Book Review: “France in the Sixteenth Century” by Frederic J. Baumgartner

france in the sixteenth century book cover

I’ve been reading a lot of French history since the first of the year. The selections included a general survey, a secret history of Paris, medieval Paris and the Norman Conquest among others. But I have to say, sixteenth century France really intrigues me the most for several reasons. The characters of this period are really compelling and they are contemporaries of Tudor England, another of my favorite eras.

The author made a concerted choice to cover the era from the calling of the Estates General in 1484 after the death of King Louis XI up until the meeting of the Estates General in 1614, the era of the Renaissance and Reformation. Themes for the chapters of the book include the fundamental components of the Estates General: the monarch, the clergy, the nobles and the commoners. The chapters on the monarch cover the personalities of the kings, the organization of the court, the collection and spending of revenues and a summary of political events during the monarch’s reign.

The chapters on the clergy cover the challenges created by the spread of Calvinism in France and the Catholic response. For the nobility, he examines the developments in the military and under the commoner chapters, he discusses economics in the cities and the countryside. There is extensive information about the judicial system in France. He also gives an overview of cultural and intellectual changes during the century. This book really covers a great deal of social history.

Baumgartner is a professor of history at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He states in the introduction that this book is intended for upper level undergraduate and graduate students and advanced scholars looking for detailed information about the era. While the book is intended for academics, I really found it to be a fun read. There were a few sections that were dry and uninteresting but for the most part it was completely absorbing. Information I enjoyed included how revenues were collected, how food was distributed, how the judicial system worked, the lives of the nobles and the clergy and the monarchs, and the rise of Calvinism in France. Perhaps the best section for me was a succinct description of the Wars of Religion. I always wondered why there were so many petty nobles in France. I learned from this book that people could buy their way into the nobility!

The sections on intellectual and cultural pursuits were fascinating too. Baumgartner convincingly includes a lot of information on women during this era which I find refreshing. There are photos, maps and genealogical tables in the book as well as a glossary of terms which I will definitely refer to again. This book really delivers on its topic and I highly recommend it.

Book Review: “The Norman Conquest” by Marc Morris

Norman Conquest Book Cover

I have several books written by Marc Morris on my “to read” shelf and hadn’t managed to read any of them until now. In my quest to read French history this summer I picked up this book. The subject is all the more interesting because it combines French history with English history and what could be better than that? Another reason I was interested is I’ve always wondered how William Duke of Normandy prepared for the conquest. What actually went into the planning of the expedition?

I have to start out by saying Morris’ writing style is really tremendous. His prose is fluid and easily understandable. He has closely studied all the conflicting sources and made comparisons to arrive at this own conclusions. This is historical detective work at its best.

The early chapters cover the period of Anglo-Saxon history before William arrives. Here we meet Aethelred the Unready, Queen of Emma of Normandy, King Cnut, Harthacnut and Harold Harefoot, Edward the Confessor, Queen Edith of Wessex and the powerful Earl Godwine and King Harold. These historical characters are so compelling I just can’t read enough about them. Morris sets up the scene here for the big battle.

My search for William’s preparation plans has been fulfilled. Morris goes into great detail on how William persuaded the Pope to back his mission, how he gathered an army of followers with promises of great rewards, his search for a naval flotilla to take the army to England and how he provisioned the troops. Morris also describes how King Harold kept vigil awaiting the invasion, then stood down only being forced to gather his army again to fight against an invasion by King Harald Hardrada of Norway and his own brother Tostig Godwineson. Three weeks later William invaded and King Harold was defeated at the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066.

Based on what little information there is on Hastings, Morris does an excellent job of describing the battle itself. The rest of the book recounts the reign of the Conqueror and how it affected England on a political and social level. Morris tells of the rebellions William had to suppress in England and in Normandy along with the dysfunctional dynamics of his own family. Morris is very fair in describing the good points and the bad points of William’s personality and style of medieval government and how devastating and transformative his conquest was on Anglo-Saxon England.

I really enjoyed the description of how William ordered the Domesday Survey in England, how writing it was accomplished and what the purpose of the survey entailed. This was new information for me and very informative. I cannot recommend this book enough. And now I must read more of Morris’ work!

Book Review: “Golden Age Ladies” by Sylvia Barbara Soberton

Golden Age ladies book cover

The subtitle of this book is “Women Who Shaped the Courts of Henry VIII and Francis I”. Since I’m interested in women and Tudor and French history, I had to read it! England and France have a significantly entwined history. The book doesn’t disappoint as it has a panoply of women, explaining how their stories are all interrelated.

