Over the last few days, as is my wont, I bought some used books. Some came from a book stall at the fair that happened this past weekend in my neighbourhood, others from charity shops.
Here are the history-relevant recent purchases:
I read Ray Page’s book ages ago, and although I’m sure it’s out of date now, hey, it was £1 and it will be handy to look some things up for someone who is not a runes guy. And I gueess I do tutor the impact of Empire part of the history GCSE, so a big illustrated book about it could come in handy.
I have no earthly use for a collection of engravings from 17th-century alchemical texts. But it was £1 and they’re so cool.
This … is the kind of thinking that has led me to own a lot of texts relating to esotericism and the occult.
Well, I say “lots.” It’s obviously not “lots” by the standards of someone who actually studies the subject, but I’m not that. And insofar as I care about magical and supernatural beliefs — and I do — the things I care least about are alchemy and sort of 18th-19th century ritual magic. And yet I do keep acquiring books about them.
Partly it’s because there are a lot of books out there on the topic, and partly, I think, it’s because they look so cool. I can’t pass them up!
I suppose it does provide lots of material and cool set-dressing for other creative endeavours, but I do worry that people will get the impression that I’m some kind of genuinely knowledgeable occulty type, when I’m just a sort of aesthetic dabbler.
So as part of my reading over the holidays I finally read The Traitors’ Pit by V.M. Whitworth, which I bought over the summer but never really had time to get around to. I wrote about the first of these books, The Bone Thief, back in July or so.
Once again, we’re following the adventures of Wulfgar, a West Saxon cleric working for Aethelflaed, the famous “Lady of the Mercians,” in the early 10th century. I like Wulfgar because he’s a very unusual protagonist for an early medieval novel — neither a heroic warrior type nor some kind of transplanted Sherlock Holmes figure. He’s just this guy, you know? Whereas the last one was about the capture of the relics of Saint Oswald, this one is about politics and war along the Northumbrian-Mercian frontier, with politics and justice (if that’s the word) back in Winchester. It’s fascinating stuff.
I enjoyed this novel a great deal, partly because it’s, you know, good, and partly because it does some things that I wish more books set in the period did: for starters, it puts Christianity at the centre of its lead character’s worldview in a way that feels authentic and complicated. This comes through in the scenes that surround one of the main plot lines, in which one character takes an ordeal to prove that another character was innocent of a crime — only the alleged culprit is dead. It’s a great way of illustrating how concern for a person’s soul in the late Anglo-Saxon world continued after death.
On a personal note, this book filled me with a sort of pleasant melancholy. So much of it is about things I immersed myself in for years: late Anglo-Saxon society, its religious imagery, its justice system and above all its burial customs. I can see how different parts of it sprung from the research the author did for her Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England, a book I read over and over again while I was doing my PhD. It was a sort of privilege to be able to see the background of it, but it was also a somewhat gloomy reminder of back when I was a promising young scholar. Or at least after a couple of drinks it was.
Anyway, what can I tell you? It was good, I liked it, I’m gonna read the next one.
Happy new year, everyone. I have been mostly cleaning my study to create space for some new arrivals, but I wanted to take a moment to mention some new additions to the bookshelves here at head office.
It’s Larry Gonick’s two-volume Cartoon History of the Modern World, which is in turn the conclusion to his three-volume Cartoon History of the Universe, about my love of which I have written before. I loved the early volumes when I was a kid, and while there are some bits you want to fact-check (and, as in history, maybe a few things that aren’t quite appropriate for younger readers, although of course younger readers love that sort of thing), I think that for the level of detail they contain they’re actually pretty good basic history books. And, of course, they’re a lot of fun. There are five volumes in total, plus a Cartoon History of the United States, which I had at one point.
It’s kind of a Christmas tradition for me that over the holidays I catch up on the books I got for my late-October birthday. One of those this year was The Dig by John Preston, which came out in 2007 but which I had never heard of until my parents recommended it to me.
