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  • Mary Ellen Johnson


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The best books on why the 14th century mirrors our own ideals, economy, and pandemic By Mary Ellen Johnson

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Who am I? In junior high, I happened across a picture of an armor-plated knight being raised by a winch to sit astride his destrier. What a ridiculous time period, I thought. After raiding every related book in the school library, I changed my opinion from “ridiculous” to “fascinating.” Particularly when deciding that periods such as the fourteenth century, with its plagues, wars, political upheavals, and climate change were pretty much a distorted mirror of our own. Throughout my life as wife, mother, novelist, and social justice advocate, I’ve held medieval England close to my heart. I remain forever grateful I’ve been able to explore it both in my writing and in several treks across the pond. I wrote... The Lion and the Leopard By Mary Ellen Johnson


What is my book about? Fourteenth-century England was a time of plague, climate change, economic disruptions, revolts, tyrannical rulers, and corrupt favorites. Against a backdrop similar to our own, my knights, their ladies, lords, and ordinary folk live and love and struggle against the turning of fortune’s wheel—where they, like us, rise only to fall and inch their way round the wheel yet again. Each character wrestles in some fashion with the family motto of my hero knight: All is lost save honor. Throughout, historical characters such as Edward III, the Black Prince, and John of Gaunt all appear. My favorite is the little-known revolutionary priest John Ball who I shamelessly modeled after my more radical relatives. I hope I accurately captured the essence of John—and of them all.

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The books I picked & why Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more). The Three Edwards By Thomas B. Costain





Why this book? Thomas Costain’s series introduced me to a fascinating world of castles and cathedrals, of tournaments where mounted knights broke lances on behalf of their ladies, where courtly love and chivalry ruled the day. (In theory. Seldom in practice.) How strange, my preteen self thought. How enchanting! I was particularly fascinated by The Three Edwards, which recounts the reign of one of England’s worst kings sandwiched between two of its greatest. With the eye of a natural storyteller, Costain intersperses tales of wars, rebellions, and political machinations with myths such as Arthur and Guinevere’s tombs being “discovered” in Glastonbury and the possible origins of Robin Hood. While there are newer series mining the same period, Costain’s research remains relatively solid, and his prose retains its powerful simplicity. Explore this book

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The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century By Ian Mortimer

Why this book? When creating a scene, my internal dialogue consists of some form of the following: Remember, farm animals were way smaller; hedges were not ubiquitous while music pretty much was; catching butterflies with nets and blowing soap bubbles was a favorite childhood pastime; and hey, why not have my knight stop to smell the flowers followed by weaving his love a garland? While our ancestors were sometimes very like us, in other ways both their actions and thought processes seem inexplicable. Which is what makes Ian Mortimer’s charmingly written and informative guidebook an indispensable part of my library. Explore this book

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1381: The Year of the Peasants' Revolt By Juliet Barker



Why this book? Another beautifully written book recounting the first popular uprising in English history. Would the revolt even have occurred without the Black Death and the subsequent upheaval caused by labor shortages, rising wages, population migrations? The author subsequently draws similarities between 1381 and contemporary conditions, making a compelling case for the axiom: history often rhymes. (When promoting American Independence, Thomas Paine championed the rebels, as did supporters of the French Revolution.) I particularly enjoyed delving into the life of the radical priest, John Ball, whose (largely fictional) voice continues to inspire those who ask, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” Explore this book

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The Black Prince By Michael Jones

Why this book? Each time I visit Canterbury Cathedral, I pay homage to my favorite knight, Edward of Woodstock, who epitomizes the fourteenth-century version of the knight nonpareil. Being an autodidact rather than a scholar, I am particularly grateful that Black Prince is both meticulously researched and easy to read. I particularly admire Prince Edward because of his courage on and off the battlefield, especially when enduring the mysterious illness that ultimately killed him. Edward the Black Prince embraced all the turns of fortune’s wheel with grace, courage, and dignity. Love this man and love this book! Explore this book

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The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III, Father of the English Nation By Ian Mortimer

Why this book? Forget the Wars of the Roses! Give me the fourteenth century and the reign of Edward III—whose like, according to the chronicler Jean Froissart, “has not been seen since the days of King Arthur." A happy warrior, exuberant ruler, and skilled commander, who at least one modern military historian has described as “the greatest general in English history.” Edward kicked some serious French butt during the beginning of the Hundred Years War. (Great from the English point of view. Devastating for those on the receiving end of Edward’s chevauchees.) The poignancy of outliving one’s peers and one’s time and dying alone—all of that is compassionately detailed in Ian Mortimer’s compelling biography, which reminds us why Edward of Windsor ranks among England’s greatest kings. Explore this book

