Monday, November 18, 2019

The Traitor and the She Wolf by David Adkins

The Traitor and the She Wolf by [Adkins, David]
Isabella, daughter of King Philip IV of France, marries the new English king, Edward II, at the tender age of thirteen. Although it was an arranged marriage, young Isabella has high hopes of nurturing a loving relationship with her handsome new husband. But these dreams are gradually eroded, as Edward reveals his narcissistic traits and preference for sharing his bed with his favourite, Piers Gaveston. Instead, he ignores and humiliates her.


Roger Mortimer is a young lord, a landowner of the Welsh Marches. At Isabella’s coronation, he is instantly taken with her beauty and intelligence, and makes an instant connection with her, eventually leading to love.

It is not long before the barons of the land become dissatisfied with the weak and unfair administration of Edward, and the country falls into a protracted period of unrest. Roger himself struggles with his allegiance to the king alongside his growing sense of protection towards Isabella. When Edward’s new favourite, Hugh Despenser, has Mortimer imprisoned and seizes control of the royal children, Isabella can take no more, and all the love she tried to give to Edward is replaced with a burning desire for revenge.

The Traitor and the She Wolf is a fictionalised account of real historical events and reveals how loyal and loving people can be driven to do things they never imagined.


see also The Tudor Saga


The Hero of Italy - Paperback byGregory Hanlon

The Hero of Italy - Odoardo Farnese, Duke of Parma, his Soldiers, and his Subjects in the Thirty Years' War examines a salient episode in Italy's Thirty Years' War with Spain and France, whereby the young duke Odoardo Farnese of Parma embraced the French alliance, only to experience defeat and occupation after two tumultuous years (1635-1637).  Gregory Hanlon stresses the narrative of events unfolding in northern Italy, examining the participation of the little state in these epic European events.

The first chapter describes the constitution of Cardinal Richelieu's anti-Habsburg alliance and Odoardo's eagerness to be part of it. A chapter on the Parman professional army, based on an extraordinary collection of company roster-books, sheds light on the identity of over 13,000 individuals, soldier by soldier, the origin and background of their officers, the conditions of their lodgings, and the good state of their equipment. Chapter three follows the first campaign of 1635 alongside French and Savoyard contingents at the failed siege of Valenza, and the logistical difficulties of organizing such large-scale operations. Another chapter examines the financial expedients the duchy adopted to fend off incursions on all its borders in 1636, and how militia contingents on both sides were drawn into the fighting. A final chapter relates the Spanish invasion and occupation which forced duke Odoardo to make a separate peace. 

The volume includes a detailed assessment of the impact of war on civilians based on parish registers for city and country. The application of the laws of war was largely nullified by widespread starvation, disease and routine sex-selective infanticide. These quantitative analyses, supported by maps and tables, are among the most detailed anywhere in Europe in the era of the Thirty Years' War.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Denmark, Iceland at odds over priceless medieval manuscripts

They recount tales of Viking raids, Norse history, kings and gods: a priceless collection of medieval manuscripts, bequeathed by an Icelandic scholar to the University of Copenhagen in the 18th century, that Iceland now wants back.

UNESCO, the U.N. cultural organization, has called them “the single most important collection of early Scandinavian manuscripts in existence,” with the earliest one dating from the 12th century.

Some of the texts — known as the Arnamagnaean Collection — have already been returned to Reykjavik, but 1,400 documents are still locked away in Copenhagen.

The jewel of the collection is an almost complete early 15th century copy of “Heimskringla” — the best known of the Old Norse kings’ sagas, originally written in the 13th century by Icelandic poet and historian Snorri Sturluson.

Unlike many Icelandic medieval manuscripts, which have few decorative flourishes, this version of the Heimskringla is richly illustrated with intricate red lettering on each page.

read more here @ The Japan Times

Book review of King and Emperor: A New Life of Charlemagne by Janet L. Nelson

 (University of California Press)Michael Taube reviews Janet Nelson's "King and Emperor" for The Washington Post

The tale of Charles I, more commonly known as Charlemagne, has been recounted by historians for centuries. Between 768 and 814, he ruled as king of the Franks, king of the Lombards and, most impressively, Holy Roman emperor. An enlightened reformer with a warrior-like ferocity, he united most of Western Europe and spearheaded the Carolingian Renaissance that enhanced arts and culture in medieval society.

