HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Women in Medieval England’ by Lynda Telford

This fascinating book explores the status of women in medieval England, both before and after the Norman Conquest.

The author starts by contrasting the differences in status between Anglo/Danish or Saxon women with those who fell under the burden of the feudal system imposed by the Normans. She covers such subjects as marriage and childbirth, the rights and responsibilities of wives, separation and divorce, safety and security and the challenges of widowhood. She also examines such issues as virginity and chastity and the pressures placed on women by religious groups.

At a time when women’s rights were minimal, the author charts their struggles against the sexual politics of the era, its inequalities and its hypocrisies. She also examines the problems of the woman alone, from forced marriage to prostitution. The lives of ordinary women are the centre of attention, painting a fascinating picture of their courage and resilience against the background of their times.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Resting on the theme of women in history is Women in Medieval England. My initial interest in this book was the pre-conquest women included. England and its rulers is so often detailed as post-1066, so someone like myself with limited knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon era found the overview and laws of the time useful. New leaders made for new husbands for noble women, who may not even be able to understand them, given language barriers. A nightmare of any woman, and to cap it off, not speaking your new husband/owner’s language is a scary thought.

What classified as marriage was quite different (as I’m sure everyone knows) which made for a messy history and difficult lives for the women traded to their husbands. The book even delves into what was birth control in the pots-1066 era, and lol-worthy concepts for cures for impotence. Life for women was exceptionally difficult, mostly due to the largely uncontrollable act of pregnancy, and the book shows just how damned awful it was for our predecessors to battle on creating a new generation.
Married life was all kinds of awful – as everyone knows the ‘rule of thumb,’ in that a man cannot beat his wife with anything thicker than his thumb. Though, in some ways, you read this and wonder how much life has altered for many women. This book digs through a realities of being a woman in the medieval period, where men are cast as sword-wielding heroes, women have been left standing in mud-floor huts. This shines a light on those women, who had the temperament of saints, strength tougher than any soldier, and bravery beyond that of a king. The world was a strange place for women; you could die of the plague, or you could survive an outbreak and clean up in the vacant jobs market.
This is no heavy book you will be reaching for when researching, it is a read on the lives of women in a world none of us would want to return to. There is plenty of information to be had in here, without feeling like you’re in a history lesson, a book for those who would like to read for pleasure, not study.
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HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Queen of the North’ by Anne O’Brien

1399: England’s crown is under threat. King Richard II holds onto his power by an ever-weakening thread, with exiled Henry of Lancaster back to reclaim his place on the throne.

For Elizabeth Mortimer, there is only one rightful King – her eight-year-old nephew, Edmund. Only he can guarantee her fortunes, and protect her family’s rule over the precious Northern lands bordering Scotland.

But many, including Elizabeth’s husband, do not want another child-King. Elizabeth must hide her true ambitions in Court, and go against her husband’s wishes to help build a rebel army.

To question her loyalty to the King places Elizabeth in the shadow of the axe.

To concede would curdle her Plantagenet blood.

This is one woman’s quest to turn history on its head.

cover and blurb via amazon

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It’s 1399 and King Edward III’s descendant Elizabeth Mortimer is married to Henry Hotspur Percy, heir of the Earl of Northumberland. Richard II is king, and deposed by Henry Bolingbroke under dubious circumstances. Richard II had no heirs, but he did have someone ready to replace him until Henry IV takes his crown. That is where Elizabeth comes in.

Elizabeth expected her nephew Edmund Mortimer to take the throne, also a descendant of Edward III, a boy born of royal Plantagenet blood.  Elizabeth’s family has just as good a claim to the throne as the new Lancaster king. Whenever there are multiple claims to a throne, blood is certain to follow.

Elizabeth is not a man who can go into battle for the Mortimer claimant. She is not a beautiful young princess to be traded by families and launched into power. Elizabeth is a smart noble woman, who knows her family has a valid claim, who has given her husband the children he needs, and, to history, should be left on the sidelines. But Elizabeth is not a woman who should be cast aside in the battles of men and the throne, for she has the knowledge, skill and education to make a difference in the Mortimer claim to the crown.

 

All sides the early battles had legitimate claims to the throne, and we have a viewpoint in Elizabeth which is valid yet undemanding, unlike the men who surround her. Real life Elizabeth is not a well-known figure of history, so the author has had to use historical detail of others, and weave Elizabeth into the story, which gives new life to an old tale. Percy takes the Lancaster’s side of the war and Elizabeth is rich in the blood of the Mortimers, and nobler than her husband.  But what can a wife do in such challenges? Elizabeth is the wife of Percy, who holds the north. Whether it is from London or the Scots, the Percys have plenty of battles to face and Elizabeth is the northerners queen.
No sooner than choices are made, Elizabeth and Percy find they should be on the side of the Mortimer. Politics, treason and ambition are going to explode, and I am desperately trying not to write spoilers, but all I can say is you really need to read this book! Everyone knows what happened to Hotspur Percy at the Battle of Shrewsbury, part of a plot to overthrow Henry IV, but Elizabeth and her family’s claim carries on.  The Bolingbrokes and the Mortimers are going to need to be friends if civil wars for the throne are to end, and greed is as powerful as blood. This book has historical accuracy combined with beautiful storytelling. I adored this novel.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The King’s Witch’ by Tracy Borman

As she helps to nurse the dying Queen Elizabeth, Frances Gorges longs for the fields and ancient woods of her parents’ Hampshire estate, where she has learned to use the flowers and herbs to become a much-loved healer.

