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Review: Blood and Roses, Helen Castor

This work of history takes a look at the multi-generational Paston family throughout the years immediately after the Black Death and through the Wars of the Roses.  The Pastons left behind an immense number of letters which have been miraculously preserved for six hundred years and as such are a historical treasure trove for those of us who wonder how gentlemen lived in the fifteenth century.  Helen Castor recounts the rise and fall of their fortunes here, illuminating their individual personalities; the tenacious women, especially Agnes and Margaret, the hard-working William and John and the at times disappointing John II.  Using the Pastons as a lens, Castor picks up larger issues at work in fifteenth century England and provides a fascinating biography about a surprisingly ordinary family.

I read this one for my dissertation, so I paid much closer attention to it than I would have otherwise.  To my surprise, I still really enjoyed it.  Helen Castor writes clearly and succinctly, so that while we’re learning facts, we don’t feel bogged down by too much academic language.  She also summarizes quite a bit of information about the period, so I think this would be useful for even those who aren’t too familiar with fifteenth-century England.  Even though I’m well acquainted with the Black Death and the manueverings of the Wars of the Roses, it is integrated enough into the Pastons’ story so as not to become boring.

I have personally read quite a number of the Paston letters; they’re invaluable because the Pastons were intimately involved at court and reflect the surprising amount of social mobility available shortly after so many died in the Black Death, so they have both an insider’s perspective and a consciousness of where they had come from.  Castor reflects this well and does a very admirable job condensing the contents of the letters and quoting them where necessary to provide a steady, smooth narrative.  It does falter occasionally because the Pastons were embroiled in a seventeen year struggle to reap some benefit out of Sir John Fastolf’s will after John I became closely involved with him.  This can get boring, but the way the families’ characters show through the struggle kept me reading and it was certainly worth it in the end.

This would be a wonderful book to start with for anyone who is interested in familiarizing themselves with fifteenth century England.  For those who have enjoyed the recent spate of historical fiction centered around the Wars of the Roses, Blood and Roses would be an excellent choice to broaden your knowledge of the period while avoiding writing that feels too academic or stilted.  I highly recommend it.

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9 comments to Review: Blood and Roses, Helen Castor

  • You’ve just made me move this up higher on my TBR pile. Thanks!

  • Oooooo! This looks good!
    Lezlie

  • This sounds really interesting. I may have to check it out.

  • That does sound fascinating! I think this one is more to my liking than some of the historical fiction I’ve seen.

  • This isn’t normally something that I would pick up, but I just read my first book about the War of the Roses and it fascinated me, so I will keep this one in mind for further reading.

  • This sounds really interesting. I usually enjoy reading historical monographs like this, so I might give it try. :)

    Don’t you love it when a book you’re reading purely for research is entertaining, too? I always want to write the author a letter telling them how awesome they are afterward.

  • Eva

    The Middle Ages is one of my fave time periods, but I tend to go for earlier periods than War of Roses. This sounds great, though, and has some delicious cover art. :D

  • I’m sold. I’m fascinated with the time period (tho I don’t know as much about as I should). I’ll add this to my wish list. I was just checking and I see it’s not out on eBook or audio and my library doesn’t have it. I’ll have to wait until I’m on another buying spree.

  • Thank you for the great review, Meghan. I admit to not being too familiar with this era, but I am interested in it. I’ll have to check out this book. Thanks for the recommendation!