Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Chronicle of King Pedro Volumes 1 - 3 ed by Peter Such

Pero López de Ayala's Chronicle of King Pedro provides a compelling and richly informative account of the turbulent reign of the notorious but enigmatic fourteenth-century Castilian monarch who came to be known as Pedro el Cruel. It is a vitally important source for our understanding of the history of the Iberian Peninsula during this critical period in its development and of the complex social and political divisions by which the Spanish kingdoms were torn. 

This three-volume Chronicle gives us a gripping and wide-ranging picture of a period characterized by harsh brutality, conflict and betrayal but at the same time by the ideals of chivalry, memorably personified in figures such as the Black Prince and Bertrand du Guesclin. At its centre is the chilling portrait of King Pedro, a brilliantly constructed image of self-destructive evil. 

The translation is accompanied by a Spanish text taken from Germán Orduna's groundbreaking edition and by detailed notes. The introduction explores the background to the Chronicle's composition and sets López de Ayala's account against a broad canvas of events in the Spanish kingdoms and beyond. It examines how the chronicler's subtle artistry was used to create a picture of a deeply flawed monarch which has continued to exercise a profound fascination over the centuries.

Childhood, Youth and Religious Minorities in Early Modern Europe by Tali Berner

This edited collection examines different aspects of the experience and significance of childhood, youth and family relations in minority religious groups in north-west Europe in the late medieval, Reformation and post-Reformation era. It aims to take a comparative approach, including chapters on Protestant, Catholic and Jewish communities. 

The chapters are organised into themed sections, on 'Childhood, religious practice and minority status', 'Family and responses to persecution', and 'Religious division and the family: co-operation and conflict'. 

Contributors to the volume consider issues such as religious conversion, the impact of persecution on childhood and family life, emotion and affectivity, the role of childhood and memory, state intervention in children's religious upbringing, the impact of confessionally mixed marriages, persecution and co-existence. Some chapters focus on one confessional group, whilst others make comparisons between them.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Review: The Secret Diaries of Juan Luis Vives by Tim Darcy Ellis

Synopsis: It is 1522, The Spanish Netherlands, Juan Luis Vives, a renowned academic, has fled Spain to avoid the fires of the Inquisition, yet even here he is not safe. When England's Sir Thomas More offers him the role of tutor to Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII, he eagerly accepts.While publicly navigating life as a 'New Christian,' Vives is quickly drawn into the secretive and dangerous world of London's Jewish community. With a foot in each world, he is torn between the love of two women.

Inside the Tudor court, the king and queen separately seek Vives's assistance to support their opposed demands. He must betray one to help the other, knowing his decision could cost him his life. Whom will he choose? Will his wily skills allow him to manipulate them both? Not only his survival but that of his family and his entire people hang in the balance.

But first, a little background ....

The Jews In England:
There were individual Jews living in England in Roman and Anglo-Saxon times (80-1066 A.D.), but not an organized community. When William the Conqueror arrived in England in 1066, he encouraged Jewish merchants and artisans from northern France to move to England. One of the oldest Jewish communities in England was in Oxford, where Jews had begun to settle as early as 1075. Jews still faced persecution and were not fully protected by the Crown. They were still the targets of attacks on themselves, their businesses, their communities. The 13th century witness rampant anti-semitism. 

By 1290 the inevitable happened when Edward I - who had found an alternative source of finance in the Italian merchants known as the "pope's usurers" - banished the Jews from England. England was the first European country to do so but in the following centuries France, Spain, Portugal and others would follow suit.

A small number remained, either by converting to Christianity or concealing their identity and religion. These converts were know as crypto-Christian or marranos. It was documented from Inquisition records that many still (secretly) practised their beliefs. The problem with the records of English Jewish converts to Christianity from the pre-Expulsion period is that their "former" Jewish names were rarely, if ever, recorded. A census of Oxford Jewish converts from the year 1247 survives and, typically, records only their new "Christian" names without any reference to their previous lifelong Jewish identity.

Small communities of Spanish and Portuguese conversos in London and Bristol were tolerated by both Henry VIII and Edward VI. Many were required to reside in the Domus Conversorum, or "House of Converts". Interestingly, Registers of the inmates of the London Domus Conversoruum from 1331 to 1608 survive, but only list forty eight Jewish individuals (38 men and 10 women) - over this entire period of 277 years.

