Archive for January, 2010

In keeping with the theme of my blog, I present another time travel book:

Joan Szechtman’s new book, This Time, in an original twist of the time travel genre, is the story of King Richard III of England, rescued in his final moments on Bosworth Field by modern science. He is brought into the modern era by Hosgrove, a wealthy Ricardian who wishes to learn more of Richard’s life. He regards Richard, however, as a well-informed museum exhibit, who can be returned to inevitable death at Hosgrove’s own convenience. 

Hosgrove does not count on Richard objecting.

What ensues is part car-chase-pistol-shooting adventure as Richard escapes his new enemies; part history-mystery as Richard reveals what happened to his nephews, what went wrong at Bosworth, and how Anne died; and partly a human interest story of a man adjusting to the new life thrust upon him.

I thoroughly appreciated the historical aspect of this book, the research that went into it, and the clear love the author has for her subject. For those who like learning history through fiction, this is a good introduction to Richard III’s reign. I liked how Joan revealed pieces of Richard’s kingship over the course of the story, and presented evidence contrary to the historical record through the device of Richard contemplating and re-telling from his perspective.

Literature’s value lies, in part, in the insights it offers. To that effect, This Time raises important issues: a man adjusting to a new environment, a man accepting changes thrust unwillingly upon him; a man faced with false accusations. I especially liked the large theme of what we believe about others and why. Who shaped the historical view of Richard? Henry, who defeated him? Why did Shakespeare portray him so negatively? Whose word are we taking, and why do they say what they say?  These are issues we should all consider in our own lives.

I felt this book left ample room for delving in. As a non-Ricardian, I wanted to know more, both political and personal, of the fight between Henry and Richard, and the events surrounding Bosworth and the Stanleys. It is to the author’s credit that someone with no prior interest in Richard III was left wanting more, and she assures me it is coming in the sequels.

I wanted a stronger sense of the characters’ looks, mannerisms, and personalities. Apart from the issue of marrying outside his faith, where we see Richard struggle and learn, I felt Richard adopted modern views too quickly. It is to anyone’s credit to be open, but I would have liked to see him question our beliefs more deeply, and for him and other characters to also discover value in some beliefs of Richard’s time. I felt Richard was the only one expected to grow and change.

Ms. Szechtman has come up with a novel– forgive the pun– device in exploring history, and I would look forward to seeing it used again to raise interest in more historical figures, to bring them to life as real people with thoughts, fears, hopes, and all the emotions we ourselves have.


The last week and a bit has flown by with lots of detail work on manuscripts and immersion in the world of medieval music and ale–more ale than music this week.  And I should add, I don’t mean literal immersion.  Just in case anyone wondered.  Although it certainly would have helped me answer my question: how does the taste of today’s ale or beer compare to the taste of medieval ale?

Ale, in short, was largely the drink of the medieval day, made with malted grains (oats, barely, or wheat, for instance), water, and yeast.  It may have been flavored with spices, herbs, sugars, or fruits.  Beer, by contrast, contained hops, which gave it a touch of bitterness and helped with preservation.  Most speculation is that medieval ale was weaker than today’s, and had little to no carbonization, although these points, like any others, are up for debate.  In medieval England, it was served fresh, meaning still, or only very recently done, fermenting.

As usual, opinions vary about the state of things seven hundred years ago.  Both music and ale have similar problems: we have no direct experience of their medieval versions.  In the world of music, we have a few manuscripts from which to re-create a few pieces, but not many, and we can’t hear the actual instruments, nor how a medieval bard would have interpreted what manuscripts we have.   

In the world of ale, a few written household records have survived.  Judith Bennett quotes many such medieval sources in her book Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England, and these sources were used to construct two possible recipes for medieval ale, and brew several batches, using no modern equipment.  

Opinion on medieval ale veers strongly toward it having been sweet; the brewer says the ale from his first recipe was definitely not sweet, although this may be due to the ale being deliberately weak.  He describes one batch as quite cloudy, tasting ‘tannic,’  like ‘liquid bread,’ and apparently being quite low in alcoholic content.  Despite this, he says, it was ’quite drinkable and refreshing.’  Further batches, produced from a recipe that would have been more appropriate for an aristocratic household, gave tastes ranging from paint thinner to pleasant apple.

 We can safely say there would have been a great variety in the taste of ales from one town to the next, depending on the individual brewer, and the ingredients and equipment available.  But it seems that in general, they would have been sweeter and weaker than what we know today.

sources: Recreating Medieval English Ales by Paul W. Placeway, Getting Medieval by Jeri Westerson