Friday, June 24, 2016

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis

I'm afraid I rather dropped off the radar for the last few weeks: Life became a little frantic, first helping with a friend's wedding and then spending a few weeks in Tasmania with some very dear friends. Along the way, I did manage to get the second draft of Never Send To Know/Death Be Not Proud written (hooray!), and I've been working on a few other exciting projects - like storyboarding and co-directing this short promotional video for an artists' festival in Tasmania.

Today I'm reviewing the perennially popular medieval devotional classic The Imitation of Christ. I decided I had to read this book after hearing George Grant's history lecture on the fourteenth century (from the brilliant Christendom lecture series).

Historical Background

Apparently, the 1300s were a pretty dark time. They kicked off with the loss of the Holy Land to the Turks in 1291 and the ruthless and cynical suppression of the Templars in 1304. They continued with the breakdown of scholastic philosophy, scandalous rifts opening within the Roman church with the removal of the papacy to Avignon, the Hundred Years' War, the end of the Medieval Warming Period which had seen unprecedented population growth and health (which just goes to show that global warming is a good thing), and just when everyone thought the world couldn't get any more terrifying or incomprehensible...the Black Death, in multiple bouts that wiped out a massive chunk of the world's population.

Many thought it was the end of the world. Religion, discredited both as an ideal and as a philosophy through the breakdown of scholasticism and through increasing schism and irreligion in the church herself, could do little to help. In the looming darkness, a few bright lights pricked out in the darkness - reformers like John Wycliffe, or precursors to more reformers, like Geert Groote.

Groote was born around 1340, just in time for the first wave of the Black Death, which swept away both his parents. Groote survived, and after making his mark at the world's finest university (Paris), launched upon a brilliant church career as a wealthy playboy bibliophile and diplomat, drawing stipends from three different churches he'd never preached at. From this lifestyle he was suddenly and dramatically converted in 1373. He immediately withdrew again to the town of his birth in the Netherlands, where his new devotion to the basics of Christian faith became the foundation for a whole new movement, the Devotio Moderna, or the Modern Devotion. This layman's movement stressed the primacy of the Scriptures in every area of life; the ordinary means of grace (the Word and Sacraments) as against byzantine religious practices; the gradual sanctification of the Christian through the imitation of Christ; and discipling others into a devout life.

In 1374, the Black Death returned and killed three-quarters of the population in Groote's area. Apparently, it was out of his care for the orphans left by the plague that Groote's first schools emerged - schools that welcomed girls as well as boys. The church authorities did not take kindly to Groote's efforts, anymore than they smiled upon Wycliffe or the Gottesfreundes or Augustinians who had conceived it as their mission to preach to the common people. They forbade him to preach and put his schools under the ban. Thus affairs stood in 1384, when the Black Death struck again. This time, it took Geert Groote with it.

But Groote's work continued. Schools and monasteries based on the model he'd pioneered to help plague orphans sprang up all over Europe: their name was the Brethren of the Common Life. Over the next century and a half, Brethren of the Common Life schools educated and empowered an extraordinary number of their world's greatest men: Nicholas of Cusa, the physician Vesalius, Desiderius Erasmus; popes and cardinals, but others too. Names with which we should all be familiar: Martin Bucer, Philip Melancthon, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Luther all attended Brethren of Common Life schools, and at least one of their communities went over bodily to the Reformation once it got really underway.

So why is all this important to today's review? The answer is that Thomas a Kempis, the author of the Imitation of Christ, was one of Groote's disciples, and there's a pretty good historical case that this little book may be--in whole or part--a collection of Geert Groote's sayings and meditations. Even if that isn't the case, The Imitation of Christ was the primary written expression of the whole Brethren of Common Life movement.

In a century when Death on his pale horse was a recurring artistic motif, in a century when the foundations of belief were being destroyed, in a century so terrible than many believed the end was near, the movement that birthed and was formed by The Imitation of Christ shone as a light of real faith and real devotion. That was why I had to read this book.

Culture Shock

The Imitation of Christ is a very slim book, but it's divided into four Books and 114 chapters, which I found so pithy and thought-provoking that I was happy to read it at the rate of just one chapter per day. "Whoever wishes to understand fully the words of Christ must try to pattern his whole life on that of Christ." "The more you know and the better you understand, the more severely will you be judged, unless your life is also the more holy." "Do not keep company with young people and strangers." "It is good for us sometimes to suffer contradiction, to be misjudged by men even though we do well and mean well." One of the first sensations I experienced upon dipping into this very practical and blunt handbook on the Christian life was culture shock. This is an extremely medieval book.

In many ways, this is a good thing, because it forced me to take a second look at many things I take for granted. Like learning. We may take it as read that a scholarly movement that birthed giants like Cusa, Erasmus, or Melancthon was not an anti-intellectual movement, but a Kempis warns us repeatedly against loving knowledge for the sake of knowledge, encouraging us rather to seek humbly for truth.

Or like independence and equality. The medievals were not egalitarians, and one wonders what the average modern egalitarian would think of passages like this one:
It is a very great thing to obey, to live under a superior and not to be one's own master, for it is much safer to be subject than it is to command. Many live in obedience more from necessity than from love. Such become discontented and dejected on the slightest pretext; they will never gain peace of mind unless they subject themselves whole-heartedly for the love of God.
Go where you may, you will find no rest except in humble obedience to the rule of authority. Dreams of happiness expected from change and different places have deceived many.
Everyone, it is true, wishes to do as he pleases and is attracted to those who agree with him. But if God be among us, we must at times give up our opinions for the blessings of peace.
Furthermore, who is so wise that he can have full knowledge of everything? Do not trust too much in your own opinions, but be willing to listen to those of others. If, though your own be good, you accept another's opinion for love of God, you will gain much more merit; for I have often heard that it is safer to listen to advice and take it than to give it. It may happen, too, that while one's own opinion may be good, refusal to agree with others when reason and occasion demand it, is a sign of pride and obstinacy.
I loved this passage so much I had to run out and buy copies of the book at once. You would never read something like this in a modern devotional; but it is such a pithy and powerful statement of some Scriptural principles that no one would ever pay attention to today. We put such a high price on independence, on equality, on leadership, and on individuality that we ignore the principles that encourage us to be under authority as well as in authority, that urge us to submit to one another in love, that warn us of the high price paid by those who would teach. To ignore these things is to risk the sin of pride. And to ride roughshod over the created order given in Scripture--servants (read: employees) submitting to masters (read: bosses), parishioners submitting to elders, citizens submitting to kings, children submitting to fathers and mothers, wives submitting to husbands--is to despise the Creator himself.

As a Kempis points out so clearly, submitting to someone doesn't mean you or your opinions are not as good as him. In many cases it may even make you the better person.

