Category Archives: Book Review

Medieval Tiles – A Review

Medieval tiles

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’m interested in medieval floors in general and medieval tiles in particular. Tiles were very expensive, as they took a long time and a great deal of skill to make. They were mostly used in ecclesiastical buildings, although some people, like Laurence of Ludlow, were wealthy enough to be able to afford to have them in their houses.

20170807_121626

Medieval floor tiles, Stokesay Castle

When I saw Van Lemmen’s book in the English Heritage shop at Stokesay Castle, there was never any doubt that I was going to buy it. There are only 40 pages, but those pages are glorious. Since most of the pages are full of colour photographs and drawings of medieval tiles, there is not much room for scholarly text.

The photographs in this post are not from the book, they’re mine. The ones in the book are much better.

14th century tiles

Fourteenth century tiles, St Bartholomew’s, Hyde

Such text as there is is very informative, although I would love to know more about how tiles were made. There is a wonderful drawing of a fourteenth century kiln, which highlights what a hit and miss affair tilemaking could be. An imperceptible flaw could destroy a tile and it would be several days before this would be known. It took about six days to load, fire and unload the kiln. A medieval kiln looked like an earthwork. Given the number of days it took to fire a tile, there was no point in making them small. It was sensible to make as many tiles as you could.

20170515_151725

Medieval Tiles, St Mary’s Guildhall, Coventry

Until I read the book, I wasn’t aware that mosaics were made in fourteenth century England. There are some lovely examples in the book from Rievaulx and Byland Abbeys. I can’t share the exact photos with you, but those links are to other photos of the mosaics in question.

It is the pictures which make the book worth buying. They include many examples of medieval tiles from all over England. My favourite photograph is one showing Diana Hall’s modern replacements of damaged tiles in Winchester Cathedral. Her tiles have the colour and vibrancy that all medieval tiles must have had when first laid.

Making tiles was incredibly labour intensive and here are two videos showing how much time it could take just to get the clay into the moulds.

The first is from Guédelon, where a castle is being built in Burgundy using thirteenth century techniques. The second is a  documentary about Diana Hall and her life as a tilemaker.

Advertisements

13 Comments

Filed under Book Review, Medieval Interiors

Review of The War on Heresy

the-war-on-heresy

I was reading this book at the same time as I was reading histories of medieval monasticism and it made me think how little difference there seemed to be between the messages of the friars and the heretics. Both believed that those who followed Christ most closely should live a common life, not owning any property, not eating meat and abstaining from sex. It must have been incredibly difficult for someone not trained in theology to see the difference.

It is one of Moore’s propositions that there was often no difference and that the war against heresy was more often about political manoeuvring by the church or the nobility rather than heresy.

In a world where even trained theologians could find themselves inadvertently contradicting the teaching of the church, it was easy for ordinary people as well as poorly educated priests and monks to fall into heresy, or what was perceived as heresy. As I discovered as I read the book, not everything that’s called a heresy is heretical and, often, the people doing the name-calling were themselves not living in accordance with the church’s teachings, which changed from time to time. Until the twelfth century it was permissible for a priest to be married. One of the results of the Second Lateran Council in 1139 was that marriage was formally denied to priests. Around the time of the change was someone who preached against married clergy a heretic or someone who was upholding the true faith? It could go either way. The same council decided that simony (purchasing church offices) was no longer to be tolerated, but those who had purchased their office persecuted as heretics those who opposed them. Were people who refused to attend Mass presided over by these men heretics? Often that was the judgement made against them, and frequently such a judgment was fatal.

Most of the issues that heretics (or catholic believers depending on your point of view) had with the church centred around whether or not the bread and wine in the Mass really were the body and blood of Jesus, the efficacy of the baptism of children, whether or not a priest’s sins rendered the sacraments he gave ineffective and abstaining from sex, and this is reflected in the definition of heretical belief set out by the Second Lateran Council. Heretics are those who, ‘simulating a kind of religiosity, condemn the sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood; the baptism of children; the priesthood and other ecclesiastical orders; and legitimate marriages’.

