of Alfred’s concerns, priorities and interests. Pastoral Care written by the seventh century Pope Gregory contains several short ‘chapters’, entitled respectively

‘Concerning the Burden of Government, and how the ruler must despise all hardships and must recoil from all sense or security’ and ‘How the administration of Government often distracts the mind of the ruler’. The latter warns against a ruler may becoming ‘puffed up’ by his achievements and his people’s praising of them. The preface speaks of how rulers of old ‘obeyed God and his messages’ and maintained not only peace but ‘morality and authority’ and home and in the places to which they extended their power, and ‘succeeded both in warfare and in wisdom’. Perhaps these were idealistic and naïve expectations, rarely met, if indeed it was possible to do so. Yet it may be tempting to think they could be relevant to any age.

Alongside translations, there are extracts from the King’s laws, in his capacity as a lawgiver, and even a mention in the main Life of his having possibly developed a more efficient way of measuring time.

The Life of Alfred and other Contemporary Sources is a great start for learning of Alfred, and perhaps even understanding him in spite of the separation of over a millennium. Those interested in more academic analysis could of course read more, not that it is entirely lacking here. The notes are quite extensive. The two editors cum translators are also Cambridge scholars, who both worked on The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo Saxon England. Thus they are not historians out of their depth in an unfamiliar period, or enthusiastic laymen, but scholars who know their stuff, yet succeed in making it accessible- at least in my opinion.

Review ‘God’s Daughter’ by Heather Day Gilbert

One Viking woman. One God. One legendary journey to the New World.

In the tenth century, when pagan holy women rule the Viking lands, Gudrid turns her back on her training as a seeress to embrace Christianity. Clinging to her faith, she joins her husband, Finn, on a voyage to North America.

But even as Gudrid faces down murderous crewmen, raging sickness, and hostile natives, she realizes her greatest enemy is herself–and the secrets she hides might just tear her marriage apart.

Almost five centuries before Columbus, Viking women sailed to North America with their husbands. God’s Daughter, Book One in the Vikings of the New World Saga, offers an expansive yet intimate look into the world of Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir–daughter-in-law of Eirik the Red, and the first documented European woman to have a child in North America

Heather Day Gilbert18364996 very kindly sent me an advance reader’s copy of her book in exchange for a review- and I was glad to have it. Books set in the Medieval Era are by far my favourite, though the Vikings aren’t my favourite people. God’s Daughter covered some interesting subject matter (and period) that doesn’t seem to receive much attention – the Viking settlement of North America circa the year 1000.

Personally for one had never heard of Gudrid or her story, so it’s an interesting and original. The setting seems to present to be generally fairly realistic and well researched representation of the Icelandic Vikings, their culture and world. The only complaints I had were that the characters’ language was sometimes rather too modern with certain modern terms like ‘smart’, and I’m not sure if Vikings at the turn of the 11th century would have referred to America as ‘The New World’. This was a term which was invented much later. Also, Gudrid’s position on slavery and some of her views on other subjects did not seem to be entirely ‘of her time’.

Also, I sometimes found it a little hard to keep track of all the characters, and sometimes keep up with the story. The book was written in the first person, from Gudrid’s viewpoint, which did seem to go ‘off track’ at times, reminiscing or musing upon some other incident on subject in the middle of a narrative about something else. Then again, most humans seem to do that upon occasion, so perhaps it things more credible.

The Christian aspects were fairly prominent, given that Gundrid was a convert to Christianity, having once been a Pagan Priestess. Her understanding and grasp of some Christian teaching a precepts was somewhat limited, and some of her ideas and actions questionable at times (though she seemed to have the basics right), such as considering it acceptable to take part in some pagan rituals, or just taking for granted that professing Christians who fathered illigitimate children who had would go to heaven.  Perhaps this was unsurprising given the historical context. She did not after all have the access to the Bible in her own language, did not know much Latin, and had little ‘moral support’ in the words of the author. I must practice what I preach and not judge the past by modern standards as well.

Unlike most books in the genre; God’s Daughter is not a romance. Gudrid is already married, though she does struggle with her feelings for other men. Not infrequently occasions she would end up ‘bumping into’ one of the two main protagonists who fancied her (this could border on the predictable) when she went off on her own, or she would go to meet them on her own for some business or other., which could lead into potentially compromising situations.

I’m not sure if such behaviour would have been acceptable in that particular society or time period, and I know the best of us faces temptation.  I just wasn’t always entirely comfortable with Gudrid’s attitude towards her husband, or the way she seemed rather preoccupied with men,  or indeed her behaviour at times, though she does seem to realize her error towards the end.

Overall, God’s Daughter is a good debut, especially for a self-published author. I personally might have like liked a little less kissing, and Vikings who seemed a less- American. People who are ‘into’ the Vikings would probably like it, and I think it would appeal to fans of historical and Medieval fiction more generally who perhaps outside the usual. I would be interested in reading more by this author, and especially the next in the series Forest Child.

I’m Published!

‘The Warlike Harry: Rehabilitating Henry V’ is available for $2.99 or £1.87 and whatever that equates to in other currencies. Its only 45 pages, so a quick read, and, as the title suggests reexamines some of the actions of ‘The Star of England’ in a slightly more sympathetic light.

