Review 1610: The Talisman

The Talisman is one of Sir Walter Scott’s adventure novels set during the Crusades. In terms of how much it’s based in actual history, I would say not much. For one thing, Scott has bought the myth of the Knights Templar being evil and makes the Templar Grand Master the villain of this novel. However, my 1907 edition of the novel is being marketed as a boys’ adventure story, so its roots are more in the tradition of the old-fashioned romance, in the medieval sense of the word, than based in actual history. I know very little about the Crusades but enough to have spotted several things that were wrong. However, I also don’t know what sources Scott may have been using for his historical background.

On the crusade with Richard the Lion Heart, Sir Kenneth is a poor Scottish knight of no illustrious family who has fallen in love with Edith Plantagenet, a lady far above his station. King Richard being ill, Sir Kenneth travels to see a holy man and healer whom the court ladies are visiting. While he is there, Edith gives him a sign of her favor.

He returns to the Christian camp bringing Saladin’s doctor with him to cure Richard. Richard is quickly cured and almost immediately gets involved in a dispute about his banner. The jealous Austrian Duke has placed his banner next to Richard’s and Richard is furious. He removes the Duke’s banner quite rudely and orders Sir Kenneth to guard his own.

Sir Kenneth is guarding the banner when he receives a message from Lady Edith asking him to come to her immediately. At first, he refuses, but then he thinks this may be his only chance to see her, and he will be gone only a few minutes. He decides to leave his dog to guard the banner. But when he arrives, he finds out that Queen Berengaria has summoned him in Edith’s name as part of a bet and a joke. Kenneth returns to his post to find the banner gone and his dog wounded. Now he’s in big trouble for disobeying orders.

Aside from this silly plot, there is also the one where King Richard’s Christian rivals are plotting against him. Eventually, they send an assassin after him.

This novel is a farrago of nonsense that just gets sillier as it goes on, and it is also written very floridly, combining archaic-sounding speeches with the flowery, elaborate speech of the East. Interestingly enough, Scott was heavily criticized for inventing a Plantagenet (Edith) but not for the more egregious historical errors in this novel. It is not Scott at his best.

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The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors

Review 1574: The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors

Maurice Druon’s spectacular historical novel The Iron King ends with a dramatic scene in which Jacques de Molay, the Master of the Knights Templar, is burned to death at the stake, and dying, curses Philip IV, King of France, as well as Pope Clement V. It was my interest in this particular event and my curiosity about the truth of Druon’s story that led me to read The Templars.

This book is a high-level history of the Knights Templar, an order of knights dedicated to poverty and to the protection of pilgrims in the Holy Land. As well as being about the battles it fought for Christendom (an appalling time), it is more interestingly about how the organization grew to become one of the most powerful multinational forces in Europe during the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries.

Although The Templars is meant to be a history for the general public, it does provide footnotes and citations for those who want to explore further, which I think is good. I have lately read a few history books and biographies that didn’t even bother listing sources, so there’s no way of ascertaining how accurate they are, which I find a disturbing trend. The book is written to hold its audience’s attention, which it does a fair job of. But, of course, it’s mostly about the Crusades, so you have to have a lot of fighting.

As for the Templars’ end, Jones depicts them as a mostly honorable and dedicated group of men who toward the end were fighting a losing battle. Europe wasn’t interested in crusades anymore, and the last few were disasters resulting in huge losses of men, largely through the misjudgments of Western leaders who did not understand their enemies rather than because of the Templars themselves. After these disasters, the Templars found themselves without enough knights to keep control of the territory they had once won.

It was on a trip to Europe to try to win support for another crusade that Jacques de Molay and all the knights in France were arrested on the same day. There had been much talk of combining the Knights Templar, the Knight’s Hospitaller, and the Teutonic Knights into one unit, which de Molay hoped to counter. What he did not anticipate was that King Philip of France wanted the Templars’ money and valuables. Starting with the testimony of one aggrieved man who had been ejected from the Templars for some crime, the king’s men had the knights tortured until they admitted crimes like denouncing Christ and committing sodomy. Although prosecution of the Templars was a church matter, not a civil one, Clement V was too much under Philip’s thumb to do much more than make mild efforts on their behalf. The result was that Templars who renounced their “confessions” were burned by the Inquisition. This shocking ending, Jones proposes, is why the Templars are still such a fascination in popular culture, although popular culture tends to treat them as satanists, when they were innocent of the charges against them.

