The Light Ages by Seb Falk

The Dark Ages is a term still used – although maybe not as often as it used to be – for the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, bringing to mind images of people living in an intellectual darkness, a time when little scientific progress and cultural advancement took place. In The Light Ages, historian Seb Falk dispels this idea by showing how this period was actually a time of discovery, invention and learning, and that the word medieval ‘rather than a synonym for backwardness should stand for a rounded university education, for careful and critical reading of all kinds of texts, for openness to ideas from all over the world, for a healthy respect for the mysterious and unknown.’

Instead of concentrating on the work of famous historical figures, Falk has chosen to focus on a man whose name is probably unfamiliar to most of us: Brother John of Westwyk, a monk who lived in the late fourteenth century. Although there’s a lot we still don’t know about John, Falk takes us through the known facts and uses his general knowledge of the period to flesh things out, describing what John’s life may have been like at St Albans Abbey where he was ordained and outlining the type of education he would have received at Oxford University. Later, John continued his mathematical and astronomical studies at Tynemouth Priory and then went on crusade with Henry le Despenser in 1383 before returning to London where he produced his biggest scientific accomplishment:

He had made an equatorium – an equation-solver, a computer – and he was calibrating it to give the precise positions of the planets.

I won’t pretend that I understood the descriptions of John Westwyk’s famous Equatorie of the Planetis (once believed to have been the work of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer) – like a lot of the information in this book, it went completely over my head. However, before we get to the discussion of the Equatorie, Falk explores several of the other scientific, mathematical and astronomical advancements and discoveries that made such an invention possible. The topics covered include the Babylonian base-60 system of numbering, the development of early clocks, mapping and the magnetic compass, and the functions of the device known as the astrolabe. Some of it is fascinating (did you know how to count to 9,999 on your fingers?), but there are also a lot of geometric diagrams, equations and calculations that will probably be of much more interest to people with a background in physics and mathematics than to the general reader.

A line runs from the Middle Ages to modern science. It is not an unbroken line, of course, and certainly not straight. But if you struggled with any of the trigonometry in earlier chapters, you will admit that medieval people – who carried out such painstaking calculations without the help of any electronics – were not stupid.

Although the book often became too technical for me, I did enjoy all the insights we are given into medieval life. I loved the image of John trying to work on his astronomical tables in his room in St Albans while pigs roam the streets outside:

According to local tradition, pigs too small to sell were donated to the hospital. As they trotted through the streets, Londoners fed them up from runts to valuable livestock, in small but frequent gestures of civic charity. The hospital marked its porcine property with bells to prevent their confiscation and deter theft. For John Westwyk, though, the grunting and clanging from the street cannot have aided his attempts to comprehend Ptolemaic planetary theory.

The Light Ages has clearly been thoroughly researched, drawing on medieval documents and texts ranging from Pierre le Pèlerin’s Letter on the Magnet to Bernard of Gordon’s Lily of Medicine and making occasional diversions to other parts of the world to discuss the impact of the Crusades or to highlight the work of the Persian polymath, Tusi, to give a few examples. For readers who want to explore further, there’s a large selection of primary and secondary sources provided at the end of the book. This wasn’t the ideal book for me as I would have preferred something slightly less academic, but for the right reader I’m sure it would be a wonderful read!

Thanks to Penguin Press UK – Allen Lane for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor

She-Wolves As the title suggests, this is a book about four medieval women who ruled – or attempted to rule – England in the centuries before Elizabeth I.

* Matilda, daughter and heir of King Henry I, was known as ‘Lady of the English’. She was never actually crowned Queen of England but fought her cousin, Stephen of Blois, for the throne in a period of civil war described as The Anarchy.

* Eleanor of Aquitaine was married to two kings – first Louis VII of France and then Matilda’s son, Henry II of England. Two of her sons – Richard I (the Lionheart) and John – also became King, and Eleanor effectively ruled England as regent while Richard was away fighting in the crusades.

