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

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