early modern allie on Twitter

Hi friends!

October and November seemed to have elided together.  It’s hard to believe that December is nearly here, with the rush of the holidays and the New Year to follow in quick succession.

A quick update that I’ve added a Twitter component to the early modern allie blog!  You can find me there @earlymodallie.

Thanks for following along!  Getting through some rounds of paperwork here which has kept me a bit busier than usual, but more content will follow before too long.  Stay tuned!

Until next time,

a. xx


Book Review: The Taming of the Queen

The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory

Touchstone, $14.99 hardcover, 464 pages, 1476758794

taming of the queen.jpg


This summer, I picked up a book that I couldn’t really get into a few years ago – Philippa Gregory’s The Taming of the Queen, a novel recounting the life of Catherine Parr (sometimes spelled Katherine, or even Kateryn, as Gregory uses, though I’ll stick with the common modernized spelling for clarity in this review) and her marriage to Henry VIII.  Parr was the sixth wife of the Tudor king, whose fate we recall through the following mnemonic device – “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.”  Indeed, survival is a pressing theme in Gregory’s novelization of Parr’s life at court.  Not only does Catherine need to survive a husband who has put away two queens and ordered the deaths of two others, but as a scholarly-minded Protestant, Catherine must also survive the fluctuations of power by competing factions at court.  Her position is never secure – rumors abound that Henry is actively planning to put her aside or arrest her for heresy.  As reformist Protestants (led by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and the Seymours) jockey for power against the Catholic-leaning practitioners of the so-called “Old Ways” (represented by Bishop Stephen Gardiner, the Howards, and Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley and Richard Rich) Catherine feels under threat.

“The husband I have just buried was forty-nine, the king is fifty-one, an old man, but he could last till sixty.  He has the best of physicians and the finest apothecaries, and he guards himself against disease as if he were a precious babe.  He sends his armies to war without him, he gave up jousting years ago.  He has buried four wives–why not another?”

After the twice-widowed Catherine finds her affair with Thomas Seymour abruptly halted by the king’s proposal of marriage, she must put away her passion and devote herself to caring for an ailing, regal husband.  Before long, preachers begin to visit her rooms to deliver sermons and Catherine ardently commits herself to the cause of reform, even allying herself with a female preacher, Anne Askew (herself a fascinating figure!).  She sets about translating sacred texts into English just as the King contends with removing the English Bible from parishes across the nation.  As Catherine enjoys pursuing a newfound passion for scholarship, she must balance considering the ever-changing and sometimes inscrutable opinions of her husband with the fluctuating fortunes of her position at court, all against a backdrop of forbidden love and religious fervor.

“I pray for guidance, for God’s will, not my own, for the bending of my own obstinate desires to His purpose and not mine.  I don’t know where God is to be found–in the old church of rituals and saints’ images, miracles and pilgrimages, or in the new ways of prayers in English and Bible readings–but I have to find Him.  I have to find Him to crush my passion, to rein in my own ambitions.  If I am to stand before His altar and swear myself to yet another loveless marriage, He has to bear me up.  I cannot–I know I cannot–marry the king without the help of God.  I cannot give up Thomas unless I believe it is for a great cause.  I cannot give up my first love, my only love, my tender yearning passionate love for him–this unique, irresistible man–unless I have God’s love overwhelming me in its place.”

The first time I tried to get into The Taming of the Queen, I put it down without finishing it.  I found the development of Catherine’s blasé regard for her religious practice to her ardent pursuit of reform to be quite abrupt, in a way that was off-putting.  However, after starting the book again and finishing this time, I found that Gregory nicely developed Catherine’s religions inclinations blossoming alongside her interest in writing and scholarship, each passion feeding on the other.

“My book of psalms, beautifully bound, is tucked deep in my locked box of books.  I think of it as my treasure, my greatest treasure, one that I have to keep secret.  But seeing those words that were first written, and scratched out, and rewritten again in print and bound into a book, I know that I love the process of writing and publishing.  To take a thought and work on it, to render it into the clearest form possible, and then send it out into the world–this is work so precious and so joyful that I am not surprised that men have kept it to themselves.”

