Sunday, October 4, 2020

Review: Echoes of the Runes by Christina Courtenay

Echoes of the Runes is an evocative tale that beautifully combines two strands divided by history. Christina Courtenay shows us present-day Sweden in the same detailed manner as the Viking age on the shores of Lake Mälaren.


Mia is a modern woman. Living and working in London, she is engaged to Charles. Their relationship is pretty normal, or so she thinks. She doesn't worry about them being incompatible in so many areas. 

When she inherits her Swedish grandmother's summer house on the shores of Lake Mälaren, she is unsure whether to sell it, as Charles demands, or to keep it. The memories of a happy childhood are hard to ignore.

In a museum, she meets Haakon, a Norwegian archaeologist who accuses her of having kept an item of historic significance – a snake ring dating back centuries. A family heirloom her grandmother had given her!

When it transpires that the land she now owns on the lakeside may hold traces of an old Viking settlement, Mia decides to stay the summer and take part in the dig. What she didn't expect was for Haakon to be in charge!

But not everyone is keen to preserve ancient items in museums. Some are in it for profit – and this puts Mia's life in danger.

Meanwhile, in 9th century Wales, Haukr Erlendsson is looking for loot, and for slaves, to satisfy his greedy wife, Ragnhild. But he does not expect to fall for one of the captives he takes home with him. 

Ceridwen, sister of the highest ranking man in her area, knows that her brother will arrive to ransom her. But time passes, and she is put to work by Ragnhild. During this time, she befriends the couple's mute daughter, and a gentle bond of trust develops between the stranger and the child. 

Christina Courtenay entwines both stories with warmth, humour, and a sense of danger. In the present day, Mia has a choice to make, as does Ceridwen when the time comes. Their choices mean either sacrifice or unhappiness. 

The characters grew on me very quickly, and there are plenty of conflicts for them to face. The story is full of twists, challenging the characters all the time, and making the reading experience truly wonderful.

