Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Sword in Her Hand by Jean-Claude Van Rijckeghem and Pat Van Beirs

Yet another novel about a little known historical figure, A Sword in Her Hand, relates a fictionalized account of Marguerite Van Male who lived from 1348 to 1405. Marguerite was the daughter of Margaret of Brabant and Louis de Male, Count of Flanders. She lived during the 14th century - a world where women were often treated as merchandise to be used to forge political alliances. The period of time in which Marguerite lived saw the Hundred Years war and a plague epidemic.

Marguerite is portrayed as a strong-willed, sometimes crass, fiery young girl. When Marguerite's mother is unable to give birth to a son who lives, she goes mad and is sent to a nearby convent to recover. Meanwhile, Marguerite, deprived of her beautiful mother whom she loves dearly, learns early on that her father would most definitely have preferred that she were the son he so desperately needs. She knows she is not a beauty and has no misconceptions about what life will hold for her.

I know what they whisper in the kitchens of Male and in the streets of Bruges, that I haven't inherited my mother's beauty, that I'll marry a man who only wants me for my inheritance. That I'll be living proof that money doesn't buy happiness. For who will ever love a failed boy with her father's fox head?

War once again breaks out and Louis de Male, along with his armorer Jan van Vere, and the pages leave Flanders for Chartres where they join the army of the French king, John the Good. France and England are at war over who will rule France, the French king John II or Edward, King of England. In 1356, Edward, the Black Prince invades France and wins a significant battle in the war at Poitiers.

"...The great French army has been defeated by the English. The defeat is so total, so scandalous, and so shattering, there are almost no knights left in France to govern the country."

The authors do a wonderful job of describing the English longbow strategy during the battle of Poitiers and the significance of the weapon in medieval warfare. The detailed account is told through the voice of armorer van Vere. As well we learn how this defeat breaks the back of France with the crushing ransom required to free their captured knights.

King John and his son are captured and eventually ransomed. Marguerite's father is badly injured on the battlefield and manages to escape capture. Marguerite listens enthralled to the entire narrative given by van Vere. We learn that the French people have been devastated by the defeat and that Louis de Male is but a shadow of the warrior he once was. When Marguerite visits her injured father he tells her that he mother will never bear him a son and that he sees Marguerite as proof that God is laughing at him.

Marguerite, filled with hatred for her father spends part of her childhood running wild with the pages and causing great havoc. She contrives to take fencing lessons with a local master and becomes an accomplished fencer. Eventually when Marguerite is a bit older, her father decides she must marry someone influential because she is heir to so much wealth and land. The burghers of Flanders have been allied with the English for many year, on whom they depend for their supply of wool. Without the wool from the Benedictine monks in England, the burghers will not be able to do business, so they have a vested interest in Flanders coming under English control. Because of what happened when the Count was betrothed to an English princess in his youth, Louis de Male makes a fateful and unpopular decision.

He decides to betroth Marguerite to Edmund of Langley, the youngest son of King Edward III of England. The match is nothing more than a political alliance and means that Flanders will become English after the Count of Flanders death. Marguerite tries to resist her fathers decision but eventually relents and agrees to the marriage. However, Marguerite is not your average medieval girl. She is a girl of horses, swords, brawls and battles. As a result, there are many twists and turns before the outcome of this fascinating narrative concludes.

I enjoyed this novel very much. As the authors note in the back of the book, because so little is known about Marguerite's personal life they have given their "fantasy free rein to clear up the fog around her childhood and to make her a girl of flesh and blood, who has to compete against the fierce and violent male world of the Middle Ages."

A Sword in Her Hand is definitely filled with well crafted characters who evoke strong emotions. Edmund was portrayed as a cruel man accustomed to getting what he wanted in life. Set against Marguerite in a battle of wits, it was easy to dislike him. I had great sympathy for Margaret of Brabant who was always pregnant and who lost several male children. Once again we see the inability to provide a male heir as the undoing of a woman.

Excellent descriptions of medieval life are to be found throughout A Sword in Her Hand, whether they be of war, the plague or life in the castle. Van Rijckeghem and Beirs definitely made life in 14th century France come alive for the reader. The descriptions of plague-decimated France were especially

One thing I didn't like about this book was the cover of the edition printed in Canada. It is quite honestly, just awful.

A much better cover is that of the edition published in Australia which is shown on the right.

Nevertheless, A Sword in Her Hand isn excellent historical read that is both engaging and exciting. The authors have done a superb job recreating medieval life and telling the story of a little known person from that time period.

Book Details:
A Sword in Her Hand by Jean-Claude Van Rijckeghem and Pat Van Beirs
Translated by John Nieuwehhuizen
Richmond Hill, ON: Firefly Books Ltd. 2011
274 pp.

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