Fans of Gregory’s perhaps most well-known Tudor novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, may find The Taming of the Queen lacking in romance and passion (save some stolen glances and bits of conversation between Catherine and Thomas Seymour).  And Henry’s cruelty is laid bare in a brutal scene of “taming” from which the book takes its name. Gone is the handsome lover we got to know in his days of courting the Boleyn sisters, in his stead is an aged, decrepit, and mean-spirited despot taking stock at the end of his life (though his amorous tendencies still abide – he often remarks on his hopes of having another child with Catherine).  Indeed, he is a man haunted by the past, and Catherine, too, finds herself similarly haunted by the past wives who once filled her place.  Gregory artfully portrays this in Catherine’s visceral reaction to wearing the clothes of her predecessors and staying in the room where King Henry’s purported only true love, Queen Jane, died of puerperal fever.  Despite retaining some elements of romance, this book is far from a bodice-ripper.  Rather, the novel emphasizes the ever-changing vicissitudes of court life, and the tumultuous, back-and-forth nature of religious reform in sixteenth-century England.  It’s a tale of political intrigue (captured brilliantly in dialogue, where Henry’s form of double-speak never quite reveals his true intentions, but conveys subtle threats); religious upheaval; familial reconciliation (Catherine deserves credit for bringing together the king’s three children from dispersed households) prolonged suspense; and an insight into a fascinating woman ruler and writer.

I’ll be following up with a post on Catherine Parr’s life of letters – from her translations to her epistles and poetry – in a later post!

Until next time,

a. xx

“When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang…”

Hi friends,

It’s hard to believe that October is already upon us!  It seems as though I blinked at the beginning of June, and here we are now!  I spent this summer doing some exploring tangentially related to the early modern era, with trips to New Mexico and Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg, and Yorktown in Virginia.  I enjoyed soaking up the amazing history and culture that New Mexico has to offer.  The food, sun, and out-of-this-world landscapes make the state so worthy of a visit, and I can’t wait to return.  And a trip to southern Virginia allowed my family a chance to again explore the earliest permanent English settlement in the Americas, the Stuart-era seat of colonial government, and the site of the decisive battle where Americans claimed victory over the British during the Revolutionary War.  I may or may not have bought a quill pen at a souvenir print shop in Colonial Williamsburg (hokey, I know, but I can hardly help myself), but more details will follow once I give the feather pen a whirl.

Beyond traveling, copy-editing kept me busy, but in my down-time I enjoyed visiting the art museum and reading.  Indeed, what’s summer without a little summer reading?  I’ll expand more in a book review roundup, but I enjoyed exploring facets of early modern medicine with Lesel Dawson’s Lovesickness and Gender in Early Modern English Literature and revisiting early modern recipe books with Michelle DiMeo and Sara Pennell’s collection Reading and Writing Recipe Books, 1550-1800.  I indulged in a fun and quickly-paced murder mystery set during the captivity of Lady Elizabeth (the soon-to-be Queen Elizabeth I) in Michael Jecks’ A Murder Too Soon.  And, yes, after many long years of delay, I gobbled up Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies – a fabulous reading experience!

As for shows, I re-watched the Wolf Hall miniseries, and – stretching beyond confines of early modern periodization – I enjoyed binge-watching Outlander (the oh-so epic, 18th-century Scottish adventure and time travel series).  And I definitely had a good laugh over the recent screen adaptation of several stories from Boccaccio’s Decameron in The Little Hours.  And I can’t forget The Hollow Crown: I’m working my way through the first season, and have found this Henriad adaptation thoroughly enjoyable.  All worth a watch for some entertainment!

And yet, as Shakespeare reminds us in Sonnet 73, that time “when yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang” comes around eventually, and summer fades as the temperatures descend.  Teaching started up a few weeks ago, and the rhythms of autumn have begun to take hold.  The sunsets are coming earlier and earlier with each passing day.  The backyard plants are starting to wilt, and the hungry wild rabbits who call our yard home urgently munch on the remaining stalks and leaves.  The cicadas have quieted down – finally! – and I’ve over-enthusiastically built a few fires in the fireplace as the temperatures hover around the 40s at night.

This October on the blog, I’ll explore some witchy history to get into the Halloween spirit, and commemorate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses.  And I plan to conduct some experiments with my newly-acquired quill pen to compare and contrast it with modern calligraphy tools!  Stay tuned.

In the meantime, have you had any notable historical or historical fiction reading experiences this summer?  Or perhaps a TV show or movie caught your eye (and, if you’ve seen them, what are your thoughts on Tulip Fever and Poldark?!)?  Whether you stayed home or traveled, enjoyed the sun or hid yourself away indoors in the cool A/C, I hope you had fabulous summers, and that you’re looking forward to cool nights, apple cider, and all things autumn.