All the important women of these two courts make an appearance. Soberton gives us a list of characters for France and England along with genealogical tables. Interestingly, she starts out with Louise of Savoy, mother of King Francis I who learned statecraft from the formidable Anne de Beaujeu. Now here is a woman who witnessed so much history. The devoted mother of King Francis and his sister Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, Louise virtually ran the government of France while her son whiled away his time pursuing pleasures such as the hunt, women and warfare. Louise’s shining moment came when the Ladies Peace of Cambrai was negotiated in 1529 between her and her sister-in-law Margaret of Savoy, Regent of the Netherlands. The two women single-handedly brokered peace between France and the Habsburg Empire and Louise secured the release of her grandsons who had been held hostage. A marriage between King Francis and the Holy Roman Emperor’s sister Eleanor was part of the Ladies Peace. Her sad story is also included here.

Along with Louise and her daughter, we meet Queen Anne of Brittany and Claude de Valois and her many daughters, some of whom died and some who became Queen’s themselves, such as Madeleine de Valois. Interwoven with the lives of these French women are those from the court of King Henry VIII of England. Henry’s sister Mary married King Louis XII of France. Although she was queen for a few months, she went on to make a love match with her brother’s best friend, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.

Soberton gives us a description of the grand summit of The Field of the Cloth of Gold where Queen Catherine of Aragon met Queen Claude. Of course Anne Boleyn plays a significant role in the book as she spent time with Margaret of Savoy at her court in Mechelen and also worked as a lady-in-waiting for Queen Claude. In fact, Soberton gives us an economical description of all of Henry’s wives.

Soberton gives us many descriptions and small glimpses of personal moments in these women’s lives. This is what I liked best about the book. She has obviously done her research. There are photographs and a nice select bibliography if you are interested in more information. I found this book fun to read and enjoyed all the interconnecting stories. I highly recommend it.

Book Review: “The Cambridge Illustrated History of France” by Colin Jones

illustrated history of France book cover

Based on the recommendation of a friend, I found a used copy of this book and ordered it. In my quest to read as much French history as possible before my trip to France, I had read “La Belle France”, another overall survey and wondered if this book would cover the same ground. I was pleased this author takes an entirely different course.

Jones writes more from a social history standpoint in this book. I very much enjoyed the chapters on France before the Romans and Roman Gaul. His chapters on the Franks and the Middle Ages cover a lot more ground than the other histories I’ve read so far. The later chapters covering the Revolution, Enlightenment, World Wars I and II and modern times have less detail but are still erudite and interesting. Occasionally Jones gets a little technical and wandering when discussing certain political situations. One thing I admire in his writing is his attention to the status of women in France throughout the ages.

I can’t say enough about the illustrations. This is what the Cambridge Illustrated Histories are known for. There are numerous maps illustrating different elements of France and its history. The maps clarify countless aspects such as where French dialects were spoken, delineating where Roman law and customary law were practiced, gene pools, agricultural and urban areas, different political boundaries, kingdoms and regions of France, where barbarian tribes invaded, etc.

There are photos of art and architecture, illuminated manuscripts, engravings, paintings, drawings and photographs of key points in French history, all with excellent, well written captions. In every chapter there are also insets with more details about select people and events. Some examples are on Blanche of Castile, the troubadours, the court of the Dukes of Burgundy and so on. All of these images really enhance the text. This is another well-written, informative history of France and I highly recommend it.

Book Review: “Paris: The Secret History” by Andrew Hussey

Paris the Secret History book cover

This title really intrigued me. Paris is a magnetic city just in its own right. To imagine there was a secret history was too tempting to pass up. In my ongoing effort to refresh my French history knowledge before my trip to France, I began reading.

Hussey mentions in the introduction his intention in writing this book is to emulate the work of Peter Ackroyd’s “London: A Biography”. Ackroyd’s book is splendid so this was a good sign. The first chapter covers Prehistory to the year 987 AD. I found this section most interesting. Paris was started basically on the small, swampy islands in the Seine. He talks about how the city, then known as Lutetia, was inhabited by the Franks and the Romans. The Romans built a wall around the city and it became a trading center. Next, in this chapter and in every one after, Hussey gives small tidbits of history that might not be as well known by the average reader, the so-called secrets of the city. One of the highlights in this first chapter is the death by beheading of St. Denis on Montmartre, making the name of the hill self-explanatory.

In the medieval section, Hussey give us a colorful array of characters, talking about the ordinary people. Sections include, lovers and scholars, students and streetfighters, poets, saints and thieves. In fact, the entire book is filled with details about average everyday people down to the present day. The history of Paris is filled with robbers, gypsies, drunkards, beggars as well as the nobility, merchants and the bourgeoisie. There’s a lot of information on artists, writers, poets and students and how they shaped the politics of the city over the millennia. If social history is your cup of tea, you will enjoy this aspect of the book.

