For some reason I always read more fiction in the summer. This summer I am falling back on the master of historical fiction, Bernard Cornwell, and his Grail Quest series, Archer’s Tale, Vagabond, Heretic, and 1356.
The setting is the Hundred Year’s War, a theater boasting armored knights in colorful coats of arms, castles, sieges, and the indomitable English longbow, a battlefield advantage so consistently discussed and lionized that it comes as a shock to look at a modern map of France and notice no English territories are left. Seriously, at least weekly one can turn on cable TV and watch an expert in medieval warfare (how many of these people can society support?) shooting arrows into an armored mannequin and breathlessly proclaiming the evident effectiveness of the bodkin point against a French dummy swathed in steel plate.
The long bowman was a triumph of brutal technology against the aristocratic desire to be seen around town charging other aristocrats with a lance. French knights fell in the thousands under storms of English arrows. And this happened on a few different occasions, proving the resiliency of fashion amidst the upper classes. Charging your enemy on horseback was the thing that knights were supposed to do. And if you died stuck with a half dozen arrows fired by a broad backed chav from across the channel, well, c’est la vie!
Besides the bad news for French knights, the Hundred Years War also witnessed the devastation of the French countryside at the hands of marauding bands of English soldiers looking for whatever wealth they could extract from farms, villages, and towns. Oh, and throw the Black Death into the mix too. It took a hallucinating French teenage girl and an England exhausted by war to finally bring the whole thing to a close. When the dust had settled France was one big step closer to becoming the modern nation state we all know today. And the long bowman became enshrined in English identity, somehow inspiring people with the knowledge that you could invade a country and kill scads of tactically impaired rich guys, take some stuff, and then go back home? Anyway.
Cornwell’s books dive right into the horror and color of this period. A likeable protagonist tries to sort out the mystery of his past and commits to a quest that could change the world. To ice this cake the author creates a great villain, the sinister Guy Vexille, a man so driven by religious passion he is capable of any evil. I normally detest Holy Grail conspiracy stuff, it’s all so ludicrous. But in this case, the principals involved are of a different time, and the details are wrapped in believable histories. All in all, this is summer escapism done flawlessly. Because the Hundred Years War was so long, something around a hundred years apparently, Cornwell actually wrote another book with different characters to explore the later part of the war and one of the last great English victories, Agincourt.
“But I don’t like long descriptions of people killing each other with archaic weapons!” you say. I guess there are people who might not like that. Thankfully you can get medieval without having to get medieval. Check out the Cadfael series of mysteries by the linguist-scholar Edith Pargeter who wrote under the name Ellis Peters, or the TV adaptation starring Derek Jacobi. You can feel the darkness and hunger of the period without all the stabbing and cutting and arrows flying around and all that. The books are very popular and anything with Derek Jacobi is good.