Some reservations

As I said, this was a very medieval book and a lot of the time, I loved that about it. However, a lot of the time, I also had reservations. Sometimes the Brethren of the Common Life are described as a pietist movement, and there's a good bit of that in this book, mixed in with some typical medieval attitudes regarding asceticism and a denial of the physical world. Some of this is rather Roman Catholic in tone--especially bits of the final section, on communion. But some of it is well and truly alive and well in the contemporary Protestant church.

The overwhelming emphasis of The Imitation of Christ is on the soul's personal and intangible relationship with Christ. This was, in many ways, intensely nourishing to me. Christ is--or should be--our all-in-all, and it was very sweet to spend so much time meditating on this fact. However, there was a somewhat dualistic tone to much of the book, and the advocacy of asceticism was disappointing. I found myself very thankful that I'd read Joe Rigney's marvellous book The Things of Earth before reading this one, because it acted as a much-needed corrective. In The Things of Earth, Rigney takes a very un-pietistic approach to the Christian's relationship with the physical world, explaining that they are good gifts which may in fact help us to love God better. In The Imitation of Christ, the overwhelming message is that the things of earth distract us from the love of God. And certainly, as Rigney points out, there are times when we are asked to give up created goods. Indeed, giving up a created good for the love of God can be a comfort to the believer; it can sometimes give assurance of salvation--or it can make it clear to us that we have allowed a created good to distract us from the love of God.

I found The Imitation of Christ unbalanced in this area. There was occasionally an acknowledgement of the fact that created things are given to us for our good and God's glory. But the overwhelming slant of the emphasis was on renunciation of all these things.


I came away from The Imitation of Christ understanding why it ranks as one of the greatest Christian bestsellers of all time. In places it is magnificent; in places it is ...well, not. I strongly recommend fortifying yourself with The Things of Earth before tackling The Imitation of Christ; but despite the book's shortcomings, it has my respect. It was written, and it made its mark, during a time of great spiritual thirst; and despite its asceticism, despite its understandably Romanist slant, I can see how it, and the Brethren of Common Life, came to foster the great Reformation. In this book, the layman is told that he can know Christ for himself. In this book, the common-born man is told he can approach the High King of Heaven without fear. Perhaps, in the midst of the upheaval and schism of the late middle ages, this was the most dangerous possible idea.

Find The Imitation of Christ on Amazon, The Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Don't forget to snag The Things of Earth while you're at it! Find it on Amazon or The Book Depository, or read my review on Goodreads

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope

Today I have the pleasure of reviewing a really terrific (and terrifically long) book. The Last Chronicle of Barset is 852 pages in my edition, all of it dedicated to a series of interweaving plots roughly centred around one character, a clergyman named Josiah Crawley, who has been accused of stealing a cheque for twenty pounds. Before I move on to the body of this review, I just need to say this: I've now read all six books in the Chronicles of Barset, and this one stands head-and-shoulders above all the rest--a grand finale well worth the name, a powerful character study, a splendid and engrossing story, a book bursting with amazing Christian wisdom and encouragement.

This was definitely a five-star read for me - a rating I award to only about 6% of the dozens of books I read each year. The Last Chronicle of Barset is quite simply, splendid.

Warning: While I'll be trying to keep them to a minimum, there will be a few spoilers for some of the previous books in the series in this review, especially The Small House at Allington. Also, if you are already convinced to read the book, you might like to stop here and go and do so, because while I don't give away the ending, I do discuss the plot in some detail.

Loving the Unlovable

There was so much to like about this novel. As always, Trollope is funny--one of the most consistently funny authors you'll ever read, and while he isn't as overtly outrageous in Last Chronicle as he was in Barchester Towers, I spent the whole book grinning in delight, cackling with glee, or even reading bits aloud in funny voices for the mere pleasure of hearing them. But Trollope's humour stems from one of the things I've always loved about him. Trollope's whole genius as an author lies in getting you to see people with all their quirks and faults and even sins--and yet coming to love them anyway. Not in such a manner as to excuse their failings, but despite them: reading any Anthony Trollope book is an exercise in Christian charity, in unconditional love of the unlovable. He gives you repulsive people and then makes you care for them, genially depicting them with all their quirks and idiosyncracies. The result is hilarious. (Mr Crawley walking along, hand outstretched to crush the bishop!) Jane Austen, of course, mined a similar vein of humour, but she was considerably more acid and ruthless than Trollope is: Both Mr Crawley and the bishop he intends to crush are so sympathetically drawn that despite their glaring personal faults, we can't help both laughing at and loving them.

This ability to get us to care for sometimes quite offputting characters is also the reason why The Last Chronicle of Barset is so profoundly moving. Because this is the grand finale to the series, most of the prominent characters from all the earlier books--Mr Harding and Eleanor, the Grantlys and the Proudies, Mr Arabin, Dr Thorne, Mark Robarts, Lady Lufton, Mr Crawley, and even Lily Dale and John Eames--are back in full force, drawn into the great clerical tempest at the novel's heart. As they make their final bows, they are ushered off, some to happy and some to unhappy endings; in fact, some of them to quite shocking endings. And while there is a great deal of power in seeing characters we love coming to unhappy endings (short version: boohoo), Trollope gets the most mileage from the unhappy ending of one particular character whom I never, ever expected to feel sorry for. This character was nails on a blackboard--someone it was heaps of fun to thoroughly despise--and yet, in this book, Trollope tore this apparently unassailable character to shreds, until I wanted to howl in sympathy. I've never felt so bad about the bad end of such an annoying character.

This said, I thought not everything in the story worked well. A subplot surrounding an artist friend of John Eames had so little relation to the rest of the plot that it probably should have been removed; it would have made a good standalone novella. That didn't annoy me at all, though, compared to the downright tragic ending of another plot, which was so disappointing (after 852 pages' worth of thinking it might finally come right after all) that I could almost have beaten the author over the head with his own manuscript. Ack! I do thoroughly understand why Trollope chose to end the subplot that way, of course. It's very true to the characters, and it prevents the otherwise happy and satisfying ending from being too implausibly neat. But I don't think I've felt so disappointed since the ending of Rupert of Hentzau.


By far the most compelling and well-drawn character in this book, populated as it is by so many compelling and well-drawn characters, is that of Mr Crawley, the impoverished curate accused of stealing a paltry sum of money. We met Mr Crawley first in Framley Parsonage, where he emerged as an odd, prickly, proud character of undeniable and yet almost repulsive rectitude. At the time I read that book, I found Mr Crawley rather a challenging character to come to grips with, given that he seemed to be both one of the most sincere and one of the most flawed of the Barsetshire populace. I also didn't quite know what to think of how the heroine of that novel seemed to collude with Mrs Crawley behind her husband's back to arrange things in ways that he would certainly disapprove of. However, since I realised The Last Chronicle would be all about Mr Crawley and his family, I postponed a final judgement till after I'd read it.

