17 September, 2010

Books

Ian Mortimer's Medieval Intrigue: Decoding Royal Conspiracies, a collection of ten essays, came out a few days ago in the UK (and is due out on 18 November in the US) and I'm currently happily immersed in it. The book "examines some of the most controversial questions in medieval history, including whether Edward II was murdered, his possible later life in Italy, the weakness of the Lancastrian claim to the throne in 1399 and the origins of the idea of the royal pretender. Central to this book is Mortimer's ground-breaking approach to medieval evidence. He explains how an information-based method allows a more certain reading of a series of texts. He criticises existing modes of arriving at consensus and outlines a process of historical analysis that ultimately leads to questioning historical doubts as well as historical facts, with profound implications for what we can say about the past with certainty."

Included are Ian's important and thought-provoking article 'The Death of Edward II in Berkeley Castle', which was originally published in the English Historical Review and which I'm delighted to see made accessible to a much wider audience. There are other articles about Edward and his survival after 1327, including one about the earl of Kent's plot to free the former king in 1330, one about Edward's reputation as a sodomite and the development of this accusation as a political weapon against him, and one about the Fieschi family (as in Manuele Fieschi, who told Edward II's son in the 1330s that he had survived Berkeley) and their relationship with Edward III. For more info, see Ian's website, and the publishers, Continuum History. If you're at all interested in Edward II, fourteenth-century history and the nature of historical evidence and analysis, you really, really need to read this one.

I'm sure I must have mentioned Seymour (J.R.S.) Phillips' massive new biography of Edward II here before, which I've thoroughly enjoyed - though I can't help wishing that Professor Phillips had been a little more open-minded to the notion that Edward lived past September 1327 and had engaged more with, for example, the archbishop of York's statement to the mayor of London in January 1330 that "my liege lord Edward of Caernarfon is alive and in good health of body." (Professor Phillips is not alone in easily dismissing this piece of evidence: Roy Martin Haines, in his 2009 English Historical Review article 'Sumptuous Apparel for a Royal Prisoner: Archbishop Melton's Letter, 14 January 1330', states that Melton was "misled" and "easily convinced, or should one say deceived?" into believing that Edward II was still alive in 1330, without attempting to explain how a man of Melton's intelligence and experience could have been deceived to the extent that he was willing to commit his belief in Edward's survival to writing.)

Anyway, Professor Phillips' book is a sympathetic portrayal of Edward that doesn't whitewash him, with lots and lots of gorgeous details about him and his life. See this great review by Steve Donoghue. (And from the same site, check out this review of Emma Campion's recent novel about Alice Perrers with its awesome line that Edward III "combined the muscular vitality of his grandfather Edward I and the long-haired sensuousness of his father Edward II.") There's a review of Professor Phillips' biography in The Tablet which says that Edward II "wasn't quite as loathsome or ludicrous as we have always imagined" - hmmmm - one by Nigel Saul in History Today, and one by Chris Given-Wilson in the Times Literary Supplement which I can't link to but which is mentioned here. (There's also a shoddy 'review' I refuse to link to, written by a young man with an enormous talent for self-promotion and questionable taste in friends; any of you who are friends of mine on Facebook or who regularly read my Edward II page there will know who I'm talking about.)

I haven't read or ordered it yet, but Jeffrey (J.S.) Hamilton, biographer of Piers Gaveston, has a book out called The Plantagenets: History of a Dynasty, aimed at a more general audience than his usual academic work. I was extremely disappointed by Professor Hamilton's recent article 'The Uncertain Death of Edward II?' in the History Compass journal - numerous rhetorical questions and airy dismissals of anything that doesn't fit the traditional narrative do not a convincing argument against Edward's post-1327 survival make - but this overview of the fascinating Plantagenet dynasty looks entertaining and worth a read. Nancy Goldstone, who wrote Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe about Edward II's grandmother Eleanor of Provence and her sisters, has Joanna: The Notorious Queen of Naples, Sicily and Jerusalem coming out in the UK on 11 November (it was published last autumn in the US; that's quite a delay). Queen Joanna (1326-1382) was a kinswoman of Edward II, a descendant of Edward I's sister Beatrice and also of Eleanor of Provence's sister the queen of Sicily. And finally, I'm looking forward to Helen Castor's She-Wolves: The Women who Ruled England before Elizabeth, which is due out in a few weeks. I hate the title, which is too similar to Elizabeth Norton's She-Wolves: The Notorious Queens of England and Alison Weir's Isabella: She-Wolf of France, Queen of England (and can we please stop calling powerful women 'she-wolves'?), but the book looks pretty good.

