The Lost World of Byzantium- Jonathan Harris

Yale University Press, August 15th 2015, 280 Pages


For more than a millennium, the Byzantine Empire presided over the juncture between East and West, as well as the transition from the classical to the modern world. Jonathan Harris, a leading scholar of Byzantium, eschews the usual run-through of emperors and battles and instead recounts the empire’s extraordinary history by focusing each chronological chapter on an archetypal figure, family, place, or event.

Harris’s action-packed introduction presents a civilization rich in contrasts, combining orthodox Christianity with paganism, and classical Greek learning with Roman power. Frequently assailed by numerous armies—including those of Islam—Byzantium nonetheless survived and even flourished by dint of its somewhat unorthodox foreign policy and its sumptuous art and architecture, which helped to embed a deep sense of Byzantine identity in its people.

Enormously engaging and utilizing a wealth of sources to cover all major aspects of the empire’s social, political, military, religious, cultural, and artistic history, Harris’s study illuminates the very heart of Byzantine civilization and explores its remarkable and lasting influence on its neighbors and on the modern world.

This book proved to be a good scholarly introduction to Byzantine History. It did will in questioning some popular (Western) perceptions of the period and region, such as the notion that Byzantine Emperors were ‘untrammelled despots’ who could do what they wanted. Rather the very same people and institutions who gave him his power- most notably the church, could place limits upon it.

Furthermore, it is argued, the Byzantine Empire was not an unmitigated failure- rather it left behind a strong cultural legacy, in which many areas and peoples of Europe were Christianized (including Russia), preserved precious works from the classical age. Ultimately, it is concluded, that the ‘real strength’ of the Byzantines was to create a long-lasting society which was able adapt to circumstances as well as incorporate disparate peoples.

That said, as another reviewer pointed out that aspects of the book may not appeal people of Greek and Greek Orthodox background today, who tend to be the group most interested in the Byzantines (for obvious reasons). I did feel there was an element of modern judgement, especially applied to the early period of the study, and even some failure to question popular myths, for instance the political circumstances that may have resulted in the death of the famous scholar Hypatia. I don’t believe this was all about religion at all.

Yet later on, we are told that the Turks, and especially the Ottomans, supposedly the oldest and most implacable enemies of Byzantium were not really religiously motivated (yet supposedly those who killed Hypatia, and attacked pagans in the sixth and seventh century usually were). This apparent dichotomy- to consider the political or pragmatic reasoning that may have motivated the actions of one group, but fail to do so for another, is something which some readers may find troubling.

Overall, although this was an interesting work, I would not read it alone. I have another couple of books on the Byzantines, and would consider reading them to get the bigger picture. Readers may wish to be warned, it very much represents the traditional ‘top down’ approach to history, focusing on leaders and battles. So do not be deceived by the title- it is not a social history of the Byzantine world.

I received an E-book version of this title free from the Publisher via Netgalley for the purposes of review. I was not required to write a positive one and all opinions expressed are entirely my own.

Blood Cries Afar by Sean McGlynn

Blood Cries Afar: The Magna Carta War and the Invasion of England 1215-1217

The History Press, 2nd Edition, October 1st 2015


25246300“Details an invasion that could have changed Britain as we know it, prompted by events at Runnymede where the barons brought an errant king to heel and in doing so provided an opportunity for conquest

Taking advantage of the turmoil created in England by King John’s inept rule and the barons’ demands, Prince Louis of France invaded England and allied with the English rebels. The prize was the crown of England. Within months Louis had seized control of one-third of the country, including London.

This is the only book to cover the bloody events of the invasion, one of the most dramatic but most overlooked episodes of British history. The text vividly describes the campaigns, sieges, battles, and atrocities of the invasion and its colorful leaders—Louis the Lion, King John, William Marshal, and the mercenaries Fawkes de Béauté and Eustace the Monk—to offer the first detailed military analysis of this epic struggle for England.”

Republished in a New Edition to coincide with this year’s Magna Carta Anniversary, this book is another valuable contribution to the subject. It can be all too easy for publishers to get caught up in waves of popular interest in certain subjects and events, and churn out books on it by the dozen, which may not be different from others, and may suffer from poor editing or a ‘rushed’ style.

Blood Cries Afar did not feel like one of these. Though it must be noted that the book is not aimed for a general audience, and is more academic in style. Most titles on the reign of John cover the invasion of 1215-17 to a greater or lesser degree, but it is useful to have a work which focuses more specifically on this event, and the key figures involved. I personally have an interest in the last four years of this reign, up until the end of the civil war, which was one of the things which attracted me to the book.

