Happy New Year! Wishing you all peace and joy in 2020.
I have no appetite for year end “best of” lists, but I appreciate a December tradition at the literary website The Millions (themillions.com), “A Year in Reading”. Writers share short lists of books they’ve read in the past year, often with a theme or trend, and almost never all new books, but a variety. Far more eclectic and interesting to me. In that vein, I share a list of highlights from my reading this past year (not by any means a complete list!).
The White Nuns: Cistercian Abbeys for Women in Medieval France, Constance Hoffman Berman (University of Pennsylvania Press 2018)
The first three chapters upend all I thought I knew about Cistercian convents—i.e., that they were few and far between, poor, and badly managed. All wrong. Why? Here’s the jacket copy: “Modern studies of the religious reform movement of the central Middle Ages have often relied on contemporary accounts penned by Cistercian monks, who routinely exaggerated the importance of their own institutions while paying scant attention to the remarkable expansion of abbeys of Cistercian women. Yet by the end of the thirteenth century there were more houses of Cistercian nuns across Europe than of monks. [!] …[Berman] charts the stages in the nuns’ gradual acceptance by the abbots of the Cistercian Order’s General Chapter and describes the expansion of the nuns’ communities and their adaptation to a variety of economic circumstances in France and throughout Europe. While some sought contemplative lives of prayer, the ambition of many of these religious women was to serve the poor, the sick, and the elderly. Focusing in particular on Cistercian nuns’ abbeys founded between 1190 and 1250 in the northern French archdiocese of Sens, Berman reveals the frequency with which communities of Cistercian nuns were founded by rich and powerful women, including Queen Blanche of Castile, heiresses Countess Matilda of Courtenay and Countess Isabelle of Chartres, and esteemed ladies such as Agnes of Cressonessart. She shows how these founders and early patrons assisted early abbesses, nuns, and lay sister by using written documents to secure rights and create endowments, and it is on the records of their considerable economic achievements that she centers her analysis.” I love this book! The women are so remarkable and inspiring that it’s astonishing to me that they were almost forgotten. Fascinating reading.
Performing Piety: Musical Culture in Medieval English Nunneries, Anne Bagnall Yardley (Palgrave Macmillan 2006)
The 12th Owen Archer has a musical theme and I wanted to know how music was taught and organized in medieval English nunneries. I’ve learned a great deal about singing medieval music as a member of the Medieval Women’s Choir, and observed how our director composes additional voices and rearranges some pieces to suit our talents. I was curious about how much original music a cantrix might have composed for her abbey. As I suspected, a skilled cantrix shaped the music to meet the abilities of the nuns she led in song. This book breaks down the roles of the various obedientiaries involved in the singing of the Daily Office, and how they functioned according to the records of specific abbey. This is a wonderful study, rich in detail, an absorbing read.
Chaucer: A European Life by Marion Turner (Princeton University Press 2019)
Speaking of detail, this biography is so rich I’m reading it slowly—I read a few chapters quickly, then go back and read them again. I’m storing up bits and pieces to use in my novels, of course! I’ve read several earlier, acclaimed biographies of Chaucer, yet Turner’s book contains much that is new to me, and valuable insights. Highly recommended!
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz (Candlewick 2007)
Just for fun, I chased down this Newberry Award winning book after someone mentioned it as a good introduction to the middle ages for children. It’s a delight, written for the classroom so children can take on the roles (with some stage directions) of the individuals in a medieval village.
The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley (MCD 2018)
A modern retelling of Beowulf, mind bending and powerful. As with Susan Signe Morrison’s fabulous Grendel’s Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife (Top Hat Books 2015), the retelling enriches my reading of the original.
I love folktales retold, especially by women, and devoured the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden, Russian folktales enriched by her beautiful imagination. (The Bear and the Nightingale, The Girl in the Tower, and The Winter of the Witch Del Ray 20178-19)
And for an absolutely brilliant and engaging retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, do read Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik (Del Ray 2019). Feminist. Wonderful.
I also read a number of Agatha Christie mysteries and a chunk of her autobiography in preparation for an event in September, celebrating her birthday, focusing primarily on the Poirot series. A long while since I’d read her books. My takeaways:
I was impressed with her cleverness. A master of misdirection.
I was surprised by how little she dwelt on the consequences, the lives lost.
Poirot does ethically questionable things with the confidence he’s in the right.
There is little depth to the books, which is what readers have come to expect.
So a mixed review: All in all, clever, but with little heart.