Until next time,

a. xx

P.S. I would be remiss to leave unacknowledged the serious natural disasters that occurred this summer.  Further, we’ve witnessed frightening hate and bigotry from the events in Charlottesville and their aftermath.  And there was the unspeakable tragedy of the Las Vegas Massacre.  It hasn’t been an entirely rosy few months for some of our fellow citizens in the United States – and in the Caribbean at large, as well as in Mexico.  If you’re able to lend a few dollars for relief efforts and gun reform, here are just a few sites to do so, and I hope you’ll join me in lending a hand…

Red Cross

Unidos por Puerto Rico / United for Puerto Rico


Greater Houston Community Fund

Bread of Life Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund

I Support The Girls

Everytown for Gun Safety

…And, last but not least, some shorter-term and longer-term points of action after Charlottesville courtesy of Upworthy

Book Review: Shakespeare for Freedom

Shakespeare for Freedom: Why the Plays Matter by Ewan Fernie

Cambridge University Press, $47.62 hardcover, 300 pages, 1107130859

shax for freedom ★★★★☆

Professor Ewan Fernie of the Shakespeare Institute explores how the Bard’s writing relates to socio-political and personal notions of liberty in his new book, Shakespeare for Freedom.  

Writing in academic prose that’s not overly dense or too hard to digest, Fernie explains that both as an author and as a symbol, Shakespeare invites us to consider, broadly, existential freedom; the freedom to be different or of becoming; and the freedom to enter evil.  Pairing close readings of texts like Romeo and Juliet and Henry IV Part I with analysis of literary criticism from the likes of Hegel, Freud, and Adorno, among others, Fernie puts forward his case for that tripartite Shakespearean freedom inherent in the plays.  Further, he looks at how Shakespeare has inspired various political movements and figures fighting for liberty throughout history, from the days when actor David Garrick first politicized the Bard’s legacy with the Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford in 1769, and later by Hungarian revolutionary Lajos Kossuth in the eighteenth century, up to the late twentieth century, when Nelson Mandela read Shakespeare’s works along with fellow political prisoners at Robben Island.  Fernie also includes an investigation of more sinister iterations of Shakespearean freedom, used as a justification by the likes of John Wilkes Booth, himself the son of a Shakespeare actor, for example.  Fernie concludes with an interesting discussion of several critical approaches to King Lear, and demonstrates Shakespeare’s ultimate call to human understanding and autonomy even in the bleakest of circumstances or on the stormiest of heaths.

While I found the book revealed new layers of meaning to Shakespeare’s work, and the real-world consequences that have unfolded in light of it, I think it may have benefited from some structural changes.  Chapters providing close readings of text came after explorations of the political ramifications of reading Shakespeare’s work, and theory was interspersed throughout.  I wonder if it would have been a more fluid reading experience to begin with laying out close readings of the text, followed by a critical framework (or vice versa), and then a discussion of Shakespeare in the political realm.

Nevertheless, my experience with the text was largely positive.  In particular, I enjoyed the chapter concerning Romeo and Juliet.  This was the first Shakespeare play I ever saw and got me interested in his work, and Fernie sculpted an analysis that made me consider the play in new ways; especially how the tragedy presents more radical potentialities and characters than we sometimes allow.  Fernie’s discussion of this play adds a new dimension to that age-old question of whether human agency or fate guides the characters in Romeo and Juliet, and also presents a vision of liberty latent in some of the side characters’ dialogue.

All in all, I would recommend this book to those trying to see Shakespeare through new lenses, whether socio-political, historical, or critical.

Book Review: Son of York

Son of York by Amy Licence

Endeavour Press, $3.99 Kindle edition, 328 pages, B072L7J1WM

son of york


As I am wont to occasionally indulge in costume dramas, I recently binge-watched STARZ’s The White Queen, a series based on Philippa Gregory’s novel of the same name, which details the marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville.  So I was delighted to see Amy Licence’s new book, Son of York, which follows a young Edward from boyhood to his rise to the English throne, a path forged by bloody conflicts and political maneuvering.

If you’re a fan of Philippa Gregory’s writing, then Son of York is definitely for you.  Licence’s prose is swift and cinematic – she paints clear pictures of scenes and characters that could very well lend themselves to the screen.  Her writing is very present and has a good sense of flow, and I appreciated how Licence often imparts historical information via dialogue – having us learn the latest court intrigues and alliances that will shape the Yorkists’ fate alongside the characters.  In this very present and absorbing narration, we see how political winds shift at the slightest provocations, sending the Duke of York’s family headlong into war against combatants supporting the ailing Henry VI and his powerful French queen, Margaret of Anjou.  Eventually, the two families’ battle over dynastic claims shifts from debate in council chambers to combat in the field, and the Duke’s eldest son Edward finds himself growing into manhood against this hostile backdrop.  We witness him go from a boy shunning his lessons, to a teenager entering into an affair with a young married woman (no doubt a precursor to his philandering ways later in life), to an exile in France, all the way to the head of his household back on English soil, leading armies to support his family’s claim to the throne.