Now that I have, I feel I have a much better appreciation of where Trollope was taking this character. Mr Crawley's particular failing is pride, a pride that shows itself in excessive humility. Trollope laughs at Mr Crawley as much as he laughs at all his other characters, but it can't be denied that he also takes on a rather titanic character in this novel: a brilliant scholar and genuinely loving father, pastor, and husband, Mr Crawley, it's hinted, sees himself as one of the debased giants of legend: Polyphemus, the Cyclopes blinded by Odysseus; Belisarius, the great Byzantine general, who ended his life a beggar; Samson; Milton. And yet he clings persistently to his poverty, too proud to take assistance or even to hire a lawyer to defend him against the accusation of theft, and proud in other ways too: "It was not sufficient for him to remember that he knew Hebrew, but he must remember also that the dean [his friend Mr Arabin] did not."

As Walter Allen points out in the Introduction to my edition of the book, this same theme of pride, though in many different forms, crops up in most of the other subplots. There is the pride of our old friend Archdeacon Grantly, who is shocked that his son wants to marry a girl as penniless and unimportant as Grace Crawley, the more so as his other children have married into the nobility. There is the healthier kind of pride, the self-respect and the sense of honour that determines the dashing Major Grantly to pursue Grace despite his father's opposition and the criminal accusation hanging over her father; there is the corresponding pride felt by Grace, who wishes not to socially injure the Major in any way. Meanwhile John Eames's pride entangles him in a flirtation with the conniving Madalina Demolines, even while he renews his suit to Lily Dale, who also has a strong sense of what she owes herself, and will not easily relinquish it. Both Bishop Proudie and Mrs Proudie suffer terrible blows to their own pride, and it is left to Mr Harding, the aging hero of the very first book about Barset, to give a contrasting picture of godly humility.

Trollope therefore uses this theme of pride as a motif to tie together all the diverse strands of subplot, less interested in drawing out a specific moral than he is simply in faithfully depicting what happens to his characters because of their pride: the narrow escapes, the tragedies, the triumphs. Side-by-side with this theme is another, one much more overt: the theme of authority in both church and family.

Authority in the Family

While this theme of authority gets its overarching expression in Mr Crawley's struggles with church authorities--which I'll deal with in a moment--it plays out in the story largely in the context of family life: in parent-child relationships, but especially in husband-wife relationships. Major Grantly wants to marry Grace Crawley, and he's willing to defy his parents in order to do so. Mrs van Siever wants to force her daughter to marry a business partner against her will. John Eames is at his wits' end to figure out why Lily Dale should continue to refuse him when all her friends and family unanimously wish her to marry him. Mrs Crawley must sometimes go behind her husband's back in order to save her family from starvation. In the battle of will between Archdeacon Grantly and his son, Mrs Grantly finds herself in the unenviable position of sympathising with her husband while she attempts to prevent him cutting off their son without a shilling. And Mrs Proudie is, as usual, determined to rule the diocese despite the fact that it was her husband who was appointed bishop and not herself.

Again, the theme of authority ties all these subplots together, even in the otherwise somewhat unrelated Conway Dalrymple subplot.

Let me take a moment to say that I loved this theme. As I recently explained, for deep-rooted philsophical and theological reasons, I'm not a feminist. These days, standing up in support of traditional Christian patriarchy will get you shot full of holes in no time, even within the Church, and it's become trendy to talk about misogyny as something that's institutionalised in the Christian patriarchal church and family. I believe that's a false picture, partly because of books like this one: not being a feminist emphatically doesn't mean thinking a woman occupies a place in the food chain roughly between doormats and dog-fleas.

And I loved, loved, loved the balance and beauty of the picture of familial authority given in The Last Chronicle of Barset.

We see this balance shown in the Major Grantly plotline between the father and his son. Major Grantly insists that as a grown man, a father, and a widower, he has the authority to pursue Grace Crawley despite his parents' misgivings. Archdeacon Grantly, on the other hand, thinks that since he is providing the Major with an income, he has the right to stop it if his son insists on marrying against his advice. As I read their wranglings, I could tell that Trollope sympathised more (as I did) with the Major; but I thought to myself that the Major showed very little regard for the fifth commandment in standing on his rights. I'm not going to tell you how this tension resolves, except that it was terrific, and I was thrilled.

We get just the same sane and scriptural balance when it comes to the relationships between the men and women in the plot. There is the Proudie marriage. Mrs Proudie, as always, is the novel's premier example of a woman who terrorises the men around her and makes herself a nuisance by interfering with church affairs that are really none of her business. And yet, Trollope finds something good to say even about Mrs Proudie: that she has real strength and a real desire to do good.

On the other hand, we have the Dobbs Broughton marriage. Mrs Dobbs Broughton is a bored socialite married to a financier who eventually runs into business trouble. Mrs Dobbs Broughton realises that business must be going badly for him, but as Trollope explains, she considers that she has no right to ask him questions about it because the financial interest she brought into their marriage was so very small: "She had no knowledge that marriage of itself had given her the right to such interference." As a wife, Mrs Dobbs Broughton automatically has the right to know about her husband's affairs, to give advice or even to step in, as Trollope suggests.

By contrast to both these marriages, Trollope gives us, as a picture of traditional Puritan-style companionate marriage, the Crawley marriage; and even, to a lesser extent, that of the Grantlys (at one point, the wise and diplomatic Mrs Grantly takes just offence to a "very uncivil reference to her sex" made by her husband). Mrs Crawley is undoubtedly a clever woman, entirely lacking in her husband's fault of pride. I mentioned that in Framley Parsonage I felt uncomfortable about what Mrs Crawley is shown to do underhandedly, behind her husband's back, to prevent her family from starving; but with the deeper characterisation in Last Chronicle, my opinion of her changed: she became the example of a wise woman married to a foolish man, an Abigail (though Mr Crawley is by no means a Nabal) engaging in a little judicious management and interposition, while unshaken in her loyalty to and respect for her husband.

Mrs Crawley is a wonderful character, but so is Mr Crawley, and contempt for women is by no means one of that prickly clergyman's faults. He objects strenuously to Mrs Proudie's inteference in church affairs, but by not to the right and capacity of a wise woman to give advice when advice is sought: "If there be aught clear to me in ecclesiastical matters, it is this, - that no authority can be delegated to a female," he tells Mr Arabin in a letter. He goes on to explain that because of the criminal case against him, the bishop has instituted a commission to inquire into his fitness to be a clergyman:
In doing this, I cannot say that the bishop has been ill-advised, even though the advice may have come from that evil-tongued lady, his wife. And I hold that a woman may be called on for advice, with most salutary effect, in affairs as to which any show of female authority would be equally false and pernicious. With me it has ever been so, and I have had a counsellor by me as wise as she has been devoted.
Church authority, in other words, can never be wielded by a woman. But a woman has authority as an individual and also as a wife, and is therefore welcome to exert private or familial influence, even in church matters. Later on, Mr Crawley even goes further in his somewhat prolix praise of feminine authority:
"I have, methinks, observed a proneness in the world to ridicule that dependence on a woman which every married man should acknowledge in regard to the wife of his bosom, if he can trust her as well as love her. When I hear jocose proverbs spoken as to men, such as that in this house the gray mare is the better horse, or that in that house the wife wears that garment which is supposed to denote virile command, knowing that the joke is easy, and that meekness in a man is more truly noble than a habit of stern authority, I do not allow them to go far with me in influencing my judgement."
Characteristically, Trollope at once lampoons this gracious utterance by telling us that Mr Crawley "never permitted the slightest interference with his own word in his own family." But the words have been spoken, and spoken sincerely: if a Christian husband shows the love and dependence he ought to show, some wit is going to suggest that his wife wears the pants.

