Seperis (seperis) wrote,

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books: here be dragons by sharon kay penman

This was--and still is, actually--one of my favorite books, but it's also one of the ones that irritate me weirdly, and a lot of this is because the author was very, very historically accurate on both events and attitudes of the time period of King John, and very, very good at drawing sympathetic characters and personal relationships.

This basically was the reason for me, the base conflict of Joanna's life made no sense, at least in how I view it, and I'm not altogether convinced at the time it was all that problematic (God I hate using that word for this); I suspect it later became A Huge Goddamn deal due to John's conflict with the Church and the invasion of Louis into England where people needed excuses to go to what they saw was the winning side.

Here Be Dragons is a novelization of the life of Joanna, daughter of King John and wife of Llewelyn the Great of Wales, along with a well-drawn tapestry of various other figures.

Penman's big problem was trying to reconcile wanting to write John sympathetically--which she did, way too well--while trying to at least partially defend his most obdurate detractors who had every reason in the world to say he ate babies at dinner. On one hand, I see her point of not wanting to whitewash him by putting everything down to spite, but the problem is, in the context of the time period, a lot of Shocking Things don't seem that goddamn shocking.

Five separate--historical--anecdotes from teh book:

Richard was killed by a freak arrow from a castle. Before he died, he took the castle, killed everyone, men, women, and children (hanging). John is the only one that remarks about it as less than a-okay, but again, in medieval terms, not that big a deal.

William de Braose offers hospitality to a Welsh nobleman, then during dinner kills them all, kidnaps the wife, and slaughters her son in front of her.

John starves Maud de Braose and her son to death in a dungeon.

Richards slaughters 2500 to 3500 hostages all at once in a fit of pique.

John hangs his Welsh hostages (some are children) but spares Llewelyn's eldest son.

More casually is the outright murder/slaughter of random people pretty constantly in war, burned out villages, etc, you get the idea. And yet.

The big breaking point between Joanna and John is the death of the de Braoses. Which--yes, it was a horrible way to die, don't get me wrong. What bother me is it is the HUGE FUCKING THING OF THINGS when there are few characters in the story who haven't committed atrocities of similar magnitude. Of course, retrospectively, this attitude was supposed to contextually explain adultery with Maude de Braose's grandson which is a good thought, but only works that Joanna is Traumatized For Life by something that in the context of all the horrific things happening, not terribly uniqe and meaningful.

There's also the uncomfortable split view of romanticized Middle Age and realistic Middle Age role of women.

In college, I did more history than anyone not majoring in it for sheer glee--technically speaking, I'd be two classes from majoring, but one was historeography and my ex did that and it was boring so no; my big thing was medieval pre-Tudor and especially women, so a lot of my non-fiction reading was concentrated on the role of women in from Matilda of Flanders on. This is not cred so much as a lot, lot, lot of reading. There is a reason I love historical romance, after all.

Taking into account the entire lack of formalized women's rights, religious view of women was influential in attitude in some ways, but not so much in ability.

Gently raised girls in the medieval period that weren't born royal (and even then, girls were rarely merely decorative appendages in this period) were working women from earliest childhood. Literacy is now a standard of education, but the time period did not have a lot of books and for hte most part, knowledge wasn't passed on by textbook anyway; it was a leisure activity for most people not in the Church or clerks. Girls could and did learn math, accounting (even if they couldn't write it out, that's what clerks were for), how to care for a population that could be betwee twenty-five and thousands depending on the wealth and estates of their husbands, and they were expected to be able to feed, clothe (literally, from the flax fibers up), house, and see to the health of everyone in their estate. At the lowest levels of the ruling class, knights with their own keep or castellans, the girls would interact directly with their serfs, oversee the breeding of animals, and their highest servants were--surprise--serfs or freed serfs from their own lands.

Sex, execution, rape, murder, abortion, sickness were not mysteries to any of them. Girls born to those classes did their own health care and often tended to that of the people in their keeps. Going higher in the chain, servants were more likely to be born free, higher and servants came from second or third daughters of the lowest landed class. But you had to get pretty damn high up for two generations at least before a girl would be born to a family where she and her mother would be separated enough from that to be technically considered the Victorian equivalent of innocent.

One theory put across about the dichotomy of women's rights, the rise of the concept of chivalry and honor toward women, and the surprisingly strict social controls placed on their use and abuse is that the women were not physically as strong as men and more importantly, it was goddamn dangerous for a family line to be limited to a woman since they could die in childbed at the first attempt at an heir, while a man didn't take that risk in fathering them.

