Category Archives: Book Review

The Friar of Carcassonne by Stephen O’Shea – A Review

Published: 2011
Pages: 280

Although most of the events related in The Friar of Carcassonne take place in the fourteenth century, their roots stretch back into the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with the explosion of heresies in the Languedoc, an area of southern France. Stephen O’Shea has written about the origins of Catharism in the region in a separate book, The Perfect Heresy, and The Friar of Carcassonne is the story of a Franciscan who played an important role during its end.

Brother Bernard Délicieux, a Franciscan, took on the inquisition (very definitely lower case at that time) when no one else dared. There had been obvious abuses by the Dominican inquisitors in Carcassonne, a town in Languedoc, at the end of the thirteenth century. Some of the inquisitors, it turned out later, received financial benefits from identifying certain wealthy people as supporters of the heretics. Very little ‘evidence’ was required to condemn someone and many men spent decades incarcerated in terrible conditions, eventually dying in prison for supporting people they’d never heard of. This was the main incentive for Bernard to take on the inquisition.

O’Shea goes back in time at the beginning of the book in order to set the scene. By the end of the thirteenth century Catharism had begun to die out, but there was renewed persecution in the last two decades of the century. This resulted in unrest in a region that had only recently become part of the kingdom of France. Eventually what was going on there caused concern both to the pope and to the king of France.

Brother Bernard is presented as charismatic, intelligent and persuasive. O’Shea shows how he managed to gain the support of both highly-placed churchmen and counsellors of Philippe IV, king of France. He also shows how easily Bernard made enemies in equally high places, including kings and popes. Bernard, it turns out, could also be a bit of a rabble-rouser when he wanted and he wasn’t above lying to further his cause or to save his life.

Unusually for something that happened in a remote corner of the world to someone who wasn’t terribly important beyond that corner, the events are well-documented. The reasons for this become very clear as the tale progresses. O’Shea makes good use of these records in his presentation of the friar and his activities.

I enjoyed the book, but found it quite disjointed. Of necessity, O’Shea has to explain a lot of background before he can write about what Bernard did in a particular situation and why it was significant, and that breaks up the narrative, since it’s necessary in almost every chapter. There are also copious notes at the end of the book, citing sources for those who want to find out more. If you’re interested in the heresies that erupted in the twelfth century, you will probably want to read this book.

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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The Middle Ages in 50 Objects by Elina Gerstman and Barbara H. Rosenwein – A Review

It’s another book review this week. The Middle Ages in 50 Objects is both a delight and a disappointment. The delight is in the illustrations. Some of the fifty objects are rather special and there is a full page photograph of each of them. The disappointment is in the text. Each item has a three page essay and these don’t always focus on the object. Many of them talk a bit about the item then go off at a tangent to talk about something (very) loosely connected with the object. Thus a painting of the flagellation of Christ leads to an extremely superficial look at the cult of flagellation during the Black Death, anti-Semitism, the Franciscans, Venice, the Fourth Crusade and trade in the Mediterranean.

When I bought the book, I didn’t realise that the objects were all in the Cleveland Museum of Art, so this should be viewed more as a catalogue than a book about medieval objects. ‘Medieval’ as a term is rather loosely used, as the books definition of medieval is a lot broader than most people would be happy with. Some of the objects date from the third century and some from the sixteenth century.

Although they’re all from one museum, the objects come from a variety of places and times. As well as items that you would expect to see from Europe, there are also Byzantine and Islamic objects from various periods.

The book is divided into four sections. The Holy And The Faithful is about religious artefacts, including a stunning twelfth-century reliquary. The Sinful And The Spectral is a bit of a hotchpotch of images of the Devil and evil sprits. Daily Life And Its Fictions includes coins, buttons, jugs and a lovely lion aquamanile. Death And Its Aftermath is another section that doesn’t really know what it’s about, but there are depictions of the Crucifixion and the death of the Virgin Mary as well as decorations from tombs.

Since the articles don’t go into any great depth, it’s a shame that there’s no bibliography to allow readers to follow up points that interest them. Whilst it’s probably better to see the book as an introduction to the Middle Ages, it’s a rather disjointed introduction and it doesn’t tell the reader where to go next. Some of the essays have quotes from writings that are, more or less, contemporaneous with the object and the sources are listed at the back of the book. It’s not always obvious, however, which source goes with which quotation.

Although I can’t say that I enjoyed the book with my whole heart, I did enjoy aspects of it. Some of the essays are quite enlightening about the objects depicted and some of them made me stop and think about how the objects had been made and used. The photographs of the objects are wonderful and some of the objects themselves are fascinating. My favourite section is definitely the one on daily life, since that’s the aspect of medieval history that really has my attention.

