The China Mirage by James Bradley

The China Mirage by James Bradley (Little,Brown, 2015), 417 pages

TCM Bradley

I love books like this, the kind that take something you learned in high school (“Mao took over China and chased those others guys to Taiwan or Formosa or whatever…”) and expand on it until you realize that you really knew nothing about it at all. I knew it would be good because I had read Bradley’s The Imperial Cruise about how Teddy Roosevelt more or less gave Asia to Japan because Teddy thought the Western-suit-wearing  Japanese much more enlightened than the dress-wearing, pigtailed, opium-addicted “Chinks.”

The book starts with the opium trade and how way too many East Coast rich-folks families got their money in China in the 1800s thanks to the opium trade. Grown in India, the sale of opium in China (page 17) helped to address the flow of Western wealth to China as Europeans and Americans grew to love tea and silks and other products, while the Chinese mainly shrugged at the goods the “sea barbarians” offered for sale.

Americans, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s grandfather Warren Delano (page 19), made their way to the few places in China like Canton where foreigners were allowed to live and trade, relying on local corruption to smuggle opium past the emperor’s guards and sell it to peasants. Once their fortunes were made, $100,000 being the minimum “competence” profit made before age thirty, they returned to American and invested the funds in railroads or other legitimate business ventures. FDR’s granddad had the misfortune to lose his million or so and had to return to the dirty business of the “China trade” to make another million. Fortunately, the Opium Wars (pages 25 and 32) made it safe for outsiders to encourage drug use among the Chinese without worry.

Where Americans traders went, in Africa or Asia, missionaries followed. Most of them were restricted to the enclaves where foreigners lived a Western lifestyle in Western houses and strolled Western streets. Their converts—what few there were—consisted mainly of servants living among them (many of them placed there to keep an eye on the suspicious foreigners).

This set the stage for the China mirage, which is this: missionaries in China, mainly from America (although Lawrence of Arabia’s mom was there as well), sent home dispatches playing up their conversion success and representing everyday Chinese as eager to Westernize/Americanize and trade the Emperor and Mandate of Heaven for modern town-hall democracy. The missionaries did this mainly to raise money, and in this they were spectacularly successful.  But, as Bradley details, the truth was very different.

On page 21, Bradley outlines the way that raw Chinese culture appeared to Americans like Delano. In China, honored guests sat on the host’s left and ate food from bowls with chopsticks as they drank warm wine. Incomprehensible letters ran from up to down and right to left. They put family names first, let servants walk before them instead of trailing, and their compasses pointed south. Perversely, the men wore gowns and the women wore the pants in the family.

However, China’s culture, as mature as any in the world, could match Western culture point-for-point, technology-for-technology, writer-for-writer, artist-for-artist, right down the line. Not many Chinese were going to buy into America’s and Europe’s posture of superiority, not when things like gunpowder and spaghetti and paper had started there and then looped around and returned as great innovations. Especially when their big breakthrough (Christianity) playing up original sin and the need for saving. Most Chinese could not grasp what was sinful about living why a foreigner had to save them (page 40).

The missionaries, instead of converting whole tribes as they did in Africa, had to admit that they had little to no success in China. Reverend Sydenstricker, who went to China with Henry Luce, the father of Time magazine’s founder, admitted he had made only 10 converts in 10 years (page 41).

The book moves on the detail the rise of the “China Lobby” in the United States, a group of well-meaning Americans, many of whom had been born in China of missionary parents, who felt that China just needed one more little thing, such as more Bibles, to convert the whole nation into good members of a democracy and consumers of American goods. A man named Charlie Soong (note the Americanized name) came to America as a laborer and ended up at Duke University, where the young entrepreneur convinced missionaries that it would be more efficient to print the Bibles in China instead of shipping them over from the US (page 87). Most of the money went right into Soong’s pocket.

The bulk of the book follows the Soong family as he and his daughters form alliances and marriages with Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek, and even Mao Zedong. One of the great missed chances in history concerns America’s WW II backing of the (barely) Christianized Chiang Kai-Shek and his wife, Soong Mai-Ling, instead of the more well-liked Mao. While Chiang’s “locust army” always needed $100 million more to fight the invading Japanese (money spent futilely chasing Mao), Mao was busy gaining the trust of the peasants (their landlords backed Chiang) and inflicting losses on the Japanese with next to nothing.

