Posts Tagged ‘mediaeval history’

Ellis Peters: Brother Cadfael

July 12, 2017

I’ve long been partial to these mediaeval tales, and a recent trip to a charity shop brought me a good deal closer to completing my collection, with three more novels. I like detective stories, I’m interested in mediaeval history and monasticism and have grown to love Shrewsbury and Shropshire over the years. Also, in the Abbey church today is Wilfred Owen’s monument. So, what’s not to like, as they say?

Ellis Peters (a pseudonym) was well-versed in place and time, as well as the daily life of Benedictine monasteries; though I don’t go looking for errors, I have not yet come across any. And, in the genre of the detective story, she does extremely well.

To begin with, her hero (?) Brother Cadfael, is no ordinary monk, called to a life of prayer and contemplation from an early age, and knowing nothing else: his was a mature vocation, after adventures in the Crusades, full experience of worldly life which we gradually learn about through the cycle of novels. Eventually we learn of his loves in the East, and that he has a son. As the abbey’s herbalist, he needs to be out and about collecting what he needs to make his remedies, and this allows him to pursue his investigations. He’s a very sharp observer, and his past gives him a broad knowledge and understanding of human behaviour that many of his fellow monks lack.

The formula for successful detective stories often requires a sidekick – a Watson to every Holmes. Ellis Peters develops, over the course of the novels, an interesting tweak: once the old Shropshire sheriff is succeeded by his deputy, a true friendship and effective working relationship develops between the religious and the secular, as Cadfael and Hugh Berengar work together to unravel a range of mysteries.

Obviously crime is a key element of such fiction, but the kinds of crime are not the same through the whole genre: in mediaeval times murder, revenge, theft and concealed identity dominate; financial and sexual crime, blackmail and the like, which are more prevalent in recent times, are pretty much absent. And in an age where the rule of law is not firmly established in the same way it is now, it is much easier for criminals to flee and escape justice completely: the relative lawlessness and foreign jurisdiction of Wales are literally on the doorstep; the English crown and government is by no means secure in the mid-twelfth century, either… Like Holmes, who can be his own moral compass as a consulting detective and allow someone to avoid the strict penalty of the law if he feels it justified, so Cadfael too chooses at times not to reveal facts others have not managed to notice; his moral judgements are between himself and his confessor.

Atmosphere and continuity are further aspects of success in the genre: consider Conan Doyle’s masterly evocation of Victorian London, the largest metropolis on the planet at the time, ultra-modern, at the heart of a huge world empire and yet concealing much darkness, poverty and evil, or Raymond Chandler’s wealthy, sexy and sleazy California or Colin Dexter’s Oxford. Peters’ evocation of a mediaeval city, its religious and secular sides and its hinterland, is masterly, convincing and detailed; it builds up through the series of twenty-one books, and is often supplemented by carefully-drawn maps. We come to know the abbey in detail; the personnel change, as they would over a period of about ten years covered by all the stories; relationships and interactions develop over time just as does that between Holmes and Watson over the fifty-six stories of that canon.

Compared with other detectives and other times, I often feel there is not a lot of actual detection in these stories – the sciences that would support this in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are obviously undeveloped – although a sense of mystery is sustained, solution of the mystery follows in the usual way by not letting the reader in on everything that the detective has observed or deduced until the very end, and often all is cleared up through a forced confession by the guilty party. The pace is leisurely, couleur locale is paramount, the characters are interesting: Ellis Peters is a full member of the club of master detective story writers. Easy and enjoyable reading.

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Anne Brenon: Les Cathares

September 19, 2016

51vsnpcj3tl-_ac_us160_Anne Brenon is one of the foremost experts on the history and theology of the Cathars, so I took her book to re-read on my recent trip to the Aude department of southern France as I set off to visit some of the sites where they lived and were ultimately wiped out by the Church in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It’s one in an excellent and long-running series from the publishers Gallimard, where a topic, theme or idea is explored in depth in a copiously illustrated main section, which is supported by a supplementary document and bibliography section at the end. Some of their titles were taken up and translated by Thames and Hudson a couple of decades back, but that enterprise seems to have petered out.

The Cathars formed a sizeable and widespread alternative to the official church in southern France, northern Italy and other adjoining areas; they rejected the authority of the pope, the sacraments and rituals of the Roman Church, and sought to return to the basics of early Christianity; men and women were of equal status. More seriously, they spurned the cross, the passion of Christ and the crucifixion, and focused on the Holy Spirit and Pentecost. This earned them condemnation as heretics, the launching of the crusade against the Albigensian heresy (as the Cathar beliefs were labelled) and the setting up of the Inquisition. Of course, it wasn’t just about religion: power politics were in play as always, as the French throne sought to spread its borders and emasculate a powerful rival in the Languedoc. It is a truly shameful episode in the history of the official church: the 5000 in habitants of the city of Beziers were slaughtered, heretics and Catholic alike on the orders of a bishop who said: ‘Kill them all; God will recognise his own’…

The Aude department is encouraging tourism to the areas where the Cathars lived and died; there are museums and exhibitions, and they are careful to de-mystify the untruths which have grown up over the years, that the ruined castles such as Queribus and Peyrepetuse, perched impossibly on their rocky crags, were the sites of Cathar last stands: those castles were built in those places by the French throne after the Cathars had been evicted and massacred, as part of the pacification and securing of the frontier with the throne of Aragon to the south…

Fascinating places which I really enjoyed visiting, and very interesting episode of mediaeval history. Brenon’s book was a very useful companion: there’s sufficient information to make one feel informed properly without being overloaded, it’s well-organised and illustrated.

