Category Archives: Medieval History

Book Review of Divided Houses by Jonathan Sumption

Divided Houses Jonathan SumptionThe Hundred Years War, Volume 3: Divided Houses (The Middle Ages Series) by Jonathan Sumption

  • Paperback ISBN:9780571240128
  • Published:01.03.2012
  • No of pages:700

Order from: Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk

Divided Houses is the third volume in Jonathan Sumption’s epic history of the Hundred Years War – the war that everyone knows didn’t really last a hundred years – more like 117. However, one could argue that with the various truces and peace efforts that’s not quite the case. Divided Houses at first glance looks like it might cover one of the less glamorous periods of the war – there’s no headline English victory to write about – no Crecy, Poitiers, or Agincourt. Despite this, or perhaps because of this lack of a landmark battle distracting from the rest of the narrative, what is recounted is completely compelling. The period from 1369 to 1399 was a period of conflict and strife not just between the main two participants – France and England, but also internally in both countries as well. This was the period of the decline of Edward III, the Peasant’s revolt, and the deposition of Richard II in England. While in France power politics amongst the King’s relatives and generals and a bout of madness that lasted most of Charles VI’s reign add to the intrigue.

The narrative is also compelling because it really shows how unrealistic the war with France was for England – they just couldn’t afford it. But even France, who at last got their taxation together and built up some massive armies and fleets to invade England, saw those plans crumble to dust in the face of political uncertainty and bad weather.

There are also the sideshows of the war in Spain and Portugal, where the feudal ambitions of John of Gaunt failed and the Portuguese won their landmark battle of nationhood – Aljubarrota. But for me one of the most interesting sections is on the situation in Gascony, where because of the war a state of chaos reigned. Knights and nobles indulged in what can only be described as gangster-like activities – forcing towns to pay them protection money – or patis – or suffer the consequences. Local counts and dukes used the very same robber barons to form armies to fight various causes – whether in the national wars between France and England, or to supposedly put an end to the problem of outlawry.

Sumption tells his story of these years with an admirable combination of narrative skill while never skimping on interesting detail and exhaustive research. Divided Houses is an essential history of one of the more overlooked periods of the Hundred Years War.

Some of my fiction related to the Hundred Years War

This is one of my favourite periods of history. In fact I have several stories written during the the 1370s. These are:

Stand and Fight

By the Sword’s Edge

Chivalry: A Jake Savage Adventure

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By The Sword’s Edge published – first part of serialized novel Stonehearted

By The Sword's Edge CoverI am currently writing a new novel set in the Hundred Years War called Stonehearted. As the novel is progressing quite well I thought it would be fun to release it in serial format every month or two. There should be four or five parts in total, each ranging from 15,000 to 20,000 words. I will then release the full novel once the last part has been finished.

By The Sword’s Edge is the first part and I have made it free for the moment to introduce new readers to the series. You can currently download it for free from Smashwords.

Here’s a bit more about the book:

By The Sword’s Edge is the first volume of Stonehearted, a serialized novel.

After a decade of peace England is again at war with France. But England’s warrior king, Edward III, is not the man he was. Ageing and turned to a life of pleasure, he will not lead an army into France again. And his eldest son, the famous Black Prince, suffers from a chronic illness while he tries to hold onto his principality of Aquitaine.

Many men in England have grown rich from war and some, like Sir Robert Knolles, have risen from the lowest ranks to lead great armies, and he will now lead a force into northern France to challenge the French to battle. But first he has a visit to make to a Norfolk manor to visit an old friend.

In By The Sword’s Edge two young people are thrust into the harsh realities of war. Richard Stone is a knight in training and son of a rich Norfolk merchant. Their neighbours are the d’Aubrays, who hold Sarbrook castle, but have sold or rent much of their land since falling into poverty. The lord of Sarbrook is missing in France, captured many years ago and not returned despite the payment of ransom. His daughter, Eolande d’Aubray is desperate for her father to return. Only he, it seems, can save her from the prospect of an unwanted marriage.

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Black Death pit unearthed by Crossrail project

 

BBC News - Black Death pit unearthed by Crossrail project

BBC News – Black Death pit unearthed by Crossrail project.

Excavations for London’s Crossrail project have unearthed bodies believed to date from the time of the Black Death.

A burial ground was known to be in an area outside the City of London, but its exact location remained a mystery.

Thirteen bodies have been found so far in the 5.5m-wide shaft at the edge of Charterhouse Square, alongside pottery dated to the mid-14th Century.

Analysis will shed light on the plague and the Londoners of the day.

