June 2024
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Review: Mr. Langshaw’s Square Piano, Madeline Goold

On her search for a harpsichord, Madeline Goold comes across a square piano in an antique sale.  While not playable, it’s in surprisingly good condition, and after taking note of its serial number, 10651, she sends it off for repair and decides to find out who owned it.  Her search leads to a delightful and sometimes sad history of the Langshaw organists, father and son, as well as of Broadwood pianos in general and the effect the square piano had on music for the English public.

I didn’t expect much from this book, but it really was fascinating.  Goold’s 1807 square piano leads her to a goldmine of information.  I know very little about the history of the piano, and she comfortably filled in the blanks and provides a great bibliography for further information.  I love it when historians use a small detail to examine the wider history, and that’s precisely what Goold does here.  She links successfully the buyer of her square piano, Mr. John Langshaw, with the Broadwood family and their history of harpsichord and then piano making, and further expands to cover the transition from harpsichords to fortepianos and what it did to music.  All of it was fascinating.

The most interesting section for me was about the Langshaw family.  The elder Mr. Langshaw was disabled and thus forced to choose a different career than his father.  He chose music and became a moderately successful organist, at least successful enough to educate his children, particularly his oldest son John.  John followed in his father’s footsteps to become an organist, but he also had links with London and may have met the Broadwoods, from whom he commissions pianos for clients in his area.  She uses copious quotes from letters to establish his history, and as such it’s almost as though I got a peek into his mind.  Their family story is not always cheerful, and the piano was probably not even for them, but Goold speculates to some extent in this direction.  She acknowledges that we’ll never know the answer because the relevant records have been destroyed, but her ideas are nonetheless intriguing and plausible.

Goold also links the history with well-known composers and even uses comparisons with Jane Austen to demonstrate the importance of the piano.  Cheaper pianos meant newly emerging middle class families could buy the basic models, and piano playing became an important skill for young women, even if they were never permitted to play for public audiences.  I loved the way she used the piano to explore the entire culture.

I suppose the only thing that keeps this book from being perfect are the few sections in which Goold attempts to fictionalize various aspects of the Langshaws’ life.  She’s not a fiction writer and these few sections, italicized to separate them from the main body of the text, make that very clear.  I have to say I skipped over them after the first few, because her regular writing is much smoother and the facts were much more interesting for me than her attempts to picture the scenes.

Mr. Langshaw’s Square Piano is a very interesting little book and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of music or Jane Austen’s England.  I had a great time reading it.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free from a publicist for review.


Review: The Long March, Sun Shuyun

Communist China’s Long March is famed throughout the country.  Children, like the author Sun Shuyun, are taught the story over and over again in school and there are plays and films about it.  The author decides to do her own version of the Long March, following in the footsteps of the Red Army and visiting the few remaining veterans along the route, with some diversions for research purposes.  Through her journey, she attempts to uncover the truth of what these people endured, and of the Long March itself.

Recently, and somewhat unexpectedly, I have become very interested in China, and this book seemed like a good choice to continue with non-fiction.  And it was; I liked it and I learned a surprising amount about The Long March.  The author’s experience on her own Long March took a definite backseat to her exploration of the experiences of those she met and her explanations of the historical background.  I was pleased with that because this could easily have become about how difficult the trip was for the author, given that it was, but she often emphasized the fact that if she was struggling, how much harder must it have been walking the whole time with threadbare clothes, no food, and no help?

I was most interested in the veterans’ stories, and how even though almost all of them endured horrifying hardships and were later targeted during the Cultural Revolution, most of them were still devoted Communists.  I found this hard to believe, given all they suffered in the name of communism, and did wonder if they were genuine, but it’s impossible not to admire their devotion, courage, and resilience, so it’s hard to come out of the book without feeling the same.  I felt like each of them were individuals and their stories were each fascinating and sometimes just horrifying.  The women’s stories in particular were so affecting and hard to read.

What came out clearly was how difficult the Long March was, and the author did find a kind of truth in comparing the words of the survivors with official records.  As she says, definitive answers are hard because documentation was destroyed, and Mao’s version of the Long March has become Chinese history.  This is disturbing to me and I was glad she was driven to reveal some of the truth.  The author’s surprise at her discoveries is palpable throughout the book.  At one point she sees a filmmaker who is also interviewing people about this subject, and he quite blatantly tells her what they’ll have to cut out because it doesn’t fit the official version, even if the stories are true.