Although Moore points out that many thoroughly orthodox catholic believers were persecuted or burned, there were also many heretics who suffered the same fate. From the very beginning the church had been split by different beliefs and some of these continued to flourish in the remoter parts of Europe.  There were also newer heresies spread by hermit preachers. Until the late twelfth century no one had worried about them very much, but a papal bull in 1184 threatened them and any bishops or priests who had not did not take action against them. This eventually led to a period of mass burnings in the thirteenth century and the setting up of the Inquisition.

The final part of the book deals with the famous heretics in the south of France –the Albigensians and the Cathars – and the crusades against them. These resulted in massacres and mass burnings, mutilation, theft of property and all imaginable, as well as unimaginable, horrors. Moore relates the astonishingly complex background to the crusades and examines the motives of those involved in them.

This book is not an easy read, especially if you’re not terribly familiar with the people or events of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, as I am not. People I had heard of such as Bernard of Clairvaux, Henry II of England and Walter Map for example, turn up in unexpected contexts. Neither is it an enjoyable read, the atrocities are far too clearly set out for that. It is a very informative read and challenges all of the assumptions that I had about the heresies of the twelfth century.

 

4 Comments

Filed under Book Review

Edward Prince of Wales and Aquitaine: The Black Prince by Richard Barber – A Review

51fiPOjen6L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

I’m currently planning a series of books set around the Poitiers campaign of the Black Prince in 1356, so I’m reading whatever I can get my hands on about his life, the campaign, the battle itself and the politics that brought it about.

Barber is a specialist in Arthurian legend, about which he has written extensively, but he has also written books about the Plantagenets: Henry Plantagenet, Edward III and the Triumph of England: The Battle of Crécy and the Order of the Garter and this biography of the Black Prince, as well as chivalry: The Knight and Chivalry and The Reign of Chivalry.

As Barber keeps reminding the reader, there really isn’t very much information about the Prince’s character or even much detail about his life. There are lots of household accounts from which conclusions can be drawn, the odd letter or proclamation and one letter from the Prince to his elderly father asking the king to believe that his son has acted loyally and honourably in his father’s cause.

Whatever Edward of Woodstock’s character was, he was able to inspire loyalty and friendship in a close-knit group of men who were his counsellors and companions for most of his life. It is also known that he had great physical courage which he demonstrated many times in battle.

Edward was the eldest son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault, born when the king was only seventeen in 1330. He married late (at thirty-one), to a woman whose past can only be described as colourful, since she knowingly entered into a bigamous marriage at the age of thirteen or fourteen. They had known one another from childhood and it was very probably a love match. His marriage should have served his father’s dynastic aims, but he married for love instead.

The Prince was known as the epitome of chivalry after the victory at Crécy (1346) where he led the vanguard. This reputation increased after the Battle of Poitiers ten years later, where the French nobility was crushed; the French standard was captured; and the French king was taken prisoner. There was a final victory for him at Nájera in Castile in 1367. It was during this campaign that he caught dysentery, which would eventually kill him.

He ruled the principality of Aquitaine as a sovereign state between 1362 and 1372. Despite the glory of his early years, the final years of his life were marked by bitter failure. From 1369 the French started encroaching on Aquitaine and towns and castles fell to them constantly, often without a fight. The Prince’s eldest son died in 1370 and the men who had been his closest friends and advisers began to die, including the man who had been closest to him for thirty years, who was killed in a skirmish with the French. By 1371 the Prince was too ill to be able to hold Aquitaine against the French and he returned to England, where he died a year before his father in 1376 at the age of forty-six. When Edward III died the Prince’s ten-year old son became Richard II and the seeds of the Wars of the Roses were sown when the Prince’s brother, John of Gaunt, became regent.

For all that there is very little information available, Barber is very good at setting it out and drawing conclusions. He is also fair. Where there are two or more explanations for something that the Prince did or might have done he summarises them all rather than choose one that is more favourable or less favourable to the Prince.

One of the successes of the book for me is the very good summary at the beginning of the causes of the Hundred Years’ War. These are quite complex, but some historians seem to focus on the trivial or the anecdotal. Barber uses a few pages to explain the almost perpetual war between England and France over Aquitaine and Edward III’s claim to the French throne, both of which came to head in 1337.