Viking Diaspora and Issues of Identity: New Research Published

Viking sailors reached the White Sea to the ea...
Viking sailors reached the White Sea to the east and Greenland and North America to the west. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A new research paper, Diaspora and identity in the Viking Age, published in the Early Medieval Europe journal by Lesley Abrams looks into the terminology and evidence for a ‘diaspora’ amongst the Vikings in the early medieval period. There are a number of issues involved:

Is diaspora an appropriate term – is it friendlier than colonialism for instance, and is the use of it by historians intended to present the spread of the Vikings in a particular way.

Are all Scandinavian people Vikings? And if so, is Viking a good term, or should Norse be used?

What nature did the spread of the Vikings take? Was their a consistent approach and did the different communities maintain links with each other?

Lesley Abrams matches the characteristics of the spread of the Vikings against Robin Cohen’s Global Diasporas summarized as follows:

  1. dispersal from an original homeland to two or more foreign regions;
  2. expansion in search of work, in pursuit of trade, or to further colonial ambitions;
  3. a collective memory and myth about the homeland, real or imagined;
  4. an idealization of the homeland and a collective commitment to its thriving;
  5. a movement to return to or at least maintain a connection with the homeland;
  6. a strong ethnic group consciousness, maintained over time;
  7. a troubled relationship with the host society;
  8. a sense of empathy and co-responsibility with co-ethnic members in other countries;
  9. the possibility of an enriched creative life in the host country.

And she concludes that in the end the was a diaspora of sorts:

Broadly speaking, however, we might already be able to speculate that for a period the dispersed Scandinavian communities of the Viking Age acted like a diaspora, retaining, synthesizing, and expressing a sense of collective identity and constructing a common cultural discourse, while new circumstances generated innovations and developments which flowed back and forth between them. ‘Diaspora’, then, is arguably not just a buzzword, nor simply a fashionable synonym, but an exploratory concept that offers a new perspective on the Viking Age. Its adoption should give the overseas settlements a greater cultural profile and a more significant role as agents of change, both in their new environments and back home.

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Mongol Invasion Ship Discovered by Japanese Researchers

Kublai Khan, the Great Khan of the Mongol Empi...
Image via Wikipedia

In 1281 Kulbai Khan (he of the pleasure dome), tried to invade Japan and failed miserably, his fleet being destroyed by the divine wind (kamikaze). The attempted invasion by 100,000 Mongols and its defeat is a legend in Japanese history, so I’m sure the news of the discovery of a Mongol shipwreck from this era must have been big news in Japan.

More news over at the Time website, but in short:

The scientists from the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa say they’ve found a 12-meter-long section of a ship’s keel, which could have been as long as 20 meters. Though some 4,000 artifacts allegedly belonging to the smashed fleets have been recovered from the sea, this is the most complete archaeological find related to the invasions.

And some lines from Samuel Taylor Coleridge‘s fantastic poem, Kubla Khan:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea. (lines 1-5)

And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war! (lines 29-30)

Was Coleridge alluding to the war against Japan?

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New Medieval History Book: Elizabeth of York (Queenship and Power) by Arlene Naylor Okerlund

Elizabeth of York (Queenship and Power) by Arlene Naylor Okerlund

In my recent posts about the best and worst Medieval people I have been remiss in not mentioning any women. So to balance that out only slightly, here’s some information about an upcoming biography of a powerful Medieval lady: Elizabeth of York, mother of Henry VIII and grandmother of Elizabeth I.

Available from Amazon.com

Available from Amazon.co.uk

Information from Amazon:

Review

‘Arlene Okerlund’s lucid biography of Elizabeth of York draws on detailed research to provide a long overdue account of the tumultuous life of one of England’s best loved queens. It is a compelling tale of Renaissance culture and ritual, intrigue and tragedy.’ – J. L.Laynesmith, Author of The Last Medieval Queens

‘This work aims to rescue the queen from the perception that she was a merely marginal player in the establishment of the Tudor dynasty. Forced to negotiate complex family relationships while maintaining a loving relationship with her husband and king, Okerlund’s Elizabeth emerges as a figure central to the accomplishments of the first Tudor court, so much so that her early death produced a catastrophe from which Henry never recovered. Okerlund’s biography produces a lively narrative and a credible portrait of the queen’s character together with a meticulous reassessment of the available evidence.’ – Gordon Kipling, Professor of English, University of California, Los Angeles

‘This book is a welcome addition to the sparse literature about one of England’s more dynastically important queens. Illuminating and fascinating.’ –Renaissance Quarterly

Product Description

This book tells the story of the queen whose marriage to King Henry VII ended England’s Wars of the Roses and inaugurated the 118-year Tudor dynasty. Best known as the mother of Henry VIII and grandmother of Elizabeth I, this Queen Elizabeth contributed far beyond the act of giving birth to future monarchs. Her marriage to Henry VII unified the feuding houses of Lancaster and York, and her popularity with the people helped her husband survive rebellions that plagued his first decade of rule. Queen Elizabeth’s gracious manners and large family created a warm, convivial Court marked by a rather exceptional fondness between the royal couple. Her love for music, literature, and architecture also helped inspire England’s Renaissance.

