Book Review: Medieval Medicine, Its Mysteries and Science by Toni Mount

I’m fascinated by the history of medicine so I was excited to have the chance to read Medieval Medicine: Its Mysteries and Science by Toni Mount. Needless to say, the book is about medieval medicine and the science behind it (as well as the not-so-scientific parts). The text starts off with a quick introduction explaining how forms of treatment can be found in animal behavior as well as evidence of prehistoric medicine. Each chapter after that covers a specific aspect of medical practices in the Middle Ages. Some such aspects include (but are not limited to!) miasmas, astrology, the Church, and malpractice. The book includes pictures as well, which I found quite nice. (This is a personal preference, but I liked how the photos were printed on the same type of paper as the rest of the book. I’m not a fan of the glossy paper other books use for their illustrations. I’m not a fan of the texture of the glossy paper.)

I appreciated how easy to read the prose was. In my personal opinion, too many academic texts are non-accessible for the average reader. When you have accessible prose, your work reaches a wider audience, thus allowing more people to learn things they would not have otherwise. Thanks to Mount’s writing style, it was much easier for me to remember what was explained. When I’m reading non-fiction that is exactly what I want.

Another thing I liked was that a good chunk of Mount’s sources came from the web. This makes it easier for readers to do further research without having to buy a bunch of $100 books if their local library does not own a copy. That being said, I was not a fan of how often Mount cites Wikipedia. While Wikipedia is a good source for getting the gist of something as well as finding primary sources in the references, it’s not a reliably accurate enough place to use in your book. Luckily, she usually only uses Wikipedia for basic explanations of things such as gemstones, but she is still using it. I would recommend doing further research into anything she has cited from Wikipedia.

Overall, Medieval Medicine: Its Mysteries and Science by Toni Mount is a good jumping-off point for readers who want to know more about medieval medicine but aren’t quite sure where to start.

The Midwife’s Apprentice By Karen Cushman Book Summary and Review

Content Note: Discussions of abuse and spoilers for The Midwife’s Apprentice.

Usually, I don’t do book reviews here (I think I may have written two before) but I figured I would spice things up today before returning to my usual content! Today I will be reviewing the children’s book The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman.

The Book’s Summary:

The Midwife’s Apprentice is a story about a twelve or thirteen-year-old girl living in medieval England. (The narration never specified her age as the girl doesn’t even know how old she is.) At first, the girl is nameless, only going by “Brat.” We are introduced to Brat as she crawls into a dung pile to sleep. Brat is a homeless, wandering orphan trying to get out of the cold. She also goes into the dung pile to hide from some boys who are tormenting her.

The boys do find her and start tormenting Brat, giving her a new name: Beetle. (As in dung beetle.) They are chased away by a woman who asks Beetle if she is dead because if she is dead the woman has to get the bailiff to take her body away. Beetle opens her eyes, revealing that she is in fact alive. This woman is Jane Sharp and she is the local midwife. She tells Beetle she’ll feed her and give her a place to sleep if she works for her. Hungry, not wanting to sleep in the dung pile anymore or venture off to another village to beg, Beetle accepts and becomes Jane’s servant and eventual apprentice.

However, Jane is not doing this out of the kindness of her heart. Jane is a cruel woman who not only torments Beetle but her patients as well. She is verbally, physically, and emotionally abusive to pretty much everyone she interacts with. Jane also refuses to go to women who can’t pay her hefty fees, often causing women to have to give birth with no help, other than their local neighbors. While Jane isn’t a professionally trained midwife as it’s the Middle Ages and the knowledge was passed down from woman to woman, she does know her stuff. What I’m saying is, women died in childbirth all the time and if something goes horribly wrong you want someone there who knows what they are doing even if they are a horrible human being. To make matters worse for her patients, Jane is the only midwife in the area and if you want a lesser chance of dying in childbirth, unfortunately, you have to put up with her.

Jane looks down upon Beetle and treats her horribly. She thinks Beetle is an idiot and abuses her physically and emotionally at every chance she gets. However, Beetle is not as stupid as Jane and the others in the village make her out to be. The more work she does for Jane, the more and more she learns. Soon enough Beetle has memorized Jane’s medical recipes and can make them on her own. This gives Beetle a sense of freedom.

