S.J.A.Turney's Books & More

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Posts Tagged ‘research

Heroines of the Medieval World

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In the interest of transparency, I’ve been a friend of the author of this book on Facebook for years, our joint interest in history being the connection. That being said, our direct historical paths have rarely intersected, mine being military in the classical era and hers being more of a social history angle in the Medieval era. Then, oddly, there came a convergence. In the same year I signed up to writing a Medieval novel and selected as major characters two strong women, Sharon Bennett Connolly announced this book. Given the odd connection, I was dying to read it. I was therefore really pleased to be offered a review copy and a chance to be part of her blog tour.

My Medieval heroine characters (whose identity I will not reveal for fear of spoilers) actually do not appear in Sharon’s books. In fairness they are REALLY obscure characters, so that’s not a surprise. But the fact is that, despite their absence in the text, Sharon’s book is a wealth of information and a learning curve for anyone wanting to research the role of women in the era. And, of course, for anyone simply with a passing interest in the subject. It has great value for research and just for general interest and gave me a number of new insights that will inform my own tale.

I had expected the book to be a series of biographies, with each section focusing on a different woman. I was surprised, therefore, to find that it had instead a thematic approach. Each chapter covers one aspect of women in the medieval era. One, I was interested to find, was about women and religion, which was the subject that currently interested me. But there are other aspects that also touch on my subject. Really, the book covers ever angle I can think of on the subject, missing nothing.

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(Medieval women playing music)

I shall condense my review of the book into pros and cons. You will be pleased to hear, no doubt, that I have only one con to mention and consequently I shall start with that.

Cons: The only downside I found in the book may be more of a failing in me. There was, I thought, a tendency to assume that the reader was familiar with the era and comfortable with the names and details. Consequently, I spent time either dazzled by a machine gun barrage of Medieval names or having to read back and re-check facts. I am, of course, used to writing Roman military, and while I’m currently working on Medieval stuff I spend a lot of time double and treble checking and correcting things. I suspect that this con is unlikely to touch on the general readership, since most people who buy and read this book will be more comfortable with the era and conventions than I. The upshot? Not much of a con at all I guess.

Pros? Well there’s plenty, but four deserve mention specific here:

  1. The sheer level of depth and research Sharon has put into every nuance of her book is impressive. In fact it is this level of detail that led in some way to my only con (noted above.) It is impossible to argue against the veracity of her text, she is simply that thorough. I consider at best 50% of my non-fiction books to be ‘go-to’ texts that I feel I can completely trust. This book has joined that illustrious section.
  2. Also, it is put together in an almost conversational fashion, the information delivered in an easy, informal manner. There is an almost skald-like way she approaches these characters, as though they are not so historical characters under the microscope as friends about whom she has SO MANY STORIES.
  3. The thematic approach means that I could concentrate on the aspects that had more connection with my own subject. I suspect that as a reviewer I should approach all aspects equally, but that’s not really what non-fiction works are for. They are for specific research. And the organisation of this book works well in that respect in that it is also therefore non-consecutive and the reader can leap back and forth to the sections that are most pertinent without having to rely on missed text in between.
  4. Finally, this book covers a huge swathe of time and geography. From the pre-Norman conquest world deep into the age of chivalry this is a really all-consuming text. One might think, given the very specific nature of the subject that it would focus on a short period or locale, but this is actually a more far-reaching work than I expected.

Bravo to Sharon for her depth of work.

In short, this is a very accessible and informative book that should appeal not only to the serious student or researcher into the subject but to anyone with an interest in the Medieval world and/or the role of women in history.

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So there you go. Do have a look at the other pages in this blog tour, all of which are fascinating (I read them ALL yesterday!)

A review by Annie Whitehead here

An article about non-warrior heroines here

A guest post here

Another guest post by Sharon here

An extract here

Another excerpt here

An excellent review here

An interview with Stephanie Churchill here

A video review here 

A guest post on Nicolaa at the Review here

Another guest post here

And an extract here

About the author:

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Sharon Bennett Connolly, has been fascinated by history for over 30 years now and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites, including Conisbrough Castle. Born in Yorkshire, she studied at University in Northampton before working in Customer Service roles at Disneyland in Paris and Eurostar in London. She is now having great fun, passing on her love of the past to her son, hunting dragons through Medieval castles or exploring the hidden alcoves of Tudor Manor Houses. Having received a blog as a gift, History…the Interesting Bits, Sharon started researching and writing about the lesser-known stories and people from European history, the stories that have always fascinated. Quite by accident, she started focusing on medieval women. And in 2016 she was given the opportunity to write her first non-fiction book, Heroines of the Medieval World, which was published by Amberley in September 2017. She is currently working on her second non-fiction book, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, which will be published by Amberley in late 2018.