Overall, I found The Long March a really fascinating memoir/historical investigation.  I would definitely recommend it to those who are interested in learning more about Chinese history.

I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.


Review & Giveaway: The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer

What would happen if we twenty-first century people took a trip back in time to the fourteenth century? It would be very like visiting another country. Even our landscape would be greatly changed. Ian Mortimer takes this approach and, applying his theory of living history, treats his readers to an objective and entertaining view of one of the most stereotypical centuries in medieval history. The fourteenth century has not only castles, knights, tournaments, and wars, but also gave birth to many of the creative minds associated with medieval England like Chaucer and the Gawain-poet.

Living history is a fascinating idea. Instead of applying modern stereotypes to medieval practices, Mortimer attempts instead to understand them on their own terms. For example, a popular perception is that medieval people were dirty. In comparison to us, they were; most people did not bathe on a daily basis, nor did they have detergents and disinfectants to clean their houses or clothes with. From a medieval perspective, however, women spent hours working to clean their homes, clearing rushes from the floor, scouring pots and pans, and laundering clothes with a variety of harsh soaps. Men and women washed their hands and faces daily and even started to use perfumes. They ate politely, especially in the presence of their social betters. To them, that was cleanliness. There were, of course, smelly or messy people, but there are smelly and messy people now too.

Mortimer’s book is divided into eleven chapters, covering such topics as the landscape, the medieval character, health and hygiene, and the law. He uses examples to illustrate his points, such as a genuine medieval gang that evaded the law or examples of a few women who broke out of the status quo and became unusually wealthy and powerful. Queen Isabella is the second richest person in the century; quite remarkable when women were regarded as property of their husbands and fathers. He also attempts to convey the tragedy of the plague; while other historians may evaluate it for its effect on history, which was largely beneficial, Mortimer shows us how it was anything but that to the third to half of the population that died from it and their relatives, who watched them die and mourned for them. Mortimer even imagines a few conversations that travellers might have, for example, when bartering for food.

My favorite section, however, was the chapter on clothing. Using illuminated manuscripts and tapestries, Mortimer shows how the style of dress changed drastically from the beginning of the century to the end. Clothing more than anything enables me to visualize the people described in the book and, in my experience, is rarely mentioned in detail in schools or museums as few examples survive. I loved learning how the invention of the button changed clothing styles and how people moved gradually towards more provocative styles, which were of course disapproved of by clergy and the elderly.

This is certainly history worth reading. It’s not heavy at all and is a perfect read for the non-academic who wishes to learn a lot more about the Middle Ages but doesn’t have the patience for a more serious, longer study.

I loved this book so much that I’m going to be discussing it on That’s How I Blog with the wonderful Nicole on June 8th at 4 pm EST.  Do you want a copy of your own to discuss with me?  Thanks to Simon & Schuster, I have 3 copies to give away to anyone with a valid US mailing address.  To enter, just leave a comment on this review.  This contest will be open until February 8th.  The winners are commenters 3, 6, and 32 thanks to random.org.  Congratulations to Lindymc, The Kool-Aid Mom, and Alyce!

This review was originally posted at The Book Bag and I’d like to thank them for my review copy.


Review: The First Crusade, Thomas Asbridge

The first crusade is one of history’s most peculiar moments.  Inspired by a speech that will probably never be known in its entirety, hoards of western Europeans embarked on a crusade to “save” their fellow Christians, the Greeks, from Muslims and recapture Jerusalem.  Against all the odds, the crusaders succeeded in a way that was never repeated, and changed relations between religions in ways that still affect behavior to this day.  Thomas Asbridge takes this familiar story and recasts it, considering again the evidence that historians have always relied upon and offering up new ideas for consideration.

I really enjoyed this detailed look at the first crusade.  I’ve read a number of books on the crusades, but they largely covered the whole of the crusading movement.  This narrative brought my favorite professor’s voice right back to me while still questioning some of the theories that historians have relied upon.  Perhaps my favorite of these was the way Asbridge explored, in detail, the motives behind the crusade.  He postulates that Pope Urban wasn’t the first to come up with the idea of a papal army and that the papacy desperately needed a way to assert their own strength in an age of weakness and poor communication.  He could not have truly expected the vast response to his call for a crusade.