It’s an incredible and almost unbelievable story. That’s why some historians now wonder if it really happened or if it’s a tall tale that would make Baron Munchausen laugh with sheer delight.

Janet L. Nelson, a professor emerita of medieval history at King’s College in London, is determined to resolve this issue in her intriguing new book, “King and Emperor: A New Life of Charlemagne.” With a small tip of the detective cap to Sherlock Holmes, she gathers the pertinent details (and there are many) in an attempt to unravel the mystery of who this king, emperor and man really was.

While most of us aren’t medieval scholars, the challenge of trying to figure out which Charlemagne is the real Charlemagne is enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. Whether Nelson has actually solved the centuries-old mystery isn’t, shall we say, elementary.


read full review here @ The Washington Post

Stolen Women in Medieval England by Caroline Dunn

Stolen Women in Medieval EnglandStolen Women in Medieval England: Rape, Abduction, and Adultery, 1100–1500 offers a comprehensive overview of female ravishment, from forced rape to consensual elopement, in medieval England whilst presenting a scholarly treatment of an emotive subject, dealing with rape victims with sensitivity, but acknowledging that some women feigned ravishment to elope.

This study of illicit sexuality in medieval England explores links between marriage and sex, law and disorder, and property and power. Some medieval Englishwomen endured rape or were kidnapped for forced marriages, yet most ravished women were married and many 'wife-thefts' were not forced kidnappings but cases of adultery fictitiously framed as abduction by abandoned husbands. In pursuing the themes of illicit sexuality and non-normative marital practices, this work analyses the nuances of the key Latin term raptus and the three overlapping offences that it could denote: rape, abduction and adultery. 

This investigation broadens our understanding of the role of women in the legal system; provides a means for analysing male control over female bodies, sexuality and access to the courts; and reveals ways in which female agency could, on occasion, manoeuvre around such controls.

Learning in a Crusader City by Jonathan Rubin

Learning in a Crusader CityLearning in a Crusader City: Intellectual Activity and Intercultural Exchanges in Acre, 1191–1291 provides a unique picture of a 'new' Latin-dominated centre of intellectual activity

Did the Crusades trigger significant intellectual activity? To what extent and in what ways did the Latin residents of the Crusader States acquire knowledge from Muslims and Eastern Christians? And how were the Crusader states influenced by the intellectual developments which characterized the West in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries? 

This book is the first to examine these questions systematically using the complete body of evidence from one major urban centre: Acre. This reveals that Acre contained a significant number of people who engaged in learned activities, as well as the existence of study centres housed within the city. 

This volume also seeks to reconstruct the discourse that flowed across four major fields of learning: language and translation, jurisprudence, the study of Islam, and theological exchanges with Eastern Christians. 

The result is an unprecedentedly rich portrait of a hitherto neglected intellectual centre on the Eastern shores of the medieval Mediterranean.

Review: The Ismaili Assassins by James Waterson

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Synopsis: The Ismaili Assassins were an underground group of political killers who were ready to kill Christians and Muslims alike with complete disregard for their own lives. These devoted murderers were under the powerful control of a grand master who used assassination as part of a grand strategic vision that embraced Egypt, the Levant and Persia and even reached the court of the Mongol Khans in far away Qaraqorum. The Assassins often slayed their victims in public, cultivating their terrifying reputation. They assumed disguises and their weapon of choice was a dagger. The dagger was blessed by the grand master and killing with it was a holy and sanctified act poison or other methods of murder were forbidden to the followers of the sect.



The Ismailis have had a long and eventful history, stretching over more than 12 centuries, during which they subdivided into a number of major branches and minor groupings. They came into existence as a separate Shi‘i community around the middle of the eighth century; and, in medieval times, they twice founded states of their own, the Fatimid caliphate and the Nizari state. 

