Saturday, 28 February 2015

The Books I Read In February

'Brother Cadfael's Penance' by Ellis Peters
In terms of story chronology, this is the final book in the Cadfael series; it is set in the 1145.  There is a prequel, 'A Rare Benedictine' (1988) which was the 16th book in terms of publication but is set in 1120.  I intend to read it in the coming weeks. 

This is not one of the stronger books in the series.  Its format is like that of  'The Summer of the Danes' (1991) in that Brother Cadfael is taken away from his monastery at Shrewsbury and is involved on the fringes of high level politics.  In this case he goes to the ecclesiastical centre of Coventry where there are abortive peace talks between the two sides of the long-running civil war, Empress Matilda and King Stephen.  A murder occurs during the talks and once they break up one of the suspects, a young man, Yves Hugonin, that Cadfael met six years earlier in 'The Virgin in the Ice' (1982), is snatched by relatives of the victim.

Cadfael goes into Gloucestershire to secure Yves's release, so violating the terms of his temporary release from his monastery.  He also discovers the whereabouts of his imprisoned illegitimate, half-Syrian son, Olivier de Bretagne that he had met only twice before, in 1139 and 1141.  Olivier is a supporter of the Empress and is now in his thirties, expecting his wife, Yves's sister, to give birth.

The story is interesting in a number of aspects.  There is much discussion about reconciliation between fathers and their adult sons, not just Cadfael and Olivier but also Philip FitzRobert who imprisons Olivier and Yves and his father, Robert of Gloucester, Matilda's half-brother.  The book, seeing the meeting for the final time of Olivier and Cadfael is a suitable ending to the series.  The description of a small castle in a rural setting and it coming under siege and assault covers aspects not usually featured in the Cadfael series.  However, Peters handles it well giving a good perspective of the hazards within the walls. 

The central difficulty with this book as with 'The Summer of the Danes' is that the murder feels very bolted on to what is primarily a story about the political situation.  Similarly here the resolution to the murder is delivered very simply without Cadfael having to use his skills to unmask the killer.  I suppose Peters felt compelled to include a murder in each of her Cadfael books, but this would have been that bit better if she had left it out and simply stuck to the political machinations and resolving the abduction of two of Matilda's soldiers.  Overall the series ends a bit with a whimper but fortunately with the large personal issues for Cadfael resolved.

'The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century' by Ian Mortimer
This book shares a characteristic with a couple of history books that I read last year, notably, 'Hidden History. The Secret Origins of the First World War' by Gerry Docherty & Jim MacGregor and 'Pétain's Crime' by Paul Webster in that the authors feel they are putting forward such a radically alternative perspective on the history they are covering that throughout they have to keep insisting that what they are saying is so very different from anything you may have read on the topic before.  First, such incessant haranguing becomes very tiresome to the reader.  Second, it is probable that the vast majority of the people who have picked up the book are interested in the authors' perspectives and in many cases will already accept their line of argument; they do not have to be persuaded again and again.

Mortimer believes he had created something called 'virtual history'.  He uses this in a very different way to Niall Ferguson for whom it represents counter-factual history.  Instead Mortimer uses it to refer to what was called in my youth, 'everyday history', i.e. history of a period seen from the viewpoint of ordinary people rather than the rulers and elites.  The focus is on day-to-day life rather than battles and political machinations.  I know such history was pushed aside in British schools by the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1992, but even so children still get some of it when they have to pretend to be evacuees or Victorian chimney sweeps or increasingly, passengers on the 'Titanic'.  Certainly for people of my generation, everyday history was in fact the norm.  Mortimer conveniently forgets all the books especially in the 1970s and 1980s which took the same perspective of him.  I even remember the Usborne Time Traveller books which still seem to be in circulation.  Yes, they were aimed at children but like Mortimer's book involve the perspective of a time traveller on the period featured and focus on ordinary life in the times 'visited'. 

Mortimer would have been better off persisting with the conceit of the reader being a time traveller.  This is largely forgotten and only pops up occasionally.  Instead you feel as if you are being led around by a prissy lecturer who is as eager to show you how foolish you are, as he is to actually engage you with what he is addressing.

Setting aside the patronising tone that pervades the book, it is reasonably well written looking at different aspects such as towns and villages, travel, food, medicine, etc. in turn and viewing them for different social classes.  There are new aspects which are revealed notably on crime.  The chapter on literature of the time is really different in nature and indicates the motives behind Mortimer's interest in the time and the place.  Mortimer has gone on to produce similar books on different time periods.  I do not know whether he maintains the patronising tone in these and maybe given their success most people who buy the books do not seem unhappy about it.  If you can remember other 'everyday history' books on the Middle Ages you probably have no need for this book.  It is a useful reference if you want to set fiction in 14th century England or if you have never read or been taught about how people lived in that context.

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