As in every other area of life, there are two extremes we can fall into, and in this case people seem only too ready to fall into one extreme or the other: that of total autonomy and domination by men, or that of total autonomy and anarchy of women. But in the Christian ideal, the battle is not between men and women, the battle is between God and God's church on one hand, and the world, the flesh and the devil on the other. In Trollope's novels, there is no war between the sexes, anymore than there should be war in an army between officers and men. In Trollope's novels, as in Scripture, marriage is not about asserting the authority structure (as important as the authority structure is); it's about working together, it's about having the strength of two, the wisdom of two, and the resources of two rather than of one. We talk a lot about the dangers of being "unequally yoked", but overlook the fact that this means the ideal is an equal yoking, even within the hierarchy of marriage.

And here I must say something very important. Up till now, I'd felt that Trollope goes rather easy on his heroines. They are almost a little too good to be true, and while everyone else in the story usually gets humbled, they usually come out with all their dignity intact. As a woman, I'm keenly aware of the failings of my sex, and I don't find such unflawed heroines particularly compelling: Lizzie Bennet or Emma Woodhouse seem more real to me than Lucy Robarts or Mary Thorne.

However, in reading The Last Chronicle of Barset and thinking about some discussions I've had lately, I've come to realise why we need books like these, books which depict admirable women wielding authority in admirable ways. Partly for the benefit of women, it's true, but even more for the benefit of young men who might need to be taught to respect women. That's the beautiful thing about Anthony Trollope: just as clearly as he is no twenty-first-century feminist, he clearly also has a very deep respect and love for women. And if Trollope sees his heroines with eyes that overlook a multitude of sins, that's a great perspective for young men to practice and learn.

Authority in the Church

The theme of authority also crops up, perhaps most definitively, in Mr Crawley's struggle with his church authorities. Having been accused of theft, and facing trial, Mr Crawley is directed by Bishop Proudie (or more to the point, by Mrs Proudie) to relinquish his position as the curate of Hogglestock. Believing himself to be innocent, Mr Crawley refuses to do so, the more so since the bishop has no legal power to remove him unilaterally from his living. In the process, Mr Crawley delivers himself of a number of ringing declarations of limited government and the duty of interposition:
"In all questions of obedience, he who is required to obey must examine the extent of the authority exercised by him who demands obedience."
Since the bishop has no authority to evict him, Mr Crawley defies the bishop. But Trollope makes sure we know that this is not rebellion. Rather, it's the bishop (or, more to the point, Mrs Proudie) who is in rebellion against the law because she is seeking to exert an authority that is not lawful for a bishop to wield (much less the bishop's wife). The right and duty of interposition--of lesser authorities acting to keep higher authorities in check--is the fenceline between tyranny and right authority, between abuse and justice.

To Conclude

Trollope understands interposition as few people today do: that everyone has authority, that authority has hierarchy and limits, and that it's everyone's responsibility to see that their own and others' authority is kept within just bounds. These days, years of overweening state government has catechised us to expect church and family, like state authorities, to be their own best judge of the propriety of their own actions. But in The Last Chronicle, Trollope gives us example after example defining the limits of just authority. John Eames, in pursuit of Lily, expects her to let herself be ruled by his own and her friends' wishes; but Lily's mother as well as Lily herself understands that this is a decision which ultimately only Lily has the authority to make. Mrs Crawley has every right to advise her husband in church matters and does; Mrs Proudie has every right to do so, but tries to dominate instead, only to meet the righteous opposition of the diocese; Mrs Dobbs Broughton ignores this right, and probably harms her marriage in consequence.

I know this is a monster review, but this book was so good. It's not often that a novel is this entertaining, yet at the same time, this edifying. In a world that sometimes seems to have gone completely mad, where authority is so often misused, where so few people understand their own right and duty either to defy tyranny or to advise authority, and where the sexes each see the other as the enemy, Trollope's Last Chronicle of Barset is a breath of fresh air, a moment of calm and sanity and hope. Read this book.* Recommend it to your friends. It is that important.

Find The Last Chronicle of Barset on Amazon, The Book Despository, Project Gutenberg, or Librivox.

* But read the other 5 novels first, of course. What? They're all wonderful, and I wouldn't want to spoil the experience for you! They are The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage, and The Small House at Allington.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

All Your Research Questions Answered

One of my goals for OUTREMER, aside from telling a good yarn and telling it well, is to help bridge the vast knowledge gap between Crusader historians and the general public. In an excellent article for First Things magazine, the Crusader historian Thomas F Madden described the gap like this:
In the Middle East, as in the West, we are left with the gaping chasm between myth and reality. Crusade historians sometimes try to yell across it but usually just talk to each other, while the leading churchmen, the scholars in other fields, and the general public hold to a caricature of the Crusades created by a pox of modern ideologies.  
What better way to help bridge that chasm than by constructing a new myth around the real history? But in order to do this with OUTREMER, I've had to familiarise myself, on a deeper level than ever before, with the details of the history itself. This meant research, and lots of it, though to my surprise I've found it far more enjoyable and absorbing than I expected at the start.

A couple of regular readers recently asked me to share some of what I've learned since beginning the research for OUTREMER about eighteen months ago. Here are their questions, and my answers.

"This place was built by giants. All gone now. All dead. We do not even remember its name."
The story idea/knowledge gap: You can't have a reasonable idea for a story if you haven't researched the historical period first, but how do you know what specific areas to research if you don't have a story idea yet?

For me this is a narrowing-down process. I get an idea for a story set in a particular setting; and if it's something I know very little about, I'll get an overview history and read through it. Usually something will jump out at me: a story that needs to be told, or an obvious high point in the narrative of the history. That means doing closer research on the period, which feeds ideas into the plot bunny, which helps narrow down what I need to research.

Story and research bounce off each other all the way down to the final spit-and-polish on the final draft. You can't do all your research before you start writing--at least, I can't--because most of the time I don't know what my characters will be doing or where they'll be going till I get there and realise what it would be logical for them to do. The bouncing effect also applies to characterisation (I need to write about the characters before I figure out what they are like, and figuring out what they are like helps me write about them) and various other elements, which is why I think multiple story outlines, drafts, and edits are so beneficial. The thing emerges en masse. There is no step-by-step process.

"If I go with you, you'll die."
In researching, do you actually buy your sources so you can access them as needed? (In that case you must have a massive library of books you will probably never use again.) Do you rely on online sources instead (free or otherwise)? 

