The Arrow of Sherwood by Lauren Johnson

Kindle Edition

Pen and Sword Books, August 2013

246638851193. A Crusader returns from the Holy Land to his home in Nottinghamshire, where he is known as a murderer. His name is Robin of Locksley. Following a youth spent with lowborn friends Robin is determined to settle into the role his father wanted for him: a lord dispensing justice to the county. But a false rumour of his death in the East has stolen Robin’s lands from him, and the country he left only four years before is now crippled by taxation and struggling to maintain the King’s law. It seems Robin must choose between his desire to regain his lost inheritance and his intention to help the commons.

In this lucidly imagined and carefully researched recreation of the era of King Richard ‘the Lionheart’, England is torn between the land-owning Norman lords and their English subjects, and it soon becomes clear that Robin can accomplish more outside the law than within it…

In this her first novel, Lauren Johnson’s knowledge as a historian brings a vividness to the project, presenting us with an authentic depiction of the sights, sounds, conflicts and furies that defined this era. A story of redemption, loss, romance and adventure, this novel will excite and enthral.

Writing and telling stories has been Lauren’s passion since she was a child. Since graduating in History from Oxford University she has pursued her interest in storytelling as Research Manager for a historical interpretation company based at heritage sites including Hampton Court Palace, Dover Castle and the Tower of London. There, she had plenty of practice at immersing visitors in a living historical world – a skill she has now brought to the world of historical fiction.

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The Arrow of Sherwood was well-told re-imagining of the Robin Hood stories, but was free of the political correctness or silliness that blights a lot of modern dramatic adaptations. All the well-known characters were present, and some of the situations and scenarios are reminiscent of some movies (Will Scarlette as Robin’s illegitimate half-brother Marian acting on her own to help the poor etc), but this was a novel that very much has stands out on its own.

Some of the characterization was a break from the ordinary, and no so black and white as it is in some versions, and even Robin’s own role of helping the poor comes across as more plausible than it might be in other tellings. Robin works largely within the law, for the most part (albeit often through deception), and within the system of the age, he is a rebel with a cause, but not one who turns his back on birth and social position to pursue some utopian egalitarian vision of society, or runs away from the world at the first opportunity.

Lauren Johnson is a professional historian, immersed in the period – although the emphasis is on the story, the details about the legal and administrative system of the time period add an interesting element to the story, also giving it a more credible edge. I believe the author expressed a wish to write a more accurate version of the Robin Hood stories, and she has certainly delivered. Whilst the story is not full of fast paced action (which sometimes comes at the cost of good storytelling), this novel is a satisfying, original and largely character driven  retelling which is faithful to the spirit of the original tales while firmly grounded in the time period.

On a personal level, I was also pleased to find a novel that was not crammed with sex scenes and gratuitous violence to ‘spice’ things up. Recommended for historical fiction lovers and fans of the Robin Hood tales.

Of beasts and men…Modern barbarism and ‘Medeval’ backwardness….?

Those Terrible Middle Ages! Debunking the Myths by Regine Pernoud

March 2000 Ignatius Press

246258This was a fascinating and informative book. Some of the early chapters were not quite what I expected. The one on the supposed ‘Clumsiness and Awkwardness’ was mostly about architecture, and the following on literature, which would not seem to be suggested by the title.

Also, as the book was originally written in French as is translated, some of the grammar and word syntax is a little dubious- though this does improve.
The later chapters, especially those on women and the controversial issue of religious inquisitions, I found far more informative and useful. Debunking some myths, and establishing such ideas in the context of the beliefs of the times
Many of the practices for which the Middle Ages are condemned, such as slavery, actually developed as a response to the re-introduction of Roman Law in the early Renaissance and Post Renaissance period. The obsession with all things classical actually did more harm than good.

