17 January, 2019

Book Review: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is a novel I've read several times over the years, and is a novel I both love and hate. In 2054, they've invented time travel (and, for reasons which are never explained, it's controlled by incompetent historians at Oxford University), and a young student called Kivrin goes back to 1320, during Edward II's reign - or so she thinks. In fact, she ends up in 1348 by mistake, and gets caught up in the first terrible epidemic of the Black Death.

The novel was published in 1992 and written in the late 1980s, and unfortunately the author did not anticipate mobile phones or email or the internet, with unintentionally hilarious results. It's supposed to be set in 2054, but a person who could sort the mess out is on a fishing holiday in Scotland and is therefore as unreachable as if he'd travelled to the far side of the universe, and there are more scenes than I can count where desperate people phone other people's landlines but they're not at home so they have to leave messages, but the people don't receive these urgent messages because the people who were meant to pass them on don't or because bits of paper where the urgent messages have been written down flutter to the ground and are missed, and so on. A scene where someone gasps out 'something is wrong' then conveniently faints or rushes off before he can explain what's wrong seems to happen about 147 times, and the astonishingly inept historians at Oxford who for unfathomable reasons have been put in charge of time travel finally clock that Kivrin is in 1348, not in 1320, on p. 405 of the 578-page novel. Basically, the whole thing makes much more sense if you assume it's set in an alternate reality 1954 where they have a time machine rather than in 2054. There's a quarantine going on in the Oxford of 2054, people wear ear muffs and shop at Woolworths, and the author seems to think that in British English a 'muffler' is a kind of scarf rather than a car part. The word 'muffler' in the context she uses it is so hilariously old-fashioned I'm not sure if even my great-grandparents would have used it, so the novel sometimes gives the impression of being set in 1854, never mind 1954. The last couple of times I've read Doomsday Book, I've skipped the weirdly dated supposedly futuristic scenes and just read all the fourteenth-century scenes, and it improved the experience immeasurably.

The names of a few of the characters throw me too. Why on earth is the main character from 2054 called 'Kivrin'? Why does a fourteenth-century English nobleman (whom we don't meet, Eliwys's husband and Imeyne's son) have a French name, Guillaume? Another thing I find deeply irritating is that fourteenth-century people are always referred to as 'the contemps', i.e. contemporaries. Could you not just call them 'people'? I also really did not warm to Kivrin as a character at all.

Early in the novel before Kivrin travels back in time, she talks to Dunworthy, her professor who has a fixation on her that I find deeply creepy. He tells her that no-one has ever travelled back to the fourteenth century before as it's too dangerous, as they 'were still burning witches in 1320'. Heh?? Burning witches in 1320? He says this again a bit later, when he comments that life expectancy was thirty-eight in the early fourteenth century and that was only if you didn't get burned alive for witchcraft. Why does this professional historian in charge of time travel not know the difference between 1320 and 1620? He also thinks that Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in the fourteenth century. Errrrmmmm. People fret that Kivrin will get cholera, which didn't actually exist in England at the time, and the narrative tells us that we have No. Sources. Whatsoever! for people's lives in the Middle Ages except tax rolls and parish records and that therefore we don't know anything. This is nonsense on stilts. So many sources survive; we have thousands of wills from fourteenth-century England, the chancery rolls, lots of household accounts, letters, petitions, court rolls, parliament rolls, plea rolls, mayors' rolls, coroners' rolls, the London Assize of Nuisance, and much more. So, so much more. And the narrative endlessly contradicts itself by making wild sweeping generalisations that 'the contemps did X' and 'the contemps thought Y' and 'the contemps believed Z'. As one example of many, in 1348 a puppy dies, and Kivrin smugly tells us that 'the contemps disposed of dead animals by tossing them into the underbrush or dumping them in a stream,' as though she's canvassed every single medieval person's opinion on the matter. But I thought we had no sources and didn't know anything, so where are you getting this? Throughout, there's a tendency to portray the fourteenth century in the most cliched and negative way possible, so everyone and everything is filthy all the time, and a twelve-year-old character, Rosamund, who looks even younger than she is, is shortly to marry a man in his fifties. To me, it seemed as though Kivrin was looking at the people she met down her nose all the time and that the reader is meant to share her distaste of OH MY GOD LOOK AN ADOLESCENT CHILD HAS TO MARRY A MAN OLD ENOUGH TO BE HER GRANDFATHER AND OH MY GOD THEY HAVE FLEAS, HOW PRIMITIVE AND HORRIBLE THESE PEOPLE ARE.

