Lotharingia: Charlemagne’s Heir is an early medieval story that begins in 1062. The story goes back and forth between Germany and Italy and features the political and religious conflicts of the times.
Into a bubbling cauldron of turmoil go Pope Alexander II, King Heinrich IV (Holy Roman Emperor), Matilda of Tuscany, secret religious artefacts and a prophecy handed down through the generations from Charlemagne. The author weaves a believable story from real historical characters from an era in which few written records were made.
The book begins with a long list of characters and I was a little daunted—concerned that I would never get to remember them all. However, once I got into the story, it wasn’t too hard to keep the main players organised in my head. In a period in which many noblewomen were no more than political pawns, the author has brought to light several strong female characters. Matilda of Tuscany and her mother Beatrice of Canossa held powerful positions through lands and their support for the papacy; added to this they owned several rare holy relics which were highly prized at the time.
I thought that the author did a good job with this book, especially considering the complex political situation between the Pope and The Holy Roman Emperor, a situation which was always threatening to topple from its precarious power balance. I liked Matilda and the fictional account of her life felt real; I could see myself happily reading more from this era in a second book.
Barely known in the English-speaking world, Countess Matilde of Tuscany was a trailblazer who defied the gender expectations of her age, eventually becoming the most powerful woman in the Holy Roman Empire. Lotharingia is a fictionalised re-telling of her youth, as she grapples with the constraints of femininity in her quest for self-definition, power, and love.
Countess Matilde is the sole heir to Tuscany, a descendant of Charlemagne, and a trained warrior, but a woman can only rule with a powerful husband at her side. Even her formidable mother’s mysterious relics and diplomatic nous cannot change Rome’s mind about her betrothal to the duke of Lotharingia, a man who fills her with dread. Determined to choose her path in life, Matilde enlists the support of powerful players, leaving no stone unturned to secure her freedom to love and rule.
Across the Alps, Matilde’s overlord, King Heinrich of Germany, is coming of age, in a court rife with intrigue. His request to divorce sends shock waves through Christendom, and Rome, alarmed at the potential political consequences, decides that Matilde’s marriage can no longer wait.
When, after a chance meeting, Heinrich rescues Matilde from her abusive husband, friendship blossoms into forbidden love, a love with unexpected consequences.
Liz has been reading His Castilian Hawk by Anna Belfrage
Noor is a teenager living in the countryside with her dog and her horses, far away from the political challenges of life under the rule of Edward I. Bravely accepting marriage to Robert FitzStephan, the bastard son of a Lord, she rapidly matures both physically and mentally. She should detest the man responsible for the death of her father but finding him an honourable man who treats her with respect she develops a passion for him.
This is a novel which shows us the brutality and hardships of medieval life in a well-researched account of Edward Longshanks determination to finally subdue the Welsh by murdering their Prince and capturing his children, but it is also a sensual love story with the complication of an evil spurned woman. In addition to the threat of Edith’s revenge, Noor cannot abandon her family links with Welsh cousins, putting loyalty before diplomacy. Can she trust Robert to stand by her after years of faithful service to the King?
Noor’s life is further complicated by her kinship with Queen Eleanor. At first, she is shown kindness and given help with her relationship with Robert but soon she realises that life is not straight-forward and is difficult to know who to trust. The conclusion of this book is a surprise but the promise of a new adventure for Noor and Robert is very exciting.
For bastard-born Robert FitzStephan, being given Eleanor d’Outremer in marriage is an honour. For Eleanor, this forced wedding is anything but a fairy tale. Robert FitzStephan has served Edward Longshanks loyally since the age of twelve. Now he is riding with his king to once and for all bring Wales under English control. Eleanor d’Outremer—Noor to family—lost her Castilian mother as a child and is left entirely alone when her father and brother are killed. When ordered to wed the unknown Robert FitzStephan, she has no choice but to comply. Two strangers in a marriage bed is not easy. Things are further complicated by Noor’s blood-ties to the Welsh princes and by covetous Edith who has warmed Robert’s bed for years. Robert’s new wife may be young and innocent, but he is soon to discover that not only is she spirited and proud, she is also brave. Because when Wales lies gasping and Edward I exacts terrible justice on the last prince and his children, Noor is determined to save at least one member of the House of Aberffraw from the English king. Will years of ingrained service have Robert standing with his king or will he follow his heart and protect his wife, his beautiful and fierce Castilian hawk?
