If you are a lover of medieval history, you will really enjoy this book. This is storytelling at it’s best. Based on real events and the last medieval judicial duel to the death in France, the author gives deeply detailed insight into the personalities involved as well as information on the clothing, the armor, the horses, the castles and the lifestyle of ordinary medieval nobility and on the administration of law in medieval France. And if you have seen the movie, this will fill in some of the blanks from the screenplay. I can recommend both the book and the movie.
Category Archives: Medieval History Books
Reviews of Medieval History Books
Book Review: “The Waning of the Middle Ages” by Johan Huizinga
Personal note: This book was on my shelf of my father’s extensive book collection and I remember being intrigued by it as a young child. Perhaps it was just the cover which probably had some Flemish piece of art on it. Or maybe my interest in the Middle Ages began at an early age. Whatever the case, I purchased a copy of it a while ago and recently read it.
In doing research in the reigns of the Valois Dukes of Burgundy, this book always pops up as a reference. I had the impression the subject of the book was the Middle Ages in general but upon learning Huizinga wrote about Burgundy and France, it seemed like it was time to dive in. Huizinga states he set out to write about medieval art as the Middle Ages were transitioning into the Renaissance. But he discovered, in order to explain the art, he had to delve into the medieval mindset.
To my surprise, Huizinga gives a complete description of how medieval people viewed the world. The first chapter alone, titled “The Violent Tenor of Life” is full of erudite gems, acknowledging the contrasts between suffering and joy, adversity and happiness, in which every event and action is embodied in expressive and solemn forms to the dignity of ritual. Calamities and indigence were difficult to guard against. All things in life were proud and cruel at the same time and presented themselves to the mind in violent contrasts and impressive forms.
Huizinga talks of the uninterrupted spectacles of executions, the luxurious entries of princes, the jousting tournaments, the religious and spiritual processions, sermons of itinerant preachers, religious reverence and pomp and grandeur and the emotions and tears of public mourning. He discusses chivalry and courtly love, the poetry of the troubadours and writers, as well as the prose and the lives of the religious in monasteries and convents. The lords of the era lived a life of honor, revenge, pride and asceticism. The fashion of the times mirrored these values, with the long-pointed toes of shoes, sumptuous fabrics and furs and the high hennins and the shaved foreheads and temples of the women.
Religious thought is crystalized into images. The art of the era followed fixed principles, mostly religious and classical themes with a strict hierarchy. The only way an artist could put his personal touch to a painting was by adding specific and minute details in the background. The sculptors followed these same principles although they had less leeway in expressing themselves than the painters.
One chapter in particular I found fascinating: “The Vision of Death”. The words and sermons of preachers morphed into expressing themselves into the popular woodcut. An excellent of example would be Hans Holbein the Younger’s “Dance of Death” series of woodcuts from the early 1520’s. There were poems and treatises on expressing the violence of death, the putrefying corpse and details of decomposition. These were turned into paintings and sculptures, immortalized in memento mori and seen in cadaver monuments and images of the macabre dance.
Huizinga’s language and expression are exquisite. He distills the writings and art of the age into portraying the medieval mindset as the Middle Ages came to a close. Admittedly, if I had read this book ten years ago, it might not have made sense. But after studying medieval times for many years now, it all comes together in describing what I have learned. His words explain the hysterics of Margery Kempe in her autobiography. It clarifies why the people of England during the reign of King Henry VIII didn’t conceive of him as a monster. This book is a classic and should be read by anyone who aspires to learn about the Middle Ages.
Book Review: “Isabella of Castile: Europe’s First Great Queen” by Giles Tremlett
The Freelance History Writer has previously reviewed two other biographies of Isabella of Castile: Here and Here.
I’ve had this volume on my shelf for some time and having recently decided to do some research on Isabella, finally read it. Tremlett’s opening page has two quotes about this formidable queen. ‘No woman in history has exceeded her achievement’ from Hugh Thomas, “Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire” and ‘Probably the most important person in our history’ from Manuel Fernández Á lvarez, “Isabel la Católica”.
From the first page of this book, I was hooked. Tremlett gives us a well-organized and well-thought-out, chronological, presentation of Isabella’s life, from the reign of her father to her death. Isabella’s gutsy seizure of the throne after the death of her half-brother King Enrique IV had me on the edge of my seat. She quickly neutralized Enrique’s daughter Juana la Beltraneja to take power. It’s impossible to know if Juana was illegitimate or Enrique’s actual daughter but Tremlett makes a convincing case that she was legitimate.
Isabella’s first great political move was to marry Ferdinand of Aragon and unite their two kingdoms, even though they were ruled separately. The politics of the unification of Spain are complicated but Tremlett explains it well, telling us the good, the bad and the ugly about the rule of these two monarchs who formed an exceedingly effective partnership. He explains how Isabella ruled in a manner where she was loved and feared all at once, and does this without any judgements. There’s good information on her upbringing, her struggle to come to power, her ability to reclaim the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors and her treatment of the Muslims and Jews, as well as the decision by both Ferdinand and Isabella to begin the Spanish Inquisition.