Bradley makes another point few authors do: the Japanese did not view the attack on Pearl Harbor as a sneaky surprise. Americans in Chinese service with the “Flying Tigers” had been attacking Japanese for years, according to them, and the oil embargo in late 1941 (done without FDR’s consent) was seen as the last straw. Pearl Harbor was a side show for the real Japanese target: the oil in the Dutch East Indies (page 286). There’s lots more, but I’ve run of room. ..

You know, it’s Mother’s Day (Bradley dedicates this book to him mom), so I look back at how many things my mother told me that I took as gospel as a child. She loved FDR and told me that if he had lived to be 100, the people of American would have voted him president as long as he liked. I’m not sure about that, because Churchill did and they got rid of him quick enough once he had won the war. In any case, I will never forget Madame Chiang Kai-Shek (Soong Mai-ling) for two reasons. First, she lived to the age of 105 (1898-2003), and second, my mother thought she was a nasty, evil woman (she brought her own silk sheets to the White House). And my mother told me solemnly that Generalissimo Chiang guy wasn’t any better (Churchill and Truman both called him “General Cash My Check”: page 306 and 336). In fairness, mom considered Mao Zedong (Tse-Tung back then) a dog-eating murderer.

Although the book goes up to the end of the Vietnam War (it used to be Viet Nam, remember?), the bulk of it takes place from about 1900 to the end of World War II. (Oddly, the Boxer Rebellion, when the Chinese tried to drive out the “foreign devils” once and for all, is barely mentioned on two pages: 65 and 93.) The Korean War breaks out on page 346 and Vietnam on 357 (the main narrative ends on page 371).

That said, there are plenty of books on the details of Korea and Vietnam. Bradley’s point is that once Joe McCarthy started asking “Who lost China?” around 1950 and costing Harry Truman any chance at re-election, the die was cast for future. We HAD to stay in Asia! And the “don’t trust China” lobby is still around today.

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson (Crown Publishers, New York, 2005) 430 pages

Dead Wake cover image
Dead Wake by Erik Larson

This must be record for length of time between publication and appearing on this site. It only came out on March 10, and here it is, 19 days later. (I have no idea why Amazon thinks this book has 448 pages: the last numbered page in mine is 430, and only one more leaf is added with author biography.)

So, yes, this is the story of the sinking of the Cunard liner Lusitania by the German submarine U-20 on Friday, May 7, 1915, at 2:10 PM local time, almost exactly one hundred years ago. But because it is an Erik Larson book, a reader can expect much more than a dry recitation of facts. Larson’s nonfiction books have the great attribute of giving a reader more of the emotional feel of the time and the place and the event. He usually does this by juxtaposing two main characters, one good and one evil, and treating them both with the same degree of precision and detail. It is up to the readers to experience the revelations that allow them to realize the heights of their imagination or the depths of their depravity.

For example, in The Devil in the White City, Larson contrasts 1893 Chicago World’s Fair designer Daniel H. Burnham with famed murdered H. H. Holmes, who posed as a doctor to lure his victims. His book In the Garden of the Beasts pairs the innocent American Martha Dodd, daughter of the American Ambassador the Nazi Germany in 1933, with the whole charm-you-to-death Nazi hierarchy. As a reader, I will never forget the scene during her outing with a top Nazi official when the couple is interrupted by a parade of irate citizens escorting a beaten woman whose hair has been rudely cut off. The crowd is screaming curses and carrying signs. Oh, the Nazi says casually, that’s just a woman who was going to marry a Jew. Don’t worry. They’re just going to stone her to death to teach others a lesson.

And that’s Larson’s way of saying “That whole Nazi-Jew thing got out of hand really quickly.”

The equivalent in Dead Wake—the title refers to the surfacing bubbles trailing a torpedo speeding to its target—is the pairing of two captains: Captain Turner of the Lusitania and Kptlt. (Captain) Schwieiger of Unterseeboot-20.  The stoic bravery of Turner, who rode the bridge wing right down into the water (page 278) and was picked up hours later by a rescue ship and ultimately survived, is obviously to be admired by every reader.  After watching seagulls swoop down and pluck the eyeballs from the floating dead, Turner brought a rifle onto his other ships and shot as many seagulls as he could (page 296). This is the kind of human observation that you come to expect from Larson.

