Dorothea's Reviews > The Master of Bruges

The Master of Bruges by Terence Morgan
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's review
Apr 04, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: historical-fiction
Read from March 23 to 29, 2011

This novel purports to be the memoirs of the painter Hans Memling, who lived and worked in Burgundy though he was born in Germany.

From December 1460 to his death in 1494 we share Memling’s loves and adventures and through him we meet many of the people who are of significance to anyone interested in the late medieval period. Obviously the Burgundian court of the time features strongly: Charles the Bold, his wife Margaret of York, his daughter Marie and later her husband Maximilian.

However, the author weaves the fact that Edward IV and his brother Richard spend their exile during the readeption of Henry VI 1470/71 in Burgundy into his story and has the brothers and their small circle of friends staying at Memling’ house for a few days. Thus the painter becomes directly involved with the Yorkist court. To finish a triptych for Sir John Donne he eventually travels to England just in time to be a witness to the events which interest Ricardians so much: he arrives in late 1482 and stays until 1485. When he first arrives, he is also commissioned to paint Edward IV, Elizabeth Woodville as well as Richard of Gloucester. The reader then experiences with Memling the eventful period from Edward’s death, through Richard’s reign until Henry VII takes the throne. During this time, Richard as well as his nephews freely share their thoughts with the painter.

The story is interwoven with short chapters, where Memling explains aspects of artistic technique, which are reflected in the incidents described in the chapters following.

All the main characters in the novel are historical persons and most of the paintings mentioned still exist. Memling really did paint a triptych for Sir John Donne. However, there is no evidence that Memling had any connection to the Yorkist kings or ever visited England, let alone that he painted any of pictures of them referred to.

The story is a fast-paced amd entertaining read. Any Ricardian reader will be pleased to hear that it is strongly sympathetic to Richard. The view of medieval affairs might in some instances be a bit simplistic, as for instance when the author has Sir John Donne explain to Memling the nature of the Wars of the Roses: “The English do not make war in the same way as other nations. The aristocracy attack and kill each other, make captives and demand ransoms, but the ordinary people are left alone”. Considering that in the Battle of Towton approx. 1% of the English population at the time died, it would seem to me that a fair share of the ordinary people were very much involved. However, in spite of this minor squabble, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and can only recommend it. A book I could not put down!

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