The Women of the Cousins’ War:

This very title raises questions for me. Women and war- as fighters or victims… Joan of Arc, or nameless peasant raped and murdered. War between cousins- even a war with Neanderthals would be that to me, so how much more is any war between Homo sapiens a cousins’ war, a civil war. Yet the Wars of the Roses were really a jockeying for power among the greatest families of the time, with familial relationships, shifting allegiances, battle and murder.

Philippa Gregory has written many historical novels about the Wars of the Roses (the “cousins’ war”) and the Tudor dynasty, all based on solid research, though I don’t think I have read any of them. In this book she collaborates with two historians, David Baldwin and Michael Jones, to give biographies of three women of the era, the Duchess (Jacquetta of Luxembourg, whose daughter married Edward IV,) the Queen (Elizabeth Woodville, daughter of Jacquetta,) and the King’s mother (Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor.)

The history was interesting, though I find it hard to retain details now I am not teaching to re-enforce  my grasp- or maybe just because of an ageing brain. More interesting, though, was the introduction, the first thirty six pages.  Philippa Gregory writes about the history especially of women, the history that wasn’t in the summaries of reigns, invasions and battles I learned long ago. I was always more interested in the ways people lived, and the traces they left behind. In fact, in the late 1960s, a friend and I, both teaching history at high school, talked about writing a text book for the younger students based on how people lived in England- houses, farming, food, crafts and so on. Later I briefly taught a class basing the semester on a map of medieval York and challenging the students to find out as much as possible from clues found on their maps: those students had the U.C. Berkeley library to access.

The women in this book, though, were not humble craft people or farmers. They as much as their husbands and brothers, though in somewhat less immediate ways, shaped their lives in the pursuit of power. Gregory remarks that this was even harder for medieval men to accept than for modern ones who see, for example, both Mrs Thatcher and Hillary Clinton as being masculine when they are forceful or determined. She highlights the elements of Tudor propaganda in our received history of the period, and our views of the characters involved.

The author also explores the boundaries and overlaps between history and historical fiction. If we love history, we are trying to imagine how the world was in a different time or place: no history is devoid of selection among facts. gaps of knowledge and assumptions carried from our own time. It amuses me that people worry about “the historical Jesus” as though we could know exactly the details of his life, teachings,ideas, relationships, let alone the mystery of his death and resurrection. Yet often the same people assume they know Julius Caesar or George Washington in some absolute and sure way.

Trying to imagine what we see in the distant mirror of history is as interesting as exploring different countries: places I cannot go. I will never get it right or understand it all but it’s fun to try- and it will change my world view.

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