The Week in Books: England before William, the hilarious and the boring

This past week I’ve been reading two books, one of which, by the previously-blogged-about-and-Monty-Python-esque Howard of Warwick was a murder mystery set in a monastery near Lincoln, and the other, a fairly scholarly book about King Oswald and Britain around the time of Bede, was mind-numbingly boring, though based on the Amazon reviews, I’m clearly in the minority.

So, first I’ll start off with the one that kept me up at night not wanting to sleep until I knew how it ended.  The d'eathHeretics of D’eathby a clever fellow who goes by Howard of Warwick is pretty much everything that a good book should be.  It made me laugh, loudly, several times.  It also made me wonder what the heck was happening.  And finally, there were some brilliant descriptions that, while not necessarily the kind of poetic and thoughtful prose that I so admire in my girl-author-crush Kathleen Tessaro, are clever and well crafted.  All of which I like.

Brother Hermitage is an earnest monk in a monastery called D’eath’s Dingle.  He is keen and eager and loves to think and talk.  He annoys his fellow monks to no end.  He is engaged in a debate with a Brother Ambrosious about whether or not Jesus felt pain from the sand in his sandals during his 40 days in the desert, and at some point Ambrosious dies.  Hermitage didn’t realize it as he was so busy thinking about arguments and counter arguments, but he was caught in an empty room with the dead body, and so he is accused of a murder which he obviously couldn’t have committed lacking in both the cunning and the lack of care for his soul.  Hermitage is sent to Lincoln, 30 miles away, to tell the Bishop what’s happened, and along the way he meets Wat the Weaver, who has made a fortune selling dirty tapestries to nobility and craftsmen.  Dirty not in that they need washing, but dirty in that they are an early form of tapestrial playboy.  Wat is clever, sees the conundrum that poor Hermitage is in, and decides to help him solve the mystery before he is executed.  There are some other strange goings-on happening at D’eath’s Dingle, including an Earl who wants to have his younger son join the monastery, mysterious builders who show up without anyone having any idea who they are, a crazy naked gatekeeper, and a bunch of secret passages that may or may not house a serpent.  There is also a bumbling idiot called Simon who has been appointed The King’s Investigator, through no ability of his own, but only because those who know that’s going on at D’eath’s Dingle don’t want it ever to be solved.  Imagine the surprise when the actual King himself shows up, not having remembered appointing his own Investigator.

The whole thing kept me wondering and guessing until the end, and the adventures of poor Brother Hermitage were so much fun to read.  Fortunately for me, the good Howard of Warwick has penned several more ebooks available on Amazon featuring Brother Hermitage and Wat the (dirty) Weaver.

KinginthenorthNow, on to the less interesting books.  The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria by Max Adams is about just that – the life and times of Oswald Whiteblade, who was an early British king in the 7th century.  He lived a very exciting life, having been exiled when his father died, then coming back and reclaiming his birthright as the King of Northumbria.  He founded the monastery at Lindesfarne and invited the Irish Saint Aiden to come and minister to his pagan people after having converted to Christianity.  He lost his life in a battle against the Mercians, but much has been written about his life, the culture and education he introduced to England, as well as his view of Kingship and his desire to unite the English tribes several hundred years before Alfred the Great came along with the same revolutionary idea.

On the surface, this looks like a great book, which was why I bought it.  I would have thought that I would have loved it.  But, while it’s clearly written for a general reader, it just went on a bit too much for me with Anglo Saxon and Viking place names that I couldn’t understand, long debates about where a certain village might have been based on the conflicting histories of Bede and the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, and the history of medieval archaeological digs.  I couldn’t keep track of everything in my head.  There were chapters that literally had 4 or 5 pages devoted to a debate about where a particular town that was mentioned in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle could be based on something like it being mentioned in Bede that it was 12 miles from the sea, but it was also probably on the North shore of some river or another, and honestly, I just couldn’t keep track of it all.  I know that the information we have about these times is very tiny, and that’s probably why all of the emphasis on the background and historiography, but for me, it was too much.

Though it’s written for the general reader with few footnotes and appendices, I think it must assume a certain level of knowledge of the time, and I wouldn’t read this as the first introduction to the “Dark Ages” in England.  Also, it’s long and will require a serious commitment.  464 pages, or, according to my reading speed on my Kindle, about 9.5 hours.  That’s a lot of time to devote to a book that seems to put so much emphasis on debates about place names and locations.

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