Schwieger’s behavior after the fatal torpedo shot is more problematic. His girlfriend later claimed (anonymously) that Schwieger was “a shattered man” (page 292) because of the sinking and loss of life (only 764 of the 1959 on board survived). However, Schwieger’s own ship’s log (which survived when the U-20 later ran aground on a sandy beach) shows him taking another shot at an oil tanker only five minutes (!) after sinking the Lusitania (page 293).

Oddly, out of the 7 torpedoes on board U-20, only the G6 model fired at the Lusitania actually sank a ship. The rest either misfired or missed or did not cause major damage. Atop such small things does the world pivot.

Larson provides details on many of the passengers, mostly in first or second class. The new Boddy lifejackets caused the deaths of many because people put them on incorrectly or even upside-down, causing them to float rump-up until the sea claimed them. The loss of a rare copy of the A Christmas Carol annotated in Charles Dickens’s own hand is also lamented: bookstore owner Charles Lauriat took it into a lifeboat, but it then tumbled into the sea when the lifeboat overturned. (Note to Larson: the remark on page 311 about Nellie Huston’s bulky “derriere” is hard to reference because somehow the origin of the comment on page 166 is left out of the index. Fix that for next printing, okay?) J

One would think that three years after the Titanic catastrophe in 1912 and its lifeboat issues, the lifeboats on the Lusitania would not be a problem. But the Lusitania showed that sheer numbers of lifeboats is not the solution (the ship carried enough lifeboats for 2605 people: page 69). The British navy had siphoned off most of the experienced seamen and those grappling with the lines and “falls” on the Lusitania doubled as baggage handlers and servers. Because it was the day before landing in Liverpool, many of the crew were in the hold, reachable only by one electric elevator, marshalling the bags for arrival. When the torpedo hit, most of these were either killed instantly or drowned when the ship went under in an astonishing 18 minutes. As a result, the launching of the lifeboats, not commenced immediately because no one really thought a single 20 foot torpedo could sink a monster ship almost a thousand feet long.

Some lifeboats tumbled their passengers into the water, while others were dropped right atop others. Due to the list of the damaged ship, some released lifeboats crushed passengers waiting to board. The speed of the ship worked against them too, and not only by driving water through the 40-fott gash in the hull. Controls on the bridge failed, so the ship still drifted forward as it sank, sweeping lifeboats to the rear. As a result, only six of the 20 permanent lifeboats were launched properly.

A final mystery revolves around why on earth the British allowed the Lusitania to wander alone toward the Irish Sea when (a) the British knew U-20 had sunk other ships recently and was still around, (b) the safer alternate route north around Ireland was being used, and (c) the navy had provided escorts for other important ships before. Readers are left to wonder if First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill was protected some very important derrieres himself when he tried to blame it all on Captain Turner (page 318).

Growing in America, I was of course taught that the sinking of Lusitania with US citizens aboard was one the primary reasons that the USA declared war on Germany. The truth is that two years elapsed before the USA declared war and this was mainly because of the Zimmerman Telegram promising Mexico the return of US territory if they joined the central powers. But the Lusitania was a big thing, and we expect big things to have big effects, even though they might not.

Larson’s book helps put the sinking in perspective, as does his little discourses on things like the history of submarine warfare. Submarine warfare went from a gentile form of piracy during wartime to a matter of life and death very quickly. Submarines were supposed to stop non-warships and, after allowing the crew to leave in lifeboats, either sink them or claim them as prizes. But it was hard to crew a prize and a submarine on the surface is at its most vulnerable, so the shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later became the rule of the day. Even Sound of Music patriarch von Trapp sank a French liner and killed 684 (page 106). Purists cringed, I suppose, but there was a war to be won. So there.

This book is Larson’s way of saying “That whole submarine warfare thing got out of hand really quickly.”

Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King

Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival by Dean King (Back Bay, 2005) 351 pages + 16 page “Reading Group Guide”

Skeletons on the Zahara cover image
Skeletons on the Zahara

I found this book tucked away on a shelf in my local B&N, the kind of fortuitous finds as you walk by that I’ve talked about before. I bought the book and proceeded to devour it in enormous bites: 10, 20, 50 pages at the time, staying up much too late for my own good just to see what happens next to these poor American sailors shipwrecked in 1815 and enslaved by the wandering tribes of the Western Sahara. The good news is that most of them made it back to the USA, although many with mind and body so shattered that they had only a few years left to live. The teenage cabin boy, however, died in 1882 at the age of 82, showing either the resiliency of the young or how the harsh life of the cabin boy back then prepared one for suffering and deprivation.

