28 Aug 2014

The Healer's Apprentice by Melanie Dickerson

Kindle Edition, 276 Pages
Zondervan, September 2010

Two Hearts. One Hope.

Rose has been appointed as a healer's apprentice at Hagenheim Castle, a rare opportunity for a woodcutter's daughter like her. While she often feels uneasy at the sight of blood, Rose is determined to prove herself capable. Failure will mean returning home to marry the aging bachelor her mother has chosen for her—a bloated, disgusting merchant who makes Rose feel ill.

When Lord Hamlin, the future duke, is injured, it is Rose who must tend to him. As she works to heal his wound, she begins to understand emotions she's never felt before and wonders if he feels the same. But falling in love is forbidden, as Lord Hamlin is betrothed to a mysterious young woman in hiding. As Rose's life spins toward confusion, she must take the first steps on a journey to discover her own destiny.


My third read by Melanie Dickerson (although the first book she wrote) did provide some interesting background, as two of the successive books have as leading characters the children of the protagonists. I confess to being perhaps a little obsessed with the subject of surgery and the medical profession in the middle Ages, so I’m a big fan of Cadfael and have a liking for the mystery series The Chronicles of Hugh de Singleton for its details about surgical practice and medical procedures if nothing else.
In this sense, The Healer’s Apprentice was satisfying, and in some ways a break from the norm, because the female healer was not accused of witchcraft or heresy as is the common misconception and trope in many fictional stories.

On the simplest level this was a good story, which, aside from the inclusion of the evil magician, stripped away a lot of the fantasy content to create a more historical backdrop for the story of Sleeping Beauty. That may not be according to everyone’s taste, and sometimes the resemblance to the fairy-tale was rather remote, but generally in this story the shifting of the setting to fourteenth century Germany seemed to work.

The element of Romance is arguably, essential to any good fairy-tale, or fairy-tale adaptation, yet I personally have to say I am rather going off romance stories at the moment, especially those of the fluffy, mushy and clichéd kind.
This novel did seem to be an offender with its gorgeous heroine and wonderfully handsome, dashing- and of course muscular hero. In other ways Rose and Wilhelm were strong and interesting characters, but in this way far too typical of the genre.
Perhaps inevitably for the genre, some parts were cliched and some incidents hopelessly convenient or a tad predictable.

Also, their actions were at times frustratingly inconsistent with Rose being madly infatuated with Wilhelm’s brother one minute, then turning round and considering him the most evil person who ever walked the earth the next. Admittedly, she had a reason, was of that invariably capricious breed of people called a teenager.
Her attitude towards her parents I found even harder to swallow. Like her being convinced that they could not possibly have loved her because they sent her away as a child. Or might it not have been because they wanted to protect her from the evil magician intent on subjecting her to a lifetime of torture, the central basis of the plot, and all that?

Even Wilhelm ended up looking down on them as cowardly and selfish for such a thing. I mean seriously, after all they went through, I rather think they ought to have appreciated the reasons for Rose’s parents’ choice to let her go. But no, all they do is whinge and condemn, making their response seem contrived it itself, and them immature.
Did they learn nothing at all?

Also, a few historical issues perhaps warrant mention- like the suspiciously out of place presence of the American chipmunk in the forests of Medieval Europe, and some elements of what appeared to be modern clichés and judgements. Such as Rose determined to marry for love, rather than practicality, or looking down on those who saw women only as breeding machines, or her being more ‘enlightened’ than the general populace who supposedly attributed almost every ill circumstance to demons.

Altogether The Healers Apprentice was a good and generally clean (aside from the odd kissing scene that verged on the inappropriate- or just tiresome) story for young-adults. Perhaps also in could provide a more wholesome alternative to the fairy tales that present an ambiguous picture of magic as something which can be used for ‘good’. I just prefer my medieval stories with a little more substance.

15 Aug 2014

Godfrey of Bouillon, Defender of the Holy Sepulchre

Kindle Edition, 124 pages
30 March 2011
Godfrey of Bouillon is pretty much self-explanatory; it’s about the Duke of Bouillon who became the first ruler of Jerusalem following its conquest during the first Crusade. It’s essentially a fictionalised biography of Godfrey, written from the perspective of various people who knew him, from his early childhood to his death.

