Thereís a minor misstep in Miri Rubinís The Hollow Crown. The problem is a matter of audience - as in, I canít really tell what audience itís for. The preface states that itís intended not primarily for historians but for those ďhistoriansĒ outside the universities. These would be people like curators of museums, history teachers in the public schools, those guarding historical sites, and those who publish amateur research, that sort of thing. It also seems to be intended as history for the general public, those who may have an interest in history but arenít really experts in it. This is all well and good, but the problem is that the book is way too dry for the layman, and the information is probably already known to a great deal of amateur historians.
Thus, the book seems to miss its target and be the wrong thing to the wrong people. The Hollow Crown has a great deal of detailed information about life in Great Britain from 1307 to 1485. It covers everything from daily serf life to how churches greatly influenced the daily life of both commoners and the nobility. It covers economics, agriculture, politics, and everything in-between. For the novice historian, there is a lot of good information about British daily life in this book, making it a valuable informational tool for the beginner. It could also be greatly useful for any writer who wants to set a book in this time period, as there is a lot of background information that would make a setting seem realistic. That was actually the first thing that occurred to me as I was reading it.
The book is divided into chapters separated by the monarch at the time (the only chapter containing two monarchs is the one dealing with Henry IV and Henry V, but there is a reason for that; their rules were so much the same in exploits and aims that they almost must be studied together). Thus, we get to see how life was different under each of these kings. Probably most interestingly, Rubin provides us with the political fallout (both by the nobility and the common man) when a king was deposed rather than chosen as an heir (Henry the IV was a prime example). Rubin is at her most interesting when she is talking about the politics of the day.
Of course, learning about the daily life of these people can be interesting, too, but here Rubin falls down a bit. These sections are very dry, and while she is imparting good information, they are a real struggle to get through. Each aspect of life gets its own section within the chapter, and she uses a lot of information she gathered from local records. These records could be on food production (what was grown and exported where) or they could be marriage records or other ecclesiastical court documents. She discusses the role of the clergy, both in religious instruction and legal matters, and about how some peasants grew tired of the constant corruption in the churches at times. Rubin tries to tie these sections together and relate them to each other, but a lot of times it just seems like the author is listing a bunch of things to illustrate her point before she moves on to the next one. I can almost see her say, ďOk, Iíve got food production done. Now on to the clergy, and then local courts.Ē It doesnít help that her prose style doesnít really make these sections grab your attention, though she does try.
Each chapter starts with an introduction giving a general overview of that monarchís reign. Rubin then leaves the king for the moment, except where he (or his queen) had an impact on daily life (such as a section on Edward III and chivalry). She then ends the chapters detailing the politics of the king, various foreign adventures he had and what he did with his monarchy before dying (or being deposed, as two of them were). These sections on the king are the most interesting of the bunch, as we see how Britain related to the rest of the world (which we also do when Rubin discusses trade, but thatís not as interesting). As the turbulence of the late 1400s hits, the book becomes almost fascinating, as she covers a lot of the political intrigue that took place during the Wars of the Roses (which term, interestingly, she only uses once, and this is when she says that Shakespeare christened the dynastic wars ďthe Wars of the RosesĒ). She also glosses over the Richard III controversy, pertaining to the killing of the two young princes. She says that he was blamed for it, but she doesnít come down on one side or the other.
The Hollow Crown is obviously well-researched, and Rubin works very hard to show it. While there are no footnotes or endnotes, she does provide a chapter-by-chapter listing ďessay on further readingĒ for the most heavily used sources, and she provides a complete bibliography of her sources on her web site. This is actually the first time Iíve ever seen something like that, where the author actually tells you to go to a web site for more complete information on the book you are reading, but I guess it is a sign of the times. Seeing as the book is already quite long, I can see why enclosing a complete bibliography in the book itself would be difficult.
Overall, am glad I read The Hollow Crown, but it was a chore to get through at times. Rubinís style (or maybe itís the content) doesnít really lend itself to popular reading and I almost put it down once or twice. But I did ultimately find myself reading to the end and finding the information valuable. I just wish the reading experience itself had been more pleasurable.