Saturday, May 31, 2014

Book review: Conscience of the King by Alfred Duggan

Stories of this time period usually belong to the King Arthur tradition. Conscience of the King by Alfred Duggan instead tells the story from the perspective of Cerdic of Wessex, said to be the first king of Wessex and presented by Duggan as a man of mixed Roman and Germanic heritage. The novel was well researched, but it was not the most fun book to read.

Usually authors lead the reader to be at least somewhat on the side of the protagonists, even if the main characters are rascals or even scoundrels. But the Cerdic in Conscience of the King is really a king without a conscience. He is very difficult to relate to, and I felt little or no sympathy for him. Yes, I could understand to some degree why he might have the desires he did, but Cerdic did nothing to redeem himself from his transgressions. Even those closest to him always seemed to be meeting with “misfortune.”

Duggan chose to write the narrative from a first-person perspective. That can be an effective technique, but when the narrator is such a cold-blooded, unsympathetic character, it doesn’t seem to work as well. It felt rather unpleasant to be inside Cerdic’s head. Also, the use of first-person meant that dialogue was very limited, which perhaps contributed to the somewhat plodding nature of the book.

Some of the chapters were very long; there were only seven chapters in this novel of 274 pages. For those of us who can usually only read in short spurts, it is more convenient to have somewhat shorter chapters, or at least scene breaks.

This book was written back in 1951, and perhaps readers of historical novels then had different expectations than those of today. Maybe some of the features that make this book less pleasant to read just reflect the usual practices of older novels versus those written more recently. However, many novels written even longer ago still read well today. Johnny Tremain is such an example. I was glad to have read Conscience of the King due to its different perspective on the early years of the Saxon invasion, but I would not really recommend it except to Anglo-Saxon enthusiasts.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Medieval oranges

Recently I read A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger. One of the characters was named Seguina d'Orange, which made me wonder just when Europeans would have been introduced to the orange fruit. I soon learned that oranges (at least, the bitter or sour orange) may well have been a reasonably common item at the docks in the England of Chaucer’s time, though they were almost certainly too expensive for most inhabitants of London to enjoy. A treatise by Georges Gallesio and other sources suggest that lemons and bitter oranges were first brought to Europe during or just after the Crusades – too late for my sixth-century characters to have savored an orange. Sweet oranges were even later to arrive. The only citrus fruit documented by early writers such as Dioscorides was the citron (Citrus medica).

Harvesting bitter oranges. Figure from folio 18v of the manuscript Nouvelle Acquisition Latine 1673, a 14th-century (approximately 1390-1400) copy of the Tacuinum Sanitatis. Bibliothèque nationale de France, held in the Mandragore database of illuminated manuscripts.
Because sixth-century physician Alexander of Tralles is known to have traveled widely, I wondered whether he might have encountered the orange. The French translation of his work does list two instances of orange, in Volume 2 of Brunet’s translation. But when I looked more closely at these references to oranges, I found that neither one was well supported.

The first citation was in Alexander’s treatise on fevers. Brunet’s French translation lists citron juice or orange juice as one of the ingredients in a remedy for quartan fever, but Puschmann’s German translation only specifies citron juice. A sixteenth-century Latin translation (p 95) renders the original Greek as succo citrii (or similar phrasing in other Latin translations (p 69b)), which we have no reason to believe is anything but citron juice.

The second reference to oranges was in Alexander’s medical book 1, in the chapter on paresis. In a section on dietary recommendations for a certain type of paresis, Brunet’s translation lists oranges as a fruit to avoid. But looking at the text more closely, the literal translation is the fruit called golden apples (ceux appelés pommes d’or in Brunet’s translation; die sogenannten Goldäpfel in Puschmann’s translation; qua vocantur mala aurea in a sixteenth-century Latin translation (p 108)). A “golden apple” could be an orange, but it could equally be some other fruit. We cannot be certain that Alexander of Tralles had the orange in mind when he made this recommendation.

Harvesting bitter oranges. Figure from folio 16v of the manuscript Latin 9333, a 15th-century copy of the Tacuinum Sanitatis. Bibliothèque nationale de France, held in the Mandragore database of illuminated manuscripts.

Oranges may be relatively recent arrivals to Europe and the Americas, but they were quick to leave their mark on the diet. Once very expensive, they are now an everyday food or drink in much of the world.