The author has a good section regarding the voyages of Christopher Columbus and other explorers promoted and sponsored by the Queen. He gives us the lives of the children of Ferdinand and Isabella. We can really get a glimpse of what her personality was really like and the dynamic of the entire family. Reading about her death and her spiritual and mental struggles is very touching. She died knowing the reign of her daughter Juana would not be successful. Tremlett manages to humanize Isabella.
While I can highly recommend all three of these biographies, Tremlett’s volume is not quite as academic in tone as Peggy Liss’ book and is somewhat more detailed than Downey’s. All three will give the reader a well-rounded view of Isabella of Castile, Europe’s first great Queen. I’m looking forward to reading Tremlett’s book about Isabella’s daughter, Catherine of Aragon.
Book Review: “The Brothers York: An English Tragedy” by Thomas Penn
Thomas Penn’s “The Brothers York: An English Tragedy” is chock full of revelations. His book on King Henry VII “The Winter King”details Henry’s creative accounting and this book does the same with King Edward IV. Penn breaks down the inventive financing Edward IV engaged in to raise funds for the government and for himself. Much of the money garnered by these methods went straight to the king’s chamber rather than the Exchequer. The raising of bonds from nobles in exchange for good behavior was started during Edward’s reign and Henry VII just continued the practice.
Penn explains over and over again how Edward IV manipulated the inheritance laws to confiscate property from the nobility and in turn, give it to his brothers and most loyal followers. This practice obviously did not endear Edward IV to the nobility. These transactions caused resentment and anger toward the king, perhaps more so than his favoritism of the Woodville family. And Penn, rightfully so, emphasizes that any gains made by the Woodville family only occurred at Edward’s pleasure.
The manipulation of the inheritance laws greatly concerned King Edward’s brother George, Duke of Clarence. Before Edward married Elizabeth Woodville and had children, George was the king’s heir. This went to his head, giving him a sense of entitlement. George was aggrieved and angry with Edward for giving and taking away property and for the loss of his position as heir to the throne. Foolishly, George rebelled against Edward, and we all know how this ended.
But to me, there is one startling revelation. Penn really only hints at this and never comes right out and says it point blank. Richard III was an alcoholic. He mentions Richard was seriously drinking large quantities of wine after he became king. This was so intriguing to me. In his footnotes, he cites an article in an academic journal titled: “Multi-isotope analysis demonstrates significant lifestyle changes in King Richard III” written by four researchers from the British Geological Survey and from the University of Leicester.
They examined the bones of Richard III and concluded he was eating a diet of rich food and significantly increased his wine consumption during his years as king. The scientific evidence suggests Richard was under great stress and drinking heavily. In his case, it was easy to become king but not so easy to execute royal duties and remain king. This goes a long way in explaining some of Richard’s behavior and decisions.
All the little intricacies and relationships between the three brothers and the courtiers and nobles of the court are examined intensely by Penn with extraordinary perception and discernment. To me, studying the Wars of the Roses always made me uncomfortable because none of it made complete sense. Penn’s insight into the character and machinations of Edward IV, George, Duke of Clarence and Richard III has really gone a long way toward explaining this decades long conflict. It all becomes crystal clear and is pretty fascinating. This is one of the best books I’ve read in the last ten years. I highly recommend it.
Book Review: “Imprudent King: A New Life of Philip II” by Geoffrey Parker
While doing research on Queen Mary I of England, I happened to find this book about her husband King Philip II of Spain. It was published by the Yale University Press in 2014 and Geoffrey Parker is a known authority on the reign of this king. Parker states he began research and the writing of a biography of Philip in the 1960’s. He states in the introduction that his first effort is 1600 pages long and trusted editors worked on that volume to produce this shortened version of the book.
Parker gained access to some papers of Philip’s reign in 2012. These documents were part of a huge collection which were stored in a vault in the Hispanic Society of America in New York City. They remained unseen from the time Philip’s secretaries had filed them away until 2012 when they were identified and catalogued. This allowed Parker to update his biography even further with this new found information.
King Philip did not allow anyone to write about his life while he lived so there are no contemporary books about him. Parker states in his introduction that his intention was to tell Philip’s life story using only Philip’s words. Philip was known as “the paper king” and left mountains of paperwork either written in his own hand or with annotations on other people’s documents. Parker succeeds in his mission to do this. It is really fascinating to read these words, giving great insight into the mind of this man who ruled an empire upon which the sun never set.
