I received a free digital copy of this text from the author, Annie Whitehead, in exchanged for an honest review.
I was first introduced to the work of Annie Whitehead and many other fantastic authors in a wonderful little volume called 1066 Turned Upside Down. This absolute gem of a book explored all sorts of outcomes of the entire year of 1066 and what possibilities could have come true besides William the Bastard's victory. Most were grounded in reality and some were quite fantastical but I loved every single one - especially the one that saw Harold successful at Hastings. But I also have to remind myself that if we are altering British history that greatly, Eleanor of Aquitaine might never have become who she was, so I have to accept what happened and be fine with it.
My second encounter with the author's work came with a reading of Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom. You'll notice a theme here, in that when it comes to my beloved Anglo-Saxons, I will read any and everything I can get my hands on. This was another fantastic read for me and I eagerly awaited Whitehead's next offering.
I was NOT disappointed.
This text is incredibly well-researched, almost exhaustedly so. The author makes fantastic use of all the sources she is able to find - which was a surprising great number. I've read so much about the Anglo-Saxons, but never a book so wholly dedicated to restoring the women of the time back to their rightful places in history. And let's be realistic: when we do meet these women by chance or in passing, we usually don't get much information unless she was powerful or scandalous or both.
Yet here Whitehead is able to explore the lives of so many women in-depth, or at least as deep as we are able to go with what information exists. I was truly in awe of the number of primary sources that named so many women who, most often, I knew only scant facts about. To find that so many women were well-educated, literate, and powerful is thrilling. She uses a number of chronicles, annals, and charters to pull apart the many threads sometimes necessary to get to the truth. When necessary she also uses information from legends or gossip about certain figures that has come down to us through the ages. It was really interesting to see the comparisons of what chroniclers said about these women, vs. what records actually show. Such sniveling little men sometimes - something I know all to well in regards to my dear Eleanor of Aquitaine, centuries later.
Whitehead shows just how powerful some women became, and in a variety of roles: landowners, queens, consorts, dowager queens, abbesses, even a warrior (perhaps). Where she found contradictions in sources, Whitehead takes the best route possible in order to remain neutral and present her thoughts without stating that it is absolutely certain this way or that. I think that is was a good historian must do, choose what is most likely when considering the biases that many chroniclers held for women - especially powerful ones.
The book is divided by topic and each section within is mostly chronological, but not entirely. There is overlap from section to section but I feel that in a book like this that is helpful, as the reader is more able to place each woman in the proper context of her time and role. Some might find this bit repetitive, but I found it useful.
For dealing with these centuries when women were regularly written of only as footnotes in the lives of their fathers, sons, uncles, brothers, even cousins, Annie Whitehead has done a beautiful job restoring them to their rightful places in history.