Admittedly, it doesn’t have the dramatic tension, political intrigue and emphasis on romance of some modern historical novels. The emphasis is more on the hero’s battles and political career, and his relations with other Crusaders. It is written in more of a narrative style, representative of older and classic novels from the Victorian period or first part of the twentieth century.

This is not to say the writing is pedestrian or partisan, indeed the depiction of peoples from other backgrounds, such as Jews and Muslims was quite sensitive and generally positive. Godfrey befriends an Imam for instance, who becomes a close friend and confidante. That said, their relationship did seem plausible for the time, rather than being based on modern liberal notions of religious syncretism or pacifism. The characters did not believe Islam and Christianity were basically the same, and everyone had equal claim to Jerusalem and war was evil, so everyone should get on.

Such notions just stick out like a proverbial sore thumb in books like this, and seem contrived, not even to mention the fundamental differences between Islam and Christianity. So Godfrey and his fellows clearly hold the traditional, Medieval Crusading mindset, of retaking the Holy places for Christendom. That said, it is claimed that Godfrey expressly ordered the Jewish and Muslim population of Jerusalem to be spared. I don’t know the truth of this, but I am aware that not all Medieval Europeans were rabid anti-Semites, and some Bishops did protect Jews. If accurate, it could cast a different light on some of the more controversial incidents in the Crusades.

Though generally researched, with a sound bibliography, I did notice one or two historical errors, such as a reference to potatoes, and to William the Conqueror having sent ships with supplies for the Crusading cause in 1098- nine years after his death. Also, Godfrey is referred to as ‘French’, when actually, as a Goodreads friend pointed out, Bouillon is located in modern-day Belgium. I could just imagine Godfrey, if alive today, annoyed at being called French for the umpteenth time, animatedly asserting ‘I am not French, I am Belgian! Like his countryman Hercule Poirot.

Finally, readers may wish to note that this is counted as ‘Christian Fiction’ as the elements of faith are strong. I am a Christian, so don’t mind this, but it did not seem preachy or forced, but an accurate representation of the norms of the period. Again, I don’t know much about Godfrey, but he is represented as very pious, though not in a sanctimonious or hypocritical way. Rather his faith seemed genuine, and the religious elements worked well with the story to explore Christian themes and concepts.

Overall, this was a satisfying read, which I would recommend for any interested in Godfrey himself or the First Crusade more generally, and seeking a work that is free of the political- correctness which can pervade other novels set in this period.

6 Aug 2014

Ex Muslim- Naeem Fazal

Kindle Edition 256 Pages, 
10th June 2014, Thomas Nelson
Jesus revealed himself to a young, brash, Pakistani Muslim. But he didn’t just reveal himself; he turned Naeem Fazal’s world upside down.

Moving from Kuwait to Charleston, South Carolina, had been an adventure. Surrendering his life to Jesus Christ was actual treason. And yet, Jesus brought Fazal the most powerful peace he had ever experienced: “It filled the room. It grew roots in my heart and in my soul. It intoxicated me.”
In this riveting memoir, Fazal describes how God used extraordinary means to bring a young, underachieving, Muslim immigrant through Desert Storm, across the oceans, into college, and ultimately to pastor a Christian church in North Carolina. He demonstrates that no character flaw, no distance, no cultural chasm is too great for Jesus to reach across.

Fazal is candid about his shortcomings, practical about the challenges of cross-cultural engagement, and ultimately inspiring that God is capable of far more than we have grown to expect. He says, “Jesus consistently, stubbornly refuses to limit himself to my expectations. Which makes getting to know him an unfolding adventure of epic proportions.” 
Whether you are a Muslim, Christian, or neither, Ex-Muslim makes a compelling case that life with Jesus Christ is a true adventure.

Ex-Muslim was, for the most part, and inspiring and compelling account of Naaem Fazal’s conversion, spiritual journey and ministry. There is plenty here of what he has learned, to inspire readers to a deeper relationship with God, or to challenge us in our current situation. I recall making a number of highlightings on my Kindle of passages which spoke to me in some way, and I would certainly keep this book to read again.