Frances is happy to stay in her beloved countryside when the new King arrives from Scotland, bringing change, fear and suspicion. His court may be shockingly decadent, but James’s religion is Puritan, intolerant of all the old ways; he has already put to death many men for treason and women for witchcraft.

So when her ambitious uncle forcibly brings Frances to court, she is trapped in a claustrophobic world of intrigue and betrayal – and a ready target for the twisted scheming of Lord Cecil, the King’s first minister.
Surrounded by mortal dangers, Frances finds happiness only with the precocious young Princess Elizabeth, and Tom Wintour, the one courtier she can trust.

Or can she?

cover and blurb via amazon

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I am a very big Tracy Borman fan. I did not angle for a review copy, instead I went to a store and purchased her first novel myself. The new release stand was full on release day, here on the other side of the world, a rare occasion for the books I tend to review.

The King’s Witch opens with poor old Elizabeth I, in her dying moments. The book follows Frances Gorges, an expert in healing and herbs. King James is now on the throne, a dramatic change for England. Women healing and using herbs and their developed skills, rather than that of a male doctor, are seen as evil, as devil’s work. King James is terrified of witches and witchcraft, so to be a woman with knowledge makes young Frances right in the firing line against puritanical opinions and fears. Frances does have allies, Tom, a courtier, and the Princess Elizabeth. Whether she can trust her own friends is never truly clear to Frances.

This novel starts slowly, showing Frances’ life, indeed lives for ‘normal’ people in this awkward time period in England. What I did see early on was that there would be a twist coming, which keeps you turning the page. Frances grows as their reader gets to know her, from a scared girl into a woman who gets to see behind the lavish exteriors of a royal court for what really lies in individuals.

When reading Borman, you know you are getting historical accuracy with your fiction (I swear some people only read to point out inaccuracies in fiction; you lot will be disappointed with this). It is nice to hear from a new voice, rather than through the eyes of characters done so often before. Being cast as a witch was simple in the 17th century, all a woman had to do was piss off the closest man and she would be accused. So being a woman with knowledge naturally scares the pants off men. While the king is determined to cast out all remaining Catholics in England, religion remains ingrained in all decisions made.

Frances’ biggest issue is that her friend Tom is Tom Wintour, one of the men in the gunpowder plot with Guy Fawkes (shout-out to all of us born on November 5!). Tom is ready to blow up parliament and the attention to the how’s and why’s rather than simply the actions taken in 1603 is beautifully told. The gunpowder plot men are generally thought of as crazies, when they actually had quite an elaborate plan and motive. While we all know what happened to the gunpowder plot, seeing it through the eyes of someone close to these men makes it painful to read through, knowing the conclusion.

I really enjoyed reading this book; I went in with high expectations and was not disappointed. Love, torture, witchcraft, what a combination to write about and get to muse over, knowing that the early 1600’s really was one hell of a cauldron of superstition. Frances’ uncle, the Earl of Northampton, makes an appearance as a sometimes friend, sometimes overly creepy uncle everyone doesn’t want visiting, and don’t forget Lord Cecil, a grump at the best of times, aiding the king’s paranoia for gain but harming Frances’ safety even more.

Some are witches being killed, others are being tortured and executed for trying to change the monarchy. You know it’s all going to end in tears but you can’t stop reading anyway. Thank you to Tracy Borman for humanising those in an often misunderstood piece of history.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Heroines of the Medieval World’ by Sharon Bennett Connolly

These are the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. The lives and actions of medieval women were restricted by the men who ruled the homes, countries and world they lived in. It was men who fought wars, made laws and dictated religious doctrine. It was men who were taught to read, trained to rule and expected to fight. Today, it is easy to think that all women from this era were downtrodden, retiring and obedient housewives, whose sole purpose was to give birth to children (preferably boys) and serve their husbands. Heroines of the Medieval World looks at the lives of the women who broke the mould: those who defied social norms and made their own future, consequently changing lives, society and even the course of history.

Some of the women are famous, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was not only a duchess in her own right but also Queen Consort of France through her first marriage and Queen Consort of England through her second, in addition to being a crusader and a rebel. Then there are the more obscure but no less remarkable figures such as Nicholaa de la Haye, who defended Lincoln Castle in the name of King John, and Maud de Braose, who spoke out against the same king’s excesses and whose death (or murder) was the inspiration for a clause in Magna Carta.

