CHAUCER by Richard West (Book Review)

This biography of Chaucer is as much a portrait of the period as of the man. Perhaps more so, but I will come back to that.

In the first three chapters we have a brief background history, always illustrated by quotations from the Canterbury Tales. By the end of the third chapter, we know who Chaucer was, and the setting in life that produced the Canterbury Tales.

But it does not stop there. In Chapter 4, West confronts us with Chaucer’s attitude to Jews in the context of fourteenth-century anti-semitism. There is no beating about the bush. We are shown, by contrast, Boccaccio’s fairness towards Jews and Saracens, as in the Decameron stories of Abraham and of Melchizedek. “Boccaccio’s even-handed attitude to the three religions was as rare in fourteenth-century Europe as it is in the Middle East today ”

By contrast, Chaucer’s attitude to Jews is “more open to debate.” “For hundreds of years after its publication, the Prioress’s Tale was not regarded as shocking by lovers of Chaucer,” though there were exceptions: Wordsworth, for instance, spoke of its ‘fierce bigotry’. Some Chaucer defenders would claim that he intended us to take the story and the attitude as typical of the speaker. Certainly he put it into the mouth of a woman who was “more whore than nun,” and certainly he knew that the Popes had repeatedly condemned “the blood libel”. Still, whores are no more likely to be anti-semitic than nuns and this white-washing does not really help. West gives us Chaucer as he was, warts and all.

Chapter 5 is a very good account of the Black Death, including a discussion of why Chaucer does not seem more concerned about the plague and all the other horrors of life in the “calamitous fourteenth century”. Describing the period during which the plague was rampant in England, it includes details quite new to me, such as men wearing fashions so effeminate as to constitute transvestitism, but West points out that “Chaucer does not condemn men who dress like women but those who dress to show off their masculinity.” His Poor Parson also “denounces the wearing of very long gowns which trailed in the mire, when the extra material could have been used to clothe the poor.” (In a note, West mentions that “similar criticisms greeted the Paris ‘New Look’ for women’s skirts after the Second World War, when clothes were still rationed in England and France.” I don’t remember that when Mary Quant introduced the mini-skirt, the other half was used to make a free mini-skirt for a poor girl. The absurd comments of the self-righteous never cease to amaze me.)

We see Chaucer in battle, in 1359, at Rheims, under Edward III. He spoke French, of course, and knew France well. There is a chapter on The Romance of the Rose, “the biggest single influence on Chaucer’s style, imagery and plots ” which was translated into English by Chaucer and others for an eager English public who, then as now, had the idea that sex was more exciting in France. West quotes a story he “heard in Lancashire about a coal miner who one year went for his holiday to Paris rather than Blackpool. To the questions of his inquisitive friends, he merely answered: ‘I’ll tell you one thing about Paris: fooking’s only in its infancy in Wigan.'” Nothing changes.

We see Chaucer in Florence in 1372-3, and then in Lombardy, home of the infamous Visconti brothers. He was presumably at the wedding feast of Violante, thirteen-year-old daughter of Bernabo Visconti, and Lionel, Duke of Clarence, brother of the Black Prince and John o’Gaunt. Lionel died (probably as a result of the feast) and Violante “was married off to a new husband, the Marquis of Montferrat, who supposedly got his sexual excitement from strangling young male servants.” (This chapter is full of gory details.) Chaucer was also part of the mission to Lombardy when Bernabo tried again a few years later, this time betrothing another daughter, Caterina, to Richard, son of the Black Prince; fortunately for Richard, soon to succeed to the throne as Richard II, this fell through.

This book is not, then, a biography pure and simple, as other reviewers have also pointed out. In fact there is much missing from it that one might expect to find in a biography. But it does what it sets out to do, namely give us an account of “the life and times” of its subject. By the time you finish reading it you know much more not only about about Chaucer and but about the whole astonishing fourteenth century. Wyclif, the Peasants’ Revolt, John o’ Gaunt, the minority of Richard II: Chaucer saw it all.

He also plays quite a large part in Mariana’s life in my novels –
starting Mariana de la Mar 2,
THE UNDEPARTED DEAD

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Una Mora

Manuel García Hispaleto – Una Mora

Speaking Arabic, and having been brought up largely by her Moorish grandmother Sebah, Mariana can and frequently does pass as a Moor (una Mora) herself. See especially in the prequel, The Rose of Sharon, where she is sold as a slave in Granada and lives in two very different harems.