Hussey obviously knows and loves the city well. He gives us details about many of the neighborhoods, even down to who and what kind of people lived on certain streets. The book has many drawings, maps and photos showing us the boundaries of the city over the years. One of the first things that struck me as I began reading this book is that it is really well written. Everything he writes is very clear with no grammatical or typographical errors. It was just a joy to read. If you are interested in French history and Paris in particular, I can heartily recommend this book.

Book Review: “Jane the Quene” by Janet Wertman

Jane the Queen book cover

There are many readers who enjoy historical fiction from the Tudor era. I used to be one of them and have many fond memories of reading the delightful books of Jean Plaidy and Norah Lofts. Due to the constraints of historical research, I haven’t read any fiction for years. But I thought I would make an exception for my friend Janet Wertman and read the first book of her Seymour Saga.

What a delight this book is! Wertman’s premise is that Jane Seymour was the plain sister in the family and all she really wanted was to get married. The story opens with Jane working as a lady-in-waiting for Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII and the Queen are about to go on summer progress. Jane is sent to the family home of Wulfhall to oversee the preparations for the King’s visit. While Henry VIII is there, he and Jane have a moment in the garden and that’s where Jane’s romance begins.

Jane’s prospects improve from that moment on. Wertman includes all the iconic moments in Jane’s life. There’s the day Anne Boleyn caught Henry with Jane in his lap and the famous scene where Henry tries to give Jane a bag of coins and a letter. Jane refuses the gifts with great aplomb. I love Wertman’s dialogue throughout the book. All the famous characters from the Tudor court are here: Jane’s brothers Edward and Tom, her sister-in-law Anne Seymour, her sister Elizabeth, Thomas Cromwell, Ralph Sadler, the notorious Anne Boleyn and of course, Henry VIII in all his royal splendor.

The scenes of the birth of Jane’s son Edward and her death as written are very vivid and moving. There’s a lot of insight into what Jane, Edward Seymour, King Henry and Thomas Cromwell are thinking, their behavior and their motivations. This book took me back to those Jean Plaidy days. I think any reader would enjoy the book and highly recommend it. I’ll be looking forward to the rest of the Seymour Saga from Janet.

Book Review: “Paris, 1200” by John W. Baldwin

Paris 1200 book cover

I love French medieval history so this book looked like it was right up my alley. John W. Baldwin is Charles Homer Haskins Professor Emeritus of History at Johns Hopkins University and has written many books on French history. This particular book was originally published in French in 2006. It was so popular, Stanford University Press decided to publish it in English in 2010.

Using sources only for the years 1190 to 1210 gives Baldwin a laser like focus on this seminal year. Construction of Notre Dame and the great wall of King Philip Augustus was underway. Pope Innocent III put the royal domains under interdict in January because the king had tried to put aside his lawful wife, Ingeborg of Denmark. This uncomfortable state of affairs for the ordinary people lasted for nine months. The churches were closed, no weddings or burials were performed, no mass was celebrated and no confession was allowed. King Philip made an important treaty with King John of England and the students of Paris threatened to go on general strike to protest infringements of their rights.

Baldwin gives us an interesting perspective on certain personalities of this time period such as the bourgeoisie who played a role in the king’s government, the working poor, the prostitutes, the king, Pierre the Chanter who directed the choir of Notre Dame and other women of the city. He tells us how the city was provisioned, who the merchants were, the use of currency and credit, and how trade was imperative to the economy of the city and France. There is an important chapter on the government of Philip Augustus. Before he went on Crusade, he set up a bureaucracy to rule in his absence and to collect taxes which was very successful.

Other sections of the book deal with the church, clergy and religious life and on the operation of the schools in the city. The details Baldwin gives on the schools is fascinating. He has gleaned from the documents who the teachers were, the subject matter they taught and what books they used. He even tells us who the students were, how they lived and especially how they got into a lot of trouble.

A final chapter deals with everyday life of the people of Paris. Baldwin gives details about the festivals people celebrated, how they worshiped at Christmas, the tournaments of the aristocracy, the joys of marriage, entertainment such as jongleurs and music, how the people spoke and swore and the art of love. All of this is very intriguing and really gives a feel for how people lived in the era.

There are some great photos in the book. Included are miniatures from illuminated manuscripts depicting everyday life and how the clergy lived and worshiped. There are photos of Notre Dame and a diagram of its choir. There is a map of Paris from 1200 and other maps and tables. I really enjoyed this book and learned a lot. I highly recommend it.