Two Houses, Two Kingdoms: A History of France and England, 1100-1300 by Catherine Hanley

Two Houses, Two Kingdoms: A History of France and England, 1100-1300
by Catherine Hanley

Of the books I’ve read lately, this is by the far the most academic and “historical” in subject, language, and depth of detail. Yet, at the same time, this is not strictly for an academic audience. Readers will find that Two Houses, Two Kingdoms is suitable and accessible for all adults interested in the Medieval age, the ins and outs of politicking and the martial exploits of kings, queens, and the nobility in Western Europe. (I say “adult readers” because this is really not accessible for a younger, less mature reader. Its audience is a small sliver of the total general reading population; children, juvenile, and young adult readers will likely find this plodding.)

The structure of the book follows a traditional, chronological form, moving from the 1100s to end at the beginning of the 14th century, allowing readers unfamiliar with the dynasties and generations of these royal houses to follow along with who was whom’s son, daughter, niece, cousin, and so on. It was a tangled mess of consanguineous relationships. This is a historical monograph in the traditional sense of the word.

The prose however, is refreshingly modern, flowing with an ease that many older monographs lack. In many ways, Hanley’s narrow focus on the royal and noble houses attached to them is what keeps the reader’s attention: the chapters read like episodes of a family drama. There is a soap opera like quality to the mechanics of politics in this age; there are kidnappings of maidens and children, sordid adult-minor affairs and marriages, betrayals of the deepest cuts, adulterous liaisons leading, The men and women Hanley depicts in these pages could achieve viral fame on The Jerry Springer Show or feature on a highlight of Judge Judy. No joke.

What the reader should not expect is a cultural or social history of the Medieval period; the ordinary, non-royal, non-noble classes do not make an appearance in this text, nor does it dwell on cultural norms or landscapes of the time. This is a political history focused on the highest classes of society at the time. Hanley is clear from the beginning this is what the book centers on.

As a text for the classroom then, this is potentially useful and not. For a course on Medieval history, say, a graduate level seminar, Hanley’s monograph would be perfect — except that by that stage in students’ careers, they are liable to be already familiar with its content. And Hanley does not delves into the historiographical literature or methodology. This is far less suitable for an undergraduate seminar. It is too long and dives too deeply into the nitty gritty for an introductory course. This is better suited to a general adult non-fiction audience than the classroom.

As a historian reading for pleasure, I found it enjoyable. The prose was smooth, flowing, logical, and concise. Hanley did not waste words; this economy delivered what was necessary to understand the course of events, the personalities involved, their ambitions and motivations. The depth of detail warrants praise; Hanley is an expert in this period and the level of research and analysis they invested in this scholarship is apparent, even if their methodologies were not. An excellent monograph well worth any interested reader’s attention and time.

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