From Adam and Eve to Suleiman and Roxelana – five new books for medievalists.
By Ed West
1066 is the most famous date in history, and with good reason, since no battle in medieval history had such a devastating effect on its losers as the Battle of Hastings, which altered the entire course of English history.
The French-speaking Normans were the pre-eminent warriors of the 11th century and based their entire society around conflict. They were led by William ‘the Bastard’ a formidable, ruthless warrior, who was convinced that his half-Norman cousin, Edward the Confessor, had promised him the throne of England. However, when Edward died in January 1066, Harold Godwinson, the richest earl in the land and the son of a pirate, took the throne . . . . this left William no choice but to forcibly claim what he believed to be his right. What ensued was one of the bloodiest periods of English history, with a body count that might make even George RR Martin balk.
Pitched at newcomers to the subject, this book will explain how the disastrous battle changed England—and the English—forever, introducing the medieval world of chivalry, castles and horse-bound knights. It is the first part in the new A Very, Very Short History of England series, which aims to capture the major moments of English history with humor and bite.
By John Julius Norwich
Atlantic Monthly Press
Excerpt: The beginning of the sixteenth century was an exciting time to be alive. The feudal Europe of the Middle Ages was changing fast into a cluster of national dreams; the unity of western Christendom was endangered more than it had ever been before, and was indeed to be lost before the century had run a quarter of its course; the Ottoman Turks, thanks to a succession of able and ambitious sultans, were surging westward on all fronts; the discovery of the New World had brought fabulous wealth to Spain and Portugal, causing vast disruption to the traditional European economy. And in no other period was the entire continent overshadowed by four such giants. all born in a single decade – the ten years between 1491 and 1500. There were, in the order of age, King Henry VIII of England, King Francis I of France, the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Sometimes friends, more often enemies, always rivals, the four of them together held Europe in the hollow of their hands.
By Leslie Peirce
In Empress of the East, historian Leslie Peirce tells the remarkable story of a Christian slave girl, Roxelana, who was abducted by slave traders from her Ruthenian homeland and brought to the harem of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent in Istanbul. Suleyman became besotted with her and foreswore all other concubines. Then, in an unprecedented step, he freed her and married her. The bold and canny Roxelana soon became a shrewd diplomat and philanthropist, who helped Suleyman keep pace with a changing world in which women, from Isabella of Hungary to Catherine de Medici, increasingly held the reins of power.
Until now Roxelana has been seen as a seductress who brought ruin to the empire, but in Empress of the East, Peirce reveals the true history of an elusive figure who transformed the Ottoman harem into an institution of imperial rule.
By Stephen Greenblatt
The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve explores the enduring story of humanity’s first parents. Comprising only a few ancient verses, the story of Adam and Eve has served as a mirror in which we seem to glimpse the whole, long history of our fears and desires, as both a hymn to human responsibility and a dark fable about human wretchedness.
Excerpt: The more one looks, the more this medieval Eve at once tantalizes and resists clear resolution. She is evidently in the act of plucking the fruit, but she has not yet carried it to her mouth, and indeed, as she leans her head on her hand and looks out musingly, she seems far away from that fatal moment. Perhaps she is still innocent, and, since in that case she would not yet feel shame, the leaves that shield her private parts from our gaze are only in the right place by happy accident. The allure of her body would not therefore be a sign of her awakened sexuality; insofar as we are aroused, it is rather a sign of our fallenness. At the same time, her kneeling and her melancholy gaze suggest inescapably that she has already fallen. She must have lost her innocence after all, and the twisting of her beautiful body toward us is a deliberate provocation. She is then a siren, a mermaid, a serpent.
By Paul Strathern
A dazzling history of the modest family that rose to become one of the most powerful in Europe, The Medici is a remarkably modern story of power, money, and ambition. Against the background of an age that saw the rebirth of ancient and classical learning Paul Strathern explores the intensely dramatic rise and fall of the Medici family in Florence, as well as the Italian Renaissance which they did so much to sponsor and encourage. Strathern also follows the lives of many of the great Renaissance artists with whom the Medici had dealings, including Leonardo, Michelangelo and Donatello; as well as scientists like Galileo and Pico della Mirandola; and the fortunes of those members of the Medici family who achieved success away from Florence, including the two Medici popes and Catherine de’ Médicis, who became Queen of France and played a major role in that country through three turbulent reigns.