Fast forward a couple of hundred years and we find Jews prominent at the Tudor and Elizabethan courts. Many of the foreign musicians at this time, notably the Lupos and Bassanos, were most probably also originally or covertly Jewish, brought over from Italy. Others might be found teaching Hebrew at Oxford and Cambridge, or helping Bodley with the Hebrew catalogue at the University Library. In fact, Henry VIII openly welcomed Jewish Hebrew scholars who he hoped would help him find the Biblical loophole through which he could extricate himself from his marital complications. (see Henry VIII & the Oxford Hebraists by Rabbi Eli, Oxford University Chabad Society)

Years later, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a converso, Hector Nunes was celebrated for being the first to give warning of he impending Spanish Armada.  And shortly after, a prominant Jew and converso, Roderigo Lopez, Elizabeth I’s personal physician, was tortured, then drawn and quartered in 1594 for allegedly conspiring to poison the Queen. As a result, many Jews fled to the Low Countries, often disguised as Catholics.

While the overwhelming majority of Elizabethans had never knowingly met a Jew, by the end of the 16th century, interactions between Jews and English were becoming more frequent, especially abroad, in Morocco and Turkey as well as in Antwerp, Amsterdam and Venice, where Jewish communities were flourishing. These encounters gradually called into question many of the stereotypes that had prevailed in an England largely free of Jews for 300 years.

So, for more than 300 years no Jew, officially, existed in the country. It was not until Charles I was beheaded that the Jews felt safe to return. In 1655, the position of Jews in England was transformed when Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel of Amsterdam delivered his famous petition to the Council of State, requesting their readmission. Oliver Cromwell supported the petition and established that no actual law forbade readmission, thus paving the way for Jews to return to the country, a gradula process which took many years.

Jews In The Low Countries (Belgium, Flanders, the Netherlands)
In the 13th and 14th centuries, Jews settled in the Low Countries after being expelled from England and France, where they were received and permitted to settle, providing services, paying taxes and under the protection of the law. 

After the initial persecutions of the 14th century, another wave of immigration to Belgium came in the 15th century from Spain and Portugal, fleeing the Spanish Inquisition with Antwerp hosting the largest community. Whilst many Jews still remained in the Iberian peninsula under constant suspicion and fear of denunciation, practicing either their new religion in public and Judaism in secret, or both, the newly independent and tolerant Dutch provinces of the Low Countries provided more favourable conditions for observant Jews to establish a community, and to practice their religion openly. They also brought navigation knowledge and techniques from Portugal, which enabled the Netherlands to start competing in overseas trade with the Spanish and Portuguese colonies.

Juan Luis Vives (1493–1540) was a Spanish humanist and educational theorist who strong opposition to scholasticism made his one of the most influential advocates of humanistic learning in the early sixteenth century. After fleeing his native Valencia in the facing of the Spanish Inquisition (where his family, who converted from Judaisim to Christinaity, suffered greatly), he ended up in Paris where he was immersed in the learning offered there. Settling in Bruges (1514), he was introduced to Erasmus and appointed as tutor to the Flemish nobleman William of Croy. Vives lived in Louvain and taught at the Collegium Trilingue. From 1523 to 1528, Vives divided his time between England, which he visited on six occasions, and Bruges, where he married Margarita Valldaura in 1524. 

In England he attended the court of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, and was tutor to their daughter, Mary. He also held a lectureship at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and associated with English humanists such as Thomas Linacre and Thomas More (though to what extent this intimate familial relationship was I am unsure). In 1528 he lost the favor of Henry VIII when he supported Catherine of Aragon in the matter of the divorce. He was placed under house arrest for a time, before being allowed to return to Bruges. The last twelve years of Vives’ life were his most productive, and it was in this period that he published several of the works for which he is best known today. 

Juan Luis Vives was a towering figure of the Renaissance, a man of immense learning, integrity, and originality, yet he still remains very little known, even to the scholarly world. His conception of Christianity was developed in a posthumous and influential treatise De veritate fidei Christianae. Among Vives’s last works was a handbook of private prayers intended for the laity.

This is the period we as readers are interested in - Vives time in Bruges, Louvain and England - the period in which he wrote his diaries, and of his ongoing battles with his personal and religious identities - he was the son of coversos and was born into Christianity - wherein he spent much time trying to reconcile these two facets of his identity, both privately and publicly.  Vives is portrayed as a tortured soul, pouring out his religious frustrations onto the pages of his (not so secret) diary.  He is a deeply flawed man, walking a political tightrope who is clearly out of his depth, and somewhat naive in his approach to the machinations of those around him.  The reader is also left wondering whether Vives is mourning not only the loss of his family (at the hands of the Inquisition) but also his religious identity - is he a Jew or Christian?

