Over the years, I've dipped into the set, but only read a few of the books in their entirety. Don't fuss. Please. I know that to dip into a classic is to invite misunderstanding: many classics build and twist back on themselves, posing argument only as prelude to counterargument, and must be read in whole or else you'll miss the main points or draw the wrong conclusions entirely. I know that. But... fifty-one books seemed a bit daunting, especially after dipping into a few. Besides, many of them seemed reads better suited to men than women, if I might put it like that. (No surprise, because when this set was originated, most college-level learning was geared toward men, or so I understand.) And, then too, some of them were simply great treats to browse in, and then put back. It's hard to be disciplined under conditions like that...
But several months ago I decided to put a priority on actually reading the set. The whole set. I'm alternating reading these with reading other things so I don't get burned out (or that's the theory, anyway), but I am doggedly trying to make my way through the whole anthology. I am not, as I probably should, starting at volume one and going through to volume fifty-one. I've tried that any number of times, and failed to keep up steam. Instead, I am happily choosing books at random, sometimes even closing my eyes and grabbing a book, with the promise to myself that if I haven't read it yet, then I will read it now. All of it. No skipping over parts I don't like. Sometimes I vary the routine by picking a book I don't think I'll like, just to get it over with. Other times I reward myself with a book that looks especially tempting. But, bit by bit, one way and another, I'm making my way through the set.
I should have done this earlier. Like years ago.
I am currently in the third part of Volume 35, Chronicle and Romance, which includes three books: The Chronicles of Froissart, Translated by Lord Berners, Edited by G.C. Macaulay, original book from the 1300s; The Holy Grail, by Sir Thomas Malory, from the Caxton Edition of Morte D'Arthur, 1485; and A Description of Elizabethan England, written by William Harrison for Holinshed Chronicles, issued 1577, condensed in 1876 for the New Shakspere Society, and brought into "modern dress" sometime after that by a Mr. Lothrop Withington. (Why the editors of the Harvard Editions often didn't put in when editing was done -- or anything about the editor of the entry himself -- annoys me, by the way. I like to know these things.)
At any rate, if I hadn't vowed to read these books, all of them, each all the way through, I wouldn't have stuck with this volume. The first two books, at least, were not my cup of tea, to put it mildly. (Although, honesty compels me to say that I liked them better as I learned the dialect, got my bearings, and also started feeling an investment in the stories...)
Froissart's chronicle has mass killing after mass killing, and bribes and corruption and burning of towns, and people getting chopped to pieces, and just all sorts of evidence that life was held cheap, and honor was oddly defined. Note to any potential time travelers: if you land yourself in either France or Great Britain in the 1300s, hie yourself to the nearest "closed" town (walled, walled with a moat, whatever), and establish yourself on good terms there. The kings and mobs of the day apparently had no compunction of burning a town to the ground and slaughtering every person in sight upon little or no provocation, but generally only if it wasn't too much trouble, and closed towns were often seen as more trouble than they were worth. At least in these accounts. And don't think that posing as a man of the church will help you. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury gets murdered.
The Holy Grail by Mallory is harder yet to read, and I wish I'd had more footnotes to help me through it. A very strange book this is, and all mystical and full of strange warnings, and prophets and false prophets, and visions and dreams and miracles, and holy men, and devils dressed as holy men. (Beware 'holy men' on big, black horses blacker than any bear, by the way. They're apparently all frauds. Gentlewomen aren't always what they seem, either...) And now I need to rethink how I think about Launcelot and Galahad and King Arthur, by the way. This book turned my ideas about them on their heads.
I did more than a bit of cringing reading these two books, but... now some of the other history I've read makes more sense, and now I can see where some of the later legends came from. So, yes, perhaps I'm slightly better educated than before I sat down and read them. Perhaps I understand 'human nature' just a bit better, too. (Or perhaps it merely confirmed my suspicion that humans can be a very currish lot unless, individually, they decide to be good -- and then they're still prone to bad behavior, gullibility, excitability, miscalculation, and just plain bad luck. And, oh yeah -- another suspicion enforced -- the culture in which you're steeped seems to make a huge difference in how you think and what you revere. Imagine that.)
