Eleanor of Aquitaine, by Alison Weir

Well, I’ve been on a bit of a Plantagenets binge lately, and no mistake!

As you might remember from my glowing review of Blondel’s Song, I am a massive fan of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the mother of Richard the Lionheart. She’s just incredibly interesting. And so it was with some excitement that I turned to Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England. After all, Blondel’s Song only featured Eleanor tangentially – here was a whole book on the subject!

Eleanor of Aquitaine book cover

Unfortunately, I was… a bit disappointed.

Alison Weir certainly did her research for this book, and there’s a great deal of information on Eleanor’s life and the lives of her children and husbands. And, since Eleanor’s life and times were so interesting and over-the-top (have you ever ridden dressed as an Amazon on crusade? Because it seems Eleanor did), there is still a lot to interest an amateur historian here.

However, I’m just not sure who the book is designed for. It seems to be giving information too basic for someone with prior knowledge of the era, but too detailed for someone reading out of general interest. There is, in fact, too much information, and it is quite densely written. Take this paragraph, for example:

The House of Capet had ruled the country (France) since 987, when the feudal lord Hugh Capet had been elected king after the death of Louis V, the last monarch of the Carolingian dynasty, which descended from the Emperor Charlemagne. The surname Capet, which probably means ‘cap-wearer’ or ‘cape-wearer’, was not used for Hugh until the thirteenth century, and the dynasty he founded was not referred to as Capetian until the eighteenth century.

The paragraph comes from a chapter on the relationship between Aquitaine and France. There is just so much going on here: the name of the dynasty of French kings, the establishment of said dynasty, information on the previous dynasty, the meaning of the name… And, in my opinion, we don’t really gain from knowing all of it, since what we really want to know is how this relates to Eleanor’s life.

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor, and possibly her children and grandson.

I did get some things from reading this; it covers the entirety of her life very well, so I now know a lot more about her activities following the death of Richard. However, for a basic level of interest in the topic, I would say: go for Blondel’s Song, or just watch The Lion in Winter.

Blondel’s Song, by David Boyle

It’s been more than a year since I finished university, and I’ve found myself missing the learning part of education (I am not yet missing the essays, and I doubt that’s ever going to happen). It so happened that, when I was going about my local Medieval Festival, I made my way into a tent that was selling books, and there I found a rather lovely-looking volume called “Blondel’s Song”.


“Blondel?” I thought to myself. “Who, or what, is that?”

Closer inspection revealed the book to be about “The capture, imprisonment and ransom of Richard the Lionheart”.

I needed no further persuasion.

It turned out that I had already heard of Blondel, albeit vaguely. You might have heard the story as well: when Richard the Lionheart was held prisoner in a German castle, his troubadour Blondel went in search of him. He found him when he sang a song that the king and he had composed together, and he heard Richard singing the song back down to him.

Now, the story of Blondel’s song is somewhat legendary and, as with many things in the Middle Ages, might be completely or at least partially fictional. In Blondel’s Song, Boyle argues that the events are more partially than completely fictional. He also goes into a great deal of detail about the events of the crusade itself, and how Richard came to be imprisoned in Germany.

This was a delightful read. This might be, in part, because I’ve been a huge fan of Eleanor of Aquitaine ever since watching The Lion in Winter, and Blondel’s Song describes a lot of her history that I was previously unaware of (particularly her old age after the death of Henry II). Boyle is also quite a funny writer, and seems to take delight in adding little irrelevant details, as well as personal musings, in his footnotes. So, while this book is quite thick and  reading it takes a while, it never feels like an effort to read.


Angevin Family Portrait, from Kate Beaton’s Hark a Vagrant

The one complaint I have about Blondel’s Song is its lack of focus on Blondel’s song. This is probably the fault of a lack of documentation on Blondel, but it seems unfortunate to have a book named after a particular event, which only spends about a tenth of its time (if that) on the event itself.

Nevertheless, it is a  lovely book – excellent if you are interested in a history of the Third crusade from a particularly English perspective, and pretty glorious in giving an understanding of the massive impact Richard’s ransom had on Medieval society.


Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, by Harriet Ann Jacobs – a review

Steve McQueen said of the book 12 Years a Slave “For anyone who thinks that they know slavery—you read that book and you do a double take. It was just stunning to me that I’d never known about it.” Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which I only found out about because Kindle were selling it for free in the wake of McQueen’s film is, I think, another of these books.

Incidents is the autobiographical work of Harriet Ann Jacobs, a woman who was born into slavery. She wrote the book after she had escaped to New York, and after she had gained her freedom. It is a truly extraordinary account of life in slavery, and also about the lengths which slaves at the time went to both to gain their freedom and also to retain their morality and lives.

Jacobs, who gives herself the pseudonym Linda Brent, uses the work largely to appeal to the women of the North, through a sense of sisterhood, to support abolition. She writes

“Slavery is a terrible thing for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own.”

In pursuit of her goal to enlighten white women of the North to the particular issues of enslaved women, Jacobs is incredibly frank and honest about her experiences. When still a teenager, she was pursued by the father of her mistress (at the time a little girl), who kept trying to isolate her so that he could take advantage of her vulnerable situation. In order to prevent her master, a jealous man, from raping her, she seduced an older, unmarried, white man of her acquaintance, so that she could become pregnant and her mistress’s father would no longer want her. This was, at the time, most certainly not the done thing (to put it mildly) and leads to one of the saddest moments in the book, for me.