So, yes, Druon got it right.

Jones did one thing that drove me crazy, which he claims is accepted practice in covering this time period, and that was to anglicize everyone’s names. I have never run across this before, but I think it’s ridiculous and ethnocentric. For example, Jacques de Molay is called James of Molay throughout the book. Why would anyone do this, accepted practice or not? Does Jones think the French name is too tough for us? If it’s accepted practice, it’s stupid.

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Review 1470: Queens of the Conquest: England’s Medieval Queens

In Queens of the Conquest, Alison Weir does what she does best—constructs a well-researched biography of a notable Medieval woman—in this case, four of them. Queens of the Conquest is the first of four volumes called England’s Medieval Queens, which will detail as much as is known of the lives of these queens. This volume begins with Matilda of Flanders, the wife of William the Conqueror, and ends approximately 100 years later with the death of Empress Maud, the mother of Henry II.

Weir’s premise in this volume is that the early Medieval queens of England were not removed from the governance of the kingdom. She has thoroughly proved this premise with documentation of their charters to award lands, their stints at being regent, and their attendance at cabinet meetings. Of the three women, only Adeliza of Louvain, King Henry’s second wife, seems to have taken a more traditional role.

Although the stories of the first two queen’s lives are largely dependent upon reading endless charters and religious devotions, which could get a little tiresome, Weir has faithfully documented what is known of the women’s lives. She does this in an eminently readable style while still backing the facts up with source material and footnotes. These materials include appendixes with the text of extant letters.

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Review 1347: A Place Beyond Courage

Cover for A Place Beyond CourageIn 12th century England, John FitzGilbert is the marshal for King Henry. He is an astute politician and a masterful organizer. FitzGilbert’s comfortable position is threatened, however, after Henry’s death. Henry has made all of his men pledge fealty to his daughter, Matilda, upon the event of his death, but he does not affirm his successor before his death. Many of Henry’s men prefer to follow Stephen, Henry’s likable nephew, after his death rather than recognize Matilda as queen or even as regent for her young son, Henry. The result is the period of English history called the Anarchy.

At first, John throws in his fortunes with Stephen, but he eventually recognizes that Stephen is a weak ruler, too swayed by his closest advisers. In particular, Stephen fails to reward John for his successes in battle. So, John switches sides to Matilda, along with other discontented men.

John is also unhappy in his marriage. He married Aline, his innocent young ward. Aline is painfully shy and seems totally unsuited for her position. She takes little interest in anything but the church.

A Place Beyond Courage is moderately interesting, but I feel it suffers from a trait common to historical fiction about actual characters. It tries to follow too faithfully the events of FitzGilbert’s life, resulting in a series of brief scenes instead of a more integrated novel.

Chadwick has also taken a character historically reviled because he gave his son over as a hostage with a famous speech that boils down to “There can be more where that came from” and depicted him sympathetically. Whether he deserves this treatment is questionable. Chadwick says he is know to have been gentle with women and children, but he sets aside Aline, his wife of many years and mother of his son, a woman he married for her fortune, for Sybilla, a young, beautiful woman the marriage with whom brings peace and useful connections. To justify this, Chadwick makes Aline unfit for her position and Sybilla so eminently more suitable that in the book this relationship is telegraphed for years before they even meet. Do any of these people actually deserve how Chadwick treats them? I’m not sure. Certainly, FitzGilbert seems mostly driven by ambition to me.

Making interpretations like this is the purview of a historical novelist, certainly, but most are more cautious than this. In any case, these doubts of mine are just thoughts that occurred to me as I was reading. My main objection is how Chadwick crams 20 years of events into a long series of short, staccato scenes. Few of the characters are very fleshed out because of this approach.

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Day 1271: Mistress of the Art of Death

Cover of Mistress of the Art of DeathHere’s another book for the R.I.P challenge with a very appropriate cover!

* * *

I recently realized that of Ariana Franklin’s Adelia Aguilar series, the only book I had not kept was Mistress of the Art of Death, the first one. This realization made me immediately buy another copy, which made a good excuse to reread it.