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5 book lists we think you will like! The best books on medieval warfare (if you love knights and castles) The best books on the middle ages for those with an odd fascination for filth and torture The best books for time-traveling back to the past The best medieval murders and mysteries in fiction The best books on histories of medieval families Show more book lists Interested in Edward III of England, the Middle Ages, and the Wars of the Roses? 6,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Edward III of England, the Middle Ages, and the Wars of the Roses. Edward III Of England Explore 17 books about Edward III of England The Middle Ages Explore 282 books about the Middle Ages The Wars Of The Roses Explore 21 books about the Wars of the Roses And, 3 books we think you will enjoy! We think you will like The Wars of the Roses, Victory in the East, and The Rose Garden if you like this list. Show related books







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  • Mary Ellen Johnson

it makes an ass of you and me. At least that's how I felt talking with an actual historian during my Scholarly Sojourns tour of Great Castles of Britain. What I love about Scholarly Sojourns is that only those interested in the offered subject book the tour so you're among kindred spirits. Secondly, our tour guide is a bona fide expert, which in this case meant a man who could actually translate primary documents. In addition to knowing everything about castles--"Look, Romans largely built in brick...that's an Anglo-Saxon pattern...those are gothic windows"--he'd immersed himself in rhe time period. Since I am an autodidact and would grow impatient looking over household accounts even if I could understand them, I was particularly fascinated by several of his observations.


The following are pretty universally repeated by popular historians or at least the ones I've come across:


William Marshal is England's greatest knight. We all know the particulars. Marshal loyally served several kings, married well, and was the epitome of a medieval fighting man. "A thug," countered my historian. "Lousy tactician who had to have others come in and save his butt." (He used far more eloquent language.) Expedient, not too bright but had good p.r., most likely in the form of chronicles. Don't know whether that charactization is true, but some who have written about him seem to be well credentialed. Wouldn't those who were writing non-fiction, as opposed to fiction, have consulted primary sources?


Isabella and Roger Mortimer were lovers: But of course. I wrote about this in my first historical novel, The Lion and the Leopard. As I did the manner of Edward II's death, murder by having a red hot poker jammed up his anus. Okay, well when I was a youngling, I was more interested in a good story than truth and less respectful of my real-life characters. I still make mistakes but if I majorly veer from the accepted record, I make a note of it. Anyway, my historian said, "There is no real evidence Isabella and Mortimer were romantically involved." What? I immediately went to the expert, Kathryn Warner, who writes the wonderful Edward II blogspot. A careful reading of primary sources does not assert any sort of romantic relationship. In fact, in all the "crimes" listed against Roger Mortimer or accusations against Queen Isabella, adultery is never mentioned. Peculiar. Surely, enemies would throw everything at their hated rivals--whether real or imagined. And yet...there is no actual reference to Mortimer and Isabella as lovers. Even historians I admire assumed this to be true and spun out their case from what may be a faulty premise. What we contemporaries often mistakenly do is place our values and behaviors on our ancestors. Particularly when it comes to someone like Isabella, who was raised to behave like a queen rather than a woman. It would be against her breeding, not to mention her religious upbringing, to tumble into bed with her fellow insurrectionist. The best evidence is that Isabella and Mortimer's relationship was close but professional. While we can pick and choose and make a case for the other, the evidence is iffy. Okay if you're a novelist. Not so much if you're a historian.


My impression, not to mention the story that has come down to us about Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, is that Eleanor was married to a feeble king and was completely enamored of the energetic, ambitious English knight who swept into her life. Theirs was a love match that went sour. Probably not. More likely it was strictly a political alliance. Marrying for anything other than love, to be forced into an "arranged" love is anathema to most contemporary sensibilities. (Though we're not so very different when it comes to one very rich and very old spouse who marries a much younger pretty toy.) And yet, that was the way of the Middle Ages, particularly when it came to members of the nobility. One's primary duty was to continue one's lineage and maintain/expand one's property. Love didn't enter into it. So isn't it ironic that the Middle Ages introduced us to the concept of courtly love, which involves knights who go mad or even die from thwarted love for the object of their passion? Perhaps they could be so over the top in fiction because their reality was the opposite. Given today's high divorce rate, I'm not sure romantic love is the best basis upon which to enter into a lasting marriage, but I'll address that some other time.


