". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

'Tis the Dark Season - Short Days and Long Nights - Reading Wednesday

The lovely time of year, the crawl up to the winter solstice, is here, days of light filtered as through a martini, night dark and sweet as deep piled blue velvet.  We want our pleasure reading to enhance the alternating chill and coziness. The high Middle Ages and the Plantagenets fill this seasonal bill so well, since so many of our anglo Christmas and Yule traditions are associated the periods of their reigns. Here follow some suggestions.

Thus we may begin in the 13th century with Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe  (2007) by Nancy Goldstone.  The four sisters in question are Marguerite (married to the King of France), Eleanor (married to the King of England), Sanchia (married to the King of Germany), and Beatrice (married to the eventual King of Sicily). Born and raised in Provence, these sisters played a large role in European politics for most of the 13th century.  These four sisters were as unequal in the power to influence politics as they were in the happiness of their marriages. There was much sisterly jealousy, jostling for first position in the great public feasts of the day, and therefore, some very public temper tantrums, and less public plotting against each other.

We continue with The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones (2014) by Thomas Asbridge.

William the Marshall was known throughout Europe as the greatest warrior of his time. But despite having served five different kings in close and trusted capacity, much of his life was difficult, not to mention dangerous.  Shoot, without even factoring in wars and battles, being close to rulers is dangerous in itself.  He  ascended to acting regent for the young Henry III (cr. 1216 - d.1272), son of the catastrophe that was King John, by the close of his long, remarkable life.

It was in the reign of Henry III that the "Tales of Robin Hood" began to circulate, due to Henry III's grasping nature and general incompetency (yet, considering he kept his throne all those years, he must have known how to do something right).  He it was who expelled the Jews from England, which, as the consequence, as we have seen elsewhere and in other eras, made the country poorer.  Much of what he grasped went into the beautification of his many homes and sumptuous living.

Henry III was father to Edward I, Hammer of the Scots.

Certainly the word pictures of the luxuries to be found in the castles of the Romances so popular in these times were what Edward I grew up among in the homes of his father, and his mother, Eleanor of Provence (this is one of the sisters of Four Queens).  Eating on gold and silver, drinking the finest wines and wearing the finest silks was matter of course.

A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain (2008) by Marc Morris tells the long tale of Longshanks, as this Edward was also known because his legs were long, was long-lived -- 1239 - 1307, and had a long reign -- 1272 - 1307. However that Scots business and Wallace were right at the very end of his reign.

After Longshank's own death, another generation of luxurious Christmas living in the reign of his son, Edward II, is celebrated in that wonderful Christmas poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Richard's reign had problems but it was certainly a period of high literary achievement. Other excellent associated reading for the season is Geoffrey Chaucer's Romaunt of the Rose, and The Book of the Duchess, dedicated to the deceased Blanche of Lancaster, wife of the First Duke of Lancaster,l John of Gaunt, (1340- 1399. Lancaster was uncle to King Richard II.  Lancaster eventually made his mistress, Katherine Swynford, his third wife. Katherine's sister, Philippa, was married to Geoffrey Chaucer and had served the Duchess Blanche.  Further, Katherine, with the Duke of Lancaster, became an ancestor of Princess Diana Spencer as well as to members of all the dynasties that followed the end of that of the Plantagenets.

By now we're heading out of the medieval era into the modern the world, the 1400's, which will bring us the Age of Exploration and the collision of Europe with North and South America.  However, in Spain, the light of the Renaissance and the modern had not yet dawned.  It was pretty darned dark there in the mountain hideway where Isabella's mother secreted herself and her children from the murderous intentions of her husband the King.

The story of Isabella: The Warrior Queen (2014) by Kirstin Downey, who funded Christopher Columbus, makes a solid bookend to stories of the Plantagenets -- which are deeply entwined with that of the Iberian Peninsula during the preceding century via marriage, including that of Duke of Lancanster to his second wife, Constance, a Spanish infanta.  (Alas, this marriage never led to Lancaster crowned King of Spain, as he'd hoped.)

Isabella, who was the driving force to the union of Spain and driving out the Moors, is as exciting* as the Cantar de Mio Cid, and one essentially unknown to English-only reading readers.  For this reason alone I'd be grateful to Downey for writing this book.  It fills in much about British and French history in the 13th and 14th centuries as well, because the author carefully fills us in on Isabella's immediate family. Her survival in earlier years was as precarious as any princess's or prince'd in the family of the Delhi Moghul rulers of a somewhat later era.  Spain was a literally cutthroat political situation -- but then no more so that that of England, which all these works show in great and fascinating detail.

The greatest difficulty faced in reading these books is that everyone -- except for Blanche and Constance -- have the same names, over and over, generation after generation.  Especially Eleanor.  And I didn't even include a book specifically about her!  But then, she's 11th and 12th centuries.

However, her life certainly influenced many of the Arthurian Romances, particularly via the popularity of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, which remained equally popular in the time of Henry III and Edward I.


*   This is not to be taken as an endorsement for what the Isabella and Ferdinand did, expelling both the Moors and the Jews. See, above, that Spain wasn't feelin' the Renaissance, or at least not in the way other parts of Europe did.  They definitely felt the invade and conquer part.

Even in Edward I's time, the English court made as much fun of the clothes and customs of his Spanish bride, Eleanor of Castile (she put carpets on the stone floors!) as it reputedly did about Henry VIII's Spanish Catherine of Aragon -- though that seems to be rather exaggerated or perhaps even pure invention of fiction and drama writers -- and Charles II's Portuguese bride -- she who brought him the profits of several trading cities of western India. Not that even that was enough to fill Charlie's constantly empty coffers and privy purse and to satisfy the ever demanding paws of his favorites and consorts.  For that he had to resort to slave trading. And selling his wife's personal jewels and furniture.

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