The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England

I wasn’t going to write a review for this because under the new format the review would be almost as long as the book. There is SO MUCH information here. This is very similar to Absolute Monarchy: The History of the Papacy in that it’s an overview of a topic that covers an extremely huge portion of history, so if you actually want to get a full and deep understanding of any of it, good luck. If however you’re in a rush to get to the other books in your pile, and you want an overview similar to reading a pile of articles on Wikipedia (though far better written), this is a book for you. I can’t say anything bad about it as it isn’t actually dry at all, it’s well-researched and full of contemporary pictures, and is exactly what it sets out to be. This is not however a book to learn from unless your mind is like a computer and this is serving you as an introduction to the subject matter. I would recommend this almost as more of a reference than a cover-to-cover read. I can’t say that because I don’t feel I learned anything this is any fault of the book. The project is just too ambitious. No matter how well written, a book covering so much could never be that in-depth unless it was upsettingly long, and as everyone knows, I personally don’t understand politics anyway. There are too many people involved with strange and complicated family trees and multiple changing titles to remember as it is without going over all the key players in a span of a thousand years. Despite this, I found this an enjoyable read, because I’m a nerd. Maybe you will too. If you’re a fan of history at all, give it a try.

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Halloween

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After a mere 4 days into reading this book – the last day – Mike asked me why it was taking me so long to read what he thought was a kids book. This is a book about halloween, with a big jackolantern on the front, and not that many pages. So I know why he would think that. But then I handed it to him and gave him a paragraph to read.

“[…]Whether we find the neo-freudian analysis compelling or not, it has the great merit of setting the “Halloween” cycle within the larger contemporary debate about the future of the American family, one that in the 1970s was preoccupied with high divorce rates, the rise of double-income households, gender politics, and same sex coupling. This debate, with its anxieties about working mothers, single-parent families, and unsupervised children, provided the social space in which Myers’s sanguinary escapades could strike admonitory chords.[…]”

Wow, I never thought I would read anything like that about a slasher movie. Needless to say this is not a kids book at all.

Short as it may be, it does a great job of telling the story of where our Halloween customs come from, if in a pretty dry style of writing. It describes how Samhain, which we actually know very little about, fused with All Souls and All Saints Day. I found it fairly surprising to learn that Halloween is a lot more about All Souls than it is about Samhain, which makes the arguments of the Christian Right against it seem pretty ridiculous.

Halloween is also a lot more about transition than it is about horror. As a time marking the end of the year in the celtic calendar, and the transition between fall and winter, this was a time of divining the future and sealing relationships. “Horror” as we see it was involved only to the extent that people were honoring their dead, and pranks abounded. Disappointing? Yeah, I admit as a lover of spookiness it is. But that doesn’t make it any less enlightening. I should also note that Halloween, Christmas, and Mardi Gras share an amazing amount of similarities in how they’ve been celebrated. It’s something for you all to look into.

Fundamentally though, halloween has been largely about absorbing elements of the society around it rather than being a festival with a certain set of values. In its early days in Canada its celtic roots caused it to be celebrated as a way to honor the contributions of the Scottish to Canada.Then in the 1970s it became a way to express contemporary fears through the movies, as in the quote above. And now at the turn of the century there’s the issue of its merging with the Mexican Day of the Dead along the US-Mexican border, and the attitudes of each country towards this change.

In the end what this book tells us is not why we employ the imagery of ghosts and witches and black cats so much as that this is a festival rooted in change, and as the years go by it will continue to evolve.

Other recommended reads: The Battle for Christmas

Life in a Medieval Village

Life in a Medieval Village

In it’s simplicity, Life in a Medieval Village reminds me of my 8th grade humanities class. The problem is, that class had a lot more style. We even had a medieval fair in the school library at the end of the semester. But this book is extremely well-researched. So well in fact that after reading one anecdote on a certain subject I often had to skip over four more. It’s full of quote after quote from contemporary court rolls too, also demanding to be skipped. But at least it made this already short book a quick read. This would actually be a great book to hand out in those humanities classes. All the information is here, in a way that anyone can understand, and it’s right to the point. And the lack of style, while boring for the layman, means no unnecessary homework time for a high schooler. It’s also not written in grand academic style, which would be a total snoozefest.

What I did find interesting was how very intermingled religion, politics, and the economy were at this period. They were all linked, as the peasants and villeins were to the lord they served, and remained virtually locked together this way for hundreds of years. While this book in theory is intended to describe life in medieval villages across Europe, it focuses almost exclusively on the real village of Elton in Huntingdonshire, England. This gives the anecdotes and history an excellent sense of continuity, but left me feeling like other areas were being unfortunately neglected, and this is a terrible omission to make. Britain is often the focus of histories theoretically pertaining to all of Europe, just as New York is so often the focus of histories theoretically pertaining to all of America. I would have found this study to be more valuable if it had perhaps focused on three or four cities in different countries instead of just the one. It wouldn’t have been too great a departure from the structure of the book as it already stands, and we would have the additional benefit of comparing and contrasting the structure and development of society in a few different areas. There’s no way that they were all the same. This certainly doesn’t make it a worthless study in any sense, but I feel like it should at least be retitled to indicate the British focus.

