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Loyalties Divided in the Plantagenet Era - an Editorial Review of "The Guild of Salt"

Book Blurb:

AD 1173. England is on the brink of war. Loyalties are divided across the nation and nobody is safe.

Young acolyte, Ralph and his friend, Harold, are thrust into the chaos of the warring factions when they are tasked to deliver a vital message to the Royalist forces.

Esmé, a young noblewoman, sets out on a quest to recover her inheritance while escaping the abusive grasp of her betrothed.

The travellers cross paths and form an unlikely alliance. But as the land becomes increasingly lawless and filled with danger, will the bond of their friendship prove strong enough when faced with the harsh realities and brutal savagery of a revolt against King Henry II Plantagenet?

Author Bio:

Robin Isard is a faculty librarian and archivist at a small liberal arts university in Canada.

He studied history at Western University and started his library career working at the Washington DC public library as Head of Intranet Development.

Following that, he lived many years overseas, primarily in West Africa building IT infrastructure in The Republic of the Gambia, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau and Guinea Conakry. He also worked in Ethiopia and Uganda on a telehealth project on behalf of The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada.

Editorial Review:

''The past is a different country: They do things differently there.''

In a blog article discussing his book ''The Guild of Salt and the King's Messenger,'' Robin Isard quotes the oft referenced remark made by L.P. Hartley in 'The Go Between''. An apt quote to cite in the case of 'The Guild of Salt''. In this case the answer is, 'No they don't and yes they do.' There are situations and emotions that are 'ageless'; notions such as friendship and loyalty, curiosity and belief. These apply to any period, irrespective of the location and the century. There are, on the other hand, ways of achieving objectives, of applying the resources and inherited knowledge to hand to achieve particular results that are unique to the time and place. In 'The Guild of Salt', Robin Isard displays these facts admirably: the manifestation of 'universality of common themes' and the ingenuity of practical measures to achieve particular outcomes that are unique to the time and place. Isard's book is full of examples of these two facts.

At first glance [and belying Isard's obvious hard work, research and attention to detail] 'The Guild of Salt' is just another 'common or garden' adventure story that happens to be set in the English Middle Ages. This reviewer was faintly reminded of the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, ''Kidnapped'' in particular, and Isard himself notes his indebtedness to the 'ripping yarns' of the likes of C.S. Forester, Patrick O'Brian and Bernard Cornwall. But, in fairness, 'The Guild of Salt' is much more than this. The book is set in England in the years in the latter half of the twelfth Century, in the year 1173, and in the reign of the fascinating King Henry II. The terrible and violent 'Anarchy' is still within the living memory of the very old; the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas A Beckett, had been murdered - allegedly on the orders of the king himself - three years earlier and the king's own sons and wife are in rebellion against him. There is a state of war in France. In a turbulent age, it is a particularly turbulent time. And so, from the macrocosm to the microcosm: to the isolated little village of Binton Grange in Warwickshire where an injured royal messenger has been found. Robert, the rebel Earl of Leicester, is raising an army in Flanders and is preparing to invade England. The king's justiciar - his royal representative must be warned. But he is far to the north and dealing with an incursion of the Scots and the royal message is yet to be delivered! The local priest Father Geoffrey and his fifteen-year-old servant and acolyte Ralph are chosen for the task of delivering the message, along with the equally youthful Harold, the son of the local woodward - chosen for his necessary woodland skills. A journey in England at this time, it must be stressed, is no easy and straightforward affair! England. like everywhere else, is wild and intensely regional and where every stranger is a potential enemy: They must make their east through the wild and almost trackless Forest of Arden to the coast at the town of Lynn and find a boat to take them north. At the best of times, this is a perilous journey, made increasingly more for the fact that they will carry the king's message! Readers will find some illumination of the geography from the map thoughtfully provided:

''The dangers of the road paled in comparison to travelling through the wild.....Respectable citizens didn't roam the wilds....they'd be taken for poachers or outlaws, almost certainly. The local farmers would likely raise the hue and cry, and every person in earshot would happily down tools and join in the chase. And, as most Lords preferred a robust response from their villages when it came to chasing off poachers and outlaws, the messengers might not even survive the arrest.''.....