When Kivrin first arrives in 1348, for the first few days she can't understand the Middle English the 'contemps' (heh) are speaking. Their speech appears on the page phonetically, the way Kivrin hears it. A lot of it, I can work out, but a lot I can't. Thanway maunhollp anhour means 'Then we must help [holpen] her', and Spaegun yovor tongawn glais? means 'Speak you our English tongue?', and Got tallon wottes means 'God alone knows'. Other bits, I can't get. Auf specherit darmayt is beyond me, except darmayt probably means 'the maid'. Or Maetinkerr woun dahest wexe hoordoumbe and Nor nayte boorcows derouthe. I really think Connie Willis should have explained and translated all this in an author's note at the end. It's very frustrating that it isn't.

Kivrin is seriously ill and burning up with fever when she arrives in the past, and hallucinates that the 'contemps' are burning her at the stake, because, you know, that's what people do for laughs in 1320 according to our stunningly brilliant historian Dunworthy; they encounter women in the woods and randomly burn them alive. A large part of the novel involves Kivrin lying in bed seriously ill, and she spends most of the rest of it wondering how she's going to locate and get back to 'the drop', i.e. the place where she arrived in the past, as she needs to be there at a certain pre-arranged time in order to return to 2054. The words 'the drop' and 'slippage' appear so often in the novel you could play a drinking game with them. You'd think that an advanced society able to invent time travel and to come up with a 'memory enhancer' in the brain which enables Kivrin to speak and understand Middle English might be clever enough to put some kind of locator on her so that they know exactly where and when she is. Instead, as noted above, they finally figure it out on page 405. Durrrrrrr. These are the people in charge of time travel. Or you'd expect them maybe to be able to open 'the net' that will bring her back to the twenty-first century anywhere, instead of requiring her to find the exact clearing in the large wood where she arrived, or even to realise that forcing Kivrin to find and identify a specific clearing in a large wood full of clearings and snow-covered trees and paths might not be the most efficient way of going about things, but maybe that's just me.

The first person Kivrin meets in 1348 (or 1320, as she thinks it is) is Father Roche, the simple but kindly and compassionate parish priest, whom Kivrin assumes for several chapters is a 'cut-throat' who wishes to harm her, for no reason that I could fathom except that somehow he has a face that makes him look like a cut-throat. 'Cut-throat', like 'the drop' and 'slippage', is a word that appears approximately 1,754 times throughout the novel, or at least that's what it feels like. Actually, when we get to meet him properly, Father Roche is a very well-drawn and sympathetic character. In one scene, Kivrin wanders into the church and hears him chatting to God, as though God is his friend, telling Him all about the villagers and what they're doing and how their health is. I thought that was lovely. The other main characters are Eliwys, a young noblewoman, her daughters Rosamund and Agnes, her mother-in-law Imeyne, their servant Maisry, and Gawyn, the man-servant of Eliwys's absent husband Guillaume. We also meet some of the villagers who live near the manor-house, envoys from the bishop, and Sir Bloet, the elderly future husband of Rosamund, and several members of his family.

Once the Black Death arrives in the village, just after Christmas 1348 - when Kivrin finally, 386 pages into a 578-page book, realises what year she's in - Doomsday Book packs a real emotional punch. Let's just say that Connie Willis isn't afraid to kill off her characters, and it's incredibly moving. Near the end of the novel, two people come through from the future to rescue Kivrin, and come across a black horse in the wood. Although they have no way of knowing it, the horse belongs to Gawyn, who rides off to fetch Sir Guillaume and never comes home. Eliwys, who loves Gawyn and is waiting for him, dies without ever seeing him again, without knowing that he fell from his horse and died just a couple of miles from home. At this stage in the novel, I am in absolute floods, and just thinking about it now makes me want to howl with grief. Then we have the villager who goes mad when he has to bury all five of his children and digs himself into their grave, and freezes to death there. Father Roche, who seems to be well enough to travel away from the village with Kivrin, but suddenly begins hallucinating and turns out to have a massive bubo in his groin, and who thinks that Kivrin is a saint come from heaven to save him. Little Agnes, who dies screaming for Kivrin to come, although Kivrin is right next to her. Ohhhh God. It really brings home the horror of what the Black Death must have been like, as we watch the characters we've got to know suffer and die and Kivrin's utter helplessness and hopelessness as she tries to do what she can for them. The last few chapters of the novel are so moving they almost make me forgive all the endless irritations up to that point.

Doomsday Book would have been an absolutely fantastic novel without the disconcertingly old-fashioned and almost entirely pointless future scenes, and if Kivrin had been a more proactive heroine who didn't have to spend half her scenes feverish in bed and most of the rest fretting about 'the drop'. There's a brilliant story here, unfortunately surrounded by about 500 pages of filler. 