More interesting is the way in which Muslims actually treated Christians fairly before the crusade.  There is no record of any of the cruelties Urban accused them of (according to witnesses after the crusade had already happened; the speech itself has been lost), but rather fairness and freedom of worship.  The crusaders abolished this, but he goes on in later chapters to write about dealings between Christians and Muslims, making it clear that eradicating Islam was not the crusaders’ goal, even if they succeeded in earning enmity from all Muslims because of their barbaric cruelty.  Asbridge doesn’t spare the details.

For a history which was clearly done with effective scholarship in mind, this book is not at all dry, and the action sequences can be quite exciting.  I often found myself feeling strong emotions towards the crusaders, generally disgust and irritation at their behavior towards the Muslims.  Mostly, I was amazed that this happened, and reading the history again only confirmed that for me.  This is the sort of history that is almost unbelievable, but it happened, and it’s very worth reading about.  Not only does it make for a fascinating story, but it even sheds light on the complex issues which Christians and Muslims still struggle with today in regards to their relations with one another.  This is an essential part of the development of the world and Asbridge’s book is a wonderful place to start thinking about it.

I highly recommend The First Crusade and I’m very much looking forward to Asbridge’s overall look at the crusades, which is publishing next year.  I will be reviewing that in 2010, so if this review has interested you at all, stay tuned.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book from the publisher free for review here.


Review: Daisy: The Life and Loves of the Countess of Warwick, Sushila Anand

Francis Evelyn “Daisy” Maynard was left an extremely wealthy heiress when, as a toddler, her father died without having any sons, and her grandfather took a liking to her and gave her his fortune.  As a result, Daisy was bound to be in demand in society, and her beauty and vivacious personality merely sealed the deal.  Despite an offer from Queen Victoria’s youngest son, Daisy married Lord Greville, heir to the Earl of Warwick, and began a high profile life, sensational not only for the many and passionate affairs she had with some of the most prominent men of the day, but also for her political and social involvement.

I knew I wanted to learn more about Daisy when I visited Warwick Castle and saw the exhibit given over to her.  The rooms are as they would have been when she gave a house party in the 1890’s.  There are wax statues, eerily realistic, of Daisy, her husband, and many guests, among them the Prince of Wales at the time, later Edward VII.  The little blurbs gave out some information, but not enough for me, and this book very satisfactorily filled the gap.  With very effective use of original letters, newpapers, and other primary sources, Anand writes knowledgeably and compassionately about Daisy Warwick without judging her for her many infidelities.

The book is split into roughly two sections, as Daisy’s life probably was.  The first half is mainly devoted to her childhood, marriage, affairs, and children, with some detail of her many humanitarian activities shared throughout.  Daisy’s letters to her lovers as excerpted here are fascinating and there is enough period detail given for us to realize that while she seems promiscuous to us, she wasn’t remarked on as that spectacular in her class.  It seems that everyone was having affair after affair, and she must have thought that this was normal, although I was a little sad that what seemed like a budding love story with her husband quickly fizzled on their marriage.  This part is very interesting for its picture of the aristocracy during Daisy’s younger life and for her relationships with the men, one of whom in particular it seems she genuinely loved.

With the first World War, everything changed, and Daisy changed with the times.  She became a socialist and an activist for both the socialist party in Britain and the Labour party, which was emerging as a force at the time.  She had a curious juxtaposition between her life as an aristocrat and her campaigns for worker’s rights, her work to build schools and encourage education, and so on.  She even campaigned to be an MP.  This is a fascinating picture of a Britain that was changing hugely.  Not only were heirs to great families dying off, leading to more land for more people, but ideology itself was changing.  Daisy got married in a church in a huge ceremony, whereas her youngest daughter was married in a registry office, which had become perfectly appropriate for a countess’s daughter over the years.

I found this book to be a fascinating picture of both a woman who, while firmly living in her own social class, strove to do more for the world and of a changing Britain at the turn of the century and beyond.  Very highly recommended.  And Daisy would be a fantastic choice for the Women Unbound challenge, which I’m counting it for.

I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.