They are soon to be joined in this desperate venture by two of the other major protagonists of the book, met by chance in the trackless wastes of the dangerous Forest of Arden. These are Lady Esmé and her equally determined maid Muriel; two young girls, fugitives, on the run and in search of justice. Esmé is a feisty orphan, doomed to be a 'ward' of an overbearing local Baron and equally doomed to a betrothal to marry his especially odious and loathsome son. They too are making for the town of Lynn and the hoped-for protection of the Bishop of Norwich who possesses her dead father's property, including two ships. The two girls seek shelter with a witch, a local wise woman who shelters and nourishes them for a while. She is both respected and feared by the locals, who leave her gifts and supplies. She spectacularly displays one of the powers and skills for which she is so feared when a dead body is left near her hiding place:

''Ardith [the name of the witch] was a Sin Eater. This was her special talent. She was willing to take on the sins of the dead. If you lived a wicked life and died too quick for a Priest to absolve you, or your family was too poor to have monks pray for you, your relations could pay for a poor wretch to absorb your sins....Sin Eaters were true outcasts. This was beyond the craft of the Cunning Folk....''

The above serves as a reminder of the 'alien' and very 'foreign' nature of the world that Isard describes - set against all the modern parallels to be found and, as both groups make their difficult and dangerous ways through the forest, [there is an attack by wolves and a bloody clash with a party of foreign mercenaries to cite two of the dangers] the personal virtues and strengths, and the doubts, fears, and shortcomings, of each individual, begin to emerge. Every encounter with another person or group is most likely to be a dangerous one in those lawless and suspicious times. Thus does the externally haughty and proud sixteen-year-old Esmé defend her quest to the wise old woman Aldith. She begins by quoting Holy Writ:

''If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the Faith and is worse than an unbeliever.''...... Speaking of her own need to honour her family, the young girl continues: ....''I need to do right by my family and household. I'm all that's left. And if I marry, it all goes to him, and he'll run it [her inheritance - not to mention her personal freedom] to suit his whims. He'll lose it all and kill me into the bargain. No, I'll not allow my family name and legacy to fall like a spent arrow.''

Succinctly put, she has stated her fears and motives perfectly. Hence the urgency of Esme's flight to the protection of the Bishop of Norwich: It is to both evade the prospect of a marriage to a hateful brute who will, like as not, be the death of her and to retrieve her family fortune and honour. This quest is as desperate and as urgent and important to her as the mission of the Priest and the two boys to deliver a vital king's message for the safety and security of the Realm!

It is the destiny of both groups to meet there, in the vast tracks of the wild and dangerous forest, and in their flight to Lynn and the coast to the east on their different missions, to unite. A sense of common unity is not immediate, but develops slowly over a period of time and escalated by their share of experiences in the busy and bustling town of Lynn, where Esmé is reunited with an old friend from her childhood, Father Samuel, the Archdeacon who acts as the Bishop's agent and representative in his absence. This stay in Lynn is an opportunity for the author to share with us his clear admiration of the ingenuity of the Medieval mind. There is a delight in his description of, for example, the granting and verifying of financial credit; the truly ingenious use of the tally stick. To cite another example; Archdeacon Samuel has very poor eyesight - a curse to a person obliged by position to read and write. The Archdeacon employs a clever and partial solution to this huge problem when he receives a document from a messenger:

''Samuel plucked the small letter from the messenger's fingers and took a seat at the table. He sat in front of a spherical glass beaker set on a small pedestal....the cleric broke it open [the seal on the letter] and held it behind the beaker. Gazing through the water-filled sphere, he silently read the distorted but significantly magnified words.....''

Simple, but effective! Lynn is a seaport and a fishing town. Timothy, Samuel's assistant, explains to Ralph how vital its famed local salt panning industry is to the wealth and success of the town as a whole.

''The Great Ouse [the principal river] flows into the Wash, but the tide brings back brackish water.'' He tells Ralph: ''It all starts with that. With salt. We pan the water. But panning doesn't just bring salt; it also brings sand. Boiling down the marsh reclaims the sandy bottom. The salt brings animals for slaughter and preservation, and the animals bring manure to enrich the sand and make soil....and the river also brings lumber from the Baltic, which provides barrels for food preservation and for shipbuilding and repair. And so, a port takes place....''

