Friday, 28 January 2011

A trip to the Middle Ages

This is the blog entry in which I begin to share some of my historical interests. Yes, I do have other interests apart from crafting, as shown by these books I read during January:

I'm clearly in a medieval period, set off by being given a copy of The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer (Note: I don't buy new books myself, for environmental reasons, but am happy for them to feature inside gift-wrap).

The Guide is written like a travel book, so if I ever get whisked through time and end up in the 1300s, I'll know how to greet people ("Sire/Dame, God be here!"), where to stay, what kind of food I might have to endure, and what not to wear (sumptuary laws apply forbidding commoners from wearing costly garments.)

Having had my interest re-kindled, I went to the library. I was looking for Katherine by Anya Seton, which I first read aged about 15. It's a fictionalised account of the life of Katherine Swynford, John of Gaunt's mistress, later wife and Duchess of Lancaster. I also checked out Alison Weir's factual biography of the same.

Alison Weir draws lots of evidence from John of Gaunt's accounts and I was struck by how much of his expenditure seemed to focus on religion: private altars, chalices for communion, obits and masses. Ian Mortimer wrote that even moderately religious people then would be considered extremely fervent today. I suppose this might be a reaction to these facts of medieval life: death is all around  - e.g. the Great Plague wiped out one third of the European population; life expectancy is short -  average only 30. More than half of all children died before reaching adulthood. Women had a 1:10 chance of dying in childbirth, and since contraception was not available, also had many children exposing themselves to repeated risk.

Do take care when looking on the internet for details about Katherine Swynford's life, as some allegedly factual sites base their information on Anya Seton's novel, which is a work of fiction. For example, there is no evidence to show Katherine was educated in a convent, she probably did not object to her marriage to Hugh Swynford, or give him poison (however unknowingly!) this is artistic license!  Just to add though, the novel is still a really good read.

I also discovered that Katherine Swynford's tomb is in Lincoln Cathedral, which is not so far from me, so am planning an historical outing soon. Ds will think this is cool; he is enraptured by the Horrible Histories, books and TV programmes so I shan't have any problem persuading him to come along.


  1. The Time Travellers' Guide book sounds really interesting - I'll look that one up at the Library. I wasn't really all that interested in history at school but when it's written in a way that will hold my interest I'll certainly give it a go as the "travel guide slant" sounds good.

  2. I fell in love with Anya Seton's Katherine when I was in my teens, and will keep my eyes open for the Alison Weir book, as well as the Guide. All sounds really interesting.

    Would love to see pics of the tomb, assuming you can take any.