I told you I like to see connections, not just “I liked it…it had a beat and I could dance to it.” (Wow, is that an old reference. I got to listen to an older mom in B&N yesterday trying to explain what these odd, flat platters were that held spiral grooves with music on then called vinyl to her dumbfounded son: “Way back beyond CDs, beyond tape cassettes, there were once…” (insert wide-eyed look of awe and reverence here) “…records.” That was trippy. For those who now think I spend all my time in bookstores, let me just say “Yes.”)

Anyway this isn’t about how the CD guys screwed up digital sound so badly that people are going back to the original equalized analog recordings…although I am tempted to see the future of ebooks in this mass abandonment of what could have and should have been a much more enriched experience for users (sigh). OK, my spleen has been purged of its foul humors for now. Let’s see if I can speak intelligently about the book instead of The Book.

I’m back to the “Zahara” now, which is how they spelled it in 1815. We know a lot about their adventures because two of the survivors published accounts of their time as captives before they were ransomed by the British agent in Swearah, the biggest port in Morocco. The Americans, who obviously had not spent a lot of time in Africa recently due to the war, wisely passed themselves off as British seamen, who were valued by the more sophisticated tribes and ransomed either in the north or in Saint Louis on the Senegal River in the south. In between was more than a thousand miles of desert. The trick was buying the captives at a low enough price to make ransoming them profitable, with would-be rescuers fighting or negotiating their way through tribes anxious either to claim the Americans for the prize or to work them to death as slaves.

Captain Riley published the story of his ordeal as An authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce (the full title is all of 74 words long(!): I have used the first 11 words only). This book was one of the most popular in the early 1800s in America. Every library had to have one, and a young Abraham Lincoln read the tale and never forgot what Riley had to say about the degraded life of a slave, and not even for life (page 311).

As a tale of misadventure, you can’t beat the voyage of the Commerce. The War of 1812 had just ended, a war vigorously opposed by New England traders, and eleven men from Connecticut were anxious to get back to sea to settle three years of accumulated debts and inactivity. Some had succumbed to the temptation of smuggling or trade with Canada, but some of the crew had recently been released from captivity while trying to run the British blockade of American ports. The plan was to sail to New Orleans, then Gibraltar and Africa, exchanging cargo in each port, perhaps looping back through the West Indies before returning to Connecticut. However, high winds and seas drove them off course and onto the rocks and wrecked them on Cape Bojador opposite the Canary Islands on August 28, 1815, one of the most desolate places on the west coast of Africa (page 46).

Even as the survivors staggered ashore, the locals (who proudly treated each wreck as treasure ships filled with materials essential to desert survival) showed up to help relieve the crew of money, clothing, cargo, and even timbers and nails needed to repair their longboat, which was damaged on the rocky beach. After one man, picked up in New Orleans, was killed or left for dead (the captain wrote it both ways at different times), the other 11 took to sea in the longboat, but head back to land in desperation a few days later.

Now weak and claimed by the Arabs nomads, the sailors are split up into 3 or 4 loose groups that sometimes meet but mostly wander until Riley convinces the desperate son-in-law of a sheik that he and his men are more valuable as ransomed survivors than weakened slaves. The story of Sidi Hamet escorting these men through hundreds of miles of hostile territory makes up the bulk of the narrative.

If there is a limitation to “Commerces” struggles, it’s that for about half of them (5 of 11), their enslavement lasted all of about two months. Yes, about eight weeks; 60 days. Imagine what they would have endured for years on end, a fate probably played out for 4 of the original 12 on the ship (one was apparently killed, and the other 7 returned home).

Author King is a specialist in writing about sailing ships and yachts. While researching another book, he stumbled across the book written by Captain James Riley, age 37, of Middletown, Connecticut, the captain of the ill-fated Commerce. His book came out in 1817, shortly after the first five captives had been ransomed by the American agent in Gibraltar through good services of the British consul in Swearah, William Willshire. Another survivor, Archibald Robbins, 22, who was held in slavery much longer than Captain Riley, also published an account, which King merges into a single narrative for the first time in this book.