Sean has been reading Bonfire Of The Perfect by Susan Appleyard
A historical romance novel, set at the time of the Albigensian crusade. For those who may not know, this was a crusade in the Languedoc region of France, by northern Catholics against the perceived heresies of the Cathars, lasting from 1209 to 1229, with another series of repressions in the late 1240s.
The plot is essentially the love story between Braida, a young Catholic girl of Carcassone, and Jourdan, a soldier-of-fortune, who is also Catholic, but is fighting against what they perceive as an invasion of the lands by the North. The narrator of the story wants to set out her own view of the times she has lived through.
Set in feudal times, the local counts, lords etc. have almost absolute power over their subjects, and in turn owe fealty to their overlords. The French king suspects the loyalty of the Languedoc, over which the King of Aragon has some sway, and under cover of the crusade seeks to gain control of the land. As ever, the poor and voiceless are the meat in the sandwich.
Braida: Young Catholic girl, very self-conscious due to a leg deformity, growing up in a peaceful, idyllic Carcassone. Friends with the Cather Beatrice, her father is a distant, cold man, who ignores or belittles her as needed.
Jourdan: Soldier of fortune, he is torn between his duty to his employer, and to Braida. Duty usually wins, and Braida is left behind.
Beatrice: A devoted Cather, studying to become a Perfect, she is Braida’s best (and probably only) real friend. Pious, she becomes more ethereal as the novel progresses.
Foulques: Braida’s physician father, he looms large over her life. Cold and unloving to her, as he grows older his life slowly falls to pieces, as personal tragedy takes its toll
The Albigensian Crusade has just been launched by Pope Innocent III, and the Northern army is marching to Languedoc. Braida and her contemporaries do not fear it yet, thinking it is just another local war that will go away. She meets and falls for Jourdan, and their early days are idyllic. However, as time moves on and the army closer, they get swept up in events.
The Viscount of Carcassone rallies the troops, and takes up arms against the Northern invaders.
A series of battles, skirmishes and sieges now occur, over the next 20/30 years, with duplicity, betrayal and widespread bloodshed becoming the norm. The bonds of loyalty are strained, and sometimes break under the pressure. The tide of war ebbs and flows, and throughout Braida and Jourdan have their own travails, Jourdan heads off to war, leaving Braida behind to look after her father, mother, and her father’s mistress, while never knowing where or when the hammer of war falls next.
Along with the Crusade comes the Inquisition, less famous but just as brutal as its Spanish counterpart. Braida and Jourdan are nominally exempt from this, being Catholics, but such is the fear and terror, that neighbour is denouncing neighbour, simply to avoid the clutches of the Inquisitors.
What I Liked:
Easy to read
Well researched, and a great effort at keeping the various true-life characters from being confused
The flashback recounting style of the story
What I Didn’t like:
Other than Braida, I found the characters a little one-dimensional.
The love angle was hard to accept as the novel progresses, and less believable. There was none of the heat and passion you would expect.
We don’t really get a sense of the Cathars, who in reality were so mentally strong in how they resisted persecution.
For those who like historical romance novels, this fits the bill nicely. A good overview of the turbulent times, and how two ordinary people struggle through it. The reader gets a good flavour of how precarious life was. It is enjoyable, and may lead the more curious to investigate and read more into the genocide of the Cathars.
Prompted by the murder of his legate, in 1209 Pope Innocent III launches a crusade – not against the infidels of the East, but against fellow Christians living peaceably in the south of France. They are the Cathars, regarded as heretics by the Roman Church, and the sect is flourishing. Thousands of knights, landless younger sons, mercenaries and assorted riff-raff pour south with Christian zeal to exterminate men, women and children of the same country. A dilemma soon arises: How to tell a Cathar from an orthodox Catholic?
Lovers Bräida and Jourdan are torn apart when Carcassonne falls to the crusaders. Jourdan joins the resistance while Bräida flees with her family to the relative safety of the Pyrenees, neither knowing if they will see one another again. But Bräida is not safe in her mountain retreat, because the Church has found an answer to its dilemma – the creation of the Inquisition. No one can escape its diabolical clutches.
This is a story of faith, endurance and the love of liberty in a time of unimaginable cruelty.
The Greenest Branch is historical fiction set in medieval Germany. It is the first book in a series about the Benedictine abbess Hildegard. The story begins in 1115 when, as a child, Hildegard started her training at the convent of St Disibod. The Covent was in the grounds of an Abbey, with Abbot Juno having overall authority over both religious houses.
