Book Review: “The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings” by Dan Jones

57841287As the weather gets colder, the leaves turn brilliant colors and fall from their trees, marking the perfect time of the year to snuggle with a blanket, a cup of tea, and a good spooky tale. Many would reach for a modern supernatural story, but ghost tales have been hiding in archives for centuries. One such story comes from the time of King Richard II. It was first found and transcribed from Latin in 1922 by medievalist M.R. James. Dan Jones has taken on the challenge to retell this story for a modern audience. Initially written by an unknown monk of Byland Abbey, this medieval ghost story is called “The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings.”

I want to thank Head of Zeus Books and NetGalley for sending me a copy of this book. I am a big fan of Dan Jones and his historical nonfiction books, so I was thrilled when I heard about this title.

Our tale begins with the tailor named Snowball and his horse Borin traveling home from Gilling to Ampleforth one November night. All of a sudden, Snowball is attacked by a raven that transforms into a grotesque dog. The dog gives Snowball a mission that only he can complete, to find a specific priest to ask for absolution for a criminal with no name and whose crime we do not know. If he does not return to the same spot where he has met the dog, there will be consequences.

To give readers even more information, Jones includes the story of how M.R.James came to find the tale and why he chose to bring this story into the 21st century. He also tells the story of Byland Abbey and includes the original Latin text for those who feel ambitious to translate it themselves.

I am not usually a fan of creepy ghost stories, but I found this tale entirely enthralling, and it sent chills down my back in a matter of pages. Even though Jones does not include that many physical descriptions for characters like Snowball and Borin, I can picture this tale playing out. For his first venture into the world of fiction, I think Jones does a brilliant job, and I hope one day he will make an anthology of medieval ghost stories. If you want a delightfully ghoulish ghost story that is perfect for fall, I highly recommend you read “The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings” by Dan Jones.

Book Review: “Medicine in the Middle Ages: Surviving the Times” by Juliana Cummings

56549196The period of human history that we know today as the Middle Ages spanned over a thousand years, and within that time, significant progress was made into understanding our world. Inventions and discoveries were made not just in Europe but throughout the known world during this time. One area of study that saw a lot of change was medical studies and understanding the human body. How did physicians heal the sick during the Middle Ages, and how did their experiences change their field of study? These questions and more are all explored in Juliana Cummings’ latest book, “Medicine in the Middle Ages: Surviving the Times.”

I want to thank Pen and Sword Books and Net Galley for sending me a copy of this book. I like learning about aspects from the past, so when I saw this title, I was interested in reading it. I am not usually curious about medical information, but medieval medical history draws me in, so I hope to learn more.

To understand many of the theories of medieval medicine and their origins, we have to go back to the Greeks, primarily Galen and Hippocrates. Many people would be familiar with the works of Hippocrates. Still, they might not be familiar with Galen even if they know his Four Humours Theory, which was pivotal in understanding the human body. Cummings also includes the works of Arab scholars, European scholars, and physicians to help the audience understand how vast the world of medical history was during the Middle Ages.

Cummings does not stick with one medical treatment or disease during this time, and she covers everything from the Black Death, syphilis, and leprosy to pregnancy and injuries during battle. Reading about the theories and cures that physicians, apothecaries, and barber surgeons applied to heal the sick and dying was quite fascinating. Even though I did take a copious amount of notes while reading this book, I did feel like other books on this subject did a better job of focusing on the medicine part. This book introduces many theories and physicians to those unfamiliar with medical history, but it falls a bit flat with actual cures that they would have used. The ending of this book also needed a bit of work since it just ended abruptly. I think it would have been appropriate for Cummings to explain why the history of medieval medicine is important for readers to understand in the 21st century and beyond.

Overall, I think this was a decent introductory book into the vast world of medieval medical history. Cummings’s writing style is easy to follow, and she has done her research about this subject. If you want a solid introductory book into the world of medieval medical history, you should check out “Medicine in the Middle Ages: Surviving the Times” by Juliana Cummings.