The differences in the two accounts is startling, according to King. Captain Riley tried to learn the Arabic language his captor’s spoke, and was smart enough to meet his owners halfway by trying to understand how this survival mentality differed from the American culture of plenty. Robbins, on the other hand, never missed a chance to sneer at this “heathen” way of life with disdain and went as far as to pretend to be a total moron, unable to learn even simple tasks like herding camels because he feared that otherwise they would never part with him. Since both survived, it’s hard to condemn one or the other, but the extra beatings and abuse Robbins had to put up with make his strategy seem risky at best (why bother to feed a lazy, worthless idiot?).

I loved the books packaging. It includes a roster of names, several illustrations, plenty of maps, a vocabulary of desert terms (a friq is loose collection of small families traveling together), helpful footnotes, and a reader’s guide. King even risked life and limb to travel part of the route on camel.

King found the desert and people mostly unchanged in the past 200 years.

The Poet and the Vampyre by Andrew McConnell Stott

The Poet and the Vampyre: The Curse of Byron and the Birth of Literature’s Greatest Monsters by Andrew McConnell Stott (Pegasus Books, 2014) 434 pages


I discussed Ada’s Algorithm about Ada Lovelace last week and fully intended to move on to something else like Stephen Baxter’s Proxima: soon, I promise. But Stott’s book was stacked right underneath Ada and I started looking through it again and decided to do these two books back-to-back, sort of like bookends. One of the things they have in common is that both authors completely trash Byron, at least as everything other that a brilliant writer (his letters are as entertaining as his poetry).

In fact, if you had any warm fuzzy feelings about Byron, and Mary and Percy Shelley, as human beings who you might be interested in partying or hanging out with, this book might put those feelings to rest. If there was anything worse than being friends with narcissistic Byron, it was having the utter misfortune to be his child. His daughter Ada was forbidden to study literature because her mother Annabella feared the potential risk that her brain might be wired like her father’s.

This book pivots around the story of Byron’s adventures in Switzerland during the summer of 1816 (the famous “year without a summer”) after he fled England. He left because of his wife Annabella’s poisoning the atmosphere regarding his behavior (the most scandalous being Byron’s incest with his half-sister), and also because his creditors were closing in. Byron, as the book points out, considered collecting the royalties on his literary works beneath a noble like himself. Combined with his elaborate lifestyle—Bryon traveled the continent in a replica of Napoleon’s ornate carriage (page 16), which he neglected to pay for—the poet constantly found himself short on ready cash but long on people who were more than willing to “lend” him what he needed in exchange for a brush with greatness.

So Byron is the poet of the book title. Who is the “vampire” guy?

That would be Doctor John Polidori, newly minted physician (he was only 20) hired to accompany Bryon on his continental adventure because Bryon, in addition to his deformed foot, suffered from maladies as diverse as headaches and chronic constipation (page 21). Although born in England, Polidori’s Italian roots were enough for Byron to heap frequent scorn on his abilities as a writer (page 19 and elsewhere) and mock him whenever he liked. When Polidori stayed behind on an excursion, Byron wasted no time in rejoicing, “Thank God…Polidori is not here” (page 149). The animosity was obvious from the start: “I don’t like this ori” wrote Bryon, apparently objecting to the doctor’s foreign-sounding name (page 18). However, the party needed Polodori’s language skills, so they signed him up.

The “Vampyre” in the book’s title refers to the famous “competition” that the Shelleys and Byron and Polidori engaged in once they realized that not only was the summer of 1816 coming late to the Swiss Alps, but it was not coming at all. Therefore, Bryon challenged the foursome to write “ghost stories” during the time that the chilly and rainy weather kept them housebound.

Percy Shelley doesn’t seem to have written anything at all (page 146). He did write two major poems that summer, drafts of which were found in a trunk in a bank vault only in 1976 (page 178: I love stories like this). Byron’s effort amounted to a few rough pages, although these would greatly vex Polidori when his book called The Vampyre appeared with Byron credited as author (page 239). Mary Shelley, of course, worked for eighteen months and produced her book Frankenstein in 1818.

Byron doesn’t seem to have wanted to take credit for the first thorough expression of the vampire theme in English. “What do I know about Vampires?” he wrote to London. But this seems mainly because he considered Polidori’s prose far beneath his own poetry.

