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Posts Tagged ‘non-fiction

Richard the Lionheart and Robin Hood

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So I started reading this book:

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And I started reading it, sadly, just a few short months after I finished writing my novel set in 1204, including odd events mentioned in this text. But that being said, I did confirm that what I had written conforms with Bartlett’s accounts (mainly of post-Byzantine Cyprus). So that’s my background to the book. And unusually, I’m going to review two books at once, and you’ll understand why half way through.

Why read any bio of this famous/infamous king of England? And why read this one in particular? Well, not just for the names, although Conan the Duke, Count Vulgrin and Grimaldo Grimaldi certainly draw the eye and make it sound like a work of fantasy. Why? Because Richard is probably England’s most famous king, and I reckon that if you ask the average person in the street, they wouldn’t be able to tell you why. That’s why. And why this one? well because, I reckon, it’s a great all-round and accessible work.

And this is the thing. Biographies can sometimes focus so much on the individual that it becomes meaningless, lacking context. This book does not. In fact, it is a biography of a dynasty more than a man. And even broader: of an age as much as a family. With kings being such a force at the centre of national, religious and military policy, any biography of the king should by rights include something of a general history. This book does that.

It covers every major flashpoint of which I have been aware in the history of the Angevins: the murder of Thomas Beckett, the battle of Horns of Hattin, the Jews of York, Acre, Jaffa and Chalus among others. And in doing so, it ties it all to Richard and his Angevin family, a dynasty that it turns out is as riven and troubled as any imperial Roman one.

I will state here my only two gripes. One is that the book could really have done with a family tree to which to refer, and I had to find one online to help me at times. The other was the author’s use of the phrase ‘both orders had been decimated at Hattin’, which niggles me as a Roman historian, for decimation specifically relates to the execution of one man in ten, and is frequently misused in place of obliteration.

The book is set out in a reassuringly chronological manner, covering the subject in stages: Early life, the politics of family, coronation and consolidation, the rise of the crusade, and then its fall, capture and imprisonment, John’s betrayal and release, war with France and finally demise and its impact. The treatment of John is also very fair, I think, which is unusual in a world in which he is uniformly villainised without adequate explanation. Parts of the tale, which reads often like a general history, are boosted by anecdotal asides, which is nice.

Several things occurred to me and were noted down during my read:

  • I’d never considered how much impact the death of Barbarossa had on the crusade
  • The collapse of the bridge at Gisors under Phillip mirrors the collapse of the Milvian Bridge under the emperor Maxentius, about which I’ve written. An odd symmetry.
  • The only assessment possible of Richard (like Marcus Aurelius) is only possible against a background of constant war, and we have no idea what kind of a peacetime king he would have been.
  • I’d forgotten how cool the Blondel and captivity story was.

The book ends in a summing up and what effects Richard had on history. All in all, this was a cracking read and one of the better biographies I have read. I highly recommend it. And to give you a taste, here’s a lovely quote:

“Only one son stood by his deathbed and he, ironically, was illegitimate […] Henry reportedly said of him that he was his only true son; it was the others who were bastards.”

My favourite line in the book. And during the closing parts of the book, unsurprisingly there is a short nod to the legend of Robin Hood and Richard’s part in it. And that’s the interesting thing. I’ve also just finished a ‘biography’ of Robin Hood, which I received ahead of publication and was planning to review, and this just seems to be kismet, the two being so aligned. So I now also give you:

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Now in fairness, I fully expected to hate this and to poo-poo it. I’m too rooted in historical record to give great credence to legends. That being said, there is an element of truth to all legends, and so, like King Arthur, or Achilles, or Troy, or Springheeled Jack, I occasionally indulge to see what other people think. I did so here.

It is a brave, and interesting, premise to launch your book treating Robin as a historical figure and then looking into the historiography of it, trying to ascertain how valid it is. And that warmed me to it. For Matthews is not stating that Robin was definitely real, lived in Privet Drive with his aunt Flo and worked for the water board. He presents evidence and himself treats it with suspicion as well as fascination. So my initial scepticism was gradually worn away.

The first thing the book did, and its first quarter is devoted to this, is to examine the earliest surviving ballads. Here, I encountered a tale that was at one and the same time the old, familiar Robin Hood of legend, but also a new and surprising take. I find myself even now wondering why no author or filmmaker has ever tried to turn this original medieval tale into a movie or book. It would surely be a new angle, despite being also the earliest. Robin comes across a lot more brutal and wily here.

And the thing that really struck me is that despite the traditional treatments I’ve seen and read, the Robin of earliest legend may not have been born during the time of Richard the Lion heart and King John. In fact, in the quoted text, there is reference to King Edward, making it likely Edward I or II, at the end of the 13th century, not the 12th! I was astounded. For this alone, the book was worthwhile.