The only reason for the lower rating was really personal. I just found parts of the book, dare I say, a little tedious in places. Much of the book is really related more to the growth of the author’s church and ministry, especially the last parts. I suppose I personally was expecting a Muslim testimony, which was more related to the author’s life as a Muslim and his conversion. So in this degree, I was a little disappointed and did not find the book as good as I expected, but I can understand why Mr Fazal wrote as he did.

If you are seeking a book which gives insights into Islamic beliefs, teachings, practice and Middle Eastern Culture, and a more detailed account of the author’s ultimate journey to Christ, I would recommend Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi, also published by Thomas Nelson. However, if you are looking for a book which details spiritual growth and lessons after coming to Christ, this would be a good book to choose.

I received a free Kindle EdItion of this book from BookLook Bloggers for review. I was not required to write a positive one, and all opinions expressed are my own.

4 Aug 2014

Castle Tours #1- Bodiam Castle

Quick Profile

Date of Construction: 1385-before 1392
Original Owners: Sir Edward Dallingridge and Sucessors
Location: County of East Sussex, close to border with Kent
Intact Until: c1644, when it was 'slighted' sometime after
Bodiam, one of the most picturesque and emigmatic castles in England often appears on the covers of books and magazines. Including  those of Alicia Willis Comrades of Honor series-and its no wonder. What Bodiam is lacking the size and imposing structure like the great fortresses like Beaumaris on the Welsh Borders, it makes up for in looks.

Undeniably and unashamedly gorgeous, part of Bodiam's attraction may be that it is the archetypal Medieval Castle, sometimes described as a 'fairy-tale castle'. Indeed, on a cold morning, with mist rising from the moat, if the photos as anything to judge by, the castle does indeed have an air of the fantastical.
It even sports a few monsters- well at least large carp who may be seen in the moat vying for food from visitors with the greedy ducks. 
Bodiam was the brainchild of Sir Edward Dallingridge, and country knight who lived in the late fourteenth century and made his fortune in the Hundred Years War with France.
His family were medieval social climbers, originally of peasant stock the first notable Dallingbridge was, in fact a humble forester. [1]

A 'monster' in the moat

Edward himself increased the families' wealth with a good marriage, and quite possibly, Edward was associated with the notorious 'free companies'. These bands of marauding soldiers who ravaged and burned their way across France, looting, pillaging and ransoming, though technically owing allegiance to none. It’s a sobering thought that pretty little Bodiam was essentially 'built on blood money' and such ill-gotten gains.[2]
This was not the only way in which the building of Bodiam took liberties, for Dallingridge had originally applied for a licence to 'crenelate' or fortify his manor house. Not so uncommon in the Later Middle Ages, but instead of building walls around his existing manor, as the licence allowed, with the crenelated battlements archetypal of the period, he built and entirely new castle from scratch. Amidst the turmoil of war, and by the brash, ostentatious ambition of its creator, Bodiam was came into existence, to survive for the next 600 years.

Historical background aside, Bodiam is a fascinating place from which much can be learned of the period, despite the ruinous state of the interior. The Castle was built around a large, square central courtyard, which is apparent from some of the photos I took on a higher level. The floor plan above also helps put flesh on the bones, to reveal what some of the rooms would have been in their heyday.

The castle chapel
The use of this room, located on the bottom right of the square was fairly obvious, judging from the large, central arched window divided into three and the raised platform. It was, as you may have guessed, the Castle Chapel. The fourteenth century falls into the sub-period referred to as the 'Later Middle Ages' by historians. It was a time when private chapels were becoming increasingly common on great houses, and faith was becoming, for some, more personal and inward. Castle chapels were not generally of this form , but were usual even in the fortresses of the 11th and 12th century.

The main event, however, was probably the Great Hall, located on the opposite side of the castle from the main gate, and just right of the Postern Gate. The food served in the hall offered the Lord of the Castle an opportunity to display his wealth, affluence and generosity as a host. This was where the important and favoured guests wined and dined.
There was, in fact, another such hall on the left hand-side of the Castle for retainers, who often ate in the Great Hall, but in this case had one of their own.