Book Review: “Woodsmoke and Sage: The Five Senses 1485-1603: How the Tudors Experienced the World” by Amy Licence

58563080When we study history, we tend to focus on specific dates, certain people, and the stories that transformed countries forever, no matter how much of an impact they made. What is difficult about studying history is understanding how they experienced life. What did they see? How did they communicate? What did they hear during a typical day? What smells wafted through the air? How did their view on how the body worked affected what they ate and how they cured their illnesses? In her latest nonfiction book,” Woodsmoke and Sage: The Five Senses 1485-1603: How the Tudors Experienced the World”, Amy Licence has taken on the challenge of explaining the Tudor world that they knew through their senses.

Licence breaks her book down into five sections, one for each sense. We begin with sight, since how the Tudors viewed themselves and their world was extremely important. We can walk through their world by taking a tour of their portraits, the architecture, and the landscapes that the average Tudor would find familiar. Of course, what the Tudors wore every day and the colors they chose impacted how others viewed them because image was everything. The next step in our journey is exploring the sense of smell, from the odiferous to the more pleasant scents.

The sounds of musical instruments, news being called, and gossips tell their tales to anyone who would like to fill the air. On their dining tables, culinary experiments with meat and fish combined with odd spices would seem strange to travelers from the 21st century. The closer you got to someone who sat on the throne, the more extravagant the dishes were. Finally, we explore how the Tudors understood how their body worked through the Humours Theory and how they used this theory to concoct cures.

Even though the Tudors lived over 500 years ago, they saw their world similarly to how we view it. They had homes and clothing to show how well off they were compared to others. They had different scents that they enjoyed compared to us. Their music and how they understood their bodies might be different from what we are used to, yet they still tried to enjoy life and live no matter what. The Tudors were humans like us trying to get through life day by day in their unique ways.

When I heard about the concept for this book, I was not sure how Licence would take on such an ambitious idea and what the result would be. However, Licence proved that this was a brilliant idea for a book. It is truly a treasure trove of Tudor trivia that historians, historical fiction authors, and Tudor nerds would all enjoy. If you want a new and exciting book about the Tudors that freshly explores their world, you should check out “Woodsmoke and Sage: The Five Senses 1485-1603: How the Tudors Experienced the World” by Amy Licence.

Book Review: “The Pope’s Greatest Adversary: Girolamo Savonarola” by Samantha Morris

57165112When we think about men who challenged the Church and are known as Reformers, we tend to think of Martin Luther, Jan Hus, and John Calvin. However, a man fought against corruption in his beloved Florence who should be included in the list of great reformers. He was a Dominican monk who was not afraid to preach against sin and took aim at the most powerful men in all of Italy, including Pope Alexander VII. His sermons were so scandalous that they would lead to his demise upon a pyre in the middle of Florence. His name was Girolamo Savonarola, and his story is told in Samantha Morris’s latest biography, “The Pope’s Greatest Adversary: Girolamo Savonarola.”

I want to thank Pen and Sword Books and Net Galley for sending me a copy of this biography. I read Samantha Morris’s previous joint biography of Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia and thoroughly enjoyed it. When I heard that she was writing a new biography about a famous figure in Italian history, I was intrigued.

Girolamo Savonarola was a scholar, like his father and grandfather before him, destined to be a doctor like his grandfather. His plan for his life took a drastic turn when the girl he was fell for rejected his advances, so he decided to join the Dominican order as a friar. Talk about not taking a break-up well. Savonarola studied the Humanist teachings and incorporated them into the way he understood his faith. Of course, as a friar, he couldn’t keep his opinions to himself, so he began preaching against corruption and the vices that he saw during his travel.

Savonarola’s preaching was appealing to the people of Florence, yet it did not sit well with the leader of Florence, Lorenzo de ’Medici. Lorenzo tried to silence the troublesome friar, but his son Piero de Medici took on the challenge when he passed away. Piero was nothing like his father and was overthrown as ruler of Florence by Savonarola. Of course, Savonarola was not satisfied with reforming Florence, and he decided to take on the Catholic Church itself and attack another powerful family.

