Let me say first that I am not a full-time academic – just someone who studied Medieval history a long time ago at University and who is now interested in an amateur way in the period. I give that caveat as this is the kind of book, I think, written for the academic reader in mind – i.e. an undergraduate or postgraduate student. Whereas my brief review here will be more from the point of view of a general reader. I read this book to give me some more background for my own writing – specifically my Stonehearted series.
The book covers the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries – ending its timeline in 1461 with the death of Charles VII. That in itself I found interesting as a general reader – does the Middle Ages for France end in 1461? Whereas in England we think of it ending in 1485 with the Battle of Bosworth? That distinction wasn’t explained in the book, but I guess it might be obvious to students of French history.
The structure of the book is a bit unusual – I thought as it was an academic work it would probably be more thematic – i.e. perhaps looking at different sections of society or different themes affecting the period – the rise of the bourgeoisie maybe? It did contain some of that – for instance looking at urban France and rural France, but also quite a bit of the book did also contain narrative history of the reigns of the French king. This was probably the part of the book that I found most interesting. There were some interesting insights for me in why John II was a bad king for instance – down to him not building up his noble allies in Normandy for instance. So that section was definitely very valuable. Other parts of the book were good – interesting to hear about trade networks or the lack of for instance, and also how Paris at this time wasn’t terribly significant – regional cities were quite important instead. So I would say if you are interested in the period and the Hundred Years War then this is worth a read – you get a good perspective from the French side of things.
However, what let it down for me was that academic dryness of the text – I struggled to get through it at times. I think part of this was the insistence on a specific thesis being put across – the idea of a split between East and West parts of France. The West (i.e. Normandy, Brittany, Aquitaine) being the rebellious part of the kingdom, whereas the East was the more loyal settled area. The tension of Burgundy looking to go its own way though making a big impact on the stability of the East. I though this theory was plausible and had its merits as a way of looking at the period, but sometimes I felt it got in the way too!
Late Medieval France by Graeme Small is available from most good bookshops I expect, as well as Amazon. If you want to support this blog go ahead and buy a copy from the Amazon links below.