This description of Timothy's, of how Lynn is in fact an engine, a machine, is a clear descriptive example of the pre-industrial Medieval economy as a whole; of how one separate occupation feeds and fuels all others, as they in turn power it. Isard also reminds the reader from time to time of how, whereas the modern person may tend to view familiar objects as nothing especially out of the ordinary, to the medieval eye, the same object is truly wondrous and extraordinary. Ralph, with a misspent youth in the unsavoury backstreets and tenements of Warwick seemingly far behind him, has infinitely more urban 'savoir faire' than the unworldly country boy, Harold the woodman's son. Here is the effect of the large and looming Church of Saint Nicholas upon the impressionable youth. He has never seen or heard anything so large and so splendid in all his life:

''At least five hundred people stood in the Nave. The priest was only visible as a flicker of movement far ahead. Despite the distance, the preacher's voice was clear and resonant even in the back. So cunningly designed and crafted was the nave that The Word required no effort to travel across the space. Then the music started. Harold loved music, or what he had always taken to be music. The choir's music rolled in from every side as if a chorus of gods floated in every shadow and drifted along the very ceiling. The beauty of it almost hurt. Harold felt anxious to remember it all, to trap it forever in memory, every sound, every sight.''

​Any reader who has stood enthralled in a European Cathedral as the Choir sang will recognise the feeling! Archdeacon Samuel has bad news for both Father Geoffrey and Esmé. There is now Civil War across the Channel in Henry's French possessions and a rebel army led by the traitorous Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, is gathering strength nearby. For Esmé, it emerges that the legal details of her rights and possessions are held in two documents in the form of an 'indenture' a document halved into two irregular pieces of parchment that need to be matched together to make it legal. On half is held by the absent Bishop of Norwich and the other by the Lord of Bickford, father of the hated bridegroom, Blaise, she has sought so hard to escape from. Freedom seems further away than ever! On the other hand, she has been able to organise transport of the king's messengers north on one of her late father's boats. She and the ever-dependable Muriel will also travel north in pursuance of Esmé's quest. There is, however, a major difficulty and obstacle; for her thwarted husband Blaise has with a large gang of supporters tracked her down to Lynn and to the Steward's House. Ralph, in an act of real heroism that causes him also to reflect upon his past dissolute life before being saved by the intervention of the godly Father Geoffrey, foils an attempt at kidnapping and abduction and receives a serious beating in the process. In the possession of Ralph's family is a small medal to remind them of the achievements of their ancestor who, over a century earlier, had been a companion of William the Conqueror. The medal, a source of great pride, bears the inscription 'Willemus : Rex: MLXVI : Sodalis'' - ''King William: 1066 : A Companion.'' Father Geoffrey had returned the medal to him when he rescued him from a life of low crime in the gutters of Warwick. Recovering from the beating, Ralph reflects upon that moment of shame and now, as then, resolves to bring honour and fame to his family; rather as Esme had earlier:

''tears rolled down his face. Once the companions of kings, the family had fallen on hard times. God in Heaven, hadn't Ralph brought it lower? To the lowest place. Beneath even a serf's foot. Eye to eye with the low as he'd dropped the family's name, twice that height, and more, he'd raise it.''

The much-reformed Ralph positively bristles with resolve and pride. Ralph, like Esmé, has a profound sense of family and his responsibilities to both it and its reputation.

The book has many such moments of self-realisation. In fact, both he and Esmé and their companions will need all the courage and resolution they can muster in the days ahead. Blaise has attempted one abduction, he will surely attempt a second time. In the immediate future, they must also reach the safety of the boat 'Avocet' and brave the open sea and a violent and bloody encounter with pirates intent on their death. There is the safety of Esmé and her faithful maid Muriel to guard, and the vital king's message to deliver! Other hardships, doubtless, await them as they take a much-needed and hard-earned rest on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Robin Isard is to be truly congratulated for his first book in this series [for more are to follow relating the further adventures of the group]. He is to be congratulated for his craftsmanship and his painstaking eye for detail in his creation of this fine adventure story.


“The Guild of Salt and the King's Messenger” by Robin Isard receives 4.5 stars from The Historical Fiction Company


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