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Written by SJAT

November 11, 2017 at 8:40 am

Roman research – en Francais

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Something a bit different for this Thursday’s review. I’ve been tidying the bookshelves of my office and four of my research texts in particular caught my eye. Why? Because they’re the four I have that are in French. I’m not a fluent French speaker, by the way. I have ‘holiday French’ along with more specialised Gallo-Roman-connected French. This means that when I need to read a book on Rome in French, I can instinctively translate about every third sentence at a glance, and the other two I will need to work on. Hard work? Yes. Especially for research. But rewarding? Well yes. Let me explain why, for each book:

01

A comic book! Gods, yes. Some consider it a lesser form of literature, and maybe if you’re talking about Dennis the Menace I might nod, but this graphic novel of Rome vs Gaul at the last great stand is really a very high quality read. This was one of the books I bought when I was writing Marius’ Mules VII, which centred on the siege of Alesia, and it influenced my vision of the battle and the warriors as much as any archaeological or topographic research. The authors and illustrators have put such passion into the detail, that it is impossible to not appreciate it. The armour and equipment are authentic. The oppidum of Alesia itself is spot on, having walked the site a few years back, and the Roman siege works are very well done. What’s the story? Well, I couldn’t tell you in truth. I didn’t read it as a story. For me this was a visual thing. And as a series of images of the events leading up to Alesia and the battle itself, it is hard to beat. Some day I will read it as a novel too. Hopefully it won’t disappoint. I have the feeling it won’t.

02

Another text I bought for Marius’ Mules VII. This, however, is a serious text book. An archaeological treatise with a focus on the site and its remains rather than the famous battle that took place there. And this book I read whole chunks of. Not everything, since it is all encompassing, right down to dealing with the trial excavations in the days of the Second French Empire. For me it’s a 4* book, rather than 5, as it tends to be a little rambling at times, and could be more organised and focused. A two page spread on Napoleon III, I deemed rather unnecessary, for instance. And many pages are given over to antique illustrations connected with the subject (woodcuts and 19th century maps for eg). But as far as it lags in that respect, the upsides of this book are fabulous for anyone interested in Alesia. The archaeological work in the book is covered in such detail even a true expert would learn something. And the topographical illustrations are excellent, too. My interpretation of the Roman defences in my own account is almost entirely based on this book.

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Moving on from Alesia, this is a book I bought when writing Marius’ Mules VIII. Roman Marseilles is not a subject that is heavily covered in books, and certainly not in any depth. I bought this, expecting something a little like the Alesia one above – a graphic novel with some nice illustrations. It’s not. And any other books in the Voyages d’Alix series that cover places I will write about, I shall most certainly buy. The series covers many, many places in ancient times, from Jerusalem to Mexico, even! And it is not a graphic novel at all. It is a proper research book – just written for kids. Now that suits me down to the ground, since it meant it was picture heavy and much easier to read/translate. Each two page spread through the book covers an aspect of ancient Massalia, from religion to the port, to trade, to baths and so on. And along with a good descriptive text, it is illustrated with photos of remains and finds, and with reconstructions of the style and quality you can see on the cover above. Best of all for me, it had two panoramic views of the city, one during the period of Greek control and one later, under the Romans. Without this book, my view of Marseilles in MM8 would have been very different. And it will come into play again next year, when I get to MM10 and the siege of that same city.

04

The jewel of the collection. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, even if you’ve not a word of French. Anthony Riches, author of the excellent Empire series, put me onto this book and I bought it immediately, and have opened it at least once a week now for years. It is a complete visual topography of Rome in the age of Constantine. It is organised by region and nowhere is left out (most books covering this sort of subject focus on the famous bits and gloss over the rest.) Whole sections of very informative text, accompanied by lovely glossy photos of the current city’s remains, are punctuated with fold out maps in the form of panoramic reconstructions (again such as on the cover above.) But these are great big and very detailed images. Better still, each one is unlabelled and clear (again as above), but is accompanied by a copy of the same image a little washed out and with each location labelled. I cannot stress enough the value of this to anyone trying to understand the ancient city of Rome. Praetorian 1 and 2 were both written using this as an almost constant research text. Not so Marius’ Mules, as the book concentrates on the early 4th century city, and the Rome of Julius Caesar would look a great deal different. But…. well, just buy it and look at it. Try not to drool on the pages!

So there you go. Four French books in one review. If you’ve an interest in the subject, they’re all recommended, each for different reasons.

Back to normal next week with a 20th century historical novel review.

Written by SJAT

April 14, 2016 at 9:48 am

The value of experience

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For those who don’t know, as well as reviewing book and writing historical fiction, one of my other hobbies is kitting myself up as a late 1st century legionary and reenacting with the 20th legion at Chester. I would heartily recommend such a pastime to anyone interested in the era. The kit’s not cheap to assemble, of course, but many units will have spare kit that you can borrow while putting together your own, and some manufacture their own. And it’s a hobby that most folk could cope with. I myself am almost extraordinarily unfit and slightly portly, and yet this past weekend I marched 10 miles in the kit seen above with my legionary brothers to raise money for the Park In The Past project. It’s great fun, it’s fascinating, and there is a level of camaraderie you’ll find in few other hobbies.

