Friday, September 11, 2009
Four Books on Fourteenth Century England
Dan Jones, Summer of Blood: The Peasants Revolt of 1381 (HarperPress, 2009) 288 pages
Verdict?: Excellent popular history 4/5
Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century
(The Bodley Head, 2008) 341 pages
Verdict?: A novel guide to social history 4/5
Peter Ackroyd, Chaucer
(Vintage, 2005) 144 pages
Verdict?: An excellent brief biography 4/5
Peter Ackroyd, The Clerkenwell Tales
(Vintage, 2004) 224 pages
Verdict?: Diverting fictional time-travel 3.5/5
Some readers of this blog will already know that many moons ago I did a Masters Degree in Medieval literature, with a thesis on the Fourteenth Century English poet John Gower's Confessio Amantis. I chose Gower's poem partly because it was rarely studied (and I didn't think the academic world needed yet another thesis on Chaucer) but substantially because of the challenge of tackling a work which was almost universally, and wrongly, regarded as "dull". The thing that struck me about the Confessio was that, while it's been a neglected work for the last 200 years or so, for the 400 years before that it was a beloved best-seller. Given that the late Fourteenth Century was anything but "dull", I set out to find out about the social milieu that produced this poem and who its intended audience may have been.
In doing this I was following the path taken by the new historicist critic Paul Strohm in his book Social Chaucer - arguably one of the better and more illuminating recent ventures into the well-trodden field of Chaucerian analysis. Like Strohm, by analysing who Gower was, who he knew (he was a good friend of Chaucer and well-known to both Richard II and Henry IV for example) and where he lived, I could get a better grasp of his poetry, its audience and therefore Gower's intentions.
One of the insights this analysis gave me was an understanding of exactly how small Gower and Chaucer's world was. In the wake of the Black Death the population of London was just 40,000 people and, as anyone who has lived in a town that size would know, most residents would have know each other at least by sight. Social circles would have overlapped and spilled across class distinctions, alliances would have been close, resentments long-remembered and, when the opportunity arose, pay-back would have been up close and personal. In a city that you could cross at a leisurely stroll in about twenty minutes, peasants, beggars and apprentices lived cheek by jowl with aristocrats, burgers and civil servants and tensions could get high, especially when the weather got hot and the misrule of the mid-summer festivals spilled over into mayhem.
This is the world Dan Jones describes so ably in his first book Summer of Blood: The Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Jones is a journalist with an Honours Degree in History from Cambridge and, judging from interviews, a burning desire to tell the great stories of Medieval English history in a popular and accessible way. This is straight-forward, narrative popular history of the kind that generally spares the reader the mechanics of how Jones has sorted and assessed the evidence in favour of telling, as he puts it, "a cracking good story".
And a great yarn it is. While it's probably one that is familiar enough to most Medievalists, the market can certainly do with young popular writers of Jones' skill and energy bringing a story like this one to broader attention. As I mentioned in a previous post, his publishers have billed this book as "the first full popular account (of the Revolt) in a century", which is odd considering both Alastair Dunn and Mark O'Brien brought out books on the uprising just five years ago. But Jones' book is certainly more fast-paced than Dunn's and takes the reader along on a breakneck journey assuming a minimum of prior knowledge.
I picked up this book as someone with a pretty intimate knowledge of the world he describes and was struck by the vividness and detail with which he depicts it. The excellent street map of London which form the endpapers of the hard-cover edition was useful, but the author managed to give a real sense of the sights, sounds and smells of the Medieval city, which formed the backdrop to some of the most dramatic and bloody events of that tumultuous Corpus Christi week:
As the welcoming swell grew, with a resigned nod from the leaders of the Bridge Ward, under whose immediate jurisdiction London Bridge fell, the bridge's keeper let down the drawbridge, and the Kentishmen, seeing their path stretch before them, flooded into London. .... Straight ahead lay the close, dirty streets of England's capital, thick with excitable, drunken rascals and wealthy traders alike, the timid scuttling for cover and all the clergy of the city rushing to pray for peace in a time of chaos.