As a guide political and military background of the time, it serves its purpose well. The approach and attitude towards key figures very much veers towards the traditional- presenting John as an almost thoroughly bad ruler. That said, it does also examine the long term consequences of certain actions and decisions, with the occasional consideration of what ‘might have been’ if things had been done differently. Interestingly, the author also gives more credit to some contemporary sources than is sometimes allowed them. For those who are perhaps, dubious of the tendency to dismiss medieval chronicles and writings out of hand, this may be an interesting and informative approach. The new Appendix summarizing opinions of John help to place work in context.

The new Appendices on the Robin Hood legends and the intriguing yet largely unknown figure of William of Kensham (who is provocatively put forward as a possible candidate for the historical basis of the legendary hero) are intriguing, and may convince some. Could Robin Hood actually have been a Kentishman who had served in Wales- and a servant of John- who led force of guerrilla fighters against Prince Louis in the early years of the thirteenth century? Such a possibly could certainly turn our traditional understanding of the most popular of England’s heroes on its head.

Overall, Blood Cries Afar is a worthy edition to any scholarly bookshelf (or that of the interested general reader who does not mind the more academic style). However, it might be advisable to read this alongside other works to get the overall or ‘bigger’ picture of the period, figures and events.

I received a paperback copy of this book free from the Publisher for (at my request) for review. I was not required to write a positive one and all opinions expressed are my own.

The Abbess of Whitby- A Novel of Hild of Northumbria- Jill Dalladay

Published (UK), August 21st 2015, 352 Pages


The dramatic story of a seventh-century evangelist

Chosen as Eostre’s handmaid, Hild will serve the fertility goddess for a year before being wed. Her future is predictable until King Edwin claims her as kin and she learns that her father was murdered.
Her first love is given a command in Edwin’s forces and vanishes from her life, wed to her sister. The court is baptized, ending the old religion and Hild’s role. Life looks bleak. She can’t stop wondering who killed her father.

Suspecting Edwin, she challenges him, only to be married off to safeguard his northern frontier. Struggling in a loveless marriage, she is intrigued by the Iona priests making pilgrimages to spread Christ’s love. When home and family are lost in Oswy’s sack of Edinburgh, she finds herself in enemy hands, but meets the charismatic Aidan.
Inspired and guided by him, she builds communities to live and teach Christ’s love. She attracts followers. Even her old enemy, King Oswy, entrusts his child to her, gives her Whitby, and seeks her help to reconcile divisions in his kingdom.

She never ceases battling against old superstitions resurrected by storm, plague, and solar eclipse, but at last she receives a bishop s blessing from a man she trained herself.

When I saw Lion Fiction (Kregel in the US) the Publisher of Edoardo Albert’s fantastic Northumbrian Thrones Series, set in seventh century England were bringing out another book about a major figure from this time, I snapped it up. I confess to a long-enduring love for the Anglo-Saxon era, and the seventh century was a golden age for the famous Kingdom of Northumbria.

Whilst many other works set at this time are very masculine with an emphasis on battles, war and politics it was interesting to find a story that looks at the time from a female perspective focused on everyday life, family relationships and the management of estates.
Such a woman was Hild, sometimes known as St Hilda, born to a royal Saxon father and British mother. Little is known of her early life and adulthood, before she assumed the leadership of Whitby Abbey- in its day one of the most famous religious houses of Northern England.

As such, much of the novel is what I would call speculative history (based on likely circumstances of what might have been but we cannot know for certain), recounting Hild’s journey through marriage, life the turbulent political circumstances of the time and place, and ultimately to faith.
After her conversion, and entry into a religious house, Hild has been lauded as one of the most powerful and influential women of her time- Kings and clerics came to her for advice, and her Abbey trained men who would one day become Priests, Bishops and missionaries even a poet.

Her story and those of her fellows are told with honesty, compassion and is compelling enough to hold the reader’s interest. My only complaints were the writing style. Somehow, in the narrative passages it lacked the descriptive, almost poetic beauty of Edoardo Albert’s novels which evoke Tolkien and the Epic Literature of the age, instead a rather informal conversational tone is used.
At times, this resulted in language that seemed too modern for the time, and certain turns of phrase which might have been unique to Northern England which might pass over readers from other backgrounds. I did spot a few anachronisms, and in places the writing seemed a little ‘rushed’, and I found myself reading passages again as within a sentence or two the characters would move to a different room, place or situation. Sometimes it could be hard to keep up.
However, the author’s note citing such renowned writers as Kathleen Herbert and Christine Fell suggests that much sound research had gone into the story, so maybe what felt like a lack of a ‘sense of period’ in some parts could be attributed to personal opinion.

