Tag Archives: Hundred Years’ War

Summer of the Longbow

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.



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Bound Together!

Setting: 15th century France. A new tapestry has been delivered to the castle. Woven of wool, silk, silver and gold threads, the labor of four weavers over one year, it cost the equivalent of the finest warship, or a wealthy nobleman’s entire year’s income. Queen Isabeau contemplates its placement. 

Queen: Charlie is daft. A 14-by-18-foot tapestry? Hung on the west wall? Sure, the sea scene will reflect the moat. Nice touch. And it will cut down on drafts. But hanging it so close to the dampness of the moat? Hasn’t the King ever heard of reeky mildew? Yech! [steps back to gaze at tapestry] Nice ship, nice looking guys . . . 

After a design by Pieter Coecke van Aelst (Flemish, 1502–1550) The Defeated Pompey Meeting His Wife at Sea, from The Story of Julius Caesar, designed 1540, woven c. 1640, wool. Gift of George Leary to Carnegie Museum of Art, 54.5.1


This is my little fiction. I’ve been reading big fiction (574 pages) to prepare for next month’s meeting of the Bound Together Book Club, the Library’s collaborative program with the Carnegie Museum of Art. On February 11, we’ll stare in wonder at the beautifully restored wall-sized tapestries in the Gods, Love, and War Exhibition, learn how they were made and what the imagery means. We’ll also discuss a relevant historical novel concerning Charles VI of France, In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S. Haasse.  

In a Dark Wood Wandering follows strict parameters of the historical fiction genre: it presents a story that takes place during a notable period in history (beginning with the reign of Charles VI, known as the Wise, the Well-Loved, and the Mad King); the story centers on a significant event in that period (the second half of France’s Hundred Years’ War with England, which includes Joan of Arc’s military career); and the novel presents actual events from the point of view of people living in that time period (the majority of In a Dark Wood Wandering is from the point of view of Charles VI’s nephew, Charles, Duke of Orléans). To prepare for our discussion, I’ve been reading authoritative background history, none of which is nearly as compelling as this fictional account. 

Please join us for Bound Together. Space is limited. Call 412.622.3288 to register. Gods, Love, and War: Tapestries and Prints from the Collection will be on view at the Carnegie Museum of Art until June 13, 2010. 


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