(Jones, p. 88)
The descriptions of the chaos that followed make for exciting reading: the destructive orgy of the sacking and burning of John of Gaunt's Savoy Palace on the Strand, the burning of documents and charters - symbols of the legalism and bureaucracy the rebels despised - in the Temple compound and the vengeful executions the mob carried out in Cheapside, where Milk Street, Wood Street and Bread Street came together. Jones has an eye for some of the curious details of the story, like the way the rebels sacking the Savoy made up for the fact that the hated John of Gaunt was not in the city by hoisting up a richly embroidered heraldic "jakke" of his and using it for target practice. Or the grim fate of thirty revellers who broke into Gaunt's wine cellar while the rebels rampaged through the palace above them, only to have the whole house burn and collapse above their heads, leaving them entombed in the wreckage to slowly die (but with plenty of wine).
Other reviewers have found this fluid and vivid narrative not quite their style. A few have commented that we are given little background information on the leaders of the rebellion: Wat Tyler, the Lollard priest John Ball and the shadowy Jack Straw. This is true, but it's probably due to the fact is that we know very little about any of them (some historians suspect Straw didn't exist at all) and personally I fail to see that there would have been much benefit to pause in the story to detail why that is so. Others found the "colour" of the narrative a bit lurid for their tastes, especially the emphasis on the bloodier details - eg the mitre nailed to the skull of Bishop Sudbury when his head was exposed on London Bridge. Perhaps those reviewers prefer their narrative history a dusty shade of beige, but to tell this story without those details would be to rob it of its life and its fairly shocking immediacy.
All in all Jones' book is precisely the kind of action-packed, fast-paced popular history that the field of Medieval Studies can do with. His passion for the subject is clear and his desire to tell stories worth telling is precisely what you would expect of a young writer who was a student of another historian with a flair for exciting popularisation, David Starkey. If his debut is anything to go by, Dan Jones is a writer to watch.
Another writer who is keen to transfer his passion for Medieval history to the general reader is Ian Mortimer, though in The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century he takes a rather more unconventional approach to that chosen by Jones. Mortimer prides himself on finding new and interesting ways to shed light on history. In 1415: Henry V’s Year of Glory he approached the reign of Henry by detailing a day-by-day account of his life in the year 1415, from New Year's Day to December 31st, giving a level of intimate detail and a distinct lack of selective evidence in the process. In one interview Mortimer details why he tries to find newer and more enlightening perspectives on history:
As I see it, the traditional pseudo-objective stance of the academic - the study of evidence whether on an empirical or a theoretical basis - is a very narrow slice of a very large historical pie. There are simply thousands of ways of writing history. .... As soon as one realises that one can adopt any one of an infinite number of approaches to the past, the limits are taken away from history.
It's clear even from the title that The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England is another attempt to find new ways into the past and, on the whole, a highly entertaining and successful one. Taking his format from travel guides like Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, Mortimer details the foreign country that is Fourteenth Century England with all the information needed by an intrepid time traveller. He has chapters on "What to Wear", "Where to Stay", "What to Eat and Drink" as well as information on the law, the landscape and how to get around. The result is amusing, sometimes surprising and highly entertaining and is full of information that you generally don't find even in narrative history, let alone in academic analysis. The text is interspersed with information boxes outlining useful snippets ("The Social Hierarchy" - handy if you want to know if a Franklin was superior to an Esquire or the other way around) and places to go ("Ten Places to See in London" - the Tower is recommended for Edward III's collection of lions and leopards in the royal menagerie).
Like Jones, Mortimer does not shy away from making his text as colourful as possible, though in his case the colour is generally shit brown rather than blood red:
(London's) inhabitants will draw your attention to how 'evil-smelling' this mud is just after it rains (as if you need telling). And yet these are not the worst of London's problems. The stench and obstruction of the animal dung, vegetable rubbish, fish remains and entrails of beasts present problems of public sanitation on a scale unmatched by any other town in England. With 40,000 permanent citizens and sometimes as many as 100,000 mouths to feed and bowels to evacuate, it is impossible with a city with no sewerage system to cope.
(Mortimer, p. 17)
The evacuation of bowels is a subject that features regularly in Mortimer's book, with details of Medieval toilets ranging from the "close stools" of the nobles, with their removable brass basins and velvet-covered seats, to the description of the gloriously-named "gongfermours" (latrine-emptiers) of London taking their daily, and probably very much-needed dip in the Thames just before sunset. He dispels several of the persistent myths about Medieval bathing and cleanliness - in other words, he makes it clear that such things existed, contrary to popular belief - and details some attitudes to hygiene that were rather different to ours. After explaining how spiritual cleanliness was supposed to give a holy person a literal sweet odour of sanctity he notes dryly "(i)n the modern world we have no equivalent to this form of cleanliness. Instead we have antibacterial wipes." (p. 194).