A beautiful dual-timeline story that stays with you.

~~~


Blurb:


Their love was forbidden. But echoed in eternity.

When Mia inherits her beloved grandmother's summer cottage, Birch Thorpe, in Sweden, she faces a dilemma. Her fiance Charles urges her to sell and buy a swanky London home, but Mia cannot let it go easily. The request to carry out an archaeological dig for more Viking artefacts like the gold ring Mia's grandmother also left her, offers her a reprieve from a decision - and from Charles.

Whilst Mia becomes absorbed in the dig's discoveries, she finds herself drawn to archaeologist Haakon Berger. Like her, he can sense the past inhabitants whose lives are becoming more vivid every day. Trying to resist the growing attraction between them, Mia and Haakon begin to piece together the story of a Welsh noblewoman, Ceri, and the mysterious Viking, known as the 'White Hawk', who stole her away from her people in 869 AD. 

As the present begins to echo the past, and enemies threaten Birch Thorpe's inhabitants, they will all have to fight to protect what has become most precious to each of them...

Amazon UK:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B07T65CZPX/

Amazon US:  https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07T65CZPX/ 

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

A Point in Time: The Affair of the Poisons

Last night, I watched a fascinating programme on France 3 about Madame de Montespan, the longtime maîtresse en titre of the Sun King, Louis XIV

For many years, I’ve been intrigued by Louis XIV and his court, and especially by an event mentioned further below. It’s time I start to explore that era further...

The programme traced her family seat to a château in Poitou, southwest of Paris, and it was intriguing to see a member of her family still in residence. His jacket was missing a button and he looked like a real character, so I’m guessing the family isn’t overly rich anymore.


A young Françoise de Rochechouart
Born Françoise de Rochechouart, of old French nobility, she was married to the Marquis de

Montespan. She was supposedly in love with another young noble, but as he made the silly – and illegal – decision to take part in a duel, he had to flee the country, so Montespan it was. They liked each other, which helped.

Thanks to her family’s influence, in her twenties, she became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Maria Theresa, the somewhat naïve but very Catholic Austrian-Spanish wife of the king. But Françoise set her sights higher: to the king!

Over time, she managed to nudge the king’s current mistress, young and pretty Louise de la Vallière, off her pedestal after the king had sexual relations with both ladies – and the queen – for a while. He must have been a very busy man at night. Apparently he went to bed (his, to start with), then visited one lady after the other, and lastly joined the queen, often around 5am. 

Seeing her rival gain the king’s affection, young Louise fled to a Carmelite convent, and the path to Louis was clear. 

Françoise, a highly intelligent, witty and ambitious woman, took over. She reinvented herself as ’Athenaïs’ – alluding to the Greek goddess of wisdom and strategy. She organised dances and plays, helped with the designs for the new palace at Versailles Louis had built at that time and played a pivotal role in his daily life. He often sought her advice. Many paintings show her through different stages in her life. She detested the queen, and acted as if she were in her place. All with the king’s approval.


Madame de Montespan
In over ten years, she bore him seven living children, which he legitimised. They held royal titles and were treated as his own, and later married off to other European nobility. We can well imagine what poor Queen Maria Theresa thought of that...

But then Madame de Montespan went too far. Realising that the king’s attention began to wander after over a decade – she was overweight due to all her pregnancies and had become moody – she sought to retain his affection by other means: love potions. That sounds harmless enough, but in fact, it wasn’t.

As the so-called Affair of the Poisons gripped Paris from the late 1670s, implicating many nobles amongst a group of ’witches’, necromancers and wisewomen, plus many charlatans out to fleece desperate ladies, one name kept cropping up in admissions under torture: Madame de Montespan.

Midwives, priests, ordinary women, ladies and lords of noble families were all caught out in this affair, with the main culprits burnt at the stake. Nobles were banished or beheaded. The court was in shock.

In typical fashion, Louis had all reports mentioning her name burnt, but with it, she lost her influence over him, and was banished to quarters further away from the king. At the same time, the governess of her children, Françoise Scarron, got closer to the king. She showed more interest in his children than their mother, something the ageing king found comforting. As it turned out, it was this Françoise, later elevated to Madame de Maintenon, who the king eventually married after the death of the queen. 


Madame de Maintenon with three of Montespan's children

Madame de Montespan withdrew from court and found solace in faith. Oh, how she must have reminisced about the days she wielded power...

Only later did the records kept by the chief of the Paris police, Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, emerge, showing her real involvement in the dark arts.

The Affair of the Poisons is one of my favourite historical events. It’s a fascinating hotchpotch of a noble class desperate to keep the king’s favour, to gain the love of a lord or lady, or to seek power, and the dark underworld of Paris with its chancers, alchemists, midwives, and priests offering black masses (and yes, Madame was said to have taken part in sacrifices involving children). 


I've always wanted to write about this event, and after last night’s programme, I scribbled down the outline of a new novel. It was very exciting. I couldn’t sleep, adding notes until about 2am to my phone, so I didn’t forget by the morning. It’s been playing on my mind for years, so watch this space...