12 January, 2019

Oliver of Bordeaux (c. 1290? - c. early 1360s)

Oliver of Bordeaux was a squire of Edward II's chamber, a Gascon who lived in England for most of his long life and who often appears in the English chancery rolls as 'Oliver de Burdeux' or 'Oliver de Burdegala', the Latin form of his name. Here's a post about him. (Second part of my post about Hugh Despenser the Elder is coming soon, by the way, but I'm still working on it.)

I've first found Oliver on record in England on 29 March 1308, when he is mentioned as a valet of Edward II's household, a few months after Edward's accession to the throne. [1] I assume, given how long Oliver lived - he was still alive in 1359/60 and perhaps later - that he was a very young man then, no more than eighteen or twenty or so, and perhaps had not long arrived in England. As a Gascon, from the territories ruled by the English kings in their capacity as dukes of Aquitaine, he was a subject of the English Crown, and plenty of other Gascon men served in Edward II's household throughout his reign. Oliver was one of four sons of the curiously-named Lop-Bergunh or Loup-Borgoun, a merchant from Morlaàs in Béarn, 115 miles south of Bordeaux and only about four miles from the village of Gabaston, where Piers Gaveston's family originated from. There is a reference on the fine roll of September 1243 to an Oliver de Bordeaux, burgess of Morlaàs, almost certainly an ancestor, and this book states that our Oliver "belonged to the great family which once governed the capital of Aquitaine" and that Pey (or Pierre) de Bordeaux, seneschal of Gascony in Henry III's reign, was also an ancestor.

Oliver's eldest brother, their father's heir, was also named Lop-Bergunh and was mayor of the city of Bordeaux for some of the 1310s; he was still alive in the early 1330s (see here for one of his many petitions to Edward III; his name is spelt 'Lopborgoign de Bordeux' and he refers to "Lord E., formerly king of England, your father, whom God absolve"). They had another brother called Guilhem or Guilhem-Bergunh, and a fourth whose name appears as 'Domengeon de Burdeaux' and who joined the Church in or before March 1308. [2] Oliver and his brothers Lop-Bergunh and Guilhem were all in England in 1315, and were said to be "on the king's service at Berwick-on-Tweed." [3] In the early years of his reign, Edward II gave Oliver almost 500 acres of land, pasture, meadow and wood, and houses and gardens, in Eton, Windsor and Old Windsor, and houses in Sevyng Lane, London (later called Seething Lane). [4] He was constable of Guildford Castle in Surrey and Windsor Castle in the late 1310s. [5]

As well as giving Oliver lands and frequent gifts of cash, Edward II arranged a very favourable marriage for him with a noblewoman called Maud Trussell, née Mainwaring, a widow with sons called John, William and Warin Trussell. The king personally attended Oliver and Maud’s wedding "at the door of the chapel within the park of Woodstock" near Oxford on 26 June 1317, gave them two rings worth thirty shillings each, and five days later on 1 July granted them an annual income of 100 marks (£66) from the Exchequer. [6] Maud was of noble birth and one of the three co-heirs of her father, while Oliver was the son of a merchant and not his father's eldest son or heir, and was never knighted. Assuming that Maud consented to the marriage and was not forced into it by Edward II, she was happy enough to marry a man of lower rank than she; perhaps Oliver was an attractive and personable man, and to be fair he was far from being a nobody but came from quite a prominent family of Béarn. Oliver must have paid out the £42, 14s, 1d it cost for Maud to travel to court in June 1317 and to stay there with the king before their wedding, as on 3 August 1317 Edward ordered that sum to be paid to him for Maud's expenses. [7]

Maud Trussell, née Mainwaring was the third and youngest daughter of Warin Mainwaring, sometimes spelt Meynwaring or Menwarin, who died at the end of May 1289. At Warin's inquisition post mortem on 23 June 1289, Maud was said to be "aged half a year and more," hence must have been born about the end of 1288 or thereabouts, and was twenty-eight when she married Oliver of Bordeaux in June 1317. (Her sisters Joan and Margery were five and three respectively in June 1289.) [8] Her second husband Oliver was probably about the same age. Maud Mainwaring married her first husband William Trussell sometime in the early 1300s. There were several Sir William Trussells active in England in the early fourteenth century, and I'm not entirely sure which one Maud married; obviously it can't have been the Sir William Trussell who read out the charges against Hugh Despenser the Younger in Hereford in November 1326 (and had done the same for Hugh the Elder a month earlier), as claimed on Wikipedia and here, as Maud married Oliver of Bordeaux in June 1317 when she was a widow. A William Trussell, perhaps the man of this name who was Maud's husband, was knighted with Edward of Caernarfon and more than 250 others on 22 May 1306. See here and here for posts in soc.genealogy.medieval about the family. There is no inquisition post mortem for William Trussell, and I haven't found any entries in the chanvery rolls relating to his death, so the date when he died is not clear; perhaps 1316 or early 1317, just a few months before his widow married Oliver.