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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A Brief History of the Hundred Years War by Desmond Seward – A Review

Pages: 296
Published: 1978

You will be able to tell from the number of pages that Desmond Seward’s A Brief History of the Hundred Years War really is brief. In his Trial by Battle, the first volume of his five volume history of the Hundred Years War, Jonathan Sumption takes 200 pages just to cover the causes of the war, so it’s fairly obvious that a book of this size isn’t going to help anyone understand why things happened. I still don’t really understand the political situation in France in the first half of the fifteenth century that allowed both sides in a civil war to ask for Henry V’s help, only for one side to assist him later in his goal to obtain the French crown. I do have a better idea of the battles and sieges of that period, though.

The book is a chronological telling of the events of the Hundred Years War, with the exception of the chapter in which Joan of Arc appears. As it must have seemed to the English and Burgundian armies at the time, she appears out of nowhere and Seward goes back in time to explain her arrival. In many ways this underlines Seward’s bias towards the French. Joan appeared as a kind of saviour figure outside the walls of Orleans, which was besieged by the English and the Burgundians.

I found this bias quite tiring, as the worst thing Seward (who was born in Paris) has to say about any French king, save Charles VII, is that he wasn’t a very good soldier (all of them except one) or that he had a taste for luxury. Charles VII, he says, was physically and mentally weak, and his confessors thought he was a heretic. Edward III, in comparison, was a womaniser who spent his senile last years drinking. Richard II became ‘insanely tyrannical’ and Henry V is compared to Napoleon and Hitler. English soldiers carried out atrocities, while French soldiers, presumably, behaved like perfect gentlemen. Seward also says that Roger Mortimer was ‘perhaps the nastiest man ever to rule England’. I’m fairly certain there would be more votes for John Lackland on that score.

The only Englishman for whom he has a good word is the Duke of Bedford, Henry V’s brother and regent for Henry VI in France, who ‘loved the French’. The French apparently loved him in return, but that’s possibly because there was order and, more or less, peace in the part of France that he controlled.

1978 was a long time ago and Seward includes a few things that contemporary historians would feel less able to be dogmatic about. He states confidently, for example, that Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella were lovers and that the queen was carrying his child. He’s also happy to write that Edward II was killed by a red hot poker and that Isabella spent the rest of her life after Mortimer’s fall as a prisoner. I suspect there are similar bald statements about the fifteenth century part of the war, but I know a lot less about what was going on then to be able to know.

As you can tell, the book doesn’t have a huge amount to recommend it, other than the brevity which is mostly the reason for for its faults. It is easy to read, which is a plus and it does include all the major battles and a few of the sieges in the war. If you want something that you can read in a couple of days that will give you an idea of what happened during the Hundred Years War, this might be the book for you. If you want to understand why and how things happened, I’d recommend saving your pennies for Jonathan Sumption’s more comprehensive history of the war.

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer by Derek Pearsall – A Review

Chaucer life

Pages: 380
Published: 1992

More Chaucer this week. This time it’s the man himself rather than his work. The last time I wrote about his life on this blog (towards the end of 2018), Toutparmoi mentioned The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer by Derek Pearsall, so I bought a copy, and it has proven to be a good purchase. It was published almost thirty years ago, so there is a chance that some of what it contains has been superseded by more recent research.

The book’s subtitle is A Critical Biography and that’s the part that I found least pleasing. Pearsall ties what is known of Chaucer’s life to the supposed dates of his works. I say ‘supposed’, because no one really knows when he wrote which works. Some can be narrowed down to a decade or so, and The Book of the Duchess must have been written after the death of Blanche of Lancaster, the duchess it celebrates. There are some clues, but few of them clear cut.

Since I’ve only read one of Chaucer’s poems, these sections of the book meant nothing to me. The discussions about various interpretations of the actions of different characters, particularly in The Canterbury Tales, must be engaging if you’re familiar with them, but I’m not.

There are surprisingly few records of Chaucer’s life. Most of them are about annuities given to him, or expenses for clothing for special occasions while he was in service to various royal households. Some relate to court cases against him for debt and one for rape. This last raises all kinds of questions about Chaucer, but Pearsall offers no definitive answer, which is quite correct of him, given the impossibility of obtaining any of the facts, let alone all of them after more than six centuries.

Pearsall is very good at putting what is known (and sometimes what isn’t known) about Chaucer into context. There’s no information about Chaucer’s education, so Pearsall doesn’t jump to conclusions about his schooling, but describes the kind of education a boy of Chaucer’s class would have had. He does something similar at other points in the book.

The picture Pearsall paints of Chaucer is, of necessity, superficial. It’s also surprisingly unattractive. It’s hard to reconcile the (possible) rapist and constant debtor with the trusted servant of royalty and creator of some of the best poetry written in the Middle Ages.