On the contrary, the growth of Christianity resulting in the development of rules on free consent in marriage, and the outlawing of slavery in many European slaves. Serfdom, it is argued- was not equivalent to slavery- as slaves in the Roman Empire were not free to marry, or indeed own land- whereas this was theoretically possible for medieval serfs. Indeed, it is further asserted nobles were as much ‘tied to the land’ as serfs- for they could not abandon their estates and their responsibilities than could peasants.
Some of the later chapters on methodology and the theoretical aspects history were of particular interest and relevance to me.
Altogether, this was a good book challenging a lot of generalizations about this period, and recommended for any who wish to develop a more well-rounded view of the time, removed from Hollywood and popular myth.

Regine Pernoud’s short work has particular resonance today, although written some 40 years ago- when ‘Medieval’ has become a byword for all things regarded as barbarous, brutal, uncivilized and backwards- when the actions of extremist groups are described with this word. Yet is this adage deserved?
Certainly there were acts of violence and questionable ideas in the Middle Ages but it was also in which the church legislated against forced marriage “that everywhere progress in free choice of a spouse accompanied progress in the spread of Christianity“.1 In England free choice actually caused problems- for a mere verbal contract between two parties could constitute a valid marriage. Pernoud argues that today, it is largely in the formerly Christian lands that freedom of marriage persists rather than others where it has only recently been granted….this right is recognized in Magna Carta, which forbids forced marriage of widows. 2

Women could run businesses, and take up a variety of occupations “schoolmistress, doctor, apothecary, plasterer, dyer and so on…abbesses” and female landowners had powers that would perhaps be envied today.3 Although not entirely ‘tolerated’ according to the modern understanding, sexual misdemeanors such as adultery and homosexuality were not punishable by death- as they are in some states today. In England, the development of the notion of Rule of Law can be traced on the Middle Ages- the Magna Carta established the notion that nobody, even the King was above the law- by which in later centuries they would be held to account.

In spite of some of the undoubted inequalities of Medieval society, the way in which some states and groups today which might be denounced as ‘Medieval’ entirely exclude women from formal education- or attempt to do so- is hard to reconcile with the fact that the Medieval Period have us Europe’s first professional female author- Christine de Pizan- alongside other women who composed works of poetry, history or religious devotion.
In truth, the medieval period was a formative whose people deserve to be accorded the respect we would give other cultures today- not consigned to the rubbish bin of historical misunderstanding and dismissed as ignorant savages.

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1. Regine Pernoud, Anne Englund Nash (trans.) Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths (Ignatius Press, 2000), p103.
2. Ibid, p104. See the sixth and seventh clauses of the Magna Carta.
3. Ibid, p105, 111.

Magna Carta: The Making and Legacy of the Great Charter- Dan Jones

Kindle Edition, 144 Pages

December 2014

23813301“On a summer’s day in 1215 a beleaguered English monarch met a group of disgruntled barons in a meadow by the river Thames named Runnymede. Beset by foreign crisis and domestic rebellion, King John was fast running out of options. On 15 June he reluctantly agreed to fix his regal seal to a document that would change the world.

A milestone in the development of constitutional politics and the rule of law, the ‘Great Charter’ established an Englishman’s right to Habeas Corpus and set limits to the exercise of royal power. For the first time a group of subjects had forced an English king to agree to a document that limited his powers by law and protected their rights.

Dan Jones’s elegant and authoritative narrative of the making and legacy of Magna Carta is amplified by profiles of the barons who secured it and a full text of the charter in both Latin and English.”

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Great little book and Introduction to the people, places and background of the Magna Carta, helping readers realize why it was created and why it was important. The last chapter explores its legacy up to the modern age, and how it influenced the reformers of the 17th century England and later America- even when they read ideas into the charter that did not actually exist, such as modern notions of democracy.

Its also a good research tool, with some useful appendices, including the text of the Magna Carta in Latin and English, a timeline of events, and Brief Biographies of the leading figures.
I for one tend to be a little skeptical of ‘popular’ history books written by people who are not trained historians, but Dan Jones’ research seems to be sound, and this has whet my appetite for his next book, 1215 due for release later this year.

1215: Year of the Magna Carta?