Aside from the above, this book had many positives. It is a wonderful biography of arguably one of the most important women in Early Medieval Christian Britain. I would certainly recommend to any interested in women’s history or this fascinating, formative era of England’s past.

Thanks to Lion Fiction for the copy they gave me for review. I was not required to write a positive one an all opinions expressed are my own.

Castle- A History of the Buildings that Shaped Medieval Britain- Marc Morris

Republished May 2012, Windmill Books

Paperback 288 Pages

13657306Beginning with their introduction in the eleventh century, and ending with their widespread abandonment in the seventeenth, Marc Morris explores many of the country’s most famous castles, as well as some spectacular lesser-known examples. At times this is an epic tale, driven by characters like William the Conqueror, King John and Edward I, full of sieges and conquest on an awesome scale.

But it is also by turns an intimate story of less eminent individuals, whose adventures, struggles and ambitions were reflected in the fortified residences they constructed. Be it ever so grand or ever so humble, a castle was first and foremost a home.

To understand castles – who built them, who lived in them, and why – is to understand the forces that shaped medieval Britain.”

It could be said that I am on something of a Marc Morris roll right now. I recently read his new book on King John- and decided it was time to start on this one which I have had on my shelf for about three years, making it my third read of his four major mass-market titles. I should resolve myself to getting through more such titles, but that is straying from the subject.

Like most of Dr Morris books that I have read so far (including my all-time favourite his biography of Edward I) this was engaging and well-written. It must be admitted that for the chapter or two, I got the impression that there was not a lot I didn’t already know, and there seemed little focus on the lives and careers of the inhabitants of England’s great castles.

Gradually, however, the reader could become absorbed in the work. Each chapter was typically devoted to one or a number of castles, that were in some way representative of a certain period, culture, or trend. Rochester as the stone keep that became increasingly common the twelfth and thirteenth century, and was famously besieged by King John. Bodiam as the personal home of Sir Edward Dallingridge, the Knight of humble origins who made his fortune in the Hundred Years’ War- and the great castles of the Welsh borders, conceived and created at the behest of Edward I.

The author explores the life and career of the buildings, as well as those responsible for their creation, as well as notable inhabitants and events to show how these noble fortifications played such a pivotal role in Medieval British culture. They were far more than just the statements of wealth and power, as we are sometimes told by guides or commentators. Some examination of the structure of buildings, and everyday life is also included, although this is not the principal focus of the book.

The later chapters, recounting the decline of the castle in the sixteenth century, and the  destruction of many of the largest and most iconic castles in the country during the English Civil War was at times poignant. One could feel a genuine sense of gratitude to the conscientious General Fairfax for ensuring the protection of the Oxford colleges and the Bodleian Library, and palpable sorrow for the wanton destruction of the collection of ancient manuscripts once held in the library at Raglan Castle which was intentionally burned when the castle was slighted.

Morris book does great justice to these magnificent and inspirational buildings, providing the general reader with a well-rounded history that takes account of the political as well as the social background. The romantic soul will likely find themselves stirred with a yearning to have seen the likes of the sad ruins of Pontefract of Corfe in their heyday. Also, I was rather pleased that the author drew attention to his own background of growing up in Kent (the neighbouring county to my native Sussex), and his visits to the famous castles of the region as an inspiration for the love of the period and its buildings. Such is a sentiment with which I can identify.

Review- Across the Dark Water- St Julien’s Chapel, Southampton

As an Undergraduate, I wrote at some length about the events of the first two years (as it almost seems) of the reign of King Henry V of England. Such an account could hardly ignore the so-called ‘Southampton Plot’ (which was actually revealed to the King at the nearby town of Portchester, rather than the city of Southampton), in fact, I confess to having been somewhat fascinated by the event, and the figures involved. Those familiar with Shakespeare’s Henry V may recall The Bard’s brief mention of the Plot in one scene of the play- which was inaccurately blamed primarily on bribery by the French.

So when local media mentioned that a play about the plot was to be performed at various locations in Hampshire related it, I was naturally enthralled. This play was the cleverly titled Across the Dark Water, ostensibly a reference to River Itchen, which cuts a path through Southampton and nearby Winchester.

