Jeffrey Keeten's Reviews > A Burnable Book

A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger
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bookshelves: historical-fiction, chaucer

“There is no deception on the part of the woman, where a man bewilders himself: if he deludes his own wits, I can certainly acquit the women. Whatever man allows his mind to dwell upon the imprint his imagination has foolishly taken of women, is fanning the flames within himself -- and, since the woman knows nothing about it, she is not to blame. For if a man incites himself to drown, and will not restrain himself, it is not the water's fault.”
― John Gower, Confessio Amantis


 photo JohnGower_zpsd2f661d4.jpg
John “Dour” Gower. The great bard himself, William Shakespeare, used Gower as a character in three plays. Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Henry V, and Henry IV Part II .

Geoffrey Chaucer in a moment of romantic lust wrote a series of poems for a young lady. Poets use their best gifts, words, when seducing pretty, nubile women. This book of poems came up missing and though in themselves they are not dangerous, he was writing couplets about the deaths of English kings, when another couplet about a living king is added the book goes from being an amusing fancy of seduction to treason.

<“At Prince of Plums shall prelate oppose
A faun of three feathers with flaunting of fur,
Long castle will collar and cast out the core,
His reign to fall rain, mors regis to roar.
By bank of a bishop shall butchers abide,
To nest, by God’s name, with knives in hand,
Then springen in service at spiritus sung.
In palace of prelate with pearls all appointed,
By kingmaker’s cunning a king to unking,
A magnate whose majesty mingles with mort.
By Half-ten of Hawks might slender be shown.
On day of Saint Dunstan shall Death have his doom.”


The Prince of Plums of course is Richard II, the young King, untested, vulnerable. The year is 1385.

Chaucer, soon becomes aware of the danger his wooing has placed him in. He has some of the most recognizable handwriting of the realm. He goes to his friend John Gower and asks him to retrieve the book, which has now surfaced in England, but he leaves out a few details regarding the potential inflammatory nature of the material in the book.

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Geoffrey Chaucer was still working for the crown at this point as a customs inspector and had just started writing the work that would immortalize him The Canterbury Tales.

Gower is more conservative than Chaucer and though they are good friends he can’t help shaking his head over the continued problems his friends poetic libido lands him in.

”You’re remarkably careless with your poetry, Chaucer. And always have been.”

In the 15th century John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer were considered the fathers of English poetry on an equal platform. As the centuries passed Gower’s poetry was looked on as dull and didactic and his reputation suffered leaving Chaucer’s bawdier work reigning supreme over their period. Gower would not be amused.

The book falls into the hands of a maudlyn, and is passed from hand to hand among them because none of them can read. They sense it is worth something. You might be asking yourself what does a maudlyn do?

”Eleanor Rykener grunted, spat, wiped her lips. The friar covered his shriveled knob. Wouldn’t meet her eyes, of course. Franciscans, they never liked to look. He dropped his groats on the straw.’“why thank you, Brother Michael,’ She said, her voice a sullen nip. The friar stared coldly at some spot on her neck, then shrugged on his cowl, edged around the old mare, and left the stall.”

Bruce Holsinger mixes in pieces of language that has been long left behind. Swyving is what maudlyn’s do. Skincoin is the pay they receive. They work for the most part in Southwark which resides on the other side of the Thames. One of the whorehouses is called the Bishop’s Prick which is aptly named since the Bishop owns the property. The English language was growing by leaps and bounds in this period and Holsinger took full advantage of some of the juicer words available which adds some much appreciated spice to a convoluted plot.

Gower starts his investigation with Katherine of Swynford who is the mistress of John of Gaunt Duke of Lancaster. Just a quick note on John of Gaunt. He was worth an estimated $110 billion dollars making him the richest man of this era and the 16th richest man to ever live. He was a very ambitious man and had designs on the throne of England(just not this time). There is very little that Katherine couldn’t find out in the process of servicing his desires. She didn’t have to be the richest man in the kingdom. She just had to control the richest man in the kingdom.

 photo KatherineofSwynford_zps0e2f8fe9.jpg
Katherine of Swynford, the power was in the palm of her hand nearly every night.