I like to buy sources, and I've bought about six physical books for this project, four of them second-hand. Others I've been able to access as ebooks, borrow from friends, or find in our own family library (homeschoolers tend to have enormous libraries). One particularly expensive but indispensible book I requested at our library and they bought it for me, and I've had it out on loan pretty continuously ever since.

How do you resist the temptation to record everything in case you need to use it for the story? Do you have a very good memory that you rely on, or a very systematic method of choosing and recording facts and helpful sources?

When reading sources, I tend to take occasional notes of things that particularly strike me as neat or relevant, but to begin with I have no idea about what's relevant and what's not, so I don't sweat it too much; just try to amass a big knowledge bank. I am not a systematic person by any conceivable stretch of the imagination, but I have a reasonable memory, and I know how it works. I resist the urge to record everything by dint of being naturally bone-idle. I keep a list of each book I read, and my current plan is to go back and read some of them again when I start work on the second draft. By that time I'll have a much better ability to go and check specific facts against specific aspects of the story.

"A man grows weary of death."
I'm petrified of misrepresenting an era in any way big or small, whether in regards to the practical minutiae of daily life or the attitudes and ideas prevalent at the time. Do you have the same fears, and how do you overcome them?

Yes, everyone has those fears, and you overcome them by actually writing the novel. You simply are going to miss some things; because you simply do not have a time machine. Sometime long after publication when it is too late to do anything about it, someone will point out your mistakes and ridicule them. You will die a little inside, smile politely, and make a note for next time.

(Note: This is true even if you are not writing historical fiction. Everyone makes mistakes.)

In other instances, you will change things on purpose for the sake of the story, because if you had intended to write something 100% historically accurate you would have written non-fiction. You will also rack your brains over long-unresolved historical debates and wind up making heroes or villains out of characters you are, in reality, not 100% sure about. This is also painful, but it's imperative to choose a side if you want to tell a compelling story.

As far as attitudes and ideas prevalent at the time, the only way to get your head around these is to read as many primary sources as possible until you can step inside the worldview of the people you're writing about, until you react to things in the same way the people you're writing about would. For practical minutiae of daily life, I spend a lot of time Googling or Wikipedia-ing specific questions. What kind of locks and keys did they use in Mameluke-era Egypt? Exactly the same kind as they used in Antioch 200 years previously, in case you wondered, and they weren't the familiar classic iron keys. Google Books is very good for this kind of question.

"Woe! Woe! The heavens have spoken!"
How on earth can you hope to create decent historical dialogue when that is the thing probably least recorded about any time period? Do you choose a style and forget about being particularly accurate in a literal sense?

Actually I find that this is pretty easy. Just read primary sources and fiction written during the time period you're writing about, and then draw on those.

I tend to do different things with style depending on what I'm writing about. I normally try to avoid obvious archaisms (no thees or thous) while avoiding obvious neologisms (like "OK"). To create the special atmosphere of a time period or setting, I try to copy quirks of diction in the source materials. In Pendragon's Heir I consciously tried to reproduce the distinctive style of diction used in Malory, especially in the more mythic passages. In The Bells of Paradise I drew inspiration from Shakespeare and Spenser, again in the more high-flown contexts, because of the Tudor setting.

However, in OUTREMER I've opted for a slightly more updated style. There are two reasons for this. First, archaic (early modern) English would be as out of place in the Palestine of the High Middle Ages as contemporary modern English would be. This is because a) the English were speaking Anglo-Saxon at the time and b) all the characters are speaking Greek, Syriac, Arabic, or French anyway. Second, dearly as I love the past, I am actually living in, and writing for, the present; it is a service to my readers to present my story in a way they find easy to read, even as I draw on original sources for attitudes and quirks of diction; and as important as it is to be authentic to the past, I am at home in this era, and must be authentic to this as well.

"I am surrounded by children."
When you need to invent a fictional event, how do you decide if it's historically plausible enough?

I think you really need to familiarise yourself with the existing history, and then either copy a specific event and transpose it to a new locaton/time/cast of characters, or find a kind of event that happened regularly, and use as many elements from that as you can.

Know what's fitting. A revolutionary nationalist uprising fits into Italy in 1848, regardless of whether one actually happened then; it does not fit into 1050s Paris. Generally, if the same kind of event was happening in the same area of the world among people of similar beliefs at about the same time, then I'd call it historically plausible.

"I am not the last of the Bisharas. I am the first."
How do you know where to start researching, and which books are trustworthy?

In researching OUTREMER, since it was a time period I knew so little about, I began with a few overarching books on the time periods I was specifically interested in.

I was honestly a bit nervous about researching the Crusades because I knew it was a controversial affair and I assumed today's historians would subscribe to the regnant myths. However, I had a helping hand from Providence when I discovered another author also writing historical novels of the Crusades, from a similar point of view. She'd written a positive review of Rodney Stark's God's Battalions on Goodreads, and when I went snooping in her other reviews, I found a treasure-trove of recommendations for books by some of the foremost Crusader scholars working today, along with helpful reviews of the same.

Another way I've discovered good books is by looking in the footnotes and bibliographies of books by authors I've come to trust. When I wanted to learn more about the Assassins, for instance, I was looking at Bernard Lewis's The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam. A lot of the Goodreads reviews complained that Lewis's work was an inaccurate representation of the Assassin sect, but all the venerable historians I read referenced the book. When I read it, I found that the views the Goodreads reviewers found so repugnant were limited to a short final chapter (and were by no means as dubious as the reviewers made them sound).

The other thing that helps you evaluate the books you're reading is, quite simply, copiousness--if you read, very thoughtfully, a whole lot of different books on the time period, not only will a lot of the details get anchored very firmly in your mind (through repetition), but you'll also hear so many different viewpoints on the same matters that you'll be able to weigh them up and evaluate them much more wisely.

Do you have any other questions about researching historical fiction? Ask in the comments!

For more OUTREMER aesthetics, make sure to check my three Pinterest boards dedicated to this epic story!

Friday, April 29, 2016

Quick updates

Next week I want to review what must be my favourite read so far this year, Anthony Trollope's Last Chronicle of Barset. I also want to share some more about the research and writing process for Outremer, but for now, I'm just going to make some quick updates.


I started reading Umberto Eco's Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages last night, and just one chapter in I'm thoroughly fascinated by his explanation of the radical integration of the medieval worldview. Unlike the modernist worldview, the medievals didn't put things in hermetically sealed categories: they would not have thought of any strict division between the natural and the supernatural, for instance; rather, what we today think of as the natural was a cloak worn by the deeper metaphysical realities beneath. I already comprehended some of this. The point that really surprised me was Eco's observation that the medievals had two words referring to beauty - pulchrum and aptum or honestum - the beauty of form and the beauty of usefulness - and they were never quite able to distinguish between them. To them, moral goodness (aptum) was inextricably bound up with aesthetic goodness (pulchrum). 
This was encouraging because I've always felt very strongly that I cannot not evaluate books on grounds of truth and goodness as well as beauty. To refuse to evaluate a work of art on grounds of moral value is to dis-integrate faith from life, something that I refuse to do. It's good to know that the medievals, who made some of the most glorious art civilisation has ever produced, felt the same way.