Sons fighting on opposite sides during rebellions: I hadn't really thought about this one. Upon reading of brothers facing off against each other on the battlefield, I imagined heated arguments--one side believing in the policies of their king, the other believing he was a disaster who must be deposed. (Or some such.) Lots of angst, once close siblings becoming mortal enemies (a bit like current MAGAS vs. us Libtards?). The truth, apparently, was far more practical and clever, if I do say so. With one son fighting on either side, regardless of which side lost, the family could say, "I was loyal to you, the winner." And since the crown held all the lands, it seemed an ingenious solution.


All of this is my way of saying history is always fun, always fascinating and forevery changing.

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Recently I was contacted by founders of the site https://shepherd.com/ Discover the best books 📚


Their mission is to not only share the author's work with the public, but the author's five favorite books on the related subject.


I was happy to promote my six book Knights of England series., which spans the tumultuous 14th century and which, at least in my framing, wrestles with dilemmas that regularly make an appearance on some form of social media--plague, wars, climate change, inflation, civil wars and rebellions, corrupt goverment and spineless politicians who refuse to stand up to despots. Sound familiar?



The Black Prince by Michael Jones: Fortune's wheel was a common metaphor during the Middle Ages. Rising to the apex of personal and professional success only, as fortune's wheel continues its inexorable turning, to be ground to powder. I'm a sucker for such stories, particularly when I'm a fan of the individual. Then I wish I could rewrite my hero's ending so he's allowed another glorious half turn where he's granted the serendipitous fate I think he deserves. Such is my thwarted desire for Edward the Black Prince who, when he died, was described, even by his enemies as "the flower of chivalry of all the world. " England's greatest knight, leading his troops to victory at Poitiers and laying waste to the French during the beginnings of the Hundred Years War. (Great for the English and their economy; horror for the French, particularly those villeins unfortunate enoough to find themselves in the path of Edward's chevauchees.) A soldier's soldier possessing Indomitable courage and strength of will. Yet, when brought low by the illness that ultimately killed him, Edward of Woodstock accepted his fate with grace, dignity and humility. Michael Jones recounts the Prince's life with such skill it often reads like a novel.




A Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer: My bible when it comes to reconstructing my favorite time period. What was the physical landscape? What sort of games did medieval men and women play? What did they find amusing, horrifying, enjoyable? Did they bathe, brush their teeth, wear undergarments? Ian Mortimer answers all these questions and more. Indispensable to anyone who would like to know more about our ancestors, or who simply enjoys a delightful read.


1381 The Year of the Peasants Revolt by Juliet Barker: England's Black Death of 1348-1349 led inevitably to the Peasants Revolt three decades later. All of us who have speculated on the repercussions of COVID would be well served to read Juliet Barker's book. The events from that past provide a blueprint to our future. The effects of so many dead on the remaining populace; the various migrations; inflation; discontent; the inability of the government to maintain the status quo in the time before the Death. It's all there--the good, the bad and the ugly which we, like our forbears, will be dealing with for generations to come.

Forget the Wars of the Roses! The fourteenth century, particularly as embodied by England's "perfect king" is far more fascinating. Edward III's father, Edward of Caernarvon, enjoyed thatching roofs, digging ditches, swimming in the Thames and consorting with his lowborn subjects, all traits we might find endearing but which horrified his people. On the other hand, Edward III embodied the ideal traits of a medieval monarch. He was a successful warrior king along the lines of the mythical Arthur, guiding England from a backwater nation to a European powerhouse. Edward was a competent and thoughtful ruler. For example, he allowed his returning soldiers to keep the booty they'd obtained from their campaigns knowing that would add to his nation's prosperity. Edward's love of grand chivalric gestures and over-the-top pageantry might be frowned on today, but they further endeared him to his people. Sadly, as Edward aged, his golden reign became increasingly tarnished. Like his son the Black Prince, Edward of Windsor was brought low by fortune's wheel. His is another life I wish I could re-write in order to concoct a happier ending. Still, more than seven centuries after his death, Edward of Windsor remains one of England's most successful monarchs.

The Three Edwards by Thomas Costain: Thomas Costain's series on the Plantagenets was my first introduction to the bizarre but fascinating world of medieval England. Who are these people? I wondered. Why do they pray to God one minute and lop off someone's head the next? What's all this business about courtly love? Chivalry? Who are these crazy kings?


What is it about this era that continues to resonate? What myths are more ubiquitous than those of Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere and the knights of the round table? Robin Hood? Who hasn't at least heard of Richard the Lionheart and the Black Prince? Why do we still use the phrase "knight in shining armor?" Why do millions visit Britain's castles and cathedrals annually? Costain may not directly answer these questions but his obvious love of that bygone age was impossible for me, as a young girl, to resist.


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