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The Worst 5 People from the Middle Ages

henry v of england Painting is in "The Ro...
Image via Wikipedia

Who gives the Middle Ages a bad name? They were bad, but without them history wouldn’t have been so interesting. Again like my article on the Top 5 Medieval People, this list is completely arbitrary. The villains of the medieval age are in my opinion:

  1. Innocent IV – the implacable enemy of Frederick II. Innocent’s political ambitions tore Italy apart and prevented Frederick from fulfilling his (possibly enlightened) political ambitions.
  2. John of Gaunt – the younger brother of the Black Prince, and terrible as a military commander (although a stickler for the rules of chivalry and not bad in single combat), and venal and worse as a politician and stand-in for his dotard father Edward III.
  3. Bernard Gui – the famous Inquisitor and author of Practica Inquisitionis Heretice Pravitatis is an easy target as a hate figure – the archetypal oppressor and symbolic of what is always wrong with the Middle Ages – dogmatic, cruel repression. His reputation is cemented by being the baddie in Umberto Eco‘s The Name of the Rose.
  4. William the Conqueror – gave us an Anglo-Norman aristocracy, French speaking until the fourteenth century to rule over us. Would England have been less riven by class divide if the English hadn’t been subject to a French ruling class for so long?
  5. Henry V – a great tactician on the battlefield and a leader of men, but was his ambition to conquer France really a good idea? Consigned England to humiliating defeat at the hands of the French, and the disastrous Wars of the Roses.

A bit controversial maybe? I’d love to hear your comments.

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Weekly Medieval History Round Up

Some of the top stories and most interesting blog posts on Medieval History and Medieval Historical Fiction in the past week or so:

Medieval Bookworm reviews Bernard Cornwell’s Death of Kings

Medievalists.net discusses evidence for Scottish Medieval Football – although is this any real surprise? Football was around for a long time in the Middle Ages.

Medievalists.net also has news that the British Library launches new Medieval and Renaissance images app

About.com tells us about the Viking Ship Burial Discovered in Scotland

ABC News and many other news sites tell about how a father forced his daughter to take part in a medieval duel

Live Science has news of how Computers are helping to piece together Medieval scrolls found in a Cairo synagogue

Gamershell.com has news about an interesting MMO game set in the Middle Ages. Goldon Age is currently in Closed Beta

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Top 5 Medieval People

Richard I of England
Image via Wikipedia

Random post of the week – who are my top 5 people from the Middle Ages – real historical medieval people, not characters from any of my stories that is!

  1. Frederick II Hohenstaufen – not quite the Renaissance prince that earlier historians such as Kantowicz would like to think, but even so still quite amazing in what he tried to do – a cultured, yet autocratic prince, rather than a fanatic oaf of a king.
  2. Geoffrey Chaucer – he had the wit and charm to poke fun at all around him, but in quite a nice way – a bit like the Stephen Fry of the Fourteenth Century perhaps?
  3. Richard I the Lionheart – complete opposite of Frederick I at number the one above, but for bare faced oafish medieval kingly behaviour I think he has to be in my arbitrary list of Top 5 Medieval People. Hated England, hardly set foot in the place, but thanks to Hollywood’s portrayal of Robin Hood and Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe I grew up with him as the quintessential English Medieval King. Robin Hood wouldn’t be on my list, but he’s fictional anyway so can’t be!
  4. Dante Alighieri – the great Italian poet who gave us the Divine Comedy and the quintessential image of hell, while sniping at all and sundry, a bit nastier than Chaucer, and in my view not as great a poet, but still fascinating and able to conjure up great images.
  5. Owain Glyndŵr – rebel with a cause, but ultimately a doomed one. Not a man I knew a lot about until I read the Welsh Wars of Independence, but what a guy, what  crazy guy, deciding to go up against the might of Lancastrian England and nearly pulling it off too! The Welsh are getting a lot of good press recently for their passion and determination, and this chap certainly had that.

What do you think? Agree/disagree? Who would be in your top 5?

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