I’ve never read a biography that goes into such great detail. While some might find the minutiae irritating or boring, I found it interesting. A couple of things that struck me were how Philip ate lunch every day and would mention “come see me after lunch” or “we will work on this during lunch”. Among other things, Philip began work on one of the greatest Renaissance royal residences: El Escorial. After hearing about the building of this massive project, I would really like to visit.
Another chapter discusses genetics and the intermarriage of the Hapsburgs and how this affected their health, especially Philip’s son Don Carlos. There is a graph showing Don Carlos’ family tree. Parker explains he was the great-grandson of Juana of Castile through both is father and his mother, giving him a double dose of mental instability. And, instead of having eight great-grandparents, he only had four. No wonder his physical and mental health were unstable.
The author gives his theory on the murder of Juan Escobedo, one of Philip’s principal secretaries. He believes Philip was culpable for this murder and goes to great lengths in explaining why. It’s almost like a detective story. Parker is very good at telling it like it is about King Philip, good and bad. This is a really good read and whether the reader has knowledge of Spanish history or not will find it worthwhile.
Book Review: “Richard III: Brother Protector King” by Chris Skidmore
A friend on Twitter alerted me that Chris Skidmore was looking for people interested in reading his new book. After contacting him, he was gracious enough to send me a copy of the book and I’m very glad he did. It is outstanding and thought-provoking.
This is the third biography I’ve read about Richard III and by far the best. Skidmore has managed to produce a methodical and accurate analysis of the chronicles of the time, providing significant insight into the many complexities of Richard’s life. He also gives us a unique perspective on the political climate of the Wars of the Roses. Every controversy is covered here. While he may not implicate or exonerate some of the major characters, he explains what would have been believed at the time and how this made a difference in the actions taken. This is how Richard’s contemporaries would have viewed him.
The book has already been released in the UK and will be available in the US in April of 2018. There are beautiful color illustrations in the book as well as several maps and family trees. This is a measured and unbiased account of Richard’s life. It is thoroughly engrossing, riveting and impeccably researched. I had a hard time putting this book down and highly recommend it. This should become the new definitive biography of this controversial monarch.
Book Review: “Queenship in Medieval France, 1300-1500” by Murielle Gaude-Ferragu
This book is part of a series called The New Middle Ages published by Palgrave Macmillan. The series is dedicated to pluridisciplinary studies of medieval cultures, with a particular emphasis on recuperating women’s history, and on feminist and gender analyses. The peer-reviewed series includes scholarly monographs and essay collections. The book was originally published in 2014 in French. It was translated by Angela Kreiger and published in English in 2016. Gaude-Ferragu is University Professor of History at the Université Paris-13, Sorbonne-Paris-Cité, France.
At the beginning, there is a list of Queens of France covered in the time period given. This book is basically a list of duties required and exhibited for the queen in France and her relevance to the government and the symbolism of royalty. Gaude-Ferragu explains how the queen has a physical body and the royal body. The woman marries the King and there is a wedding ceremony. Following this, there is usually a coronation although in some cases during this two hundred year period, several queens were not crowned (Marie of Anjou, Charlotte of Savoy, etc.) Some of the coronations are retold in detail.
Perhaps the most important duty of a queen of France is to bear the king an heir, preferably male. The lying in period is explained. The Queen is responsible for the children’s upbringing and education. The next section of the book explains the power of the queen. Although women were barred by Salic Law from sitting on the throne and ruling in their own right, many of these women held some form of governing power, whether it was on the King’s Council or as regent for their young sons such as Isabeau of Bavaria. Other queens were not allowed to have much of a role at all. Gaude-Ferragu explains how queens represented the love of the government for the people and her role as intercessor.
Another section of the book covers the Queen’s ceremonial roles such as joyful entries into towns or funerals. The Queen’s household and courtly life is explained such as the operation of her treasury, her income and how it is derived, her library and her support as an advocate and patroness of the arts. The Queen is also expected to display piety in her daily life as well as in the establishment of religious and sacred foundations.
So many things are covered in this book and it is full of delightful personal details regarding the life of some of these women. There are a few illustrations and a comprehensive bibliography. Nothing is lost in the translation of the text. This is a textbook definition of the role of medieval queens in France and I’m sure these duties would be expected of other queens across Europe. Academics and casual readers would enjoy this book. I can’t recommend it enough.
Book Review: “Charles VII” by M.G. Vale
This volume is an English language biography of King Charles VII of France first published in 1974. As the author states in the Preface, this is not a conventional biography. His intention is to write a study of this enigmatic king by utilizing the evidence in a selective manner. Vale gives a contemporary assessment of Charles as both a king and a man as its starting point. He states in the beginning that there is precious little evidence about this king’s reign as many of the records no longer exist.
The first chapter is an overview of the king and his reign as it is viewed by historians in books from the past and how the reign is viewed in context. Vale then begins with a view of the king’s early years up until his meeting with Joan of Arc and his coronation at Reims. Other chapters recall his relationship with Joan of Arc, his son Louis and the nobility of France. The last part of the book cover his later years and then there is a section on the ceremonial king. Vale recounts several ceremonies Charles VII participated in and ends with a long description of his funeral.
