Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Snapshots of Medieval Life

Review: The Last Knight by Norman F. Cantor

In the West, we’re fascinated by the glamorous Middle Ages, the Age of Chivalry. Encouraged by Arthurian legend and chivalric poetry, we romanticize hundreds of years of European history into Errol Flynn’s Earl of Essex, or the derring-do of Alan Ladd as the Black Knight. We borrow mentally from these fantasies of knights and medieval life as we read historical fact or fiction, often without realizing we are doing so.

This is the principal value of Norman F. Cantor’s book, The Last Knight, for anyone trying to build a valid concept of life during this time. By presenting the life of a key figure, John of Gaunt, in a series of snapshots of medieval life, Cantor succeeds in side-lining the mental baggage gleaned from film, fiction and the Prince Valiant comic strip.

And the book is now on Kindle, so you can use it like a reference work when reading Catherine Kean, Martin Archer, Kathryn LeVeque or David Pilling.

John of Gaunt was an important figure in England in the closing decades of the Middle Ages. Yet this influential man, whose son would oust his nephew from the throne of England over Gaunt’s protests, has been relegated to a footnote in history texts. Today, he is chiefly known as the patron of Geoffrey Chaucer.

Born in 1340 in Ghent (for which Gaunt is an anglicization), John was the second surviving son of the Plantagenet King Edward III of England. He would inherit his title of Duke of Lancaster from his father-in-law, so his line is called Lancastrian, symbolized by a red rose. After John of Gaunt’s son Henry replaced his brother Edward’s son (as King Henry IV), young Edward became Duke of York. His family line would come to be symbolized by a white rose. Thus the events that would lead to the Wars of the Roses, a conflict that would sweep England into chaos in during Gaunt’s grandson’s lifetime, began during John of Gaunt’s life.

Cantor introduces this history, and the great families and countries of Europe, with an overview that clarifies the relationships of the people and societies the book covers, but then departs from chronological narrative—the “story.” He chooses instead to focus on topics: Plantagenet England, women, warriors, Spain, the Church, peasants, politics, and Chaucer.

In the “Warriors” and “Spain” chapters, for example, Cantor explores the rituals, ideals, and realities of combat for John of Gaunt and his brother the Black Prince Edward, and their military exploits in France and Spain.

Froissart tells us—in an account absorbed by generations of British schoolchildren—that the English won the great victory at Crécy because they were much better organized and less hotheaded than the French; that Edward III was cool and tactically shrewd; that the French king was personally brave but anguished and confused… Is Froissart’s account true? We have no way of knowing, since it is the only detailed account of the battle.

“Peasants,” on the other hand, reveals the hatred of the commoner for John of Gaunt, fired by Langland’s influential poem Piers Plowman and the lectures of the Lollard priest John Ball. Cantor’s description of Ball’s lectures, a major factor in causing the Peasant’s Revolt—during which the Savoy Palace, John of Gaunt’s home in London, was burned down—I found strangely reminiscent of modern-day “politics of personal destruction.”

The topical organization made this book a perfect (if cerebral) choice for the bookshelf in my bathroom. I read it in a series of two- to three-page stints, often while sitting on my “reading chair” in that room. It also makes this an easy work to peruse while waiting on line at the bank or sitting in the doctor’s office.

Wherever you choose to read it, don’t miss The Last Knight. If nothing else, I guarantee you’ll never watch A Knight’s Tale with the same uncritical eye again.

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