Over the course of the book, Beetle starts to become her own person. She makes friends, gets some revenge on people who have wronged her, rescues a few boys, and overall has quite a few adventures. Eventually, she decides to rename herself Alyce. At first, no one will call her Alyce, but as time goes by more and more people do. Soon enough Alyce is loved and even more respected than Jane due to the kindness she gives patients that have been abandoned by the older midwife. (After all, Jane has absolutely no qualms with leaving patients and their babies to die if someone richer has just gone into labor.)

Despite the respect Alyce gets, she is still young and does not know everything. After a patient’s baby gets stuck, Alyce panics and Jane has to come to the rescue. Alyce, ashamed that she could not help, gives up midwifery. She runs away from the village and starts working as a servant at a somewhat far off inn.

There at the inn, Alyce learns more practical life skills and even learns to read and write thanks to the lessons of a traveling scholar. At one point Jane visits the inn but doesn’t see her. While Jane is telling the scholar about midwifery, Alyce overhears her complaining about her. Jane is annoyed with Alyce and basically says she needs an apprentice who won’t give up at the slightest hint of trouble. Babies don’t stop being born just because the midwife has a personal crisis. (Which, as much as I do not like Jane, is true.)

Time goes on and Alyce still works at the inn as a servant. She has absolutely no intention of returning to midwifery but then something happens: a woman has come to the inn who is in labor! At first, no one in the woman’s traveling party can believe it because 1) no one knew she was pregnant (least of all herself!) and 2) she and her husband thought they were barren. But after the innkeeper feels the woman’s stomach she tells them that she is most certainly pregnant and the pain is not from a stomach worm. The husband is totally in denial and basically says “No, she’s not pregnant. I mean, yeah, my wife has gotten really fat lately but that’s because she won’t stop eating. I’m not a father!!!”

But the woman is pregnant and she’s in labor and the baby is coming now.

At first, the innkeeper helps her but soon enough she’s doesn’t know what to do. All this time Alyce has been watching but not saying anything. Alyce has been too terrified of screwing up again to help. But eventually, she knows she has to. Alyce comes to the rescue and the baby is safely delivered. It is only when Alyce is able to help the woman does she realize that she is meant to be a midwife. She returns to Jane, who won’t have her at first. But Alyce remembers what Jane said previously: she needs someone who doesn’t give up. Alyce pesters Jane for a while and eventually, she is let back in to continue her training. This is where the book ends.

The Book Review:

I enjoyed The Midwife’s Apprentice. I thought it was a good book. I gave it four stars on Goodreads. It’s a pretty short book so I finished it within a day. (It’s a children’s book so of course, it’s short.) The story is well written and Alyce is a likable character. Admittedly, she’s a bit bland at first. At the start of the book, she’s extremely timid and not very interesting. However, her shyness is due to the fact she has spent the entirety of her life (or at least the life she remembers) in a world that neglects and abuses her. After all, she has no family, no money, no home, and no name. So it’s extremely satisfying to watch her become her own person and gain the confidence that comes with realizing she is capable, worthy of love, respect, and she’s not just a burden like the world has told her her entire life.

And Alyce finally choosing her own name is something I can really relate to. The moment she does so was extremely touching.

Karen Cushman does a fantastic job of making Jane extremely unlikable. I absolutely hated Jane. (However, that is the point of her character.) Jane is abusive to everyone around her and to add to how horrible of a person she is, she’s also having an affair with a man who has a wife and thirteen children! Her character also shows that even the people you are supposed to trust won’t always (if ever!) have your best interests in mind. It’s an important lesson for kids to learn that sometimes you can’t trust your doctors, especially when it comes to childbirth. There are so many cases out there of doctors and midwives refusing to listen to or flat out abusing their laboring patients (especially women of color). While The Midwife’s Apprentice takes place in medieval England, the fact that patient abuse is still extremely dominant today is important for kids to learn about so they can protect themselves in the future.

In other reviews I’ve read of The Midwife’s Apprentice, people have a lot of issues with Alyce returning to her abuser at the end of the book. Her return is definitely problematic, but I understand why she did so. Jane is the only person Alyce knows who has the knowledge she needs to be a proper midwife. While her return is not ideal at all the ending does have a lot of hope to it. It’s stated throughout the book that Jane is terrified of another midwife taking her business and at one point Alyce does take her patients. Hopefully, once Alyce has learned all she can from Jane she will be able to leave for good and take care of the village’s parents instead of Jane.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Midwife’s Apprentice. I think it’s an excellent book and I recommend it for children and adults alike.