21 comments:

Susan Higginbotham said...

I can't wait for the Castor book! (Though I too wish it had a different title.)

I have the Hamilton book but haven't had a chance to read it. To my disappointment, it ends with Richard II.

Kathryn said...

Susan, please do let me know what you think of the Hamilton when you get a chance to read it! I'm definitely going to buy it when it comes out in paperback. That really is a shame for you though that it doesn't cover the 15th century!

Anonymous said...

I've just had a chance to glance at the Hamilton book. I notice that he states that Piers served in Flanders alongside his father, but in the biography of Piers he states that Arnaud was back in Gascony in May of 1297 and doesn't mention him fighting in Flanders with Piers at all. Of course it would have been possible for Arnaud to return to England in the summer of 1297 in order to go on the Flanders campaign, but if he did there should be definite evidence that he was in Flanders.It's frustrating when you can't get a definite answer about something that should be a provable fact.

Clement of the Glen said...

Mortimers book (unfortunate name!) is on my list Kathryn.

Kathryn said...

Clement, hope you enjoy the book!

Anon, I must have another look at the Hamilton biog - had missed that!

Anerje said...

My copy of Hamilton's book arrived about a week ago. I've yet to receive Mortimer's - it's been 'despateched', along with Desmond Seaward's 'The Last White Rose'. I'm holding fire on Castor's book until I read some reviews.

Kathryn said...

Anerje, I'd love to know what you think of the Hamilton!

Anerje said...

Kathryn - You inspired me to blog it:>

Kathryn said...

Yay! :-)

Lori said...

What a great and timely post. I was just coming to search for a review of Phillips' bio of Edward II. I have been reading my way through the Plantagenet dynasty this year beginning with the war between Stephen and Matilda. I will definitely have to look for the others. I just finished Higginbotham's Traitor's Wife and am currently reading Weir's bio of Isabella.

Kathryn said...

Lori, sounds like you're getting some great reading done! Hope you enjoy the Phillips biog.

Gabriele C. said...

Helloo, my shelves are full of books about the Romans. Where shall I stove all those Edwardiana? :)

Though I bet Edward will like the comapny. He'd have been at home in Hadrian's army where no one fussed about boyfriends and a lot of new forts were built (yay, digging).

Kathryn said...

Gabriele, I know the feeling - so many books, so little time. :) And yes, sounds like Edward would have been a lot happier in Roman times...;)

Carla said...

Even in Roman times, I bet the top brass weren't supposed to do the digging themselves - Edward might have had to content himself with watching hunky legionaries :-)

Ian Mortimer's book sounds fascinating, thanks for the review. The nature and assessment of historical evidence has always interested me.

Kathryn said...

Carla, I have a feeling Edward would have disguised himself so he could join in the building - as well as eyeing up the hunky legionaries! :-)

Hope you enjoy the book!

Gabriele C. said...

Lol, he could have done it openly. Some Roman generals were popular because they shared in the soldiers' privations. Germanicus is said to have eaten soldier rations and slept on the ground during campagins - he probably could have shared into some digging without creating further stir. ;) He even helped gathering the bones of the fallen on the Varus battlefield his army found six years later, and as high priest of Jupiter he wasn't supposed to touch anything that had to do with death. Of course, some - mostly highborn - Romans wrinkled their noses at that, but Germanicus was very popular with the people and he got away with things like that.

Kathryn said...

I really like the sound of Germanicus!

Carla said...

Tacitus had a lot of nice things to say about Germanicus, who seems to have been a sort of ideal hero - competent, upright and brave. If I remember rightly, in I Claudius he's a sort of counterbalance to all the, um, less than admirable behaviour of the rest of the Julio-Claudian dynasty; a good apple on a tree that bears mostly crab-apples.

Kathryn said...

Oh yes, I remember Germanicus in I, Claudius - wasn't he Caligula's father?

Gabriele C. said...

Tacitus' portrayal of Germanicus is idealised, of course, a second Alexander and all that. But Germanicus surely had great personal charm, was brave, popular with the soldiers, people and the more progressive members of the upper classes. He was an able enough general though prone to be cruel towards his enemies (not something Tacitus would have minded, though some of what happened 14-16 AD makes me cringe) and he didn't care much about rules (now, that's something I like about him).

Compared to the rest of the dysfunctional lot, Germanicus surely was a 'good guy' the way he's portrayed in I Claudius. Caligula was his only surviving son after Seianus eliminated the rest of his family following Germanicus' death.

Kathryn said...

Thanks for all the info, Gabriele - it's fascinating.