The first group of assassins to be found in the historical record is that of the Hashshashin who operated in Persia, Syria, and Turkey, eventually spreading throughout the Middle East. Being much weaker than their main adversaries in conventional military terms, the Nizaris relied on guerrilla warfare that included espionage, infiltration of enemy territory, and targeted killings of enemy leaders. 

When the fortress of the Assassins was conquered in 1256, their library was destroyed so there are no written historical accounts from the sect itself available to us. Those accounts that have survived into our times have come down to us in the form of the recollections from two openly hostile sources - Sunni Muslims and Crusaders.  The more outlandish aspects of the legends, such as the use of drugs, are not supported by Ismaili sources. Even the name Assassin, from the Arabic hashashi, was a pejorative term and was never used by the Nizaris themselves. Nor were the Nizaris unique in their use of political murder. Sunnis and Crusaders in the Middle East also practiced assassination. And, of course, Europeans were perfectly adept at killing off their political rivals long before the Nizaris came along.

The distorted image of the Ismailis in general and the Nizari Ismailis in particular was maintained in orientalist circles until the opening decades of the twentieth century, although this fanciful impressions of the Orient had long persisted since the Middle Ages. Like the proverbial Chinese whisper, these idea evolved over time until legend was regarded as fact. A truly scholarly assessment of the Ismailis had to await the recovery and study of a large number of Ismaili texts, a process that did not start until later in the 20th century when progress in Islamic studies, and a remarkable modern breakthrough in the study of the history and doctrines of the Ismailis, have finally made it possible to dispel once and for all some of the seminal legends of the ‘Assassins’.

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As per the synopsis, "The Ismaili Assassins explores the origins, actions and legacy of this notorious sect. Enriched with eyewitness accounts from Islamic and Western sources, this important book unlocks the history of the Crusades and the early Islamic period, giving the reader entry into a historical epoch that is thrilling and pertinent."

I came into this wanting to know more about the sect that I had come across in my own studies of the Crusades - those allegedly responsible for the murders of Raymond II of Tripoli and Conrad of Montferrat. I was not disappointed. Waterson presents us with a historically accurate and detailed account of the Ismaili Asaassins, from their earliest inception to their devastation at the hands of the Mongols, and all the complicated political and dynastic maneuvering in between. definitely one for the history shelf of my Library.


further reading
The Templars and the Assassins: The Militia of Heaven by James Wasserman
Eagle's Nest: Ismaili Castles in Iran and Syria by Peter Willey
The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Isma'ilis by Farhad Daftary, Antoine Isaac Baron & Silvestre de Sacy
The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam by Bernard Lewis
The Assassins of Alamut by Anthony Campbell
Ismaili History and Intellectual Traditions by Farhad Daftary
Hasan-I-Sabbah: His Life and Thought by Dr Ali Mohammad Rajput
The Secret Order of Assassins: The Struggle of the Early Nizârî Ismâʻîlîs Against the Islamic World by Marshall G. S. Hodgson
The Isma'ilis: Their History and Doctrines by Farhad Daftary


further reading online
National Geographic Magazine
History Net



Saturday, November 16, 2019

Review: Stephen and Matilda's Civil War - Cousins of Anarchy by Matthew Lewis

Synopsis: The Anarchy was the first civil war in post-Conquest England, enduring throughout the reign of King Stephen between 1135 and 1154. It ultimately brought about the end of the Norman dynasty and the birth of the mighty Plantagenet kings. When Henry I died having lost his only legitimate son in a shipwreck, he had caused all of his barons to swear to recognize his daughter Matilda, widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, as his heir and remarried her to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. When she was slow to move to England on her father’s death, Henry’s favorite nephew Stephen of Blois rushed to have himself crowned, much as Henry himself had done on the death of his brother William Rufus. By following both sides of the dispute and seeking to understand their actions and motivations, Matthew Lewis aims to reach a more rounded understanding of this crucial period of English history and asks to what extent there really was anarchy.

Again, this is not a period that I have come into blindly - I have a number of books on the subject matter on my own books shelves. What I found in Lewis' book, with his alternating chapters between Stephen and Matilda, was a more balanced history of this turbulent period.