And so now I'm embarked on A Description of Elizabethan England, from Holinshed Chronicles, supposedly one of the sources Shakespeare used for some of his plays. And some of it's dry, and some of it's witty, and some of it's heartrending; and some of it's definitely of a time long past, and some of it could be written today, about people of today. There's rather a lot of commentary mixed in with the observations and inventories. For instance, in the order they appear in the book:
Unto this place I also refer our bishops, who are accounted honourable, called lords, and hold the same room in the Parliament house with the barons, albeit for honour sake the right hand of the prince is given unto them, and whose countenances in time past were much more glorious than at this present it is, because those lusty prelates sought after earthly estimation and authority with far more diligence than after the lost sheep of Christ, of which they had small regard, as men being otherwise occupied and void of leisure to attend upon the same...or...
Knights be not born, neither is any man a knight by succession, no, not the king or prince: but they are made either before the battle, to encourage them the more to adventure and try their manhood; or after the battle ended, as an advancement for their courage and prowess already shewed, and then are they called Milites; or out of the wars for some great service done, or for the singular virtues which do appear in them, and then are they named Equites Aurati, as common custom intendeth. They are made either by the king himself, or by his commission and royal authority given for the same purpose, or by his lieutenant in the wars…or...
Sometime diverse ancient gentlemen, burgesses, and lawyers are called unto knighthood by the prince, and nevertheless refuse to take that state upon them, for which they are of custom punished by a fine, that redoundeth unto his coffers, and (to say truth) is oftentimes more profitable unto him than otherwise their service should be, if they did yield unto knighthood...
Whosoever studieth the laws of the realm, whoso abideth in the university (giving his mind to his book), or professeth physic and the liberal sciences, or beside his service in the room of a captain in the wars, or good counsel given at home, whereby his commonwealth is benefited, can live without manual labour, and thereto is able and will bear the port, charge, and countenance of a gentleman, he shall for money have a coat and arms bestowed upon him by heralds (who in the charter of the same do of custom pretend antiquity and service, and many gay things thereunto, being made so good cheap, be called master (which is the title that men give to esquires and gentlemen), and reputed for a gentleman ever after, which is so much less to be disallowed of for that the prince doth lose nothing by it, the gentleman being so much subject to taxes and public payments as is the yeoman or husbandman, which he likewise doth bear the gladlier for the saving of his reputation. Being called also to the wars (for with the government of the commonwealth he meddleth little), whatsoever it cost him, he will both array and arm himself accordingly, and shew the more manly courage, and all the tokens of the person which he representeth. No man hath hurt by it but himself, who peradventure will go in wider buskins than his legs will bear, or, as our proverb saith, “now and then bear a bigger sail than his boat is able to sustain.”or...
Yeomen are those which by our law are called Legales homines, free men born English, and may dispend of their own free land in yearly revenue to the sum of forty shillings sterling, or six pounds as money goeth in our times. Some are of the opinion, by Cap. 2 Rich. 2 Ann. 20, that they are same which the Frenchmen call varlets, but, as the phrase is used in my time, it is very unlikely to be so. The truth is that the word is derived from the Saxon term Zeoman, or Geoman, which signifieth (as I have read) a settled or staid man, such I mean as, being married and of some years, betaketh himself to stay in the place of his abode for the better maintenance of himself and his family, whereof the single sort have no regard, but are likely to be still fleeting now hither now thither, which argueth want of stability in determination and resolution of judgment, for the execution of things of any importance...I've just finished the chapter on the history and state of The Church of England as of that time. Oh, my, I'd say the author had some strong opinions on that topic.
To see what the Holinshed Chronicles looked like when printed, go here (courtesy Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Image, University of Pennsylvania Library).
More on Shakespeare and Holinshed here, at Internet Shakespeare Editions, affiliated with the University of Victoria (Canada). (This looks like a site that a person could spend hours at, by the way... Lots and lots of info, pictures, links...)
More on the Harvard Classics and the companion set of The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction here.