In 1171 Cambridge, someone is brutally murdering children. The locals have decided to pin these murders on the Jews, despite their having been locked up in the castle for safe keeping after the first death.

King Henry II has asked the King of Naples for help. An investigator is requested, as well as a Master in the Art of Death, a medical doctor who investigates the causes of death, trained by the University of Salerno. To everyone’s surprise and some dismay, along with Master Simon, the fixer, comes a woman, Adelia Aguilar, a doctor trained in Salerno.

Adelia finds herself in a relatively barbaric country where her identity as a doctor must be concealed for fear she will be accused of witchcraft. To be able to treat people, she passes off her Moorish manservant, Mansur, as a doctor, while she pretends to be his assistant and translator.

Her party enters Cambridge in the company of some pilgrims returning from Canterbury. Soon discoveries lead Adelia to fear that the murderer may be among the pilgrims she traveled with.

I think I enjoyed this novel even more this time through. The first time, I was skeptical that there were woman doctors in the 12th century. Now that I know Ariana Franklin better, I’m more confident that she did her research.

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Day 1234: The Siege Winter

Cover for The Siege WinterI am a big fan of anything by Ariana Franklin, so even though I was a little doubtful about The Siege Winter (also known as The Winter Siege) because it is a posthumous novel finished by her daughter, I had high hopes. Unfortunately, it bears almost no resemblance to any other novel by Franklin. Perhaps she wrote the plot synopsis, but I doubt she wrote anything else.

The Siege Winter is purportedly an account of the civil war between King Stephen and Queen Matilda in the 12th century from the point of view of the common people. Gratingly, it is written in modern vernacular and not well written at that. I was alarmed during the prologue, supposedly narrated by a 12th century monk, especially when two sentences began with “Anyway.” It just got worse. I couldn’t take it. I read five pages. Franklin’s prose was beautiful. This is not. I recommend you read one of the other books under “Related Posts.”

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Day 1165: The Winter Isles

In the 12th century, a boy warrior named Somerled in the islands west of what would become Scotland began leading his father’s small band out of obscurity. His father was ineffectual. After a victory, he failed to post guards while his people celebrated, and they were nearly annihilated, driven from their home. Afterwards, the much smaller band moves back to the caves where they first lived when they came from the mainland. But Somerled’s friend Eimhear, nicknamed Otter, is taken away by her father, who returns to the mainland.

The Winter Isles follows the rise of Somerled as he becomes Lord of the Isles. It also follows the love story between Somerled and Eimhear. Much of the novel is devoted to battles, as Somerled takes on one lord after another.

Although the novel covers an interesting period and person, it is only a middling success as a historical novel. It does not have the depth of feeling of the period or character that I expect from a really good historical novel. Characters have a few characteristics rather than distinct personalities, and we are mostly left to imagine the details of ordinary life that make a good historical novel convincing.

It was interesting to read about Somerled, but for a fuller experience of a similar time and a similar character, try King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett, the queen of the historical novel.

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Day 279: The Serpent’s Tale

Cover for The Serpent's TaleIn the first of the Mistress of the Art of Death series (minor spoilers ahead), Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, a medieval pathologist, solved a series of murders for the English King Henry II and fell in love with one of his soldiers, Rowley Picot. She declined his marriage proposal because he expected to be rewarded a baronetcy as a result of their success and she knew that as a baronet’s wife she would not be allowed to pursue her medical profession. As a more humble citizen she has a lot more freedom. So, they parted and, to his horror, he was made the Bishop of St. Albans.

In this second book, taking place almost two years later, Rowley fetches her for another mission. She is bubbling over with resentment because she has borne him a daughter, Ally, whom he has not acknowledged.

Rowley is on what he hopes is a preemptive mission. Using poison mushrooms, someone has attempted to murder Rosamund the Fair, Henry II’s mistress, and blame it on his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. In an effort to avoid civil war, Rowley wants Adelia to help him figure out who ordered the attempt before Henry hears of it.

But Adelia has bad news for him. The basket of mushrooms he brought to show her contains nightcaps, and Adelia explains that Rosamund may seem to have improved, but she is already dead.

In a frozen winter landscape, Adelia and Rowley travel first to a convent and then to the fantastic Wormwood Tower to investigate the crime, where Rosamund’s body lies protected by a labyrinth and an insane lady’s maid.

