Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Iron King

The streets of Paris were quiet today, and fairly empty. I think people stayed in, or stayed out of the city. It was one of those surreal afternoons where the usual standard of behavior --- don't talk to people on the subway, don't make loud disruptive noises in public --- was being eerily pervasively applied, so that combined with the reduced crowding, everything seemed vaguely dreamlike. As if all of life was experienced at the remove of a cotton ball in the ears, strangely muted. Plus there were no buskers out, and plenty of police in the city center, visibly standing at subway funnel-points.

A fitting day altogether for me to finish Maurice Druon's The Iron King, which culminates with the death of Philip IV (the Fair). GRRM's introduction calls this story "the original game of thrones," but it was not nearly full of enough end-of-chapter Dan-Brown-style plot twists. People mostly acted as their previous descriptions caused one to expect them to act. This could be partly the authorial style --- it is strongly historical-retrospective, as scenes are often described as "very important for what was to come" or "shaping the future history of France". Not many cliffhangers, and of course much less gruesome violence and sex than HBO would require. (This book series has been adapted twice to TV, but I have not yet seen either.)

It is a curious sensation to read a fictionalized account of Real History when I am completely unfamiliar with the actual story. I can read Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (fantastic, thrilling, mentally delicious fictionalized account of Thomas Cromwell during Henry VIII's reign) and have a good idea of how the overall story goes, of how it fits into the general course of history, of what mentions of oppressed local ethnic groups are important, foreshadowing, nods to modern issues. This is Absolutely Not The Case for the history of the monarchy of France. My full knowledge of these monarchs comes from a single rainy afternoon in the Cathedral at St. Denis, when I viewed all their tombs, crowded together in a concentration of magnificence, a true timeless monument to the art of marble carvers. And also I guess from broad stereotypes about Marie Antoinette?

So this historical novel can still have surprises for me. I had not previously realized that when we discuss peasants being associated with manor lands, what we mean is slaves --- people who are trapped where they are born, required to labor there for the benefit of someone else. Nevermind if they were allowed to hold money or learn to read, they were effectively slaves. So by the intermediate value theorem, there must have been a point at time when the serfs were freed. By decree, since there wasn't a liberating revolution, or maybe by degrees of decree, gradually. This is a neat realization: the historical point when serfs became people, capable of some (limited) self-determination, and (limited) freedom of movement!

It's also great to see the monarch's move toward (1) bureaucracy, for smoother-functioning kingdom administration through the changes of monarchs, and (2) consolidating Earthly power separate from the sway of religious institutions, two developments which I used to think of as primarily English and as happening about 200 years later. Of course France was there first, and subtler --- no revolution here, no disputed succession. (Not yet, at least --- there are 6 more books in the series.)

I of course enjoyed the fact that I am familiar with the city descended from the Paris described in the book. I have been inside several of the buildings that were, once, the palaces where these intrigues took place. I have stood where they burned heretics, though I did not know it. Also, basically all the buildings in a 10-minute-walk radius of Notre Dame were once palaces. I imagine a network of ziplines that allow commuting between palaces without ever touching the plebian ground.

This post's theme words are several:

  • appanage, "a source of revenue, such as land, given by a sovereign for the maintenance of a member of the ruling family", and
  • hydromel, "a mixture of water and honey," and
  • expiate, "to make amends for; to atone," and
  • cynosure, "an object of attention" or "something that serves to guide," and
  • hieratic, "of or associated with sacred persons or offices."
The king offered an appanage to expiate his offense against the hierarchs, a sort of cynosure to draw their attention to his kindness and sweeten their dispositions like hydromel.

A bit of a stretch, I know, but I'm tired. Can you do better? I'll replace it, with authorial attribution; leave better suggestions in the comments below.

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