Tag Archives: medieval

How to be a Medieval Woman

Believed by some to be the first autobiography

Content warning: mental health, religion

This book was posted to me by an old friend who has a passion for classic literature in the Western canon. Now, because I was trying to get through my reading goal for 2019, and it was a reasonably short book, I brought it down with a few others over Christmas (yes, I am that far behind in my reviews). Now, a relatively recent by great tradition at my family’s Christmas is Dirty Santa. Basically, everyone wraps a cheap gift, you draw numbers from a hat, and in numerical order choose either to unwrap a gift or steal someone else’s unwrapped gift. Anyway, I had been very poorly prepared, so I decided I would wrap a book. Unfortunately, after a bit of confusion at home, someone kindly wrapped the book I hadn’t finished reading yet, and I had to quickly duck home and make the switch. When I returned, we played the game, and Grandma, who knew that I had been reluctant to wrap a book, had a concocted a devious ploy to make sure she chose it so she could give it to me afterwards. However, she didn’t realise that I had swapped books, so it was pretty hilarious when she unwrapped this one. Anyway, this review is dedicated to you, Grandma, and thank you for taking the photos.

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“How to be a Medieval Woman” or “The Book of Margery Kempe” by Margery Kempe is an autobiography believed to have been dictated to two separate scribes in the 1400s as Kempe was herself illiterate. The book describes Kempe’s life, and begins with her experiencing a significant crisis following the birth of her first child where she experiences depression and visions of demons and Jesus Christ. When she recovers, she starts some businesses and when they don’t succeed, grapples with sexual temptation and her desire to be a devout Christian. As the years go by, Margery grows more and more religious and continues to see visions. After convincing her husband to agree to celibacy, she undertakes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem where she visits sites of spiritual and historical significance.

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This is a strange story that has two primary interpretations: one is that Margery is a mystic, a woman who receives messages from god, and the other is that Margery had some type of mental illness. Now although I am certainly not a psychologist, but Margery appears to experience a mental health episode after she gives birth the first time, and throughout the book refers to voices and visions which could well be hallucinations. Margery also appears to have difficulty maintaining relationships, observing that people around her tend to grow to dislike her, and to have difficulty regulating her emotions, though she sees her tears as a divine sign. Regardless of the interpretation, or the general likeability of Margery, it was nevertheless very impressive that she took herself on a pilgrimage to see a part of the world that intrigued her given the times. Maybe there is a third interpretation: that she was sick of being a wife and mother and wanted to go explore the world on her own terms.

I have to say, despite it being such an unusual story, it wasn’t a particularly easy one to read. It is told in the third person, and Margery is herself referred to as “the creature”. I think the tension in reading the book – whether Margery’s experiences are legitimate religious experiences or symptoms of a mental illness – is mirrored in Margery’s own experiences. Everywhere she goes, people doubt the legitimacy of her visions and experiences in the same way the reader does. In fact, a lot of the story is taken up with Margery crying, being abandoned by companions, annoying the locals and being asked to leave or threatened with legal action. Ultimately Margery speaks convincingly enough about her faith and she is allowed to move on.

Not necessarily gripping read, and perplexing and frustrating at many points, but certainly an insightful snapshot into the life of a medieval woman.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Non Fiction, Uncategorized

Book of Colours

A little while ago I was invited to convene a panel at Muse Bookshop with two fabulous authors, and this is the second book.

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“Book of Colours” by Robyn Cadwallader is a historical fiction novel set in London in 1321. The book follows three people linked by the creation of an illuminated book of prayers. There is Lady Mathilda, for whom the book has been commissioned. There is the talented and a little roguish limner Will, walking as far as he can from a past he wants to escape. Then there is patient yet frustrated Gemma, the limner’s wife who dreams of recognition if not for herself, for her daughter. Each character is inextricably linked by the illuminated book, and none will come away unchanged.

This is the second book I’ve read by Cadwallader, and she truly knows her subject matter. Cadwallader immerses the reader in medieval life, and invites the reader to walk with her through the muddy London streets. This book is a fantastic example of an author getting the balance of detail just perfect. Cadwallader uses enough meticulous research to breathe life into a story, but weaves it delicately into the tapestry of the novel without it overwhelming the book.

Another thing about Cadwallader’s writing that stood out to me again is her ability to create such complex characters who are relatable despite being set in a world nearly 700 years ago. Cadwallader’s characters grapple with universal themes of interpersonal conflict, guilt, love and ambition. Will is a bit of a chameleon, constantly shifting and compelling though perhaps not ever entirely likeable. Mathilda has to wear the more traditional female costume society has prepared for her, but is forced to step up when her living situation changes drastically.

I think Will and Mathilda were interesting enough, but for me it was by far Gemma who stole the show. It was her chapters I couldn’t wait for. It was her little limner’s tidbits that I scoured greedily. I loved the interplay between her warm, maternal side and her unacknowledged but fiercely capable side as a limner. Not unlike the way I felt about the suggestion of the haunting in “The Anchoress”, I wasn’t quite sure about the gargoyle in this book. However like the marginalia¬†dancing in the borders, or perhaps even like the rose in John’s illuminations, I’m starting to think that perhaps a touch of supernatural is Cadwallader’s watermark.

A fascinating book, especially for lovers of the physical book, that conjures a long ago world and the kinds of people who lived in it.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction

Doomsday Book

A friend of mine gave me a copy of this book a very long time ago. Perhaps just before I started writing this blog! This copy has a pretty understated and uninspiring front cover, and despite the fact that it won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, it has gathered dust on my shelf for years. I’ve recently reorganised my bookshelves so I now have a shelf dedicated to books I haven’t read yet, and finally it was this book’s turn.

20180721_131041-641834144.jpg¬†“Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis is a one of those books that is both science fiction and historical fiction: a time travel book. Set in the mid-2050s in Oxford England, the book is about a student of Medieval history called Kivrin who is to be the first person to travel back in time to the 1300s for historical research. Aghast, her professor Mr Dunworthy tries to talk her out of it, but Kivrin has the firm support of the acting Head of the History Faculty and the expedition is to go ahead. However, while Dunworthy frets about the margin of error and whether Kivrin did arrive in the correct year, both in the 14th Centry and in present day Oxford, there are far, far bigger problems.

This is an absolutely engrossing book. Willis is an incredibly skilled writer who is brilliant at creating and maintaining tension. The book flips back and fourth between Kivrin in the 1300s and Dunworthy in the 2050s, and no matter which part I was reading about, I was on the edge of my seat. Willis drops hints and suggestions throughout the book and keeps you guessing right until the very end about what is going to happen. I was also really surprised to find out that she is not actually English. She really captured that peculiar brand of British humour that combines the absurd with the chaotic and uses a lapse in otherwise very good manners to comedic effect. However, I wouldn’t consider this a particularly humourous book and the darker and more tragic parts of this book really underline Willis’ flexibility as a writer.

I think there was only one single tiny thing that got under my skin about this book and that is Willis’ tendency to repeat facts and dialogue in order to ensure that the audience appreciates their significance. While I think that this is a good technique to make sure that your audience is picking up what you’re putting down, it did occasionally feel a little heavy-handed.

Anyway, it really was no surprise that this book won so many awards. It is a cracking story and I am really inspired now to read more books by Willis, including more in this series about time-travelling historians.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Science Fiction