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Category: Reviews

  1. Book Review : She Wolves

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    Last Christmas I got a lovely collection of history books, and I've recently re-read one by Elizabeth Norton. The full title of this book is "She Wolves: The Notorious Queens of England", and as you can probably tell it focuses on a cross-section of England's Queens. You won't find anything about Adeliza of Louvain or Jane Seymour in this book, instead Elizabeth Norton focuses on those Queens whose terrible reputation has been maintained down the centuries.

    This book is divided in to several parts and from there in to chapters under titles such as "Incestuous Queens", "Arrogance & Pride" and "Witchcraft". shewolvesnortonSome of these chapters encapsulate several Queens in one go, others are dedicated purely to one woman (such as "Witchcraft" which is about Joan of Navarre). Each part includes an introduction of a few pages before delving in to the chapters themselves, in total 19 Queens are analysed and discussed in this book, starting with the Anglo-Saxons and finishing with Mary I. 

    The book itself is an interesting read. Norton sets the Queens out in proper chronological order, which I much prefer over jumping backwards and forwards across centuries. Along with setting the background of each Queen discussing their actions, Norton also gives explanations for their actions and for the hostility of our sources. For readers that aren't used to reading about the medieval world, it brings you firmly out of the modern mentality of "women can do anything", and reminds you that while these women COULD do anything, they weren't actually supposed to.

    I also like that Norton didn't just jump straight into post-Conquest England and instead wrote about some Anglo-Saxon Queens. While many people think that the English monarchy began solely with William the Conqueror, in reality there were plenty of Anglo-Saxon kings. The major problem with this is that Queens are generally ignored by the sources in those times, unless they were "Bad Queens". By including them, Norton reminds us that there were notorious Queens before 1066.

    While I mostly enjoyed reading this book, where was something about it that just didn't sit right with me. For example in her summing up of Elizabeth Woodville she describes her as a "wailing Cassandra". Since Cassandra was a rather ineffective Greek "heroine", this epithet effectively casts Elizabeth Woodville in to the role of passive bystander, when in reality we know that she frequently took control of her own life and plotted against two Kings. It feels that with some of these women she is very quick to condemn them, and with others she takes all responsibility for their actions out of the women's hands, and places it firmly with the men in their lives.

    Being pedantic I also dislike the minor inconsistency of the chapter titles. As said above, each chapter has a title such as "Witchcraft", with the exception being the chapter about Anne Boleyn. It's only a small thing, but it just seems a bit lazy, as if a new title just wasn't possible when "Witchcraft" and "The Seductress" had been taken by others.

    Finally I felt that this book was just a bit too short. At 242 pages for these women it certainly isn't short, and yet several of the chapters seemed rather short for women who had led such varied and interesting lives.

    Overall I think this is a good read, but perhaps it's better off as an introduction to some of England's Queens, than as a book for those of us who have already read plenty of other titles on the subject. 

  2. Review: Ancient Lives New Discoveries

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    You probably don't know, but a few weeks ago was my birthday. To celebrate my partner got tickets for us to go and see the Ancient Lives New Discoveries exhibit at the British Museum. I've been dying to see this ever since the original media coverage for it's opening, so it was great to finally get along to it. We originally chose my birthday month as the exhibition was due to close a few weeks after, but it has been so popular that they've extended it to April 2015. This means that you've still got time to go and see it!

    Ancient Lives

    This exhibit focuses on the mummified remains of eight individuals from ancient Egypt and the Sudan, including the Roman and early Christian periods. They include those found with sarcophagi (not necessarily the right sarcophagus though) and who went through the full ritualised mummification process, through to those that were simply buried in the hot, dry sand and naturally preserved. Through the exhibit you see both the mummies, the sarcophagi where appropriate, and other ancient Egyptian artefacts that are either directly related to the mummies (including canopic jars) or which add context and detail to the information given in the displays. 

    New Discoveries

    You may be wondering what the point of the exhibit is. After all the British Museum already has multiple galleries dedicated to ancient Egypt, including displays of mummies, so why pay £10 for this?

    The difference is that all eight of these mummies have been digitally "unwrapped". Using the latest technology they scanned each mummy, and used the images to create digital 3D images of the remains under the wrappings. They managed to discover medical conditions, such as plaque in leg arteries and dental abcesses, amulets and other ritualistic equipment that was under the bandages, and in one instance they found a mummification tool left inside a skull.