Vale has a great deal of insight into the personality of Charles. Where some historians view him as a weak and fearful king, Vale believes just the opposite. He interprets Charles’ personality as very strong, militarily and politically. He believes the king played the nobles off against each other and elevated and destroyed these men with a political purpose. There is quite a bit in this book about the nobles who surrounded the king and their impact on his reign as well as his mistresses and mignons who lived close to the king and played a role in his life. The last chapter covers the later years of Charles’ reign and how his illnesses affected him and his government.
Personally, I enjoyed the recounting of Charles’ relationship with his son Louis as well as Vale’s views on Charles’ personality. Vale has a lot of information on the illnesses of the king which is fascinating. He has several theories about what Charles suffered from. The highlight of this book is the reprint of a memorandum that Charles dictated to his secretary in response to demands from his son Louis. Louis had left the kingdom of France and didn’t see his father for many years. Charles refuses Louis’ demands for surety of his safety and status at court and questions why Louis is so fearful and suspicious. This is a unique insight into the mind of the king and his tortured relationship with his son. While this book is not a conventional biography, it is most interesting and I recommend it.
Book Review: “Yolande of Aragon (1381-1442) Family and Power” by Zita Eva Rohr
The subtitle of this book is “The Reverse of the Tapestry”. Rohr is using the image of the reverse side of a tapestry to describe the life of Yolande. There were many threads woven by Yolande in her diplomacy during the complicated Hundred Years War.
Yolande is an amazing woman. Born in what is now Spain, she grew up in the cultured and educated court of her parents. Several marriages were discussed for her but she was eventually wed to Louis II, Duke of Anjou and titular King of Naples. This brought her into the sphere of the Valois kings of France and the infighting of the nobles during the Hundred Years War. Yolande was a competent and able administrator and adept negotiator. Although there is no documented evidence, historians are pretty certain she was instrumental in introducing Joan of Arc to Charles VII, thereby creating a turning point in Charles’ fortunes. Yolande’s motivation throughout all of her life was the advancement of her family.
Rohr’s book is not a conventional biography. In fact, this is an academic work and is aimed mostly at history faculty and graduate students. I found the writing to be pedantic and for the most part off-topic. The order of the information provided is scattered. It wasn’t until the third chapter (the book is only 199 pages long) that we start to get a glimpse of Yolande as a woman and politician. This is the point where the book gets interesting. Perhaps it is due to the lack of sources that we don’t know that much about Yolande.
I would not recommend this book to a casual reader. It is expensive and not an enjoyable read. However, for an historian, Rohr has done her research and lays out what she found in the sources giving us what little is known about Yolande and her interpretation of her life. A conventional biography on this pivotal personality in Angevin and French history has yet to be written.
Book Review: “The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc” by Nancy Goldstone
I have a great deal of respect for Nancy Goldstone as an historian and as a writer. I’ve read of couple of her books and really enjoyed them. This one is no exception.
Goldstone posits her theory that Yolande of Aragon, Queen of Sicily and Duchess of Anjou is responsible for introducing Joan of Arc to King Charles VII during the Hundred Years War. Most historians accept this theory even though there is no written documentation to confirm it. Goldstone tells how the story of Joan of Arc relates to the myth of Melusine, a female figure of European folklore. The story was created for political purposes for the Duke of Berry, uncle of King Charles VI of France to justify his appropriation of certain French castles.
This book tells the basic story of Yolande of Aragon and her political career and the fascinating life of Joan of Arc. Yolande is such a captivating character. She is strong, intelligent, politically savvy and perfectly capable of carrying out all of her intrigues and plans. Yolande’s motivation first and foremost is her family. She marries her daughter Marie to the Dauphin Charles, thereby eventually making her Queen of France. Goldstone gives us all the juicy details.
Although Yolande’s story is interesting, the story of Joan of Arc is enthralling. Goldstone tells us of her upbringing in Domrémy and how this shaped her mission. She tells us all the details of how she tried to gain an audience with Charles VII and of her dangerous journey through Anglo-Burgundian territory to meet him. Joan is given all she needs to fight and she is instrumental in chasing the English from the siege of Orléans thereby saving France from being overrun by the English. Joan was in the fight in armor and wielded her sword.
After some political maneuvering, Joan goes out on her own and is captured by the Duke of Burgundy who sells her to the English. With the help of a French bishop, the English put her through a sham trial and have her executed. All of this is recounted by the author. Nearly thirty years later, there is a reconciliation and Joan’s sentence is overturned by the French. This is history at its best. Goldstone is a master storyteller. I highly recommend this book. Now I must read the other’s on my shelf that are written by her.
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