There are numerous references to Oliver of Bordeaux in the chancery rolls, the chancery warrants, Edward II's chamber and wardrobe accounts, and so on, and it is apparent that he was very close to the king and favoured by him. Various entries in the chancery rolls in the 1310s and 1320s state that Edward II made grants or appointments "on the information of Oliver de Burdegala," revealing that the young Gascon had access to the king and was willing and able to intercede with him on others' behalf. Oliver accompanied Edward to the north of England in the autumn of 1310 when he went on an unsuccessful mission to defeat Robert Bruce, and on the day Edward heard of Piers Gaveston's murder a week after it happened, on 26 June 1312, the king ordered the keeper of the royal manor of Burstwick to give 'bay colts' from the stud there to Oliver of Bordeaux, Sir Edmund Mauley and Sir Henry Beaumont. [9] Oliver was with the king at Langley at the beginning of 1315, just after Gaveston's funeral, when he sent a letter to the chancellor, John Sandal. [10] He went on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in or soon after February 1316, the year before Edward II arranged his marriage to Maud Trussell, and in December 1316 was appointed keeper of the bastides of 'Froundeboef, Seint Gyn and Lieuz' in his native Gascony (though given that he got married in England a few months later, I assume he was an absentee keeper). Oliver took part in the king's campaign against the Contrariants in 1321/22, and was with Edward when the royal cousin Thomas of Lancaster was executed in Pontefract in March 1322. On one occasion, Edward II used Oliver's seal on a writ: "Because we did not have our privy seal near us when this letter was made, we used the seal of our dear valet Oliver de Burdeux." [11]

A curious entry in Edward II's chamber account states that at Harpley in Norfolk on 7 February 1326, Edward sat beside Oliver of Bordeaux's bed at "a little before midnight", and gave him a gift of twenty marks. (Earlier in his reign, on 4 March and 26 April 1311, Edward had given Oliver hugely generous gifts of 100 marks on each occasion, and another twenty marks on 6 September 1322.) [12] The 7th of February 1326 was the night before Edward had it proclaimed around his kingdom that his wife, Isabella, had made an alliance in France with the remnant of the Contrariant faction, led by Roger Mortimer of Wigmore. Perhaps Edward had just found out that his wife had allied with his enemies and was shocked and unable to sleep, and unburdened himself to Oliver (though of course I'm only speculating). Oliver of Bordeaux stayed with Edward until the bitter end after the queen's invasion, and on 10 November 1326 just six days before the king's capture, was one of the five men Edward appointed as envoys to the queen and her and Edward's son Edward of Windsor. [13] As noted above, a Sir William Trussell read out the charges against the two Hugh Despensers in October and November 1326, and he was surely a relative of Oliver's wife Maud. I'm not sure how; this William Trussell was a Contrariant in 1321/22, and Maud, born c. late 1288, would seem much too young to be his mother. At any rate, it is possible that Oliver and Maud's loyalties were somewhat divided in the autumn of 1326, though Oliver did remain with Edward II and Hugh Despenser the Younger until days before their capture, and did not abandon them as most others did.

After Edward II's downfall, Oliver joined his son Edward III's household, and is named as one of the king's squires in June 1328 and again in 1330. In 1329, Oliver was appointed keeper of the castle of Bayonne in his native Gascony, and on 15 December 1330 a few weeks after he overthrew his mother Isabella and took over control of his own kingdom, Edward III praised Oliver's "laudable service" to his father. It seems that Oliver appointed a deputy to act on his behalf, however, and remained in England. [14] In 1352, Oliver was apparently serving in the household of Edward III's eldest son Edward of Woodstock, prince of Wales: on 7 November that year, there is a reference in the prince's account to 40 shillings being paid "by the hands of Oliver de Burdeux for play in the queen's [Philippa of Hainault's] chamber at Berkhamsted." [15]