Review: The Madness of Queen Maria, Jenifer Roberts

Portugal’s first reigning female monarch, Queen Maria I, was plagued with a poor family history that led to extreme mental instability and unhappiness in her later life. In this new biography, Jenifer Roberts explores the queen’s youth, dominated by a powerful member of the aristocracy, her reign, and her unhappy death in exile in Brazil. The author gives voice to Maria’s struggles and provides an illuminating picture of an absolute monarchy on the brink of destruction as discontent reached a fever pitch throughout Europe.

Queen Maria is a surprisingly interesting figure.  It’s always refreshing to find a woman in history who is not controlled by men.  While Maria’s childhood was dominated by her grandfather, father, and prime minister Pombal, when she came to the throne she genuinely took control.  Though she was advised by men, she embarked on her own journey to restore religion, undo the wrongs she believed her forebears had done, and appointed her own advisors with the help of her mother.  Before she lost her senses due to hereditary mental illness, seemingly brought on by six deaths in her family in a very short period of time, Maria actually seemed a good queen and one that her people liked.

Many of the quotes in this book are from the perspective of British ambassadors at the time, which made the book that much more interesting for me.  I have a generally good grasp of British history at this period and it was very illuminating to see the comparisons made.  The same physician who successfully (for the time) treated George III was called in to treat Maria’s madness but failed.  Maria is a part of the world stage, so we also hear about the monarchies of France and Spain as well as the revolution in France and how it affects the political situation in Portugal.  As a result the book, while short, is a complete picture of this period in history, so volatile and prone to change as we with hindsight can see and consider.

The back cover copy says that the book reads like a novel and I would certainly agree with that.  It’s very readable and unfolds as a story should, particularly before Maria’s madness strikes.  From the prologue, we know how that happens, and the rest of the book reveals the history of her life.  The shortest period covers Maria’s madness, but given that she was in a convent for much of this time, there probably was not much to say.  Endnotes are used throughout the text for references, which appears to be the trend in popular history.  The author has also included an extremely useful introduction and several appendices, including the original account of the royal family’s visit to Marinha Grande, the home of an Englishman in charge of the glass factory, which inspired this work.  There is also a list of all the personalities mentioned, an explanation of the Portuguese words and other unfamiliar terms, and more.  There is no point at which any reader could be confused and it was easy to find that I was learning quite a bit more about Portugal than just on the queen herself.

Overall, this is a very well done, comprehensive account of a fascinating queen.  I very much enjoyed reading it and felt that I learned a lot, particularly given how ignorant I am about Portugal.  I highly recommend The Madness of Queen Maria.

This book was sent to me by the author for review. I am an Amazon Associate.


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.


Review & Giveaway: American Lion, Jon Meacham

Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States, has a spotty record when it comes to history.  Sometimes reviled as a bully and sometimes worshipped as a hero, this president had a time in the White House that was nothing if not eventful.  In this biography, Jon Meacham focuses solely on his years in the White House, covering the political battles that were clearly important to Jackson while using letters and personal documents to illuminate both his personality and those of the contemporaries that surrounded him.

To my surprise, I found American Lion very compelling and easy to read.  In fact, I read it almost as quickly as I would have a novel of a similar size, which is a rarity for me with non-fiction.  It’s very approachable.  Meacham introduces Jackson with a brief summary of his life, then launches into his presidential campaigns and tenure.  Jackson’s eight years spent in the White House make up the majority of the book, with a short conclusion so that we also are aware of what happened afterwards.

This book doesn’t present itself as an academic study and it certainly isn’t one.  It doesn’t attempt to change or interpret the history.  Instead, Jon Meacham summarizes and for the most part lets the reader decide for him/herself what to think about Jackson and his policies.  A little more in depth analysis of Jackson’s politics in the context of the time would have been nice; we hear about how Jackson’s use of the veto changed the power play between Congress and the President, but what about his other policies?  Comparatively little is followed up on the issues of the national bank, aside from discussing the almost immediate economic fallout it caused, or Jackson’s policies towards Native Americans.  At times, I got tired of the gossipy aspects of the book, particularly Jackson’s insistence on supporting his friend and his friend’s irritating wife, but for the most part I did like the personalities with whom he interacted.  It was a more personal look and perhaps provides a little more insight into early 19th century people than a regular political biography would have.