If you’re curious about this affair, there are a few books I can highly recommend:

Judith Merkle Riley’s The Oracle Glass
Kate Braithwaite’s Charlatan
Anne Somerset’s The Affair of the Poisons

And in French:
Claude Quétel's L’affaire des poisons (an in-depth account)


All images: Wikimedia Commons


Friday, December 27, 2019

Review: Heroines of the Medieval World by Sharon Bennett Connolly

I have to recommend Sharon Bennett Connolly's Heroines of the Medieval World to you. It's big, with many gripping, moving and heart-breaking stories, so you can spread the reading time over weeks or months. But once you're hooked, you keep wanting to read on. 

These women were real, flesh-and-blood people with emotions, strengths and weaknesses, who often didn't have much of a say in their fate. That's why they are even more so remarkable in what they achieved despite the odds. They are real heroines.

This is such a fascinating book, a collection about the (mis-)adventures of a wide range of famous, barely-known or infamous women of the Middle Ages. Their stories are inspiring, hair-raising and also sobering. And not all tales end well. 

But the author's meticulous research and attention to detail brings these women back to life, centuries after they lived, loved, hated, or suffered. The book shows their challenges, trials and successes without glossing over the less savoury details. 

A must-read for anyone interested in the medieval era, and how women really lived in what was essentially a man's world. Well worth five stars. 


Blurb:

These are the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. The lives and actions of medieval women were restricted by the men who ruled the homes, countries and world they lived in. It was men who fought wars, made laws and dictated religious doctrine. It was men who were taught to read, trained to rule and expected to fight. Today, it is easy to think that all women from this era were downtrodden, retiring and obedient housewives, whose sole purpose was to give birth to children (preferably boys) and serve their husbands. Heroines of the Medieval World looks at the lives of the women who broke the mould: those who defied social norms and made their own future, consequently changing lives, society and even the course of history.

Some of the women are famous, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was not only a duchess in her own right but also Queen Consort of France through her first marriage and Queen Consort of England through her second, in addition to being a crusader and a rebel. Then there are the more obscure but no less remarkable figures such as Nicholaa de la Haye, who defended Lincoln Castle in the name of King John, and Maud de Braose, who spoke out against the same king’s excesses and whose death (or murder) was the inspiration for a clause in Magna Carta.

Women had to walk a fine line in the Middle Ages, but many learned to survive – even flourish – in this male-dominated world. Some led armies, while others made their influence felt in more subtle ways, but all made a contribution to their era and should be remembered for daring to defy and lead in a world that demanded they obey and follow.



Where to find Heroines of the Medieval World:

Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B075NLL11S/ 

Amazon.com: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B075NLL11S/

Monday, December 2, 2019

Visiting the ancient fortress of Carcassonne

Today, I want to share my home with you... la Cité de Carcassonne!

Porte Narbonnaise, the main entrance
I must admit I've lost count of the number of visits I've made to date to the impressive battlements of Carcassonne, but I love returning to the place that has been occupied since ancient times.

Hubby and I have been living in Carcassonne since early 2018. A town of two sides – the ancient citadel (la Cité) with its castle, and the lower town (la ville basse) – it is just small enough to be able to wander around and discover hidden gems.


The hill the citadel sits on was already occupied during the Neolithic period, its elevated position allowing for sweeping views over the plain below. With sweeping views towards the Pyrenees to the south (beyond the rolling Corbières hills) and the Montagne Noire (southern end of the Massif Central) to the north, it was a great defensive site.

View westwards, to where the église Saint-Gimer replaced a medieval barbican
The Romans agreed, and built a stone wall around their settlement to fortify it. They recognised the value of this outpost on the trading route between Narbonne and Toulouse. Traces of those Roman stones are still visible in several places. Inside the château, you can see other evidence of Roman occupation, such as burial slabs, distance markers and original tiles.

In the dying years of the Roman Empire, the Goths arrived and began to settle. Septimania – as the region west of the Mediterranean Sea was then known as – was officially ceded to them in 462.


In the early 8th century, the Franks began to expand from the north, and the Saracens from the coast and south of the Pyrenees. Eventually, in the late 750s and early 760s, the Franks tried again under Pepin the Short (le Bref) who was more successful in pushing the Saracens to the fringes of Septimania. It was in the late 8th century that Bellon, the first count of Carcassonne, existed. Very little is know about him, but he was likely of Visigoth stock. I took the liberty of creating a life for him in my dual-timeline novel, Love Lost in Time.

Wall paintings from the times of the Trencavels

They depict the town's history, showing Franks as well as Saracens.
Carcassonne is of course best-known for its links to the Cathars – a group of dualists who the Catholic Church persecuted over decades, mainly in the early- to mid-13th century. In 1209, the fortress fell to the ’crusaders’ – sent by Pope Innocent III to either convert or kill the ’heathens’ – for the first time. The then viscount, Raymond-Roger de Trencavel – whose family had built and held the château for over a century – was thrown into his own gaol and died there under unexplained circumstances. The stuff of novels! (The history of the Cathars is well worth a separate post one day.)

