Friday, 27 October 2017

Heroines of the Medieval World - a Review

Author Sharon Bennett Connolly has been a guest on the blog a couple of times already. That's not our only connection - in fact we have a few:

Firstly, we have met, in real life, which was lovely. We had dinner together and chatted about all things history, a passion which we share.

Secondly, we are both signed to Amberley Publishing, she with her new book, Heroines of the Medieval World, and me with my history of Mercia.

Thirdly, we have both written about Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, me with my novel To Be A Queen, and of course in my forthcoming history of Mercia, and she in her new book.

So, it was with great interest that when my review copy of the book arrived, I went straight to the pages which concentrate on my favourite Medieval Heroine.

Often, I come across brief articles on the internet whose aim is to sum up the life of a medieval person. And often I'm left seething at the inaccuracies. I appreciate that it is difficult to sum of the life and career of an historical person in a few lines, or pages. Mistakes, repeated assumptions, and lack of understanding of the sources often make these pieces inaccurate and lacking in depth and substance.

But Sharon has succeeded, brilliantly, with her summation of 

In researching a novel of 120,00 words +, and then researching again, in depth, for a lengthy chapter on Æthelflæd and her family for the non-fiction book, I often feel that there's nothing written about her which I haven't read, and either agreed with, or dismissed.

Inevitably, for my purposes, I have needed to delve very deeply and read widely. So has Sharon, in order to deliver a really good, chunky book, about all her heroines. 

So, what can readers expect? The book is arranged thematically, rather than chronologically, so there are chapters on Warrior Women, Scandalous Heroines, Literary Heroines... you get the picture. Familiar women are featured - the afore-mentioned Lady of the Mercians, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Joan of Arc - but also some less well-known ones: Eleanor's daughters, for example, and Gwenllian of Wales, Anne of Woodstock, Constance of Castile, and many more intriguing and admirable women, all of whose stories deserve to be told.

What I loved about the pages concerning Æthelflæd is that, even allowing for the fact that she had many heroines to research and write about, Sharon has taken her research as far as time and resources would allow, and produced a succinct, accurate* portrayal, summing up what we know from the sources available, and not once falling into the trap of repeating unsubstantiated assumptions.

Occasionally, when reading it, I would know that there was more to a particular episode, but that is for the reader to discover, should they choose to research for themselves. Not once, though, did I think, "that's wrong," or, "not that old chestnut again."

I've not yet had the chance to read the whole book, but all I can say is this: based on the pages pertaining to Æthelflæd, what we have here is a well-researched, well-written and very accessible book about a series of remarkable women.

An excerpt from the book:

The daughter of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, one of England’s greatest kings. Æthelflæd was born about 870, the eldest child of King Alfred and his wife, Ealhswith. Alfred’s biographer, Asser, says Ealhswith was a member of the Mercian royal house through her mother, Eadburh. Around 886 Æthelflæd was married to Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia and a trusted lieutenant of her father. Æthelred ruled over the English half of the Mercian kingdom, which had been dissected by the Vikings but submitted to King Alfred’s overlordship. The marriage was a political alliance, intended to strengthen Saxon resistance to the Danes, who were now occupying Northumbria, Yorkshire and East Anglia. The resulting close relationship of Mercia and Wessex was only further strengthened by the renewed Viking attacks of the 890s. During the early years of their marriage the young couple appear to have settled in London, the city that had been entrusted to Æthelred’s care by Alfred. Æthelflæd seems to have taken after her father – she was a strong, brave woman and is often regarded more as a partner to Æthelred than a meek, obedient wife. The couple jointly presided over provincial courts. The ‘Mercian Register’, a fragment of a Mercian chronicle, included in some versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, records that Æthelflæd was exercising regal powers in the region even before her husband’s death. In his final years Æthelred increasingly suffered from illness, during which time Æthelflæd assumed greater authority. The couple had only one child, a daughter, Ælfwynn. According to William of Malmesbury (writing in the 12th century) the lack of more children was due to Æthelflæd’s avoidance of marital relations, possibly due to a fear of dying in childbirth. Malmesbury quotes her as saying it was ‘unbecoming a daughter of a king to give way to a delight, which after a time produced such painful consequences’. 