One temptation for someone taking this fairly whimsical approach to social history might be to concentrate entirely on the exotic and the bizarre. Certainly, a lot of the entertainment value of Mortimer's book comes from the more unusual or odd aspects of the Fourteenth Century world. His discussion of Medieval humour, for example, is illustrated with the anecdote of a retainer of Edward II who fell off his horse three times in rapid succession, sending the king into such fits of laughter that he awarded the man a year's salary as a present, indicating that Medieval Englishmen liked their humour broad and physical. Similarly, the section on food and cooking details some of the stranger items that made it to a noble's table, including seals, dolphins, porpoises, puffins and even beaver.
But Mortimer balances this in each section by going into similar detail about the more ordinary and mundane aspects of Medieval life. Each topic generally gives the perspective of the peasants, the middle classes and then the nobles, making it pretty clear that no peasants sat down to feast on whale meat with a side dish of beaver; more like beans and bacon. The guidebook format works better in some sections than others - few time-travelling tourists would need quite that much detail on Medieval English law - but on the whole the book is an entertaining romp. I suspect it will be particularly useful for historical fiction writers and would not be surprised if some of Mortimer's details begin turning up in some novels over the next few years.
One novelist who probably does not need Mortimer to do his homework for him is Peter Ackroyd. Judging from both his novel The Clerkenwell Tales and his short biography Chaucer, Fourteenth Century London is familiar ground for him already. The Clerkenwell Tales is a Chaucer-fan's delight: set in the poet's London and full of references to the characters, places and (to an extent) stories of The Canterbury Tales. The novel itself is a tight and fairly dark thriller, with plots within plots, murders and a terrorist group setting fires around the city. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a new character, each of whom has the same title as Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims, even if only a few are the same people (eg Roger Ware, the Cook, appears in both the novel and Chaucer's poem).
One problem for the modern novelist writing historical fiction is getting the right tone to their dialogue. To have their characters speak too much like modern people can be jarring to some readers (though I prefer it myself - conveying everyday idiom using our everyday idiom, though minus anachronistic expressions). On the other hand, adopting a tone that is too overtly "historical" can result in silliness, forsoothness and general gadzookery. Ackroyd has a poet's ear for Middle English, however, and manages to have his characters speak as though they just stepped from the pages of Chaucer without sounding forced or outlandish:
'You have as much pity for poor men as pedlars have for cats, that would kill them for their skins if they could catch them.'
'Mea culpa.' The cleric's face was suffused with sweat.
'You are purse proud. Piss proud.'
'You are an ape in a man's hood.'
'Mea maxima culpa.'
'I will enshrine you in a hog's turd.'
(Ackroyd, p. 53-54)
Again, readers of Chaucer will constantly find snippets from his poetry in the dialogue (such as the "hog's turd" reference above) and other subtle and sly references in a story that is deftly handled and a setting that is as vivid as we would expect of this accomplished writer.
Ackroyd began his career as a fiction writer, though in recent years he has made his name as a biographer. Having read many biographies of Chaucer, from G.G. Coulton's quaintly Victorian Chaucer and his England to Donald R. Howard's sprawling and gossipy Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World, so I was not expecting Ackroyd's short (170 page) overview to give me much new insight. But the first volume in his "Brief Lives" series, Chaucer, shows that he has the kind of deft and judicious touch that a good biographer needs. Apart from the deceptively autobiographical sketches we get from Chaucer himself, which are slippery things to work with, most of the material from which a biographer can construct his life are terse, obscure and context-free entries in royal account books and a couple of legal records, which are even harder to work with.
One example is the puzzling reference to a Cecily Champain releasing Chaucer from all court actions tarn de raptu meo, "concerning my rape" - a note that has been raising the eyebrows of Chaucer scholars for several centuries. Many have gone down the path of reading "raptus" as abduction rather than rape and others have taken comfort in the fact that the poet was not convicted and painted Champain as a hysteric or an extortionist. Ackroyd cuts through the mystery rather deftly and makes a good case for Champain not only being Chaucer's younger mistress but also the mother of his son Lewis, to whom the Treatise on the Astrolabe was directed. In this and other such knotty problems, Ackroyd is judicious and reasonable and, like a good novelist, the story he tells feels complete rather than a patchwork of guesses. Certainly, coming to this book directly after reading the three above, I felt right at home in the London that Ackroyd describes, complete with the smell of roasting beaver and the sight of gongfermours bathing in the Thames as the sun goes down.