All the while, Licence’s exploration of the relationship between Edward and his brother Edmund – younger by a year and growing up in Edward’s shadow – really piqued my interest.  Looming large in our cultural conscience are Edward’s relationships with his other brothers – the ill-fated George, Duke of Clarence, and the infamous Richard III.  Yet, Licence pays careful attention to another fraternal story, shading the contrasts between Edmund and Edward.  She illustrates nicely how two young men of differing temperaments approach a politically precarious situation, and how varyingly they respond to questions of inheritance, leadership, and eventually armed conflict.  Indeed, the novel very well could have been called Sons of York.

However, this is ultimately Edward’s story, and as a study of a young man stepping into adulthood, and the royal role he was destined to play, Son of York is an enjoyable read that is tough to put down.

a. xx 


Book Review: Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession

Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession: A Novel by Alison Weir

Ballantine Books, $18.28 hardcover, 560 pages, 1101966513

weir boleyn novel★★★☆☆

On this very day in 1536, Anne Boleyn walked up to the scaffold after receiving a swift trial, conviction, and death sentence for high treason.  Historian Alison Weir traces Anne’s journey to the block, from her childhood spent in European royal households through her courtship with and marriage to King Henry VIII, and her painful downfall in this novelization of true events.

I’ve been a longtime fan of Weir’s historical works, particularly her Six Wives of Henry VIII.  Though this new novel is a piece of historical fiction, Weir’s depiction of Anne’s childhood years in Europe begins in matter-of-fact prose as if she were composing a work of straight history.  I think Weir hits her narrative stride in the latter parts of the book, where we get swept up in the careening games of love and power that Anne enters – at first tentatively – upon her return to the English court.  In that vein, Weir’s portrayal of Anne and Henry’s relationship as less of a love match, at least on Anne’s part.  This is not a romance, but rather a story of a woman taken up by a king who was driven by unreciprocated amorous and sexual obsession, as Weir’s title suggests.  Indeed, Weir emphasizes particularly in her exploration of Mary Boleyn and some of the Continental queens themes of sexual violence and domination that kings exercised upon unwilling female subjects, laying bare uneven sexual power dynamics and the deeply sad consequences they produced.  These explorations bolster Anne’s reluctance to enter into a relationship with Henry, further supported by Weir’s depiction of Anne’s dedication to Katherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife whom the King eventually will put aside for Anne.  However, following her sudden epiphany that the crown is within her grasp, Anne begins to yearn for power as much as Henry yearns for her, ultimately reciprocating his attentions and setting down a path that will ultimately prove fatal.

As their relationship progresses from flirtation to affair, and the couple’s plans to marry unfold, Weir successfully conveys the agonizingly long wait for a dispensation from Rome to annul the King’s first marriage, emphasizing how drawn out the process was before thoughts of church reformation began to bubble up.  Finally, when Henry breaks from Rome and plans for the marriage are fulfilled, I felt fascinated to witness Anne’s euphoria in her early queenship, especially knowing what fate has in store for her.  It’s almost like reading a howdunnit as opposed to a whodunnit.  We know the end, but it’s remarkable how Anne gets there.  In this respect, Weir is adroit at capturing Anne’s mounting fear and paranoia, reflected in a more stream-of-consciousness narrative style, as the Queen loses Henry’s favor after the delivery of a princess instead of a hoped-for male heir, and a series of miscarriages and marital fights that strain the royal couple’s relationship.  In that style, we keenly feel how quickly Anne’s downfall comes to pass in the latter two parts of the book, as opposed to the former parts’ emphasis on protraction, delay, and uncertainty.  Weir deftly conveys the swiftness of the fall, and the agony and increasing frenzy following Anne’s arrest and imprisonment, especially when those around her leave her in the dark as to the important details of her case.  And she successfully conveys how Anne’s trial was a travesty of justice.  The ending, capturing Anne’s final days, was tragic in the epic sense of the word – we see a woman literally lose everything she had worked towards, piece by piece, the result not only (in part) of her own hubris, but also the machinations of political forces far greater than herself.  It is an undoing on a massive and complete scale.  The final pages of Weir’s book which depict the morning of her execution up to the blow of the sword are truly haunting – they may even be viscerally upsetting to some readers (as it was for me).