Sharon has been fascinated by history for over 30 years now. She has studied history academically and just for fun – and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites, including Conisbrough Castle. Born in Yorkshire, she studied at University in Northampton. For Christmas 2014, her husband gave her a blog as a gift. Sharon started researching and writing about the lesser-known stories and people from European history, the stories that have always fascinated. Quite by accident, she started focusing on medieval women. She is currently working on her second non-fiction book, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, which will be published by Amberley in late 2018.

Find Sharon on her blog, History...The Interesting Bits

Other blogs in this blog tour for Sharon's book include:

There's an additional review HERE

* as far as we can ever be truly accurate about events which happened over a millennium ago

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Historical Fantasy 24 Hours - Restoration London

I asked a group of talented writers and historians to imagine their 'Fantasy Twenty-Four Hours.' I placed no restrictions on time period, place, or format, save that they must go back in time.

This month it's the turn of author and historian Jessica Cale, who takes us back to seventeenth-century London...


If I could go back to any time in history, I would like to be a tourist in Restoration London. My series is set there, and being able to see everything first hand would be incredible. But where to start? 

I would like to go back on November 5th, of any year between 1660 and 1665. My chances of making it back to my own time would obviously be improved if could avoid any hint of the plague of 1666, and I would love to see all of the medieval and Tudor architecture that was lost in the Great Fire of that year. London would have been unrecognizable to a modern visitor; there was no real street plan. Instead, the city was a jumble of buildings piled on top of each other to make a maze of alleys and narrow lanes. These were so close together that the fire was able to spread faster than those fighting it could tear the burning buildings down. Much of the London we know today was planned by Christopher Wren during the reconstruction of the city, and I would love to see what it had looked like before. To see what I mean, check out this animation HERE

On my tour of lost London, I would follow the forgotten river Fleet as far as I dared--or, as long as my scented handkerchief could hold out--to see if it really was as bad as Ben Jonson described it in 1602: 
Your Fleet Lane Furies; and hot cooks do dwell,That, with still-scalding steams, make the place hell.The sinks ran grease, and hair of measled hogs,The heads, houghs, entrails, and the hides of dogs:For, to say truth, what scullion is so nasty,To put the skins, and offal in a pasty?Cats there lay divers had been flayed and roasted,And, after mouldy grown, again were toasted,Then, selling not, a dish was ta’en to mince them,But still, it seemed, the rankness did convince them.For, here they were thrown in with the melted pewter,Yet drowned they not. They had five lives in future.
Assuming the stench of the Fleet did not render me unconscious, I would spend the afternoon scouring the Royal Exchange for cosmetics and bath products. It was the beginning of the Age of Extravagance, and a surprising variety of products were sold in every imaginable scent. I would stock up on washballs, salves, eye crayons, and Spanish leather for a long-lasting lip stain, but I would pass on the ceruse. As enviable as a smooth, porcelain-white complexion was, we now know that the the product’s high lead content is profoundly toxic and did more harm than good to the skin (and mind). 

From the Exchange, I would take a leisurely walk up to Covent Garden, people-watching for famous faces, such as the Earl of Rochester and his libertines. At this point, composer Solomon Eccles could often be spotted running through the streets naked with a chafing dish of burning coals on his head, shouting at passersby to repent. I have seen people do this on Oxford Street with microphones and rather more clothes on, but I think I would appreciate Eccles’ commitment to his unique brand of madness.

In Covent Garden, I would listen in on the caffeinated political discourse at the coffee shops and try a little dark coffee for myself, although it would probably be too much for me. Coffee in 17th century England was thick and black, made by boiling coffee powder and water together for an hour or more. After that, I’d stop into the Hole-in-the-Wall on Chandos Street and try some aqua vitae, or “strong waters” while waiting around to see if I could spot Claude Duval, a highwayman so famously handsome, charming, and successful with women, his tombstone called him “the second conqueror of the Norman race.” 