Medieval donjon
By 1247, the city submitted to the King of France, Louis IX (Saint Louis, for obvious reasons!) who destroyed the settlement at the base of the fortress and rebuilt a new town across the river Aude. The Bastide St. Louis is still named after him. I wonder if it will ever change its name...

Map of the citadel and the lower town created by Louis IX
During the Hundred Years’ War, Edward the Black Prince (another fascinating character!) besieged Carcassonne but failed in his attempt. Large swathes of the area and many castles were destroyed by the English army.

Throughout the centuries, Carcassonne retained its important as an outpost against invasion from the south, but the Treaty of the Pyrenees conveyed the Roussillon area to France, and the town's usefulness declined. It began to fall into disrepair. By the mid-1800s, the government wanted to demolish the site, to great complaint.

Tour Wisigothe, also known as Tour du Four St Nazaire
It is thanks to the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc that the citadel received a new lease of life. His refurbishments didn't go smoothly, with many seeing his fairy-tale turrets and conical roofs as somewhat stylised, but old maps might prove his decision right in some aspects.

Nowadays a Unesco World Heritage site and tourist magnet, Carcassonne is still an incredible place to visit. I'm fortunate enough to be able to walk up to la Cité for a stroll, lunch in the sunshine or just relaxing with a leisurely glass of wine or two, people-watching.

Love Lost in Time is now available on Amazon in ebook and paperback formats.

Entrance to the Château Comtal

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Review: Alba is Mine by Jen Black


Today, I'm sharing my review for Alba is Mine by author Jen Black. Set in 11th century Scotland, it's right up my street with its sense of adventure, politics and a touch of romance.

An absolutely gripping read, Alba Is Mine is the kind of story that stays with you well beyond the last page. It's well-plotted, with realistic characters, and the author describes the setting very well.

Buchan Coast, north-east Scotland, image Pixabay

It is the year 1034, and King Malcolm II sends Finlay of Moray north on a mission to Finlay's half-brother, Thorfinn of Orkney – a thorn in Malcolm’s side. Finlay, who recently discovered his childhood love, Kilda, married off to another, is stalling when Thorfinn suggests marriage to his own headstrong sister, Ratagan, as part of the negotiations with Malcolm. 

When news of Malcolm's death, and ambitious Duncan's accession to the throne, reach them, Finlay sides with Thorfinn to fight against the one man that stands between him and the throne of Alba he rightly claims. But with Kilda's scheming, and Ratagan's temper, can he focus on the task ahead?

I enjoyed reading this adventure of a dark period in Scotland’s history. Assassinations amongst heirs to the throne were commonplace, and loyalties could shift overnight. Ms Black described the politics of the day well within the context of the plot, and without turning the novel into a history timeline. Add a few likeable characters for readers to rally for and the gorgeous setting that is Scotland, and you have a gripping combination.

Its absorbing mix of romance, adventure and politics makes Alba Is Mine a must-read for fans of medieval Scottish romantic fiction with a strong dash of action and intrigue. 


Blurb:


In 1034, the fuse has been lit that will change the kingship of Alba. When his place in the succession is rejected, Finlay of Moray rebels against his uncle the king and sides with half-brother Thorfinn of Orkney.

With his intended bride married off to his cousin, his boyhood friend joining the opposing side and the threat of war looming, there is little happiness for Finlay. Wanting to cement the bond between them, Thorfinn badgers him to marry his beautiful sister, but Finlay, reluctant to abandon hope of his first love, grimly resists the idea.

This absorbing, fast moving tale of power, greed, family rivalries and one man's vision of the future for his troubled kingdom will keep you turning the pages into the wee small hours.


Alba is Mine is available in ebook and paperback formats on various Amazon outlets, including Amazon UK and on Amazon.com.


Follow the author at: https://jenblackauthor.blogspot.com

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Visiting Montolieu, the village of books

Today, we went on a leisurely drive into the Cabardès area, a hilly forest area at the southern feet of the Montagne Noire. Or, in simple terms, just twenty minutes’ drive north from Carcassonne!
Montolieu, Aude, France
We were on our way to Montolieu, little realising that we'd taken the (very!) scenic route there. We found a quicker, but less pretty way back later, so it was well worth it. You're heading into higher ground, along tree-lined roads which offer welcome shade on a day that reached 36C in the area.


Montolieu is known as the ’village du livre’ – the village of books. A large museum there (which we didn't visit) was set up in the early 1990s to showcase bookmaking and a love for books. Over the years that followed, people established a range of mostly second-hand bookshops. No more than twenty across the village, but just enough for a good browse. Which we did, of course...


The area, then called Valseguier, was inhabited in pre-historic times, and an abbey was founded there around AD800. The Romans grew vines and olives and sheep were kept for production of wool. During the first three hundred years, minerals were mined and exported. After the Romans, the Visigoths arrived, followed by the Saracens, who, in turn, were chased further south by the Franks.