Almost everyone who appears in this book comes to a bad end. By 1824, all of the males were dead. Byron himself, of course, managed to totally dissipate health and talent in a constant quest for stimulation, mainly sexual in nature. His death in Greece at 36 in 1824 from fever probably says as much about the state of his immune system as the unhealthy swamps he camped in. Shelley drowned while swimming with a friend in 1822 at the age of 29. And Polidori went first, committing suicide in 1821 at 25 after the controversy over the authorship of The Vampyre left him drained and a severe carriage accident. The only people who lived out a relatively normal lifespan were the two women of that summer: Mary Wollstonecraft (nee Godwin) Shelley and Claire (also known as Clara and Jane) Clairmont.

Stott does a nice job of fleshing out Mary and her step-sister Claire. They grew up in the Juvenile Library, a bookstore for children in London run by George Godwin, Mary’s father, a famous free-thinker and author. He met Mary Wollstonecraft in 1796 and soon embraced the new “rights of woman” and “free love” movement (page 65). This was not quite the women’s lib and free love of the 1960s, but just the thought that women could chose the men they slept with was enough to rock the world. Marriage was still necessary when a pregnancy came along (birth control came much later), but Mary and Clair soon changed even that.

Percy Shelley was married when he met Mary (his wife soon committed suicide), and Claire bombarded the married Byron with letters until he became her lover (the term “groupies” comes to mind). Claire became pregnant with Bryon’s child after they joined him in Switzerland, a daughter who Byron all but ignored, born in early 1817. Mary ultimately landed her man; Claire did not. Byron was mean enough to suggest that Shelley, who had already run off with both girls when they were only 16, might be the father of Claire’s child (page 209).

Mary Shelley lived until 1851, dying at the age of 53 from a brain tumor (page 296). Claire had perhaps the best revenge on Byron and the rest, passing away in Italy at the age of 80 in 1879. By then she was a curious figure attached to the Regency Dandies of two generations before. The story of her odd legacy in the “free love” movement, starting on page 305, is likely worth a book by itself.

It’s clear the only people Byron respected were those who were wealthy enough to keep up with the poet and smart enough to spar with him intellectually. One of these was John Cam Hobhouse, a noble who Byron befriended at Cambridge and who remained close to the poet for the remainder of the poet’s brief life. At the time, England ruled the world and these people ruled England: people like Shelley, Byron, and Hobhouse. Mere mortals like John Polidori and Claire Clairmont could not hope to keep up, although they tried very hard.

The last word on the great Lord Byron must come from another rich and dissolute friend, Scrope Davies, the man with the trunk in the vault at Barclay’s Bank. While admiring the fact that Byron was “very agreeable and very clever,” he also wrote that Byron was “vain, overbearing, conceited, suspicious, and jealous…and thought the whole world ought to be constantly employed in admiring his poetry and himself; could never write a poem or a drama without making himself its hero, and he was the subject of his own conversation” (page 178).


The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge

The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones

By Thomas Asbridge (Harper Collins, 2014) 444 pages

TGK Asbirdge

I have really weird interests in certain historical periods and the geography they involve. The cutoffs at the ends are usually precise: one starts with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE. Another stretches from the end of Livy’s narrative in 293 BCE to the start of the war with Hannibal and so spans the whole missing Second Decade of Livy. And then there’s this one that starts with the Norman Conquest in 1066 CE and peters out sometime around 1453 with the end of the Hundred Years War (and the end of the Byzantine Empire). William Marshal, who probably lived from 1147 to 1219 (see the genealogy and family tree on page 389 and the other information on pages 162-3), has a career that falls right into the sweet spot of my interest.

Marshal served four and a half English kings: Henry II, Henry the Young King (who never ruled on his own and therefore I count as a half-king), Richard the Lionheart, John (who was so bad as a ruler that no one ever used his throne name again), and Henry III. So the claim that Marshal was the “greatest knight” is backed up by some pretty solid evidence, including the claim that Marshal was the only knight ever to unhorse the crusading king Richard the Lionheart with a lance. And Marshal was treated quite shabbily by some of these kings, like the time that five-year-old William Marshal was held as a hostage by King Stephen, a monarch that is often overlooked in the rush to get from the family of the Conqueror to the Angevins proper. Asbridge prefers the “Angevin” designation to the common “Plantagenet” name I learned mainly through Thomas Costain’s four-book series, but I never like the Plantagenet thing anyway. But back to Marshal: the story goes that as a hostage, young Marshal treated the threats of hanging and being catapulted to death as games to play with his captors and so won over the stern King Stephen with his childish innocence.