I've been reading and thoroughly enjoying The Last Chronicle of Barset, which is about middle-aged Victorian clergymen, and I also enjoyed my most recent Crusader-history-read, The New Knighthood, which is a formidably detailed and scholarly account of the Templars. At the same time, I've also been reading Throne of Glass, a young-adult bestseller featuring assassins, a deathmatch, and an eldritch abomination that murders people by night. One of the above is a bland and boring snoozefest that makes me want to weep in frustration. Hint: It's not the Templar history.


Over summer, I realised that my youngest sister had never seen Star Wars and didn't know the first thing about it, so I sniffed out some DVDs and we watched the Original Trilogy together as a family. This was even more entertaining because my mother had never seen it either. I remain confirmed in my belief that The Empire Strikes Back is one of the best films I've ever seen--a film where almost everything went beautifully right. After that high-water-mark, Star Wars went sharply downhill, and after having seen The Force Awakens more recently, I can't say I think things look like getting much better. 

Count me among those who thought the new main character, Rey, was a flagrant Mary Sue. I was then surprised to find that this is a very controversial thing to say, and I think this is a great example of how pulchrum and aptum, orthodoxy and beauty, intersect; or, in other words, it's a great example of how an aggressively feminist story decision ("we'll make the whole story about a girl who needs a man, and the skills and strengths of a man, like a fish needs a bicycle") will actually destroy the impact and aesthetic quality of an artwork. As John C Wright demonstrates in his review of The Force Awakens, this was a terrible artistic decision to make for a film trying to feature an ensemble story.

Ever heard of Claude Goudimel? He was the Huguenot composer who pioneered syncopation and soprano melody in the sixteenth century while making large contributions to the Genevan Psalter. Some of Goudimel's arrangements and harmonisations are still familiar today--chances are that if you sing the psalms, you've come across tunes with names like Old Hundredth or Old Ninety-Fifth. These were tunes from the Genevan psalter, and once you get past Old Hundredth you'll find that they feature rich harmonies and rhythms so exciting that Elizabeth I apparently referred to them as "Geneva jigs". Brother Down's Old Paths New Feet album is a perennial favourite, translating these funky old tunes into the style of modern folk rock, but if you want to learn them in a worship-appropriate setting, I highly recommend Michael Owens's site, The Genevan Psalter, where you can find voice recordings, sheet music, and midi files.


I am now wrapping up the month's work on OUTREMER. Not counting January, this is my sixth consecutive month writing 50,000 words per month, which means I recently passed the 300,000-word mark (so, about as long as Middlemarch, and creeping up on Anna Karenina). I anticipate that it will take another 100,000 to get through the rest of the plot, which means another two months' work--but I don't plan to do that right away. Although I hate to take a moment away from a story that I continue to be enormously excited about, I need the rest. So in May, I'm going to take a break to rewrite Never Send to Know, my next fairytale novella, hopefully aiming for publication toward the end of the year. Which is also enormously exciting!

Also, I think I'm going to change the title, to Death Be Not Proud. Help me out, readers! Which one do you prefer?

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Rose-Garden Husband by Margaret Widdemer

I had a toughish week last week. Nothing particularly bad: just a frantic weekend leading to a week of feeling sleep-deprived and creatively drained at the same time that I needed to get about eleventy thousand things done. You know the kind.

At the time I didn't particularly feel in need of a literary confection since I'm reading Anthony Trollope's Last Chronicle of Barset and it's pretty much making my year. All the same, the amiable Ness Kingsley had recommended it, and it seemed like a sweet read, so I dashed off and downloaded Margaret Widdemer's 1915 novel The Rose-Garden Husband from Project Gutenberg.

Meet Phyllis Braithwaite! Orphaned and alone in the world, Phyllis enjoys her job working with children at the city library--but despite her cheerful outlook, she can't help knowing that she's lonely, overworked, and just one serious illness away from losing her only source of livelihood. After a chance meeting with a girl from her hometown, Phyllis wishes impulsively to have a wealthy husband and a rose-garden. Little does she expect to see her wish come true in the shape of a very peculiar job offer.

Wealthy Mrs Harrington knows she is dying, but worries that her son--invalided years ago in a terrible motoring accident--won't be taken care of when she's gone. Accordingly, she asks Phyllis to marry him and nurse him after her death. Phyllis agrees because she knows she needs the rest and the money. But she never expects to fall right into a sweet old-fashioned romance with her new patient.

Naturally, this book is kind of low on realism, from the preposterous premise to the oh-so-perfect ending, and the plot and themes have the substance of fairy floss. It is a vintage romance, after all, and I knew what I was getting into. That said, I can't begin to tell you what a delightful time I had reading it. It was half-an-hour curled up in a patch of winter sunshine. It was a very small kitten having a nap on your lap. It was a nice hot cup of tea with a dash of honey.

It was a few brief moments of grace in the middle of a hard and frantic week.

Part of the book's appeal was its very wholesome tone. Margaret Widdemer's story is uncomplicated and light, but it had a right-way-up view of the world. I liked how honest the story was about how hard it is to have a life when you're working fulltime, and how unsatisfying that can be--for a domestically-inclined woman especially.

Then, part of the book's appeal was simply the romantic wish-fulfilment. And no matter how wholesome they might be, I've never been a big consumer of fluffy romance novels. I think of them as the confections of a literary diet, and try to balance them out with a steady diet of nutritious books, non-fiction as well as fiction. And if I'd read The Rose-Garden Husband any other week of the year, you probably wouldn't be hearing about it today. But here's the thing.

Hard work is an important part of the Christian life. But so is rest and celebration. You can work yourself too hard. You can heap too much on your plate. You can fail to take Sabbaths. You can develop a soul so ascetic and high-minded and austere that you lose all contact with the humility of grace.

To all things there is a season. Even, every now and then, a season for fluffy comfort reads.

Find The Rose-Garden Husband at Amazon, The Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Mary Marston by George MacDonald

George MacDonald was a staple of my childhood and teens. I read his fantasies for children with much enjoyment, and we also collected a number of the Bethany House editions of his adult novels, of which my favourites were The Fisherman's Lady and its sequel, The Marquis' Secret. I didn't realise until later that these editions had been abridged from their originals, and a few years ago the wonderful Margaret (of 3margarets) actually sent me copies of Sir Gibbie (the original of The Baronet's Song) and Mary Marston (edited to become A Daughter's Devotion). I haven't dug into them since I received them, but they've been a comforting presence on my shelf, waiting for me to dip in (though I revisited Phantastes, The Princess and the Goblin, and The Lost Princess first). What actually gave me the push to start Mary Marston was the fact that I'd been reading a number of second-rate contemporary bestsellers and felt the need for a palate cleanser.

