High Middle Ages Historical Fiction

Big John's Secret

Book cover: 'Big John's Secret'
Author(s): 
Eleanore M. Jewett
Copyright: 
1962
Publisher: 
Bethlehem Books
Binding: 
Softcover
Number of pages: 
207 pages
Subject(s): 
Setting: 
Grade / Age level: 
Review: 

"Big John" is a 12-year-old boy living as a serf in 13th century England, but with a mysterious past understood only by "Old Marm", who has raised him as a son and teaches him lessons and courtly behavior in secret. He is finally recognized by a knight and learns that his father was betrayed long-ago by a fellow nobleman and his nurse rescued him along with a few precious family heirlooms. After training at a castle under this knight, he sets out on the 5th Crusade (starting in the year 1218 - he is now 16 years old) as a squire - largely in hopes of finding his lost father.

This is an interesting and engaging story for middle-school children - especially 5th to 8th grade. It offers a surprisingly balanced view of the Crusades as well as beautiful themes of faithfulness and forgiveness. While written at an appropriate level for young children, the author is honest about the evil and destruction that came out of the previous crusade (the infamous 4th crusade in which the Christians sacked Constantinople). In the course of discussion, the characters further distinguish between those who come to the Crusades to free Christian prisoners and those who are after glory and material gain. Finally, this subtle running theme about motive and warfare is brought to a climax in the person of St. Francis of Assisi.

While some of the plot comes across as a little predictable (making it less appealing, perhaps to high schoolers), the themes and major events are thoughtful and extremely well-researched. The segment in which Big John crosses paths with St. Francis of Assisi is based on a true incident in which the Saint went into the Saracen camp to preach to the Sultan about Christ.

Perspective: 
Catholic
Additional notes: 

This book was donated for review by Bethlehem Books

Review Date: 
5-22-05
Reviewed by: 

Crusader King, A Novel of Baldwin IV and the Crusades

Author(s): 
Susan Peek
Copyright: 
2003
Publisher: 
Tan Books and Publishers, Inc.
Binding: 
Softcover
Number of pages: 
191 pages
Setting: 
Grade / Age level: 
Review: 

In 1174 at only 13 years of age, Baldwin IV ascended to the Throne of Jerusalem. What makes his story so unusual, however, is not so much his age, but his extraordinary accomplishments while experiencing incredible hardship. In Crusader King, we soon discover that being a member of a royal family is not all glamour and glory. It is also a responsibility and at times a heavy burden. Rather than focus on Baldwin’s outstanding military career, Susan Peek brings to life the qualities of his noble character in the midst of a corrupt court. Not only must he do battle on the field with the enemy, but he must be prepared to deal with evil villains within his own family and self-seeking comrades who seek the throne in every possible way.

Can he keep the clever and powerful, Turkish Sultan Saladin from destroying Jerusalem and the outlying states? How will he deal with his scheming sister, Princess Sibyl, manipulative mother, the Countess Lady Agnes, his ambitious cousin, Count Raymond of Tripoli, and troublemaker and outlaw, “Hawk of Kerak,” with his rebel army? Can he keep the various factions united and peaceful, while avoiding the petty rivalries from further splitting up the kingdom? Who can he trust?

Ironically, his body is becoming more and more corrupt each day with the decay of leprosy as the kingdom he is struggling to hold together is also becoming more corrupt.

An inspiring story of heroic virtue, Crusader King leaves readers wishing there were more high minded people like Baldwin IV living today. Maybe the challenge is to be one yourself?

Review Date: 
6-24-06
Reviewed by: 

If All the Swords in England

Book cover: 'If All the Swords in England'
Author(s): 
Barbara Willard
Copyright: 
1961
Publisher: 
Bethlehem Books
Binding: 
Softcover
Number of pages: 
181 pages
Grade / Age level: 
Review: 

The story of the martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket (and the last six years of his life) is presented in an intelligent and interesting format by viewing these events through the eyes of twin boys, Simon and Edmund, who are (respectively) in the service of Thomas Becket and King Henry II ( Saint Thomas' friend-turned-enemy).