It’s an interesting novel: it covers the summer and autumn of 1939, when the famous Anglo-Saxon burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk was being excavated. The perspective shifts between several different characters, including the initial excavator, Basil Brown, the landowner, Edith Pretty, and archaeologist Peggy Piggott (who was Preston’s aunt).
The story of the excavation itself is pretty complicated, and the tensions it revealed (including the conflict between academics and non-academic professionals and the old one between the British Museum and the provinces) are interesting, but that’s not really what this book is about. It’s less narrative-driven and more about mood, specifically the sense of the mysterious connection with the past in the shadow of an uncertain future.
I enjoyed it, but then those themes are very close to my heart. It’s an interesting view of the process of archaeology as a social and emotional process, and you know I like it when everyone is sad and emotionally repressed.
I was shopping for a gift recently, and I did that thing that you’re not supposed to do — that is, I went to the kinds of places I would like to receive a gift from, which are similar to but not quite as the same as the kinds of places my friend would like a gift from.
Anyway, while browsing a bookshop, I did that thing I always do where I see a book on a topic I know nothing about and decide I must know more. Fortunately, I have a well-developed response to this impulse and I didn’t buy anything, but I was tempted by half a dozen titles including Nicholas Rogers’ book on the history of Hallowe’en (a topic about which I know a leetle but not an enormous amount).
Like I said, I didn’t buy it. I came home all virtuous and got an email from an editor asking me for, among other things, a piece on the history of Hallowe’en. I guess I can always claim it as a business expense now.
As I may have mentioned, the last few weeks have been a great opportunity for me to catch up on my reading. At the moment, I’m in the middle of James Ellroy’s latest, Perfidia.
I have blown hot and cold on Ellroy in the past — I love the LA Quartet, particularly the three ones everybody loves (that’s The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz for those unfamiliar), but I was less excited about the next three books. Perfidia seems to be an attempt to drag them all together by creating a unifying sort of dark history of WWII and postwar America. This means recapitulating a lot of stuff from the LA Quartet, to which this is essentially a prequel.
But it’s this idea of dark history that intrigues me. Ellroy has always used the fact that Americans typically have nostalgic views of the 1940s and 1950s to good effect: he depicts a world in which the guardians of law and order are racist thugs who spend all their time getting drunk and having sex with prostitutes and breaking into people’s houses and sniffing underwear and talking bullshit tough-guy philosophy and there’s just stale food and dog shit and razor blades everywhere.
Now, the fundamental truth — the people protecting the established order were a bunch of racist thugs, or at least willing to collude with racist thugs — is sound. But aesthetically I do wonder if we’re not seeing a modern version of that “everything is covered in filth” view of the middle ages that gradually rose from being an alternative take on the period to being the dominant one in the media. For a long time, this was obviously some kind of psychodrama: we know that James Ellroy lived in a house full of dog shit and broke into people’s houses and spent a lot of time drunk and, I don’t know, threw beer cans full of piss out the window, whatever James Ellroy characters do. And when it’s atmosphere in a crime novel, fair enough. But like all useful correctives, let’s not go nuts here. Let James Ellroy present history programs on TV — I hope you like hearing him say “BAM!” as much as I do — but let’s keep a little perspective.
I don’t know, I’m not necessarily criticising. So far, at least, he manages to avoid the usual conspiracy-history thing of just letting ordinary people off the hook. The conspirators are racist thugs, but only as racist as most people around them. It’s the thug part that’s different.
Anyway, I mentioned a word from our sponsor, but we don’t have any sponsors so we’ll have to have blatant self-promotion instead! DriveThru is having their annual Christmas in July sale, and lots of great stuff is on sale including my own The Barest Branch, the Viking Lovecraft horror story so unmarketable that I actually spiced it up with a drab brown cover and a who-gives-a-shit blurb. It’s available in both PDF and MOBI, although I have no idea how you read the .mobi with the Kindle app. It works fine on an actual Kindle, I know that much.