Book Review: Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives

When I lived in Oxford during the spring of 2018, I visited Oxford Castle and Prison before going home. While in the gift shop, I decided to buy a few souvenirs to remember my visit. Besides a bottle of mint mead (delicious!) I also bought a few books. (My go-to souvenirs are books and mugs.) One such book was Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives. I flipped through it at the time, but never actually read it all the way through. Well, that was until I picked it up again on December 14, 2020. I finished reading Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives a few days ago and I really regret not reading it all the way through sooner! It’s based on Terry Jones’ 2004 BBC documentary series (which admittedly, I have not seen yet). Each episode of the documentary is based on a different medieval profession and the book follows suit.

My copy of Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives

The topics of the eight chapters are as follows: Peasant, Minstrel, Outlaw, Monk, Philosopher, Knight, Damsel, and King. Each chapter describes some misconceptions about the topic on hand before deconstructing it to show why it’s not quite true. For example, in the peasant chapter, Jones describes our modern idea of a medieval peasant (dirty, illiterate, rude, etc.) then goes on to gives historical evidence for why that’s not quite true. After explaining the truth, Jones also gives examples of why these misconceptions came to be, offering even more historical context. He points out that people keeping documentation will have agendas and these will make accounts biased. (The king chapter is a great example of this!)

Jones’ writing style is humorous and easy to read. It’s light-hearted, fun, and extremely witty. Jones also does a good job of including quotes from primary sources to help the reader get into the head of a medieval person. Not only that, the book has several pages filled with medieval art, which enhances the experience.

Overall, the text is entertaining, funny, and I recommend it for anyone who wants to learn about the medieval period but isn’t quite sure where to start.

Prioress Eleanor Series by Priscilla Royal

Content Warning: Discussion of Sexual Violence at the End

 

Usually, I analyze historical texts on this blog. However, I want to do something a bit different. Today I want to discuss a book series that I’ve been enjoying.

Last year I really got sucked into mystery novels. There are a lot of subgenres in this particular genre. My personal favorites are historical ones where the detectives are clergy. I know that is a very specific niche, but you would be surprised just how many series there are out there with that premise! One such example is the Cadfael Chronicles by Ellis Peters. But I don’t want to discuss those today. Instead, I want to talk about the Prioress Eleanor books written by Priscilla Royal. (As you’ve probably guessed from the title!)

 

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My Copy of A Killing Season | Source: Viktor Athelstan

 

The series takes place in late thirteenth-century England a few years after the Second Baron’s War. (The first book is set in 1270.) The story begins when twenty-year-old Eleanor of Wynethorpe is sent to Tyndal Priory to be their new prioress. It should be noted that Tyndal Priory is part of the real-life Order of Fontevraud, an order exclusively run by women. It should also be noted that the only reason Eleanor is prioress is thanks to King Henry III. The king elected her (with the Abbess in France’s approval) as a political move to thank Eleanor’s father for his loyalty during the war.

Due to this, as well as her inexperience and the fact Eleanor actually plans to rule the priory (instead of just letting the prior do it like the last prioress did), she faces quite a bit of hostility from the community of nuns and monks. However, Eleanor is a clever, witty woman who learns quickly. As the series goes on, she manages to gain not only the experience she lacks but the respect of others around her.

Then there’s Brother Thomas. He’s definitely a much more interesting and intriguing character. Unlike Eleanor, Thomas never wanted to be a monk. Instead, he was forced into the priesthood. How does one get forced into the priesthood? Well, that was actually a common occurrence in medieval society. But unlike other characters who were forced by their parents or joined because their spouse joined (as well as other reasons), Thomas did it to save his life. Before the start of the first book, he was caught in bed with his beloved childhood friend (another man) and imprisoned. Before he could be burned at the stake, a mysterious priest rescued him and gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse: become a monk and work as his master’s spy or burn.

Needless to say, Brother Thomas took the offer.

 

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My Copy of The Sanctity of Hate | Source: Viktor Athelstan

 

Several of the series’ overarching plot threads is Thomas’s trauma, PTSD, and his own personal conflicts with his faith. As I write this, I’m only on book nine out of the fifteen. By this book, Thomas has processed much of his trauma but in earlier ones, it is the main thing he is dealing with.