So I came to this book looking for a bit of spiritual nourishment, a tale (like Austen's or Trollope's) that knew right from wrong, in which the sin or virtue of everyday actions determines the course of lives and fortunes. I have to admit, however, that I approached the book with some trepidation. After all, I'd never read any of George MacDonald's unedited adult fiction! What if it was extremely dense and intimidating?

No, on hindsight I can't believe I thought that either. As a friend remarked on Goodreads, "anyone who can read unabridged Sir Walter Scott will laugh their way through an unabridged MacDonald." And I can certainly bear out the truth of that. Mary Marston was not a sensational work of gothic splendour (as I remember The Fisherman's Lady--original title Malcolm--being), but it had an undeniable quiet suspense sustained throughout its nearly 500 pages. 

The plot follows the fortunes of several different characters. Our heroine, of course, is Mary Marston, a shop-girl in a draper's shop in the little town of Testbridge, and the plot follows her connections with two families of the local gentry. At Thornwick, Mary's best friend Letty, a poor cousin of the proud and dignified Geoffrey Wardour, is being pursued by local good-for-nothing Tom Helmer, unaware that Geoffrey is in love with her. At Durnmelling, the equally haughty Hesper Mortimer, facing a marriage of convenience with a man she detests, turns for help to her mysterious and scheming cousin Sepia Yolland. After her father dies, Mary sees a chance of doing good both to Letty and to Hesper, and becomes inextricably entwined in their lives.

The plot wanders through too many twists and turns to further explain, although I can assure you that there are tragic lovers, sensational crimes, and fainting-fits involved. There's even a goodish bit of humour: at one stage, the humble and easygoing Mary arrives to be a sort of companion in a wealthy house while the lady of the house is away, and is mistaken for a new maid by the socially self-conscious servants, and put firmly into the pecking-order (right at the bottom) before it's discovered that she is a personal friend of the lady of the house. It's oddly satisfying to read, and the satire of social rank loses nothing by taking place not in high society but in the servant's hall.

In fact, if the book has an overarching theme, it would be the theme of nobility and rank. Mary Marston is basically a tract on not thinking higher of oneself than one ought: passionately, MacDonald argues that Christian virtue and humility, not money or birth, defines gentility. Many of the book's characters, gentle or common, yearn to better their standing in life while simultaneously despising and belitting those below them. Meanwhile Mary herself, the humble shop-girl, is the only real lady among the lot of them.

Mary is a pretty static character throughout the book, as befits the yardstick of Christian gentility, but she has enough faults and quirks not to become tiresome. Meanwhile, MacDonald breaks another common rule of storytelling by constantly preaching to the reader about his characters and their shortcomings. I assume that these segments are the ones edited out in the Bethany House editions, but if so, I can't bring myself to thank them. I think I once read a quote from CS Lewis explaining that nobody does preachiness half so well as MacDonald, and after reading Mary Marston, I have to agree with him. MacDonald's commentary on his characters and their actions are frequent, but I never found them dull or frustrating; I thought they enhanced the story.

Much is made of George MacDonald's Universalism these days, real or supposed, and so I should make a quick note that I'm not a MacDonald expert myself; but a friend of mine who is says that there's little evidence he wholeheartedly espoused it; rather, he once said he found it hard to believe that God would send anyone to hell, but was willing to accept that he could be wrong, and that there was some wonderful aspect of this plan that he (MacDonald) was failing to grasp. In any case, often an author's perspective will change over the course of years: certainly, in Mary Marston, there's repeated discussion of hell and eternal punishment.

What I was uncomfortable with, however, was a not-so-subtle critique of mainline churches and any brand of Christianity that insists on doctrine or law-keeping. While the character embodying this kind of view is indefensibly--but not inconceivably--legalistic, I would have liked a more positive depiction of church life and ministry, or reliance on the Word, to balance this out.

All this aside, I found this book a profoundly satisfying and refreshing read. It was hard to put down, and I'm very much looking forward to dipping into some more of MacDonald's non-fantasy adult fiction!

Find Mary Marston on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Chronicles of the Crusades by Joinville and Villehardouin

It took a significant exertion of willpower to commit to writing OUTREMER. The main reason for this was the truly daunting quantity of research I knew I needed to do, since I'd never before studied the Crusades in any depth. As it turns out, while there was definitely a hump to get over--a time when I felt I was drowning in facts and figures--I've actually begun to enjoy myself hugely.

And when you're having to read someone as charming and informative as John de Joinville, well, difficulty doesn't enter into it.

Chronicles of the Crusades is a Penguin Classics book collecting two medieval chronicles. The first is Geoffroy de Villehardouin's Conquest of Constantinople, a major source on the disastrous Fourth Crusade that, despite the best of intentions, went badly astray and wound up sacking Constantinople in 1204. The second is John de Joinville's Life of Saint Louis, which takes us on the Seventh Crusade in 1248 under Louis IX. Though neither of these are events I cover in my novel, I was in the market for details on thirteenth-century Outremer, and this book had been sitting on our shelves for years. I dug in.

The Conquest of Constantinople

Geoffroy de Villehardouin's account of the Fourth Crusade is a rather weird read, but that's to be expected--the Fourth Crusade was a rather weird affair. (So, as a matter of fact, was the Sixth). I don't know if you're familiar with the history, but it's a tragic monument to the shortsightedness of well-meaning people. The expedition's original destination was Egypt; and the organisers sent their envoys to Venice to order a large fleet to take the crusaders there. One of these envoys--and therefore one of the men indirectly responsible for the whole fiasco--was Villehardouin himself. When the date came for the crusaders to set out from Venice, it was found that the envoys had significantly overestimated their expected numbers: there were not enough men to fill the fleet, nor enough money to pay for it. After a couple of other attempts to make up the money, the son of a deposed Byzantine emperor (no, really!) appeared and offered the crusaders funds beyond their wildest dreams, as well as help in their mission, if they would help him overthrow his evil uncle and restore him to his father's throne. With no other options, the crusaders and the Venetians went off to Constantinople and restored the deposed emperor.

At which stage the young prince discovered that a) there wasn't enough money in the city to pay what he'd promised to the Crusaders, and b) that his people were pretty mad at him for making such wild promises. When the Greeks revolted and chose a new emperor, who promptly had the optimistic prince executed, the crusade felt they had no choice but to attack the city (its ruler having seized it by treachery) and recover the funds promised them from its ghastly, smoking ruins. Having done so, they elected one of themselves emperor and thus began a precarious 60-year Frankish regime in Byzantium.

The sack of Byzantium is commonly referred to in school-level textbooks as the crowning absurdity of the Crusades. To study it in a little more detail is to come to appreciate the fact that the Fourth Crusade was only gradually derailed from its nobler objectives, that this did not happen without strong dissent from many participants and critics (at one stage the entire expedition was excommunicated by the same Pope who called it; so--) and that it's actually really difficult to pinpoint any single person as a villain. At the same time, the Fourth Crusade basically destroyed a city of staggering antiquity and value, and its sack was accompanied by unspeakable atrocities and blasphemies. Without the Fourth Crusade, Byzantium might have lasted hundreds of years longer than it did; it's possible that Hagia Sophia might still be a Christian church today.

