Rating: 3.5 Stars
While this book is not without its flaws, I feel like other readers and I must have read a completely different book. I found it to be a good read about a highly important historical figure who sometimes is forgotten - though I am not sure how. it so happened that a publisher had offered me a copy of another book about John of Gaunt so I read them around the same time and recommend both, as each has kind of a different focus. While they are both at the core biographies of John of Gaunt, the subtitle is important for this one. it is much more about the time period and the great changes taking place, as it is about the Duke of Lancaster.
Norman Cantor is still a well-known medieval author, despite him having passed away in 2004. I enjoy his works, have read some and have many more on my to-read list. So, I know that he has the knowledge necessary to write about his topics. Even well-versed authors are not completely immune to suppositions, and there were quite a few, but I couldn't not keep reading the book. One reason for all those suppositions is that, despite the fact that we have pages and pages, roughly 500 or so, of Gaunt's business letters and documents,there is not one single personal letter of his that has survived to come down to us through the centuries. The author also makes the point on page 81 that, "There is no evidence from late medieval England that aristocrats wrote personal letters at that time." It doesn't mean they didn't, it just means that so far none have been found. Such a shame that if they did so, we will never have these personal letters to read, to better understand the people we admire or disdain from afar (Believe me - what I would not give for an authentic cache of letters to be discovered somewhere in England or Aquitaine penned by Eleanor herself, detailing events in her life that took her from Louis' side as Queen Consort of France to Henry's side as Queen Consort of England!)
FYI: I am almost embarrassed to admit this, and maybe it is just because my head is so full of Henrys and Edwards and such, that I can't keep all the family trees straight (especially when they overlap multiple times), but I don't know how it never occurred to me before that Prince Henry the Navigator was Gaunt's grandson. I don't know why it took so long for me to make the connection. Yikes.
The book is not organized in a way that some readers might enjoy. Instead of being a straight biography of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, his life story is told by topic. So, yes the book jumps around in time quite a bit, but you also have to keep in mind that subtitle I mentioned. It is about Lancaster, but also about the world he grew up in and the changes that took place to begin ushering in the modern world. Topics include the broad 'Old Europe', then the great families of the age, women, warriors, peasants, politics, and eve a whole chapter revolving around Chaucer. I liked the organization, because one chapter you get a sense of general life in that time, as well as how Lancaster fit into the world and how the various topics impacted him, and he them. That background information is especially important for those who have little knowledge to begin with, while still focusing on the subject of the book.
As I said before, the book is not without its flaws. There is a lot of supposition throughout. It is his final book published before his death (both occurred in 2004; a book about Alexander the Great was published posthumously in 2005) and I still found it to be adequate. I don't know that I would call it his best book, but Cantor had the ability to make even uninteresting aspects of the Middle Ages engaging. There is one quote though that I had a good chuckle at, not because it was ha-ha funny, but because it was just kind of a silly statement: "Undoubtedly Gaunt would have loved to wear the crown. But that was outside the realm of possibility. Above all Gaunt was a Plantagenet who wanted to maintain the dignity of the bloodlines of his family" (page 197). I mean, I seriously almost snorted at that line. While it is likely true that the Duke of Lancaster secretly coveted the throne of England (and really, he was already the richest man in the country and wielded about the same control), he would never have really overthrown his nephew Richard II, son of his elder brother, Edward the Black Prince. In all honesty he probably should have, because Richard II was not the greatest of kings, but that part might be true. The second part is what had me chortling, the 'dignity' of the Plantagenets. Just look at what Eleanor and Henry II's sons did in the many years their father was on the throne! They rebelled against him how many times (twice - guided by Eleanor herself) in order to get more power. Richard practically hounded his father to death for the crown after Henry the Young King (older brother) and Geoffrey (younger brother) both died, and John was easily one of the worst kings in the history of England.
Even with that quote, I can still say that I would recommend this volume. Cantor has written numerous texts about the Middle Ages and knows what he is talking about. It is fairly short, the hardcover volume I discovered at half-Price Books is only 241 pages. Give it a go and see what you think!