Charles VII of France wanted to conquer Italy, which to the Dominican friar was a good idea, so Savonarola helped the king. This incident drew the ire of Rodrigo Borgia, also known as Pope Alexander VI, and Ludovico “Il Moro” Sforza of Milan, who just wanted the friar to shut up. Even with numerous ex-communications, Savonarola kept preaching against corruption and vices, leading to the Bonfires of the Vanities in 1497. He took artwork and writings deemed inappropriate and burned them in a humongous bonfire. A year later, on May 22, 1498, Girolamo Savonarola lost his life because of his heretic teachings.

This book has so many scandals and dynamic characters that you will forget you are reading a biography. Morris has done it yet again, and this was a brilliantly engaging and extremely well-researched biography. The way she can capture the thrilling world of 15th and 16th century Italy is astounding, and I hope she will write more about Italian history in the future. If you want a fun biography about a man who fought to reform the Catholic Church, I highly recommend you read “The Pope’s Greatest Adversary: Girolamo Savonarola” by Samantha Morris.

Book Review: “Women in Medieval England” by Lynda Telford

36762203As students of history, we understand that aspects of society change all of the time, and sometimes the change is rapid, and other times it is positively glacial. One of those aspects of culture that we have seen slow and gradual change pertains to women’s rights. Today, women have more rights than they did in the past, and they can have careers, but is this a novel concept? What were the lives of women like in other periods of history, like the medieval period? In Lynda Telford’s book, “Women in Medieval England,” she explores women’s lives from the Anglo-Saxons to the Tudors to give us a picture of what rights and responsibilities women had during this period.

I want to thank Amberley Publishing for sending me a copy of this book. The title of this book is what drew me to it as I have read many books about individual women in medieval England, but never a comprehensive study. I wanted to learn more about women from every echelon of medieval society and how their lives differed from our own.

Telford begins her book by exploring the women who lived during the rule of the Anglo-Saxons. Reading about their experiences and the laws that dictated their lives is a critical aspect of Telford’s argument that medieval women did not have much more freedom than their counterparts from other eras. It may seem strange that as time moved on from the Anglo-Saxons to the medieval dynasties, the Plantagenets and the Tudors, women had less freedom to choose how they lived their lives. During the plague, women were called to work more to make up for men who died, but even that did not last long. Women were told how to live their lives from the men in their own families and even the church.

Telford has researched the topic of medieval women rigorously, and it shows. She has a passion for this subject, and it is demonstrated throughout this book with everything from letters to court cases. Every aspect of a woman’s life is taken into account to give her reader a better understanding of medieval society.

My problem with this book is that Telford focuses so heavily on the negative aspects of a woman’s life, like prostitution and domestic violence, that it is difficult to find the good parts of the life of a medieval woman. It was a bit too dark and depressing for my liking. I have read other books about strong and independent medieval women, but I do not see it here in this book. Telford is so focused on presenting her argument that Anglo-Saxon women had more freedom than medieval women that it obscures the facts that she does present. In short, she needed to show both the good elements and the harmful elements of the lives of medieval women to present a more balanced argument.

Overall, I think it was a decent book. This book is well researched, and it did present a side of medieval life that I was not expecting. I think it was a bit dark but informative. If you want a comprehensive study of women’s rights and lives during the medieval period, I recommend reading “Women in Medieval England” by Lynda Telford.

Book Review: “The Boleyns of Hever Castle” by Owen Emmerson and Claire Ridgway

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As history nerds, many have wondered what life might have been like during our favorite dynasties. What were castles like in their heydays? Though we might not have a time machine, we have rare chances to visit the actual castles that our favorite historical figures called home. One such place is the breathtaking home of the Boleyns, Hever Castle. Owen Emmerson and Claire Ridgway have combined their talents to create a beautiful book all about this magical place entitled “The Boleyns of Hever Castle.”

