Saturday, 27 January 2018

Review: The Norman Conquest, by Marc Morris

I snapped this paperback up when it was just £3, and it turned out to be (a modest amount of) money well spent. (At the time of writing, that sale, at Amazon UK, is still on).

My knowledge of the Conquest itself, and the situation preceding and immediately succeeding it, was basic at best, and I found this book to be excellent in all three regards.

The author paints a picture of pre-Conquest England that’s detailed enough to give a very good impression of the state of play (early on it’s almost a dual biography of Edward the Confessor and William the Conqueror) without getting bogged down. This is invaluable as it portrays the heavy Scandinavian influence on England, which included a live threat of invasion before, during, and after the Conquest.

There is also a concise look at the formation of Normandy, from conquest by Vikings to Frankification [my own term, I should stress]. This includes not just a brief look at the culture and power structures of the realm (and how it stayed strong when much of the rest of what later became France splintered), but also the difficult and dangerous early life of William.

Naturally, most of the book revolves around the Conquest, specifically the reign of William the Conqueror. Whilst the events of 1066 are covered, I was glad that this didn’t form an excessive focus of the history because the basics are done to death, and the succeeding events, of which I previously knew little or nothing, were more interesting to discover.

The lack of Englishmen at the top of society afterwards was partly policy, and partly the fault of those who embarked upon repeated rebellions, forcing their removal (imprisonment being more common than execution). That said, the Harrying of the North, which may have led to three-quarters of those in Yorkshire dying, and general rapacity of the Normans in seizing land and forcing free men into servitude, paint the Conquest in a very dark light.

After the end of William’s reign there’s a quick summary of the events that followed, which I found very interesting.

There is one huge negative in this book, which is the vile, heretical, and unacceptable use of the Brownian tautology ‘pre-prepared’. Alright, this won’t do more than annoy most people, but for me it’s a pet hate. Honestly, Marc Morris. I expected better of you.

Leaving that abominable abuse of the English language aside, I was really pleased with this book. The writing style is easy to understand, the detail underpins explanations of why the author opts for specific interpretations of historical sources, and the scope of the book covers the preceding situation as well as the full reign of William the Conqueror.


Thursday, 25 January 2018

Tales of Knights and Nitwits: Episode 4

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After the planned week off, Tales of Knights and Nitwits triumphantly returns for three more weekly episodes. When last we encountered the sleazy journalist Temujin and his heroic spear-wielding companion Freya, they had happened upon a duel between the handsome and brave Tristan, and his mysterious challenger. But who will win? Will good defeat evil? Will Temujin manage to get lucky with Freya? And did you notice that I wrote this introductory paragraph to lower the pictures so they didn't overlap with the sidebar?



Friday, 19 January 2018

Review: The Fears of Henry IV, by Ian Mortimer

I have to admit, I knew practically nothing of Henry IV, having not even read any of the relevant Shakespeare plays. However, I have read the same author’s biography of Edward III (review here) which helps put together the situation in which Henry IV (and his cousin and predecessor Richard II) found himself.

The dual nature of the early half of the book, with Henry’s actions practically defined in contrast and reaction to those of the vindictive and insecure Richard, was very engaging to read. Both men were intelligent and almost the exact same age, but their characters were utterly different (Henry was luckier than Richard in knowing his father well, whereas Richard’s died when he was young). Both struggled with the looming shadow of Edward III’s long and (mostly) glorious reign, being grandsons of the aforementioned king.

Not unlike a biography of William Marshal, the rollercoaster of Henry’s life is fascinating to read purely on its own merits. Ian Mortimer does a good job putting things into context where necessary, and letting the drama speak for itself.

Whilst Richard was sly, Henry was devout and personally brave. He was also bloody unlucky on numerous occasions, and his early reign damaged by naivety, the consequences of which took some time to overcome. He was, however, decisive and committed, which helped to stave off the worst effects of his frequent misfortune.

There are numerous interesting questions about Henry and how he ought to be viewed. As well as his unorthodox manner of arriving at the throne, he executed an archbishop, and generally struggled with money, which then hampered his efforts to fight the Scots/Welsh/French.

It’s a life well told, packed with political scheming and rivalry, family feuds and numerous rebellions. It’s very good, and would work well with (either before or after, as you like) the same author’s aforementioned Edward III biography.


Thursday, 11 January 2018

Tales of Knights and Nitwits: Episode 3

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Decided to add a preceding picture so the drawings don't run into the links on the right. Hmm. Maybe I should see about reducing them.

Incidentally, in line with the plan there's going to be a week off next time, so episode four should be out in a fortnight. If I end up drawing more quickly in future I'll just do it every week rather than three on and one off, but we'll see. And episode four's a really good one, so stay tuned for that.


Saturday, 6 January 2018

Review: Kill Them All, by Sean McGlynn

The south of modern day France in the early 13th century and the Albigensian Cruade that occurred there and then is something I had only tangential knowledge of (Simon de Montfort, the identically named son of the Crusade’s primary leader, featured heavily in Prince Edward’s (later Edward I) pre-throne life). But it sounded quite interesting, and I’ve been wanting to read another book by Sean McGlynn since the hugely enjoyable By Sword and Fire (reviewed here) which I read quite a while ago.

Crusade naturally conjures up thoughts of Jerusalem, with Christian armies on one side and Muslim armies on the other. But crusades also occurred in the 15th century against the pagans of the Baltic, in the 13th against the Muslims in modern day Spain, and against the Christian city of Constantinople.

The Church was annoyed by the rising popularity of the Cathar heresy/religion in Languedoc, and when a papal representative was murdered this prompted Innocent III to call a crusade. Shortly after the instigation, leadership fell to Simon de Montfort, who had fought in the Fourth Crusade against Constantinople. Opposing him were an assortment of Raymonds, including the Counts of Toulouse, Foix, and Comminges.

I really like the author’s writing style, providing comparable examples of actions (to back up his general stance that recorded atrocities may have really happened rather than being hyperbole) and, without condoning what happened, explaining that military advantage could be derived from horrific actions (such as massacres or ill-treatment of prisoners, including the particularly undeserved and horrible death of the Lady of Lavaur).

Overtly, the crusade was about bringing to heel a heresy and restoring Christianity as the established religion in the region, but the holy war aspect was, to a large extent, a veneer. There was an intermingling of religious and ambitious motives for the war’s start, continuation, and conclusion. The religious angle was genuine but also spun to make it seem more than it was. For a lot of people, including Montfort, the war was about gaining land and title.

Although Montfort looms large, this is not a biography of him but a history of events around a specific war (in that way, it’s somewhat similar to Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War, although the Albigensian Crusade was naturally on a smaller scale). It’s a mixture of prolonged grinding attrition punctuated by brief periods of sweeping success for one side or another.

There are a number of battles, some of significant size, and a great many sieges which are told in a compelling fashion, with intriguing details that make it easy to imagine being there. It’s also interesting to learn of how the war (to varying degrees) was influenced by nearby greater powers, such as Aragon, France, and England.

I liked this a lot, but there are a few small niggles. A proofread would’ve eliminated most of the (almost entirely minor) errors. One time a name was spelt different ways on succeeding pages (Peter de Sissy/Peter de Cissy). Also, although there were siege and area maps interspersed, I was mildly surprised there wasn’t one over-arching map of the whole region at the start.