Reading History: “When Christ and His Saints Slept” (by Sharon Kay Penman)

I’m a sucker for a good historical novel, and Sharon Kay Penman’s When Christ and His Saints Slept is one of those gems, a novel that manages to combine the vast epic sweep of a Walter Scott with the more intricate and personal details that allow us an intimate glimpse into the medieval world which it chronicles.  Set during the period known as the Anarchy, the novel follows two rival claimants to the English throne:  Stephen (nephew of the previous king Henry I) and Henry’s fiery, independent-spirited daughter Maude (widow of the Holy Roman Emperor).  As everyone in their orbit is drawn into the conflict, loyalties are tested and everyone must decide which side they will take and who they would like to see on England’s throne.  Told from a multitude of viewpoints, it offers a fascinating glimpse into one of England’s most turbulent periods.

Given the extraordinary nature of the women who occupied this world, it should come as no surprise that they emerge as the stars of Penman’s novel.  Maude chafes at the fact that her society cannot comprehend that a woman night not only be able to rule, but might be able to do so even better than her male counterparts.  This is not to say that the novel is unambiguously in Maude’s favour; she is not the perfect ruler, and she is stubborn to the point of folly.  Indeed, it is only after she ultimately loses her chance at the throne that she recognizes that sometimes, just sometimes, it is necessary for a ruler to follow the advice of her counselors.

Though she is not the primary focus of the novel, Eleanor of Aquitaine also emerges as a woman who knows precisely what she wants and does what it takes to achieve that goal.  Like Maude’s son Henry (who eventually succeeds Stephen as Henry II), hers is a personality that burns bright and powerful, so much so that she cannot be so easily contained by a society and a culture that systematically denies women the ability (and often the opportunity) to engage meaningfully in their political world.  Indeed, Eleanor even challenges the might of the French king Louis by marrying Henry a mere couple of months after her divorce to him becomes finalized.

Yet Stephen also emerges as a surprisingly compelling and even sympathetic character.  The novel takes great pains to show him as a genuinely good and chivalrous man, though one always able to be led by the most powerful person in his vicinity.  He also emerges as a man plagued by tragedy, as he struggles to retain the crown that he believes is his by right and ultimately loses both his wife Matilda and his unruly and dangerously unbalanced son Eustace.  Stephen is, in the end, a man far too kind, gentle, and chivalrous for the medieval world in which he lives, and far too lenient to ever be the effective king that England needs in order to survive. and thrive as a stable kingdom.  Though this makes him much more understandable to us as modern subjects, it eventually leads to his tragic downfall.

While it is all too common for novels of this type to focus strictly on the doings of the powerful and the royal, large sequences of the novel also relate the experiences of those who occupied the subaltern position within the medieval world:  the whores, the soldiers, the servants.  Although their perspectives do not typically occupy large parts of the narrative, they are nevertheless crucial for showing us the ways in which the civil war (which lasted almost two decades) took a terrible toll on the common people of the kingdom.

Most notable, perhaps, are two sets of individuals whose fates intersect with Ranulf (Maude’s fictional half-brother):  a pair of Jewish brothers who tend to him after a nearly-fatal bandit attack, and a pair of Saxon youths he rescues from certain rape and death.  Both groups represent the subaltern stratum of medieval English society, and it is actually rather shocking to realize the ways in which their plights were customarily ignored (or worse, justified) by the dominant mores of the time.  The fact that Ranulf finds himself feeling so intensely for their plight makes him one of the novel’s most sympathetic characters.

I’ve always thought that a good historical novel should give us moderns a taste–however diluted–of the strangeness of the past.  While many aspects of When Christ and His Saints Slept do give us a window into the workings of the mind of its characters that renders them at least somewhat modern in outlook, the world that Penman brings to life is one quite alien to our own.  As the above examples demonstrate, the novel never lets us forget that medieval England was a hard world, full of numerous social divisions that were seen as not only normal, but expected and immutable.  It’s a humbling reminder of how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go.

Score:  10/10

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