[It took me a long time to get why medieval thought kept carrying on like the woman was only a physical container and not half the equation; they literally thought men's seed was seed. This book was the first one that ever finally said it outright with this entire tree metaphor and I was like, ooooh. No book would explain it before! I keep forgetting they didn't have advanced biology back then. So weird.]

The Church's view of women being chattel and subject to their husbands was fine--in theory. Every man wants to control his wife and daughters, but fewer men would be comfortable with other men beating teh shit out of his daughter (or his mother) for the fuck of it. Men also did not control the household if they were constantly off riding to war and household stuff was beneath them and it was surprisingly not rare for husbands to randomly fall desperately ill and die, which yeah, their health care was bad, but I've had moments wondering about all he hale, hearty guys who just up and died at home of some fever right around the time their son was just old enough to avoid wardship (and their mothers avoid second marriages or be able to choose to please themselves) but not so much that they would be experienced enough not to be willing to defer to their mother.

(Note: I wish I could remember which book had a truly hilarious little list of knights and lower nobleman who had died during Henry III's reign as illustration of the point that pretty much followed exactly that formula. I'd never considered it before but wow, those mysterious fevers or sudden infections from wounds. I mean, yes, health care, but taken together, it was an intriguing theory on what to do when your husband was a dick and you knew your botany. Even if anyone suspected, keeps were pretty much their own tiny kingdoms and news traveled slow, and it's not like there were autopsies, and unless you had some personal stake in it, eh. Death was normal, after all.)

Coming back to that, even as an illegitimate daughter of a king, Joanna's shown as almost ruthlessly naive about everything ever, and no matter how I parse that one, she comes off as more Regency educated than a girl who would have been exposed to court life regularly and at minimum, since she was well educated, by a woman of at least the lower classes of nobility who would have seen to it she was ready to marry into the middle or highest nobility of England. Ie, she might not have hung out with the serfs regularly, but she would have been prepped to marry into families where she would be running a large household and would deal with knights and knights' daughter, who were just as likely to rape, murder, steal, need abortions, and act like human beings.

[Also, the part of this that makes me boggle is that the de Braoses are shown as realistic maybe but not sympathetic and casually brutal and Joanna doesn't even like her, or the family. But this is her angst. Her dad she loves starved people she didn't like, who were mean to her, and also did some fairly horrific things. I just--can't make that emotional connection as more than theory, but Joanna's reaction is closer to John killing her sister or something; there's just not enough of an emotional connection there that, even if I'm willing to go with the starving thing was Horrific and Terrible, it wasn't to people Joanna had any kind of actual personal connection that makes it workable for her to spend her entire life hating herself for loving her father. Just. No.]

So through the end of the entire book, Joanna angsts and angsts and angsts about this shit, and then I hit Llewelyn's entire "I do not think I can love the daughter of this evil John" and holy shit, the bullshit, because speaking of Welsh (hell, Western) history they married their enemies' daughters pretty much all the time. It cannot have been that deeply emotionally scarring and unique when the entire novel was filled with political marriages where the girl's dad would turn around and slaughter at will.

I guess what threw me was this would have worked for me if we were talking about any family and relationship other than that of a Welsh prince and the Plantagenets, or for that matter, if Penman didn't outline so well the March Lords marrying into and out of the Welsh nobility and how common it was. Their entire lives were based on political and social realism and had been for generations; in the same chapter Llewelyn is angsting about oh, woe, Joanna my wife is John's daughter, he's also enjoying the company of men who killed his own close family, and Penman hits hard on how important blood ties are to the Welsh. All that realism and practicality then makes Llewelyn and Joanna look like they've stumbled into a Regency novel for a few chapters before stumbling out to go back to war, and it drives me nuts.

Going back to the entire role of women thing, Penman nails hard the chattel aspect of women and their tradabilty et al, but while mentioning women who had power, she also treats it like it's an exception or strange when it wasn't. Eleanor of Aquitaine was, yes, a hugely influential and singular powerful woman in history, so powerful that her second husband was so terrified of her he locked her up but didn't ever set her aside or not consult her and consult her and take advantage of her intelligence and experience and she was never queen even when imprisoned. That kind of absolute power was unique, being international, and Penman did a lot harping on Alais Capet and Ingeborg of Denmark and Eleanor of Brittany without quite making the connection that two of those three were specific to Henry II and Richard and both girls were political prisoners, not just women being victimized; which yes, they were women and their victimization was specifically female oriented, but Eleanor of Brittany's brother Arthur was killed, again, for political reasons, and for the same reason Eleanor was locked up. It sucks, but it wasn't Wee Let Us Victimize Some Girls Because We Can.

Maude de Braose was another example of Powerful Women Who Are Yet Victims of the Power of Men to Be Randomly Evil, which also didn't work since she wasn't starved for being a woman or for being powerful; she was starved because she pissed the fuck out of John and her adult son died with her.