Judith Koll Healey’s THE CANTERBURY PAPERS

This is the story of Alaïs, “forgotten princess of France”. One of the things HF (historical fiction) does best is to take a minor, mostly ignored and almost forgotten historical character and recreate him or her, rather as a paleontologist recreates a long extinct animal from a fragment of fossilised bone.

I first noticed Alaïs in the film The Lion In Winter, where she is portrayed (by the beautiful Jane Merrow) as very much Henry II’s mistress, the king flaunting the lovely girl in front of his ageing queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. But is that how it really was?

On this reconstruction of Alaïs’ story we have an older Alaïs, Alaïs afterwards, in the days of Bad King John, when Henry has long been dead and Richard is dead and Eleanor at 78 years old is on her last legs. The story revolves around some letters said to have been written by Eleanor years earlier while she was a prisoner in Shrewsbury. Henry, who was trying to prevent her from plotting with Richard, their son, to replace him on the throne, did not allow her to correspond with anyone, so her letters had to be smuggled out. Some were eventually concealed in Canterbury Cathedral and it is those which she is worried might compromise both herself and John, and which she asks Alaïs to retrieve and return to her. So Alaïs makes the journey from Paris to Canterbury, ostensibly as a pilgrim.

In Canterbury she is kidnapped and the excitement starts. Who has she been kidnapped by, and why? King John? Dowager Queen Eleanor, having lured her there for that purpose? The Knights Templar, for their own devious purposes? And what on earth could have been in those letters?

It is rare for me to be hooked from the first page, but I was here.

For a first novel, it is stunning. Look at her depiction of the Dialogue between “that old pair of inseparables, the Body and the Soul“, where the Body “had all the witty lines, some I suspect made up on the spot … [it is Alaïs narrating] No wonder the bishops railed against the theatre. Laughter was probably the greatest danger to orthodoxy.” Or her description of Eleanor in old age, and her comments on arranged marriages … “Although she was standing upright with no help, she looked so brittle I thought her bones might break before we got to a greeting […] As I approached, she held out her hand for me to kiss. It was freckled with age spots, clearly visible in the sun, which at just that moment decided to spread out like butter over us all. […] ‘Queen Eleanor.’ I bent low.’Princess Alaïs,’ she responded, as if we had parted on that day after breakfast.” They speak of the future (and think of the past), of Eleanor’s granddaughter Blanche of Castile, who is to marry Alaïs’ nephew, the heir to the French throne. “‘Blanche is safely installed at the court of your brother [Eleanor tells Alaïs] and the two children seem to like each other. It may be a marriage more successful than many that have been arranged by politics.’ And I knew she was thinking past me, to that time when she was married to my father because their fathers had decreed it. But then, I recalled, she later married Henry for love, and that didn’t work out too well either.

It is all wonderful stuff, and this is (for me at least, and I suspect for all who read this book) the definitive Princess Alaïs.

A DISTANT MIRROR (Book Review)

The past is a mirror of the present, albeit a distant mirror. In her introduction, Barbara Tuchman quotes Voltaire: “History never repeats itself; man always does.” In this history of “The Calamitous 14th Century” (the very apt sub-title), she has added human interest as well as validity to this approach by focussing on a particular person’s life. She wanted someone who saw and lived through more than most common folk ever could, she tells us, yet who was not exceptional as a king or saint would inevitably be. She finally lit on Enguerrand de Coucy VII, “the most experienced and skillful of all the knights of France” (according to a contemporary), whose life from 1340 to 1397 suited her perfectly. As did the fact that he married the eldest daughter of Edward III of England and became the Duke of Bedford for several years until he and the princess separated and he renounced his allegiance to the English Crown.

By following the man through the history of his times, Barbara Tuchman manages to go everywhere, see everything important, and yet keep her feet firmly on the ground.

It is a period I am very familiar with (Coucy is a contemporary of Mariana’s) but on almost every page, there is something that will surprise most readers. Did you know that in 1306, the year before Philip the Fair turned on the Templars, he expelled the Jews from France, thus wiping out his own debts to them and also, incidentally, the debts of the peasants, who used to borrow from Jews to tide them over when times were bad and they needed tools or seed – but his son, Louis X, brought the Jews back on terms that made him a partner with a two-thirds share in the recovery of their debts? Which of course led to the predictable pogrom against the Jews and a widespread uprising against the rich landowners and the Church. The Templars themselves Philip accused of heresy and sorcery in order to get out of his enormous debt to them; it also enabled him to lay hands on at least some of their fabulous wealth.