Barber has some interesting things to say about the Prince’s supposed extravagance when he was Prince of Aquitaine. Sovereign lords were supposed to distribute largesse as rewards and, for want of a better word, bribes, to their subjects; it was one of the ways in which they showed that they were rulers. He also puts the case that the Prince did not order or even contemplate the massacre of the inhabitants of Limoges after the end of the siege there in September 1370 and that the deaths were limited to those who had carried arms against the town’s true lord, the Prince.

One of the things that comes across is the Prince’s practical nature. He was not a diplomat, nor was he really a politician, but he did have the knack of getting men to follow him. Barber makes a strong case for the victories achieved by the Prince being due, in part, to the trust that existed between the Prince and the captains of his army and their willingness to make their needs subservient to his.

Even as a young man he was a legend. He had been sixteen at Crécy and his fame only grew through the rest of his life. He was held up as the example of chivalry. He seems to have been a fairly straightforward man, rather like his father, but unlike the kings with whom he had to deal in Aquitaine, which put him at a disadvantage. He learned the hard way not to trust Don Pedro of Castile and Charles of Navarre. Charles V of France was so cunning it was a wonder he could keep track of his own plans.

This is very much a book worth reading, not just to find out about the life of the second Prince of Wales, but also to understand some of the key events of the Hundred Years’ War.

13 Comments

Filed under Book Review, Fourteenth Century

Emma – Contains Spoilers

Emma

This month sees the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Emma. Not only is this my favourite book by Jane Austen, but it’s my favourite book by anyone. My only regret is that I can never read it for the first time again. I can still remember where I was and what I felt when I realised that Frank Churchill wasn’t going to marry Emma. There’s no one else, I thought, who’s she going to marry? So cleverly had Austen woven her tale that I couldn’t see the obvious answer. Clearly Emma had to marry someone, this was a Jane Austen novel after all. Emma had avoided the very unsuitable vicar, but had been avoided by the very suitable Frank Churchill, although, now that I thought about it, he wasn’t that suitable after all. Perhaps he had been a bit weak what with going off to have his hair cut and forever promising to visit his father and never quite managing it and he was paying rather a lot of attention to that rather dull, but talented, Jane Fairfax. Surely Emma couldn’t be going to go through life a spinster, spending her evenings with her father and the well-meaning, but not always complimentary Mr Knightley.

I came late to Jane Austen, which is probably a good thing. Other girls at school had Persuasion on the syllabus. My class, however, stuck resolutely to twentieth century literature: Nineteen Eighty-Four (still in the future in those days), Poets of the Twentieth Century and Over The Bridge, thank you very much. If you’ve heard of Richard Church in any context other than an exam syllabus you’re doing better than me. I’d never come across him before I read his memoir for O’ Level and I’ve never come across him since. I resented the fact that other girls were reading Jane Austen and Shakespeare while I was reading people I’d never heard of (George Orwell excepted), although I confess that I came to love Louis MacNeice, Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke, among others.

It took me a very long time to get round to Persuasion and longer still before I liked it. The jury is still out on Mansfield Park. Apparently people who like and understand Jane Austen are divided into two camps: those who think Emma is the best thing she wrote and those who think it’s Mansfield Park.  I’m obviously not in the Mansfield Park camp, but I’m beginning to appreciate just how sly Austen was being when she wrote it. I think my very first feeling of connection with Austen came when I read in Mansfield Park that Fanny called the Isle of Wight ‘the Island’, which is how I, and everyone who lives on the Hampshire coast, refer to it, so it does have a special place in my heart, even if I don’t love it as much as I should.

What of Emma then? Famously Austen wrote that she was going to “take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”, but everyone thinks that she was joking. Emma isn’t terribly self-aware at the beginning of the novel, but that changes, with a little help from Mr. Knightley. She might be spoiled and she might be lord of all she surveys, but she has a good heart and has been brought up by people with good hearts and wisdom. I include Mr. Knightley among the people who brought her up, despite the distasteful twenty-first century supposition that he was ‘grooming’ her to be his bride, which I don’t think is the case.

Maria Edgeworth, who had been sent a complimentary copy, thought there was no story in it, which rather misses the point. Edgeworth wrote, and presumably liked, stories with morals. Emma has no moral; it’s a story about growing up, realising who you are and marriage.