Published June 2005- 312 Pages

From bestselling760238ng author Danny Danziger and medieval expert John Gillingham comes a vivid look at the signing of the Magna Carta and how this event illuminates one of the most compelling and romantic periods in history.

Surveying a broad landscape through a narrow lens, 1215 sweeps readers back eight centuries in an absorbing portrait of life during a time of global upheaval, the ripples of which can still be felt today. At the center of this fascinating period is the document that has become the root of modern freedom: the Magna Carta.

It was a time of political revolution and domestic change that saw the Crusades, Richard the Lionheart, King John, and in legend Robin Hood all make their marks on history.

The events leading up to King John’s setting his seal to the famous document at Runnymede in June 1215 form this rich and riveting narrative that vividly describes everyday life from castle to countryside, from school to church, and from hunting in the forest to trial by ordeal. For instance, women wore no underwear (though men did), the average temperatures were actually higher than they are now, and the austere kitchen at Westminster Abbey allowed each monk two pounds of meat and a gallon of ale per day. Broad in scope and rich in detail, 1215 ingeniously illuminates what may have been the most important year of our history.

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Generally, a great introduction to the social context and the ‘world’ of the Magna Carta, everything from Political Culture, to Law and Order, rural and social life.
An era that saw the birth of the English Legal system, and the establishment of Europe’s Great Universities and centres of learning- of which one was said to have been home to the legendary female physician, Trotula.
As an aside, it also explains the origins of the story that Richard I was homosexual- the misinterpretation of a Medieval Chronicle that speaks of him having kissed the King of France- which carried no sexual connotations at that time period.

Only the chapter on the ‘Wider World’-which inevitably includes the Crusades did I have some argument with. Saladin was not always the honourable man he is often hailed as in the West- and as the book often presents him to be. No mention seemed to be made of his duplicity, especially in the matter of the siege of Acre.
Also, there is evidence of trade with far flung regions such as the Middle East and even India long before the eleventh century- Byzantine Coins have been found in England dating from the Seventh century, as well as Lapis Lazuli stones which hail from Afghanistan.

Overall though, a useful and interesting book, which seems to make good use of contemporary sources, and co-authored by a renowned historian, John Gillingham. Yet..I add a question mark, not interpolated in the title, for as was recently suggested by historian David Starkey, it is possible that on that June day in 1215 Magna Carta did not exist in any written form, but as a verbal agreement , put into writing later on. Indeed the Great Charter was redrafted a number of times, with some clauses edited or dispensed with entirely- and the four surviving copies we know today are of a later re-issue.      This said, 1215 was still a significant date that has rightfully gone down in history.

A Little Gem (and not the Pocket Collins kind)…..

1531699A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases, Boydell and Brewer, 318 Pages            

First Published September 2014              

Occasionally, I believe, one comes across a book that proves invaluable or useful in some wonderful way. Some such books are not exceptionally well know or appreciated, one such is the A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christoper Coredon and Ann Williams.

I picked up my rather battered copy over four years ago on Amazon after spotting and exploring it amongst the collection of someone I worked with. It seemed a great idea and resource, and although its not exactly the Medievalists equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary with every word one could ever conceive of, its still informative and useful. Yet its one of those books I unfortunately often leave on my shelf, perhaps sadly and undeservedly  neglected.

So why the sudden attention? Well, whilst wading the the murky waters of late Medieval English Feudalism, some definition was necessary in the midst of ploughing through a weighty tome on The Decline of English Feudalism. Okay, so I know about the workings of feudalism to some degree, I know about alienation, land disputes and the legal complexities, but what actually is the definition of ‘Enfeoffment to Use’, ‘Disseisin’ and ‘Distraint’ ? The Dictionary provides short, sharp, concise definitions, ideal for the scholar in a hurry (and one who wishes to get their information for something other than Google).