The Great Hall

How it may have looked back in the day...
At one end of the hall are visible today three arched doorways, They formed a part of the Castle known as the screens passage prominent today, these would have been more discreetly concealed in the 14th century, with a wooden screen, as well as the stone one. They led to the service area for the Great Hall.
A pantry and buttery were located through the left and right archways, the buttery, in spite of how the name may sound, was not used to store butter, but drink- primarily ale and wine. In the middle was a passage leading to the Kitchens.

The Screens passage and far end of the Hall

The Screens passage at Penshurst Hall, Kent
There, were, according to modern floor plans like the one above, actually two kitchens at Bodiam. The main one served the Great Hall, and a second adjoined the retainers hall.
Apart from a reconstructed Great Chair, the Hall is bare and ruinous today, but an Bodiam's  hall was identical to another, surviving hall of similar date at a great house in Kent, and archaeologists have done a great job with  reconstructions of how it may have looked in Edward Dallingridge's time.

On the day of my visit, there were a series of historical talks held in the Great Hall, hosted by two very knowledgeable  costumed interpreters. The one I attended was about Medieval Hygiene, a subject of interest to me because of my hatred for Hollywood tropes of stinking- black toothed Medieval people throwing food over their shoulders.
For the record, this was absolutely not done in polite company, Medieval folk were actually very strict on table manners.
Bodiam also boasted the latest modern conveniences- quite literally. There were no fewer than 28 garderobes- the equivalent of en-suite bathrooms at Bodiam, for many were located in the extensive guest chambers. It seems Sir Edward designed Bodiam with accommodating guests as one of its main purposes.

A few of the guest chambers have been reconstructed, and with their fireplaces alongside the garderobes, would really seem as though they would have been quite comfortable and cosy. All seem to have had windows, with deep alcoves that seem to have been window seats. Useful for sewing or reading, perhaps?
The layout of these chambers also helps to account for the many arch shaped doorways next to fireplaces which can be seen dotting the walls of the castle at various heights.

A guest room with fireplace and en-suite bathroom

Unlike other great fortresses, Bodiam was not host to any major historical events, it may have been besieged in the Wars of the Roses, but seems to have peacefully changed hands several times. During the English Civil War it was sold to pay the debts of the Royalist owner, and was 'slighted', which meant put out of use. This seems to have involved dismantling the gatehouse and inner rooms, but not destroying the Castle or its structure.
The slighting may seem like the end of the story, but, in a sense, Bodiam was fortunate, for so many of the other Castles of England were entirely or largely destroyed during the Civil War or the Restoration that followed it.
Although a ruin since the 1600s, Bodiam underwent some restoration, under various owners in the 19th century, including some work on the towers which seems to be intact today. One such owner was the famous (or infamous) philanthropist and eccentric 'Mad Jack' Fuller, who seems to have purchased the place to prevent in from further destruction. He was not the only one to see the castle's value, for a later owner George Curzon, 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedlestone is supposed to have said "so rare a treasure [as Bodiam Castle] should neither be lost to our country nor desecrated by irreverent hands"[3]

On his death in 1925 Bodiam come into the hands of the National Trust, its current owners, allowing for its enjoyment by visitors. Bodiam,  rare for its almost complete surviving outer walls, and stunning good looks, is deserving of fame. For it is a remarkable survivor and representative of those far-gone days, which fascinate and feed many an imagination today.

I hope readers have enjoyed this little virtual and pictorial 'tour', and hopefully there will be more to come in future posts.

Sources & References

[1] Marc Morris, Castle: A History of the Buildings the Shaped Medieval Britain (London, 2003), p151.
[2] Ibid, p153.
[3] ‘Bodiam Castle’,  Wikipedia.com, Accessed 4th August 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodiam_Castle

Marc Morris, Castle: A History of the Buildings that Shaped Medieval Britain (London, 2003).

Wikipedia Page, 'Bodiam Castle', http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodiam_Castle

Floor plan from: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/436849232575390790/
Reconstruction of Great Hall created by Alice Watterson, webpage: http://digitaldirtvirtualpasts.wordpress.com/bodiam-castle/
Great Hall at Penshurst Place from Wikimedia Commons.

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