Oliver of Bordeaux and Maud Trussell had no children together - Maud had three sons and apparently a daughter from her first marriage, so perhaps Oliver was infertile - and Maud died sometime before 23 May 1336, when an entry on the patent roll states "...inasmuch as the said Matilda [i.e. Maud] is now deceased leaving no heir of her body by the said Oliver...". She was still alive on 30 September 1334. [16] Edward III exempted Oliver for life in February 1342 from taking up knighthood and pardoned him for not having done so in the past; as Oliver had an annual income of £40 or more, he was qualified for knighthood and was obligated to become one, yet obviously did not wish to. In February 1331, he had his own squire, John le Taillour. [17] In 1336 and perhaps in other years, he acted as the attorney of his stepson, Sir William Trussell, second of Maud's three sons (John was the eldest, and Warin, named after Maud's father, the youngest). Oliver had also acted as the attorney of 'the burgesses of St Quitterie' in 1317. [18]

Edward III commissioned Oliver of Bordeaux and three other men "to survey the works in Windsor Castle" on 12 May 1351, and he was serving the king's eldest son in November 1352, so evidently Oliver was perfectly fit and healthy well over forty years after he had arrived in England. Oliver was still alive on 2 January 1359 when Sir William Trussell (either his stepson or his late wife Maud's grandson, I'm not sure) promised to pay £50 annually to hold various lands in and around Windsor "for the life of Oliver", and he was apparently also still alive on 1 June 1360, when Edward III pardoned a man "for the taking of twelve swans at Dorneyemore and in the water of [the River] Thames of Oliver de Burdeux." He was dead by 20 February 1365, when mention is made of "lands and meadows in Wychemere, Kyngefrede and Daylese, late of Oliver de Burdeux." [19] It seems that Oliver lived to be a good seventy years old or more, and he spent almost all his adult life in England. His name was remembered as late as 1473 - 1473, not 1373 - when a piece of land in Eton was said to be 'sometime of Oliver de Burdeux', a whopping 163 years after Edward II gave it to him and over 100 years after his death. [20] Over a century after he died, Oliver's name was still well-known in the parts of England where he had held lands. This book describes Oliver of Bordeaux as a "wise and able man," a judgement with which I can only concur.

Sources

1) Chancery Warrants 1308-48, p. 270; also CPR 1307-13, p. 66.
2) Chancery Warrants 1308-48, pp. 270, 417; and see the gasconrolls.org website.
3) Chancery Warrants 1308-48, pp. 407, 417.
4) CPR 1307-13, pp. 95, 271, 301, 386, 481, 494, 516; CPR 1317-21, pp. 259, 556; CPR 1324-7, p. 214; CPR 1327-30, pp. 236, 525; CCR 1318-23, p. 311.
5) CCR 1318-23, pp. 11, 158-9, 173 etc.
6) Thomas Stapleton, ‘A Brief Summary of the Wardrobe Accounts of the tenth, eleventh and fourteenth years of King Edward the Second’, Archaeologia, 26 (1836), p. 339; CPR 1313-7, p. 677.
7) CCR 1313-8, p. 490.
8) CIPM 1272-91, no. 742.
9) C 47/22/3/115; CCR 1307-13, p. 428.
10) SC 1/35/142.
11) CPR 1313-7, pp. 390, 396; Documents Relating to Scotland 1307-57, no. 747; Chancery Warrants 1308-48, p. 453.
12) SAL MS 122, p. 50; J. C. Davies, The Baronial Opposition to Edward II, p. 222.
13) CPR 1324-7, p. 336.
14) Memoranda Rolls Michaelmas 1326 - Michaelmas 1327, nos. 2270, 2271; Gascon Rolls, C 61/41, nos. 102-104, 213, 214.
15) Register of the Black Prince, vol. 4, p. 76.
16) CPR 1334-8, pp. 28, 271.
17) CPR 1340-3, p. 389; CCR 1330-3, p. 285.
18) CCR 1333-7, pp. 670, 685; CPR 1313-7, p. 640.
19) CPR 1350-4, p. 69; CPR 1358-61, pp. 148, 380; CPR 1364-7, p. 95.
20) CPR 1467-77, p. 394.

04 January, 2019

My New Article

The second volume of the peer-reviewed academic Journal of the Mortimer History Society is out now, and there's an article I wrote in it! As I write this blog post, the new volume hasn't been added to the Society's website, but here is the page for the first volume. If you'd like a copy of the journal and aren't a member of the MHS, you can buy one for five pounds, plus postage.

My article examines some of the extortions carried out by Edward II's powerful chamberlain Hugh Despenser the Younger in the 1320s. The first part of the title, 'We Might be Prepared to Harm You', comes from a letter Hugh wrote in c. October 1322, which I've translated (well, some of it...it's a seriously long letter). That's Hugh for you...threatening, blackmailing, extorting and imprisoning! As well as this article, there's also my new bio of Hugh. He was, let's face it, not the nicest person you could ever meet, but he was a fascinating one, and I've examined his misdeeds in detail and translated a lot of his extant letters to give the full flavour of the man.