Given this extremely complicated historical context, I was fascinated to see what Villehardouin would say about the expedition of which he was such a prominent member. I ended up even more confused about the Fourth Crusade than I had been. How did Enrico Dandolo, the possibly scheming Doge of Venice, so firmly win the respect of a man like Villehardouin? Was the sudden influx of battle-hardened Frankish warriors actually a good thing for an empire being viciously attacked by Hungarians?

But most of all, I was intrigued by Villehardouin himself.

Villehardouin's most challenging trait is his steady, unquestioning--and by no means uninformed or unreasonable--belief that the actions of the crusade were just. That was what made the book such a weird experience for me: did he never wonder if they were wrong? I think they were, but I have the benefit of 800 years' worth of hindsight. As a historian, he is detached, terse, and sparse in his details; though he takes care to let us know where he approves or disapproves of people. And he is a very difficult man to disrespect: his sober tone, his matter-of-fact voice, and his apparent bravery and experience as a soldier (he began life as the marshal of Champagne, and ended it as the marshal of the Frankish-ruled Empire) makes him worth taking seriously. This is not the propaganda of a romanticist, but the history of a soldier.

I came away from Villehardouin with more questions than answers. But it would have been hard to find a more radically different personality than the biographer of Louis IX.

The Life of Saint Louis

John of Joinville shares little in common with Villehardouin beyond noble rank and physical courage. Turning the page to his chronicle was like being buttonholed by a garrulous but witty conversationalist. In theory, Joinville wants to give you an inspiring and edifying hagiography of a man he clearly knew, loved, and deeply revered--but he keeps getting sidetracked, mostly with artlessly self-satisfied reminiscences of that time he sent the Empress of Byzantium a new dress when she hadn't a thing else to wear, so that all the other nobles said he'd outdone them in courtesy, or that time he bravely leapt from his ship into the surf to attack an Egyptian beach, or that time King Louis took his advice instead of everyone else's, or the advice he used to give to young knights, or the way he defended the bridge near Damietta, or the pranks played on him in camp.
I must tell you here of some amusing tricks the Comte d'Eu played on us. I had made a sort of house for myself in which my knights and I used to eat, sitting so as to get the light from the door, which, as it happened, faced the Comte d'Eu's quarters. The count, who was a very ingenious fellow, had rigged up a miniature ballistic machine with which he could throw stones into my tent. He would watch us as we were having our meal, adjust his machine to suit the length of our table, and then let fly at us, breaking our pots and glasses.
Joinville, in other words, is immense fun to read, and since he constantly runs off on tangents and anecdotes, he provides a wealth of invaluable historical detail to the starving novelist (squirrel fur, he sent the Empress).

While it deals with various aspects of Louis IX's rule at home, the bulk of Joinville's book is taken up by his eyewitness account of the Seventh Crusade. Following the loss of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187, Christendom had been galvanised into action in the Third Crusade, which was dominated by the personality of Richard I of England. Richard's participation in the Third Crusade passed into legend, not just in England but also in Outremer itself. One of the greatest generals of his age (it took some skill to stop Saladin), Richard had started a march to recover Jerusalem, but turned back in sorrow when he realised the inland city could not practically be defended from the Franks' limited holdings on the coast. Like Jerusalem's King Amalric thirty years before him, Richard realised that the holy city would only be secure once Egypt was in Christian hands.

From that time on it was an axiom of crusading that you focused on Egypt. Egypt had been the intended destination of the Fourth Crusade, and the theatre of the Fifth. The Sixth wasn't much, succeeding in little more than sparking off a civil war between the Holy Roman Emperor and a faction of Outremer noblemen. The Seventh tried again, but like the Fifth, ultimately fell afoul of the Nile's unpredictable habit of playing with the landscape. It ended with the ignominious capture of the whole Christian army; nevertheless, its leader, Saint Louis, was so revered both as a knight and as a Christian that when he had arranged his ransom and arrived in Acre, he was able to remain for several years, fortifying various strongholds and more or less ruling Outremer by simple merit.

All of this history is brought to life in Joinville's book. Though he never misses an opportunity to describe his own feats of arms, Joinville is no more a romantic or a propagandist than Villehardouin. He is telling war stories, and he has a raconteur's taste for humour and drama, but he emerges from his own stories as a very ordinary man, anxious to please, devout when it occurs to him, and no more immune to fear than he is to conceit: as witness this episode from the time of his captivity by the Saracens:
A good thirty of the Saracens now boarded our ship, with drawn swords in their hands, and Danish axes hanging at their necks. I asked Baudouin d'Ibelin, who was well acquainted with their language, what these men were saying. He told me they were saying that they had come to cut off our heads. At once a great number of people crowded round to confess their sins to a monk of the Holy Trinity...

So I crossed myself, and as I knelt at the feet of one of the Saracens who was holding a Danish axe such as carpenters use, I said to myself 'thus Saint Agnes died.' Guy d'Ibelin, Constable of Cyprus, knelt down beside me, and confessed himself to me. 'I absolve you,' I said to him, 'with such power as God has granted me.' However, when I rose to my feet, I could not remember a word of what he had told me.
The whole period of the crusaders' captivity was intensely interesting to me. Actually, one of the entertaining things about the Crusades as a whole was how shocked the Saracens always were by the freedom and authority enjoyed by Frankish women. There's a minor example of this when the Saracens come to ask King Louis how much he will pay for his ransom:
The king had replied that if the sultan was willing to accept a reasonable sum he would send and advise the queen to pay that amount for their ransom. 'How is it,' they had asked, 'that you won't tell us definitely whether you'll do this?' The king had answered that he did not know whether or not the queen would consent, since, as his consort, she was mistress of her actions.
It's a common misconception these days that rights for women sprang fully-formed from Gloria Steinem's forehead sometime in the 1960s, and it's equally commonly assumed that the entire period of world history up till then had Victorian-style gender roles or worse. This results in popular stories set in the medieval era which assume noblewomen had nothing to do with their lives but embroider. I happen to believe textile work is highly underrated, but the fact is that when medieval noblewomen weren't creating cultural masterpieces with their needles, they were usually enjoying significant privileges and discharging significant responsibilities, which could include but were not limited to diplomacy, building projects, and siege warfare.

All this aside, have I mentioned yet what fun Joinville's chronicle is to read? One almost wonders why anyone bothers with modern history books when the originals are so much more interesting--and give you so much better an idea of the people and personalities of the times. Original sources are undoubtedly the most colourful, helpful, and entertaining resources I use; and Chronicles of the Crusades was a favourite.

 Find Chronicles of the Crusades on Amazon or the Book Depository. I read the translation by MRB Shaw.


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