Hildegard had a natural flair for herbal medicines and a keen mind for politics, but she faced strong opposition to her academic hopes from the monastic powers. Under the tutelage of brother Wigbert, she was, however, allowed to work in the infirmary. She took over the herbal gardens and slowly gained respect for her work.
During the period there were many power disputes between religious and secular leaders across Europe. There were also debates as to how religious doctrines should be interpreted. These then spilled into the lives of Hildegard and her fellow brothers and sisters.
I was very interested to learn about Hildegard. The author has tried to keep as close to historical facts as possible, but where details were sparse, she has used her literary interpretation to fill the gaps. Hildegard’s story will continue in the next book in the series.
In The Greenest Branch the medieval era comes vividly to life in all its romanticism and splendor, but the societal strictures that prevent women from being able to access education and live independent lives are also on display.
The year is 1115, and Germany is torn apart by a conflict between the Emperor and the Pope over who should have the right to appoint bishops and control the empire’s vast estates. In that atmosphere, young Hildegard is sent to the Abbey of St. Disibod in the Rhineland as her parents’ gift to the Church in accordance with a custom known as the tithe.
Hildegard has a deep love of nature and a knowledge of herbal healing that might make more than one Church official suspicious of witchery, and she hopes to purse medical studies at St. Disibod. But no sooner does she settle into her new life than she finds out that as a girl she will not be allowed to attend the monastic school or use the abbey’s library; instead, she must stay at the women’s convent, isolated from the rest of the community and from the town.
It might seem that Hildegard’s dreams have quickly come to an end. Yet she refuses to be sidelined. Against fierce opposition from Prior Helenger, the hostile head of the monks’ cloister, she finds another way to learn – by securing an apprenticeship with Brother Wigbert who runs the infirmary and is in dire need of a capable assistant. Under his supervision, she begins to train as the abbey’s first female physician and makes rapid progress.
When Hildegard’s reputation starts to spread throughout the Rhineland, Helenger’s persecution escalates as he fears losing control over the women’s community. But that is not the only challenge she must grapple with. She has also developed feelings for Volmar, a fellow Benedictine novice, that force Hildegard to re-examine the fundamental assumptions she has made about her life. Is the practice of medicine within the monastic confines her true calling, or is a quiet existence of domestic contentment more desirable?
With the pressures mounting and threatening to derail her carefully-laid plans, Hildegard becomes locked in a struggle that will either earn her an unprecedented freedom or relegate her to irrevocable oblivion.
The Greenest Branch is the first in a two-book series based on the true story of Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician and one of the few women to attain that position in medieval Europe. Set against the backdrop of the lush oak forests and sparkling rivers of the Rhineland, it is a tale of courage, strength, sacrifice, and love that will appeal to fans of Ken Follett, Umberto Eco, Elizabeth Chadwick, Margaret Frazer, Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden, and to anyone who enjoys strong female protagonists in historical fiction.
I am a historical fiction author based in Boston, Massachusetts. I have a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and a master’s degree in European Studies from Yale University. When I’m not writing, you can find me reading, drinking tea, doing yoga, or hiking.
Fortune’s Wheel is a historical novel set in Hampshire in 1349. I chose to read this because Hampshire is my county, so I was delighted that many of the place names were familiar. The story revolves around a year in the life of the villagers of Meonbridge.
So what was life like in 1349? Bubonic plague had just swept through Britain, and Meonbridge lost at least half of its residents. The village was overseen by Lord and Lady de Bohun of the manor, who owned lands rented to tenants. I was very interested to learn that the village consisted of a mix of villeins (peasant farmers legally tied to the manor), cottars (lowest form of peasant) and freemen and women. There was also the miller and blacksmith. The author showed us how the villagers were expected to pay the manor rents for land, businesses and death duties. They were also expected to work for the manor; boon work, giving time freely to bring in the harvest. During the week they would do ploughing, hedging etc. The manor in turn provided housing, a court to oversee disputes, and elected men to carry out duties within the village: a reeve, a bailiff and constables.
There was a large cast of characters which at times were hard to keep track of. However, the main story weaving its way back and forth is about the mysterious disappearance of Agnes atte Wode. Agnes is the daughter of Alice, a villein friend of Lady Margaret de Bohun and well respected village woman. Her son, John, is held back from searching for Agnes by his new appointment of village reeve. Both John and Alice are sure the Lord’s children knew more about the disappearance of Agnes that was first thought.