I have to confess that I love the 1996 film of the book, although you only have to see Jeremy Northam to know that Mr Knightley and Emma were made for one another, which rather ruins the twist. I’m also very fond of the 1972 BBC serialisation in which Mr Knightley is played by John Carson, despite being far too old for the rôle. The portrayal of Emma in that adaptation comes quite close to making her unlikeable.

1815 was the year of Waterloo, the end of more than twenty years of war with France. For all of Emma’s life England had been at war, but you’d hardly know it from Emma, for all it can be read as a celebration of what it is to be English. The only reminder of the war is Colonel Campbell, who takes in the orphaned Jane Fairfax because he was a friend of her father, Lieutenant Fairfax, who died in the wars. Austen herself knew what it was to be at war; with two brothers in the navy, she could hardly be unaware. When she was living in Southampton, she had seen warships being built. Being at war was just like breathing; it simply happened.

It was the move to Chawton in 1809 that finally gave Austen the means to write and to write well. The cottage she lived in with her sister and her mother is now a museum and you can see the room in which she sat and wrote, unless visitors came or there was work around the house to be done or a brother to be visited.

When I first read Emma I didn’t realise that it was about Highbury as much as it was about Emma.  Much as I love my home town and love to think of Austen walking its streets, I know that she was much happier in small country villages. Bath and Southampton must have killed her creativity stone dead.

Anyone who has read Emma knows what it was to live in a small village two hundred years ago. It was a very small, suffocating community, where everyone knew everyone else and their business. An intrigue such as the one between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax would have kept the village talking for months, if not years.

Emma is a great novel, because it rewards those who reread it. If you want to understand how truly awful Mr. Elton is, why not reread it paying particular attention to him and his wife. Or have a look at Miss Bates, who is so aware of her precarious position as a poor spinster that she can’t stop talking. She is far more intelligent than she seems at first. Or read it to see how Mr. Knightley is patiently and gently guiding the ungrateful Emma to be all that she can be…  so that she can marry someone else. Is he jealous of Frank Churchill? Only on a second reading. It passed me by completely the first time, as it did Emma.

Many times Emma has been named the greatest novel in English. I’m a big fan of the Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe hates Emma because it’s the book that forces him to admit that a woman can write as well as, if not better, than a man. There must be many in his position. Whenever there are lists of the ‘One hundred books you must read before you die’ Emma is there in the top five, unless it’s been supplanted by Pride and Prejudice, which I can never understand.

There are many books that I return to time after time: East of Eden, Madame Bovary, La Porte Etroite,  To Kill a Mockingbird and all the novels of Jane Austen, but it is Emma that gives me the greatest pleasure and the greatest reward.

Emma has moments of great cruelty and great comedy. There is a lot of cruelty in Emma’s relationship with Harriet Smith. Emma almost robs her friend of the opportunity to marry Robert Martin, the man who is perfect for her, by her constant sneering at his efforts to woo Miss Smith. Mrs. Elton is a comedic creation whom no one is meant to love, with her ‘caro sposos’ and ‘barouche landaus’. The reader knows that they’re meant to laugh at her, and they do.

Marriage is one of the key themes of the book. ‘Poor Miss Taylor’ needs to marry, and it is her wedding that sets the events of the novel in progress. As Emma’s governess she can only expect a barren future as Emma’s companion if she does not marry. Jane Fairfax, as if in her image, is a companion whose life can only go downhill after she becomes a governess, as it seems likely she must. Harriet must also marry. There is no future for her if she does not, as she isn’t even clever enough to become a governess; there is no indication how long the support of her unknown father will last. Emma might not need to marry from a financial point of view, but she needs a husband in order to fulfil her rôle in society. Mrs. Elton is an example of a woman on the shelf who grabs her chance to avoid spinsterhood by marrying the appalling Mr. Elton. Miss Bates is, of course, the future that awaits any of them.

It was as a homage to Mr. Knightley that I called my first Regency hero George, and in recognition of Emma as my favourite book that Lady Anna in The Heart that Lies has three suitors, only one of whom is perfect for her.