For all the book’s strengths, there were some aspects that I found less enthralling.  From the elevation of Anne’s potential romance with Henry Norris – one of the men convicted of adultery with the queen and executed just days before Anne – to her brother George’s involvement in an improbable and sensationalized murder plot, there were some elements of the story that felt like too much of a stretch.  These plot points eliminate some of the poignancy of actual, historical events, and work against the idea of futility and arbitrariness of the divorces and deaths that marked this portion of Henry’s reign.  Yet, Weir’s authorial note at the end of the book make clear her motivations for some instances of artistic license, and convey the depth of her research.

All things considered, Weir’s book was hard to put down, and I’d recommend it to anyone curious about Anne Boleyn, a fascinating and sometimes mysterious character who played an integral part in a captivating and dramatic portion of English history.

To learn more about Anne’s tragic end, see Weir’s discussion of her historical work about Boleyn’s final days here, and Suzannah Lipscomb’s essay on the same topic here.

a. xx

Book Review: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer

Simon & Schuster, $11.30 paperback, 288 pages, 1476777411

bad ass librarians


Abdel Kader Haidara – librarian and longtime resident of Timbuktu – inherited a remarkable collection of manuscripts upon the death of his father (affectionately known as Mamma Haidara), and was called to care for them.  He was only a teenager when Mamma Haidara passed, but has since dedicated his life not only to collecting manuscripts in Mali and in the larger Maghreb region, but to preserving them in libraries and institutes in Timbuktu.  Newsweek reporter Joshua Hammer tells Haidara and his colleagues’ story skillfully, relating Haidara’s early manuscript rescue missions – on foot, by boat, and even by camel – with the same sense of urgency, danger, and triumph that Haidara must have felt on his expeditions.  Racing against the clock to discover and protect rapidly decaying texts with origins in medieval and early modern Timbuktu – then a famed center of learning and scholarship in astronomy, religious ethics, mathematics, jurisprudence, and more – Haidara successfully gathered thousands of manuscripts.  He also studied provenance, preservation methods, and scribal networks in Timbuktu, to better appraise and conserve the texts he encountered over his travels.

The journeys were not without risk, and after the hard work of gathering texts, Haidara found both his collection and his country threatened by the rise in northern Africa of a branch of Al-Qaeda, who soon enough began a campaign of terror that resulted in a period of jihadist occupation in Timbuktu in 2012.  As a result, Haidara assembled a team to smuggle manuscripts out of the libraries and institutes to safe-houses around his hometown and eventually Mali’s capital city, Bamako, all under the noses of terrorists. What results is a stunning account about the importance of conserving materials and knowledge, which highlights the daring of everyday people collaborating to protect cultural artifacts in the face of fundamentalist forces determined to wipe out textual treasures. Haidara and his associates’ mission was successful in large part – 350,000 manuscripts were saved.

Overall, this book reads almost like a fiction – the plot is thick with intrigue, and the cast includes everyone from librarians, terrorists, soldiers, and diplomats, to folk musicians, teenagers, camel drivers, and professors.  What’s miraculous is that this story is all too true, and demonstrates the pressing need to preserve cultural icons, particularly those threatened by extremist forces, to avoid the destruction that we saw in places like Palmyra in Syria, to give one example.

I noticed on GoodReads that some reviewers found the balance uneven between the story of the manuscripts themselves and the recounting of the rise of Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, with the bulk of pages dedicated to the latter.  There certainly was a lot of ground to cover with regard to how the jihadists rose in the region, that at times the manuscripts did drop out of the narrative.  Further, there have been claims that Haidara’s mission “may have been more prophylactic than urgently necessary,” according to The New York Times‘ Ben MacIntyre in his review of Hammer’s book. Indeed, an entirely new book about the subject came out earlier this month – The Storied City: The Quest for Timbuktu and the Fantastic Mission to Save Its Past, written by The Guardian‘s Charles English – which aims to delve more deeply into that uncertainly.

Controversy aside (and assuredly I’ll need to read English’s book as well for a fuller understanding), Hammer’s narrative provides a broad cultural picture, showing how sweeping political, religious, governmental, and literary forces coalesce and oppose each other around the subject of textual preservation.  In that exploration of the confluence of different societal components and institutions, Hammer presents an engaging story that was hard to put down.

For more information on the Haidara and his colleagues’ project, you can visit their site here.

a. xx