I do have to say that after reading this, I can’t really admire Jackson.  After all, he is the one who contributed directly to sending Native Americans further out of their homelands, leading to the Trail of Tears.  He seems perfectly content to allow slavery to continue even though the abolitionist movement was beginning.  Perhaps he was old and set in his ways, but the fact that people protested against these choices in his time makes it difficult for me to forgive him.  He was perhaps a great leader, but I don’t think he was a good man.  I appreciated that Meacham allowed me to come to that choice on my own.

I definitely still found this to be an informative and incredibly engaging biography.  I don’t know that I will seek more out about Jackson, but I’m glad I read this and feel that I’ve certainly learned something.  I would recommend it to those who are interested in a personal look at one of our country’s most intriguing presidents.

Are you interested in this book?  I have one copy to give away to someone with an address in the US.  This giveaway will be open until August 19th. Comment here to enter, and you can tweet or blog about the giveaway for an extra entry.  Good luck! Alyce is the winner of this contest.


[TSS] Review: The Last Witch of Langenburg, Thomas Robisheaux

On Shrove Tuesday, 1672, in Langenburg, Germany, a young woman by the name of Eva Kustner brought a festive cake to her neighbor, Anna Fessler.  Anna had recently given birth and as such, was still in delicate health, watched over by two other women constantly.  Anna ate one of Eva’s cakes, but the rest were thrown away.  Later that night, Anna began having convulsions and died.  In the investigation that followed, blame fell on Anna Schmieg, Eva’s mother and the wife of the miller.  Anna Schmieg had never been liked by her neighbors but had instead a reputation for alcoholism, nasty language, and cursing.  It isn’t a stretch for them to accuse her of witchcraft and poisoning and throw her in prison.  In this enlightening work of micro-history, Thomas Robisheaux explores Anna’s trial and sentencing as well as the larger political climate to give us a deeper look at accusations of witchcraft, the uncertain state of Germany after the Thirty Years’ War, and peasant culture in the late seventeenth century.

The broad concept of this book is fascinating.  I had no idea that using one event to explore outlying themes was called micro-history but I love it.  The trial of Anna Schmieg, as well as those of her daughter, husband, and fellow witches in other communities, was the focal point of this work, but so many interesting ideas are carefully considered.  First, we are taught a little about village life.  The miller was, naturally, an essential for every village, but was also rarely liked by townspeople.  He could withhold grain, charge too much, or beef up his grain with sawdust and no one would ever know.  He was also frequently richer than the average peasant.  So suspicion falling on the miller’s wife, especially given Anna’s reputation and the coincidence of the cakes, is easily understood.

We also explore the reasons why Anna was found guilty and the potential thought process going through the heads of all the men involved, from the judge to the doctor who examined Anna Fessler’s body to the university authorities who were pulled in to pass judgement.  This is all explained very carefully and I never felt lost or confused.  Robisheaux explains everything he mentions and I felt that I learned a lot here about legal process, Protestantism and medical theory.  It’s fascinating why people who had never seen Anna Fessler’s body decided that she’d died of arsenic poisoning and more still how the constant questions broke both Anna Schmieg and her daughter, horrible as that is, into confessing.

All of this, naturally, is wrapped up in the political struggles of The Holy Roman Empire and particular folk beliefs which caused the townspeople to react as they did.  To some extent witchcraft was part of their culture and that made it even easier to single out those whose actions may have seemed entirely ordinary otherwise.  With recent devastation behind them and threats on the horizon, people wanted someone to blame.  Anna Schmieg was their scapegoat.  

Never once does Thomas Robisheaux tell us outright his theory.  Instead, he provides us with the evidence and allows us to draw our own conclusions.  He doesn’t manipulate the evidence, but lays out the facts in a way that is understandable and interesting.  There is no villainizing.  Clearly, Anna Schmieg was not a witch, but she may have poisoned the cakes; they may have been intended for someone else, however, and not Anna Fessler.  There are theories, but Robisheaux doesn’t force them on his reader.  Instead we’re left with the feeling that we’ve learned something and, even better, that we want to learn more.

Available via IndieBound, Powell’s, Amazon, and Amazon UK.


Historical Thoughts: A Chivalric King Richard III

r3I know I don’t actually talk about medieval history all that much around here, even though I originally wanted to.  Instead I’ve settled for attempting to read and review more historical fiction.  I have been thinking about one particular question, though, and it’s quite relevant to historical fiction, so I thought I’d give it a whirl and see if anyone was interested.