Jacobs’ grandmother is described throughout her book as the most wonderful of old ladies. She worked hard her entire life to procure freedom, or at least material comforts, for her children and grandchildren. When Jacobs conceived of her plan, she wrote

I knew that I was the greatest comfort of her old age, and that it was a source of pride to her that I had not degraded myself, like most of the slaves. I wanted to confess to her that I was no longer worthy of her love; but I could not utter the dreaded words.

Indeed, when Jacobs was later forced to confess, due to her pregnancy, her grandmother flew into a rage and attempted to pull her mother’s wedding ring off her finger, claiming she was not as good as her mother.

Jacobs’ account is absolutely fascinating, and well worth reading. It provides a unique perspective on slavery, one which shows not only the hardships of life but also all of the issues inherent with humans being allowed to possess other humans. It not only encompasses Jacobs’ life, but also that of her neighbours and friends – and, interestingly, Jacobs points out the ways in which slave ownership affected the wives of slaveholders negatively, too. Jacobs is a thoroughly interesting writer, and her book is short enough to read on your commute, so long as you don’t mind weeping in front of strangers.

H is for Hawk and To the River – a review

As you know, I have only just begun reading non-fiction for pleasure. Already, I have found a genre I rather like, although the specificity of this genre makes it difficult to say whether it really counts as a genre, or possibly even as a sub-genre.

In both H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, and To the River, by Olivia Laing, the authors are women who, on experiencing a loss – in the former the loss of a father, in the latter the lose of a partner at the close of a relationship – take solace in an earlier, natural, pleasure.

In H is for Hawk, this pleasure is falconry. Macdonald decides that, in the wake of her father’s death, she should begin one of the greatest challenges for those who tame birds of prey – she chooses to train a goshawk. Her desire to tame the hawk is tied up with T. H. White’s horribly botched attempt to do the same thing, as he described in The Goshawk. While she, unlike White, actually knows what she is doing, their anxieties, and the desire to escape from humanity and be loved by their birds, are definitely the same, and binding.

Olivia Laing,meanwhile, chooses to walk down the length of the river Ouse. Her book has less focus on a single person who has gone before – although the spectre of Virginia Woolfe’s suicide in the river frequently hovers over the pages of the book. Instead, she relates a number of historical people and events linked with the river and its surroundings.

The reason why these two books seemed the same, in some way, is more than the semi-autobiographical, semi-historical content, and more than the desire to flee into nature: it is also, in a strong way, the tone. Both writers meander back and forth between their own lives and the lives of their subjects. Both writers also discuss strange physical reaction to natural surroundings, which seem to suggest a sort of madness that comes from leaving human society. For Laing, the effect of sunlight upon grass, for example, becomes a kind of blinding, golden glow; for Macdonald, bushes and trees become some kind of plantlike people who stand, motionless, in the background of her hawk-flying.

Both books have a slight feel of delirium to them (actually, Macdonald is diagnosed with depression at a late stage in her book, but seems to have expected the feelings she was having since they mirror White’s), and both suggest, in a way, a strange mixing of past and present in particular pastimes. They are both excellent – I have learned an awful lot about Sussex and about T. H. White from them, but most certainly not in a dry manner/ These are the sort of books that mix history, nature and the soul, and make the world seem a more interesting place when you emerge.

A. D. 500, by Simon Young – a review

As my regular readers may have noticed, I have been making a lot of changes to this blog recently. This is partly an attempt to make more frequent updates – it is difficult to read a pre-1960s novel every week! Classics-lovers, do not fear: I will still be writing every fourth post about something suitably old.

Somehow, I have managed to accumulate a lot of non-fiction! I have no idea how this happened. I don’t normally read it for pleasure, but I feel that now I really must, in order to clear my shelves without massive feelings of guilt. My room is currently covered in books, and my bookshelves are overflowing.

A. D. 500 is not strictly speaking non-fiction, but it is as near to it as makes no odds, especially since it is set in an era of such confusion. It pretends to be a travel guide to the ‘Dark Isles’ of Britain and Ireland, based on a log kept by a fictional Byzantine embassy sent to visit all the kings of the islands. The reasoning behind this format, the author argues in his preface, is to allow readers to see the era from the perspective of other outsiders, since we must already view it as strangers due to the removal of time.

In my opinion, this technique works really well. It allows the reader to glimpse what the island could have been like (the copious notes at the back highlight the arguments that surround various details our fictitious embassy describe as ‘fact’). Making the embassy a Byzantine one also has the benefit of showing how differently various parts of the Roman Empire were affected by its Fall. For Byzantium, which considered itself the new seat of the Empire, relatively little changed. In contrast, the British Isles were invaded by the Saxons on the Roman’s retreat and the society the Romans had created quickly vanished completely.

Set a hundred years after the Romans left Britain, A. D. 500 shows a country that has fallen into barbarity and poverty (although, of course, this may not exactly have been the case).

It is a fine and interesting read, especially if you like learning about different cultures in history, which I certainly do. I feel, however, that it is a book to be savoured a little at a time, and not read in a week as I did.

Next week I shall be reviewing Dodger, by Terry Pratchett. Stay tuned!