As someone who has never visited England before, Hever Castle is on my bucket list of Tudor places to visit. I have seen the gorgeous pictures and videos from those who have visited and get the exciting opportunity to work at Hever, like Owen Emmerson, the Assistant Curator and Castle historian at Hever. When I heard that Owen Emmerson and Claire Ridgway were writing this book together, I knew I had to read it.

Like any good tour guide, Emmerson and Ridgway paint a picture for their readers of what they might see when they visit the castle. As they explain, the castle has gone through a few renovations throughout the centuries, so they focus on areas that would have been familiar to the Boleyn family during their 77-year stay.

Of course, Emmerson and Ridgway take an in-depth look into the Boleyn family, how they became owners of this stately palace, and how the estate survived after the fall of the illustrious family. For those who know the story of the Boleyns, it is a delightful reminder of how important Hever was as their home when times got somewhat rocky at the court of Henry VIII. What I found most intriguing was how the castle and the legacy of the Boleyns survived because people like William Waldorf Astor and Queen Victoria had such a love for the Tudors and preserving the past.

It is not just the brilliant writing that tells the tale of Hever Castle in this clever book, and the photographs tell the other half of the story. Since Tudor fans may not have had a chance to visit, myself included, these pictures, sketches, and maps add another layer of enjoyment to this book. Full of fascinating facts, colorful photos, and rigorous research, “The Boleyns of Hever Castle” by Owen Emmerson and Claire Ridgway is an essential book for anyone who is a fan of the Boleyns and the Tudor dynasty.

Book Review: “The Man in the Iron Mask: The True Story of Europe’s Most Famous Prisoner” by Josephine Wilkinson

55781068A man hidden from the world languishes for decades in a prison cell. He is not allowed to speak to anyone, or he will face severe consequences. Often in literature, his head is covered in a mask made of iron. His identity and why he angered King Louis XIV so much have remained a mystery for centuries. The prisoner was known as the man in the iron mask throughout history, but who was this enigmatic figure? In her latest book, “The Man in the Iron Mask: The True Story of Europe’s Most Famous Prisoner,” Josephine Wilkinson dives deep into the archives to construct his story and the stories of the men behind the mystery.

I want to thank Pegasus Books for sending me a copy of this book. I usually do not read books about 17th century France; however, I had heard high praise about this particular title. I wanted to learn more about different great mysteries in history, so I decided to try this narrative.

Wilkinson’s narrative follows Eustache Danger, who many believe to be the infamous prisoner. He spent nearly 30 years in the prison system of France during the reign of King Louis XIV and was constantly under the watchful eye of his jailer, Benigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars. Saint-Mars followed the direct orders of the minister of war, Francois Michel Le Tellier, marquis de Louvois. Eustache was not the only prisoner who was kept under Saint-Mars’ surveillance. Wilkinson also tracks the movements of prominent prisoners like Nicholas Foucquet and Antonin Nompar de Caumont, Comte de Lauzun to show how drastically different Eustache’s punishment is compared to the higher echelons of society.

Eustache’s story is broken down by who he was associated with and the actual prisons he would call home for 30 years. The story of the man in the iron mask is often associated with Bastille, but that was his final destination. Starting in Pignerol, Eustache would follow Saint-Mars to the Chateau d’Exilles and the Ile Sainte-Marguerite, until finally ending up at the Bastille; each prison had its unique accommodations and transportation issues for the silent prisoner. No one was aware of what crime he committed and why silence was his punishment. Yet, people have speculated throughout the centuries, from Voltaire to Alexander Dumas, with Wilkinson providing her theory about who he was and the crime he might have committed to enduring the wrath of the king for so long. These theories would take an obscurely silent prisoner to a man whose face was hidden from the world in a mask made of iron.

There is a reason that the story of Eustache Danger’s imprisonment has captured the imagination of historians for generations, and that is because it is so mysterious. Wilkinson’s narrative and her meticulous research into the archives have brought his story back into the spotlight. The descriptions of prison life are so vivid, with details of Eustache’s life interwoven beautifully. He may not have had a chance to speak while he was alive, but Wilkinson has given the prisoner a voice that will capture anyone’s attention. If you want a thrilling read full of intrigue, drama, and myths galore, you should check out “The Man in the Iron Mask: The True Story of Europe’s Most Famous Prisoner” by Josephine Wilkinson.