A second strong theme runs through the story, that of the potential for a peasants’ revolt. There were now fewer people to work the land, the workers were needed for longer hours to fulfil the jobs. There were calls for higher wages and or land offered to the cottars to farm. Both the bailiff and the Lord were against this, quoting laws from the King to cap wages, but with few “free” farmers in the country to invite to the manor lands, a stalemate occurred. Unlike today, when most of us can change our jobs as and when we please, in medieval times peasants were “tied” to the manor of the village they were born into, the law forbidding them to leave.
I liked this story, as it covered a time period where less is known about the everyday life of ordinary people; it created a picture in a way a modern reader could understand. There was a fair bit of medieval terminology, most of which I could make a reasonable guess at and, because I was interested, I didn’t mind confirming the definitions later. There is also a list of characters at the beginning of the book to help with the large cast. The storyline does have drama and a satisfactory ending, but for me the interest was more in the everyday life of the characters and the way they lived in this period of history.
Plague-widow Alice atte Wode is desperate to find her missing daughter, but her neighbours are rebelling against their masters and their mutiny is hindering the search.
June 1349. In a Hampshire village, the worst plague in England’s history has wiped out half its population, including Alice atte Wode’s husband and eldest son. The plague arrived only days after Alice’s daughter Agnes mysteriously disappeared and it prevented the search for her.
Now the plague is over, the village is trying to return to normal life, but it’s hard, with so much to do and so few left to do it. Conflict is growing between the manor and its tenants, as the workers realise their very scarceness means they’re more valuable than before: they can demand higher wages, take on spare land, have a better life. This is the chance they’ve all been waiting for!
Although she understands their demands, Alice is disheartened that the search for Agnes is once more put on hold. But when one of the rebels is killed, and then the lord’s son is found murdered, it seems the two deaths may be connected, both to each other and to Agnes’s disappearance.
Alice atte Wode, the Millers’ closest neighbour, was feeding her hens when she heard Joan’s first terrible anguished cries. Dropping her basket of seed, she ran to the Millers’ cottage. She wanted to cry out too at what she found there: Thomas and Joan both on their knees, clasped together, with Peter’s twisted body between them, sobbing as if the dam of their long pent-up emotions had burst. Alice breathed deeply to steady her nerves, for she didn’t know how to offer any solace for the Millers’ loss.
Not this time.
It was common enough for parents to lose children. It didn’t mean you ever got used to their loss, or that you loved them any less than if they’d lived. Few lost five children in as many months. But the Millers had. The prosperous family Alice knew only six months ago, with its noisy brood of six happy, healthy children, had been swiftly and brutally slaughtered by the great mortality.
Every family in Meonbridge had lost someone to the plague’s vile grip – a father, a mother, a child – but no other family had lost five.
The great mortality, sent by God, it was said, to punish the world for its sins, had torn the village apart. It had struck at random, at the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the innocent and the guilty. Some of its victims died coughing up blood, some with suppurating boils under their arms or next to their privy parts, some covered in dark, blackish pustules. A few recovered, but most did not and, after two or three days of fear and suffering, died in agony and despair, often alone and unshriven for the lack of a priest, when their loved ones abandoned them. After five months of terror, half of Meonbridge’s people were dead.
When the foul sickness at last moved on, leaving the villagers to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, Thomas and Joan Miller went to church daily, to pray for their five dead children’s souls, and give thanks to God for sparing Peter. Then the arrival of baby Maud just a few days ago had brought the Millers a bright ray of hope in the long-drawn-out darkness of their despair.
But Peter hadn’t been spared after all.
ABOUT CAROLYN HUGHES
Carolyn Hughes was born in London, but has lived most of her life in Hampshire. After a first degree in Classics and English, she started her working life as a computer programmer, in those days a very new profession. It was fun for a few years, but she left to become a school careers officer in Dorset. But it was when she discovered technical authoring that she knew she had found her vocation. She spent the next few decades writing and editing all sorts of material, some fascinating, some dull, for a wide variety of clients, including an international hotel group, medical instrument manufacturers and the Government. She has written creatively for most of her adult life, but it was not until her children grew up and flew the nest, several years ago, that creative writing and, especially, writing historical fiction, took centre stage in her life. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from Portsmouth University and a PhD from the University of Southampton.
Fortune’s Wheel is her first published novel, and a sequel is under way.