Another interesting assertion is that Robbinhood might be a now-lost medieval term for an outlaw. That would make tracking the legend down nigh-on impossible, of course, so Matthews continues to examine any historical Robins. What he presents, based on the works of medieval tale-tellers, is more than one plausible historical Robin Hood, or the basis for them. This fascinated me.

The book then moves into investigations into possible pre-Medieval origins for the Robin legend, connecting ancient mythology, Saxon legend and more with the tale. For me, the book got a little bogged down at this point. The depth of the mythological work was impressive and probably deserves a book in its own right, but at times it seemed to me somewhat peripheral or tangential to the purpose of the book. I may be being unfair here, and will leave that to other readers to decide for themselves.

We then go on to examine the potential historical background of the other characters in the tale, being Marian and the ‘Merry Men’. This, again, fascinated me, and made it worthwhile.

What did surprise me was that half the book turned out to be recounted ballads of Robin Hood, the last 120 pages given over to these appendices. I felt that this was somewhat unnecessary and lacked the focus on the subject that I saw in the early chapters, since without Matthews’ commentary on it, it became little more than source material.

The upshot? A brave attacking of a tricky subject. Despite a couple of negatives, one of which being the brevity of the actual work, it threw my preconceived notions aside and provided me with fascinating new nuggets of information that I treasure.

I enjoyed it. If you have an interest in the subject, you probably will, too.

So there you go. Two books in one post, the first out now the second in May. Fascinating reading, for sure.

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Written by SJAT

April 23, 2019 at 9:00 am

In search of our Ancient Ancestors

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I received this book from Pen & Sword courtesy of UNRV, where this review will also appear. I will say from the outset that the reason I accepted the review copy was because I found the concept interesting enough to draw me in to read, so I started on good terms.

I am, for those who don’t know me, a historian and author with a solid bent towards the classical world (especially of Rome) and to the successor world of Rome. I am a scientific dunce. I cannot change a lightbulb, or even explain how one works. But just ask me about the religious policy of Maxentius, I dare you. So it turns out that there’s only a small amount of this book that I can say deals with my area of expertise.

Adoph has set out on the grandest of missions: to explain to the layman how the universe came into being, how life and eventually humans evolved and how they began to shape their world into one in which succession and descendency mattered. Nothing too grand, then…. I would say the book can be neatly split into perhaps 6 parts (which clearly do not correspond with the 5 parts into which the author divides it!)

1. Adolph begins by spending perhaps a third of the book on dealing with the creation of our world, from a fairly in depth look at the big bang, right down through our evolution with legs and lungs, right to sloping foreheads, neanderthals, Homo-everything etc. I personally found this section fascinating, as it examined a subject about which I am vague at best, and did it in an engaging and clever manner.

2. The evolution of humanity from our earliest stages down to the city-builders and farmers was equally interesting to me, as it filled in a lot of blanks in my knowledge and did so, again, in a engaging way.

3. Sadly, for me, part 2 slid into what I consider part 3, which was a seemingly endless investigation of genetics. I coped with the subject until about the thirtieth use of the world ‘haplotype’, but after a while the sciency section really blurred, and I had to fight to keep my interest. Did I mention I am about as scientifically-oriented as a cheese and onion baked potato. Now don’t get me wrong – there will be people who love this section, and good on them. But not I.

4. Aha… suddenly we’re back to the fun stuff for me, with an investigation into the world of the Neolithic through to the iron age. Troy, Sumer, Greece, Rome, Egypt, ancient Britain etc. Now, to be honest I was a little taken aback here by some of his precise text. ‘Hallstatt culture – a social order dominated by violent warriors whose faith in the druidic concept of reincarnation…’ is a prime example. The only records of the druids are from Roman authors and are heavily influence by Roman views. We simply have no idea what the druids’ concepts actually were. Similarly, talking of William I of Normandy, Adolph says ‘His descendants sit on the British throne to this very day.’ They do not. There is no direct blood link between the Norman Duke William and the house of Saxe-Coburg Gotha, separated by a series of incoming bloodlines and usurpers. I know this is probably small fry in the scheme of the book and has been simplified to smoothly put the point to the reader, but if discrepancies like this appear here, might they appear elsewhere? Perhaps this is me on my historian soapbox and, to be honest, it does not invalidate the point and the general message of the book which shows a great deal of in-depth research.

5. An examination of the creation myths around the world, attempting to put them into a unified perspective and putting them against the background of evolution and descendency. This was, for me, the most fascinating part of the whole book, and the one which taught me most. I will take away with me pieces of this research as life knowledge. Moreover, without wanting to annoy my religious friends and readers, you all know my views, and I smiled at the following lines: ‘We can recognise them as the products of active, questing human minds, sometimes stimulated by religious trances and religious drug use. We can relax and enjoy them for the fantastic stories they really are.’