    Probably the one let-down from it was that no attempt was made to recreate how the people would have looked when alive. One thing I loved about visiting the Jorvik Centre in York was that they using digital imaging to show what the skeletal remains looked like in life. However I think that it's easier to do that if you're just working with a skull, rather than mummified remains, so it may have simply been impossible to do in this exhibit.

    I will admit, I didn't learn much more about ancient Egypt than I already knew, and I'm certainly neither an expert nor an Egyptologist. But I did learn that medical technology has come on leaps and bounds in the past ten years, and that it can be put to some great uses in archaeology as well as medicine. I hope that the Museum manages to get funding for more scans of other mummies in their possession in the future, it would be incredible to find out what else is hidden under the bandages!

  3. Book Review: The Diabolical Duchess

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    If you've read some of Philippa Gregory's latest works then you'll have seen the occasional mentions of Margaret of York. In "The White Queen" she's sent off to marry the Duke of Burgundy, and in "The White Princess" she is mentioned helping the pretenders that try to claim Henry VII's throne.

    After doing some very basic reading on Margaret of York I realised that she deserved far more interest than just a footnote in some historical fiction, so I included her in Volume 2 of my eBook series. As part of my research I got hold of a copy of Christine Weightman's "Margaret of York: The Diabolical Duchess" and got down to some serious reading. marofburgundy2

    This book is a really good look at Margaret's life. It starts with her marriage to Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, skips back to her birth and childhood, and then winds forward again to look at the rest of her life. Normally I'd complain about the time skipping, but this actually worked very well as it set the scene for the life that Margaret was about to marry in to, complete with descriptions of the sumptuous welcome and wedding festivities, and was then followed by the descriptions of a a young woman growing up in an England frequently at war.

    At 201 pages of biography (plus the usual bibliography, index etc) this certainly isn't the longest book, but it doesn't skimp on details. Along with setting the historical context, Weightman also examines Margaret's personal relationships. She never had any children with her husband, but she was close to her step-daughter Mary and then played an important role in raising Mary's children. Weightman also looks at Margaret's popularity with the Burgundian population, and her political skill at negotiating with France after the death of her husband, before moving on to support Lambert Simnel in his attempt to claim the throne of England.

    Weightman paints a rich picture of a woman who was politicially savvy and extremely popular. For many people her history is only interesting when it ties in to England's, through her attempts to oust Henry VII. But the rest of her life is equally as fascinating. Like many upper-class women in the Medieval period, she was sent abroad to marry a man that she barely knew. Unlike many women however, she never had children with her husband. But she still managed to carve out a prominent role in both domestic and international politics, something which was extremely rare for a childless woman in that time.

    My biggest criticism about this book is the pictures. The book itself is printed on gorgeous high quality paper, making it quite weighty even though it's not very big. But the photos are printed in black and white. I'm sure this must have been a cost-cutting exercise, but frankly I'd rather have cheaper pages and colour images, especially for the portraits of the leading figures at the time. It's an expensive book at £15, I'd expect decent colour images as part of that.

    Regardless of my preference for nice pictures, this is still a very good read. If you've ever wondered about Margaret of York, I'd recommend this biography (or if you want an overview you can buy Volume 2 of my ebook).

  4. Book Review: Katherine Swynford

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    A few months ago while browsing around Waterstones I naturally ended up in the history section. While scrolling through the endless list of biographies on men in history I stumbled upon one of Alison Weir's works; Katherine Swynford.

    Katherine Swynford

    The full title of this work is actually "Katherine Swynford - John of Gaunt and his Scandalous Mistress". I know very little about the medieval period outside of remembering the list of kings and queens and some of the bigger events at the time, so I decided to pick up this book and have a read, and in general I was quite impressed with it.

    For those who don't know, John of Gaunt was a younger son of King Edward III of England and his wife Philippa of Hainault. John's nickname "of Gaunt" comes from his birthplace, Ghent in modern-day Belgium. Katherine Swynford on the other hand was the daughter of one of Philippa's servants, she was raised in the Royal nursery and married to an impoverished English knight who was in service to John and his first wife Blanche. In time Katherine became more than just a servant to John.