Why is Richard III so often presented as a chivalric figure in modern historical fiction?

First, what is “chivalric”?  Well, success in war (prowess) is easily the most important factor overall.  In most historical fiction novels about Richard, he is highly successful in battle except for Bosworth Field.  He is regarded as a key figure in his brother Edward’s battle of Barnet and often he’s off fighting the Scots with great success.  Fighting the Scots is brilliant for prowess because to Richard, they were foreigners, and killing foreigners was usually second only to killing heathens, especially if they came at you first.  I came across the mystifying fact that we’re not even sure how much Richard fought except at Bosworth Field in my research last year.  He was there, but we know so little of those battles that he might not have lifted a finger to help his cause.  Of course, the fact that he was killed on the battlefield at Bosworth indicates he did think he knew what he was doing, or perhaps it indicates that he had no bloody idea.  One never knows.

Secondly, success with ladies is key.  This is the fun phenomenon known as courtly love.  Lords were expected to flirt with highborn ladies, and usually one lord would pick one lady to carry on about, although it isn’t necessary for him to actually have a proper affair with her and in fact that would be frowned upon.  Gazing and loving from afar is the best option unless you are married.  Actually, virginity was the best option (like Galahad), but not a very likely one.  Loyalty to the one you choose is essential.  What do we have in Richard but a man who is always portrayed as deeply in love with one woman?  Usually, it’s his wife, Anne Neville, but in A Rose for the Crown he is portrayed as faithful to his one mistress.  Again, this is a fun little fact that can’t be verified.  He had at least a couple of bastards, so he broke the no sex outside of marriage requirement and there’s no way to verify the identity of their mother or even how many there were.  He may well have loved Anne Neville, but history can’t tell us that and instead shows us that she was actually an heiress with rights to half the extensive Neville/Warwick land (and given the part that Richard played in killing her father and uncle and imprisoning her mother, how do we know she would have loved him?).  He wasn’t marrying a pauper and Richard was a very, very ambitious man.  It’s just oh so convenient that by marrying her he completed his consolidation of the northern Neville hegemony, isn’t it?

Third, piety!  Religion is very important.  Even though chivalric men were ultimately warriors, they were supposed to view themselves as suffering.  Strange as it may sound, they decided that warfare was a kind of martyrdom and thus eases the way into heaven.  Don’t ask me, I didn’t come up with it.  Richard is often fictionalized as an exceptionally pious man.  He probably was to some extent, but all late medieval lords were to some extent.  Richard planned for three foundations during his lifetime.  I know they didn’t all succeed, but let’s think about this.  Richard was a rich man.  He had huge swathes of countryside and even if the economy was suffering, he must have had his fair share of disposable income.  I must admit that I have not looked into this personally, but it stands to reason that he had plenty to give to his retainers since he was such a successful lord.  In addition, he probably had his share of sins to atone for.  Think of all the men he ordered killed for the sake of becoming king.  He chose his side of the Wars of the Roses, may have (probably) killed a whole bunch of people, and may even have had a say in the death of his brother.  In this context, foundations don’t mean he was especially pious.  It just meant he had the money and the desire to get himself out of the hole called purgatory with a whole lot of praying.

So those are the three tenants of chivalry, as I have gleaned from numerous sources.  Richard didn’t necessarily fill any of them.  I just think he’s been targeted by historical novelists as a figure to be redeemed.  There is no question that he was villainized by the Tudors and those associated with them, but that doesn’t make him a paragon of nobility.  I think it’s fascinating that he’s been interpreted as such and that all of his activities have essentially been removed from their historical context, evaluated, and assigned the purest possible motivations.  Of course, it’s entirely possible that he was a heavenly figure who has been getting a bad rap for hundreds of years.  I think it’s more likely that he was an extraordinarly powerful, ambitious, clever man – a man who was very, very good at governing, no less – who lived in a difficult time and had to make some very hard choices.  I often wish I could write a novel so I could put him in between as a human being, not a villain or a saint.

What do you think?  Why do we put Richard on a pedestal?  The man might have killed his own nephews, after all, although personally I prefer to believe he didn’t just because I like him.  He’s by far the most likely culprit.  Any thoughts?  Or did you stop reading at paragraph 1? ;)