Women had to walk a fine line in the Middle Ages, but many learned to survive – even flourish – in this male-dominated world. Some led armies, while others made their influence felt in more subtle ways, but all made a contribution to their era and should be remembered for daring to defy and lead in a world that demanded they obey and follow.

cover and blurb viz amazon

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I have spent a long time with my head in academic history books, so to read something that reads more like a story was a welcome relief. Heroines of the Medieval World is a book hard to get here in NZ, so when a copy generously floated my way, I grabbed it with both hands. The first thing I thought was – do we still use the word ‘heroine?’ Should it not just be ‘heroes?’ But then people may purchase and then get their egos crushed by finding out all the heroes are women. That only made me like this book more.

The book is great, separated into chapters about women from all over Europe. The book writes about the women of England and France, but also from Spain (yay!) and even as far east as Kiev. There are Warrior Heroines, Literary Heroines, Religious Heroines and Scandalous Heroines. You can read them in order, or however you like depending on your mood. I enjoyed how The Pawns weren’t simply bartering gifts, but smart women in their own right, and the Medieval Mistresses were more fleshed out (excuse the pun) than the simply fallen women ideal.

You won’t be confused between your Eleanors, your Matildas or your Isabels, and while you will read about well-known heroines, they are also great forgotten women given fresh air. The women are not viewed as heroines through 21st century eyes, rather they are simply celebrated for their strength in the time period while on their own crusades. They are heroines for all centuries. Putting together such a thorough assembly of women must have taken considerable time and energy, so treat yourself to the author’s hard work and gain further insight to the women that came before us. Heroines have far more skills and techniques than any hero.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Girolamo Savonarola: The Renaissance Preacher’ by Samantha Morris

Born on 21 September 1452, the very same year that Leonardo Da Vinci was born, Girolamo Savonarola: The Renaissance Preacher tells the story of a man who believed so wholeheartedly in God and the message that He was giving, that he gave his life for it.

The book is an introduction to the life and times of this infamous preacher, a man who was witness to the dramatic downfall of the Medici dynasty in fifteenth-century Florence, who instigated some of the most dramatic events in Florentine history and whose death is still commemorated today.

cover and blurb via amazon

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If you are new to Savonarola, here is a great place to begin. Savonarola was a Dominican friar and preacher up until 1498 when he was excommunicated and executed for throwing out prophesies and for calling for the end of corruption, the type of thing that gets you killed in Italy during this period. Yet he is constantly made out to be a crazy man, who preached as a friar, who was mad as a hatter, pretended to see the future and callously destroyed priceless art in the process. This time, Morris has created a different man, a portrayal given time and clarity.

Savonarola began life in 1452, and entered life as a friar in 1475. After studying and praying, he gained momentum in 1494, when he set off to preach in Florence, and bumped heads with the most powerful men around at that time. In four years, he would be burned in public for his work. How? By hitching his wagon to the current anti-Medici feelings in Florence at the time. Florence, a Republic then, was in the Medici grip, but only for the last 16 years, so they still had plenty of enemies to go around. Combined with the fact that the French king wanted to storm through Italy and there was the great Borgia Pope on the papal throne, Florence was a jittery mess and Savonarola was right in the middle.

Savonarola believed he could see the future, and began preaching that he was destined to save Florence and its people from sin. He also thought the French king Charles was placed on Earth by God to restore Italy to the ways of 2000 years earlier. Charles himself wanted the Kingdom of Naples, though places such as Florence and Rome stood in his way. But while Savonarola was crushing on the French, he was also busy hating the powerful Medicis, masters of Florence, the Borgia Pope and the strong Sforza family of Milan.

Foretelling the future and also preaching chastity, poverty, piety and repentance, Savonarola hit out against the friars of Florence who lived luxurious lives. He hated the art and beauty of Florence, the greatest to be found in Europe. He was a huge homophobe, so much so that maybe he was possibly over-compensating? (That’s my theory). Savonarola was desperate to make sodomy a crime. He also hated the Church in general for its lavish lifestyle, massive wealth and for its corruption, crimes, whores, nepotism, you name it. Savonarola seemed to think himself the great saviour of everyone.

Along with two others, Savonarola was arrested and tortured, and he caved very quickly, unlike nutters or those desperate to cling to martyrdom. He confessed to everything he had said and done against the Church and Pope. The sad thing is, Savonarola wasn’t some bigot crying in the streets while living it up in private; he seemed to believe what he said completely. It gives the man a little sympathy, as he was not looking for personal gain, just had a desire to change the world order, but it was all in his head.

Poor Savonarola was taken out as a defeated crazy man and set alight, his ashes scattered in the Arne river so they wouldn’t be relics. Savonarola was a victim of his own delusions, of his own pride and vanity, and he burned just like the books and artwork, clothes and wigs he had his faithful followers destroy.

I love Morris’ enthusiasm for Savonarola, a man largely overlooked, always written the same way. Anyone who loves the Medici like Morris is bound to be an authority on all the big players of Florence.