Scotland Under Mary Stuart - Madeleine Bingham (1971)

This book, subtitled, "An Account of Everyday Life", attempts to be a survey of life in 16th Century Scotland. I am a fan of "Daily Life" types of history books (see for instance Frances and Joseph Gies' excellent books Life in a Medieval Castle, ... a Medieval Village, and ... in a Medieval City) which is why this book was such a disappointment.

The structure of the book is not at fault, it is broken into chapters which make a reasonable amount of sense. Perhaps the problem lies in a scarcity of information, although it seems unlikely given the bibliography (partial no less) at the end. Perhaps it is merely that I am not the target audience, but if I am not, who is?

The writing itelf is not terribly smooth or engaging, and relies heavily, perhaps too heavily on anecdotes.

Ultimately, though, I think the failing of the book is that it tries to be too simple while at the same time failing to provide enough basic information. That is to say, it assumes knowledge on the part of the reader that he or she may not possess, and then fails to provide illuminating details. For example, historical figures are often referred to by various different names at various points without ever explicitly clarifying who is who. This is complicated by the fact that the book is arranged topically rather than chronologically. Referring simply to "the Queen" could mean several things, depending on the year, and who is the "Queen Regent?" Here is a sentence from the first chapter, "Nor did these raids cease with the flight of the Queen, and in October 1567, when Scotland was ruled by the Regent Moray..." Who is Moray? Why is he Regent? The Queen (Mary Stuart, we find on a previous page) was around in 1565, so when did she fly? Where? Why?

Upon reflection, it may be that this chapter bears the burden of the book's failure. Without a more solid grounding in the history, the reader (or at least this reader) felt a bit at sea in later chapters, resulting in a somewhat frustrating experience.

The other problem with the book is the scope. "Daily Life" requires a certain simplification and homogeneity in the subject. (As in "Life in a Medieval Village.") Scotland was too hetrogenous at the time to be easily reduced to a "typical" situation, so every topic was touched on so lightly as to leave the reader (or again, this reader) unsatisfied.

If one is already a Mary-Queen-of-Scots-ophile the book may be more useful, but otherwise, I can not recommend it.

Overall Grade: D+

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