6. A conclusion and then a dip, briefly, possibly just to befuddle me, into the whole haplogroup science again.

Overall, the book was a thoroughly engaging and interesting read, clearly not entirely suitable to everyone. A science duffer like me had to frown and count the floor tiles throughout the genetic investigations. A true believing follower of any religion will have some trouble with the pragmatism. But I think everyone will find something of interest within and I can guarantee that everyone will learn something.

Written by SJAT

March 10, 2016 at 9:30 am

Demon’s Brood

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Every now and then you come across a non-fiction title that really stands out and is as much fun to read as a good novel. Such is Desmond Seward’s history of the Plantagenet dynasty. In fact, I found it so interesting that I kept highlighting little sections and will post them here in the review to give you an idea of why this book is so worth reading. Witness extract 1:

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It came as something of a surprise to me to see the range of dates and kings covered by the book. I had always thought of the Plantagenets as being the sort of Henry II through to Edward I or II sort of era. Surprised me to see that the story begins in the 10th century and only comes to a close in the Tudor era with the last lost scions of the family. 2

The book takes a specific format, beginning with the origins of the Plantagenets and then taking us through the dynasty one king at a time, and then finishing with an examination of the fading of the family from the limelight after Bosworth Field.

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For each king, we are treated to a brief precis, then a chronological acocunt of their life and reign, focusing on each important aspect separately, with an examination of their personality, the historiography, and then finally a summation at the end. This is a nice, neat way to deal with them and worked very well for me, with a sort of smattering of tit-bits that clung to the memory.

7 Another thing that struck me with the book is just how much I learned, even about the kings I thought I knew quite well. And, indeed, how interesting some of the kings I really knew little about (Henry IV for eg) compared with those I did (Richard I). So as I went through, I selected one little fact about each king that I hadn’t known by was fascinating.  10

*Guffaw*

Here’s a sample of what I learned:

  • Stephen & Matilda – if Matilda hadn’t come out on top, we’d probably have had a king Eustace!
  • Henry II – was given Ireland by the Pope. Who knew?
  • Richard I – offered coastal cities & his sister to Saladin’s brother if he would convert to Christianity…
  • John I – was unusually clean, with an impressive bathing routine
  • Henry III – was thoroughly happily married!
  • Edward I – rebuilt the sinking port of Winchelsea.
  • Edward II – he really did die in the gruesome manner we heard as kids. I’d always thought it exaggeration!
  • Edward III – at the battle of Berwick killed over 4000 Scots, but lost a knight, a squire & 12 foot soldiers…
  • Richard II – his clerk of the King’s Works was one Geoffrey Chaucer!
  • Henry IV – fought in the Baltic crusades with the Teutonic knights. Fascinating.
  • Henry V – first king since the Norman conquest to use English for his written business.
  • Henry VI – was a very prudish fellow who abhored nudity.
  • Edward IV – despite fighting some of the worst actions of his age, he never lost a battle!
  • Richard III – was a very capable sea captain and curtlailed the menace of Scottish piracy.

See what I mean? Fascinating little facts, and there are thousands more waiting for you in the book.

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The book was released by Constable yesterday, and I recommend it thoroughly, whether you have an interest in the Plantagenets or not. It’s always good to learn more about our history, and this is to some extent the forging of the nation we know.

If I haven’t managed to hook your interest with these titbits then I never will. Go buy the book and have a read. You’ll be fascinated.

Written by SJAT

March 4, 2016 at 11:13 am

Facts about Fritz

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An unusual review of a little gem for you today. As you know I occasionally like to review the odd non-fiction work among the novels I read. Well the other day I came into possession of a copy of Facts about Fritz by Robin Schafer and Tim Hardy. Rob is a German military historian and consultant (and without doubt the most knowledgeable such I have ever come across) and Tim is a talented graphic designer. Together they have combined their skills to release this wonderful item.

If, like me, you have a passing knowledge of the First World War, mostly gained through school, holidays in northern Europe… and Blackadder, of course… then this book might prove as fascinating and informative to you as it does to me. If you are already an expert, it is pitched a little below your level to be honest, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth having. Far from it.

Essentially, this book is 50 pages, with every two pages being an individual fact sheet on one aspect of the German army in 1914-1918. The production is superb. Glossy and beautiful, it’s a thing of beauty. But beyond that, it is chock full of period photographs, fascinating images of artefacts surviving to the present day, anecdotes and accounts from witnesses as well as the facts themselves as provided by the informed mind of Rob. The content varies from short factoids – such as

“Approximately 40,000 Messenger dogs operated with German units during the war.”

to letters written by the men at the front, to lengthy paragraphs detailing for instance the Reich’s Postal Service, to extracts from contemporary tales. All interspersed with appropriate imagery.