The story begins in the year 1164, while St. Thomas is in exile in France, avoiding the King's wrath for not cooperating with his wishes regarding the King's control over the Church. Edmund has just been admitted into the King's service, but Simon, because of his lame hand, is refused. Simon dreams of entering the Archbishop's service, but is temporarily taken in by some distant relatives of the Archbishop.

The King's own commands alter the course of events as Simon is caught up in the forced exile of all of St. Thomas' relatives to join him in France. The tensions and mysteries surrounding the struggles between these two men are well-explained and many truths and lessons are skillfully drawn out by the author. For example, the story provides a very clear lesson on the consequences of not controlling one's temper. This is easy even for young children to understand because the King literally acts like a two-year-old (with the exception of allowing himself further loss of control by the excessive use of alcohol) - allowing himself to get so angry that he yells and screams, falls to the floor and eventually passes out. His temper tantrums lead directly to the death of the Archbishop. Also, the way the story is presented through the eyes of a child gives a sense of the awe of going to confession to and serving Mass for a living saint.

Although it is clear from early in the book (even if the reader doesn't know otherwise) that Saint Thomas will be martyred, the subject is handled very thoughtfully and helps children to realize the "sweetness" present in the bitterness of martyrdom.

I read this aloud to my children and only found one sentence too much for their ages (my oldest is seven). "He drew his sword and struck at the skull of the dead man, scattering brains and blood on the pavement." (pg. 173). My children and I also found the parallels between St. Thomas' final years and Our Lord's final days rather interesting. (There are parallels to the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the scattering of his followers before his death, and even one faithful follower who stuck with him to the end.)

Perspective: 
Catholic
Review Date: 
7-7-2000
Reviewed by: 

Ivanhoe

Book cover: 'Ivanhoe'
Author(s): 
Sir Walter Scott
Copyright: 
1819
Publisher: 
Lepanto Press
Binding: 
Sewn Hardcover
Number of pages: 
539 pages
Subject(s): 
Setting: 
Review: 

Set in 12th century England, Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe is the story of a disinherited knight upon his return from the Crusades. The knight encounters civil unrest, beautiful maidens, traitorous knights, miserly Jews, and intrigue.

The language is archaic, and is written in "Olde" English. The exciting plot more that compensates however, for the difficulties with the language. The glossary also helps explain some of the obscure references encountered in the novel.

Ivanhoe is a colourful novel, full of memorable characters- Wamba, the fool, Robin of Locksley, the enigmatic Black knight, Cedric the proud Saxon, beautiful Rowena, courageous Rebecca, Gurth, the faithful swineherd, treacherous Prince John and his Norman compatriots, and jovial Prior Aymer the not-so-holy cleric.

Ivanhoe is five hundred pages of excellent reading, filled with drama, suspence, and comedy. It's historical fiction at its finest. It's a great family read-aloud, best suited for children over ten years of age. Because of its length and style of writing, it is perhaps best suited as a family read-aloud. A highly recommended addition to your study of the Middle Ages.

P.S. The video, starring Joan Fontaine and Elizabeth Taylor, was terribly disappointing, especially after reading the novel. In this case, stick with the book alone!

Additional notes: 

Reviewer ages 10-14

Review Date: 
7-25-2000
Reviewed by: 

Murder in the Cathedral

Book cover: 'Murder in the Cathedral'
Author(s): 
T.S. Eliot
Copyright: 
1935
Binding: 
Other
Grade / Age level: 
Review: 

This classic play, written in the fashion of a Greek tragedy (but with Catholic content) is suitable for high school students and adults. Handling the topic of St. Thomas Becket' martyrdom, it focuses on the spiritual and emotional struggles and temptations the Archbishop is faced with immediately before his martyrdom. Full of many truths and fodder for great discussion, this is a highly recommended piece for literature, religion and history.

