The Harrowing, by James Aitcheson, is a story of the wanton destruction and futility of war as it effects ordinary people. Set a few years after the Battle of Hastings, when King William rode north through England to quash the remaining rebel uprisings by burning and killing everything and everyone he found, it is told from the point of view of five disparate individuals. Merewyn is the lady of a small but prosperous manor. Tova is a slave recently granted her freedom. Beorn is a warrior who saves their lives and reluctantly offers his protection if they travel with him to a gathering of rebels. Guthred is a priest trying to make his way to the abbey at Lindisfarne to return stolen church treasure. Oslac is a travelling minstrel originally from the south. Each carries with them shameful secrets.
The stories of how these five came to meet offer a fresh perspective on a well documented period in history. These are not the titled and wealthy victors, rewarded for brave deeds that they wish to be remembered and celebrated in story and song. Rather they are the tales of the regular folk caught up in tumultuous times. They have watched as loved ones were butchered and homes razed. They are being hunted and killed by bands of men seeking vengeance for deeds in which they played no part. There is little food or shelter to be found as so much has been systematically destroyed.
The tale unfolds over a period of eight difficult days during which each of the five confess to the others their misdeeds. The device used to weave their stories together evokes the real and present danger they are in but relies on an acceptance that strangers in extremis will open up in this way. There is talk of owing each other truth and of selfishness when one or other suggests they may leave the group, yet these people have only just met. Nevertheless, the stories they tell offer a fascinating account of life at this juncture in time.
It is not just the Norman army that threatens but also reavers. Hunger and the encroaching winter weather must be faced. The church is powerful but pagan beliefs remain. Many struggle to make sense of the savagery around them and question God’s existence.
The five stories are well told. The author conjures day to day life as it would have been before the harrowing, and also the social levelling that war can bring. When one’s very survival is tenuous food and dry clothes matter more than coin or gems. Both the best and worst of people are brought to the fore when their lives are at risk, when they have little else to lose.
This was an enjoyable read that offered insights into experiences I had not considered, despite having read much around this period. By looking at the war from a variety of sides the rationale behind actions is brought into focus. If only we could learn the lessons of our history.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Heron Books.