Exploring and flicking through the book provides some more wonderful gems, with words I certainly never knew existed.Like:

Estrif – A form of poem, popular in the 13c. particularly, which took the form of a debate, often between unlikely pairings. For example, The Owl and the Nightingale, The Thrush and the Nightingale, The Fox and the Wolf.’

Hushe – A fifteenth century hunter’s term for a group of hares’.

Alright, so knowing such words is not going to be amazingly useful in everyday life, but for scholars and history geeks who might be delving in depth into obscure and specialized subjects of all shapes and forms. Personally, I think a Medieval Dictionary if a cracking good idea. Well worth buying or borrowing if you can get it, and a delight just to look though for fun…maybe?

The Thistle and the Rose- Jean Plaidy

New Edition 2006, Arrow, 374 Pages
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

1149373Synopsis from Goodreads- When King Henry VII negotiates peace with Scotland, his daughter’s hand in marriage to James IV is the ultimate prize. A true princess, Margaret Tudor leaves her beloved England and accepts her fate unquestioningly. But to her surprise she falls madly in love with the fearsome Scottish King and, as Queen of Scotland, for a while she is happy.

But neither the marriage nor the peace are to last. When James IV is defeated in battle by Margaret’s own brother, the widowed Queen is torn between fleeing to her home and staying to protect her son’s future as the new King of Scots. It seems that once again Margaret’s destiny is not to be her own…

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Decent story, covering events and a period I am not really familiar with, namely the life of Margaret Tudor (sister of Henry VIII)  in Scotland. However, far too much emphasis on sex and Margaret’s love life for my liking.
Not that there was anything graphic, it was just tiresome for her falling for one handsome man after another, and incessantly being reminded of how ‘passionate’ she was.
As such, it was hard to sympathize or relate to her as a whiny, sex-mad overgrown spoiled brat who seemed incapable of realizing the damaging consequences of her own decisions, and having spent most of her life chasing men- yet always wanting men to ‘love’ her for who she was. If the fictional depiction was anything to go by- there was nothing much to love.

Also, her attitudes and values, and those of other characters did not seem very plausible for the time period- she seemed far too liberal in her attitude to divorce and sexuality for the time, and hardly cared for religion at all. The view of preachers as crazy fanatics also did not seem very authentic for the time.

Overall, not a satisfying read- more one I wanted to get finished with. I would have liked more of an overview of major political events and perhaps more developed well-rounded characters, or some notion of their personality and motivations. In spite of many good reviews elsewhere this was certainly not my favourite Plaidy.

Name Change…..

Status

Okay, you may have noticed the sudden name change on this site. In a way, its well overdue, as ‘Medieval Reader’ has for a while not not seemed entirely fitting considering I sometimes write posts on movies or TV series.

Of course, I don’t actually sit in a monastic scriptorium, but I thought the title seemed clever and appropriate. What do my regulars think?

The Edge on the Sword- Rebecca Tingle

288 Pages, June 2003, Speak Publishers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


798539When fifteen-year-old Æthelflæd is suddenly and reluctantly betrothed to an ally of her father, the king, her world will never be the same. For as a noblewoman in the late 800s, she will be expected to be meek and unlearned-and Flæd is anything but meek and unlearned.

Her marriage will bring peace to her land, but while her royal blood makes her a valuable asset, she is also a vulnerable target. And when enemies attack, Flæd must draw upon her skills and fight to lead her people to safety and prove her worth as a princess-and as a warrior.

 

Though technically a children’s book, The Edge on the Sword is a satisfying read for adults as well. The story is a speculative account a year in the teenage life of Æthelflæd, firstborn daughter of Alfred the Great, who would become known as ‘The Lady of the Mercians’. Sixteen year-old ‘Flead struggles to come to terms with her betrothal to Lord Athelred of Mercia, and the challenges of growing up, when all she really wants to do is have adventures in the marshes around her family’s home, and read poetry.

However, trouble is afoot, as the West Saxons soon learn that the region around Alfred’s Burh is teeming with Danish raiders, so a ward named Red is appointed to guard the young ‘Flead. The presence of the mysterious stranger at first proves annoying and frustrating, but it time the loyal Mercian envoy teaches and advises ‘Flead, his example guiding her to maturity, and to face the greatest danger of her life.