Book Review: “Usurpers, a New Look at Medieval Kings” by Michele Morrical

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In medieval Europe, to be considered a strong king, you must keep a firm grasp on your crown, or those who see you as weak will take advantage. These men were known as usurpers throughout history who steal the throne through combat or by illegal means. Some of the most well-known kings in English history have been categorized as usurpers, but is this a fair assessment of their mark in history, or is it a case of propaganda changing their legacy? In her debut nonfiction book, “Usurpers, a New Look at Medieval Kings,” Michele Morrical explores the lives of six English kings who bear that title to see if it makes sense with the facts of how they came into power.

I would like to thank Net Galley and Pen and Sword Books for sending me a copy of this book. When I heard this book was published, I wanted to see how Morrical described a usurper and which king she considered usurpers. I have never heard of a book that focused solely on those who stole thrones in England, so I was excited to see how well it read.

Morrical breaks her book into six sections, with each part focusing on one specific king and his rise to power. She focuses on William the Conqueror, Stephen of Blois, Henry IV, Edward IV, Richard III, and Henry VII as examples of rulers in English history known to be usurpers. Morrical writes biography vignettes to give her readers an understanding of how they came to power and who they had to remove from the throne to become the next monarch. In some cases, it meant starting a new dynasty, and in others, it was just a continuation of the family’s lineage, but it was a different branch of the family tree. The biographies tend to get repetitive, especially with the sections dedicated to the Wars of the Roses. If you are new to these kings and the events of their lifetimes, the repetitive nature will help you understand how everything is connected.

I think Morrical can improve if she writes another nonfiction book by using quotes from primary sources and other historians to strengthen her arguments. I wish she had included discussions from chronicles or other primary sources from around the times that these men became rulers to see the consensus of the time towards the new king. It would have added an extra layer to the stories, and readers could see how our definition of a usurper king would have compared or contrasted to the views of the past. I would have also liked Morrical to have discussed whether being a usurper king had a positive or negative connotation. Many kings on this list were considered game-changers when ruling England and transformed how England was viewed in the grander scheme of European politics.

I think for her first book, Morrical does a decent job of presenting her viewpoints about certain kings and presenting the facts about their lives. One can tell that Morrical is passionate about usurpers and understanding why they took the English throne from their predecessors. Overall, I think it is not bad for a book that combines the lives of six kings of England into one text. If you want a good introductory book into the lives of usurper kings, you should give “Usurpers, a New Look at Medieval Kings” by Michele Morrical a try.

Book Review: “The Sunne in Splendour” by Sharon Kay Penman

1321064._SY475_A banner decorated with three suns flaps in the wind on the field of battle. The young man behind this emblem is Edward, Earl of March, whose father Richard Duke of York and brother Edmund Earl of Rutland were tragically slain at the Battle of Wakefield. His younger brothers, George Duke of Clarence and Richard Duke of Gloucester, will help Edward carry their father’s cause for the family of York to rule England. When loyalty is questioned even among family members, only one man would truly stand behind Edward until the bitter end. That man would be Richard Duke of Gloucester, or as we know him today, the much-maligned King Richard III. He is often viewed as a treacherous child-killer who coveted the throne after Edward IV’s death, but is that accurately portraying the last Plantagenet king? Who was the real King Richard III? In her magnum opus, “The Sunne in Splendour,” Sharon Kay Penman presents her case for Richard III as a man betrayed, both in life and after his death.

I want to thank everyone who has recommended this book to me in the past. I know that Sharon Kay Penman recently passed away, and I felt that the only way to celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth Field this year was to read this novel. I knew that it was well beloved in the Ricardian and the Wars of the Roses communities, so I wanted to see what made this novel so memorable.

