A decisive battle between England and France is the topic of Bernard Cornwell’s 1356. As Cornwell usually manages, the story progresses along multiple fronts in terms of characters—a Scotsman hungry for English blood, an Englishman with various allegiances and most of all a clear-headed distaste for hypocritical churchmen, and of course the French who are not well served by their finicky aristocracy. At times the story’s abrupt transitions from character to character created a jarring loss of focus for this reader, but as I slowly became acquainted with the multiple subplots and nuances of the various personalities, the story flowed increasingly faster toward spectacular final scenes.
The Battle of Poitiers is a perfect subject for Cornwell to demonstrate his chops in portraying men at war. He doesn’t hesitate to fill passages with horrific details of brutality whether macabre emasculation, hunger and thirst, visceral suffering of horses in these times of heavy armor, or mere details of sweat and bowels. I’ve been remiss in studying this particular time of European history, having so far preferred the Viking era and the Northmen’s invasions of the British Isles circa 800 AD. [To that end, I’m still emotionally engaged with Uhtred, the hero of Cornwell’s Saxon stories.] While I acknowledge I can never read or learn enough to satisfy my curiosity, I hope to follow next with Cornwell’s Agincourt which picks up the 100 Years War fifty years after 1356.
One of the things I like most about Cornwell, other than his ability to teach me the fascinating history of world-changing events, is his determination to paint the full picture of life in those times. He’s especially good at portraying the corruption of the Catholic church. The plight of women and children, the means of food production, and the daily travails of travel and social interactions all push along in his stories in the tide of the greater context. It’s fascinating.