Peter Frankopan: The Silk Roads – A New History of the World

March 26, 2016

616iX1X7ZaL._AA160_Peter Frankopan offers a new and different history of the world here, from the perspective of that key east-west artery of trade, civilisation, ideas and warfare over the last two and a half thousand years or so, the Silk Road.

In Ancient History at school, we never learned about the globalisation two millennia ago, when the Roman Empire looked eastwards; I didn’t know they traded with India. From William Dalrymple and others, I had been aware that Christianity in its early stages was an Asian rather than a European church, and ironically it was Constantine that endangered this; when I looked at maps, I was surprised I hadn’t realised how much nearer the Middle East and India were to Jerusalem, compared with us on the far-flung western extremities of Europe!

We learn about the close connections between the three peoples of the book with the rise of Islam in the seventh century; the internal wranglings of Islam were new to me, but obviously paralleled all those within the Christian church that I am familiar with. Some early Christians apparently thought Islam was another Christian heresy rather than a new religion…

The early Muslim empire became phenomenally wealthy; Byzantium’s weakness faced with the spread of Islam led to its calling on Western Christians for help and thus led to the Crusades, which stimulated both European and Muslim economic growth and trade immensely. Jews and Muslims co-existed peacefully especially after their expulsion from Spain after 1492; the Mongols, who ravaged Europe, eventually disappeared back to Asian, rating China as easier and better prey. The Black Death had even more devastating effects than I had known.

The centre of gravity of the world shifted to Europe with the discovery of the Americas…

As you can probably see, it’s a fascinating book filled with many new insights and perceptions into the growth and development of the world. Frankopan offers a careful and measured response to the information he assembles, and offers thoughtful and balanced analysis from a long-term perspective. At times, as the subject expands, the focus on the Silk Roads does seem to fade, particularly in the early modern period, though I finally saw how this couldn’t have been otherwise. Comparisons between different nations and parts of the world, and how and why they prospered or didn’t, are particularly enlightening.

However, for me, Frankopan is at his most interesting when he moves into more modern times. He makes clear the calamitous and thoroughly reprehensible behaviour of the British and the French in the Middle East at the time of the First World War; he is eye-opening on events, attitudes and decisions that created the problems and issues that still rage a century later. A very interesting idea is that the narrative of the First World War was rewritten after it was over, shifting the focus onto Germany as the enemy and threat to Britain, rather than Russia. The West, and latterly particularly the US comes across as even more crass, money-grubbing, racist and colonialist than I’d ever known (and I count myself pretty well-informed). Short-sightedness and short-termism have governed most of what the West has done through its interference.

It’s an eye-opener of a book. No doubt, professional historians will take issue with some of his analysis and conclusions. This amateur is still taking it all in…

Zoe Oldenbourg: Massacre at Montsegur

January 21, 2015

41A3RSS50DL._AA160_A serious tome on mediaeval history, specifically the Albigensian Crusade. For a long time, I’ve been interested in the Cathars and their castles in the Languedoc, but it’s taken me a while to get round to reading this book.

In the late twelfth/ early thirteenth centuries the established Church was widely viewed as corrupt, and worldly, and a serious rival developed, the Cathar church, which came to command the loyalty of the entire region. Unfortunately, relatively little is known about its beliefs, practices and organisation, as it was ruthlessly and totally destroyed, and the subsequent accounts were written by the victors.

The broader context was the development and enlargement of the kingdom of France, which meant the annexation of the Languedoc by whatever means. There were also petty rivalries between local lords and barons, and the thrones of England and Spain, and the Empire as well as the Papacy all wanting to advance their power and influence.

The Church realised it needed to extirpate its rival; at first it used its power and influence over the temporal authorities, with great brutality; then it invented the independent Inquisition with powers to seek out and destroy heresy, arranging for it basically to have carte blanche from the local powers to do what it liked, an arrangement that suited both sides.

I think what I found most shocking was what I can only describe as the Stalinist methods of the Church and the Inquisition to deal with heresy and heretics. A climate of insecurity and terror was created throughout the entire region, and this led people to denounce themselves and friends and neighbours in a bid to avoid more serious consequences; the idea that the Inquisition would keep to its side of any bargain was unlikely. Heretics – men and women, young and old were often collectively burned in dozens and sometimes hundreds because they refused to abjure their Cathar faith, and eventually the old religion disappeared.

Oldenbourg’s account is masterly; some apparently think she was too sympathetic to the Cathars, but when you read her account, the established Church clearly loses any moral or spiritual authority from the very outset; although the Cathars were a rival church, all they sought was to be allowed to worship as they wished. There is an enormous amount of detail, distilled from available Inquisition documents and other sources; all is referenced. She explains in full and clear detail, as far as is possible, the beliefs and attitudes of the time so that her whole history is fully contextualised. She is open about the difficulty of coming at the truth; she is clear that in the end the issue was the independence or not of the Languedoc, and that the Church would have seen itself as having no other route than to try and destroy what was a serious alternative religion across a large area and therefore a major threat to its temporal authority. All in all, I found this an excellent work.

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