In the early 13th century, the Cathars – a sect based on an early Christian doctrine – were persecuted by the Catholic church throughout the Languedoc area. With the help of the abbey, Simon de Montfort, the leader of the so-called, Albigensian Crusade, put particular pressure on local Cathars and confiscated property of Cathars and of those lords who had dared to tolerate them. Not long after, the French King Louis VIII annexed much of the region and had the fortress at Montolieu destroyed. And then came the Inquisition...


To find out more about Montolieu's fascinating history through time, check this link (in French).


The location of Montolieu is stunning. Set on an incline, with several rivers and streams coming together below, you have a bit of a climb at times, but the houses on the narrow lanes provide plenty of shade either side.

The bookshops are cosy, quaint, and filled with shelves upon shelves of books. Many have boxes outside with reduced titles ranging from Yoga and 1970s romance novels to Dan Brown! I bought two – one classic and one for research. Can't leave a book place without buying books, eh?!

my purchases
There are a number of bars and restaurants, so visitors have a great choice, though many will likely be closed at times during winter, as is so often the case in the region. We found a shady spot for a chilled glass of rosé (with ample ice cubes provided), and enjoyed some people-watching time...


Montolieu is well worth a visit if you're near Carcassonne. Its quaint, relaxed atmosphere makes you instantly breathe out and take in the pretty little buildings and glorious views around the village.


Saturday, July 20, 2019

Visiting Schloss Heidelberg

Today, I'll take you to something very close to (my) home – the imposing ruin of the Renaissance Schloss in Heidelberg, Germany. 

Castle front (c) CD.
One of the most visited tourist sites in Europe – and for many overseas groups the only stop-over in Germany – it is typically overrun in the summer. But if you visit out of the main seasons, like we did last December, you'll find it a little less busy, allowing you to explore and take iconic photos at your leisure.


It feels strange, to visit a castle ruin in the town you were born a good few decades ago. I can't remember the last time I went inside, but it must have been in my early 20s, way back in the early 1990s. Not much has changed 'up there', I think, and the site is still as impressive as always.

We took the funicular train up rather than walk. It was raining, and we didn't fancy sliding on the steep cobbled pavement. Rustic – yes. Safe in the rain – nope, not for us! The funiculars are efficient and run regularly, and they're well worth taking if you're a little unsafe on foot.


Once at the top, we got our tickets. It was hubby's first visit inside the castle, so we joined a guided tour, as that's the only way you can get through the existing rooms. (The rain sadly stopped us from wandering along the extensive gardens afterwards.)

The tour guide clearly knew his history, and a few specialist bits and pieces, but he didn't go too deep into it all. I'd call it 'history light'. Still, a handy little guide, and not to be missed.

So, here's a bit of an expanded history lesson, just for you...

The first official charter of Heidelberg (then called 'Heidelberch') dates back to 1196, however, the area was inhabited throughout the ages. There is evidence, for example, that Celts and other tribes lived in the area long before. And, of course, the Romans travelled through in their attempt to conquer all Germania...

In the 6th century, Heidelberg was annexed into the Kingdom of the Franks, and the subsequent Christianisation saw the building of many important monasteries in the area. 



In 1155, Frederick Barbarossa appointed his half-brother Conrad von Hohenstaufen as Count Palatinate, however, there is no proof that he stayed in an early castle on that particular hill. There may have been a structure dating back to the 11th century, but it could have been located a little further up. The town itself didn't exist back then.

By 1214, a castle had been established on a rocky outcrop on the hillside, but by 1303, two castles are noted in records – not far from each other. The main castle, on the Jettenbühl, was reinforced in the 15th century by King Ruprecht, and more modifications followed.


But it was during the Thirty Years' War that the castle at Heidelberg's fate changed – for the worse. It changed hands several times between General Tilly and the forces of the Holy Roman Empire, and their enemies. 

In the late 1680s, King Louis XIV of France took it upon himself to claim Heidelberg and its Palatinate lands on behalf of his sister-in-law, Elisabeth Charlotte, nicknamed Lieselotte. This ultimately led to the sacking of the town and the destruction of the castle. The towers were blown up to prevent any further defensive action. Subsequent Counts Palatinate eventually moved their seat to nearby Mannheim, as rebuilding Heidelberg Castle would prove too expensive.


After that time, it was no longer seen as a worthy residence, and fell into decline, with stones from walls being used to build other residences.

Over the centuries, Heidelberg has always attracted many illustrious visitors: Martin Luther published a thesis here; Goethe stayed here in 1779; British landscape artist William Turner created several paintings of Heidelberg and the area; French author Victor Hugo adored it; and Mark Twain stayed there for a summer...

And I lived in the area, including a couple of years in Heidelberg, for my first 28 years. 😇


So if you're planning a visit to Germany, don't miss out Heidelberg, just 45 minutes south of Frankfurt, where you'll find this incredible gem of a castle and town. Try to avoid the height of summer, but autumn is particularly beautiful with the changing colours of the forests along the Neckar valley. Or, you might just want to visit the pretty Christmas market in December...


I'm leaving you with the words of Victor Hugo...

"Ici à Heidelberg, dans cette ville, dans cette vallée, dans ces décombres, la vie d’homme pensif est charmante… il ne faut pas passer à Heidelberg, il faut y séjourner, il faudrait y vivre!” 
(Victor Hugo, 'Heidelberg')


All images (c) Cathie Dunn, 2018. All rights reserved.