Book Review: Chaucer’s People: Everyday Lives in Medieval England, by Liza Picard

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_chaucers_peopleAs an English lit student, many years ago at University, I was fascinated by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The trouble was there was not enough information to help the ordinary reader put the people in context

That is no longer a problem. Liza Picard is a social historian and has written about many periods in English history, giving the background and the depth to the actual events. She brings the same academic excellence and readable scholarship to the world of Chaucer. While many writers of historic events put in too much detail and get side-tracked, she avoids these pitfalls. This book is both informative and engaging. It is perhaps not a Summer beach read, but certainly a book I will dip in to and discuss with others.

Picard takes each of the characters form the Tales and puts them in to a group. She then gives us the information about that group. The Wife of Bath comes under the heading of Country Life, but we then get a description of her occupation as a Weaver. The research is meticulous but this is a readable version of the facts. I enjoyed finding out about The Reeve. I did not realise double entry book-keeping was already in existence in the 1300’s. The medical section is so good I kept reading passages aloud to my long-suffering husband. We find out about surgeons, apothecaries, pestilence, women’s problems and mental illness.

‘Most home remedies relied on common herbs, with perhaps some alcohol and faith. A scalded penis (how could that happen?) called for the ashes of burned cloth on a linen bandage. For snakebite take thine own piss and drink it….’. The section on food includes some Medieval recipes, but the suggestion not to try them!

While this book is perhaps more for those with an academic interest in life in Medieval England, it is an interesting tome for the general reader. I worry that we no longer read to widen our knowledge and understanding, but read only for specific outcomes. To me the beauty of a book, is that it leads me in to an unknown world and helps me understand the present by reflecting on the past. Surely, this is the purpose of historical writing.

Liza Picard will lead the reader into a fascinating world behind the characters Chaucer so well presented to us in the Canterbury Tales. You will embark on your own pilgrimage to Medieval England but beware of Cooks, Reeves, Merchants, Knights and above all, the Doctor of Physic!

by Kathy Watson

Chaucer’s People: Everyday Lives in Medieval England
by Liza Picard
Published by Weidenfield & Nicolson
ISBN 9781474606318

Book Review: Smoke, by Dan Vyleta

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_smokeI chose to read and review this book because of its intriguing premise – what if sin were visible? What if, every time you did (or even thought) something ‘bad’, your body emitted smoke?

Dan Vyleta’s new YA novel imagines a Victorian England where smoke has become not just the visual manifestation of sin but a tool of class oppression: upper-class people never smoke, working-class people smoke all the time. Rich people’s white clothing remains white; poor people’s clothing is covered in soot. (The middle classes don’t really appear, apart from the odd mention: “Burghers may smoke, once in a while. One does not expect better of them.”)

I found the premise of human smoke to be utterly fascinating, and a good thing too, because plot- and character-wise Smoke is almost completely run-of-the-mill. Keen YA readers will find all their favourite tropes: young people who have to save the world, a teenage girl torn between two male love interests (one of whom is kind and openly in love with her, and the other of whom is a sexy bad boy whose attentions are more ambiguous), adults who turn out to be untrustworthy and/or dangerous, etc.

Smoke opens in a vicious upper-class boarding school near Oxford where the children of the rich are sent to have the smoke beaten out of them. Our heroes are two schoolboys: Thomas (brooding, dark past, possibly a ‘chosen one’) and Charlie (helpful, kind, faithful companion). They are tortured by an older boy, the prefect Julius (cruel, entitled, arrogant). Over the Christmas hols they’re sent to stay with Thomas’s uncle, Baron Naylor, where they meet the baron’s daughter & third protagonist, Livia (pretty, and thus a romantic goal for both Thomas and Charlie; intelligent, self-disciplined to the point of aggravating piousness). Lady Naylor, a scientist and revolutionary, reveals that All Is Not As It Seems, that the aristocrats appear smokeless not because they’re morally superior but because they’ve found a way to game the system, and that the conspiracy to maintain the oppressive status quo goes All The Way To The Top. But can she be trusted? Our heroes must set off on a Quest to Discover the Truth!

Despite its occasional clunkiness, Smoke is an enjoyable read, with enough mystery and adventure to keep the reader turning pages. Although Vyleta seems to be more concerned with investigating the mechanics and meaning of human smoke than in the readability of his novel, this didn’t bother me, because I too found the whole concept intriguing.

Various adult characters serve as mouthpieces for different ideologies of smoke. The religious interpretation states that smoke is the manifestation of sin, and must be punished. The Enlightenment-inspired philosophers attempt to study smoke in a rational manner: “Every transgression leaves behind its own type of Soot and those versed in such matters can determine the severity of your crime just by studying the stain’s density and grit.” Maybe smoke is the symptom of a disease that science can cure? The Marxist interpretation says that smoke is a tool of class oppression: “Smoking ain’t a sin. It’s a weapon. Toffs use it to keep us down.” The humanist-socialist interpretation says that smoke is a natural expression of passion: “It’s the animal part of us that will not serve.”

At its best, Smoke is a fascinating alternative history that fully explores the central question, what if human bodies smoked? At its worst, it’s a trope-ridden YA novel that doesn’t quite manage to lift itself up from under the layers of plot strands and furious philosophising. An enjoyable light read.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Smoke
by Dan Vyleta
Published by Weidenfield & Nicolson
ISBN  9780297609933