The celebrations would start late afternoon and rage on through the night. At this time, Bonfire Night was known as Gunpowder Treason Day, and its celebration had been enforced by law since the Observance of 5th November Act of 1606. The holiday took on new life under Charles II as it became a celebration of “God’s preservation of the English Throne.” London’s apprentices built huge bonfires all over the city, and it became a kind of festival attacking sobriety and good order. Treacle cake and potatoes were sold by street vendors, and the streets ran red with wine. It was a night of drunken madness until celebrations got so out of control that fireworks were banned by the militia in 1682. It was the craziest night of the year in a notoriously wild period, and that sounds like something I’d like to be a part of. 

If you would like to see more of what daily life was like common people in Restoration London, check out my series The Southwark Saga


Jessica Cale is an award-winning author and historian based in North Carolina. Originally from Minnesota, she lived in Wales for several years where she earned a BA in History and an MFA in Creative Writing while climbing castles and photographing mines for history magazines. She kidnapped (“married”) her very own British prince (close enough) and is enjoying her happily ever after with him in a place where no one understands his accent. She is a member of the Royal Historical Society and the editor of Dirty, Sexy History. You can visit her at

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Did Charlemagne's Imperial Coronation Change Anything?

Last month I blogged about administration in the reign of Charlemagne. This time I’m looking at what, if anything, changed after the imperial coronation in 800.

After Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day 800, there was no real profound transformation of royal power or fundamental reform of it, but the imperial power supplemented it. Certainly there was a quest for definition; Einhard (Charlemagne’s biographer) mentions that Charlemagne ordered unwritten laws and customs to be defined and written.


Along with the concept of imperial power came new ideas of fidelity and devotion. The basic element of feudalism arose; Charlemagne would safeguard the Christian Church and its people, in turn they must observe the laws of Christ and the Emperor.

The Imperial Coronation by Friedrich Kaulbach

In March 802, there was a meeting of the Diet at Aachen. Missi were dispatched to all parts of the empire. These missi were not chosen, as they were usually, from the palace vassals, but from ecclesiastical and lay aristocracy; archbishops, dukes and counts who would be less open to corruption. They had with them a written document in support of the oral instructions, a Capitulare Missorum. 

This fourth great capitulary of Charlemagne’s reign came about because of a psychological crisis within Charlemagne himself. His coronation had given him a more acute awareness of his responsibilities before God. From this arose a clearer view of the contrast between what ought to be, and what was, in the Frankish state. The capitulary presents a programme of imperial government of Church and State in the Empire and contains numerous purely ecclesiastical dispositions and many others of an administrative, judicial and political nature, and articles defining a new and more exacting concept of the fidelity owed to the emperor.

One of Charlemagne's capitularies

To initiate the new regime, it was necessary to lay down and enforce rules of conduct to be observed in the future, confirm and apply rules already in force, but most of all to eradicate existing abuses. It was hoped that these new missi of high standing would be conscientious. They were instructed to investigate complaints, take note of the existing situation and where possible remedy abuses. 

Where there were abuses that they were unable to remedy, the emperor would deal with them himself. They were to report on any gaps or defects they found in the laws, and they were to publish the regulations contained in the capitulary and see that they were enforced.

Homage in the Middle Ages

The duty of fidelity to the emperor was no innovation, and the concept was fundamentally negative; to do nothing that would endanger him to whom fidelity was owed. After the coronation, the duty was not only to refrain from certain actions, but there were certain positive obligations. These included obedience to the divine precepts and to the commands of Christian charity, obedience to the emperor’s orders and respect for imperial property, performance of military service and promotion of the regular course of justice. There was also a new formula for the oath; it became more like the oath sworn by vassals, and more religious in character. 