It’s impossible not to compare this to another book I read this year, Hubbub: Filth, Noise & Stench in England, about every day life in the early modern period, roughly 400-500 years after life described in Life in a Medieval Village. This was similar in subject matter, but vastly different in approach. Hubbub focused on the oft neglected unpleasant side of life for every day people, and was an absolute riot to read. Its focus was on four English cities. The intent here is to focus on England alone, but keeping the spotlight on four different cities allow us to get a better scope of the issues. While both focus on the every day ordinary person, Hubbub focused more on the negative aspects of life and the experiences of specific individuals, while Life in a Medieval Village is more about the structure that supports that every day life, and the larger group of people living it. This is interesting stuff, if you like history, but it definitely lacked that personal touch. I’m glad I read Life in a Medieval Village, but part of me can’t help but wish Hubbub had gone over there and shaken some life into it.

Other recommended reads: Hubbub: Filth, Noise & Stench in England, Life in a Medieval City, The Great Mortality

The Six Wives of Henry VIII

I don’t always read long books, but when I do, it’s because I know the author’s talent will help me push through my short attention span. Once again, Antonia Fraser doesn’t fail to deliver a book that’s serious yet engaging. In a world where history and politics are often seen as boring and dry, the quality of the writing here is the real star. As much as I love history, politics is something that I always fail to grasp, and as you can imagine it makes this particular intellectual pursuit somewhat challenging. Fraser’s work is perfect for a person like me. I first found this while reading Marie Antoinette: The Journey. While politics must of course necessarily come into play, her focus is rather more on the characters she discusses. She really has a knack for bringing out the personalities of her subjects in a way that almost makes you feel as though you’ve met them before. In fact I’ve been known to defend Marie Antoinette as though she were a close friend of mine. You can really sense the despair and frustration of Catherine of Aragon as she fights to hold on to her rightful place as queen, and the arrogance and tactless ignorance of Anne Boleyn. Jane Seymour is an angel, Anna of Cleves is pitifully naive – or is she? Katherine Howard is a trickster, and Catherine Parr is motherly and wise.

But those are just caricatures. All personalities here are given a fair look. Unsympathetic ones are given credit where credit is due, and sympathetic ones are not shown to be without their faults. The motives of Henry VIII himself are given a well-rounded unbiased look that really lets us get a glimpse into his head. Considering these people all lived nearly 500 years ago, this is an impressive feat. Fraser really understands her subjects like no other author I’ve read. This is why I’ll continue to read her work, and why she’s a favorite author of mine despite me almost exclusively choosing my reading material based on subject matter alone. One day I might even read her 1200+ page Weaker Vessel, but not soon. That would really be pushing it.

Given that there are essentially 7 biographies packed into this book, those of the six wives and Henry VIII himself, it really can’t be said to be too long at all. Other reviews tend towards the opinion that she often strays from her subject matter into superfluous back-stories, but at least compared to other books I’ve read I didn’t actually find this to be the case. There were a few, but all more or less related back to the core narrative. Details about distant relatives, in terms of relation or geography, always supported the political side of the story at the very least. The pacing is also appropriate. More pages are given to the wives who were married to Henry VIII the longest, fewer to wives who’s time on stage is more brief. The whole thing just makes sense, both in terms of composition and in that this won’t be over the heads of readers new to the subject matter. And when there’s just so much to read out there, I’d rather read one book about these people than seven. Wouldn’t you?

Other recommended reads: The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England, Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne, Tales from the Tower of London

Hubbub: Filth, Noise & Stench in England

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When we take a look at history, we tend to look at the big stuff. Royalty, war, and the great inventions of the day. What ordinary people really lived every day is ordinarily seen as just too boring to take notice of. But history is about more than big events, it’s about raw, un-romanticized reality. I remember being distinctly annoyed in university when this wasn’t covered. It was the endless string of dates on the projector, devoid of life, that really bored me. And the professor didn’t seem the least bit pleased when I told him this. I wasn’t a great student. I slept in class a lot.

What bothered and annoyed people in the 17th and 18th centuries? This book does a perfect job of showing what it was really like to live in England at this time, in all its irritating, disgusting glory. We often need to remind ourselves that the past is rarely as idealistic as we often portray it to be. In movies everybody is usually just too rich, too clean, to important. They wear beautiful clothes without holes in their shoes. They don’t fight with their neighbors, and the roads are evenly paved. The food always looks delicious, with no trace of rocks in the bread. That stuff isn’t real. This was the kind of thing I’d wanted to learn the whole time.

If you were a fan of Worst Jobs in History (still viewable on Youtube), you’ll love this. Like the host of that show, Emily Cockayne’s personality forms an integral part of the writing. You can see it when she calls Robert Hooke a creepy hypochondriac, and says that the apothecaries were stoned, and painters were dazed and confused, on account of the smells that accompanied their trades. Personality also shows itself in the characters of the diarists and many others who documented every detail of their lives. Emily Cockayne is unique here in that instead of consulting experts, she’s left us in the hands of “inperts”, people who were actually there. It’s a refreshing and welcome concept, old hat for historians but not so much for casual readers. The book is also very funny at times, though I’m not sure it intends to be. Especially when you come across the picture of a man unsure of how to use an outhouse, with his feet in the holes, pissing on the floor, or when you learn that the word “fustilug” means “a sluttish woman that smells rank.”

It wasn’t all that funny to them, though. Quite frankly, it sucked, and while some people were always complaining, others were taking this as motivation to inspire great change. This was the early modern period, after the renaissance, when the first stirrings of the industrial revolution can be felt. There was a lot of advancement in this time, and we can also see changes in attitudes and what people thought to be a pain in the ass. By 1770 England was a vastly different place than it was in 1600, with a lot of advantages they hadn’t enjoyed before, and also with a whole new set of complaints. This never changes. We should take this book not only as a history lesson, but as a key to appreciating the world we live in now, and inspiration to create our own change.

Also recommended: The Dirt on Clean, Life in a Medieval Village, Victorian House.