Emma is my favourite book, what more can I say? Two hundred years ago, in a cottage less than thirty miles away from here a woman a few years younger than I am now, sat down day after day and wrote the greatest novel in the English language and she never knew what she’d done.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Book Review

Commander: The Life and Exploits of Britain’s Greatest Frigate Captain by Stephen Taylor – A Review

Commander

I’m in the early stages of planning a book whose hero is a naval captain, so I was happy to come across this biography of Edward Pellew, later Viscount Exmouth, the greatest seaman of his age. By a happy coincidence he was, like my prospective hero, a Cornishman.

A contemporary of Nelson (they joined the navy within three weeks of one another, although in very different circumstances), Pellew was born in 1757 and died in 1833. During the forty-six years he was in the navy he spent over thirty-six years at sea.

With no one to promote his interests, Pellew joined his first ship in the lowest position possible. His ability impressed those above him, but still he rose through the ranks slowly, finding less able men with more influential friends or family promoted ahead of him.  His talents were eventually recognised, however, and he ended his career as an admiral, commanding a fleet in the Mediterranean.

He was one of those men who never ask anyone else to do what they’re not prepared to do themselves. An athletic man, even in middle age he could climb the masts faster than most in his crew. He was always concerned for the welfare of his men, ensuring that they had sufficient exercise to keep them fit and out of mischief and lemon juice to keep scurvy at bay.

In his thirties, when he was a successful captain of frigates fighting and capturing French ships in the Channel, Pellew was for a while more famous than Nelson. He won the first engagement in the war with revolutionary France in 1793 and was knighted as a result. A superb sailor and a good leader of men, his ship was one of the few unaffected by the mutiny of 1797.

Pellew was in the unfortunate position of inspiring enmity and love in equal measure. Whilst at least two captains of French ships he captured became lifelong friends, he made enemies at the Admiralty and in Parliament. During the course of his career he had the frequent misfortune of impressing a man able to advance his cause just as that man was about be replaced, or to make an enemy of a man at the moment he rose to prominence. Apart from his ability to make enemies, other negatives about his character are brought out in the biography. One of these was nepotism. In an age of when this was so common that it was rarely worth mentioned, Pellew took it to extremes by advancing his sons beyond their ability and seems to have been slow to recognise that they weren’t very able. This drew a fair amount of criticism.

During his long career Pellew fought in Canada, where his talents were first recognised, and later had commands in the Channel, the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. Despite his ability in battle, Pellew missed the defining battle for the British navy. In 1805, while Nelson was commanding the fleet at Trafalgar, Pellew was patrolling the Indian Ocean. Although he was an excellent all round seaman, his particular talent was to train his crews so that they were accurate in their gunfire. He made them practise so that they could take on an enemy with superior firepower and win.

Pellew was like Wellington, in that he never stayed in one place while he was fighting. He would move all over the ship directing and encouraging, even in his last battle at the age of 59. Unusually, for he was known for his snobbery, Wellington esteemed the low-born Pellew highly. Pellew had provided naval support to Wellington’s army during the Peninsular War.

The illustrations in the book are not of good quality. They are printed in black and white at the top or bottom of pages of text. There are no colour (or even black and white) plates in their own section as would be more usual in a biography. Since they are interspersed with text it would be reasonable to expect them to relate closely to the text, but they do not. Often they illustrate events in the past, and don’t relate to the events being described around them.

Taylor’s biography is easy to read and I found it difficult to put it down. This is partly because Pellew lead such an interesting life and partly because the incidents chosen to illustrate that life are well-chosen and nicely supported by contemporary documentation.

I enjoyed this book very much. It could have been a very dry account of the life of a great man, but it’s a lively story about a man who seems to have been very much larger than life.

3 Comments

Filed under Book Review, Regency

The Black Death by Philip Ziegler: A Review

Philip Ziegler

All the citizens did little else except to carry dead bodies to be buried… At every church they dug deep pits down to the water-table; and thus those who were poor who died during the night were bundled up quickly and thrown into the pit. In the morning when a large number of bodies were found in the pit, they took some earth and shovelled it down on top of them; and later others were placed on top of them and then another layer of earth, just as one makes lasagne with layers of pasta and cheese.

This graphic and harrowing image of the plague pits of Florence appears in Philip Ziegler’s book ‘The Black Death’. Although fairly outdated in terms of understanding the causes of the Black Death and how it spread, this is a good synthesis of research available at the end of the sixties.