Swearing the oath of fealty

The whole programme was markedly religious in nature. Charlemagne became aware of his new power, bestowed on him by God. The way the emperor discharged his power indicated reward or punishment in the next world. Charlemagne was also responsible for the attitude of his subjects; they must also perform their duty to God. 

As Charlemagne had to protect the Church, his subjects were obliged to do likewise. There had to be harmony between the lay and ecclesiastical authorities. Bishops and abbots were ordered only to appoint upright and conscientious men. Charlemagne’s fate in the next world depended on the attitude and conduct of churchmen who wielded authority. It was ordered that the clergy should lead a common life. There was also a call for a stricter observance of their rule by monks and nuns.

There were 15 articles in the capitulary relating to religious matters, and religion enters into other aspects. The missi, as we have seen were chosen for their piety, and the capitulary also deals with protecting churches and their property. Disorders in monastic establishments annoyed Charlemagne, so autonomy for houses of monks and nuns was discouraged, indeed many were placed under very strict control of the bishop or even archbishop.

Among the more political articles, Charlemagne’s increased sense of power is clearly detectable. He demanded much more personal devotion from his subjects. He placed a strong emphasis on his Bannum, his power to command or to prohibit and to punish any contravention of his orders or prohibitions. Some of these orders and prohibitions he proclaimed permanent by making them law. They forbade the harming of churches, widows, orphans, or the ‘economically weak’. They prohibited rape, group assaults on a house, and arson. They sought to secure more dependable military service for the king. These eight examples are the best known and Charlemagne frequently called attention to their permanent character in his capitularies. 

The Coronation - by assistants of Raphael

After the imperial coronation, refusal to submit to the Bannum, or evasion of it by trickery, or attempts to restrict its application (in particular the eight examples) could not be tolerated. Non-obedience would in future count as infidelity. 

No-one was to refuse military service, and counts were not to grant unwarranted exemptions. Future contraventions would count as infidelity. This was important to maintain the quality and strength of the imperial fighting force.

As emperor, Charlemagne was the successor of Christian emperors who had been legislators, and he henceforth engaged in legislative activity with less caution, even in the realm of private law. Like the Roman emperors, he ordered that judgement should be made in accordance with the written text of the law where one existed. The chief object of his judicial reforms was to guarantee everyone an opportunity to claim and exercise his rights under the law. So there was a series of measures imposing on the courts a strict regard for the law. 

The Construction of Charlemagne's Palace at Aachen

A knowledge of the law was required of the judicial officials concerned with the administration of justice in courts under the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical authorities, in their capacity as seigneurs of great estates, especially when the church in question enjoyed the privileges of immunity. It was considered important for the law to be applied strictly in the seigneurial courts, in particular in those under the jurisdiction of churches with immunity.

There was much more personal intervention from the emperor, and it is implied that he actually presided over a palace court. This was another indication of his awareness of his responsibilities for his subjects, and of his heightened sense of his accountability to God. The punishment for perjurers, the amputation of the right hand, was no novelty, but now the responsibility for suppressing this crime was placed on the palace courts.

Charlemagne's Throne: attribution

These measures and reforms were not entirely effective, but the ideas remained for Charlemagne’s successors to take up. More than anything they show how his sense of responsibility increased with his new power. It is obvious that he took these new responsibilities seriously, especially where the welfare of the Church and his subjects was concerned. Once he had determined the significance of imperial power, he undertook to instigate reforms which would carry out the obligations he now had as ruler of his people, and as a successor to the Christian Roman emperors.

Further reading:
The Life of Charlemagne – Einhard University of Michigan Press
The Coronation of Charlemagne – Robert Folz
Frankish Institutions under Charlemagne – FL Ganshof
The Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy – FL Ganshof

[images are in the public domain unless otherwise attributed]

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Review - The Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower

You could call this the original 'stitch n bitch' story, since it is a tale woven (sorry, couldn't help myself) around the making of the Bayeux Tapestry. But actually, this book is so much more than the story of the sewing of the famous embroidery, and it seems to have left readers somewhat divided. As it's nearly the anniversary of the battle, it seemed timely to revisit this book.

