2015 was a great year for books on Medievalists.net, and 2016 promises to be better. Of all the books I read over the past twelve months, these five books were my favourite reads of 2015. The books are not in any particular order, I would be hard pressed to pick a favourite. Four are fiction, one is not, but that book tells the story of a wondrous city like a good yarn. One book on this list is really more of a Tudor addition but was a fabulous read I reviewed for the site so I couldn’t disregard it as one of my top picks. My resolution to you is that 2016 will be the “Year of the Book” on Medievalists.net. I’m an avid reader, an ex-pat slowly rebuilding the library I had to leave behind when I moved across the pond, so I will take you along on that journey with me. There are truly few things better than a good book. Read on, and enjoy!
Genoa ‘La Superba’: The Rise and Fall of a Merchant Pirate Superpower – Nicholas Walton
Genoa has an incredible story to tell. It rose from an obscurity imposed by its harsh geography to become a merchant-pirate superpower that helped create the medieval world. It fought bitter battles with its great rival Venice and imprisoned Marco Polo, as the feuding city-states connected Europe to the glories of the East. It introduced the Black Death to Europe, led the fight against the Barbary Corsairs, bankrolled Imperial Spain, and gave the world Christopher Columbus and a host of fearless explorers. Genoa and Liguria provided the brains and the heroism behind the Risorgimento, and was the last place emigrants saw before building new lives across the Atlantic. It played host to writers and Grand Tourists, gave football to the Italians, and helped build modern Italy. Today, along with the glorious Riviera coast of Liguria, Genoa provides some of the finest places on earth to sip wine, eat pesto and enjoy spectacular views. This book brings the past to life and paints a portrait of a modern port city and region that is only now coming to terms with a past that is as bloody, fascinating and influential as any in Europe.
“It has more in common with Marseilles, Naples and Palermo, than with Florence, Milan or Rome. It has a heedless authenticity that accepts the dog dirt on the cobblestones, the muck that has accumulated on the marble, and the shameless intrusion of the sopraelevata. That is life. If you want to catch a glimpse of Italy as it has been lived for centuries, rather than simply something that looks good on postcards, come to Genoa”…And begins an honest homage to a great Italian city. Seedy, busy, medieval and modern, locked against a rocky, difficult terrain and the sea, Genoa is unique, vibrant and a hidden gem. While most books about Italy have been dedicated to tourist hubs like Milan, Florence, Rome, and Venice, Genoa with its rich history, rugged landscape, and tenacious residents, has been given only a passing mention. Journalist Nicholas Walton decided to rectify this oversight by writing a book devoted entirely to the former mercantile empire. This book is his ode to the Genoese…Click Here to Read
The Butcher Bird – SD Sykes
Oswald de Lacy is growing up fast in his new position as Lord of Somershill Manor. The Black Death changed many things, and just as it took away his father and elder brothers, leaving Oswald to be recalled from the monastery where he expected to spend his life, so it has taken many of his villagers and servants. However, there is still the same amount of work to be done in the farms and fields, and the few people left to do it think they should be paid more – something the King himself has forbidden.
Just as anger begins to spread, the story of the Butcher Bird takes flight. People claim to have witnessed a huge creature in the skies. A new-born baby is found impaled on a thorn bush. And then more children disappear.
Convinced the bird is just a superstitious rumour, Oswald must discover what is really happening. He can expect no help from his snobbish mother and his scheming sister Clemence, who is determined to protect her own child, but happy to neglect her step-daughters.
From the plague-ruined villages of Kent to the thief-infested streets of London and the luxurious bedchamber of a bewitching lady, Oswald’s journey is full of danger, dark intrigue and shocking revelations.
Once again, we’re back to fourteenth century England, with former monk, now bumbling lord and medieval crime fighter, Osawald de Lacy, ready to quell another murder in the sleepy Kentish village of Somerhil, in SD Sykes latest book, The Butcher Bird. Oswald has another mess on his hands as angry villagers are demanding higher wages in the wake of the Black Death. Facing a shortage of workers, while also being pressured by King Edward III’s 1351 Statute of Labourers, Oswald is between a rock and a hard place. He wants to raise wages but can’t get caught or he will face the wrath of the royal courts. If he doesn’t raise the wages, he risks losing his labourers and watching his newly inherited estate crumble. As all this is unfolding, and the dissenting voices get louder, a murder is thrown into the mix.