While on holiday I caught up with some long-overdue reading, including The Bone Thief, a 2012(?) novel by Victoria Whitworth. This has since had two sequels: The Traitors’ Pit, which I have bought but not read yet, and a third one, which I believe is coming out this year, though I could be wrong.
Anyway, this isn’t a review per se (short review: I thought it was pretty good!) but I thought it would be a good way to look at one approach to historical fiction.
As you may know, saints’ relics were a very big deal in medieval Christianity. They provided a physical expression of the holiness of a saint, and possession of a particularly impressive relic could boost the standing of a church or its patron, attract pilgrims and so on. Not that relics were just some form of social engineering; naturally they were regarded with that mixture of political pragmatism and sincere belief in the supernatural that is so much the hallmark of … pretty much any era before the modern at a minimum.
And of course you know that the written history of the early middle ages can be tantalisingly (or maddeningly depending on your perspective) vague. Case in point: in 909, Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, together with her brother King Edward of Wessex, brought the relics of Saint Oswald from their resting place in Bardney — which at that time was in Danish territory — to the new minster in Gloucester. I came across this incident when I was doing my PhD; Saint Oswald’s (as the church came to be known) was one of the sites I studied. And clearly the author felt the same curiosity I did: did Aethelflaed really lead a military campaign to recover some relics? Or was it more of a small, commando-type operation? A diplomatic mission? What was going on?
So it’s that story that Whitworth sets out to tell — who was responsible for bringing the relics back to Mercia, and how did they do it? If you guessed “a mismatched band of Dark Ages characters from all levels of society” and “via a series of adventures and narrow escapes,” you’re on the right track, of course. But … and here I’m just being a grumpy person … they’re hair-raising adventures and narrow etc. that don’t require you to forget things about the historical period*. Instead, they sympathetically illuminate things about it.
And no surprise there, since the author is a legit historian of the period; I probably cited her Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England more than anything that wasn’t an actual site report when writing my thesis (and brother, it wasn’t that cheap back then, I can tell you). Now, the common complaint about historical fiction written by experts on the period is that it can sometimes feel like a history lesson, but I didn’t feel that way here at all. Of course, a) this is kind of my period in the first place, and b) I really like history lessons, so I could be wrong.
The other thing that really pleased me was — and this is just a personal pet grumble — the way in which The Bone Thief portrays Christianity as a vital part of the lived experience of the medieval world, the context in which other things happen. There are pagan characters, of course, but they’re not presented as Romantic alternatives to a stuffy, life-hating Christianity. A lot of what bugs me about the way Christianity is portrayed in fiction set in the early medieval period is that it’s based on either Reformation critiques of the “medieval” church or modern celebrations of “earthy, vital” paganism. Bernard Cornwall, I’m looking at you here. But here there’s a very varied and human portrayal of the role of Christianity, including a cute scene in which our hero, Wulfgar, who is a bit of a religion nerd, is all shocked and dismayed by the sincere but procedurally-incorrect piety of the local people he meets but never quite works up the courage to say anything about it.
Anyway, The Bone Thief. Best portrayal of early medieval England within the context of a more-or-less straight-up adventure yarn yet? Possibly! I’m going to read the next one, but — and I know this is shallow — I bought it in large-format paperback and now I’m regretting that because it’s really big and it’s a pain in the butt to carry around. I do a lot of my reading on trains and things. Anyway. When I do finish it I’ll talk about it here, but in the meantime if you like the kinds of things I like you might very well like this.
(*To some extent all adventure yarns require you to forget that the circumstances under which a dangerous mission is entrusted to a well-meaning rookie are a little contrived, but that comes with the territory. Also, there’s a Hotheaded Impulsive One, a Beardy One, and The Sexy One. The Sexy One has plenty of agency and is actually a pretty convincing female lead in an early medieval story (if you want an independent woman in the 10th century, a Scandinavian merchant is a good choice).)