I’ve been reading Sharon Bennett Connolly’s blog, History … the Interesting Bits!, for a while now and always enjoyed her posts. Thus, when she published her debut history book, Heroines of the Medieval World, I bought it, and boy howdy am I glad I did.
These are the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. The lives and actions of medieval women were restricted by the men who ruled the homes, countries and world they lived in. It was men who fought wars, made laws and dictated religious doctrine. It was men who were taught to read, trained to rule and expected to fight. Today, it is easy to think that all women from this era were downtrodden, retiring and obedient housewives, whose sole purpose was to give birth to children (preferably boys) and serve their husbands. Heroines of the Medieval World looks at the lives of the women who broke the mould: those who defied social norms and made their own future, consequently changing lives, society and even the course of history.
Some of the women are famous, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was not only a duchess in her own right but also Queen Consort of France through her first marriage and Queen Consort of England through her second, in addition to being a crusader and a rebel. Then there are the more obscure but no less remarkable figures such as Nicholaa de la Haye, who defended Lincoln Castle in the name of King John, and Maud de Braose, who spoke out against the same king’s excesses and whose death (or murder) was the inspiration for a clause in Magna Carta.
Women had to walk a fine line in the Middle Ages, but many learned to survive – even flourish – in this male-dominated world. Some led armies, while others made their influence felt in more subtle ways, but all made a contribution to their era and should be remembered for daring to defy and lead in a world that demanded they obey and follow.
I was expecting a kind of extended dance remix of her blog posts, would would have been just fine and well worth the money for a book in my opinion, but Heroines of the Medieval World was so much more than that. The stories within were well-researched, like her posts, and some of the women had been discussed before, but this was a fresh take in every way and an incredibly absorbing read.
For one thing, Connolly is clearly into history for fun. She doesn’t weigh down her prose with the pedantic postulations of professional historians. Nope. This reads like a the coolest, best professor in university trying to engage her students with the love of history, with the passion of history, with the sheer and unaltered fascination of history. She tells you all the *ahem* interesting bits of history that get dismissed as too gossipy (read: feminized) or covered with disdain by sneering academics desperate to prove history is ‘hard’ by making it as boring as possible.
(NB: Regardless of how boring you make your book, my dearest toffee-nosed intellectual from a prestigious university, history will never be given the same kind of awe-struck belief in its difficulty by the layman as sciences. You can write a book that is so boring it sucks the moisture from my eyeballs and leaves only dust pouring forth from the husks of my sockets (and you have, if I’m honest), yet you still won’t be equated with Stephen Hawking. If Eric Ives isn’t equated with Stephen Hawking, then you have no chance whatsoever. For the love of humanities, just give up the attempt.)
The compelling narrative style in no way impedes her research quality, however. She doesn’t play loosey-goosey with facts or lead with speculation just to make things a tab more salacious or seem ‘new’, as some other popular historians (whom I shall NOT name) will do. No, this book combined the veracity of academia with the blessedly entertaining writing of historical novels.
Additionally, it deals with a subject matter long overdue for attention – women in history. For eons most women have been sidelined, even in their own stories, so academics could focus on the real – and by real they mean penis-having – makers of history. And those quaint little topics like marriage and actual living? Forget about it! That’s for chicks! In Connolly’s book she not only writes about the big name players, queens or saints or warrior women, and how they shined in the spotlight, she also explained how important these heroines were backstage, in the dusty wings, making sure the play went on.
I not only learned many things, because history is vast and there are always new things you can discover, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself doing it. I cannot say that about all the history books I read.
If you love history, do yourself a huge favor and grab this book.