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Hundred Years War Vol 3: Divided Houses Paperback – 4 Oct 2012
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'Sumption ... maintains a fluent narrative line that is strong enough to impart a mass of detail without losing impetus. This is a truly absorbing book, which carries the reader into the turmoil of the 14th century with discreet guidance and commentary.' --Guardian
'Majestic ... [Sumption's] narrative is lucid, he is brilliant on politics and finance, and his scholarship is impeccable. If you want a history of the 100 years' war, then this is it, and will surely remain it for decades to come.' --Sunday Times
In Divided Houses: Hundred Years War Vol 3, Jonathan Sumption's epic and acclaimed history series reaches its third volume.See all Product description
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It is a depressing period of the war for English readers, with the French resurgent under Charles V, De Guesclin, and their strategy of avoiding pitched battles. It is the story of repeated and expensive chevauches failing to find their enemy in the field and yielding little except disgruntled taxpayers and the taste of defeat, all the more bitter for those who could remember Crecy and Poitiers. It is the story of rampaging Gascon routiers, Iberian intrigues, and the rebellions of ordinary townspeople from Essex to Flanders.
One of the main pleasures of this volume is the filling out of characters who usually remain peripheral in more abridged histories of the period, but who were genuinely big players - most notably the various royal uncles of the two young kings, Richard II and Charles VI. Gaunt (who never hides in the pages of history) is of course the dominant character, and his plans to make good his claim to be King of Castille make a wonderful read.
The only word of caution with this book (and, indeed, series) is that it's probably not for the casual reader of history. To call it detailed would be an understatement, so be prepared, as each new campaign dawns, to wade through the accompanying tax receipts before you get to the juicy bits. The 'Men at Arms' chapter towards the end, addressing the society of the combatants more generally, is also a rather unwelcome hiatus, which might have been better broken up and spread amongst the others.
The volumes are becoming progressively longer, and at times verge on being a complete history of the period, making their title 'The Hundred Years War', much like the term itself, a bit disingenuous in suggesting that it's about one event. Make no mistake though, these books are a thoroughly gripping account of a fascinating era in our past, and I would recommend them wholeheartedly to anyone with more than a passing interest.
As he told us in the Preface to his first volume, Sumption's objective is to write a grand narrative, based primarily on documentary rather than chronicle sources: he considers the chronicles `episodic, prejudiced, inaccurate and late'. He also aimed to eschew analysis, as well as the scholarly debates which so often sidetrack historians. He appears to have explored all the printed primary sources (together with a good number of the unprinted ones) and to have read all the secondary authorities; and to have pursued his researches in several countries: England, France and Spain at the least.
The author's style is not that of Edward Gibbon: he is too much the modern, workmanlike barrister for that, driving home his case by the patient accumulation of detailed evidence; but he paints a fine picture. Read this book.
My reservations are more a question of my taste in history than anything else. I would prefer slightly more background and analysis where the author is keen to provide a very full account of the events of the period. This can drag a little as the details of sieges, raids, failures to raise resources and the depredations of armed bands can become a bit repetitive.
Having said this, as a definitive account of the period the book will be invaluable to anyone studying the late fourteenth century.
W. de Willebois / Netherlands
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