For most, the most common definition of this period is summarised as follows:
The Anarchy was a civil war in England and Normandy between 1135 and 1153, which resulted in a widespread breakdown in law and order. The conflict was a succession crisis precipitated by the accidental death by drowning of William Adelin, the only legitimate son of Henry I, in the sinking of the White Ship in 1120
However, what Lewis questions is that whilst this period was called The Anarchy, did this period between the death of Henry I (1153) and the accession of Henry II (1154) - see a complete and total breakdown and absence of government during Stephen's reign. For the very definition of the word anarchy is ".. a state of disorder due to absence or non-recognition of authority or other controlling systems ..." and ".. absence of government and absolute freedom of the individual, regarded as a political ideal. ..."  For this was not the case - a king was in situ and recognised by both the Church and the Anglo-Norman Magnates, including Robert of Gloucester.

The Anarchy was quite simply a civil war in which there were four potential claimants - with only two interested enough to battle it out for a period of 19 years - Stephen and Matilda. I am taken back to the events of the Norman Conquest, when the death of a King left the playing field wide open - in this instance, we are not only left with a male relative who was favoured by the late King but with a female, whilst of unquestionable royal blood, at a time when such acceptance of a sole female monarch was just not on the cards. There was only one crown ... and for as long as one wanted it and the other refused to give it up, there were be no coming to terms.

The actual violence and destruction was not as widespread as is documented by the three main contemporary writers of the times, all of whose accounts are riddled with their own forms of bias. These chronicles were in essence, written by churchmen, recounting localised events and their direct effects whilst providing an opportunistic moral lesson at the same time.

England was hardly the peaceful realm when Stephen took the throne (for succession was still not hereditary at this point) - Normandy was in rebellion, Scotland and Wales were simmering with tension, and the selection of a king was more preferable to ".. the enforcement of lineal descent ...'' and the oaths made under duress in favour of the late king's nominated heir. Matilda was absent and in no hurry; Stephen, like his uncle before him, was on the spot, and once anointed, few with loathe to remove him  "... for who can stretch out his hand against the Lord’s anointed ....".

As I mentioned, Lewis portrays both Stephen and Matilda evenly.  Stephen is lauded for his careful balancing act in governing and maintaining unity of the realm whilst not upsetting the powerful magnates around him and on both sides of the Channel; and Matilda, who had " ... achieved more than many of her sex in her period .." and like so many women both before and after her, is only remembered for the men in her life. This is a fascinating period of history filled with powerful personalities that is worth exploring, and this book will provide a good introduction into the period.



further reading:
The Anarchy of King Stephen's Reign edited by Edmund King
Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior by Catherine Hanley
King Stephen and the Anarchy by Chris Peers
Stephen and Matilda: The Civil War of 1139-53 by Jim Bradbury
The Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English by Marjorie Chibnall
The Reign of Stephen: Kingship, Warfare and Government in Twelfth-Century England by Keith J. Stringer
King Stephen's Reign (1135-1154) edited by Paul Dalton & Graeme J. White
King Stephen by Donald Matthew
Henry I by C. Warren Hollister
Henry I: King of England and Duke of Normandy by Judith A. Green
The Government of England Under Henry I by Judith A. Green

Review: The Brothers York by Thomas Penn

Synopsis: Thomas Penn's brilliant new telling of the wars of the roses takes us inside a conflict that fractured the nation for more than three decades. During this time, the house of York came to dominate England. At its heart were three charismatic brothers - Edward, George and Richard - who became the figureheads of a spectacular ruling dynasty. Together, they looked invincible. But with Edward's ascendancy the brothers began to turn on one another, unleashing a catastrophic chain of rebellion, vendetta, fratricide, usurpation and regicide. The brutal end came at Bosworth Field in 1485, with the death of the youngest, then Richard III, at the hands of a new usurper, Henry Tudor. The story of a warring family unable to sustain its influence and power, The Brothers York brings to life a dynasty that could have been as magnificent as the Tudors. Its tragedy was that, in the space of one generation, it destroyed itself.


The Wars of the Roses were a series of English civil wars for control of the throne of England fought between supporters of two rival cadet branches of the royal House of Plantagenet: the House of Lancaster and the House of York. Eventually, the wars eliminated the male lines of both families. Although the conflict lasted through many sporadic episodes between 1455 and 1487, there was related fighting before and after this period between the parties. 

