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Silk and the Sword by Sharon Bennett Connolly

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Almost a year ago, I read and reviewed one of the most innovative and refreshing historical texts I have ever come across, that being Heroines of the Medieval World by Sharon Bennett Connolly (my review can be found here).

Imagine my glee in being able to dive in to Sharon’s second treatment of historical women, then. Silk and the Sword: the women of the Norman conquest is released in just three days’ time (15th of November). You can pre-order it here.

In ‘Heroines…’ Sharon gave us a very detailed, thought provoking, and fascinating view into an aspect of history that is rarely covered in academia: the feminine perspective. She explored what it meant to be a woman in the Medieval era, illustrating her narrative  by telling us the tales of some of the most interesting women ever to grace the pages of history.

Silk and the Sword is at one and the same time a similar sort of treatment, and yet quite different. Once more we are shown the lives and events and personalities of some incredible women, but in this case, those women tell a tale in almost chronological order. ‘Silk’ attempts to give us the events of the 11th century, and the book is split into three constituent parts.

Part one sets the scene from the beginning of the century, explaining the lead up to those tumultuous events of 1066. The political and social situation is revealed, and the acts and struggles of the kings, dukes, earls and other great men are shown to us through the lives of the women who were part of it all. From an initial chapter of ground-laying, we move into the lives of Emma of Normandy, the famous Godiva of Mercia, Gytha of Wessex and Judith of Flanders. Given the regions I’ve just described in the names of these women alone you can also see another aspect of this book that I appreciated. Too often the tale of 1066 is told with a focus on Normans, Harold Godwinson and the Norwegian invaders. This treatment gives us a much more holistic view, approaching the events of that year, the lead-up, and the aftermath, from many angles.

Part two deals with the conquest itself, again with an opening chapter to set out the facts before leading us through this critical time via the lives of Edith of Wessex, the series of women in the life of the fascinating Harald Hardrada, the mysterious Edith Swanneck and Ealdgyth of Mercia (Harold’s early love and his later wife). And do not think because Sharon is focusing on the women of the time that any of the war and politics of the invasion is missed out. This is not the case.

Part three leads us through the aftermath of the conquest, once more with an opening chapter setting out the facts. This chapter ends with one line that seems to seal the fate of the country: “England had been conquered by the Normans.” But there is more to the aftermath of 1066 that simply a change in the ruling family. We’ve all seen right down a century and a half later in the tales of Robin Hood how the land is still portrayed as a broken and divided one between Norman overlord and Saxon underdog. This section of the book deals with the events following the conquest and the world it creates, seen through the lives of Matilda of Flanders, Queen Margaret of Scotland and Gundrada de Warenne (and here, for me, we start to enter more familiar territory, for I am aware of the powerful de Warenne family.) But the very last chapter of this part is for me the most fascinating of the book, for I love a historical mystery, and I enjoyed watching Sharon attempt to piece together the possible identity of a mysterious women shown in the Bayeux Tapestry (Aelgyva).

On a personal note, I wrote Caligula a couple of years ago, and Commodus this past year, both of which deal with famous, or more realistically infamous, Roman emperors and great events, and both are told from the point of view of the women in those emperors’ lives. So it was nice to see something similar happen to the great men of the Norman conquest. And in an odd moment of synchronicity, the paperback of Caligula is released on the very same day as Silk and the Sword.

Once more a refreshing and unique look at the women of British history, this book offers a perspective you’ll not find in any other work on the events of 1066. If you know the era and it’s already of interest to you, then you’ll find something new here and if, like me, you only knew the bare bones and the more famous names involved, then you’ll learn much in an enjoyable and innovative way.

Silk and the Sword is a valuable addition to any reference library on the Medieval world and simply a very good read.

Highly recommended.

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Written by SJAT

November 12, 2018 at 11:33 am

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