A Medieval Love Story

July 11, 2009 at 12:00 am 7 comments

Firstly, welcome to the new and exciting Saucy Saturdays here at Literary Transgressions, bringing you the sauciest and probably silliest books to fill your Saturday night. Why go out when you can read these saucy selections from the hardly hallowed sections of our Literary Transgressions bookshelves? This week: Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt’s Scandalous Mistress.

‘Katherine Swynford was John of Gaunt’s mistress.’
‘John of Gaunt?’
‘Yeah, you know, Edward III’s third son.’
(pause) ‘And we’re apparently on a first-name basis with him in this household?’

And so went a conversation with my fellow history major and roommate, Sonia, when I started to describe Alison Weir’s Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt’s Scandalous Mistress to her over dinner. Sonia’s confusion articulated a main problem I have with medieval scholarship in general: the sheer lack of source material which leads to a literal void of information about leading figures of the period.

John himself!

John himself!

Obviously, John of Gaunt is very well-known (Sonia aside) and a fairly well-documented historic figure because he was a prince, but trying to delve any lower down the social scale in medieval England turns up scanty evidence and even less sureties. Thus, Weir’s discussion of Katherine Swynford leads to more postulation than fact and much more historical context than personal story.

Such is the tragedy of any medieval biography than attends something lower than royalty, so Weir can hardly be faulted. Indeed, despite the constraints of medieval scholarship, Weir produces a very enjoyable book more about the beginning of the War of the Roses than truly about Katherine. Katherine is undeniably the focus of the book, but information is just so scanty that the story often zooms out and Weir takes the time to outline the broader events happening in English history, saying things like “Therefore it is necessary to digress and recount [these events] here, even though Katherine was not directly involved” (237) to account for their inclusion in this purported biography. Happily, Weir is an expert at making history interesting and retelling old stories in new ways, so the book never drags.

On the whole, the book is thoroughly enjoyable and, while fairly rarely steamy, is occasionally so. No letters exist between Katherine and John, sadly, so we are not privy to their private (dare I say “scandalous”?) emotions and the saucier side of the story is necessarily left untold. Instead, we get Weir’s constant attempts at figuring out when they got it on ( “Katherine seems to have either visited, or stayed briefly with John at his headquarters” [122]) and theorizing about what traits they found most attractive in each other ( “Was it her fair Hainaulter beauty that appealed to him?” [105]). A more thorough biography of Katherine is impossible given the limitations of available source material and settling for Weir’s book is no hardship.


Entry filed under: Biography, Non-fiction, Saucy Saturday. Tags: , , , , .

Fairy Tale Friday: The Happy Prince Summer Reading List

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  July 11, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    I am so impressed that this woman even attempted to biographize Katherine, given the total lack of source material! I’m glad it was enjoyable as well — might have to pick this book up ;)

  • 2. Corey  |  July 13, 2009 at 6:10 am

    Indeed, Alison Weir deserves some applause for this attempted biography! Anytime anyone tries to write a biography of any woman semi-forgotten by history, I get really excited. This was a great read even if there isn’t a lot of Katherine in it.

  • 3. vorpalbunneh  |  September 26, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    Reading it now and loving it. Thanks for the summary and the advertisement. I think more people should read biography, it’s a great way to get an education!

    • 4. Corey  |  September 27, 2009 at 9:42 am

      Glad to hear you’re enjoying it! Biographies can be great ways to learn about the past.

  • […] (in the case of primary source material) “the Dark Ages,” or the Medieval period. As I’ve mentioned before, this source-darkness creates a veritable dearth of information about individuals, even […]

  • 6. Location Matters « Literary Transgressions  |  April 14, 2010 at 12:06 am

    […] – Ideally a novel, memoir, or “fluffy” history (yes, Alison Weir, I mean you). Something that is interesting enough to disappear into but not so dense that you need […]

  • […] The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens and Alison Weir’s Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt’s Scandalous Mistress, the latter of which I first read and enjoyed seven years ago. Both tackle the challenges of […]


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