To make Joanna and Eleanor more special and unique (and let me say, you don't need to make Eleanor of Aquitaine unique, that does not take work to do, okay?), and to highlight how Welsh women had more legal and/or by custom personal autonomy, she downplays a lot of other women with a great deal of personal and political power, and also, again, uses the Women as Chattel in the legal and religious sense to overlook how those both took a backseat a lot of the time to social custom, political pressure, and a realistic assessment of a world where men died in wars young and even considering the risks of childbed, women had a better chance of ending up single parenting and caring for their husband's estates.

Even Llewelyn taking his wife back after adultery is this Huge and Massive thing that no man would ever do, and the de Braose/hatred of John thing is used as the motivator to Explain The Inexplicable--but it's not inexplicable. Joanna was and might have been technically chattel, but she was the half-sister of the child king of England, she was the mother of Llewelyn's heir, and she had been a negotiator for her husband for years. And even with that, she'd been his wife for years. He could have just gotten the fuck over it because he wanted her influence over Henry, he recognized that her family was pretty influential, or he loved his wife, or all three. It's not that much of a drama.

Isobel de Clare, Countess of Pembroke, is shown very chattely and while an heiress, all her rights and power were given to her husband--they really weren't. She was an active manager of her estates, she was also the fourth countess of Pembroke, as in, her husband was her consort for the earldom.

Eva Marshall - her daughter and husband of the guy Joanna nailed and who was executed, held and administered the de Braose lands after her husband's death without male interference.

Isabelle of Angouleme - wife of John, she was also Countess of Angouleme after her father's death and ruled it on her own without interference after John's death before voluntarily marrying her daughter's betrothed.

I checked wikipedia on Isabelle's kids by Lusignan to remind myself and followign along in the time period by geneology, there are a ton of women who ruled over their own lands, in their own name, with or without male consorts.

I think part of my irritation is the book is so strongly female-oriented, but it overplays too much that the religious and legal view of women as chattel was a danger and shouldn't be dismissed but completely underplays how it was goddamn unusual and sometimes disastrous for men to actually try and live it. It wasn't life lived in a perfect vacuum where girls didn't have fathers or brothers and there was a grocery store and indoor plumbing and men weren't gone for years at a time.

And the same proportions of dickery level hold through; sure, there were men who beat their wives regularly and starved them and et al just for the fuck of it, but I just don't think that was a general truth for all men and women were just super lucky if they didn't die. It was a huge social solecism to beat your wife in public, though no one was saying it was wrong to beat her. You don't do that shit where her dad or brothers might see her; discounting that no matter what men believed of women, they'd also have zero issue with seeing their daughters victimized is insane. It would also be a fairly good test of what makes a hothead; a guy who loses it in front of everyone at a party is not someone you want in charge of men at arms ten miles from your estate who might take offense at something you did and go after your keep while you're on Crusade.

I feel like I'm making an apologia on chattelship, and I'm not, as it was real; what bothers me is that overemphasizing the legal and religious ignores the social and political and also assumes that no one was capable of having strong family feeling or that somehow, men at that time were magically born without the ability to love, care for, and want to protect their wives and daughters and this is a really new thing.

The careful focus on legal and religious history (in a population where most people couldnt' even read their own contracts if they had them and legal was often based on monetary donations to people who dispensed justice) strips the narrative of a lot of women who had a lot of agency by saying that it was at the mercy of men or it was really unusual, when it wasn't. In the crudest sense, people were still people back then, and I don't believe that humanity now is just that much less sociopathic. Legal options women didn't have; social options they did, and often. And in the most basic sense, I don't think men could easily go to bed with someone every night without some kind of basis of trust between them, because no matter the legal or religious, this was the person who saw to his household, his heirs, his meals, entertained his guests, saw to it his home was warm and comfortable, oversaw vassals and servants, and had more to do with the day to day life of the household personally than he did. And women were seen as weak and stupid, yeah, but stupid in matters of warfare and state, not stupid in matters of the household and estate that no matter who actually owned, for all intents and purposes they were far more likely to actually rule.

History is rife with men committing atrocities on women as wives, daughters, and mistresses, but I just don't think that could have been so common it was not spoken of or we wouldn't hear so much about those atrocities.

I was having a moment there. I still love the book, but knowing so much more about the time period now, it just irritates me how she got so much right and exact but smoothed over the difference between what was preached and what was practiced.

Thoughts? I need to pull my nonfiction and bios from storage and start looking for kindle versions; the paperbacks are tattered and possibly moldy, but I'm pretty sure some of them are in the public domain if I can track down the titles. *sighs*

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