* Isabella, the daughter of King Philip IV of France, came to England as Edward II’s young queen but found that her husband was so obsessed with his favourites (Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser) that he was prepared to put them before not only his wife but also his kingdom. Isabella eventually staged a rebellion with her lover Roger Mortimer and deposed Edward in order to put her young son, the future Edward III, on the throne.

* Margaret of Anjou was Henry VI’s queen consort and played a major part in the Wars of the Roses. With Henry unable to provide the strong leadership the country needed and possibly suffering from an unspecified mental illness, it fell to Margaret to rule in his place and to lead the Lancastrian faction against their Yorkist rivals.

In She-Wolves (the title refers to a term which has been used to describe both Isabella of France and Margaret of Anjou) Helen Castor looks at the lives of each of these queens in turn, before examining their role in history and how they possibly opened the way for Mary I and Elizabeth I to reign in their own right. Unlike Mary and Elizabeth, the four women covered in this book never ruled as sole monarchs but found themselves in a position of power as the daughters, wives or mothers of kings who, for one reason or another, were unable to rule themselves. Henry I died without a male heir and his nephew Stephen was never fully accepted by the English nobility; Richard I spent much of his reign abroad; Edward II lost the support of his barons due to his choice of favourites; and Henry VI was simply incapable of being an effective ruler. In each case, a woman stepped in to fill the gap.

She-Wolves takes us on a fascinating journey through medieval history, but I have to confess that I didn’t read this book in the way it was intended to be read. As I had just finished reading Isabella by Colin Falconer, the queen I was most interested in was Isabella of France, so I read her section of the book first before turning back to the beginning to read the rest. This wasn’t a problem for me as I’m familiar with all four periods of history, but I would still recommend reading the book in order (unless you’re desperate to read about one particular woman, as I was). The final section of the book, which describes the reigns of Mary and Elizabeth, ties everything together and looks at how times had changed enough by the Tudor period for a woman to finally rule alone.

I thought She-Wolves was slightly dry in places but I did find the book well written, interesting and easy to read. Each section starts with a map showing the relevant areas of Britain and Europe and a family tree to help clarify the complex relationships between characters. As this is a work of non-fiction, however, I was surprised by the lack of notes and references – although there is a list of suggestions for further reading at the back of the book and some sources are named directly in the text. These sources include anonymous chronicles such as Vita Edwardi Secundi (Life of Edward II) and the Gesta Stephani (Deeds of King Stephen) and as Helen Castor points out, medieval chroniclers struggled with the idea of women wielding power and tended to focus on the men, which is why we have so little information on the women’s own experiences and actions.

Approaching the end of the book, I was ready to praise Helen Castor for avoiding bias and speculation…until I came across the statement that the Princes in the Tower were ‘murdered by Edward’s youngest brother and most trusted lieutenant, Richard of Gloucester’, stated as fact. It could be true, of course, but I would have preferred an acknowledgment that it might not be and this made me wonder whether the earlier sections of the book had been as unbiased as I’d thought or whether I just didn’t notice as I have less knowledge of those other periods of history.

I don’t think I’m ever going to decide that I prefer non-fiction to fiction, but I did enjoy reading this book and have learned a lot about Matilda, Eleanor, Isabella and Margaret. Can anyone recommend any other good biographies of any or all of these women?

Lady of the English by Elizabeth Chadwick

Lady of the English Despite my love of historical fiction and interest in medieval history, I only discovered that I liked Elizabeth Chadwick’s books relatively recently. I had previously tried one of her books and couldn’t get into it, so had dismissed her as not for me, but decided to give her another chance a couple of years ago and am glad I did as I’ve loved everything I’ve read by her since then. When it comes to the medieval period, she and Sharon Penman are two of the best authors I’ve found.

Lady of the English is the story of two women: Empress Matilda, the daughter and heir of King Henry I, and her stepmother, Queen Adeliza of Louvain. In 1125, following the death of her husband, the German Emperor, Matilda returns to England where she sees her father again after an absence of many years and meets his second wife, Adeliza, for the first time. Adeliza is about the same age as Matilda and the two soon become close friends despite their very different characters – Matilda is a strong, proud woman while Adeliza has a warmer, gentler personality.