Franklin’s series is well written and carefully researched. Although she admits to taking a few liberties with historical characters in this book, for the most part it is historically based on Eleanor’s revolt against Henry in favor of her oldest son.

Franklin sets up a vivid backdrop in the icy English landscape, which plays more than an incidental part in the plot. In addition, she has the ability to make us care about Adelia and Ally, Rowley, Mansur, and Glytha, the main recurring characters. It is with sadness that I heard not long ago of Franklin’s death, and I regret that there are only four books in this series.

Day 240: A Murderous Procession

Cover for A Murderous ProcessionWhen I first started reading Ariana Franklin’s “Mistress of the Art of Death” series, I had mixed feelings about the premise, which is that a 12th century Jewish woman doctor is trapped in England because of her usefulness to Henry II and is in love with a bishop. However, these books are well written and show a great deal of knowledge of the time and place. Ultimately, I find the books interesting and the characters compelling.

Adelia Aguilar is a medieval forensic pathologist trained in Italy who is forced in England to pretend that her Moorish servant Mansur is the doctor and she is his interpreter, since no one would believe a woman could be a trained doctor. In A Murderous Procession, Adelia is living a retired life in the countryside with her daughter when she is ordered to accompany Henry II’s daughter Joanna to her marriage with the King of Sicily. Adelia must leave her own daughter with Queen Eleanor until she returns.

However, Adelia herself is being followed, by a vengeful madman whose bandit lover she killed in a previous book. Unfortunately, I read and reviewed these books out of order. The previous book is Grave Goods, I believe.

Adelia’s lover Rawley is also a member of the party, but he is required to leave periodically on missions of diplomacy. In his absence, the madman incites the entire party, particularly the church men, against Adelia and Mansur, blaming them for the procession’s many mishaps.

Franklin was only able to write a few books in this series before she died. A Murderous Procession is the last. She also wrote the excellent pre-World War II book set in Berlin, City of Shadows, which I reviewed a few months ago. Her death is a sad loss to the fans of good historical fiction.

Day 58: Grave Goods

Cover for Grave GoodsBest Book of Week 12!

In the year 1154 a dying monk sees what he thinks is a vision of the burial of King Arthur after an earthquake at Glastonbury Abbey. He tells his nephew about it as he dies. Twenty years later when King Henry II is putting down a Welsh rebellion, the nephew, a Welsh bard, tells him the story hoping to save his own life. Henry sends a message to Glastonbury, which has just suffered a great fire, and the monks find a coffin buried in the described location that seems to contain the corpses of a man and a woman.

The penurious Henry would love to announce that they had found the bodies of Arthur and Guinever, because the resulting monies from pilgrimages would save him having to pay to rebuild the abbey. But how can he be sure someone won’t come to claim the bones belonging to his Uncle Tom and Aunt Gladys? By summoning his “mistress in the art of death,” Adelia Aguilar, he hopes to determine at least their antiquity.

Grave Goods is a novel in Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death series. Adelia Aguilar is a graduate of the School of Medicine in Salerno, at the time the only such facility that would accept women, and an expert on the causes of death. She arrived in England on a previous matter, but Henry has found her so valuable that he has never granted her a passport to leave the country. Since she is a woman, her word is not respected by most men, so she pretends she is a translator for her Arab servant Mansur, who pretends to be the doctor.

Henry’s soldiers find Adelia and take her away as she is travelling with her friend Lady Emma Wolvercote to Wells to claim Emma’s son’s property from his grandmother. But when she arrives in Glastonbury after meeting with Henry in Wales, Emma has disappeared. The monks give Adelia’s party an unfriendly greeting, and while she and Mansur are looking in a crypt to find samples to compare with the corpses, someone tries to bury them alive. Something is not right at the abbey, and Adelia is not best pleased to be saved by Rawley, the Bishop of St. Albans, her ex-lover.

I have been reading this series for awhile. At first, I wasn’t sure I bought the premise, but the books are rich with historical details and the forensics information available at the time, and Ariana is a likeable heroine. It’s not her or Rawley’s fault that he was made a bishop (he was a soldier when she met him), and the blending of romance and mystery works fairly well here, which is unusual. The romance is played down in favor of action and suspense. If you like a good historical mystery, you’ll probably enjoy these books.