William Rosen ISBN: 0670025895
Before I begin, let’s get one thing straight. I love me a bit of Black Death. Plague? Bring it on*. I also love meteorology and all that Earth Science business. Needless to say, when the author of Justinian’s Flea comes up with another evocatively titled tome hinting at that crazy little climate anomaly a few decades prior to the Black Death, my heart does a little hop, skip and jump… then promptly falls into a vat of lukewarm melted chocolate.
I wanted so much to enjoy this book; to be awash with tales of mediaeval nutrition, crop management practices, yield data and climate data. And, yes, these topics were discussed throughout but were they worthy of the book title†? The title implies the Great Famine and the Mediaeval Climate Anomaly will be at the crux of the volume but in reality they are small asides to the Scottish War of Independence and other political intrigue. These battles and machinations are all essential background to and interwoven with the Great Famine but here they are not so much background as foreground with some nasty rain sprinkled in for good measure.
For all that it is a slight case of false advertising, the book is no less neatly written and certainly a fascinating insight into rulers good, bad and indifferent. I mean, who doesn’t love learning from history‡.
Perhaps I could be so bold as to direct the marketing a little more in the direction of accurate. I suggest a drastic title change. Let’s call it, The Second Horseman: Scottish Heroes, Royal Hammers and the Great Soap Opera of Edward II… of the 14th Century – With cameos from the Great Famine, Climate Change and Veterinary Virology 101. Too long? Maybe something pithier like, WAR!: And Being Hungry in the Rain.
There, that’s better.
Rosen delivers the kind of writing that makes history accessible to general readers without being patronisingly simple. Think Alison Weir (the non-fiction era) or the wonderful Simon Winder.
If you’re a fan of Mssrs Longshanks, Wallace, the Bruce, of French She-Wolves and England’s first almost openly “out” monarch, then do have a read. It might be misleadingly named but we’ve fixed that. That’s the sort of thing we can achieve when we all work together.
* Via information, obviously. I like pustules as much as the next man but I prefer my glands to remain bubo free.
† That’s right, I started a sentence with a conjunction, what of it?
‡ Rhetorical question but the answer is right-wing politicians.