Odo rallies William's troops during the battle in 1066

It begins on the battlefield, where Odo, brother of the conqueror, is introduced. Odo is a bishop and it is he who will commission the embroidery. This brings him into contact with Gytha, an Englishwoman. The chapter where she is introduced was more powerful, in my opinion. I've read about the battle itself many times, but what is less often written about is the immediate aftermath; the destruction of the world as the English knew it. Those early scenes of panic, confusion and fear are realistically drawn.
"Rape. That's what they all believe, the sullen crowd gathered before Winchester's West Gate, in the square where the tax man usually collect the duty on beasts brought into the city for market. It's clear from their faces, fear mixed with impotence and embarrassment, and the round eyed children, clinging to their mothers' skirts, who don't understand but just want to look at the soldiers."
A little boy darts out of the crowd, dazzled by the ornaments on the bishop's harness, and is trampled. The soldiers panic, one runs the grieving mother through with his lance. There is horror on the streets of England's capital. In this scene, Gytha first lays eyes on Bishop Odo. 

I'm giving no secrets away when I say that Gytha and Odo fall in love, but theirs is no straight-forward story, and I'll say no more about that, for it would spoil the enjoyment for anyone new to this book. Bower takes a scene from the tapestry (show below) in which an unknown woman, Ælfgyva, appears with a 'certain cleric' and comes up with an interesting reason for the inclusion of the scene.

Ubi unus clericus et Ælfgyva

This is an almost completely fictional tale, and I don't mind that. If I'm told at the outset that a book is a work of fiction, I'm quite happy to judge it as such. The setting is authentic and Bower has clearly done her research. If you want to know why this book has divided readers, look no further than the reviews on a well-known online retailer - the main concerns are the use of the third person present tense, and the lack of narrative structure.

It is a clever book. I read it many years ago and I don't recall the use of the present tense bothering me, particularly. Sometimes it is just a bit too clever, but there are many passages where the writing, and the insight, are sublime.

At one point, Gytha lies awake, unable to sleep as the wind picks up, remembering how the sound of her father checking the salt pans and barrels in the yard on stormy nights used to be comforting. That passage resonated with me; don't we all sometimes wish we were young again, with grown-ups watching out for us - why should eleventh-century folk be any different in that regard?
"When Odo is with her, she loves stormy nights, secure in his arms, curtained and cosseted. Even when he gets up, to check for broken shutters and fallen branches or calm his horses, the feeling of safety stays with her. Her father used to do the same; several times a night on rough nights she would hear...her parents whispering together, clothes rustling  and the creak of hinges as he went out ..." 
I found the book challenged me, because I am anti-Norman, and could not understand why on earth Gytha would become so enamoured of Odo. It dared me to alter my perception and by the end, I had begun to understand, a little, at least, the attraction between the two of them.

Reviewers have expressed surprise at the portrayal of Archbishop Lanfranc, but I had no difficulty in believing in him as a villain - probably my anti-Norman bias again - even though he perhaps strays onto the pantomime stage from time to time.

This is not an easy read; the flashbacks sneak up on you so you have to concentrate. But it is a brave book, a strong book, and quite different from a lot of historical fiction. The detail about how the 'tapestry' was constructed is fascinating, and, I'm sure, accurately portrayed.

As for the suppositions, well, Bower claims artistic licence, and why not? As with so many other periods of history, with no-one to ask, we can only wonder, 'what if'...

It is a 'Marmite' kind of book, I suspect. But if you are interested in this period of history, give it a try. Even if you don't find that you love it, I think you will admire the author's accomplished way with words, and the different approach to novel writing. You will be immersed in period detail, and you will emerge enriched.

[A word of warning - the language in this book is often x-rated and at times very explicit.]