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Subjects covered include such wide-ranging matters as the Iron Cross, Flags, Trench Newspapers and the Flying Circus.

The book is an objective and factual work on the army of the Kaiser’s Germany and should be fascinating to anyone who has even a passing interest in the era. The book costs £7.99 and is currently only available through Tim Hardy’s website HERE. I would also urge you to keep an eye on Rob’s site –  as well as being fascinating in general, he has another book on Fritz and Tommy coming out next year through the History Press and that will be worth grabbing.

Back with some more choice fiction for you in the next week. 🙂

Written by SJAT

October 22, 2014 at 10:55 am

The pinnacle of Roman non-fiction

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I usually review fiction books here, and those are usually historical fiction, and quite often Roman. However, as often as I read fiction, I read non-fiction. I will often laud a good work on Twitter or Facebook, but I tend not to do full-blown reviews for them. And there are some excellent writers of Roman non-fiction out there. I could cite John Peddie, or Adrian Goldsworthy, or Mary Beard, or the Adkins’ or a number of others. But a year or two back one name shot up the ranks for me.

I had the opportunity to beta read a walking guide by the excellent Mike (M.C.) Bishop. And amazingly I found it not only fascinating and informative as a non-fiction work, but every bit as entertaining as a good Roman novel. Since then I have acquired and read other Bishop works, and so consider this post a review of three different books (sort of four, actually) by the same author.

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(image courtesy of Andante Travels website)

I will begin with a little bio. Mike Bishop has a superb pedigree in the field of Rome and its military. He has been instrumental in archaeological digs in some of Britain’s most important Roman sites, including on the wall. He has led guided tours to some of the most amazing Roman sites in the world for the unparalleled Andante travels. He has been a guiding light in the Roman Military Equipment Conference. Getting the picture? He has published a number of excellent and informative tomes in the field of Roman military. He also walked Hadrian’s wall more often than I’ve walked to the pub (alright, NO-ONE has done that many trips anywhere, but still) and performed a risk assessment  to the ancient monuments prior to the establishment of the national walking route along it. So when I say he wrote a walking guide to the wall, could you think of anyone more qualified?

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In fact, some time apart, I beta read both of these books. One might be mistaken for thinking that a guide to walking the wall East-West would be little more than a carbon copy of the West-East one, only mirrored. Of course, this is not true. Both of these E-books, available at Amazon (click on the pic above to go there), are stunning guides. I walked much of the length of the wall many years ago and very much wish these had been out then. Should I get the chance to do so again, I will be doing  it with my kindle in hand and this guide loaded ready. Not only is it informative on a level you will not find in any guidebook I have found on the wall, it is also entertaining. In fact, as something of an ‘armchair archaeologist’ I thoroughly enjoyed reading these books with Google Earth open next to me, following the route from the comfort of my sofa with a good scotch. I ooh and ahh each time I read them at the fascinating little titbits they contain, and chuckle at the humour throughout. Have I sold them yet? If you’re ever going to visit the wall, just don’t do it without one of these guides. And at £2.50 you just cannot go wrong. As a last note, these guides actually made it past some of the most notable fiction last year to make it into my top ten reads of the year (check that post here)

On then to part 2 of my 3-part review:

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Ask any writer of Roman fiction to which book they will turn to check any point at all in the matter of military equipment, and I will bet you good money that they cite this tome. It is, quite simply, the bible for Roman military gear. My copy somehow remains pristine despite the fact that ever day that I write more than a paragraph of Roman stuff, I open the book and thumb the pages to check something. Well illustrated and going into surprising detail for its length, this book is perfectly organised for reference, well-categorised and running section by section throughout the history of Rome by period. It revolves mostly around primary and archaeological sources and so is quite clearly a cut above many of its peers. This is one of my most prized literary possessions. If you have any interest in Roma, make it one of yours. And that brings me to part three – my most recent acquisition already up there with my prized works:

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This gem has not long been released by Pen & Sword books. A lovely, glossy hardback packed with information and plans, images and data it is another of those ‘definitive works’ for me, far surpassing the depth of the excellent Osprey book that covers the same subject, but which is restricted by size and cost to more of an overview level. Not only does it go into the background, the planning, the construction and so on of the legionary fortress, but it also contains an excellent gazeteer of the sites, charts, timelines and so much more. This is one of the best Roman military books you will ever own. Check it out.

So there we go. Three books (or more truthfully four) that deserve your attention. If you love your Roman history you can’t afford to delay. Go get them.

Fiction reviews will return next week with Giles Kristian’s excellent new epic: God of Vengeance.

Written by SJAT

April 17, 2014 at 5:03 pm