Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Early 14th Century

I have just finished "The Greatest Traitor", Ian Mortimer's study of Roger Mortimer, grandson to William Marshal. Particularly interesting therein is the depiction of the Great Famine of 1315-1317, but some say lasting as far as 1322. Hail the power of weather to change demographics. The Famine contributed to events of the entire 14th century, laying the groundwork for, among other things, the horrifically extensive ravages of the Black Death 30 years later. And, of course, I ordered a book from Amazon that treats the subject in book form depth.

I needn't go into a study of Edward II now, as there is a website that I believe covers the subject quite well, but I am beginning to see the fascination his story can engender. His dispensation of personal favoritism to the max as we would say today - the corruption of those close to him, his utter incapability as a soldier. Of course, there is the fascination regarding his death, a debated puzzle that recalls the murder of the Princes 160 or so years later.

This book is a teaser taste for finding out more about the early 14th century. And, as Roger Mortimer was the first Earl of March, his life was to presage dynastic problems in the coming decades.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Internecine Strife

Just finished "Devil's Brood" by Sharon Kay Penman. I am still in the glow of finishing this book and wanted to try to say what a fulfilling reading experience it was before the magic recedes. Son against father, husband against wife, brother against brother - 700 pages of internecine strife. Penman made each historical figure breathe, even the minor characters such as servants and lesser knights.

History may be one darned thing after another, and in the scope of the 20-something years covered in this novel, lots of darned things and motives abound - the depiction of sons being very different from their fathers (Louis Capet and his son Philippe, for example), of women suspended waiting for news (Eleanor and Constance of Brittany), of mistrust (Henry II and his devil's brood). It is the stuff of history, but above all, a family saga - a family that played its tensions and successes over a huge area of mainland Europe and the kingdom by the sea.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

William Marshal - Flower of Knighthood

Using my academic training to spot themes and patterns in literature, I see William Marshal in the novel "Devil's Brood" to be personal embodiment of chivalry. In a prior post, I used a passage about him to introduce to myself the concept of chivalry. I would like to pick up on Marshal's importance, though relative scarcity, in the story. He is a knight attached to the "young king", Hal (pictured), the firstborn of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitane. Hal is a spendthrift, superficial, self-important lord. However, the presence of William Marshal ennobles him, makes him chivalric by association.

When Marshal leaves his service, under a cloud, Hal becomes even more dissolute and reckless, raiding monasteries for funds to pay his routiers. His knights and followers are totally out of control. Hal becomes sick and, during his slide into ill health Marshal reappears. Under his care and in his presence, his liege Hal dies honorably, a repentant sinner. Hal's outer garment, adorned with the cross, is taken up by Marshal for a journey to the Holy Land.

We are not done with our exemplary knight yet, though. He comes with the tidings of the death of the fourth son, Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany to deliver the message to Henry II. He then is attached to Henry II's service.

When Marshal is absent from the story, all sorts of hell break out, brother against brother, son against father. The rivalries are played out all over what is modern day France, with the countryside pillaged and destroyed by the scorched-earth style of the time, and with the castles of the towns besieged and brought down.
Of course Marshal moves on to greater power, responsibilities and wealth, but his subsequent career is beyond the scope of this vivid and comprehensive novel. I look forward to reading Elizabeth Chadwick's novels about him ("The Greatest Knight" and "The Scarlet Lion") to learn more about this knight through the pleasant medium of historical fiction.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Introduction to Chivalry 101

I quote Sharon Kay Penman, in "Devil's Brood", pp 144-5: (William Marshal)

"Will firmly believed that the world would descend into chaos and hellish turmoil if men did not obey those laws meant to govern their behavior and tame their more shameful impulses, laws set forth by the
Holy Church, by the Crown, and now by the chivalric canons. Chivalry was the foundation stone of his life, offering more than a code of conduct, offering a map which would enable men of good faith to avoid those sinful temptations that might jeopardize their chances of salvation".

This book, along with being engaging, is turning out to be my fictive return to the age of chivalry. Definitively not a concept thought that very much about in the Wars of the Roses. The application was going, going, gone, goodbye. The Knights Templar, Crusades, Teutonic dudes, tournaments - like any code, perhaps, clarified in the breach. Thank you, Ms. Penman, for re-opening my eyes to the world of chivalric intent. Also to see what glory was lost.

(pictured 14th century tournament melee)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Few Thoughts on Henry V

Like many, I returned to our neighborhood art cinema theatre to see "Henry V", the Branagh version, about six times. (Speech from the film) It was released about twenty years ago, displaying the timeless dance of war - "the suffering and the sorrow and the glory and the pain" as the song goes. The book I am reading now, "Henry V" by Harold Hutchison, a work from the sixties, tells of his ruthlessness, his pig-headed one-mindedness that was presaged by his youthful fighting of Glendower in Wales, his relative neglect of domestic issues and the bankrupting of English resources - (the crown and the crown jewels were in pawn, for example), to raise the cash necessary for a small island nation to attempt annexation of the crown of France.

Agincourt, though a overwhelming tactical victory, did not give Henry France. It took a extremely well planned later invasion, and a totally wrecked situation among the French duchies to do that. In a generation, and it would have taken less time than that save some inspired soldiering by the English, it was nearly gone, as Henry VI "lost all". Back to the book now, it is very absorbing.