I think Pearsall’s ideal reader is someone who has read all of Chaucer’s works, is interested in the fourteenth century in general and in Chaucer’s life in particular, in that order. Since I only fall into the last two categories, I don’t feel that I’ve reaped the full benefit of reading this book. Despite that, I’ve learned a lot from it.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Trial by Battle by Jonathan Sumption – A Review

trial by battle

Published: 1990
Pages: 672

Trial by Battle is the first volume in Jonathan Sumption’s history of the Hundred Years War. It begins with the death of Charles IV, King of France, in 1328 and ends with the fall of Calais to Edward III in 1347.

Many pages and words are spent on examining the causes of the war. This is really useful, as its origins are more complex than shorter histories choose to say. It’s not simply that Edward III was making a claim for the French crown, or that he was defending a man who had taken refuge in his court, or that he wanted to recover lost territory in Aquitaine, although all of these (particularly the last) played a part. Sumption takes more than 200 pages to look at the political situations in England and France, their relative wealth and the characters of their kings. When the war finally starts, it makes some kind of sense.

I knew about some of the things that happened during this stage of the war, but Sumption shows how they relate to one another. Events that have always seemed unconnected are joined together by his vast knowledge and understanding of primary and secondary sources in different languages. Apparently he reads French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, Catalan and Latin. The bibliography alone takes up 14 pages.

As you would expect from a Law Lord, Lord Sumption is very decisive on the legal niceties of claims of kingship and repudiating treaties. He also has a very clear view on what Edward III intended to achieve when he declared himself king of France.

I have enjoyed reading Trial by Battle very much, but I don’t know that I would recommend it to someone who knew nothing about the Hundred Years War. It would probably help to have an overview of what happened during this period and to have some knowledge of who was involved first. I was very uncertain about who was doing what in the Low Countries, partly because some of the counts and princes owed allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor and some to the King of France and I wasn’t always sure which was which, but also because most of them changed sides, one or two of them more than once. If you already have some understanding of the early years of the Hundred Years War, but want more detail, this is probably the book for you.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Warfare in Medieval Manuscripts by Pamela Porter – A Review

medieval warfare

This week I’ve read a short book about medieval warfare. It’s not entirely accurate to say that I’ve read it, though. Warfare in Medieval Manuscripts is more or less a picture book. That isn’t to denigrate it at all, as it’s full of wonderful pictures of warfare taken from manuscripts in the British Library. I don’t know how many illustrations there are, but probably more than three-quarters of the 128 pages have a colour picture showing one or more aspects of medieval warfare.

Given those proportions, the text isn’t as detailed as you might hope, but I did learn something that I’m saving up for a future post.

There are six chapters:

  • The Art of War
  • Knights, Chivalry and the Training for War
  • Knightly Arms and Armour
  • Armies and Battles
  • Castles and Sieges
  • Gunpowder and the Decline of Medieval Warfare

I don’t know that the chosen illustrations necessarily fall neatly into these categories, as there are cannon and handguns shown well before the chapter about gunpowder.

The illustrations themselves are wonderful. I had to get out a magnifying glass so that I could appreciate the detail more easily and there is a lot of detail to appreciate.

One thing that I found less pleasing about the book is that the pictures are labelled according to the point that Porter is using them to illustrate, rather than telling the reader which event they’re depicting. My favourite illustration, for example, is called “Weapons old and new are used side by side”. The British Library calls it “Siege of Troyes“. I  like it because it shows old and new weapons, but the picture speaks for itself. It shows cannon and pikes and crossbows and longbows. It’s that little bit more interesting when you know that it represents the siege of Troy.

That’s really the only fault I can find with the book. If you’re interested in contemporary depictions of medieval warfare, this is the book for you.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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The Hound and The Hawk: The Art of Medieval Hunting by John Cummins – A Review

Hound and Hawk

Published: 1988
Pages: 306

I have three or four books on medieval hunting and, after reading The Hound and the Hawk, I know that I won’t have to buy another one. It goes into such detail, that I could probably go out and hunt something in the medieval style myself.

Cummins uses primary sources from across Europe, mostly from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, although a few are from the early Rennaissance.

As its title suggests, the book is divided into two. The first part covers hunting with hounds and the second hunting with hawks.  The first section tackles the huntsman’s prey in order of nobility, starting with the stag and ending with the badger. Cummins also looks at the symbolism of hunting in a chapter on the unicorn.

Two chapters look at the duties and lives of the huntsmen before the book moves on to the hawks. It covers their breeding grounds, their capture, their training, their feeding, their prey and their illnesses. There’s also a chapter about what they symbolise in literature.

It’s for this latter section that I bought the book. Hunting was something that everyone did in the Middle Ages and I want my novels to reflect that fact. My heroes might be able to hunt stags, though, but my heroines can’t. If I want the two of them to spend time together on a hunt, they have to be using hawks. I’ve learned more from this book than I can use in my novels, but that’s a good thing.