Then Matilda’s father arranges for her to marry Geoffrey, Count of Anjou and she has to leave England behind again. It’s not a happy marriage – with Matilda being more than ten years older than the fourteen year old Geoffrey, they have little in common and Geoffrey is resentful and violent – but they do have three sons together. When Henry I dies with no other heirs (his only legitimate son had died in the sinking of the White Ship in 1120), his nephew Stephen of Blois claims the throne, ignoring the fact that before his death the King had made his barons swear to support Matilda as their queen. With Matilda and Geoffrey vowing to win back both England and Normandy for their eldest son, the future Henry II, civil war breaks out – and for Adeliza, whose second husband William d’Albini, 1st Earl of Arundel, is a loyal supporter of Stephen’s, life is about to become very complicated.

Lady of the English is possibly my favourite Elizabeth Chadwick novel so far. I was already familiar with some of the basic facts surrounding Matilda, Stephen and this period of history, but most of the story was new to me. Chadwick includes enough information on politics and battles to give you a good understanding of what’s going on, but the focus is always on the characters and the complex relationships between them. I’ve never read about Adeliza before and I thought it was a good idea to tell part of the story from her perspective as well as from Matilda’s, particularly as the two women were so different.

I really liked Adeliza and could sympathise with her position, torn between love for her second husband and loyalty to her stepdaughter, who she believes to be the rightful ruler of England. Chadwick also does a good job of showing how Adeliza becomes frustrated and heartbroken at her inability to have children with the King and her failure to fulfil what she sees as her duty to provide him with a male heir. I imagine there probably isn’t as much factual information available on Adeliza’s life as there is on Matilda’s, so I think Chadwick has done well to fill in the gaps and create such a believable, well-developed character. Matilda was not as easy to like, though I think that was probably the point, and despite her sharp tongue and often hard exterior, there was something about Matilda’s personality that inspired loyalty and made powerful men (not only her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester but also men such as Brian Fitzcount of Wallingford) decide to support her claim rather than Stephen’s.

I loved this book and enjoyed getting to know both of these fascinating ‘ladies of the English’! This is only the fourth Elizabeth Chadwick book I’ve read and I’m pleased I still have lots of her older books to explore as well as looking forward to her forthcoming trilogy on Eleanor of Aquitaine.

To Defy a King by Elizabeth Chadwick

Why are some reviews so much easier to write than others? This one has been sitting half-finished in my drafts folder since the end of July, waiting for inspiration which has never really arrived. This is no reflection on the quality of the book, which I enjoyed as much as all the other Elizabeth Chadwick books I’ve read, but for some reason I’ve had trouble thinking of what I want to say about it.

Anyway, To Defy a King is the story of Mahelt Marshal, the daughter of William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and hero of two of Chadwick’s previous novels, The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion. At the age of fourteen Mahelt is married to Hugh Bigod, the son of the Earl of Norfolk, and goes to live with her new family at Framlingham Castle. The Bigods have connections with King John through Hugh’s half-brother, William Longespée, who is also a half-brother of the King. As King John’s relationship with his noblemen slowly worsens and the country descends into war and political turmoil, the Bigod and Marshal families find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict. Mahelt must try to decide where her allegiances lie – with the family she was born into or with the Bigods and the husband she loves?

A few weeks before reading this book, I had read Here Be Dragons by Sharon Penman which covers much of the same period and this was useful as it meant I already had an understanding of some of the history. But where Here Be Dragons gives us a more balanced view of King John, seen through the eyes of his daughter Joanna as well as from the perspective of his many enemies, with this book we are given a very negative portrayal of the King. Anyone who tries to defy him, as Mahelt Marshal does, could be putting themselves and their family in serious danger.