Attending on the last day of performance, in the ancient St Julien’s Chapel (dating back to the twelfth century), the audience were treated to a magnificent piece of theatre. Transforming the plot into something of a psychological drama focused on one of the leading figures, Henry Lord Scrope of Masham, grizzled veteran and loyal servant of the King, who learns of a complex plot conceived by the aggrieved, marginalized and resentful nobleman, Richard Earl of Cambridge to  put his cousin, Edmund Mortimer on the throne.


Darell Brockis in a sympathetic and thoughtful performance as Lord Scrope of Masham

As a long-time friend of both, Scrope entreats them to abandon the plans, but is gradually drawn into sympathy, and finally complicity with the plotters, through manipulation, and his own doubts about the justice of the war with France and the treatment of his fellows.

As a work of dramatic art, thae play and quality of acting could hardly be faulted. The sympathetic and complicated treatment of Scrope- a very minor character in Shakespeare’s play, and his interest in the works of the popular fourteenth century hermit and mystic Richard Rolle added a fascinating and personal edge to the story.

However, as another reviewer has mentioned, there seemed to be some fundamental weaknesses in the script, as well as a few historical inaccuracies such as the claim that the  fine the King made Edmund Mortmer, Earl of March pay for his unauthorised marriage was the ‘biggest in history’. It was not, as there were several larger during the reign of King John and his predecessors.

In my opinion another fundamental weakness was the failure to mention the familial connections of the characters, and the possible significance of this. It was rightly mentioned that Mortimer and Cambridge were both cousins of the King- but not that they were also brothers-in-law by virtue of the Earl’s marriage to an Anne, the older sister of Mortimer some years before.  A union given all the more prominence by her bearing him at least two children. Nor indeed that Scrope had been married to the Earl’s own Stepmother, and that Cambridge himself was the brother to the Duke of York.

Acrossthedarkwater-300x211The writer seems to have opted instead to portray the leading plotter as a political and social outsider, making a living by raiding in the Scottish borders, and nursing a long-term grudge for his lack of financial security and acceptance by the wider royal family, even as something of a proto- revolutionary, railing against ‘the system’. The former has been examined as a possible motivation for the plot by some historians, but seems to be only one of several threads. In some ways, these motivations and a depth of character seemed lacking.

Also, it appeared that Henry V was portrayed as vindictive, fickle, and at the end, rather unnecessarily spiteful in his view and treatment of the plotters, laughing at Cambridge and making almost throwaway remark about his head being impaled on the battlements of Portchester Castle, and ultimately telling Scrope he never had any love for him. Not only is the former claim inaccurate (Cambridge’s head was buried with his body in St Julien’s chapel itself at the behest of the King) but my own reading and research on the life and reign of Henry V have never revealed such traits. Certainly he possessed a very strong, almost excessive sense of justice, and hated disloyalty, leading to actions against those who betrayed him that some modern commentators have judged ‘cruel’ and ‘severe’.

The King’s reaction to Scrope’s involvement makes sense in light of this, and even the severity of his punishment fits into the context of the Lord’s relationship to the King, and his status as a Knight of the Garter. To betray the trust of one’s Lord, and the ties of kinship and honour that were supposed to bind the knights to their monarch would have been seen as a terrible crime in itself. Yet for all this, I got the impression that the King was meant to be seen as the ultimate villain, with even his definition of mercy raising a laugh from some members of the audience.


St Julien’s Church, Southampton

Added to this, there seemed to be a discernible influence of the popular historian Ian Mortimer’s perspective on events. This could be noticed in the passages wherein the characters sarcastically remark upon King regarding the French as ‘infidels’ and the implication that the Agincourt campaign was a Holy War. Dr Mortimer’s failure to take account of contemporary ideas about just war, and the influence of religious notions upon this concept is a weakness of his book on Henry V, and it seems to have ‘rubbed off’ on the play.

As a person who remains wholly unconvinced by the claim that Henry V was a ‘religious fanatic’ and ‘mass-murderer’, which is not supported by contemporary evidence, it saddens me to think that the scriptwriter seemed to have too closely followed a doubtful modern interpretation of events, and the key figures and events.

Across the Dark Water is worthwhile as an exploration of the character and possible beliefs of some of the plotters, and a useful introduction to the Southampton Plot itself – but it would be ill-advised for the audience to base their knowledge entirely upon it. Those wishing to learn more would benefit from reading books and articles related to the main figures, and the Southampton plot itself that are to be found in various books and online.