A village baby is found dead and implaed on a thorn bush, and the superstitious villagers assume it’s a “Butcher Bird”, known normally for killing rodents and smaller creatures and impaling them on thorn bushes. They believe the bird is commanded at by a mad villager, overcome with grief after losing his wife and child in the plague. The villagers come after him, leaving Oswald in a race against time to solve the murder, and trying to buy time on the issue of raising wages, before the entire situation boils over into unstoppable mob violence. Unfortunately for Oswald, being surrounded by superstitious, angry villagers, is making his task doubly hard, and keeping the peace almost impossible. His sister Clemence, who has just given birth to a son, Henry, doesn’t help matters with her constant needling for Oswald to give over the Versey lands. Oswald’s mother, who provides most of the story’s comic relief, makes his investigation duly difficult by propagating the rumours of a monstrous flying bird snatching children to anyone within earshot…Click Here to Read
The Arrow of Sherwood – Lauren Johnson
“Robin of Locksley is a murderer. A wastrel. A disappointment to his mother, a humiliation to his father and a disgrace to the entire county. We have all known it for many years, but out of respect for his excellent father, we have refrained from admitting it. We can no longer stand mute. For eighteen years, this boy has led a life of selfish ease and sin. I shall tell you something of this young man, a secret I have kept to myself for weeks but now know I must reveal. Then you will see how undeserving this boy is of forgiveness…”1193. A Crusader returns from the Holy Land to his home in Nottinghamshire, where he is known as a murderer and outlaw. His name is Robin of Locksley.After a youth spent with lowborn friends, Robin is determined to settle into the role his father wanted for him: a lord dispensing justice to the county. But a false rumor of his death in the East has stolen Robin’s lands from him, and the country he left only four years before is now crippled by taxation and struggling to maintain the King’s law. It seems Robin must choose between his desire to regain his lost inheritance and his intention to help the commons beneath his lordship.In this vividly imagined and carefully researched recreation of the era of King Richard ‘the Lionheart’, England is torn between the landowning Norman lords and their English subjects, and it soon becomes clear to Robin that more can be accomplished outside the law than within it…In her first novel, Lauren Johnson brings the sensibilities of a historian to the project, presenting us with an authentic depiction of the sights, sounds, conflicts and furies that defined this era and those at home within its confines. A story of redemption, loss, romance and adventure, the novel possesses all the component features necessary to enthrall.
I’ve always loved the legend of Robin Hood. Countless books, TV shows and films have been dedicated to the most beloved of England’s heroes, so I was more than happy to read this novel. The legend of the swashbuckling hero has been rewritten by Lauren Johnson from a refreshingly different angle. By happy coincidence, I met Johnson at the University of Leeds when she was giving a paper about live historical interpretation. Johnson is the Research Manager for Past Pleasures, a company that does live historical interpretation at Hampton Court, The Tower of London and Dover Castle. Her passion for breathing life into history, her attention to detail, and commitment to historical accuracy is evident throughout her first book, The Arrow of Sherwood…Click Here to Read
The Lady Agnes Mystery – Andrea Japp
1304 The Church and the French Crown are locked in a power struggle. In the Normandy countryside, monks on a secret mission are brutally murdered and a poisoner is at large at Clairets Abbey. Young noblewoman Agnès de Souarcy fights to retain her independence but must face the Inquisition, unaware that she is the focus of an ancient quest.
Set at the turn of the fourteenth century,The Lady Agnès Mystery, tells the tale of Agnès de Souarcy, a young, beautiful widow, who lives in Normandy with her daughter, Mathilde, and her adoptive son, Clément. A young Hospitaller knight, Francesco de Leone, is embroiled in a secret plot that would see the fall of the Church. He is on a perilous journey to find the woman who plagues his dreams. Meanwhile, in the nearby Abbey of Clairets, where the Bernadine nuns hold secrets that could shake the world, sisters are being murdered by one of their own. The three stories converge amid the backdrop of murder, heresy, the Inquisition and a power struggle between the French Crown and the Papacy…Click Here to Read
The Tapestry – Nancy Bilyeau
The next page-turner in the award-winning Joanna Stafford series takes place in the heart of the Tudor court, as the gutsy former novice risks everything to defy the most powerful men of her era.
After her priory in Dartford is closed—collateral damage in tyrannical King Henry VIII’s quest to overthrow the Catholic Church—Joanna resolves to live a quiet and honorable life weaving tapestries, shunning dangerous quests and conspiracies. Until she is summoned to Whitehall Palace, where her tapestry weaving has drawn the King’s attention.
Joanna is uncomfortable serving the King whom she has twice attempted to overthrow—unbeknownst to him. She fears for her life in a court bursting with hidden agendas and a casual disregard for the virtues she holds dear. And her suspicions are confirmed when an assassin attempts to kill her moments after arriving at Whitehall.
Struggling to stay ahead of her most formidable enemy yet, an unknown one, she becomes entangled in dangerous court politics. Her dear friend Catherine Howard is rumored to be one of the King’s mistresses. Joanna is determined to protect young, beautiful, naïve Catherine from becoming the King’s next wife and possibly, victim.
Set in a world of royal banquets and feasts, tournament jousts, ship voyages, and Tower Hill executions, this thrilling tale finds Joanna in her most dangerous situation yet, as she attempts to decide the life she wants to live: nun or wife, spy or subject, rebel or courtier. Joanna must finally choose her fate.
Joanna Stafford, our intrepid ex-Dominican super sleuth is at it again. This time, she’s hurled straight into the midst of plotting and deception at Henry VIII’s court. Joanna, the former nun renown for her tapestry making abilities, is summoned to Whitehall to present her self to the king for a special commission. While there, an attempt is made on her life and Joanna narrowly escapes. Luckily, she befriends one of the the king’s inner circle, the handsome courier, Thomas Culpepper, who vows to catch Joanna’s assailant. Joanna, who wants nothing more than to return to her simple, quiet life in Dartford, is thrown into Henry’s political turmoil and immediately ensnared in the tension between her former frenemy, Archbishop Stephen Gardiner, and new nemesis, the king’s powerful secretary, Thomas Cromwell. To make matters worse, Joanna must watch helplessly as her beloved friend, the young, naive, teen, Catherine Howard, is moved like a pawn by Anne Boleyn’s grasping family. With the help of famed German court painter, Hans Holbein, Joanna tries to intercede and keep Catherine away from the king’s clutches. It’s an uphill battle against the machinations of Lady Rochford, Anne’s Boleyn’s former sister-in-law who is scheming to restore her family’s glory…Click Here to Read