Mahelt is a strong and independent person, who sometimes refuses to behave in the way a woman might be expected to behave during this period, yet she doesn’t feel too ‘modern’ or out of place in her medieval setting. Longespée is another great character and one of my favourites. He is in a difficult position, torn between his loyalty to the King and his relationship with his Bigod family. His rivalry with his half-brother Hugh leads him to do some cruel and insensitive things, but by the end of the book we see that he is not completely beyond redemption and I was happy with the way his character developed.

Although this book is set after The Greatest Knight (which I read last year and can recommend) I don’t think it’s necessary to have read that one first. I haven’t read the sequel to The Greatest Knight, The Scarlet Lion, yet but didn’t feel I had missed anything that was essential to my understanding of this book. There are also two other books I haven’t read, The Time of Singing, which tells the story of Roger Bigod, Hugh’s father, and A Place Beyond Courage, the story of William Marshal’s father, John. While reading the previous novels would help you become more familiar with the backgrounds of some of the characters, To Defy a King is easy enough to follow as a stand-alone novel and is one of my favourite Elizabeth Chadwick books so far.

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott is one of those authors who I’ve always felt intimidated by, for some reason assuming I would find him difficult to read. And yet, I had a feeling I would probably enjoy his books if I could just get around to actually reading them. I had no idea which book would be the best to start with, but as Ivanhoe is probably his best known novel I decided to try that one first.

Ivanhoe is set in England towards the end of the 12th century, during the reign of Richard the Lionheart, who has been away fighting in the crusades, leaving behind his brother Prince John plotting and scheming in his absence. The title character, Wilfred of Ivanhoe, banished and disinherited by his father, has just returned to England and on his return he becomes swept up in a series of adventures involving feuding Saxon and Norman noblemen, a beautiful Jewish girl, Robin Hood and a mysterious Black Knight.

Anyone with an interest in the medieval period and tales of chivalry will find that Ivanhoe has everything you would expect to see in this type of novel: jousting, sword-fighting, archery, tournaments, castles under siege, damsels in distress, bands of outlaws in the woods, and knights in shining armour. I loved it! I discovered that although Walter Scott’s writing is very descriptive and long-winded (lots of detailed descriptions of clothing and weapons etc) I didn’t have any problems understanding what was happening. The dialogue is written in an archaic style but it’s still readable and it all adds to the medieval atmosphere of the story.

I have no idea how much of the historical background is accurate but what does come across strongly is the resentment between the Saxons and the conquering Normans, as well as the tensions between Christians and Jews. Scott introduces us to characters from all four of these groups, which sets the scene for most of the conflict in the novel (the Saxons, for example, are represented by characters such as Cedric, Ivanhoe’s father, who still views the Normans as invaders more than a century after the Battle of Hastings and the Norman conquest). The attitudes of many of the characters towards the Jews are very negative, but I got the impression that this didn’t reflect Walter Scott’s own opinions. I thought he portrayed the Jewish characters themselves in quite a sympathetic way, which was good to see considering the time period in which this book was written. Rebecca, the daughter of Isaac the Jewish moneylender, was one of the strongest characters in the novel and much more interesting than the other heroine, Rowena.

I thought Ivanhoe himself was a bit of a disappointment. When he made his first appearance as the Disinherited Knight I thought he was going to be a great character, but he quickly seemed to fade into the background and was overshadowed by some of the other, more memorable characters – including the Black Knight, Wamba the Jester, Gurth the Swineherd, and the three villainous Norman knights, Front-de-Boeuf, de Bracy and Brian de Bois-Guilbert. I had never realised there was any connection between Robin Hood and Ivanhoe, but he appears in the novel under the name Locksley, and we also meet a friar living in a hermitage in the forest (Friar Tuck). Apparently Ivanhoe inspired the image of Robin Hood we have today and brought into popular use a lot of the elements of the Robin Hood legend.

So, now that I’ve read Ivanhoe and enjoyed it, which Sir Walter Scott book should I try next? Any recommendations are welcome!