Henry V of England, Shakespeare’s hero King and victor of Agincourt has been much criticized in recent years as a ‘fanatic’ and even a ‘war criminal’.
This short book, originally published as a BA Dissertation examines the more controversial actions of the first two years of Henry’s reign in light of contemporary attitudes and developments to shed light upon Henry as a man of his time.

So you will learn about

- Medieval notions of just war

- England’s law of treason

- The rules of war (as regards sieges)

….and other lovely  tidbits which will hopefully altogether challenge the notion of Henry as a ‘fanatic’.

 Share the news, tell your friends, shout it from the rooftops that my firstborn us published!

Or, help out a student, and buy it! Christmas is coming, buy it! Buy it, go on, go on! Click the links below, or if you live in another country, type ‘The Warlike Harry’ into the search Box on Amazon, if there’s no link on Amazon to the site in your own nation.

Buy on Amazon.com

Buy on Amazon.co.uk

Helen Castor’s Medieval Lives

Helen_Castor_on_She_Wolves__England_s_Early_QueensI’m featuring on here an overview of another recent BBC series, ‘Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage and Death’ by Helen Castor, who presented the series ‘She Wolves’, based on her book of the same title last year. The miniseries, as the title suggests is based around the three rites of passage, and the way they were ‘done’ in the Middle Ages.

Personally, I’m glad to see a female Medievalist who knows her stuff, and isn’t just chosen for her looks expounding history with an engaging passion. So Dr Castor is now ranked among some of my favourite historians, and might even be in danger of becoming something of a role model. Furthermore, the subject matter is one that doesn’t necessarily receive much treatment. So without further ado I will to begin at the beginning with:

 Episode One: A Good Birth.

Birth was almost exclusively female affair, which meant that the modern way of having the father present just wasn’t done. The only time a man might be present would be if a priest was sent for if if the mother’s life was in danger- and such was not uncommon. Birth was a ‘the greatest danger’ and medieval woman ‘might ever encounter’. One woman who did survive giving birth at the tender age of 14 was never able to have another child despite three further marriages, and living to see her grandchildren. That woman was Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry Tudor, who would eventually take the throne of England as Henry VII.

Margaret it seems had always been small in stature, and was married at the age of 12. Technically, that was the lowest permissible age for a proper marriage (i.e one that could be consummated), but it would appear that the husbands of many child brides waited- not so in Margaret’s case. Even for the time, the notion of Edmund Tudor making his 13 year old bride pregnant seems to have been rather shocking.

When the time for birth was approaching, a Medieval woman would enter what was known as her ‘confinement’, meant in a very literal sense in which the woman might enter a room or set of ‘chambers’ kept ‘warm’ darkened, enclosed’ and altogether womb like. She would also be attended only by women- men were not welcome in the birthing chamber (except perhaps priests) , and a midwife rather than a male doctor would preferably perform the delivery. Midwives, Dr Castor states has something of an unusual position- they could actually baptize in infant that was likely to die, and so appear to have been the only women officially allowed to perform this vitally important religious ritual.

An intriguing artifact was also produced, a wide shallow bowl of jet, believed to have been part of the midwife’s ‘kit’ because of the special properties the mineral was believed to imbue, including the ability to ‘ease a woman’s pain in childbirth’. They might also make use of other materials like coral and amber. Contrary perhaps to popular belief, such would not have ended up getting the unfortunate midwife accused of witchcraft, in fact as is stated in would probably have been seen as quite acceptable. Minerals and plants were God’s creation, so there was nothing wrong with using them to bring healing and comfort.

Episode 2: A Good Marriage

Of course marriage was an essential prerequisite to procreation in the Medieval Era, but again modern conceptions may be awry where this rite of passage in concerned too. As Dr Castor states, consent was required for marriage, so whilst parents might wish their respective offspring to marry, and could ‘bring them together, they could not force them to marry”. Equating arranged marriage with forced marriage would seem to be a modern misnomer, especially considering that the church actually banned the latter in the late 1100s.

This was not the only difficulty posed by the church when seeking to regulate marriage, however, as the medieval what constituted marriage in the Medieval period could be broad to say the least. Technically, all that was required was a verbal contract between two parties, and witnesses to attest to the validity thereof. So it seems people were getting married in the pub, or only had to ‘get away for half an hour’ for a clandestine ceremony- as Romeo and Juliet’s nuptials. This could result in other abuses, like men ‘marrying’ women just to go to bed with them, and perhaps repudiating them afterwards, as may have been the case with the alleged pre-contract ‘marriage’ of Edward IV, resulting ultimately in the deposition of Edward V and the ascension of Richard III.

It would seem the proverb, quoted at the beginning of each episode ‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’ has particular relevance to the Medieval approach to great rites of passage, as Castor and other demonstrate. These may may seem to a modern mindset strange, alien, backwards and even absurd, yet it would also seem that in examining them some preconceptions and misconceptions about the lives, beliefs and practices of out Medieval forbears are revealed and proved wrong. In my view, that is no bad thing.

To watch the first episode, see the video below.