Penn's narrative begins with the rise and Edward IV and his ascendancy over Henry VI in claiming the throne of England (1461), first sought by Edward's father Richard, Duke of York (1460). For those who are unfamiliar with this period, Penn's book provides a springboard from which to launch your own journey. All the major players and events are covered off in a detailed history that is neither dry nor sleep inducing. 

So as I read, I was being tempted with interesting passages describing the wars as "... a destructive chain of rebellion, deposition, vendetta, fratricide, usurpation and regicide ..... they dynasty's end was brutal .." and of the character of the brother York who ".. burned fiercely and died young .." as being ".. shaped [by] the way the saw the world and their place in it ..". Penn further tempts us with ".. the tragedy of the brother York was that they destroyed themselves ..." and Penn was going to enlighten us as to how and why.

What is abundantly clear is that Edward himself was the architect of the demise of the House of York. His blantant favouritism, initially of his brother George and then of his collective in-laws (the Rivers and Woodville clans) at the expense of his own family and loyal supporters, created an atmosphere of bitter and petty rivalry and jealousies, punctuated by backstabbing, paranoia, treachery and ultimately, betrayal and rebellion.

Prior to his brother's marriage, George Plantagenet found himself in the enviable and complicated position of heir presumptive. As the brother of the newly crowned Edward IV, whose succession was not hereditary, George's own position needed some serious elevation. Edward began to groom George as his successor - he was endowed with lands and titles whilst still a teen, creating a strong sense of entitlement in a young man ill-strained and ill-suited for such a role. For when Edward announced his marriage to Elizabeth Woodwville, George is more or less side-lined in favour of Elizabeth's extensive family, upon whom honours and lands are loaded, and advantageous marriages are arranged. George's position as heir presumptive is now uncertain, and as he is finding himself more and more on the outer, falling ever more under the sway of the Earl of Warwick (his uncle) who sees George as the perfect foil against Edward and possibly a new tool for his kingmaking pursuits. Warwick and George collaborate and make a plan to take the crown from Edward but after their attempts fail, they are declared traitors and driven out of England.

Richard figures very little in this story as he really doesn't come into his own until late into the second part of Edward's reign. He is not the heir presumptive and spends much of his time away from Court. He is the doting and loyal younger brother of the King, not involved in the machinations of brother George and the Earl of Warwick. His character is very different from that of his brothers - he had never really known a time when war was not prevalent and was said to have been unbending in his beliefs. However, as he reaches his teens and in the wake of George's rebellion, Richard is given more responsibility in the northern part of England - afterall, Edward is far too busy satiating is carnal pursuits, preferring to leave the government to others. 

I am in two minds with this book. On the one hand, it is a very well researched and engaging history of the Wars of the Roses, that was fascinating and dramatic. However, to me, it was more of a chronicle of the rise and fall of a prominent family, with a heavy focus of Edward, his court and courtiers, contemporary politics, peppered with quite a few side journeys into other areas which I found to be both distracting, unnecessary, and of no real interest to me. 

I came into this with an already sound knowledge of the Wars of the Roses, so what I was hoping for was more of an analytical approach to the three brothers and their inter-personal relationships; I felt that there should have been more focus on this aspect to explain why the dynasty imploded ".. within a generation.." I guess I wanted a more psycho-analytical approach to explain the family dynamic - Edward (the sunne in splendour), George (the petulant middle child), Richard (the broody dark horse) - these explorations were few and far between.  Edward's nepotism on a grand scale was hardly a secret and that this would have created bitterness and tension amongst his brothers and his supporters is not surprising but this is hardly unique as history is, quite frankly, full of similar stories.



I hugely enjoyed Penn's Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England (bio on Henry Tudor) so was looking forward to this - but left feeling just a little disappointed in that it was not structured how I thought it would have been and really, for me personally, there was nothing that I had not already read in various other tomes.  

As I mentioned, nothing should be taken away from this book as it is a quite good re-telling of the Wars of the Roses.