This is a fascinating and well researched work into a man who I would not hesitate to say is barely known.  Though a work of fiction, author Tim Darcy Ellis peppers the diary pages with real historical figures and events, giving that authenticity that readers love.  I would have liked to have known more about Vives actions in England toward bringing about an open Jewish settlement, however I am guessing documentation on this aspect is few and far between.  Overall, an enjoyable read on a less known figure.

read more here:
- Letters of Juan Luis Vivies at the Bodleian
- Juan Luis Vives on Poor Relief
Chapter 2. A short history of the Conversos from The Long Journey of Gracia Mendes by Marianna D. Birnbaum
Interfaith Encounters between Jews and Christians in the Early Modern Period and Beyond by Daniel Jütte

Jewish Women and Their Salons by Emily Bilski & Emily Braun

From their debut in Berlin in the 1780s to their emergence in 1930s California, Jewish women’s salons served as welcoming havens where all classes and creeds could openly debate art, music, literature, and politics. This fascinating book is the first to explore the history of these salons where remarkable women of intellect resolved that neither gender nor religion would impede their ability to bring about social change.

Emily D. Bilski and Emily Braun examine the lives of more than a dozen Jewish salonières, charting the evolution of the salon over time and among cultures, in cities including Berlin, Vienna, Paris, London, New York, and Milan. They show how each woman uniquely adapted the salon to suit her own interests while maintaining the salon’s key characteristics of basic informality and a diversity of guests. 

Other distinguished contributors to the volume discuss in detail the Berlin salons of the 1800s; the salon in terms of Jewish acculturation and its relation to gender and music; and the relations of Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde, and Gertrude Stein to the literary salon. 

The book is enriched with a lavish array of illustrations, including documentary photographs, paintings, drawings, prints, and decorative arts.

Baldric of Bourgueil: "History of the Jerusalemites" translated by Susan Edgington

The first translation of Baldric's Historia Ierosolimitana, a spirited account of the First Crusade, into modern English.

The Historia Ierosolimitana is a prose narrative of the events of the First Crusade written at the abbey of Bourgueil in the Loire Valley around 1105. Its author, the abbot Baldric, used the anonymous Gesta Francorum for much of the factual material presented, but provided literary enhancements and amplifications of the historical narrative and the characters found therein, in order, as Baldric says, to make the Historia a more worthy account of the miraculous events it describes.

This volume provides the first modern-language translation of the Historia, with a full introduction setting out its historical, social, political and manuscript contexts, and notes. It will contribute to a revised exploration of the First Crusade, and facilitate much wider debates about the place of history writing in medieval culture, textuality and manuscript transmission.

The Woman Who Discovered Printing by T.H. Barrett

This beguiling book asks a set of unusual and fascinating questions—why is early Chinese printing so little acknowledged, despite anticipating Gutenberg by centuries? Why are the religious elements of all early printing overlooked? And why did printing in China not have the immediate obvious impact it did in Europe?

T. H. Barrett, a leading scholar of medieval China, brings us the answers through the intriguing story of Empress Wu (AD 625–705) and the revolution in printing that occurred during her rule. Linking Asian and European history with substantial new research into Chinese sources, Barrett identifies methods of transmitting texts before printing and explains the historical context of seventh-century China. He explores the dynastic reasons behind Empress Wu’s specific interest in printing and the motivating role of her private religious beliefs. He also deduces from eighth- and ninth-century Chinese records an explanation for the lesser impact of the introduction of printing in China than in Europe. 

As Renaissance Europe was later astonished to learn of China’s achievement, so today’s reader will be fascinated by this engaging perspective on the history of printing and the technological superiority of Empress Wu’s China.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Blog Tour: Sons of Rome

Sons of Rome is the first book in the brand new Rise of Emperors series, an action-packed historical thriller set in the 3rd century AD. It follows the lives of two men whose destinies are inextricably linked after a chance meeting in the city of Treverorum in their youth. They must share glory and heartbreak along with the Roman empire itself as it endures an era of tyranny and dread.

But just how did two authors decide to bring two characters together - in the same book. Well, here's how it all came about from the authors themselves.

