Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Book note: The Moneyman, by Thomas B. Costain

Of late, I seem to keep stumbling across books that, when read, present me with a problem: do I review them here or not? The Moneyman by Thomas B. Costain is one of that sort. For the most part, it's very good. But it's got just enough graphic or gutter-level content that I can't recommend it without at least some reservations, particularly in this forum. But, then, this is also a place where we discuss history, and this book strikes me as a good jumping off point for learning about the Middle Ages in Europe. And it's no good trying to pretend that the Middle Ages were all sweetness and light, particularly France toward the end of the Hundred Years' War.

So, here goes: For the most part it's a good read, but there are a few places where I found out more than I wanted about torture methods, and other varieties of man's inhumanity to man, and there are some earthy comments here and there (but not very many). One of the main storylines is about providing a king with a new mistress. Another storyline involves the evolution of warfare in that time period, and it's not pretty. However, compared to quite a bit of the more recent fare flung out to us from Hollywood, big publishing houses, television, and other 'cultural leaders,' this book is civil and civilized. Given the subject matter, I think Costain was admirably restrained, in fact. Putting the objections to one side, it has some rip-roaring adventure in it, plus a few good laughs, plus wit and sense and historical insight and info. Overall, a good book. I'd advise parents to read it before deciding whether a teen under their roof should get a look at it, and ladies might want to skip it (I'm kind of glad I read it, but kind of wish I hadn't), but, overall, a good book.

"The Moneyman" is Jacques Coeur, a powerful, influential, innovative man who was born around 1395, and died in 1456. He served Charles VII of France (aka Charles the Well Served), but he also amassed a considerable fortune through trade and retailing. From what I picked up in the novel, and what I've been able to dredge up on the man since, Coeur seems to have been one of those men who can be honestly credited with helping change the course of history.

Costain is kind enough to note in his introduction which of the main characters are wholly fictitious, and where else he happily invented things for the sake of telling his story. (i.e. "... I conceived the duel as necessary to point up the absurdity and the unfairness of the chivalrous practices of the day...") He also admits to fiddling with timelines some. Still, as historical novels go, it seems to be well researched and well presented.

Spoilers follow For those of you interested in military history, Costain presents Coeur as helping bring the Hundred Years' War to an end, both by paying for a renewed French offensive out of his own purse, and by championing the use of bombards (cannon). Getting France to use cannons proved rather difficult, as he tells it, since knights reportedly considered cannons and the men who manned them as beneath contempt, in fact, worthy of extermination. Spoilers end

I notice from the Wikipedia article linked above that Coeur is also credited with helping put an end to the papal schism. That part of his life wasn't mentioned in the book, that I can recall. But, there you go, more evidence the man made a difference in his day, and is worth remembering.

The book is rich with detail, on a wide variety of subjects: clothing, customs, society, university 'experts' of the day, what passed for medicine then, how 'justice' was handed out, and more. Costain even includes turns of phrase that were common in France at the time. We have a friend who is a history teacher and he's told us that Costain is often recommended for history students. I can see why.

This book came out in 1947, and the author seems (not surprisingly, given the horrors of World War II) to have identified with Coeur's vision of a world that would somehow move past war if only merchants could get well enough established, and power could be reckoned in trade instead of warfare, and if the common man had access to enough affordable goods to reach a point he felt comfortable from a material standpoint. Costain strikes me as otherwise being an astute observer of man's capacity for ingratitude, the temptations of power, etc. (And I'll happily meet him halfway on this. Improving the lot of the common man is good in and of itself. It can also reduce strife. I just don't believe widespread material benefits can cure as much as either man seemed to hope.) In fact, despite the author's rare stabs at holding up hope that the world can move beyond war, the book taken as a whole is something of a case study in man's capacity for ingratitude, deceit, doublecrosses, cruelty, pettiness, idiocy, and self-justification.

Oh, I bet that last sentence made you want to run out and grab a copy, just right quick...

Costain himself foresaw the difficulty of his task. From the introduction, "As Valerie Maret and D'Arlay and the Comte and Comtesse de Burey are fictitious characters, it follows that the train of events in which they are depicted as playing parts has been invented to supply a note of lightness and romance in what might otherwise be a grim story."

Well, yeah. The times were rough and tough, and society favored the favored, so to speak. It was not a safe time to not be in the king's good graces. For that matter, it wasn't a safe time to be in a king's good graces. Or a king. (This begs the question: Is it ever? Answer: Probably not, but some times and places certainly seem to be more corrupt and bloody than others.)

Ending on a lighter note, from page 209 in my copy, here's a turn of phrase I have added to my 'phrases I wish I had more use for' catalog (emphasis mine):

Sensing what was coming, the Comte frowned at his companion. "Do you mean," he demanded, "that the toads of doubt are hopping in your head as to the need of carrying out the plan?"
Heh. Every once in a while doubt seems very much like that, doesn't it?

On second thought, let's end with another snippet. From page 383 in my copy:

...When Olivier de Bousse had come into the enclosure, [the prisoner] had said to himself, "That great windbag!" The doctor, in his opinion, represented the least worthy element at the University. He was pedantic and opinionated and yet at the same time servile to all forms of authority; a coddler of the great ladies who came to him for medical attention, a theorist who covered up his lack of experience and judgment with a smother of learned words. The prisoner said to himself now, "It's very clear why this toady has been brought as a witness."
No, wait, I want to share this, from page 404, in answer to a young woman's confusion over why charges had been dropped, but the prisoner wasn't being released:

"The turnkey shook his head gloomily. "It's like a fork, Mademoiselle. If they don't catch him on one prong, they will on another...

In other words, if the powers that be want to get you, they'll keep finding excuses to charge you with something. Sad to say.

I could go on for quite a while like this. I have bookmarks all through the book, at favorite passages. Costain had a knack, no question.


Meehumm said...

Have you read Costain's four volume history of medieval England? It starts with The Conquering Family, and its sequels are The Three Edwards, The Magnificent Century, and The Last Plantagenets. He writes history like a novel, absolutely fascinating.

Kathryn Judson said...

Dear meehumm, No, I haven't. Yet. Thanks for the recommendation.