‘Speculative’ historical fiction has the potential to be rather problematic, but this story was on the whole, plausible, accurate and well written. I for one enjoyed the way in which the author wove Literature into the story, including Beowulf, Judith and The Maxims- which the title is derived from. It is known that Alfred had his children educated during the time of his great reform programme, and possible that the sharp and quick- witted Æthelflæd may have benefited from this, so the references to her being taught to read and write seem wholly credible. Also, whilst there is no direct evidence that she ever actually physically fought, or was trained to use weapons, the novel has her doing so, which does ‘work’ in the context of the story. Who knows, maybe it’s not impossible…

Those expecting high political drama and battle scenes will be disappointed, as most of the story is devoted to an account of ‘Flead’s life, relations with her family, and experiences growing up- with the youthful impetuousness , stubbornness and occasional indecisiveness and general difficulty that any teenager or parent of a teen could identify with.
However, whilst ‘Flead has reservations and resentment about the changes which her position in life and responsibilities force upon her, these aspects did not ultimately prove anachronistic or jarringly modern as they do in other stories.

Such an approach is interesting from a social historical perspective, giving a ‘feel’ for what the life of a 10th century Saxon princess may have been like, though the story could be a little slow and repetitive in places.
My only gripes were this, and the occasional Americanism, but nothing heinous. It even proved useful for my studies- which was one of my intentions in reading the book, but also an enjoyable pleasure read. I would certainly consider reading the sequel Far Traveller. I would recommend this for all lovers of historical fiction, the Anglo-Saxon period, or just those wanting a good, clean read.

Parents considering the book may wish to know there is some violence towards the end, none of it particularly graphic, but at a level which may prove upsetting for some children.

The Revolt of the Eaglets- Jean Plaidy

Revolt of the Eaglets: The Plantagenet Saga #2

Arrow Books 2007, (New Edition), 430 Pages

1327500I may be in the minority for having not tremendously enjoyed this novel, as all reviews on Amazon are four stars and up. However, I just don’t feel a higher rating was deserved. For one thing, the writing style seemed very repetitive, and, as other reviewers have said, Plaidy seemed to have been very much in the habit of telling rather than showing what was happening. I don’t really hold that against her, as that may have been a style common to the ‘70s when this book was first published.

It was good in places, showing the breakdown of the relationships between Henry and his sons, and illustrating how his apparent desire to keep power for himself seems to have contributed to it. The strong personalities of both King Henry and Eleanor also came though, with the friction between them quite well written. However, perhaps due to the constraints of space it did seem as though things were a little rushed, and events covered very quickly and not in great detail. To me, the novel seemed to read a little like ‘A Brief History of’ book in some places.
Perhaps I’m just not so used to the older style, though I have read other works by this author, and found The Queen from Provence more compelling.

My only other gripe was that I was not sure of the accuracy of the incidents presented. Now I know no novel is going to be entirely accurate, and authors need to use artistic licence, but it seems that the alleged homosexual relationship between Richard and King Phillip II of France is little more than a myth, albeit one that seems to have been common at the time (in light of a similar insinuation in ‘The Lion in Winter’). I believe modern writers and historians are starting to question to whole idea that King Richard was ‘gay’.
I don’t know of any contemporary evidence the he was, and it’s now known that he did have at least one illegitimate son. Personally I think that just because the two men had a close relationship it does automatically follow they were romantically attracted to each other- and even for two men to share a bed did not necessarily carry sexual connotations at this time.

What with this and the mention of King Henry seducing Richard’s betrothed at the age of 11, which was cringe-inducing (which also may not have happened) I believe this may have been a case of artistic licence carried too far.

So in overall summary, Revolt of the Eaglets is worth reading, but may be prove frustrating for people who are more familiar than me with the details of the life and reign of Henry II, and those more used to recent writing styles.