One thing I do like about these mysteries is that not every book takes place at Tyndal. While that can be annoying if you enjoy the characters who live near the priory (such as Crowner Ralf, Signy, and Gytha) I find it more realistic concerning the murders. If everyone kept getting murdered around Tyndal it eventually gets a little ridiculous. (It asks the question, why is everyone being murdered at this tiny priory in the middle of nowhere?) Granted, you could also ask why people keep getting killed around Eleanor and Thomas, but in some books, they arrive at the location after the crimes occurred.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I can suspend my disbelief if they stumble across a murder but not if they keep happening where they live. After all, they are supposed to be clergy, not professional/amateur detectives who go out looking for this type of thing.

Another thing I enjoy is how much Royal captures the culture of the time period. Often times in historical literature you will have characters who very much have modern-day views. For me personally, I’m not a fan of this. If I’m reading a book that takes place in the Roman empire or wherever, I want them to have the cultural views of that time period. For example, if a story takes place in Ancient Athens, a female character isn’t going to be frolicking around freely without consequences. Royal does a very good job of portraying medieval views. You can tell she has done a lot of research for each story. (And as a bonus Royal includes a historical note and a bibliography in the back of each book so you can do further research as well!)

 

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My Copy of Covenant with Hell | Source: Viktor Athelstan

 

While I do love Prioress Eleanor, there is one aspect I find a bit off-putting: the amount of sexual violence throughout the series. It’s important for authors to be careful when writing these topics. Royal usually handles her portrayal of rape and assault well, especially in regard to the effect it has on characters, of all genders. So many stories treat men being raped as some sort of joke when in reality it’s not funny at all. In fact, it’s extremely far from funny. Instead of it being a punchline, we see just how serious it is and just how much it has traumatized the characters (especially Thomas). However, sometimes the sexual violence feels gratuitous and irrelevant to the plot. Other times it is very relevant. Sexual violence is a horrible reality of the world we live in but the sheer amount of it in these texts becomes too much. I enjoy the Prioress Eleanor series (and will keep reading it) but I do wish Royal would find other ways to move the plot. 

Despite this, Prioress Eleanor is an excellent series overall. I recommend anyone who enjoys medieval mysteries give it a read.

 

Books in Order:

  1. Wine of Violence
  2. Tyrant of the Mind
  3. Sorrow Without End
  4. Justice for the Damned
  5. Forsaken Soul
  6. Chambers of Death
  7. Valley of Dry Bones
  8. A Killing Season
  9. The Sanctity of Hate
  10. Covenant with Hell
  11. Satan’s Lullaby
  12. Land of Shadows
  13. The Proud Sinner
  14. Wild Justice
  15. The Twice Hanged Man

 

If you want to learn more, you can find Priscilla Royal’s website here.

 

Book Review: The Middle Ages Unlocked by Gillian Polack & Katrin Kania

 

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My Copy That I Bought at The Oxford Castle & Prison

 

When I studied abroad at Oxford in the spring of 2018, I bought a few reference books to bring home to the States with me. I like buying books as souvenirs and The Middle Ages Unlocked: A Guide to Life in Medieval England, 1050-1300 was one such book. However, due to my busy schedule (and admittedly a lot of procrastination), I only recently read it.

Due to the density of the information, it took me about a month to read (I usually average a week when reading a book). That being said, The Middle Ages Unlocked is full of valuable information for anyone wanting to know more about the Middle Ages. There are seventeen chapters and each chapter focuses on a specific part of daily life. For example, chapter eight focuses on leisure activities while chapter seventeen focuses on how people measured things during the period being covered.

The Middle Ages Unlocked is extremely specific in the time period and places covered. Those things being the years 1050-1300 and medieval England (as well as land owned in France by the English). Of course, the text sometimes mentions other countries and occasionally ventures outside the period, but this is always to give the reader a better idea of the context concerning the topics at hand.

I admire Polack and Kania’s willingness to tell the reader when there simply isn’t enough information available to get a better picture of the topic they are discussing. These acts of letting the reader know that they don’t know or that further research is needed in the field to answer the question is really fantastic. This transparency gives the book credit and inadvertently the reader is assured that the authors aren’t just making things up. And as someone who wants accuracy, this is reassuring.

In conclusion, The Middle Ages Unlocked is a great reference book for those who are beginning their study of the Middle Ages.