    One of the things that Alison Weir makes quite clear from the start is that it's very difficult to find out much about Katherine Swynford. For example mentions of gifts to her are found in John of Gaunt's registers, but not all of these registers survive. On top of that Katherine and John were very discreet when their affair started, and even when it did become public knowledge it was a scandal, but not as scandalous as later Royal affairs such as that between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn since John wasn't a King. There's no evidence such as surviving letters or poems sent between them, that could give us a glimpse into the lives of this couple, most of what we know comes from those who were writing against them.

    Unfortunately this lack of evidence does take it's toll on this book. If you're expecting to read a lot about Katherine then you'll be disappointed. I almost feel that it should instead have been titled "Gaunt & Swynford" or "The Knight and His Mistress" instead of "Katherine Swynford". Weir has to dedicate a lot of page space to John of Gaunt and his first two marriages, partly to explain the historical context (which was useful since, as I said above, I knew very little) and partly because if she didn't then the book would be half the size it actually is. There really is so little about Katherine that most of it involves careful estimating based on things such as dates of birth of children (even these are estimates due to Katherine's discretion), John's movements as noted by charters and his registers, and general common knowledge or mentions that have seeped down from contemporary writers.

    Setting aside the lack of Katherine focus, this is actually a very good book. Weir has a clear way of writing that is easy to read, and her explanations of the political situations at the time are descriptive enough to give you a good idea of what was going on, without being so long that you get bored and give up. She puts forward her own theories about aspects of Katherine and John's relationship, such as when their affair first began, that are certainly credible alternatives to those that have been suggested before.

    Overall this book is a really good read. It's not all about Katherine, but you'll certainly come out of it with a greater understanding of England at the time and know more about the couple whose descendants would bring about the Tudor dynasty.

  5. Book Review: Four Queens

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    As part of my eBook research, and because I enjoy reading about other areas of history, I buy and read quite a lot of history books. One of the best ones I’ve read this year is “Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe” by Nancy Goldstone (please excuse the research tabs I've had to stick in the book, it's proved to be very useful XD)

    Four Queens

    I’ve read some of Goldstone’s works before, one of the main ones being “Joanna: The Notorious Queen of Naples”. That was a book I found a hard slog to go through, partly because Joanna faced a lot of problems during her reign and so the book was very large, partly because it just seemed like the writing was a bit difficult to get through. Naturally I was worried that Four Queens would be the same, but luckily it wasn’t.

    Four Queens tells the story of the daughters of Raymond Berenger, the Count of Provence, and his wife Beatrice of Savoy. They had four daughters and no sons, and one by one their daughters married into two of Europe’s leading families. Their eldest daughter Margaret became Queen of France, Eleanor (the second daughter) married King Henry III of England, Sanchia married Henry’s brother Richard Earl of Cornwall, and the youngest sister Beatrice married Margaret’s brother-in-law the Count of Anjou and also inherited Provence from their father.

    Normally English history only focuses on Eleanor of Provence since she and Henry faced rebellion during their reign. But as this book shows, these sisters all had interesting lives. Margaret and Beatrice both went on Crusade with their husbands and Beatrice went with her husband when he conquered Sicily, while Sanchia followed Richard to the continent when he became King of the Germans. Thanks to the efforts of Margaret and Eleanor, England and France spent a great deal of time at peace, rather than constantly fighting between each other.

    This book starts off with the girls’ childhood in Provence and follows each one chapter by chapter. Generally Goldstone tries to focus one chapter on each woman, but there are points where even though a chapter is focusing on one woman, one or two of her sisters will get a prominent role as well, simply because they spent time together. This alternating between women actually makes the book easier to read without becoming too confusing, it also gives plenty of stopping-off places if you’re reading during lunch or tea break and need to put it down.

    Goldstone also does her best to make sure the book actually focuses on the women themselves. There are many history books, even those that are meant to be about women in history, that focus purely on kings. While the husbands are mentioned frequently to explain the historical context, Goldstone then ensures that she explains the women’s side of things, postulating theories on their feelings and reactions. It helps that her research has included letters between Margaret and Eleanor, which give a more personal flavour about the relationship between the two queens (even though the letters were probably dictated to clerks by the queens themselves).

    If there is one complaint I have about this book, it’s that there is a presumption towards understanding or second-guessing the thoughts of the women involved. But this may simply be due to the evidence Goldstone has used, I imagine that reading letters and personal accounts gives a far more intimate glimpse into the lives than simply summing them up does.

    Overall I think this is a really good book, I’d highly recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about Eleanor of Provence, and especially anyone who wants to know more about upper-class women in Medieval Europe.