When Christ and His Saints Slept
I always feel strangely hollow after finishing an enormous book. And with Sharon Kay Penman, it’s not just enormous in pages, but in its breadth.
Let me quickly dispel any notion that this book is a religious one, as some might have thought by its title. Sharon Kay Penman is a historical fiction chronicler of Medieval English and Welsh history. Of course, borders were not quite so defined then so France, Normandy, Brittany, Anjou, Flanders, Scotland, Burgundy etc. all play their roles. And lets not forget the ever-present crusades.
The words “when Christ and his saints slept” were actually intoned by a Medieval chronicler to describe the period of time that King Stephen and the Empress Maude fought over the English throne. Having lost his only son in a famed boat wreck, Henry I claimed his daughter Maude, formerly married to the German Emperor and later to Geoffrey of Anjou, as his heir apparent. But after his death, the English people, or rather the barons, were unwilling to pay homage to a woman. Her cousin Stephen claimed the crown and Maude fought him tooth and nail to recapture it. England was ravaged. The commoners bled, burned, starved and died. Soon, the fight turned more for her son, Henry, who should rightfully inherit the crown.
Penman fills her books with battles, politics, intrigue, love and masterful dialogue. Only a handful of characters, if that, are created in her mind to further the stories. For the most part, each event and person is rooted deeply in fact. At the end of each book, she includes an afterward to specify the fact and fancy.
The breadth of her research and the way she forms it into such captivating reading makes anyone want to become a scholar of the Medeival. For just who wouldn’t be enthralled by the first meeting in Paris of Henry II (soon to be king) and Eleanor of Aquitaine (then French queen and soon to be the English one).
I, for one, actually went to Wales to follow in the footsteps of Llewelyn Fawr (the Great) after reading Penman’s Welsh trilogy starting with Here Be Dragons. I ended up eating an orange-flavored Kit Kat in the kitchen of his 12th century home, now owned by a private citizen. I even dug for artifacts in his yard and ran along the river where he played as a child.
There is almost no greater feeling than to touch such a deep history. To imagine with your eyes and ears, skin and heart, what occurred in a place a thousand years ago. I felt the same as I sat alongside the Sea of Galilee and walked the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem.
I am a lover of history. A lover of the world and all that has and can happen in it. I might be trapped in an insignificant fragment as I sit in my makeshift room in Plainfield, Illinois. But I want to learn and feel and see and hear as much of it as I can. That’s why I read. That’s why I travel. That’s why I love life.
Thank you to Sharon Kay Penman for elaborating on my knowledge and the breadth of my love. As corny as that may sound.