Perspective: 
Catholic
Additional notes: 

Various editions available

Review Date: 
7-7-2000
Reviewed by: 

Proud Taste For Scarlet and Miniver

Author(s): 
E.L. Konigsburg
Copyright: 
1973
Publisher: 
Dell Publishing Co.
Subject(s): 
Setting: 
Review: 

This story is written fairly informally from the surprising vantage point of a cloud in heaven, where Eleanor of Aquitaine (12th century duchess from Acquitaine, in France) and three friends take turns recounting various events from her life. The novel is filled with historical details, particularly the lifestyle and family tree of the Plantagenet and the Capet families (King Henry II of England, Saint Thomas Becket, King Louis VII of France, King Richard the Lion Heart), and it is all presented in an entertaining manner. It is probably available at your local library. It would be a terrific read-aloud if your family is studying the Middle Ages. Children over 10 years of age would enjoy reading this book on their own.

Reviewed by: 

The Blue Gonfalon

Author(s): 
Margaret Ann Hubbard
Copyright: 
1960
Publisher: 
Lepanto Press
Binding: 
Sewn Hardcover
Number of pages: 
187 pages
Subject(s): 
Setting: 
Review: 

Bennet’s life dream is to become a knight. Not one to sit idly by, he does everything in his power to physically train for such a high position in the hopes of at least becoming a squire someday. But how can his dream ever become a reality when he is just the son of a lowly armorer of the great Lord Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke of Lorraine.

Life, however, takes a sudden turn of events when Peter the Hermit, riding through the region, sets everyone on fire with his preaching to save the holy city of Jerusalem from the hands of the infidels.

Not long after, Pope Urban convenes a meeting with bishops, archbishops, and cardinals to prepare the way for the first crusade. The result is Pope Urban’s challenge to every man, woman, and child to save Jerusalem under the sign of the “blood-red” cross—a crusade. With Pope Urban’s famous words, “God wills it,” the whole of Western Europe is set in motion in a new direction to conquer Jerusalem.

Suddenly, castle life becomes mundane and boring and the idea of traveling to a distant city, and not any city -but the holy city of Jerusalem, where our Lord preached - an exciting and grand adventure. Life has a new purpose with a noble cause worth fighting for.

Lord Godfrey, however, hesitates. Should he go too? At long last, Lord Godfrey reaches a decision that he too will join the crusade, and to Bennet’s great joy, he is asked to be a squire. After many preparations, the long and arduous journey begins across Europe on to the holy land with the blue gonfalon, Lord Godfrey’s standard, leading the way.

There is plenty of tension, uncertainty, and excitement along the way as not everyone is as enthusiastic and supportive of the cause as they are and they have many battles to overcome before they reach the holy city of Jerusalem. Will Bennet reach his dream of becoming a knight someday?

The Blue Gonfalon is a tale of high romance, not the kind of story of boy meets girl, but a true “romance” of a “narrative depicting heroic or marvelous deeds, pageantry . . .”

Those who know and love history will appreciate Hubbard’s accuracy in presenting a fair and balanced account of the characters and events surrounding the First Crusade (1095 AD). In other words, not everyone has the highest motives for going and those who do go are not suddenly changed into angelic beings, but are still fully human and limited by their human frailties. Bennet, however, as well as Lord Godfrey, always strives to do the right thing.

Hubbard’s flowing narrative holds together a complicated tale of true events, heroic deeds, perilous dangers, and adventurous exploits.