How could we possibly know such a detail from the life of William Marshal? I mean, the monks wrote about the great events of the day, and the kings had the royal scribes or whatever to record their daily activities. But of the common people, or even the knights and nobles, we know little, especially before the invention of the printing press (another of those 1400 watershed events). For William Marshal’s life, we owe the good eyes of a French scholar named Paul Meyer. In early 1861, as detailed in the book’s preface, he saw an intriguing manuscript at Sotheby’s auction house in London. It was part of the Savile collection, a group of rare manuscripts put together in the time of Queen Elizabeth I.

Meyer became a great scholar (his evidence cleared Alfred Dreyfus of espionage charges in 1898), but in 1861 he was only twenty-one and unable to do anything but examine the book before the auction. And there, inside the brown leather, was an account in verse of (as Meyer recorded in his notebook) “an original chronicle, which seems to report the conflict that broke out in England during the reign of Stephen, nephew of Henry I.” Once Meyer became a respected scholar, he tried to find the intriguing manuscript, but it had disappeared into an enormous collection of 60,000 manuscripts (!) held by Sir Thomas Phillipps, and miscataloged to boot. Not until 1881 was Meyer able to read the story of Sir William Marshal, knight, earl, raider, tournament winner, pilgrim, landholder, early Irish settler, and friend of kings, all set out in 19,215 lines of medieval French verse.

I found the account that Asbridge presents of medieval times, especially the tournament circuit in France in the 1100s, and the tension between the conquered English and their Norman (French) overlords, absolutely fascinating. England is not the England of Robin Hood, but the England Richard treats like a source of money and goods to accomplish his real goals of conquest, a place where he spent only a few months of his entire reign. Most of the drama of Marshal’s life plays out on the tournament circuit of Norman France, where the practice was still legal. Even here, the noble combatants often used the jousts and contests as an excuse to get all rowdy and terrorize the countryside (page 62 and 65 has nice details on this).

I learned a lot more about medieval tournaments and combat than I ever knew from this book. I also learned the difference between the Occitan “Langue d’Oc” (where “yes” is “oc”) and French “Langue D’Oeuil” (where “yes” is “oeuil” or the modern “oui”)(page 79). Oddly, this difference plays a role in the Joan of Arc book from last week: when the inquisitor asks with an Occitan accent what language Joan’s voices speak to her in, Joan retorts that “they speak better French than you do.” Joan rocks, I think.

One of the claims of the book is that men like William Marshal helped to usher in the fall of the noble-knight-vassal-peasant system. Asbridge’s argument is persuasive, and includes the observation that the rise of a more stable, moneyed economy meant that knights could just pay their way out of that nasty-dangerous warfare thing and sit home in the castle while contributing to the ruler’s war chest or supplying a bunch of paid mercenary volunteers to do their dirty work. Sturdy household knights became rich nobles, and much of this evolution took place during Marshal’s lifetime.

The defining moment of King John’s reign is, of course, the Magna Carta forced on him by his nobles to limit the whims of majesty. But I never realized how complex the process and document were: the clauses cited on pages 332 and 333 make readers almost feel sorry for poor King John.  But King John wasted no time trying to destroy the lives and careers of those who opposed him. William Marshal, who owed almost everything he had to the kings of England, officially backed his king instead of the French invaders under Louis of France – yes, 1066 was the last successful invasion of England, but Louis had no problem rampaging through Kent. Only after John’s death did the nobles decide they would rather have a weak Henry III than a strong Louis ruling over them.

On a complete tangent, this book made me aware of a great film featuring a fictionalized “Thomas Marshal” and his knights. In 2011, the movie Ironclad depicted the siege of Rochester Castle by King John in 1215. Although in many ways a complete fantasy, the film does capture the real brutality of the times and the fine line the well-off had to walk to stay in the good graces of everyone who mattered. The peasants ran into the woods and the monks headed for the hills (of Rome), but those with castles to defend were sort of stuck with defending it.

This is the second book in as many weeks that impressed me with both the selection and the quality of the color illustrations. Where else can you find illustrations of the shields of nobles and knights (facing page 141)? Or the seals they affixed to the Magna Carta (referenced on pages 349 and 366)?

I love books that are so good you don’t want them to end, that teach you many things you did not know before, and that are well-written and illustrated. This book has it all.