Elements of witchcraft, magic, and sorcery were taken for granted in medieval life, [she writes] but Philip’s use of them to prove heresy in the seven-year melodrama of the Templar’s trials gave them fearful currency. Thereafter charges of black arts became a common means to bring down an enemy and a favoured method of the Inquisition in its pursuit of heretics, especially those with property worth confiscating. In Toulouse and Carcassonne during the next 35 years the Inquisition prosecuted 1,000 persons on such charges and burned 600. French justice was corrupted and the pattern laid for the fanatic witchcraft persecutions of subsequent centuries.

As easy to read as a well-written novel, yet immensely detailed and, so far as I could tell, as reliable as history gets. Essential background reading for those who enjoy novels set in the fourteenth century.

And her original thesis? Yes, after reading this I must say I agree: times change, people don’t. Which is one of the things that make HF so fascinating.

My Alternative World

“There are many reasons why novelists write, but they all have one thing in common – a need to create an alternative world,” wrote JOHN FOWLES.

I was asked the other day if that was true of me.

I suppose every novelist has created a story, a world, of his own that he already lives in in a very real sense and would give his left arm to visit in reality. That certainly applies to me and the the Mariana de la Mar universe.

The Mar Menor in Spain where Mariana lived as a child in the 1360s (in “The Rose of Sharon”)

You know what they say: If you can’t find the book you want to read, write it yourself. There’s more to it than that. It’s really: Create that world, your world, yourself.

But of course there are other books, other alternative universes, I would love to visit …

Richard Fletcher’s BLOODFEUD (Book Review)

The Anglo-Saxon Period

Northumbria was governed, under the King, Ethelred II, by an earl named Uhtred. He belonged to one of the great magnate families of northern England, had held his office of earl for at least ten years, was famed for his military prowess, and was the lord of extensive acres and many retainers. What is more, he was connected by marriage to the royal family: his third and current wife, in 1016, was a daughter of King Ethelred II. Earl Uhtred was, thus, a figure of immense wealth, power and prestige; quite simply, the most important man in the north of England. It was essential for Canute to secure his submission and gain his loyalty.

[…]

Earl Uhtred came to the meeting accompanied, as a great nobleman should be in a display of status, by an escort of military retainers – forty of them, we are told, and though the figure be both round and biblical we are not required to disbelieve it. As befitted a ritual exchange of peace, and given the guarantee of safe-conduct, weapons and body-armour would have been left with the horses outside, in the care of grooms and servants. Uhtred and his men entered the hall and stood in a body before Canute. If it were one of those brightly sunny days that you sometimes get in northern England in early spring they would have needed time for their eyes to accustom themselves to the gloomy interior.

Treachery was afoot. Another northern magnate, an old enemy of Uhtred’s named Thurbrand, had prepared an ambush with Canute’s connivance. Suddenly, armed and mailed men sprang out from concealment behind the hangings and slaughtered Uhtred and his men, every one. After a desperate and bloody mêlée which lasted perhaps only a few minutes, forty-one corpses lay among the rushes on the floor.

This act of treachery and slaughter set in motion the chain reaction of counter-violence and yet further violence, a bloodfeud that lasted for three generations and almost sixty years, which is the subject of this book.

This book is ostensibly about Earl Uhtred of Northumbria, son in law of King Ethelred II and “most important man in the north of England”, but like Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, it is really a history of a place and period made more accessible (more reader-friendly) by focussing like a biography on one key figure. That key figure, Earl Uhtred, was treacherously murdered in 1016, setting in train a bloodfeud that spanned the closing years of Anglo-Saxon England and the early years of Norman rule.

The first chapter explains exactly what a bloodfeud was and was not, setting it in context as something familiar and normal and “right” in an age when “justice” was hard to come by. This is followed by the best brief history of Anglo-Saxon England I have ever read, taking us from the original settlements to Alfred and Wessex and the Danes, the emergence of the Wessex dynasty as Kings of all England, and so to the great King Edgar (excellently depicted, by the way, in Anya Seton’s Avalon).

The focus then switches to the north and the history of Northumbria and the northern context before returning to the south and Edgar’s son Ethelred the Ill-advised (more often known as the Unready, but Ill-advised is a better translation) and Athelstan and Edmund Ironside, and how the situation in which Canute was able to demand the attendance, unarmed, of such a man as Uhtred, came about.

It is not just a story of a bloodfeud, it is a whole history of the period up to the Conquest by one who, again like Barbara Tuchman, is both an entertaining and fluent writer and an historian with an intimate knowledge both of his chosen period and of the man and the sequence of events that in his view best represent and embody that period.

Highly recommended both to those already hooked on the Anglo-Saxon period and to newcomers.