Hello dear reader(s) and welcome back to another instalment of Nessa reads and reviews! I’m starting the reviews for the month of April with a history book. 🙂 I was planning to review Catherine Hanley’s Matilda in March, since March is Women’s History Month, but my schedule didn’t work out, therefore I’m opening April with it. Actually, the whole process of acquiring the book, reading it and writing the review is going faster than I thought it would, and it’s definitely faster than usual. Most of the time I get a book, put it on my already too long “To Read List”, put the book on the shelf and then the book is judgmentally looking at me from its shelf for months. “You said you’re going to read me and here I am, sitting on your shelf twiddling my imaginary thumbs and waiting… So are you gonna read me today?” Yes, I am aware that books are inanimate objects that neither judge nor talk, but THERE IS METHOD TO MY MADNESS! 😀 Usually. 😀
My silliness aside, let’s chat a bit about what drew me to this book and why I choose to read it. In my review of the Edwin Weaver series (or Medieval Midsomer Murder Mysteries as I affectionately like to call it) I mentioned that Catherine Hanley has a PhD in Medieval Studies and that she wrote non-fiction historical books and articles. I don’t think I linked her Twitter account, but I do follow her there and I enjoy her tweets. She mentioned that she was working on Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior on Twitter, and sometime in January doctor Hanley tweeted that the book was available for preorder. Although I’m not very familiar with that period of English history the subject was intriguing enough, and trusting the author and liking her style of writing I decided to get the book.
To be fair, I enjoy reading about women and especially women who ruled or wielded power during the Middle Ages (or in any other historical period). Reading about that subject breaks preconceptions, shows historical events from another perspective and reminds you that there are multiple perspectives and ways to look and analyse historical events. It also shows the difficulties the historians have with contemporary sources when they want to write about these topics. Usually those primary sources are written by men who have preconceptions, ingrained ways of thinking about certain topics and the historians have to carefully work on the sources in order to find something that they can use.
Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior is an engrossing and (perhaps most importantly for the readers) an approachable biography of a remarkable and fascinating woman. Or to quote the summary from the cover:
“A life of Matilda – empress, skilled military leader and one of the greatest figures of the English Middle Ages.
Matilda was a daughter, wife and mother. But she was also a twice-crowned queen, an empress, and heir to the English crown – the first woman ever to hold the position. As an able military general, she inspired remarkable loyalty and devotion in her followers.
This new biography explores Matilda’s achievements as a military and political leader and sets her life and career in full context. Catherine Hanley ranges from Matilda’s early years as a child empress to her campaign to claim the title of queen, her approach to allied kingdoms and rival rulers, and her role in the succession crisis, showing how she was consistently in control of her own fate.
Matilda sheds light on the true significance of an empress who fought for the throne, who saw her son become king and who ensured the mighty Plantagent dynasty ruled England. Extraordinarily, her line has continued through every single monarch of England or Britain from that time to the present day.”
As usual the official summary always puts things quite nicely and saves me the embarrassment of having to provide my readers with a cringe worthy summary of my own. 🙂
In the introduction to this biography (that is written in a chronological order, as you’d expect from a biography) doctor Hanley stated that Matilda was meant for the general readership, so you needn’t be afraid of a long list of footnotes/endnotes after every couple of sentences. 🙂 Moreover, prerequisite knowledge of the historical figures and the period itself is not necessary because doctor Hanley does all the hard work for you, and in her no-nonsense, but approachable writing style introduces you to the period and the who’s who. Furthermore, the author helps her readers distinguish historical figures that share the same name by using a nickname they were known for along with their names, and putting in brackets information that tells the reader in which chapter they encountered that person first. This was incredibly helpful and thoughtful, because I cannot even describe how many women were named Matilda, and men William or Henry! Honestly I would like to see more historians adopting this principle, I’m aware that it’s demanding and editing the text would seem never ending, but it’s such a thoughtful and helpful gesture that I would like to see it spread. 🙂
Taking into consideration everything mentioned above it’s not so strange that I read Matilda pretty quickly. It was a riveting and captivating read, and I never felt overwhelmed or embarrassed that I didn’t know who someone was. On the contrary, the book was enjoyable, informative and it encouraged me to look up on the things I wasn’t
familiar with, or were not my forte. Even though Matilda is a biography of an extraordinary women, this book doesn’t just list her life, times and achievements like a chronicle. On the contrary the author manages to weave the history of everyday life and attitudes of the people of the period into the narrative. To illustrate in the chapter when Matilda is pregnant with her first child, the future king Henry II, Catherine Hanley writes not only about what happened to Matilda, but also about the customs and how pregnancy was treated during the Middle Ages. The history of everyday life, the plight of the common people and attitudes, thoughts and behaviour of all classes of life is sprinkled at the appropriate place throughout the book. So not only do you get to know Matilda, but you get to know the period, its inhabitants and their way of thinking. Those things are mostly alien and strange to us, but they are necessary in order to understand why events played out as they did.
All things considered if someone would ask me to recommend a history book to someone that doesn’t usually read them I would wholeheartedly and without hesitation recommend Matilda. It’s an intelligent, balanced and superbly written book. The author’s no-nonsense style, clear and approachable style will make reading this book enjoyable instead of tedious and you will walk away from this book with some new information and a new appreciation for a woman that you might not have heard mentioned so much during your school years.
Before I sign off I’d like to let you know that Dewey’s Readathon is this Saturday, April 6th and I’ll be participating. So expect an increase in reviews this month. 🙂 Until next time dear reader(s)!