How it Happened by Gordon Doherty & Simon Turney

Gordon and Simon have been friends and co-conspirators for more than a decade. They first came into contact on a peer-review writing website, on which they both honed their debut Roman novels. By 2012 they were firm friends and arranged to meet up at the annual Festival of History at Kelmarsh. It so happened that this particular year, the heavens opened, appalling rains flooded the site and the festival was cancelled. This left Gordon and Simon, along with a number of other friends, far from home in Leicestershire and with no festival to visit.

Cue a weekend spent largely in the pub. And like many great (and many awful) ideas, the notion of writing a joint novel was born in those hours of carousing and historical discussion that weekend. Initially, all that arose was the idea that it could be done. At that point even the plot and characters had not been decided. It was a nice idea that seemed nicer with every beer…

Then, the festival over, they returned home. However, unlike many pub-born ideas, this one refused to let go, and the project continued to nag at both of them. Ideas came in flurries, and emails were exchanged. Simon was at the time specialising in Republican Rome, and Gordon in the Late Roman Empire – periods over four hundred years apart. How then to bring their skills and knowledge together? It was a conundrum at first, but gradually the clouds parted and the most perfect answer was revealed. 

The story of Constantine and Maxentius – two giants of history from the period that irreversibly reshaped the Roman world, bridging Simon’s era to Gordon’s – was perfect. Even better, they realised, each of them could take on the ‘voice’ of one protagonist, and tell the tale in alternating chapters. It all snowballed dramatically from there.

They arranged to meet up to discuss all their plans. That meeting occurred in Gilsland on Hadrian’s Wall in 2013, involving laptops, scribbled notepads, Roman tattoos, visits to ruins and… yes, beer. One of the biggest decisions they made concerned the narrative point of view. The tale, they decided, would only work when told in the first person. Though this limited the scenes to events that happened in the presence of the protagonists, the point of view allowed for a much greater depth of emotion and character understanding than in third person. At the end of that weekend, the outline of the ‘Rise of Emperors’ series was already taking shape.

Fuelled with the desire to write this fascinating tale and to create these two larger than life characters, Simon and Gordon returned home to their respective writing desks. The story began to take shape one chapter at a time from the deeply detailed plan formed at Hadrian’s Wall. The notion was simple. Gordon would write a chapter from Constantine’s point of view. Simon would then read Gordon’s chapter and pick up with the next sequence of events in the story, these ones recounted from Maxentius’s point of view. This way, they crafted a seamless tale, making the reader privy to the escalating and entangling troubles of both characters – a fly on the walls of Rome’s imperial palace and on the battlements of the northern forts. Moreover, it meant that tweaks could be made throughout to keep things in line. The fact that there were two pairs of eyes on every passage in the book meant hiccups could be caught and be ironed out rapidly.

Further meetups followed – at least twice a year – always with Roman ruins nearby for inspiration, always with new scribbled notebooks, straining laptops, and always… always, with beer. And each time, the plot of the trilogy became better focused, more polished and tighter. It felt like a lifetime achievement when in 2015 the first book Sons of Rome was finished, and yet that was but the start. Simon and Gordon had scratched the surface, taking two young princes and propelling them to power. But now Maxentius and Constantine were adults with a destiny, and two more books awaited to bring the series to a conclusion. That meant… another meetup. More notes. More ruins. More laptops. More beer!
The Rise of Emperors trilogy began as an enjoyable experiment to see whether such a method of working in conjunction was possible. An experiment that became an obsession, which became an epic.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Review: The Lost & Damned by Olivier Norek

The Lost and the Damned (The Banlieues Trilogy)

Synopsis: A corpse that wakes up on the mortuary slab. A case of spontaneous human combustion. There is little by the way of violent crime and petty theft that Capitaine Victor Coste has not encountered in his fifteen years on the St Denis patch - but nothing like this.

Though each crime has a logical explanation, something unusual is afoot all the same, and Coste is about to be dragged out of his comfort zone. Anonymous letters addressed to him personally have begun to arrive, highlighting the fates of two women, invisible victims whose deaths were never explained. Just two more blurred faces among the ranks of the lost and the damned.

Olivier Norek's first novel draws on all his experience as a police officer in one of France's toughest suburbs - the same experience he drew on as a writer for the hit TV series Spiral.

Translated from the French by Nick Caistor.

Brilliant! The synopsis covers it all: "Olivier Norek's first novel draws on all his experience as a police officer in one of France's toughest suburbs." 