Ziegler takes each major country in Europe (Italy where the Black Death was first encountered, France, Germany and England) in the order in which the plague reached them and looks at the impact of the plague on them. Italian literature has some poignant and eye-opening descriptions of the plague, which Ziegler quotes at length. Boccaccio’s Decameron is a collection of short stories supposedly told to one another by a group of people who escaped the plague in Florence by leaving for the countryside, but Boccaccio’s is one of the best descriptions of the signs and effects of the plague and portrays the horror of the Florentines as it took hold of their city. It’s too long to quote here, but worth looking at. Since France was the forerunner in medical achievement at the time, the chapter on France is mainly about the way in which doctors dealt with the plague and tried to understand it. The chapter on Germany examines the religious response (including the Flagellants, which I dealt with in an earlier post and persecution of the Jews).

The chapters on the British Isles are divided into counties for England, then Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Whilst you may think it’s because of cultural bias that he spends more than half the book on the British Isles, it’s simply because the records here are more extensive and more complete than anywhere else in Europe. Since most of the records are ecclesiastical, the most reliable information available relates to lands held by monasteries and abbeys and clergy deaths.

Useful and interesting though the book is, it is only in the final chapters that it comes to life. Ziegler describes two imagined communities, a village and a hamlet situated close to one another, and how they fare during and after the Black Death. Both lose a large number of inhabitants, but the village is ultimately stronger, as people move to it from the hamlet, and the hamlet is destroyed. This reflects the reality of the times and there was no way of predicting which way it might go for each town or village.

Ziegler succeeds in depicting the utter incomprehension with which the plague was greeted. It was unlike anything Europe had ever known, not just because of the numbers that died, but because of the speed with which it spread. Although news had come from the continent to England in advance of its arrival, few believed the stories and those that did assumed that the disease plague would not cross the Channel.

As many of the surviving manuscripts attest, those who lived in the plague’s path thought that the end of the world had come. Ziegler quotes from these eyewitnesses. There are two descriptions that always make me pause. One is the quotation at the top of the post, which comes from an unknown Florentine chronicler. Florence was one of the most populous cities in Europe in the 1340s and, like most large cities, such as London and Milan, it suffered greatly during the plague.  The other is the record of the monk John Clyn in Kilkenny. His situation was almost exactly opposite to that of the Florentines, as his monastery was fairly remote. He wrote “ So that notable deeds should not perish with time and be lost from the memory of future generations, I, seeing these many ills and that the whole world encompassed by evil, waiting among the dead for death to come, have committed to writing what I have truly heard and examined; and so that the writing does not perish with the writer, or the work fail with the workman, I leave parchment for continuing the work, in case anyone should still be alive in the future and any son of Adam can escape this pestilence and continue the work thus begun.” It is assumed that he died sometime in 1349, for someone else added later “Here it seems the author died.”

Like many writing about the Black Death, Ziegler contests the numbers of deaths given by the survivors, saying that our ancestors were prone to exaggeration. He suggests that a little over thirty per cent of the population died. I’m not sure that if thirty per cent of the people in my town died I would think it was the end of the world. I’d be worried, but I’d think the odds were on my side. If seventy per cent of them died, I’d be a lot more inclined to believe that the end of everything had arrived. There has been more research on medieval population sizes and death rates in the intervening years and I’m looking forward to what the book I’m currently reading has to say on the subject.

On the whole this is a good ‘introductory’ book. Ziegler’s intention was to gather as much as he could about was known about the Black Death into one place. There is no original research. Many find his style of writing dull, but I found the book easy enough to read and, as far as it’s possible to say this about a book written about such a terrible time, enjoyable.

For readers in the UK interested in plague, and who isn’t, there’s a programme on Channel 4 on Sunday 19th July at 8.00 p.m. (repeated on Thursday 23rd at 3.15 a.m. on 4seven) with the catchy title of ‘London’s Lost Graveyard: the Crossrail Discovery’. This is about the Great Plague of 1665 (amongst other causes of death), but it does promise to throw some light on the Black Death.

Leave a comment

Filed under Black Death, Book Review, Fourteenth Century