The problem of course is she is a notorious gossip. One must exchange if one is to keep receiving. News spreads quickly and soon more people are searching for this book.

John Gower has to wade his way through assassins, French agents, butchers, prostitutes, figures at court, and ends up risking more than he could ever imagine when Chaucer first approached him about finding a little book. KIngs of this era were quick to swing the axe. Even just knowing about such an incendiary book could land a person on the chopping block smelling the stank sweat of the executioner as he prepares to lop off their head.

And how pray tell does Sir John Hawkwood fit into this dastardly plot?

 photo SirJohnHawkwood_zpsde98b7dd.jpg
Sir John Hawkwood was an English mercenary who worked for the Pope and for many other factions in Italy. He amassed a fortune in wealth and information.

Bruce Holsinger is a medieval scholar at the University of Virginia and has written an entertaining book of the 14th century using the colorful, historical people of the period.
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Reading Progress

March 10, 2014 – Started Reading
March 10, 2014 – Shelved
March 28, 2014 – Finished Reading
May 4, 2016 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
October 14, 2018 – Shelved as: chaucer

Comments Showing 1-14 of 14 (14 new)

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message 1: by Carolyn (new) - added it

Carolyn Injoy Thank you for this review. This will now go on my extensive TBR list.


message 2: by Michael (new)

Michael Sounds like a lot of fun. Reading your review is a great adventure all by itself, a multimedia extravaganza when you include the swyving sounds of language. Good one from my favorite Kansas book marauder.


Jeffrey Keeten Carolyn wrote: "Thank you for this review. This will now go on my extensive TBR list."

You are most welcome Carolyn! My TBR pile has grown to the size that my wife is going to start thinking I'm Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.


Jeffrey Keeten Michael wrote: "Sounds like a lot of fun. Reading your review is a great adventure all by itself, a multimedia extravaganza when you include the swyving sounds of language. Good one from my favorite Kansas book ..."

This was a lot of fun. I'm thinking Wolf Hall next. I haven't been reading enough historical fiction of late. I like that designation...Kansas Book Marauder. Thanks Michael.


message 5: by Carolyn (new) - added it

Carolyn Injoy Thank you for sharing about your own TBR pile. I liked the humorous analogy to Dreyfuss. I've got truck books, night stand books, living room books, laptop books, etc. I cannot be without a book. They're my portable sanctuary.


message 6: by Steve (new)

Steve A decidedly fine effort, good sir. I like the John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford parts especially well.


message 7: by Carolyn (new) - added it

Carolyn Injoy "Kings of this era were quick to swing the axe. Even just knowing about such an incendiary book could land a person on the chopping block smelling the stank sweat of the executioner as he prepares to lop off their head."

Now if this doesn't awaken all senses, read it again. What a visceral image it portrays.


Jeffrey Keeten Steve wrote: "A decidedly fine effort, good sir. I like the John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford parts especially well."

Your blood has a drop or two left from each I'm sure. Thanks Steve!


Jeffrey Keeten Carolyn wrote: ""Kings of this era were quick to swing the axe. Even just knowing about such an incendiary book could land a person on the chopping block smelling the stank sweat of the executioner as he prepares ..."

Thanks Carolyn! :-)


message 10: by Carolyn (new) - added it

Carolyn Injoy Jeffrey wrote: "Carolyn wrote: ""Kings of this era were quick to swing the axe. Even just knowing about such an incendiary book could land a person on the chopping block smelling the stank sweat of the executioner..."

You are welcome. It has been such a pleasure to discover your reviews. Well done. Thank YOU!


message 11: by Sue (new) - added it

Sue Sounds like a book I'd like. Another winner Jeffrey. I'm so far behind in reading reviews!


Jeffrey Keeten Sue wrote: "Sounds like a book I'd like. Another winner Jeffrey. I'm so far behind in reading reviews!"

Thanks Sue! This was a fun book for sure.


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