Despite its length and its detail, it’s an easy book to read. Cummins knows what he’s talking about and he communicates it well. He even made me laugh, which wasn’t something I expected from a book about hunting. The laughter was often at the expense of the best-known hunter of the Middle Ages, the Frenchman Gaston Phoebus, who thought some English hunting practices were less than ideal.

If you only read one book about medieval hunting, this is the one you should read.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Medieval Bodies by Jack Hartnell – A Review

bodies

Medieval Bodies is not what you might expect from the cover or from the title. Based on a podcast I heard in which Jack Hartnell was interviewed about his book, I was expecting something about medieval medicine and medieval illnesses. I was wrong, but in a good way.

It’s a book that looks at the parts of the body (head, hands, feet, skin etc.) and asks how such things were thought about in the Middle Ages. Each chapter is about a different part of the body, starting with the head and ending with the feet. Within each chapter, there’s a look at what medieval medical science thought about that particular body part and then there’s a consideration of what that part meant to people at the time, both physically and spiritually. The chapter on genitals, for instance, talks about medieval childbirth in reality and in art. I enjoyed the chapter on feet, which talks about some of the odd fashions in footwear in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Hartnell doesn’t just cover thoughts about bodies from Europe, but he also includes Jewish and Islamic writings and illustrations. Islamic works were being translated into Latin from the twelfth century, bringing long-forgotten Greek learning and philosophy into countries north of the Mediterranean. This wider knowledge is reflected in a change of ideas about medicine, while the church had to consider whether or not physicians and surgeons should be allowed to follow the teachings of the pagan Greeks.

There are colour illustrations on almost every other page, making this a book to be browsed as well as read. I enjoyed it very much, although it, of necessity, deals with each subject superficially. Any book with ‘medieval’ in its title already has to spread itself thin, since the Middle Ages lasted more than a thousand years. Medieval Bodies compounds the problem by going beyond the bounds of Europe.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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The Road to Crécy by Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel – A Review

Crecy

The Road to Crécy is almost a step by step account of the Crécy campaign from the moment Edward III set foot in Normandy on 12 July 1346  up to the immediate aftermath of the battle on 26 August.  The first chapter includes some background as to how the invasion came to take place and what its aims might have been, and the second describes the types of soldiers he took with him. Thereafter we’re marching with them across the north of France.

No one is quite sure whether Paris was Edward’s real goal,  or whether he intended to meet up with another English army further south. Either way, Edward and his army spent six weeks marauding through France, narrowly escaping being trapped and wiped out more than once. He came to within 20 miles of Paris then turned northeast, managing to cross the Seine without being seen by the larger French army which was shadowing the English army on the other side of the river. Most of the bridges had been destroyed or were heavily guarded. This wasn’t the last time the English were trapped on the wrong side of a river. A few days before the battle, the French pinned them down between the River Somme and the sea. Once again Edward’s men crossed a river against the odds and were able to choose the location of the battle.

Those are the bare bones of the campaign. Livingstone and Witzel fill in the gaps with details about who was in the army; what kinds of soldiers there were; how they were armed; what happened at each town or settlement they came to; and, most interesting of all to me, what the king ate on most days. One of my favourite aspects of the book is the account of the supplies taken to France. The army didn’t travel lightly, not did it expect to live off the land, although there was a lot of pillaging, especially towards the end when supplies were running low.

I love detail and this book gave me that. Livingstone and Witsel have pieced together a coherent narrative of events from various contemporary sources, most of which focus on the battle itself. I’m sure this made it more difficult to work out the logistics of the journey to Crécy.

As you would expect from a book about a military campaign, there are many maps and these are very useful. Less useful are the photographs. They’re all in black and white and are not terribly clear. It’s not always obvious why they’ve been included.

This is a very good book if you want to understand everything that was involved in a medieval campaign. I found it both interesting and useful.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Castle by Marc Morris – A Review

I’ve just posted a review of Marc Morris’ Castle on my book blog.

The Retired Reader

Castles

Published: April 2004

Pages: 288

I have a confession to make. Marc Morris is probably my favourite presenter of history on TV and we don’t, in my opinion, see him enough. This book goes with the TV series of the same name shown in 2004.

It covers the development of castles in Britain from the arrival of the Normans, through the Anarchy, Edward I’s annexation of Wales, and Scottish castles, to the slighting of English and Welsh castles under Oliver Cromwell.

For all that it’s full of useful facts and informative diagrams, it’s a very easy book to read. Dr Morris has a very informal writing style and knows how to write a non-fiction book as if he were telling a story. I can’t remember the last time a non-fiction book made me laugh aloud.

If you’ve ever asked yourself what a castle was for, you’ll find the answer in…

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