Perspective: 
Catholic
Review Date: 
5-13-2007
Reviewed by: 

The Hidden Treasure of Glaston

Book cover: 'The Hidden Treasure of Glaston'
Author(s): 
Eleanore M. Jewett
Copyright: 
1946
Publisher: 
Bethlehem Books
Binding: 
Softcover
Number of pages: 
340 pages
Subject(s): 
Setting: 
Grade / Age level: 
Review: 

This book takes place in the year immediately following the murder of Saint Thomas Becket (who died in 1170 AD). Hugh, the young crippled son of one of the knights who commited the dreadful dead, is left in the care of the Monastery of Glaston, allowing his father to flee the country in the wake of riots and uprisings against the nobles who were involved in Becket's death. Although Hugh is haunted for a time with painful memories of the riots, he has inherited a love for books from his mother and settles down rather happily into a position of assistant to the scriptorium monk where he learns to make the beautiful inks and dyes used for illuminated manuscripts.

Life gets more interesting when Hugh teams up with Dickon, a young oblate at the monastery, to investigate secret underground treasure caves. A mystery unfolds envolving the monastery, King Arthur, Joseph of Arimathea and the Holy Grail.

How neat to read a Catholic adventure story for children! While reading an engrossing, fast paced story, they are also given a positive impression of piety and monastic life and the importance of amending one's life (the side-plot regarding his father which ends happily).

I also like the fact that the book includes "a word to those who like to ask of a story, especially one with an historical background, 'Is it true?'" The story, as much as possible, is rooted in historical truths. Although I have not read it yet, The Flowering Hawthorn (published by Neumann Press) appears to cover some of the historical background that this story is based on and might make an interesting follow-up book.

The Hidden Treasure of Glaston is a Newbery Honor book from 1946. There are some similarities to The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli, but I think this book is more interesting and fast-paced.

Perspective: 
Catholic
Additional notes: 

This book was donated for review by Bethlehem Books.

Review Date: 
8-10-2000
Reviewed by: 

The King's Shadow

Book cover: 'The King's Shadow'
Author(s): 
Elizabeth Alder
Copyright: 
1995
Publisher: 
Bantam Doubleday Dell
Binding: 
Softcover
Number of pages: 
272 pages
Subject(s): 
Setting: 
Review: 

The King's Shadow is a story of a welsh serf, Evyn, who dreams of becoming a storyteller. In retaliation for his uncle's crime, however, Evyn has his tongue cut out, thus shattering his dreams to become a storyteller. Evyn is then sold to the king's wife, and eventually becomes the king's squire and then his foster son.

The book is set in the 11th century, shortly before the Battle of Hastings. It gives accurate details of King Harold's life, and the life of English nobility of the time. It would be a wonderful complement to a history unit on the Middle Ages.

The King's Shadow is an excellent work of historical fiction, recommended for ages 10 and up. It has great "boy appeal" because of the battle scenes, adventures, intrigue, and the profusion of male characters. Not recommended for a read aloud.

Review Date: 
7-25-2000
Reviewed by: 

The Lost Baron

Book cover: 'The Lost Baron'
Author(s): 
Allen French
Copyright: 
1940
Publisher: 
Bethlehem Books
Binding: 
Sewn Softcover
Number of pages: 
297 pages
Subject(s): 
Setting: 
Grade / Age level: 
Review: 

This is quite simply a great story. Even at almost 300 pages, it's surprisingly quick, enjoyable and a worthwhile read.

It is the year 1200, and England is ruled by the wicked and greedy King John (of Robin Hood fame). When the baron Eric disppears from his castle under mysterious circumstances and is presumed dead, his wife and daughter must learn to live with the baron's legal heir and distant relative - the new baron, Basil - who is gloomy and unpleasant.

Secret passages, surprising chase scenes, loyal peasants and the sting of a guilty conscience make for an engrossing tale that presents an accurate picture of feudal life and the duties of the nobility with beautiful undertones involving character, forgiveness and the triumph of good over evil. Suitable reading for fifth grade and up or as a family read-aloud.

Perspective: 
Catholic
Additional notes: 

This book was donated for review by Bethlehem Books.

Review Date: 
4-18-01
Reviewed by: 

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