Penman chooses to tell this story through multiple points of view, which, contrary to popular belief, works cohesively and allows each character to have their voice. We are introduced to Richard as a young boy before his father and Edmund die in battle. He is a timid child who witnesses death and destruction all around him and is trying to process everything. We see him grow from a scared child to a warrior duke and later into a king who had to deal with betrayal and heartache around every corner.

What Penman does brilliantly is how she writes her characters to make them so realistic that you forget that you are reading a novel. She fleshes out the conflicts exceptionally well, like the struggle between the brother Richard, George Duke of Clarence, and Edward IV. The love between Richard and his bride Anne Neville is pure and wholesome. The loyalty between Richard and Edward IV and towards Edward’s children, especially the princes in the tower is undeniable. Then there is the tension between the brothers and their cousin Richard Earl of Warwick trying to establish this new York dynasty. And what would a series of wars be without those fighting to keep their rule, which was the Lancastrians led by the ferocious Margaret of Anjou. It felt like I was being introduced to a new side of the Yorkist cause when I read this novel.

The action scenes are intense, and the betrayals hit harder than what you usually read in nonfiction books about the Wars of the Roses. This novel is truly a love letter to this period and a brilliant work of literature. I am not sure why I waited so long to read this masterpiece, but I am glad I finally read it. If you want an exceptional novel about the Wars of the Roses and Richard III, “The Sunne in Splendour” by Sharon Kay Penman is a must-read.

Book Review: “Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine: Founding an Empire” by Matthew Lewis

50419849If you go to Fontevrault Abbey in France, you will find two rather extraordinary tombs. These tombs belong to King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, the first King, Queen of the Plantagenet Dynasty, and the Angevin Empire. Their effigies tell us a lot about the couple that was buried side by side. The husband was restless; his model shows him ready to take action at any moment, with his crown upon his head and a scepter in his hand. His queen lays beside him, reading an unknown book. They seem to be prepared to watch over their kingdom and their family even beyond the grave. Those who know English history recognize their names and understand the family drama behind the scenes. We think we know the truth about Henry and Eleanor, but is there more to their story and their feuding family? In Matthew Lewis’s latest dual biography, “Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine: Founding an Empire,” he explores the relationship between this dynamic king and queen and how it shaped European and English history forever.

I would like to thank Amberley Publishing for sending me a copy of this book. I have enjoyed Matthew Lewis’s previous books, and when I heard about this one, I was pleasantly surprised. There is just something so intriguing about the lives of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and I could not wait to see how he would approach this famous couple.

Eleanor of Aquitaine was a grand heiress of France who attracted the young French King Louis VII; they would eventually marry and take on the monumental task of protecting French territories and embark on the 2nd Crusade. Eleanor showed her strength and resilience during the Crusade as rumors tried hard to tarnish her good name. Unfortunately, her marriage did not last long as the couple realized that they would never have a male heir.

As soon as they divorced, Eleanor fell in love with a young noble who was the son of Empress Matilda and Geoffrey Duke of Anjou, Henry Plantagenet. Empress Matilda fought hard against her cousin King Stephen for Henry to become Stephen’s heir during The Anarchy. Henry and Matilda would prevail, allowing Henry and Eleanor to become King and Queen of England after Stephen’s death.

It was when Henry became a father when troubles began to arise. His sons, Henry the Younger, Geoffrey Duke of Brittany, Richard, and John, would be a thorn at his side as they fought against each other and Henry for power. Eleanor was woefully caught in the middle as she strived to do what was best for her sons, even if it pitted her against her beloved husband. To top it all off, Henry had to deal with a man who he felt was right to help him reign in the power of the Church; Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. The disastrous end to their friendship would be the lowest point in Henry’s reign.

Lewis gives his readers a brand new perspective on the relationship between Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Although I knew this story rather well before reading this biography, I still found myself entranced by Lewis’s narrative with scrupulous attention to detail. I thought I knew the nature of their relationship, but I was wrong. If you want a biography that is elegant while it challenges your views on the first Plantaganet couple, I highly suggest you read “Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine: Founding an Empire” by Matthew Lewis.