But do you know what? It’s also extremely educational. One aspect of reenactment is regularly termed ‘experimental archaeology, and for very good reason. Reenactment is the only way to even attempt to understand what it was to BE those characters about whom we write. I know a number of my peers also march in kit, or take part in civil war battles, involve themselves with living history and so on. It is possible to be truly knowledgeable without doing something like this, but to actually experience something of the life is to add life to the knowledge. I have discussed the matter at length with the superb Christian Cameron, whose works are very human and personal, and who reenacts ancient Greek, medieval and also Revolutionary War eras!

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The thing is: for those of us writing in the ancient world, and particularly in the Roman era, on which I am focusing here, the documentary and visual evidence leaves huge gaps. Rome is one of the few distant worlds which has left us a wealth of sculpture, painting, written texts and buried artefacts that help us understand their world. And yet despite this, there are holes in our understanding. Here are some examples:

Military clothing. We know that legionaries wore tunics from the Republican era right through to the late empire. But even at the height of the Principate when we have the best records, there are few notable reference to the tunic’s colour (I’m not including the late empire here, as it’s a different beast entirely.) Wall paintings from Pompeii and an Etruscan tomb suggest red tunics, as do some vague references, but there is no direct text to support that. Other sources show legionaries in white or undyed tunics. It is my personal belief that only officers wore the red and that undyed was the standard for legionaries. This is largely the work of logic, since the cost of purchasing and importing red dye to dye between two and perhaps five garments for each man of a five-thousand strong legion seems unrealistic to me. Yet some reenactors will point to their white tunics and the russet stains left by wearing armour in bad weather and will use that as evidence for the need for red tunics. Some (I marched alongside two this weekend) wear blue tunics, just to outline the fact that no one knows for sure. The unit I serve with allows a wide variety of colours and fabrics, so long as there is a common element, in the belief that since legions were based long-term in a region, they would take to using whatever local sources and dyes were commonly available and cheap. This is another very reasonable assumption. The answer to the colour question might never be known, but by trial and error we can start to understand the potential of the answers.

Footwear. It is a general common understanding that Roman soldiers wore Caligae (the strapped sandal-like military boots) everywhere. More recently a wealth of evidence has begun to appear to suggest that closed boots were a lot more common that previously believed. And believe a reenactor when they tell you that boots are much more practical and sensible in damp conditions, and therefore it has to be believed that the Romans wore mostly enclosed boots in more adverse environments. Many of the men I marched with this weekend own both types of footwear, but the weekend was generally a damp one, and the number of caligae in evidence compared to boots was extremely small. Experience overturning theory. That is the value of reenactment.

boots

Tweaks. Legionaries are shown carrying their shields on their backs in numerous depictions. And yet there is little evidence as to how that actually worked. This is one aspect in which reenactment is a prime source of information. For instance, the way I carried my shield (above) was comfortable throughout the march, and yet if we had been attacked by slavering barbarians somewhere outside Lower Kinnerton, I would have been dead long before I’d struggled with the buckles and got the shield on my arm. So there goes that theory. Len Morgan of the 14th showed me his shield strap, and things fell into place, for his was carried over one shoulder, not the neck, with a second strap around the chest. The result? Unbuckle under one armpit and the shield was already on his arm. That quick. Trial and error. The reenactor has potentially solved how this was done. Some shields’ grips within the boss are so restrictive and tight that manoeuvering with them comfortably shreds the back of the hand. It would have been near impossible for a legionary to have functioned with my shield, until I took a leaf from a friend’s rulebook and rebuilt the grip. Now it is comfy and I can throw it around as required:

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There are so many other things. How were men arranged in the testudo? Think about the aspect of height! A shorter man between two taller ones will result in a hole in the defence. I discovered this last year at an event when I was hit in the face with a thrown missile. So a testudo should, for preference, be organised by height, so that when called, every man knows his place and there are no gaps. How do you stop a helmet bouncing around when it’s hanging down your front during a march? Simple: you tuck the cheek guards around the baldric of your sword. I never knew that until this weekend, but it makes so much sense.

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The list goes on. I could spend all day telling you just the things I learned this last weekend, let along over the past year or two.

And that’s where it becomes more than a hobby for a writer. It becomes research, pure and simple. I’ll freely admit that in my earlier work there were mistakes and assumptions. I cannot go back and correct such assumptions at this stage, but I can try and avoid any and all such issues with every new book. Consequently, there is a wealth of detail in my more recent books that has come directly from first-hand experience with the 20th Valeria Victrix. Without that experience, I would have missed out on some gems of knowledge and colour, and a few directly-related events. There is little that prepares you to write about the difficulties of stomping up a hill laden with gear than doing it.

The effect of several contubernia of men chanting while marching under a bridge or tunnel has to be heard to be believed!

Oh and the weight of a good Celtic torc came as something of a surprise too! And as for wearing the jangling willies…. 😉

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The value of reenactment and living history in writing. Ask Christian Cameron, Robert Low, Caroline Lawrence and others. I guarantee they will all have taken value from their experience and put it into their work.

Now to take my experiences of the post-march booze-up and apply it to Fronto’s experiences in the wine trade.

Written by SJAT

May 5, 2015 at 11:03 am