Through the eyes of Capitaine Vincent Coste and his team, we accompany the Groupe Crime 1 of the Seine-Saint-Denis as they deal with some disturbing murders - even more than they are used to. "Murder is ... never a piece of theatre..." Reading some real-time stats, it seems that Seine-Saint-Denis holds the record for the highest rate of violence in France and in Europe. The area hosted a vast industrialised sector as well as farmland; unemployment was high; its growing population is one of the most ethnically mixed in the country.

So, what do these crimes have in common, will there be any more, will Coste be able to find the truth or will it be conveniently covered up and swept under the carpet.

The investigation isn't following all the usual lines - Coste feels like there is an unknown hand guiding him in a particular direction. The team sense a familiarity with past cases but just can't quite put their finger on it ... yet.

The writing flows so well that the chapters fly by and you find yourself fully immersed in the lives of Coste and his team of the SDJP93 as they try and solve these grisly crimes. You feel part of the team and have an invested interested in finding out the truth.

This is my first real foray into modern French crime fiction, having been introduced to this genre much earlier with Georges Simenon's "Maigret" and also through the great Frederic Dard's noir fiction. I loved every page of this crime thriller - and Norek's experiences and knowledge come to the fore when weaving this dark tale that is far removed from the gentile Parisian sidewalks of "Maigret". 

I am hoping that this is merely the first in a series that is being translated from the original French into English for a new generations of crime aficionados. Dip your toe in, you wont be disappointed. 

Capitaine Coste series by Olivier Norek:
- The Lost and Damned (aka Code 93)
- Terrtories
- Surges

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Review: Charles I's Executioners by James Hobson

Charles I's Executioners: Civil War, Regicide and the Republic
Synopsis: On an icy winter's day in January 1649, a unique event in English history took place on a scaffold outside of Whitehall: Charles I, King of England, was executed. The king had been held to account and the Divine Right of Kings disregarded. Regicide, a once-unfathomable act, formed the basis of the Commonwealth's new dawn.

The killers of the king were soldiers, lawyers, Puritans, Republicans and some simply opportunists, all brought together under one infamous banner. While the events surrounding Charles I and Cromwell are well-trodden, the lives of the other fifty-eight men - their backgrounds, ideals and motives - has been sorely neglected.

Their stories are a powerful tale of revenge and a clash of beliefs; their fates determined by that one decision. When Charles II was restored he enacted a deadly wave of retribution against the men who had secured his father's fate. Some of the regicides pleaded for mercy, many went into hiding or fled abroad; others stoically awaited their sentence. This is their shocking story: the ideals that united them, and the decision that unmade them.

The Stuart period of history hasn't really been within my history purview - I know enough about it but have not really researched further indepth, preferring to focus instead on the traditional medieval period. Having said that, I love historical fiction, and with no real time boundaries, I have found myself wandering into the realm of the Stuarts over the past year or so. 

The regicides of Charles I featured in a number of historical fiction accounts of the period, and I became familiar with a few of the names - but not all, and certainly not their fates. So, after picking up a copy of Charles Spenser's "Killers of the King" I took the plunge, and was so pleased to be then able to read Hobson's account.

This is a more simplified version - it is not strictly a biography of the nearly 135 participants in the trial and execution of King Charles I of England, nor does it go into any great detail about the English Civil War (it is assumed that the reader has some fore-knowledge). What Hobson has done instead is present a series of themed vignettes of the 59 who actually signed the warrant of execution for King Charles I of England.

What I discovered was incredibly interesting. The men came mostly from the gentry class; their motivations varied from personal, political, economic, and religious; not all were active to the same capacity; not all were guilty to the same degrees; not all did it for "honourable" reasons. I also learnt that where their signatures were placed on the document was in no way indicative of their importance. The vignettes are not overly detailed - they cover off each individual's family background, motivation, career (pre and post execution) and their fate after the restoration of the English monarchy under Charles II.

Unless you are a keen student of the period, many of names will be very unfamiliar - and even Hobson questions why some were included on the list of those to be executed for treason when some who were more active participants got off scott free. What cannot be taken away from these men - of whom only nine suffered to be hanged, drawn and quartered - was that they all died well, believing in and in some cases, becoming martyrs, for their cause.

If you are looking to add to your knowledge for the English Civil War and the Restoration, you could do no better than to add this book to your recommended reading list. There are many small snippets that have intrigued me and now require further investigation.

further reading:
Killers of the King by Charles Spencer
The King's Revenge by Don Jordan
The Lives of the English Regicides by Mark Noble
The Regicides & the Execution of Charles I by Jason Peacey
A Coffin for King Charles by CV Wedgwood